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.

Tenth Green Damselfly

Female Banded Demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens, perched on Common Knapweed

How time flies, I had a whole series of late spring early summer blog posts planned to write, got waylaid and now suddenly its midsummer already! Although this image is an imperfect “grab” shot rather than a nature study, I just had to share it because it is exciting news for our wildlife pond..

Last year I blogged about the nine damselfly and dragonfly species my widllife pond had attracted as it evolved over its six years and speculated that might be the maximum a relatively small pond like mine could achieve due to the way pond habitat changes.

Then unexpectedly on 5th July I spotted this iridescent green female Banded Demoiselle damselfly, grandly named Calopteryx splendens, its vivid emerald green contrasting beautifully against the deep purple of the Common Knapweed flowers it was perched amongst.

She represents the tenth species to have visited our Wildlife pond and garden. Not all consecutively of course, and some will never return'; we've learned that ponds evolve over time naturally to gradually fill in, undergoing an inevitable acidification in the process, which some species can’t tolerate.

The male Banded Demoiselles are blue with a clear blue band across the forewings so she definitely is a female. The species is easily confused with the Beautiful Demoiselle, Calopteryx virgo, but that species is a species of fast-flowing rivers and isn’t resident in Norfolk. In contrast Banded Demoiselles prefer slow flowing watercourses with a muddy bottom. There’s plenty of debris in mine with all our surrounding vegetation so I wonder if she was eyeing up our pond for ovipositing. Only time will tell…

Cheery Cowslips

Cowslips are invaluable to early pollinators and have a long flowering period

The mid-Spring superstar of our wildflower meadow this year was undoubtably the humble Cowslip, Primula veris. I’d always hoped to see them in my wildlife garden, as not far up the lane from my cottage is a little tucked away-clearing near a small copse that is too small to farm and in springtime always seemed to be bursting full of rich custard-coloured Cowslips mixing in beautifully with the deep indigo of native Bluebells.

Disappointingly, despite their inclusion in my native seedmix for clay soil, for the first two years not a single one materialised. I philosophically put it down to the soil conditions or an unlucky batch mix and thought I might sow some plugs another year.

Then unexpectedly, the very next spring just a smattering appeared! I was overjoyed to learn that it was simply that their seeds can take several seasons to germinate and interpreted it as an encouraging sign our meadow ecosystem was establishing itself well naturally.

Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, spreading almost right across the small sward. They must particularly like cool dry springs as this year, our meadow’s sixth season, has been their best appearance to date.

Aside from their cheerful colour and long lasting flowerheads, they have a healthy wildlife value. Their flowers are a vital resource for pollinators, particularly for early solitary bee species, quite a few of which frequent our garden, but also for butterflies such as the Brimstone butterfly and other insects such as beetles. They are also the caterpillar plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which is unfortunately not resident in Norfolk.

A member of the Primula family, the Cowslip shares more than a passing resemblance to it's cousins the Primrose Primula vulgaris and the Oxlip Primula elatior, however both of these lack its pleasant apricot perfume and have more open paler lemon-hued flowers.

Cowslips can take several years to establish in a new meadow

Amusingly the Cowslip’s latin name Primula veris romantically deems it the “true” primrose, while its established English name more, ahem, rustically refers to its habit of growing near “cow’s slops” or cowpats in grazing pasture. It does have over two dozen pleasanter names in traditional folklore including other farming references such as Milk Maidens, descriptive names such as Freckled face, Golden Drops and Long legs as well as biblical names mentioning Mary or alluding to a myth that Cowslips sprang up where St Peter dropped the keys to heaven, perhaps in a cow pat!

Cowslips’ varied folklore names include: Artetyke, Arthritica, Buckles, Bunch of keys, Crewel, Drelip, Fairy Cups, Fairies' flower, Freckled face, Golden drops, Herb Peter, Hey-flower, Paigle, Peggle, Key Flower, Key of Heaven, Lady's fingers, Long legs, Milk maidens, Mayflower, Mary's tears, Our Lady's Keys, Palsywort, Password, Petty Mulleins, Plumrocks, Tisty-tosty. Welsh: dagrau Mair meaning Mary's tears, Anglo-Saxon: Cuy lippe, Greek: Paralysio.

The Cowslip has a rich cultural and culinary history too; traditionally it decorated Mayday garlands and was strewn along churchyard pathways at weddings and religious festivals. The Cowslip was used medicinally to aid sleep and heal coughs as well as to make Cowslip wine and “Tisty-tosty”, little balls of crushed up Cowslip flowers.

In the literary world the Cowslip’s honours include mentions in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Henry V” plays as well as featuring in Keats’ poem of Springtime romance “Hither, hither love”.

Hither, hither, love —

‘Tis a shady mead —

Hither, hither, love!

Let us feed and feed!

Hither, hither, sweet —

’Tis a cowslip bed —

Hither, hither, sweet!

'Tis with dew bespread!

Hither, hither, dear —

By the breath of life —

Hither, hither, dear!

Be the summer’s wife!

Though one moment’s pleasure

In one moment flies —

Though the passion’s treasure

In one moment dies —

Yet it has not passed —

Think how near, how near! —

And while it doth last,

Think how dear, how dear!

Hither, hither, hither

Love its boon has sent —

If I die and wither

I shall die content!

John Keats









And Breathe... Spring is here!

Just when you think you really can’t take it any more, finally the temperatures drift up, the first Blackthorn blossom appears in the hedgerows on still naked stems and you know that Spring, at long last, is here.

February Gold and a Fool's Spring

With the synthetic cheer of the twinkling fairy lights of Christmas in the dim and distant past, the long dark trek to springtime always feels like a brutally hard slog.

The ground seems stark, barren and lifeless. Yet all the while beneath the surface plants and trees are quietly, imperceptibly getting ready to burst out from their winter buds.

Catkins, male flowers of many common native shrubs and trees such as Hazel (Corylus avellana) and Birch trees (Betula pendula) are among the earliest augurs of that yearned for spring. As the days rapidly lengthen, golden evenings start to appear, bathing the delicate, golden chains of late winter catkins in beautiful light.

In contrast to the deep chill and bitter Beast from the East last year, winter 2019 has been remarkably mild. This February has even proven to be the warmest one on record thanks to a brief flurry of sunny mild days that heartened us all with a tantalising promise, however fleeting, of warmer days to come. One mild evening in mid-February I took advantage of the rich late afternoon light during our "fool's spring" to do a little study of the Hazel and Birch tree catkins in my garden.

I learned that branches carry both male and female flowers with the male catkins emerging first. Hazel trees carry tiny little female red flowers that emerge soon after higher up the branch stem, whereas Birch trees have small, bright green, upward curving female catkins.

Catkin pollen is intended to be windborne to pollinate other trees, there being so few insect pollinators about at the time of year, so it has evolved to have a self-repelling quality meaning that bees and other insects struggle to collect much of it, although it is a food source for them at a time of scarcity.

Despite the luscious hue of light, the days rapidly turned back to chilly ones with even our fool’s spring warmth quickly forgotten. But soon, soon true Spring will burst forth in her lush green finery and the late winter gold fade out of memory.

Male Birch tree, betual penduula, catkins

Male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin in golden light

Close up of male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin

Male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin in the dying embers

Blackberrying Butterflies

 Comma butterfly feeding on blackberry

We tend to think of butterflies as nectar drinkers, but in fact their diet varies significantly by speces, and also by season. At this time of year as the blackberries ripen on brambles, many species especially hibernating Nymph butterflies like this Comma butterfly (Polygonia c-album are as partial to a bit of blackberrying as you or I!

Drought!

Chakhill Blue butterflies had a good summer in Norfolk despite the drought

As July went on our heatwave turned into a full-blown drought that saw harvests fail, lawns wither and die, and ponds dry up. At Nar Cottage, even our hardy native wildflower meadow turn a rather bleached shade and our parched front lawn became covered in the gold heads of Cat’s Ears which proved popular with Skipper and White butterflies.

East Anglia was the region worst affected by the drought in the UK, experiencing only 3.4 days of rainfall in July and recorded on 21.1mm of rain in total for the entire month. It wasnt just plants that suffered during the prolonged dry conditions however, butterflies and other plant-munching insects did too.

As many plants wilting away, caterpillars struggled too. One interesting survival tactic for later flying broods of butterflies such as Common Blues was to call it a day and pupate early, emerging from their metamorphosis perfectly a formed, but far smaller adult butterfly than usual.

One species that surprisingly seemed to buck the trend was the small population of Challkhill Blue butterflies up at Warham near the north Norfolk coastline. After several years of unfavourable weather yielding poor to mediocre numbers, the official BCS timed count this year was some 570, up from just 158 last year, and they seemed to have a longer season than usual if the numbers I saw when I popped up the first week of August were anything to go by. Who knows, perhaps there may be some unexpected winners from the curious summer of 2018 after all...

https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/climate/uk/summaries/2018/july/regional-values

A Large White butterfly nectaring on Cat’s Ear’s that covered our parched lawn during the long summer drought. Both species seemed to fare well.

A Large White butterfly nectaring on Cat’s Ear’s that covered our parched lawn during the long summer drought. Both species seemed to fare well.

Red, White and err, Pink!

As world cup fever gripped the Nation and England reached the football semi-finals for the first time in decades, and Brexit negotiations seemingly reached an even more parlous state of play, I was instead becoming fascinated by my new moth trap, and the amazing moths being attracted to the lights... 

A White Satin moth, Leucoma salicis, perched on the reflective moth trap lid

Pink: One of a dozen Elephant Hawkmoths, Deilephila elpenor, attracted to my twin actinic skinner moth trap

Laying the Ghost of Iris to Rest

Purple Emperor's caterpillar host plant is the Willow tree family. It prefers the Common Sallow (Grey Willow, Salix Cinerea) but will also use Great Sallow (Goat Willow, Salix Caprea) and Crack Willow (Salix fragilis)

In last July's blog I wrote of my bitter disappointment at my foiled attempt to see the most celebrated British butterfly, the Purple Emperor, while discovering that, in the famous words of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, "there's no place like home".

To rub salt into the wound, 2017 proved to be an amazing season for Apatura iris and a particularly bad year to be benched. Right as my blog was published, Purple Emperors were, remarkably, seen for the first time in the Sheringham/Beeston area on the North Norfolk coast. They will need to be recorded for five consecutive years however to be classed a Norfolk resident.

I spent the year conserving my energy and biding my time, yet all the while the memory of the trip I hadn't made to see the King of butterflies in a peak season linged in the recesses of my mind, surfacing occasionally to niggle away at me. His majesty had ensnared me after all, at least a little.

Come late June and I had some leave left at work. The timing looked on paper to be perfect, but after a bumper year last year, I fretted that the early super-cold snap might have affected them. What if the population had collapsed, or this year's weather proved unfavourable?

White Admirals look similar to Purple Emperors but are smaller, lack the orange markings and purple iridescence

My first week off was an anti-climax, dry but coolish, windy and unsettled. No reports showed and I felt fidgety, restless and frustrated, fearing that my timing was off and I would have another run of bad butterfly luck.

Suddenly the temperatures rose, the long predicted heatwave actually appeared and reports started to trickle in. I grasped my last chance to take the trip and headed towards a less visited Wood in Northamptonshire, close to the Purple Emperor's stronghold at Fermyn Woods.

I experienced butterflies of the tummy variety as I drove up the deserted, deeply rutted dusty track at my destination. I'd been running a little late and the temperatures were soaring. Emperors are notoriously active in the afternoons and apparently once charged up rarely come down from the canopies. Was I already too late?

As I got out of my car my spirits lifted. A large black and white butterfly immediately swept past the car door zooming along, low above the ground at a high rate of knots. Could it be that easy? Had I already seen my target? Was it a female Purple Emperor or the smaller also black and White Admiral? I'm not sure I will ever be certain whether that was really my first sighting. The flight was fast and powerful, though I definitely didnt catch a flash of purple.

Nonetheless it proved a good omen, as I had barely entered fifty yards into the woods when I found an elderly Black Hairstreak and an unusually confiding White Admiral basking by the side of the path.

Just a few yards further on I suddenly spotted a fellow Emperor hunter photographing a sizeable butterfly "puddling" (taking up salts from mud) on the ground. The richly marked russet-orange underwings were unmistakeable - this was was no White Admiral!

Female Purple Emperor, lacking the purple iridescence, perched on a Sallow branch feeding on aphid honeydew

Purple Emperors also take in trace salts from the ground, animal droppings and other pungent substances, a behaviour known as "mud-puddling"

The Purple Emperor continued  to probe the ground with its proboscis, wings stubbornly closed, for some minutes. Then suddenly it snapped its wings open vigorously, catching the sun's rays.

The light glanced off the Purple Emperor's wings obliquely and a flash of iridescent purple appeared from nowhere. His Majesty resplendent in his imperial cloak. Just as quickly the sparkling colour vanished and reverted to black as the butterfly rotated further round towards the sun. Mission accomplished.

The Purple Emperor's iridescence is only visible at certain angles to the sun's rays

For around an hour or so the Purple Emperor and at least one Purple Empress wafted up and down the track in their finery, alternately mud-puddling and looping up high in a figure of eight around what seemed to be a pair of "Master" trees, one an Oak, one a Common Sallow.  I was also treated to the sight of a female Purple Emperor perched up in the more attractive setting of a Sallow tree, apparently feeding on honeydew. Shortly after one o'clock I enjoyed my last figure of eight looping fly past and both I and his Majesty parted ways and headed off to attend to the rest of the day's business.

It all seemed so strangely easy in the end that I actually felt a little nonplussed. Why all the fuss, I wondered? Wasn't Iris famously elusive? Where was the challenge, the mystery?  Maybe there was none and my scientific research had paid off, maybe I had simply been lucky or maybe, just maybe, fickle fate had at last taken pity on me and requested Iris to grace me with his royal presence in a random act of kindness.

Whatever the answer, I drove home at peace, with the ghost of the Purple Emperor past of 2017 that had never been seen, well and truly laid to rest.

Purple Emperor "mud-puddling" with its wings open

 

 

And Then There Were Nine...

Watching Nar Cottage's nature pond transform from a muddy hole in our clay earth into a lush, thriving, diverse insectopolis has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of our five-year wildlife gardening project. Each year we've seen a new species of dragon or damselfly colonise our pond. This year a further arrival brought the grand total to some nine species, five dragonflies and four damselflies. Here they all are, in order of appearance and colonisation. This is the story of a humble pond's evolution into a local wildlife mecca.

Nar Cottage Pond and bog garden as it was in May 2014, newly planted with lots of bare earth

Nar Cottage wildlife pond as it is today, rich in aquatic and marginal vegetation and surrounded by a native wildflower meadow (June 2017)

First on the scene was a large male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa, arriving the very first week of June 2014, our pond's first spring, closely followed by a female.  A beautifully marked dragonfly of early summer with a penchant for shallow sunny ponds, the males are a dusky shade of powder-blue and the females a rich mustard yellow.

My first ever sighting of a Broad-bodied Chaser, Libella depressa, in my very own back garden, thanks to my new wildlife pond in June 2014

A golden yellow female Broad-bodied Chaser dragonly perched on red campion flowers

The dusky blue of the male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa

Broad-bodied Chasers return in 2018 after missing a year. Highly territorial, this one saw off a passing Southern hawker dragonfly.

Next to move in on the 1st of July was my very first damselfly species, the vivid Azure Damselfly, Coenagrion puella. Blue damselflies can be quite hard to identify but I discovered the Azure's distinguishing feature is that it has two short black stripes on the side of its thorax, whereas the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum only has one. They took to our pond enthusiastically and set about ovipositing eggs for future generations!

Azure Damselflies ovipositing in tandem. Adult male Azure Damselflies are vivid turquoise. Most females have wide black bars on their abdomen with a lime green colour, about 10% are blue in colouration.

Immature Azure Damselflies are pale lilac (the females predominantly black as in their adult form) and have brown eyes.

Our third arrival was the dramatic and impressive Emperor Dragonfly, another species I'd never encountered before. Carrying an equally imperial latin name  Anax imperator is one of the UK's biggest dragonflies and undoubtedly the most regal. According to Lewington, the Emperor's "vigour, aggression and agility in flight are unequalled in Britain".

The Emperor has a reputation for being a bit of a pioneer species and is known for colonising younger ponds so it made sense to see it early on in our pond's existence. The larva have a fearsome reputation for their creative hunting methods and can occasionally mature in a single year although they usually take two. The surrounding meadow and in subsequent years also pond foliage rapidly filled in to envelop the pond so I never did see an Emporer again.

A female Emperor dragonfly, Anax imperator, ovipositing on the base of reeds

The vivid green and blue of the Emporer dragonfly

 

August brought another two species, one dragonfly, one damsel and the total to 5 dragonflies in our first season. Next up was the Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, first spotted basking on the bare earth next to the pond. A month later I was even more excited to see a mating couple zooming around our pond, hopefully ensuring future generations to come.

My first sighting of a Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, August 2014

A pair of mating Common Darter dragonflies mid-flight over my sparsely vegetated new pond, September 2014

A Common Darter dragonfly perched on Knapweed in my wildflower meadow, July 2016

My second August arrival proved to be the Common Blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, which has a flight period from May through to September. Blue damsels can be tricky to distinguish from each other, but the single short stripe on the thorax and all blue tail segments help to separate the Common Blue from similar species, its also a stronger flier.

Common Blue damselfly perched on Brooklime, August 2014

Common Blue damselfly, drab form, immature, July 2016

My next new species didnt show up until nearly a year later in late July 2015 but, a bit like busses, suddenly two came at once. The Blue-tailed damselfly, Ishnura elegans and another life first for me, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata both showed up the same day. Blue-tailed damselflies are variable in colour and also change colour as they mature so can vary a lot in apperance, in particular there are so-called rufescens (pinkish) violacea (violet) and infuscans (green) female forms.

The vivid female violacea form of the Blue-tailed damselfly

Blue-tailed damselfly on Yarrow flowerhead, July 2015

Female Blue-tailed damselfly, form rufescens, July 2016

With its fast, agile flight and distinctive wing markings, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata, was a  exciting addition to my wildlife pond's dragonfly tally. Much like the Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, the males are highly territorial and persistently patrol their patch and return to the same perches to challenge rivals and the two males often held sparring matches over my pond. 

Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libella quadrimaculata, July 2016

Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly showing its distinctive markings, 2018

2017 only saw one new arrival, bringing our total to 8 different species. Our pond was now 4 years old and becoming pretty mature as a micro-habitat. The Ruddy Darter dragonfly, Sympetrum sanguineum, was our new addition. In the past this dragonfly was a major source of identification confusion for me due to its similarities with the Common Darter and it was satisfying to finally get a good view of the jet black legs that distinguish it most readily.

Last but by no means least in my line up is my recent 2018 sighting of the Large Red damselflyPyrrhosoma nymphula. It made its debut on the Nar Cottage wildlife pond stage on 28th May. Frequently one of the earliest damselflies to be seen, I'd often spotted it in late May on visits to Stoke Ferry and Hoe Rough . With its distinctive colour it was most definitely a newbie in our garden.

Ruddy Darter, Sympetrum sanguineum, on a pondside perch

My latest damselfly species sighting the Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula

Its wonderful to still be seing new species colonise this micro-habitat we created even after 5 years and though my pond's evolution is perhaps slowing and stabilising now I continue to hope for more sightings. Who knows, someday this line up may yet turn into a top-ten list!

 

 

Seeing Red

I spent a gorgeous bank holiday weekend pottering around our wildlife pond, watching the Azure damselflies wafting about in pairs and aerial dragonfly wars between the powder blue Broad-bodied Chaser and custard yellow Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies to rival any aeroplane dogfight as each fiercely competed for territory.

Suddenly among all the vivid blue Azures I quite literally saw red, that is, a pair of red mating damselflies! It was another first for Nar Cottage pond as they proved to be Britain's Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). Flying earlier than its cousin the Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum), it can also be distinguished by its black legs and strongly striped antehumeral markings.

This photo marks the ninth species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselfles) recorded in our wildlife pond (more on that here) and not bad for a pond thats only five seasons old...

Two Blues and No Greens

After a second fruitless jaunt hoping to photograph some rather shy Green Hairstreaks, which seem to be having a good season this year, my sunny late May Sunday ended up being an impromptu tale of two Blues in my own back garden instead.

Male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly basking

As I was resting on my patio I spotted our first blue Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly posing ostentatiously by the side of our (now very low) wildlife pond, barely a day after our first Four-spotted chaser appeared. Both were trying to hold territory and I was entertained by some impressive aerial battles.

A subsequent gentle lap of our garden yielded a female Holly Blue Butterfly busily ovipositing on the native shrubs in our wildlife hedgerow that borders our garden and now in its 5th year is nice and dense. Our wildlife garden just keeps on giving year after year. 

A female Holly Blue butterfly busily ovipositon amongst native hedging

Smoothly Enters the Newt

A surprising number of tadpoles survived this year's late snow and frosts to hatch out, proving that nature has long coped with such seasonal extremes. Once hatched, a tadpole's lot does not get easier by any means, because along with the warmth, their nemesis the Common newts have returned.

Common newts, also known as Smooth newts, predate heavily on tadpoles and frogspawn in springtime, and male Common newts can be spotted due to their vivid orange and black spotted underbelly which is a temporary colouring worn during the mating season.

Male Common or Smooth newt in orange mating colours

Common newt hunting among newly hatched tadpoles

Smile, Its Spring... For A day!

Hopefully the treacherous weather will not be too damaging to this year's frogspawn. Hard to believe just three days ago my wildlife pond was an amorous hotspot with over half a dozen frogs busy making frogspawn. Today the pond is frozen over again and the ground has at least 2 or 3 inches of snow being swept around by the "mini Beast".

Frog nestled in pondweed in a wildlife pond

Three in a bed.... male frogs swarming aorund a female.

Frog amongst fresh frogspawn

Smile! Its spring

Smile! Its spring

The Beast from the East

Winter definitely had a vicious sting in its tail this February. A "sudden stratospheric warming" over the North Pole, in itself disturbing at this time of year according to climatologists, caused a sharp cooling in lower levels of our atmosphere and via a complex chain of meteorological events reminiscent of the metaphor about the butterfly that flapped its wings on one continent and caused a hurricane on another, brought about heavy snowfall that covered virtually all of the British Isles.

An unusually strong and harsh northeasterly wind stream dubbed the "Beast from the East" triggered a bitter cold snap then swept in heavy snowfall, which was in turn intensified by strong drifting due to the fierce, biting winds that blew continuously for days. 

Here in big sky Norfolk we were heavily exposed to "the Beast" and much of the county was cut off by incredibly large snowdrifts formed by its winds. These, I noticed, were far deeper in areas where the farmers' field verges lacked hedging, a stark reminder of the environmental value of this oft overlooked habitat, which for many years was ripped out to maximise the yield potential of the land in ill-conceived agricultural efficiency drives.

Thankfully many incentives now exist for re-establishment of these vital wildlife corridors and natural windbreaks, so hopefully Norfolk will improve its reputation among hedge layers in years to come. 

"The Beast from the East" blowing snow across an arable field, creating a misty haze

First Snowdrops

In past years, its been February before I've visited Hoe Rough to enjoy the snowdrops there out in force. But this year my first snowdrop sighting at one of my favourite, peaceful nature reserves was much earlier than usual, on the 16th January.

Almost all the snowdrop plants were still quite stubby and offering just the tiniest glimpse of little furled up white buds, there were just 2 or 3 well positioned snowdrop clumps that had opened. So for the first time I captured the very first flush.

In The Snowdrop and the Honeybee I explored the natural history and folklore of one of our earliest flowering wildflowers. Native or not, your heart can't help but lift when you first see Persephone's favourite little flower return from the depths of the underworld to a barren frosty landscape, reminding us that spring may not be as far away as it feels. 

Festive Frost

Frost covered leaf litter

December has been colder than in recent times and we've had not a few chilly, white-world frosty mornings of late.

Hoar frosts have always held a special place in my heart as they always take me right back to fond memories of frozen winter wonderland walks up on the Ridgeway back in Letcombe Regis, but what makes a Hoar frost so special?

A Hoar frost, also known as hoarfrost, pruina or radiation frost, occurs on cold, clear nights with humid air when a dew would form if it were warmer.

In a Hoar frost, leaves, grass, branches and other objects cool by radiation to well below frost point, allowing water vapour to condense directly in the form of ice crystal deposits rather than in the form of water droplets first.

A normal White frost or Ground frost is caused when water vapour from the air forms a liquid dew first and then freezes with a subsequent drop in temperature, so tends to be more globluar in shape rather than feathery or crystalline. Fog tends to inhibit Hoar frosts as it prevents radiation cooling, however can create Rime, which is an ice deposit formed from supercooled fog vapour that crystallised when it touches a frozen object.

Hoar frost ice crystal structures on a fallen leaf

Bark covered in white frost

The crystalline nature of hoar frost close up

Frost crystals on a cluster of blackberries

In Search of Autumn...

Our mellow autumnal weather seems to be both treating and playing tricks on us this year.

Mingled gold and green birch leaves

As mid October arrived I started to search for turning leaves and classic signs of Autumn, but in vain. With such mild temperatures, the trees have determinedly held on to their cloaks of green as long as possible to maximise their intake of food.

A Stroll in Blickling Estate at the start of half term week yielded some fallen leaves but the canopy was disappointingly still richly decked in a gown of glorious green, with only the occasional tree starting to offer up a hint of gold at the very top of their crowns.

At last on a visit to Wells-Next-The-Sea at the end of the week, the mood had started to shift and begun to evoke a more autumnal tone. A gorgeously mild day, I watched several Red Admirals dancing brightly in the deceptively warm golden rays of the afternoon sun, but at last, I finally saw my first fully golden-gowned birch tree!

Meanwhile, further along the pathway, a suitably russet-hued Common Darter dragonfly cast a long shadow as it perched on a fallen pine introducing rich red umber tones to the Autumnal palette. 

Phew! - our tardy Lady Autumn really has finally arrived with her gown of gold, just in time for the clocks to go back.

A red Common Darter dragonfly enjoying late October sunshine on a fallen pine tree

A still green canopy at Blickling Estate

A birch tree dressed in full golden regalia

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 being 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, currently resident in Norfolk - the magnificent Purple Emperor. 

Known affectionately to his acolytes 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) so this seemingly bizarre Purple Emperor obsession had been puzzling me for some time. Just what quality is it that bewitches them all? Is it the dramatic colour purple? Their reputed vigorous flight and aggressive behaviour? Or some other mysterious factor altogether ....?

After an inspiring talk by renowned butterfly conservationist and Purple Emperor advocate Matthew Oates at Norfolk Butterfly Conservation's AGM back in 2016, I became intrigued and not a little bewitched myself. In a bid to sate 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, 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 have 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 the second less famous, but to me equally elusive, purple butterfly to discover: the Purple Hairstreak butterfly, Neozephyrus quercus. And it lives much closer to home.

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

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

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

While laid up 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 my first 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 punt on a very short run up to the nearby Syderstone Common nature reserve,  on the edge of North Norfolk coastal AONB. Its a large reserve of lowland gorse heathland, an SSSI that is famous for its Natterjack toad population, but not all that much else, in fact a previous visit had left me visually underwhelmed. This time however the reserve was transmuted into a spectacular sea of vivid fuchsia pink willowherb flowers swaying in the gentle breeze.

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 erratic and it was hard to keep track as the butterfly flitted amongst the oak treetop and nearby birches in the mature woodland circling this now spectactularly beautiful reserve.

After spotting my Hairstreak's "Master" 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.

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.

Perhaps the abiding memory for me is not so much finally photographing my first purple butterfly, but rather Syderstone Common nature reserve itself, which was a natural habitat at the peak of its mid-summer glory and afforded a sensory firework display of wildflower delight at every turn.

Visually the abundant vibrant pink Rosebay Willowherb flower spires intermingled with creeping carpets of rich yellow Tormentil, while the heady scent of rambling native Honeysuckle hung in the air and bramble in full bloom. Every plant seemed to be alive, swaying in the breeze and dancing with a host of orange Skipper, Ringlet and Meadow Brown butterflies flitting about into the distance as far as the eye could see.

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 ensnare 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 wildlife garden before landscaping work began, early November 2013

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in late June 2017 with Knapweed and Vetch mxing with Ox-eye daisies

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

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow by July 2017 - A diverse mix of pink purple Knapweeds, Vetches plus Trefoils, Sorrel and Daisies

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

Nar Cottage Wildlife Meadow June 1st 2018 just coming into flower, relatively few Ox-eye daisies are left

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