I didn’t mention it in my last post but the van broke down on the way back from Pembrokeshire. It had been feeling and sounding particularly rough the whole journey and a few miles south of Aberystwyth it started to become difficult to engage gears. I nursed it back up the long hill to our house in second, and rolled it down to the garage the following day. It is still there, 12 days later; virtually untouched. The garage proprietor still doesn’t know if it is the clutch that has gone or the gearbox; so it’s either going to an expensive repair or a horribly expensive one.
He loaned me his “courtesy car” over the weekend – an X-reg Proton. Quite a comedown, as you can imagine, and you definitely can’t cook or sleep in it. Nevertheless it got me up to Llandudno and back at the weekend, where I was planning to visit the Great Orme. This is a massive limestone headland overlooking Llandudno with long stretches of white or pale grey cliffs facing in all directions. Its grassland is home to many interesting and rare plants and animals, including the silver-studded blue butterfly, which is uncommon nationally but appears in huge numbers on the Orme. The last week in June is supposed to be the time to see them. They were certainly widespread and numerous but not occurring in quite the clouds I had been hoping for /expecting.
It’s a long time since I have done any insect photography and I don’t have any specialist equipment for it. I was relying on my 70 – 200 f4 zoom which has a closest focus of four feet. The silver-studded blue is a tiny butterfly, well under an inch across, so even at maximum magnification an individual was very small in the viewfinder. But on the plus side the lens is very good optically and I knew I would be able to crop down into the image significantly. The butterfly is very skittish when the sun is shining so getting much closer than four feet might have been tricky anyway. So as far is gear was concerned it was a case of swings and roundabouts.
What about the butterfly, though? The Orme silver-studded is a distinct subspecies, (“plebejus argus caernensis”) appearing about a month earlier than those elsewhere in the UK. The males and females are completely different in appearance; the males blue, the females largely brown – but far from dull as the smaller picture shows. In bright sunshine they seem to indulge in a great deal of apparently random flight – a far cry from the graceful and purposeful behaviour of our larger and more familiar species. It can only be down to one thing – sex. The males are desperate to find females, and copulating couples seem to be everywhere. But in more subdued light they tend to stay put, exposing their uppersides to whatever light is available. And during heavy cloud cover they just seem to shrink away into the vegetation and disappear. It is said that they rarely move more than 20 metres away from their place of birth at any time during their lifetimes.
The adult butterflies don’t seem to pose prettily on flowerheads to any great extent; anywhere will do. So the photographer needs patience to obtain that perfect composition. I struggled at first, I must admit. But as thin cloud covered the sun and they became less active, I came across a little congregation of five males on bramble flowers. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Even here I managed to take some rubbish. Depth of field was very limited and it was easy to focus on a butterfly’s body and find the edge of its wing was out of focus. Backgrounds were often untidy. I really, really wanted to do some wide-aperture, out-of-focus-background type images but it was a lost cause. I needed as much D-o-F as possible to get even this tiny butterfly in focus.
The butterfly’s life-cycle is extraordinary: from the moment the eggs hatch until the adults are ready to fly the caterpillars are tended by black ants. The ants carry the caterpillars into their nests and protect and look after them. Even when the caterpillars emerge to feed the ants accompany them. In return the ants feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillars. The more I learn about nature the more complex and intertwined it all becomes. A web of life, indeed.