From Cold-War Weapons to Camouflaged Butterflies…
Today I made another trip to find what will probably be my last butterfly species of the year, and in fact a new species for me: Grayling (Hipparchia semele). This species is the only representative of its genus in the UK. There are quite a few species of Hipparchia on the continent (in Greece, where I’ve been on a couple of butterfly trips, there are no less than ten of the eleven), but they are all very tricky to spot since all have excellent camouflage. In fact, I’m yet to find any one of those ten in Greece!
Graylings are unusual amongst British butterflies in having a specific liking for very dry and sparse areas such as heaths, coasts, and sand dunes. I live probably as far from the sea as anywhere in the British Isles, but all is not lost, since a colony lives at Greenham Common, just south of Newbury in Berkshire, about an hour’s drive south.
Greenham Common became notorious in the 1980s as the site of the US Airforce base which was home to nuclear cruise missiles and accompanied by long and well-publicized CND anti-nuclear demonstrations.
Well, now thankfully the Cold War is over, and Greenham Common has been returned to its former state. Though the control tower still stands, where the tarmac of the 3km runway for the US bombers used to lie, there is now flinty gravel, Gorse, and Bell Heather. And the latter seems to be the favourite food-source for Grayling butterflies.
Finding Graylings, however, is not easy, even with accurate information as to their whereabouts. When they are not nectaring, they prefer to sit on the bare ground, and blend in so naturally to their surroundings that you can walk within a few inches to one while looking for them, without spotting one until it flies jerkily away. Greenham Common is a very big place, but my tactic, which was to search for a pretty good distribution of the Bell Heather, worked out well, and I managed to see five individual Graylings in my hour-and-a-half visit. But they disappear into thin air as soon as they move away from feeding. Perhaps not the best shots, but since I’ve never seen them before today, I don’t really care!