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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spring has well and truly sprung with a couple of weeks of glorious weather in the UK and the continent. Here a small selection from a short trip to the beautiful Eifel Nationalpark on the German-Belgian border, with lush meadows dripping in springtime wildflowers and vivid dappled green woodland trails bursting with life...
Apple tree blossom on a hot sunny circular walk around a 45 thousand year old Meerfelder Maar - a volcanic crater and lake or "Maar".
At last...! Some milder days in between the blustery weather, ones when you can really feel the sun on your back. Slowly more signs of spring are present. Insects start to emerge from their overwintering. Though I've yet to photograph my first butterfly of the season (a brimstone on 25th March) I've enjoyed watching out for the early emerging bugs, bees and, that renowned augury of springtime, the first amphibian frogspawn.
My first sign of early spring insect life was this female Minotaur beetle. One of 8 British "Dor" beetles, she emerges in March and roams woodland and pastureland. Despite their size and fearsome looks, Minotaur beetles are herbivores feeding on ruminant dung. After mating she will dig a burrow up to a metre long to lay her eggs.
My second insect sighting was while out gardening. I saw the most gigantic queen buff-tailed bumblebee crash land and nectar furiously on my white crocus. She clambered across our daisy-filled "Meadow Mat" at a surprising rate of knots, looking like she was on a mission, perhaps seeking a nest site to establish her colony for the season. Sometimes known as the Large earth bumblebee from their latin name Bombus terrestris, Buff-tailed bumblebees are one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and also among the largest to visit gardens in Europe.
Looking closely you can see some mites hitching a ride on her thorax. Unlike some mites, they are not parasitic but are in fact harmless detrivores, who survive by living in the bumblebee nest and providing a cleaning service to the colony, feeding on old beeswax and other detritus.
And last but not least, frogspawn arrived to our pond on the 26th March this year, 4 days later than last year and in smaller quantities. With a greater amount of protective pond plants established, hopefully the tadpoles will stand a better chance this year against our hungry newt population.
"Sleep thou, and I will wind thee in my arms.
So doth the Woodbine the sweet Honeysuckle
A gentle farewell to summer courtesy of Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night's Dream
It seems that summer has been slow to start, but nature can't afford to wait and one of Norfolk's rarest butterflies has taken to the wing pretty much on cue. Silver-studded blue butterflies have one of the most amazing symbiotic lifecycles you could Imagine. Frequenting heathland, they plant their eggs on fresh low lying gorse or heather and depend upon two specific species of black ant, Lasius niger and Lasius alienus to complete their lifecycles.
Silver-studded blue butterflies live in small colonies. They are a sedentary species, tending to stay local and fly low to the ground. Unlike the blue males, female studded-blue butterflies are brown in colour, but both share the same silvery blue scales in the black spots on the underside of their hind wing for which the butterfly gets its name.
Adults survive only a few days each summer, just long enough to mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars hatch in spring and are and nurtured by the black ants in exchange for a sugary secretion produced by a special gland. The caterpillar pupates underground in the ants nest before emerging as an adult.
Sometimes as a naturalist and photographer, certain subjects remain so stubbornly elusive that they become a bit of a nemesis. Britain's largest and most iconic species "papilio machaon britannicus", our very own British swallowtail, was one such unlucky species for me. So much so, that it took me some five years to achieve my first photograph of this amazingly beautiful butterfly.
Our British swallowtail butterfly is actually a subspecies of the European strain that has adapted itself to use the delicate and somewhat sensitive fenland plant milk parsley as its caterpillar host plant. Once comparatively widespread in the south east, its range is now restricted to the Norfolk fens.
Many of you will know that butterflies are one of my favourite wildlife species and I'm a passionate supporter of the Butterfly Conservation Society, which does a great job of raising awareness about the threats to this beautiful animal. Though scarce, I live in Norfolk, the same county that this elusive butterfly calls home. So just how hard can it really be to see one?
Well timing is everything they say. The swallowtail is single brooded and has a relatively short flight period, from around mid May to mid June. If you add to that the need for reasonably clement weather, the window of opportunity is fairly narrow. In my defence, years one and two of my five year wash out were before I had relocated to live in Norfolk.
My natural history and local knowledge was still comparatively limited, and I was restricted solely to weekend trips to Norfolk targeted for the start of its flight period. These were planned using field guides, with the sole aim of seeing this amazing butterfly. Sadly that was just as we entered that phase where our winters were harsh, spring arrived late and the weather utterly uncooperative. Thus for two years in a row, bleak grey skies, cold temperatures and high winds put the kaibosh on my naive optimism and my target remained stubbornly and mysteriously elusive...
Year three and I relocated to Norfolk, surely now I would just stumble across one right? Cue multiple trips to Hickling, How Hill and Strumpshaw, all known Swallowtail hotspots over the course of the next three years. Yet these attempts attempts to witness the beauty of this butterfly were always ill-fated. I forget how many times I met people and heard them say frustratingly, "oh there was one just down that path there " . Of course said Swallowtail invariably had vanished by the time I reached the spot, for all my luck, the Swallowtail might have been a capricious sprite from the cast of Shakespeare's a midsummer's nights dream.
Last year life simply overtook me. My hunt started far too late in the season for success. So this year, I was determined, was to be the year of the Swallowtail. Come what may I was determined, I would find this iconic, awe-inspiring butterfly, no matter what!
Spring this year was again cool and I was nervous, conditions were far from auspicious for a prompt emergence or a bountiful butterfly season in Norfolk.
A visit to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen offered me my first fleeting, tantalising glimpse, but my bad luck struck again! Just as I arrived I glimpsed a large custard yellow butterfly swoop in...and it was, yes! ,,,.a swallowtail swooping in and aiming to land to nectar on white violet flowers at the main entrance. But even as I approached it was immediately spooked by an over-enthusiastic visitor waving his camera at it! This tourist seemed to be the incarnation of my Swallowtail nemesis, the butterfly equivalent of the "Man from Porlock" and opportunity lost. Assured by staff that they often returned, I stood stationary, sentinel-like for over an hour. Eventually a friendly gentlemen suggested another spot where he'd seen them "only a few hours before" - so off I trooped, yet to no avail. Another Swallowtail near miss, thwarted by mischance or fate, who knew and I finally started to see the funny side of it all.
Perhaps my resignation and acceptance swung it and the gods took pity on me. I had only one last day left of even remotely suitable weather between what were quite vicious storm showers and off I went one last time on my Swallowtail mission.
Back at Strumpshaw, now a familiar friend of a reserve, I ambled around the areas I'd been shown over the years, my jacket still done up against a nippy morning chill. Mercifully, the weather stubbornly refused to close in as forecast. I dawdled up and down the footpaths for about an hour, amidst cloudy intervals and cool, breezy conditions. Eventually, quite suddenly the sun won its battle against the grey and the temperature rose sharply.
Suddenly, to my immense surprise and joy, an immaculate, freshly emerged swallowtail materialised from the tree canopy above, landing to nectar on some wild red campion blossoms, bouncing from flower to flower. I was taken aback by the sheer size and presence of this impressive, majestic almost magical, butterfly with its vibrant colours and bird-sized wingspan.
At last, this bird-sized stunningly beautiful butterfly posed for me, even basking, its impressive wingspread outstretched whenever the sun vanished behind the lingering cloud to warm itself up in the spring breeze.
My five year long mission was accomplished.
The arrival of May means we are entering late springtime, augering the arrival of warm days and our early orchids. Here are two you can see readily in Norfolk, the Early Purple Orchid (orchis mascula) that can be seen in ancient woodland where it is often a companion plant to bluebells, and the very small Green-Winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio), a later flowering orchid happiest in open unimproved grassland.
After the whites greens and yellows of early spring now pinker palette emerges among our countryside wildflowers. Amongst others, both the pretty red campion (silene dioica) and herb robert (geranium robertianum), one of several elegant native geranium species, come into bloom during in the month and if you're lucky, you might even see an early poppy.
For me, springtime is as much about the pure whites and lush greens, the fresh background colour palette against which the more vivid yellows, pinks and lilacs that pretty spring wildflowers display their wares to early pollinating insects. At this time of year the woodland floor becomes a pastel mosaic of early spring wildflowers such as greater stitchwort, water avens as well as bluebells and campions all in a mad dash to flower and seed before the renewed tree canopy shades their light for the summer season until autumn leaf-fall arrives.
At last...the first days when you can feel the warmth of the sun on your back... aconites and snowdrops in full bloom... realising sunset is well past 5 o'clock...it must mean spring is on its way. These photos of pretty snowdrops and winter aconites were taken on a recent snowdrop walk on Lexham Estate in aid of their ancient church.
The days are getting longer and it won't be too long before we start to see frenetic activity as spring begins to show signs of its impending arrival and our native wildlife start to feel romance in the air. Here are two emerald damselflies in a heart shaped embrace reminding us that love is in the air...
It is amazing how much has changed in a month - both in nature and in my home life...
We finally moved in to our bungalow, the builders have gone and so have most of the cardboard boxes. I am finally starting to relax as the stresses and strains of 18 months of a major renovation project and house selling and buying start to fade. We are loving living in the light and airy space we dreamt of and designed at last.
And the sun has finally come out with avengeance, bringing a flaming July in place of the flaming June of the proverbs. The wheat and barley is turning golden, the rape has gone to seed and everything is becoming parched and bleached from day after day of unrelenting blue skies. As I explore the local trails the meadows are displaying beautiful pastel shades of greens, pinks and beiges with hundreds of ringlet, meadow brown, skipper and gatekeeper butterflies flitting up as you walk through the grasses. They are host to many other mini creatures too and I was pleased to capture this shot of a ladybird, which evokes, for me at least, the feeling of the gloriously hot halcyon days of summer we're experiencing right now.
The camera is hardly getting a look in, except on class days, and I am restless in anticipation of our long awaited impending move to Nar Cottage. Butterflies seem few and far between this season in Norfolk, suffering after such a long hard winter of lying snow, but the dragonflies and damselflies seem to be doing well, this is a mating female large red damselfly with f. intermedia markings I spotted on one of my favourite walks.
My so very nearly ready bungalow renovation has been swallowing all my time and is already showing a fun diversity of wildlife, today I saw partridge strutting on my summer house roof plus, doves, a pheasant, swallows, house martins as well as sparrows and other hedgerow finches and a couple of white and comma butterflies flitted past the new hedgerow... This is one of very few occasions I've been out with my camera, late in the day on my Birthday visit to Foxley wood for the bluebells, and this Early Purple Orchid shot is an even rarer occurence - that of a flower shot without my 180mm macro on my camera.
This little egret and I were each as surprised as the other when we suddenly came face to face when I walked round a bend in the path at my local North Norfolk nature reserve. I only had time to fire three shots off and got just this one sharp against a grey cloudy sky. He's been a resident all winter and I often see him on the same stretch of the river, but he's relatively shy. We have both permanent and migrant little egrets in the East of England so I very much hope he sticks around now spring is approaching. According to the RSPB little egrets are relatively recent permanent arrivals to the UK with the first breeding pair being recorded in Dorset in 1996.