Wednesday, 25 May 2016
It wasn't a chance encounter. I set out in the morning with the Glanville in my sights - or my dreams - and knew just where I might discover it, in a nature reserve improbably situated at the edge of an unlovely suburb of Croydon. The Glanville, a butterfly (with an interesting history) otherwise confined to the Isle of Wight, had been reintroduced there a few years ago and was apparently doing well. What I hadn't adequately researched was exactly how to find my way from the tram stop to the reserve, so inevitably I set off in the wrong direction and found myself lost in a labyrinth of seemingly endless Crescents (the most vexing kind of street) in search of a way out.
Eventually, with a little help from passersby who seemed none too sure about it, I found a way into a spinny, from which I emerged into an unpromising sloping field. From this I eventually escaped by following an obscure path through another spinny - which duly delivered me into a second, even more unpromising field. By now the morning sun had disappeared, there was a chilly breeze, and my hopes were fading fast.
To escape this latest dismal field margin, I bashed my way through a bed of mixed nettles and thistles, found myself on a remnant of a path, with daylight at its end - and was delighted to emerge onto a decidedly promising bank of scrubby downland. And the sun came out. And within minutes I had the heart-lifting pleasure of seeing a Green Hairstreak, my second of the year - surely a good omen for the Year of the Hairstreak. Dingy Skippers followed, and Small Heaths, Brimstones galore, Peacocks, Common and Holly Blues... I might not have reached my exact destination, but I was clearly heading in the right direction. This was looking good.
It stayed that way too - despite a young man who seemed to be living rough on the downs assuring me that there were 'no butterflies, mate ' - and after a while it got even better. As I walked along the upper slope of the bank, I noticed down below, in a sheltered lane, a group of middle-aged men (mes semblables, mes frères) with fancy optical equipment - clearly butterfly men, and they'd clearly found something. I made my way down and joined them, and straight away there it was, posing most obligingly for one of the camera-wielders - my first Glanville Fritillary, wings spread in the distinctive near-delta shape, looking rather smaller than I'd imagined it in my lepidopteral fantasies, but every bit as beautifully marked.
It was not to be my last. When, a little later, the sun having gone in, I sat down on a bench to eat my 'ploughman's lunch', I looked down and there, little more than a yard from my right foot, was another Glanville, quite still, wings spread, showing no inclination to move. A friendly chap - clearly the tutelary spirit of the place - joined me on the bench with a can of cola, and I pointed out our companion to him. Ah yes, he said, I know that one. And he did, he knew him individually - a particularly lazy specimen with his own particular favourite posing spots and a taste for settling on scraps of dry wood. He'd been following the Glanville year - larvae, pupae and all - with close attention and knew just what was going on, and all about Glanvilles in general. He was particularly pleased that an aberration - ab. Wittei, I think (there are many others) - had appeared in the population. He talked of the Glanville's extraordinary life cycle - ten months of the year as a caterpillar, a couple of weeks' flight - and how the females, larger than the males, skulk in the bushes and seldom fly much, perhaps because they're carrying a load of 200 or so eggs.
All the while, he was keeping half an eye on the sky, waiting for the sun to emerge again. When it did, the Glanville at my feet stirred at last, flew off to perch on a nearby scrap of wood, then summoned the energy to head for some nearby buttercups for a spot of nectar.
I saw two or three more Glanvilles - and even managed (just about) to catch those beautiful underwings on camera - before I left, a happy man. And I even found the tram stop without getting lost again.