Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.

You can  follow me at "Norfolk Nature Blog" on the UK & Eire Natural History Bloggers Network

A Purple Streak

The colour purple became my leitmotiv during early July. It is the season of the purple butterflies and therein lies a tale of mystery and obsession...

The Oak tree canopy is a habitat for both Purple Emperor and Purple Hairstreak butterflies, which both feed on aphid honeydew

The Oak tree canopy is a habitat for both Purple Emperor and Purple Hairstreak butterflies, which both feed on aphid honeydew

Two very different, yet equally enigmatic, purple butterfly species are on the wing towards the end of June into mid-July. Though very different in fame and stature, both share two things in common: a fondness for the heady heights of mature Oak tree canopies in deciduous woodland and a strong reputation for elusiveness and ability to evade the gaze of even the most determined of butterfly seekers.  

Since becoming increasingly drawn into the world of butterflying, I've discovered that, since time immemorial, avid butterfly chasers have gone temporarily a little doolally at this time of year. The hysteria is all over a certain famous, purple-cloaked member of the royal family who is not, officially at any rate, resident in Norfolk at the moment - the magnificent Purple Emperor. 

Known affectionately to his followers as "his Majesty" or sometimes simply "Iris", the Purple Emperor is neither Britain's largest butterfly (our very own Norfolk Swallowtail),  nor the rarest (the once extinct, recently reintroduced Large Blue), nor even the brightest (arguably the Silver-washed Fritillary or Swallowtail) so this seemingly bizarre purple emperor obsession had been puzzling me for some time. Just what quality is it that bewitches them all- the dramatic colour purple? Their reputed vigorous flight? Or some other mysterious factor altogether ....?

After an inspiring talk by renowned butterfly conservationist and Emperor acolyte Matthew Oates at Norfolk Butterfly Conservation's AGM back in 2016, I became intrigued and not a little bewitched myself; in a bid to cure my curiosity and discover the obscure reason for the Purple Emperor's celebrity status for myself, I started planning a field trip to visit his imperial majesty's haunts of mature Oak and Sallow woodland rides.

Alas fate was not on my side,  despite attempts to make visits to Fermyn Woods in Northants, Wood Walton Fen in Cambridgeshire or Theberton in Suffolk, life events intervened and scuppered my plans well and truly for this year. Perhaps Iris is to be my new five year nemesis butterfly, who knows. 

With my ability to range much curtailed, I was crestfallen and deeply disappointed. But there was still a second less famous, but to me, equally elusive purple butterfly to discover closer to home: the Purple Hairstreak butterfly.

Although much smaller, the Purple Hairstreak butterfly shares a surprising number of characteristics in common with its larger imperial cousin. it too favours mature deciduous oak woodland and so is also highly elusive by nature (and under-reported) as a result to its habit of dwelling up high amongst the tree canopy, living on honeydew produced by aphids and only rarely descending from the "throne" for the odd sip of bramble nectar.

A Purple Hairstreak butterfly perched on an Oak tree leaf on the edge of Syderstone Common, Norfolk

A Purple Hairstreak butterfly perched on an Oak tree leaf on the edge of Syderstone Common, Norfolk

This time I did my research thoroughly. Purple Hairstreaks being far more widespread than his majesty, I was able to find some promising local locations in Norfolk, and had in fact  already experienced a brief glimpse of a old faded and tattered Purple Hairstreak on a dog walk at Holkham Hall one August a few years back. I took a chance on just a short run up to Syderstone Common nature reserve,  nearby on the edge of North Norfolk coastal strip. Its a large reserve of lowland gorse heathland, an SSSI famous for its Natterjack toads, but not all that much else, in fact a previous visit had left me visually underwhelmed.

Essex Skipper butterfly perched on a Rosebay Willowherb flower spike

Essex Skipper butterfly perched on a Rosebay Willowherb flower spike

My fieldcraft skills must have improved somewhat as I was delighted to spot an active Purple Hairstreak quite soon into my visit. There it was, a small grey blob fluttering away right up high in the treetops,  initially silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Its flight was erratically and it was hard to keep track as the butterfly flitted amongst the oak treetop and nearby birches in the mature woodland circling this beautiful SSSI.

After spotting my Hairstreak Oak I stayed for some time, craning my neck to try to spot this diminutive butterfly amongst the oak leaves. Eventually one dropped a little lower and permitted a quick shot before circling up high again in a cluster of nearby Birches.

Perhaps the star of the show was Syderstone Common nature reserve itself, which was tramsformed from my prior visit and at its peak of summer glory. The common was beautifully adorned in abundant vivid pink Rosebay Willowherb flower spires, intermingled with creeping carpets of yellow Tormentil, rambling native Honeysuckle and bramble in full bloom, and every plant dancing with a host of orange skipper and meadow butterflies flitting about as far as the eye could see.

On my way back to the car I spotted a beautiful young buck Roe Deer, who paused, checked me out for a little while then barked at me before trotting off back into the Oak woodland, a beautiful end to my successful visit. Although my sightings had been distant and tantalising, I had bagged my first purple.

As for purple Royalty... I must now be patient, wait and bide my time  till 2018 brings a whole new season and fresh opportunity for his Imperial Highness to enlist me as subject.

We shall see...

Vivid pink Rosebay Willowherb can be spectactular when in full bloom

Vivid pink Rosebay Willowherb can be spectactular when in full bloom

A young Roe Deer buck on Syderstone Common, Norfolk

A young Roe Deer buck on Syderstone Common, Norfolk

A Celebration Of Diversity

In the week that saw the Pink Pride parade in London that celebrated 50 years of progress towards greater acceptance of human diversity, I was celebrating different kind of diversity success on a much smaller scale in my back garden -  the biodiversity success of wildflower varieties in my wildlife flower meadow surrounding our pond.

In its fourth flowering season, the Nar Cottage wildflower meadow project has finally come into its own and is becoming a mature, established bio-diverse habitat. At last pinks, purples and mauves of Tufted Vetch and Knapweeds intermingle generously among large clusters of yellow Bird's-foot trefoil, and have started to balance out the till now prevalent whites of Ox-eye daisies and Yarrow which had dominated the last two seasons flowering. A real "purple streak" of wildflower diversity you could say.

The meadow is noticeably lower than the past two seasons and the dry spring and early June heatwave may have contributed to the increase in biodiversity as different plants definitely either struggled or thrived in contrast to the previous two colder and wetter seasons. In addition, Yellow rattle has established itself very well this year and should continue to weaken the competitive grasses in future years.

Every year the flower mix in the meadow evolves and changes to puts on a unique display of meadow flora and fauna. It will soon be hay cutting time , but already I cant wait to see what next year's meadow will be like.

 

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in November 2013 - A landscaped area of bare earth and newly filled pond

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in June 2015 - A mass of white Ox-eye daisies but few other flowers - a relatively undiverse habitat

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in July 2017 - A diverse mix of  pink and purple Knapweeds, Vetches as well as trefoils, sorrel and daisies

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow with cornfield annuals - July 2014

Nar Cottage wildflower Meadow in its early stages of growth - June 2015

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in its 4th season - July 2017

The Skipper and the Rose

I love Skippers, I may have mentioned it before. They are small, cute, furry and very confiding; though that latter characteristic could be more accurately interpreted as territorial and pugnacious. This Large Skipper butterfly (note the black, twirly antennae tips mentioned in my Skipper butterfly identification article) is perched on a humble bramble flower aka Rubus frutiscosus, a member of the romantic Rose (Rosacaea) botanical family and predecessor of modern blackberry cultivars, yet today considered a nuisance weed for most Gardeners due to its vigorous nature.  

This photo serves as a timely reminder that less than glamorous native species can be excellent food sources for both adult butterflies and their caterpillar stage, not to mention other pollinators. I this week's Gardener's World episode, a Welsh research study into Bees favourite nectar source has indicated they will travel further afield to collect pollen from native species in preference to most garden ornamental imports.

According to Chris Manley's British Moths and Butterflies, a bramble bush can serve as a caterpillar host plant for some 35 moths and butterflies, including threatened Grizzled Skipper butterflies as wells as the impressive Scarlet Tiger and Emperor moths.

Perhaps in wildlife terms, not so humble after all.

And yes, if you stop, look closely... close your eyes... inhale the scent..., a rose by any other name remains as sweet.

Rhapsody in Blue

Buff-tailed bumble bee foraging among Viper's-bugloss flowers

One of the deep joys of wildlife gardening is when an idea comes together and a wildflower you've planted really takes off... and brings even more nature into your garden. That is exactly what happened this year with an experimental planting of a local native wildflower, Viper's-bugloss or Echium vulgare. 

Viper's-bugloss growing wild on Kelling Heath in Norfolk

A member of the Borage plant family Boraginaceae, Viper's-bugloss is renowned for having a high wildlife value due to its flower's rapid nectar refill rate. This makes it a magnet for numerous species of bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects, which will revisit it at regular intervals throughout the day. It is also a caterpillar host plant for the glamorous Painted Lady butterfly and Golden Twin-spot moth. 

A tough, bristly and flamboyant biennial, Viper's-bugloss is commonly found in dry chalky grassland and heaths and along coastal cliffs and sand dunes. I first saw this striking plant growing in the wild locally in 2015. It was at Kelling Heath, a lowland heath reserve not far from the North Norfolk coast, and I'd been on a foray to see the diminutive Silver-studded blue butterflies resident on the nature reserve.

I was returning to the car park after a successful mission when I spotted it and recognised the tall flower spike heavy with lilac blue flowers at first glance, even though I'd never seen one before. The bell-shaped open-rimmed flowers had vivid pink trailing stamens, and was besieged by a host of argumentative bees, butterflies and other insects all competing for the rich nectar source.

Like most native wildflowers, Viper's-bugloss is embedded in traditional herblore, with around a dozen common names in existence, many of which, like Adderwort, Snake flower or Viper's herb, contain serpentine references.

The precise origins of its common name are unclear, possibly relating to the snake's-head form of the seed pods mentioned by 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper,After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” Other theories include a comparison of the mottled leaves to snakeskin, or perhaps an allusion to the bite-like irritation caused by contact with the plants sharp bristles or its poisonous characteristics when ingested. 

Bumble bee nectaring on Viper's-bugloss flowers

Perhaps because of these serpentine associations,  Viper's-bugloss was traditionally used in herblore as an anti-venom for snake bites.The first documented herballist recommendation dates as far back as the first century AD and was made by a Greek Physician called Pedanius Dioscorides in a work called De Materia Medica.  Even the species name Echium is derived from "Echis", the Greek for "Viper".

However the term "Bugloss" used in many of our English common names is actually a reference to the ox-tongue shape and texture of its leaves and originates from the Greek word "bou" (a cow or ox) and the Latin "glosso" (tongue).

Meanwhile I had long been pondering a horticultural problem in my wildlife garden at home. I was keen to add more wildlife friendly flowers closer to the house and enrich diversity as the garden was starting to mature, but was stumped with a problem area where next to nothing would grow.

Bee flying towards Viper's-bugloss flower spikes

Despite our landscaper's best endeavours, not all of the poorest soil had ended up in the right place, our designated wildlfower meadow area. Some of it had ended up adjoining the bungalow and patio edge right at the top of the rear garden. Here the south facing slope was arid , in full sun all day long and only the relentless couch grass was flourishing.

So I turned to natives I'd seen locally thriving in sandy arid conditions for a solution and bought a small Echium Vulgare plug from Glandford Wildflower Centre just outside Holt. I planted it alongside Common Century, Teasel, Red Valerian and Common Rock Rose, next to a humongous self-sown Common Mallow, which had given me the inspiration, in order to create a bee-friendly wildflower border of sorts. 

Very little happened last year and my husband was sceptical. But Viper's-bugloss is known for growing deep roots and this year - success! The Echium developed numerous flower spikes and is even out competing both the Common century and Red valerian.

This weekend the month has earned its title of "Flaming June". In the sweltering 33 degree heat,  I couldn't face venturing outside my garden gates. Towards the end of a long, sweltering afternoon, as the worst of the heat started to cool, I stood on our patio and enjoyed the constant humming of dozens of bumble bees as they methodically worked their way up each spike in turn, checking which flowers had refilled with nectar.

 

"With the buzzing of the bee,
And the glowing of the bugloss,
High Summer is here"
 
 

Names for Echium Vulgare  

Bluebottle
Blue devil
Blue thistle
Blueweed
Bugloss
Cat's tail
Ironweed
Patterson's curse (Australian)
Our Saviour's Flannel
Snake flower
Viper's-bugloss
Viper's grass
Viper's herb

Of Yellow Flags and Swallowtails

In an unprecedented week that saw the president of the largest Western Great Power turn his back on the Paris Accord to reduce emissions causing global climate change, I took advantage of ironically hot, sunny weather to visit Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Nature Reserve to see one of the UK's rarest and most threatened butterflies, the British Swallowtail, Papilio machaon britannicus.

British Swallowtail, found only in Norfolk, busy nectaring on native yellow flag iris flowers. Taken from at least 1.4m away on a 300mm 4/3 crop OMD.

British Swallowtail, found only in Norfolk, busy nectaring on native yellow flag iris flowers. Taken from at least 1.4m away on a 300mm 4/3 crop OMD.

The trip was an impromptu reprise of my longstanding attempts to enjoy watching this beautiful endangered Norfolk butterfly, which inspired a earlier blog post on my misadventures over several unsuccessful seasons attempting to find them at various Norfolk nature reserves. Last year, I was even interviewed as part of a BBC OneShow item on the native Swallowtail covering the story of a much more famous lepidopterist's longstanding desire to see them.

This time I was hoping for more than a record shot of this rare and uniquely beautiful butterfly, one of only 6 butterfly species fully protected by UK Law since 1992. With the weather so fair sightings had been good all week so I was daring to hope for some natural behavioural shots of it amongst native fenland flora and habitat, rather than perched upon the pretty Sweet William in the renowned Doctor's flower garden.

After a pleasant chat with a Welsh couple now close to completing a multi year hunt to see all of Britain's 59 native species, I had not  ventured far into the reserve before I enjoyed a wonderful encounter of a freshly emerged Swallowtail first basking low down then fluttering up with its ghostlike flight pattern onto a nearby patch of deep yellow flag iris flowers where it began to nectar frenetically. Then the inevitable happened. It was after all Strumpshaw Fen, a sunny Sunday and Swallowtail peak season: The Lepidopteran papparazzi descended.

Within minutes a host of papparazzi lenses, many far too short for the purpose, had surrounded the poor butterfly and their owners, caught up in the viewfinder, became oblivious to both other nature observers as well as the butterfly's wellbeing, and lens hoods started to encroach within inches of where the butterfly was attempting to feed up, blocking out both light and other people. I gently chaperoned and chastised as best I could to create space for the butterfly to feed and all to take turns to see, before moving on frustrated as the crowd grew too big and closed in again around the butterfly.

I reflected on how , perfectly polite people, behind the viewfinder in focussed pursuit of the perfect digital trophy shot, rapidly became so blinkered and oblivious as to unwittingly block our others and even potentially disturb the rare and protected creature they had come to see. I speculated how many had walked right past numerous other fascinating wildlife and flower species without really stopping to enjoy and appreciate them, in their single-minded mission to capture the one famous "celebrity" species. It prompted me to question the drivers behind my own past mission too, though my long lens's minimum focus always helps ensure a respectful distance.

On a bigger scale, it made me contemplate whether charities' tendency to focus on preserving single "blue chip" star species (using gallons of pesticides in the process) rather than untouched habitats is more a help or a hindrance in our efforts to help environmental recovery.

Thinking back to the Paris Accord. I wonder whether it will ultimately ever really be possible for us, collectively as the human species, to overcome our ingrained survival instinct of self interest to do "the right thing" on a big enough scale in time. I hope so. If not, then perhaps our nation's own beautiful custard-yellow Swallowtail sub-species truly is already the ghost it sometimes appears to be, fluttering amongst it's beloved milkweed and flag iris.

Taking off from a yellow flag iris flower, the British Swallowtail butterfly has been fully protected in UK law since 1992.

Taking off from a yellow flag iris flower, the British Swallowtail butterfly has been fully protected in UK law since 1992.

Beautiful Bogbean

Tall Bogbean flower spikes are used by both adult dragonflies and emerging nymphs

With striking spears of downy-white, blush-tinged, feathery star-shaped flowers as exotic as those seen on any orchid or lily, it is ironic that this glamorous, wildlife-friendly, native wildflower superstart bears the rather unglamorous name of "Bogbean".

Surely the Marilyn Monroe of aquatic plants, this beautiful spring-flowering native marginal first acquired its unfortunate, less-than-beautiful name due to its watery habitat and foliage's passing resemblance to a broad bean or clover. 

Bogbean is highly valuable to wildlife, its striking pink-tinged flower spikes grow up to 30cm tall and can blossom from March right through into June or July. The frilly white flowers attract bees, hoverflies and butterflies to the pond edge. 

Bogbean's tendency to grow by creeping horizontally across the water surface also service to create shade and a rich micro-habitat for pond-dwelling insects. 

In particular, Bogbean's lobed trifoliate leaves form a kind of floating raft, which makes for an excellent egg laying,  perching and roosting site for adult damselflies and dragonflies, whose nymphs also use the protruding stems to climb out of the water when they are ready for metamorphosis. 

Bogbean is related to Gentians but in botany has its own unique plant family group.

The beautiful bogbean does have some less ugly alternative names though, Its latin name Menyanthes trifoliata refers to its triple leaved foliage and its spring flowering season. It is also known as Marsh Clover or Trefoil, Water Shamrock, Bog Myrtle and Buckbean. One of its alternative names, "Bog hop", alludes to bogbean's long history of herbal and medicinal use. Its leaves were traditionally used as a flavouring in beer making, while in medicinal herblore bogbean was said to be a cure for numerous ailments when drunk as a bitter tea. One of its German names, Scharbock, is derived from the Latin scorbutus, an ancient term for scurvy, which it was thought to cure.

In the wild, Bogbean is widespread in the marshes, fends and ponds across Northern England and Scotland, though sadly it is now less common in the South where it has suffered a marked decline due to wetland drainage.

 Bogbean flower

 

 

 

The Snowdrop And The Honeybee

An early worker honeybee gathers nectar from a Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis

By February we are all utterly weary of winter's leaden skies and lashing storms and desperately seeking those first subtle signs of spring, so it comes as no surprise that Common Snowdrops, or February's Fairmaid as they are sometimes called, are such popular flowers. It is a heavy heart indeed that could not be lifted by the sight of a milky white snowdrop flower head as it nods cheerily in the soft sunlight of a mild winter's day, or bravely peering through a late winter snowfall to earn their French name of "Pierce-neige" or Snow Piercer.  

Snowdrops favour damp woodland and stream side habitats

There are about 20 species of Galanthus in all, with the name Galanthus nivalis stemming from the Greek gala and anthus "Milky flower" and the Latin nivalis meaning "Snow".

Fond of damp woodland and watercourses, many people mistakenly believe that the Common Snowdrop is truly native to Britain or introduced in Roman times, but in fact snowdrops were first recorded in John Gerard's 1597 edition of "Great Herball" and were first documented in the wild only in the late 1770's. It is now believed Galanthus nivalis were first introduced into gardens in the late 1500's from Europe where their range spreads from the Pyrennees in the West to the Ukraine in the East.

The "Flower of Hope" grew in popularity around the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) when many soldiers returned with a new larger variety of the spring bulb, Galanthus plicatus, the Crimean Snowdrop, which bravely covered the battlefields despite the harsh winters to augur spring. Our love affair with these delicate yet incredibly tough spring flowers continued to grow and today snowdrops are one of the most widely traded bulbs in the world.

Snowdrops' many folklore names symbolise hope, renewal and death

Its long history in Europe and the UK means the humble Snowdrop is well established in folklore, literature and religion. The Snowdrop's strong Ecclesiastical associations are indicated in some of its alternative names such as Candlemas Bells, Mary's Taper and Eve's Tears.  

The snowdrop is a flower of contradictions. On the one hand, for Catholics Snowdrops symbolised hope and purity. Snowdrop garlands were traditionally used in the Candlemas procession on 2nd February celebrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary, which is one reason why they are so widespread along traditional routes to village churches.

At the same time snowdrops also have a darker side to their folklore history. Perhaps owing to the flower's white shroud-like petals, Snowdrops have long been associated with death and bad luck. In Greek mythology Persephone or Kore, Queen of the Underworld and the goddess of vegetation, is said to have carried Snowdrops on her return from Hades in Spring. The snowdrops she carried brought back life to a barren, wintery landscape, but also carried strong negative connotations of the Underworld they came from. 

Snowdrops spread by bulb division but ants assist seed dispersal

Also called Death's Flower, the Snowdrop became associated with death for many Victorians. According to superstition, seeing a lone Snowdrop was perceived as a portent of death and it was also meant to be unlucky to bring the first Snowdrop flower of the season inside a house.

Whatever their origins and mythology, Snowdrops hold a deep and enduring place in our psyche signalling Spring, while for our overwintering wildlife, the sight of a Common Snowdrop is undoubtedly very lucky indeed and a massive boon at a time of great hardship and need.

Their flowers provide a desperately needed source of nectar and pollen for early insects such as solitary bees emerging from hibernation, while their seedpods that also contain protein-rich elaiosomes are taken by ants and fed to their larvae. In so doing, the ants complete the circle of life by helping the Snowdrop plants disperse and start new colonies elsewhere.

The Snowdrop

Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid,
Ever as of old time,
Solitary firstling,
Coming in the cold time,
Prophet of the gay time,
Prophet of the May time,
Prophet of the roses,
Many, many welcomes,
February fair-maid!
— Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892)

Clouds on the Mountain

Turbulent cloud formations hover and swirl above Mount Teide. 

I made it to Tenerife after all. The weather in January was markedly cooler than in our previous December visits and characterised by high winds. Neither my camera nor I ventured far, except for our now customary road trip up to the peak of Mount Teide Volcano.

The atmospheric conditions were striking. My favourite photo depicted the powerful, windswept clouds above Pico Viejo, looming over the beautiful yet arid lava plains. In a way the photo is a metaphor for turbulent times, both in personal life and on the global stage, where the weather also feels windswept, and changeable, with a highly uncertain forecast.

If you'd like to see more, I've added a collection of my favourite Tenerife landscape and seascape images and a gallery of the cetaceans that reside off the coast there to my image gallery.

Frost on Winter Cherry Blossom

The Festive season brought with it some properly wintery weather at last with a bitter hoar frost, pea-soup freezing fog and a daytime temperature of -5.2c in our garden when I (very briefly!) popped out to take this photo the other day

Autumn's Golden Gown

"So fair and foul a day I have not seen..." grumbles the ill-fated Macduff at the beginning of Shakespeare's Macbeth Play. It felt a little like that in Norfolk this weekend

I enjoyed two dramatically different walks among birch trees within twenty four hours; my first a gloriously golden morning showing off Autumn's golden cloak in all its finery and then, courtesy of Storm Angus, a  brief, soggy wind and rainswept excursion which made Litcham common feel very much like a blasted heath.

A wet spring and mild autumn lacking the autumn storms we've had of late has enabled us to enjoy a glorious long-lived golden autumn foliage season this year. But with harsher, stormier weather approaching it may be time to say one last goodbye to autumn's rich vivid beauty and face the cold embrace of stark, hollow Winter, who, after  lurking in the wings for a while and is now stretching out its dark frosty talons.

Golden light shining through the autumn canopy onto fallen leaves

A beautiful mature silver birch tree cloaked in sunlit golden leaves

A storm-swept silver birch sapling looses its leaves under leaden skies

Winter beckons

Amethyst Deceivers

Autumn time has its own slightly melancholy beauty, accompanying the aura of damp and decay are beautiful jewels, be they vivid russet and gold foliage, dewdrops on spider's webs, the first frost on wild grasses...but there are more subtle treasures to be found by the more sharp-eyed nature observer, such as this beautiful little amethyst deceiver toadstool. 

Composition of this image is courtesy of John Stuart-Clarke who spotted the little acorn.

Often found near Beech trees, with whom it has a symbiotic relationship, Laccaria amethystina is a little woodland mushroom which takes its first name from the rich colour of the violet gemstone and its second because, though technicaly edible itself, its hue and shape is variable and it can look deceptively similar to a rather poisonous mushroom called Lilac Fibrecap.

Autumn Colours and Changing Clocks

Autumn seems to get later and later each year, perhaps a sign of the times in these days of global warming. The leaves here in Norfolk are only just colouring up, so to capture the mood of autumn here is a shot from my garden instead. It's a wild carrot seed head photographed against a backdrop of autumn flowering pink sedum in my butterfly and bee flower garden in gorgeous soft golden light we had yesterday afternoon before the clock change.

There's No Place Like Home

Its been a "Staycation" holiday week for me, and when you are a little under the weather and even the weather's a little under the weather, then the soft golden light at the end of the day and pretty little signs of autumn in the hedgerows and country lanes always give me a lift.

Here a few shots from an evening stroll along the Nar Valley Way. The local barn owl and muntjac deer made a few appearances too this week, though the owl remains camera shy.

A Late Small Tortoiseshell Summer

At last! Today, a gorgeously golden August bank holiday Monday, I was in Small Tortoiseshell heaven in my back garden with my Olympus 300m lens. With our wildflower meadow newly shorn, I could enjoy wonderful close up views of a late summer brood of Tortoisehell butterflies. They were a beautifully vivid, rich russet-orange colour as they flitted gracefully between the edge of our wildlife pond and our white buddleia, sweeping in to nectar on the pond side water mint. One butterfly cheekily nectared on a water mint flower so close to the water line that it had a narrow escape from becoming dinner with our rather noisy resident frog.

But I’m lucky to be enjoying this sight, because, despite this week's flurry of emergences, today the Butterfly Conservation Society issued a press release about their worrying decline. The Small Tortoisheshell’s population has plummeted by 73% since the 1970s.

Like many butterflies, habitat loss is an issue, but in addition the growing numbers of a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella may also be a contributory factor.

Due to their complex lifecycle, butterflies need caterpillar food plants for their larval stage, as well as nectar from flowers and fruit after they metamorphose into butterflies. Small Tortoiseshells, like several of the nymphalidae butterfly family, use nettles as their caterpillar host plant.

Gardens are increasingly playing a vital role as a habitat in our rapidly changing environment, so if you are a gardener, allowing a generous patch of nettles somewhere sunny at the edge of your garden really could help a struggling butterfly to recover, and when emerging Small Tortoiseshells grace your flower borders, make late summer days in your garden even more beautifully golden.

Silver Sea Lavender Skies

Sometimes muted grey skies can be a blessing in disguise, as was the case with this shot. High contrast full summer light can be tricky to contend with during the day. This soft pastel palette of sea lavender in Holkham bay was only possible thanks to some heavy leaden grey cloud skies creating soft even light conditions. Taken with the new Olympus 300mm pro-lens.

Low Mow Flower Lawns

Explore Alternatives to Paving over your Lawn

With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people seem to detest the idea of spending precious leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013, around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable. This is a tragedy not just for the eco-system and wildlife but also, it's been discovered, for our human psychological and physical well being. 

The good news is that there are some beautiful, natural, wildlife-friendly alternatives out there, that are far more attractive than block or shingle replacements and vastly easier and less effort to maintain than a traditional turf lawn.

Traditionally, lawn mower allergic people looked to block paving and many a front urban garden vanished in favour of parking driveways, but in recent years Flooding has become a real issue in urban areas due the sheer amount of lost drainage due to  block paving in of front gardens. This issue is deemed so important that planning permission is now required for non permeable paving with no drainage. From a wildlife perspective, varity is the spice of life and a standard turf or grass lawn is monoculture habitat that offers very poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm for blackbirds or crows to forage it has little ecological benefit to wildlife. 

Aesthetically,  aside from being green rather than synthetic lawns are pretty bland and dull with little visual stimulation or interest for the human eye. As awareness grows of the flooding and ecosystem impact of artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener alternatives to paving that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is rapidly increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.

With a little imagination a dull, bland green lawn could be transformed from a mowing and weeding nightmare into an artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low level, slow growing wildflowers that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. that require far less summer mowing maintenance. Many of these plants are native or long naturalised so cope with our long dry summer weather far better than garden centre grass mixes will do. And if you are needing to install a driveway there are many hexagon shaped gree-driveway options to use with the low mow flower ideas below.

Low Mow Flower Lawn Ideas

Selfheal and white Clover make a lovely low growing alternative to a traditional plain green lawn

Probably the star performer for an alternative to turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.

Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.

Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for as an alternative to a bland green turf lawn, but many  other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with regular mowing. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.

Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.
  • Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.
  • Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v.  persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)
  • Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.
  • Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring
  • Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.
  • Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.

Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

Buttercups and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.
  • Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native  buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.
  • Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect flower lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without at least one daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.
  • Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.
  • Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.
  • Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.

Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns

  • Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.

  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.

  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.

Green / Non Flowering Low Level Lawns

  • Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.

Traditional Wildflower Meadows

If you don’t need a low level lawn like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual cut you could grow a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow with endless choice of taller flowers. A summer wildflower meadow mix has a cutting regime timed as a hay cut in late summer. Or if you love to see birds in your garden you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and require a late winter cut around February after the birds have foraged the seedheads.

So Abandon your both your Lawn Mower and the Mortar!

So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.

But whatever you do –  throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!

Red Campion and white Daisies surround the bird bath in the Old Rose Garden at Nar Cottage

Further Reading

Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article

http://wildseed.co.uk/articles/2012/06/06/flowering-lawns-give-your-mower-a-holiday

Reading University research shows what can be done creatively

http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/

The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report

https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/7-ASC-paving-survey-report_for-publication.pdf

Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees

http://www.meadowmat.com/meadowmat/meadowmat-birds-bees.html

Of Red Admirals and Queen Anne's Lace

A slightly bizarre blog post title, I know. The connection is that these were the first two subjects that I photographed with the newly launched Olympus 300mm f4.0 pro lens. In old money that gives an effective reach equivalent to some 600mm, a wildlife photographers dream lens. But I wondered if a bokeh was possible, whether the images would really be as sharp as Olympus claimed, and whether the lens might be suitable for long lens macro photography.

Some pretty wild carrot flower seedheads, known as Queen Anne's lace, were my first attempted subject. Immediately I took the lens cap off I had a nasty shock. The lens simply wouldn't focus. The focus point refused to stay still, it bouncedaround lly all over the place. Feeling deflated and not a little seasick from the circular motion  I went to do a little investigation and realised that I needed to upgrade my camera's firmware to support the latest in camera focus stabilisation.

That done. the camera's focus improved dramatically and behaved beautifully again. I finished taking my shot of the wild carrots' dainty seedheads and was pleasantly suprised at the sharpness and bokeh I that was able to achieve.

That still left the question of whether, with the predictably long minimum focus distance of 1.4m, the 300mm lens would be at all suitable for larger less tolerant butterflies and dragonflies, some of my all time favourite macro subjects to photograph.

An obliging red admiral butterfly very much preoccupied with nectaring on my garden privet hedge allowed me to put the lens through its paces. Because of the long reach, it was a little challenging to get the focus spot on and the 1.4m minimum focus distance was, as expected a real constraint, so I am still dreaming of a nice 100mm f4.0 macro with a minimum focal range more like 40cm. Even so I did get some lovely shots rich with detail and could see this lens working nicely with tree top species.

A Spotty New Arrival

The Nar Cottage wildlife garden is starting to become quite mature now, so we were really excited today to spot a new species to the Garden...and a first sighting for me to boot!

Our first ever four-spotted chaser dragonfly (Libellula Quadrimaculata) was perched up by our our wildlife pond, looking glamourous as he posed.

We were even more delighted when he suddenly started zooming round and hooked up with a mate who then started ovipositing, so hopefully in a few years time we may see some more!

Noble Emerald and Gold

Butterflies are having a bad year so far and are thin on the ground, so I have been entertaining myself with other little beasties.

This beautiful, iridescent emerald-coloured beetle is a member of the flower beetle family with a rather grand, royal sounding latin name Oedemera nobilis. It has several fun but less flattering English names too such as thick-legged flower beetle or swollen-thighed flower beetle, although only the females have the fat thighs.

Despite their imposing looking mandibles, adult emerald flower beetles are herbivorous and feed on flower pollen and nectar. This female thick-legged flower beetle is pictured on a Common Rock Rose (Helianthemum  Nummularian) up at Ringstead Downs in North Norfolk.