Posted by: Ross Gardner | July 15, 2018

Denizens of the Dark Wood

The UK summer so far has been a fairly extraordinary one.  We’ve had good summers in the past, of course, but 2018 has been as consistently hot and stubbornly dry as any I can remember for a long time.  It brings butterflies to these pages once again.  Two in particular spring to mind indirectly (for one of them at least) because of these uncommonly hot and dry conditions.

The Speckled Wood and Purple Hairsteak are both very much woodland species, occurring in woodland where even the open clearings that might bring other butterflies into the woods are missing.  Of the Speckled Wood, I have long attributed to them a sense of companionship to my walks.  A Speckled Wood appears and a sense of things working properly comes to mind.  They need their share of warmth and sunshine, just as any butterfly does, but for them the shard of light pouring in through even the smallest gap in the tree-canopy might suffice, so long as ample grasses are present on which their larvae can feed.

Speckled Wood (underwing) (small)

Speckled Wood (Parage aegeria)

Speckled Wood - face on (close-up)

Speckled Wood – up close and personal

The Purple Hairstreak is a thing very much of the tree-canopy, so much so that their presence in a wood can very easily go undetected if not for purposeful searching among the tree-tops.  Their eggs are laid in the tops of oak trees and the adults even feed there, preferring the honeydew (the sweet leavings of aphids) that coats the leaves to any nectar to be found at ground level.  This is a habit they share with the Speckled Wood.

While the Speckled Wood is an insect frequently observable on the ground, as they defend their territories from would-be challengers, so often resulting in those flickering spirals at butterflies in combat, spinning madly up into the crowns, it seems also that the Hairsteaks have been particularly evident over recent weeks.  This is something that is very likely a result of the prevailing weather.  I have occasionally in the past seen them feeding on thistles and the Speckled Wood may also be found nectaring on flowers.  It is when things are particularly dry and the honeydew unobtainable as a result that they may be forced to seek other resources, to benefit and added delight of any human onlookers below.

Both butterflies are common to a much of our woodland, even if we don’t necessarily realise it.  Long may this continue.

Purple Hairstreak

Purple Hairstreak (Neozephyrus quercus) – male. The extent of purple iridescence depends on the light.

Purple Hairstreak-underside

Purple Hairstreak – underside. The silvery grey of the underwing and their rapid flight around the tops of oaks have caused some to liken them to ‘spinning coins’ – one of those turns of phrase that you wished you thought of yourself.


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