On the horizon, the pines are black – dappled emerald when the clouds allow. I am down on the forest track, wet-kneed. Around me, the dew lies heavy in the shade of the morning, jewelling the sapling oaks, the unfurling ferns, and the leaves of a newly blooming northern marsh orchid – a two-inch-high shock of purple.
Nowhere is this late spring catching up so visibly as this forest. I was here three weeks ago for the pearl-bordered fritillary, a rare butterfly that I found was coming to visit the sparse scatterings of bugle. Then, the bugle and bluebell were the only flowers, next to oaks whose leaves had only half emerged. Now they are among many.
The month they fly in may be the most obvious thing that separates pearl and small pearl-bordered fritillary – species that live in the same place and lay their eggs on the same plants. May is when the pearls arrive, June is the time of the small pearl. They are most reliably told apart by tiny variations in the underwing. Yet how they experience this forest is totally different: that month difference marks a crucial change. The small pearl has emerged into a wood thick with nectar and opportunity, the promise of the summer.
The sun comes out, glinting off the dew, lighting up the orchid spikes. Heat radiates off the gravel track that snakes uphill beside the flowers. A fritillary flies through. I follow it down the path, waiting for it to settle on a flower. Choosing bugle, like last month’s pearls, it flicks its proboscis from stamen to stamen, tipping itself up to reveal the high contrast underwing of the small pearl-bordered fritillary.
I see panels of cream and tangerine, the big-eyed duck head pattern, and the black-edged line of pearls that gives the species its name. Then it hides them, opening tiger-striped and spotted wings, luminous in the sunlight. The fritillary flickers up from bugle to bugle, to dandelion, to my knee, as light as a leaf, before vanishing into the forest. And it feels like the blessing of a better season to come.