Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons at home in my wildlife garden and in the Norfolk countryside often accompanied by my loyal canine companion Starrydog. I enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across and learning about them. Bookmark my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures.

A Painted Lady Summer

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui nectaring on white Buddleia. Will 2019 be a record-breaking Painted Lady summer?

As the Butterfly Conservation Society’s annual three week long Big Butterfly Count draws to a close, the UK looks set to have enjoyed the magical, once-in-a-decade phenomenon called a “Painted Lady summer” when the apricot- and black-marked species arrives here en masse.

The last such event occured in 2009, when some 11 million Painted Ladies, known as Vanessa cardui, arrived on our shores and there is speculation that 2019 could be a record-breaking year.

But how is it that a butterfly that doesn’t survive our winters and isn’t even permanently resident in the UK manages to congregate here in such numbers?

The Painted Lady, a member of the large and colourful Nymphalidae butterfly family, is a poweful flyer and long distance migrant. During its migration it can achieve an impressive speed of almost 30 miles per hour and fly some 100 miles in a day. In fact, it’s 7,500 mile round trip migration from North Africa as far north as the arctic circle is even longer than that of the famous Monarch butterfly, which travels up and down the North American seabord.

Freshly emerged, second generation Painted Lady nectaring on a budding Common Knapweed flower

Despite its flying prowess, like the Monarch butterfly, Vanessa cardui traverses its intercontinental route multigenerationally and, having only a 2 week long life span, takes about 6 generations to complete it.

Each season the butterfly flies northwards from the desert fringes of North Africa to reach mainland Europe and then on to the UK, reaching Britain in late March. Here the newly arrived lepidopteran immigrant lays eggs on Marsh and other Thistles, Viper’s Bugloss, Mallow and Nettles. After about a month-and-a-half later the next generation emerges (46 days according to devoted turn of the century lepidopterist F. W. Frohawk).

These native-born Painted Ladies then lay a brood of their own, which, further supplemented by arrivals from both Europe and Scandinavia, significantily boosts numbers towards late summer. Some of these butterflies will commence the return migration southwards as the seasonal conditions turn.

So what makes the once in a decade “Painted Lady year” of mass abundance occur? Experts believe that the butterfly’s migratory instinct may be triggered by population density (leading to competition for egglaying sites and food sources) and in exceptional years, unusually good food availability and favourable weather conditions foster population booms. This in turn triggers mass North- and Easterly-bound migrations, often with hundreds, even thousands of butterflies reaching landfall along the UK’s East and South coastline, some arriving from Europe, others from Scandinavia and some even directly from Africa in favourable windstreams.

As well as Thistles for egg laying, depending on its generation, adult Painted Lady butterflies will nectar on a wide range of plants. These include Knapweeds, Buddleia, Trefoils, Hawkweeds, Heather, Privet, Ivy, Bugle and Clovers, so planting these species, and tolerating that annoying thistle or two (you can always deadhead later to stop the patch growing!) increases the likelihood of you attracting this orgeous, intricately-marked butterfly into your garden and enjoying your very own Painted Lady Summer.

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.

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