The week had been mainly overcast but dry and fairly cool for August, so as Friday was forecast to be sunny and warm I went for another wander. This time it was not a long walk, just an exploration of local nature reserves. Appropriately for a week where the nation is into soggy bottoms again, now that the Great British Bake-off has started, I explored the reserves at Lids Bottom and Oven Bottom.
I had seen a sign for Lids Bottom on my Blewbury Christmas Day walk last year. I thought it looked interesting enough to visit in the summer. Walking down to it gives fine views over Blewbury village to a depleted Didcot power station (only three cooling towers remain) and Wittenham Clumps (or Mother Dunch's Buttocks as I prefer to call them).
At the stile that leads down into the Lids Bottom Nature Reserve was a burdock with half a dozen gatekeeper butterflies on it. This one was particularly fine, a female I think.
The reserve has a good range of chalk downland plants on it, but nothing too spectacular. Harebells were already in flower.
On the edge of the western end of the Lids Bottom reserve there was a field with more poppies in it than wheat.
I then walked back and down to Oven Bottom, this according to some is the site of the Battle of Ashdown where King Alfred (then a prince of 21) mounted a decisive victory over the Danes in 871CE. The area is rich in wild-flowers and at this time of year butterflies, the one of most interest to me was the Chalkhill blue (Polyommatus coridon), appropriately named. This is the male.
The males rarely settle for long, so it took a long time to get that one, if you get too close they fly off. To confuse matters there were Common blues (Polyommatus icarus) around too. The male common blue is more blue and the uppersides have a thin black line margin. The undersides are not so easy to distinguish.
Female blue butterflies are brown not blue and are harder to identify, this is not helped by a similar brown butterfly the Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) where both sexes are brown. I saw a couple of brown arguses so I had to look at the pattern of the underside spots to be sure what was what. I think (and hope) this is a female Chalkhill blue. The orange spots are much less distinct than on a brown argus, and the common blue female usually has some trace of blue on it.
I was on the look out for Frog orchids, which I had seen here two years ago. They are hard to spot as they are mainly green and fairly short so do not show up in a large meadow. I could not find them, here's a picture of one I prepared earlier on this site so you can see what I mean.
In my search for frogs I spotted an Autumn Gentian or Felwort already in flower, I always think of these as a September flower so rather worrying to see it so early.
I moved on towards the next SSSI in the area, Aston Upthorpe just a mile away. Direct access is blocked off but on the detour I did have the bonus of seeing a Painted Lady butterfly on the top of the downs. These butterflies start off from North Africa each year, the migration here is fairly pointless as they can not survive our winters. My tally of butterflies at 15 species was doing well: Small white; large white; marbled white; brimstone; meadow brown; gatekeeper; brown argus; common blue; chalkhill blue; painted lady; peacock; comma; small skipper; small heath and small copper.
Aston Upthorpe was a sad sight, the rabbits have eaten virtually everything. Small enclosures show that if the rabbit population was controlled it could be a very flower rich area. There used to be pasque flowers and burnt tip orchids here. The most striking plants in this chalk valley are juniper trees. These slow growing, ancient trees, they were one of the first to colonize the UK since the last Ice Age. They can take 20 years to reach a foot high, so some of these are hundreds of years old. The berries, of which there were many, are used to flavour gin.
While musing over the management of the reserve I saw a cloud of starlings, a murmuration, move up the next valley in the characteristic tumbling movement, and then land. I just about managed to capture them taking off.
The starlings and crows were active because farmers were out in several nearby fields harvesting the grain.
I explored the top edge of the reserve and spotted a plant that very much resembled Red Bartsia (Odontites vernus) but it was upright rather than the usual prostrate form I see around here. I wondered if it was a different sub-species but it seems not.
On my way back via Oven Bottom there were more butterflies to distract me and I saw one that was so blue that I thought it must be a species I had not seen before. However, I have convinced myself it is a female common blue with an unusual amount of dark blue.