Silver-studded Super Saturday
With the butterfly season well underway and the weather doing what it's supposed to do for a change at this time of year, I got thinking about what to focus on next and where to go. Right up there is the Dark Green Fritillary - a cracking looking butterfly that I'm yet to really photograph properly. With Cleeve Hill my new 'patch' I've been up there a few times in high spirits but not a single one even seen so far. With the weekend approaching I was in two minds as to whether to have another go or do something else. I decided I have weeks to keep searching so, after a bit of reading up, chose to go for a little day-trip. I say little, but involved a 3am alarm and a lot of driving. I had decided now was the time to added the Silver-studded Blue to my UK list, with Prees Heath the closest place with a very good chance of success.
Saturday morning saw me drag my very tired body out of bed at just gone 3am and after a massive coffee and a banana I was on my way. The drive was around 100 miles and my much trusted SatNav (aka Google maps) gave me an ETA of around 5.30am. I set off with very high hopes given recent reports and the drive was thankfully incident free. However, as I got closer to Prees the sun was already up and I was beginning to wonder if I'd be too late to find the butterflies roosting up for my much preferred under-wing shots. I parked up and with my bearings sussed made my way into Prees Heath Nature Reserve through the main entrance. One thing that surprised my was just how cold it felt. Packing a jumper just in case paid off. I made my way into the reserve with no real idea of where to look so immediately began scanning the grasses and other plants for signs of life. After 15 minutes or so I noticed a butterfly on a flowerhead but it turned out to be Small Heath. The heart rate had risen but just as quickly returned to normal. A few metres further on I spotted another butterfly and I was over the moon when I realised it was my first ever Silver-studded Blue. Get in! It was roosting low in the grass so the search continued for a more photogenic subject and it didn't take long at all until my tally was up to 6. This was more like it! Roosting heights varied but I struck absolute gold with two males roosting in a patch of what I think was willowherb though it was relatively short in height compared to what I'm used to. After a bit of manouvering I was able to get both butterflies with a nice clutter free background which was very nicely lit by the ongoing sunrise. I had an idea of what the image would look like in my head but it wasn't until I checked the back of the camera that I had that real burst of absolute satisfaction. I felt like this was one of my favourite butterfly shots to date.
I left these two little gems to it and continued further into the reserve, taking the path Southwards on the Western side. The habitat along this stretch didn't scream out butterflies but I kept my eyes peeled none-the-less. What did jump out was the sheer number of Cinnebar caterpillars. Plant after plant was plastered in them! I didn't let them distract me though and carried on. After what felt like an age I spotted some flowering heather in the distance and that did perk my interest as I'd seen so many photos of the blues on this that my hopes rose. I didn't reach the heather as soon as I should have done thanks to finding a much fresher looking male Silver-studded Blue. A real peach so I had to get some shots.
A little while later I tore myself away and continued on, entering a much sandier part of the heathland. Within seconds I spotted at least 4 blues on the heather, all still roosting and upon closer inspection found three of them to be female. Each looked extremely fresh too so I was soon shooting away whilst grinning like a Cheshire cat. The long drive and early start seemed a lifetime ago.
Butterflies were soon on the wing and the one I had in front of me began to open it's wings in order to warm up so I adjusted my position to have the heather behind the butterfly. I also stopped down to bring the more of the butterfly into focus and to also bring the background more into perspective.
More and more of the blues were warming up and it wasn't long before open wing shots were here, there and everywhere.
By now the butterflies were extremely active and shots of roosting subjects became a lot harder with them bouncing into the air when I got close. I had a few chats with locals and fellow visitors and they shared some tips on other parts of the area that were good so I went for a wander to have a look. I entered one area of low-level scrub (mainly consisting of heather) and couldn't believe how many blues there were. I actually ended up having to watch my feet at times for fear of treading on them. It was a brilliant experience and was yet another reward for making the effort. I then noticed the first of three mating pairs that I found within a 50 metre stretch. What drew my attention was the number of males located in one patch. It turned out they were obviously keen to get in on the act! I left them to it as they were tucked down low in the heather and I soon found pair number two and they were in a much more open setting. Sadly the breeze had now kicked up so I had to try and get my shots whilst this poor pair of butterflies were being buffeted by the wind. A bit of patience and a lot of blurry shots later I had a few keepers.
Pair number three were similarly positioned though in a slightly more sheltered spot which made photographing them that little bit easier. The challenge with mating butterflies is getting all of each one in focus. Again, patience and lots of duff shots paid off.
It was now about 9:30 am and I couldn't believe how quickly time had gone. It was also getting seriously warm and with the breeze also whipping around I called it quits on the photography and took a leisurely stroll back to the car for some nibbles and a drink. I didn't even try and count the number of blues on the way back but it must've been 100+. If you want to see Silver-studded Blues, Prees Heath will be hard to beat!
After some much needed nourishment I had a scan through the morning's photos and deleted those that wouldn't make the cut. I then decided to check how far away Whixhall Moss Nature Reserve was as I knew it was in Shropshire and was a good bet for two more lifers - the Large Heath Butterfly and the White-faced Darter. I was very pleasantly surprised to be told by Google that I was only a 20 minute drive away and given I'd come all this way I decided to give it a go. I found it easily enough, crossing a charming draw-bridge over the canal, parked up, got my bearings and headed off with low expectations. How wrong I was. Within 10 minutes a butterfly drifted past that looked a bit different and after a bit of waiting it eventually settled in the grass and I managed to get a good enough view to confirm it was a Large Heath. Mission accomplished and what a great feeling. In the next 40 minutes or so I saw several more but with the wind now really strong and the Large Heaths not settling in plain sight I only managed poor record shots but I was chuffed just to have seen them. I then found a few boggy pools and it wasn't long before an unusual shape took off and flew straight past my head. In all the excitement I misplaced my footing and ended up thigh-deep in water. Not good but I was relieved to have got just myself soaked, with the camera and binoculars remaining dry. A stinking, soaking mess, I climbed out and then found what was my first White-faced Darter - well two actually as what I'd seen previously was a mating pair. Get-in (again)! I saw at least five in total and they were fabulous looking things. I didn't manage any decent shots as they were settling out of range but what a brilliant way to end my visit. All in all a very productive and worthwhile trip, made all the better by some very friendly locals I met on my walks around both reserves. It's been a long time since I've had a day-trip anywhere and this has certainly given me the hunger for more.
Now....where are those Dark Green Fritillaries...
Keywords: Butterflies, Butterfly photography, Large Heath, Macro, Nature, Photography, Plebejus Argus, Press Heath, Shropshire, Silver-studded Blue, Whixhall Moss, Wildlife
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