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.

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 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.

Meet the Skippers - A Photographic Identification Guide to Skipper Butterflies

Ssshh! Don't tell the Essex Skippers, we're in Norfolk... 

These charming, vivid orange little butterflies have extended their range recently and seem perfectly happy living two counties further North than their namesake county. At this time of year they can readily be seen "skipping" amongst the hedgerow flowers and meadow grasses of East Anglia alongside their similar looking cousins, the Small Skippers and Large Skippers, sometimes in the company of the larger meadow  species such as Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper and Ringlet butterflies.

Skipper butterfly identification is a challenge. All three of our most common Skipper butterflies are small, similarly coloured and rather flighty, in fact the Essex Skipper and Small Skipper look so alike that the Essex Skipper was only recognised as a separate butterfly species in 1889. So just how do you tell these three oft-seen Skipper butterfly species apart?

Get a Mug Shot

The surest way to identify and tell the three most common Skipper butterflies apart is to get a photo or good look of the underside of the tips of the butterfly's antennae. The Essex Skipper has very distinctive, inky black antenna tips; whereas the similarly sized Small Skipper has orange-brown coloured antennae tips. Although the Large Skipper also has black tips, the antennae ends are more bulbous than those of the Essex and Small Skipper (which are stubby) and have twirly pointed tips.

Essex Skipper has black antennae tips

Essex Skipper's black antennae tips are rounded 

Small Skipper has orange-brown antennae tips

Large Skipper has black pointed antennae tips

Skippers are territorial, living in colonies and can be quite confiding little butterflies when perching or basking. However, as their name suggests,they do have a frustrating habit of zooming vertically off their perch at the slightest movement and skipping off before we get the viewing angle we want, so here are some other perspectives and identification tips.

Skipper Butterflies In Profile

The Large Skipper's chequered pattern is visible with its wings closed so should be readily distinguishable when perching or roosting. Essex and Small Skippers are harder to identify in profile as neither have distinguishing marks on their underwings and they are of a very similar size. However, according to Lewington and other field guides, the Essex Skipper's undersides are more straw-coloured than those of the Small Skipper, which may appear more beige or buff. Be cautious if using this to distinguish the Essex and Small Skipper, as the look of the underwing can be affected by light conditions and indvidual variations

Essex Skipper has a more straw-coloured underwing than the Small Skipper

Small Skipper has a more buff-coloured underwing (image taken in flat light)

Large Skipper has a checkered pattern visible on its underwings

"Check" out their Wing Markings

The Large Skipper is most readily identifiable from its chequered pattern wing markings. As well as being larger, Large Skipper butterflies appear brighter and more robust than then smaller Essex and Small Skipper butterflies. In contrast both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have relatively plain orange wings. Male Small and Essex skippers can be distinguished from each other by their sex bands (see more below). Female are trickier but one other clue to aid separation, though not always a reliable indicator, is that in Essex Skippers sometimes the dark wing edging bleeds up more heavily into the wing veins.Below are two Essex Skipper photos, one with the dark banding radiating into the veins, one without.

Large Skipper's contrasting chequered markings make it the easiest of the three most common skipper butterflies to identify

Small Skipper basking with wings open

Essex skipper female, sometimes the dark borders radiate along the veins

Large Skipper's chequered wing markings from side on as it drinks nectar with its proboscis

Small Skipper has plain wings when viewed side on

Essex Skipper female basking in evening light

Use Wing Bands to Identify Male Essex Skippers and Small Skippers

All three male Skipper butterflies have a black gender or scent band line marking on their front wings which can be a particularly helpful additional aid to distinguishing an Essex Skipper from a Small Skipper butterfly if you're unable to view them head on. The male Small Skipper has a prominent black gender band that is long and cureved whereas the Essex Skipper's gender band is much less conspicuous, short, straigt and runs parallel to the edge of its forewing.  The male Large Skippers also have very prominant gender bands and at a distance, when fresh from emergence, might even potentially be confused with Gatekeepers due to their vivid orange colour.

Male Small Skipper has a longer,  curved, more prominent gender band

Male Essex Skipper has a shorter, straight, inconspicuous sex band that runs parallel to the edge of the wing

Non Visual Characteristics Can also Eliminate a Suspect

Distribution

Both the Small Skipper and Essex Skipper have expanded their ranges northwards. The Essex Skipper is still the more south-easterly of the two species, being seen as far north as the Humber and west to the Severn Estuary. The Small Skipper, like the Large Skipper can be seen even in Wales and Cornwall and as far north as Northumberland recently.

Flight Times

The Large Skipper is the early bird of the three, flying from late May, peaking  in mid July and ending in late August. The Small appears next, flying from early June until early September. The Essex Skipper has the narrowest flight period, being seen on the wing from the end of June until the end of August.

Host Plants

All three species are single brooded and feed on various grasses such as Yorkshire-fog (Small Skipper), Creeping Soft-grass (Essex and Small Skippers) and Cock's foot (Large Skipper). Early stage larvae overwinter in the sheaths of long grasses and winter cutting and "tidying" can negatively affect populations. For more information visit www.butterfly-conservatin.org

Resources 

Butterfly Conservation Society -  Species Information and Factsheets:

R Lewington - Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland

All images taken by and © Kiri Stuart-Clarke. All rights reserved

 

Large Skipper nectaring on a creeping thistle

A Silver-Studded Summer

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. 

On the Trail of the Swallowtail

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.

Swallowtails nectar on many pink and purple flowers including red campion, as well as yellow flag iris

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.

This freshly emerged swallowtail basked with its wings open during cloudy intervals

Rainbows and Ripples

On a boat trip in Tenerife I was fortunate to have my closest ever short-finned pilot whale (globicephala macrorynchus)  and bottlenose dolphin encounter on a gloriously sunny December's day. They are so giant and yet so graceful in their element that it is always magical experience for me to gain a fleeting glimpse into their mysterious life that is so very very different from our own.

I had taken a trip once many years ago for only a distant fleeting sighting and that was what I was expecting again this time, so I was quick to grab a backlit fairly distant shot at the first sight of a pilot whale dorsal fin. The notches and marks on a cetacean's dorsal fin are unique to every individual and are used as key identifying marks for scientists researching the pilot whale pods in Tenerife

But I was in luck, the pilot whale pod ventured much closer. As I watched them spout water from their blowholes I saw that the droplets were being refracted into a beautiful rainbow through the sunlight.

At one point one mature pilot whale swam right across the bow of the boat enabling a top down shot through dappled water and light into the sea.

After a last look at the pilot whales we moved on in search of the bottlenose dolphins. Once again we were in luck and watched a small family exhibiting fascinating behaviour. It seemed like the pod was working as an organised team in herding a shoal of fish, much in the way a collie might herd a flock of sheep, curving round in arcs and keeping them tightly packed together in a group. Except of course individual dolphins would then occasionally take it in turns to nip in for a quick snack. There were several calves in the group which may perhaps have been observing this complex team hunting and feeding technique in preparation for adulthood.

Bottlenose dolphin herding a shoal of fish accompanied by a juvenile bottlenose dolphin (above) and baby calf (bottom right).

The group worked closely as a co-ordinated team to keep the shoal of fish close together.

Its not all smiles for the fish, this bottlenose dolphin was putting its razor sharp teeth to good use.

October Red Deer Rut

This year's red deer rut photography was limited to a jeep safari at RSPB Minsmere and we kept our distance, but a few contextual black and white shots came out quite nicely. The first two tell the story of the less dominant stags and young bucks, who tend to avoid risking conflict during the rutting season. The third image is of the dominant stag interacting with a romantically minded hind in his harem.

 Nervous young bucks
 Stag and young buck
 Romantic Stag

Zugunruhe

One of the early signs of autumn for me is the steady gathering of swallows, not to mention swifts and martins, into larger congregations as they make the most of the late summer insects to feed up and prepare for winter and their impending trip southwards. As time for their autumn migration approaches their unsettled behaviour becomes increasingly intense, so much so that German researchers coined the phrase "Zugunruhe" (literally translated "moving unrest") to describe their increasingly evident restlessness and growing drive to start their long migration.

This season watching them gathering into little groups and whirling and darting around with ever growing intensity has struck a particular chord with me; I am very much feeling my own Zugunruhe, though, in contrast to the swallows, it has much to do with finally completing my prolonged personal migration and settling into my own new long term home rather than setting out on a new migratory adventure!

I can't wait....


Fox and Leveret

March may be famous for the "mad March hare" but June is the season for leverets.

You can actually observe "mad March hares" boxing anytime from January into late March when their courtship season comes to an end, but European brown hares live in arable fields surrounding the Ridgeway, South Oxfordshire and across the UK all year round.

After giving birth, Brown hares raise their young in late spring into early summer, but tend to be harder to see at this time of year as the crops have grown much higher, affording the younger hares protection from hunters and a plentiful food supply.

During the daytime hares usually hunker down into their "forms" to conceal themselves. Dawn and dusk are perfect times to watch them. One evening shortly before dusk. I was crouched in a rapeseed field margin watching a young leveret. All of a sudden it reared up on its hind legs, sniffed the air and dived off into the rapeseed crop.

A few moments later out of the bushes trotted a large dog fox. He paused just a brief moment, his head turned towards me. We exchanged looks, acknowledging each other's presence, then he moved calmly onwards, following the scent of the leveret. On the way home I spotted a fresh trail of pigeon feathers. 

I'd like to think the leveret was lucky and lived to fight another day...

A young brown hare or leveret rears up on its hind legs, alert to approaching danger. The Ridgeway National Trail, South Oxfordshire

A large "dog" or male red fox crossing a field margin in search of prey on a hunting trip. The Ridgeway National Trail, South Oxfordshire