Traversing the dappled woodland of Gosforth Park Nature Reserve earlier today, I had only one thing in mind: hairstreaks. Purple hairstreaks, to be precicse, Neozephyrus quercus, a remarkable, handsome butterfly that spends the majority of its time high in the canopy. Feasting on honeydew in close proximity to the species larval food plant, oak.
Unlike most butterflies, purple hairstreaks seldom descend to ground level, making them altogether difficult to see. Imagine my excitement then, when high in a sunny glade, two petite butterflies took flight from the upper echelons of an oak. Twisting round and around in territorial (or romantic) dispute as they spiralled upwards towards the pinnacle of their makeshift arena. Before that is, action ceased and both butterflies returned to their respective perches – activity muted again for the time being. A faint flash of purple in my binoculars the only indication that, after years of failed attempts, I had finally caught up with my quarry.
Unique in a local sense, the woodlands of Gosforth Park have a queer effect on the mind: making it not just possible, but also quite easy, to imagine yourself elsewhere. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city located a mere stones through from the reserve and instead, somewhere truly, deeply, wild. Indeed, the site is a veritable oasis, my short loop through its wooded peripheries this morning revealing some real gems. An Emporer dragonfly hawking a sunny glade; a roe deer, engrossed in the process of pruning an ash sapling; two jays, vocal as they scorned as passing sparrowhawk; and dozens upon dozens of common yet appealing invertebrates. Two of which – the Comma and Common Darter pictured below – posed conveniently for a photo or two.
Comma and Common Darter – Gosforth Park Nature Reserve
One thing I was not expecting, following my success with the dainty purple butterflies and the glut of other wild offerings on show, was a second new experience. An encounter with a species that, before now, had been enjoyed only in fleeting glimpses, absent time to savour. Sure enough, however, as I departed the reserve, my attention was drawn to a small butterfly flitting around the lower branches of a stunted Wych Elm. Adrenaline pulsing as I moved closer, confirming expectations: a White-letter Hairstreak. And a little corker if I may say so myself, exquisite and fresh.
While Purple Hairstreaks are reasonably abundant in the local area, the same cannot be said for their close cousin. Indeed, White-letter Hairstreaks declined markedly following the outbreak of Dutch Elm disease in the 1960’s and still, to this day, find themselves listed as a “high priority” species by Butterfly Conservation. As a species, they are also right on the edge of their range here in the North East; thus today’s encounter was a special one. Both as a result of rarity, and the sheer beauty of the butterfly involved. Indeed, I had not realised just how attractive they are: sporting their radiant orange flash, namesake white ribbons and curious looking, vividly marked ‘tails’.
White-letter Hairstreak – Gosforth Park Nature Reserve