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.

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

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

Of Yellow Flags and Swallowtails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunstanton Sundog

Parhelion at Sunset - Hunstanton, Norfolk

On my last landscape trip I witnessed a truly beautiful natural phenomenon. As I arrived at Hunstanton beach and gazed at the sunset it appeared as if there were not one but two setting suns in the sky, both positioned low on the horizon, the second with a hint of a rainbow-hued glimmer in an arc shape. This optical atmospheric effect is called a parhelion, or sun dog and is one of many types of ice halos  caused by the refraction and reflection of sunlight through small ice crystals high up in the atmosphere. I discovered that the atmospheric conditions had also created the faint sun pillar in the photograph, which is not  caused by a vertical ray of light at all, but by the glinting of many tiny hexagonal-shaped plate ice crystals, the same shape of ice crystals that create sundogs. 

Many thanks to atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley for his assistance in identifying the specific type of atmospheric optical effects I observed and photographed in this image and to the clear scientific explanations provided by his website of the many unusual atmospheric phenomenon  that can be observed by day and night. Click here to see a scientific diagram explaining the optical effects in my image

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

Sun mist and rain

January has been an odd mixture of golden sunrises and vivid sunsets with heavy overnight rainstorms, though here in East Anglia we’ve escaped lightly compared to the western half of England that faces the onslaught of the sou’westerly Atlantic storms. Here are three of my photos taken in the month attempting to capture these contrasting elements of winter in Norfolk.

Norfolk Storm Tidal Surge

10-Black and white dunes.jpg

December 2013 brought unusally mild winter weather to the UK in terms of temperature, but instead of snow the jet stream lashed us with a dangerous and violently destructive combination of high tides, and strong storm force winds that caused a sea surge on the North Norfolk Coast that was more severe than the infamous North Sea Flood of 1953. Thankfully in the intervening years sea defences were improved and held well. This time though the flood water was higher we had good warning that saved many lives despite wreaking havoc at many of the beaches and coastal reserves. The storm event has dramatically re-shaped the coastal environment, permanently changing the profile of the East Anglian coastline.

A visit to Wells beach about a week after the incident brought home to me the full force and elemental power of nature that had been unleashed. The sheer strength of the  sea surge breached the two landmark giant dunes as well as sections of the previously dune-sheltered tidal lagoon channel towards Holkham beach, ripping out the wind smoothed sand hills, and the dune grasses that held their forms in place and ploughing thousands of tonnes of sand across the beach plain towards the beach huts and smashing a new vertical sand cliff when it reached the edge of the Corsican pine plantation.

Here is a small gallery showing the scale of the changes to the beach profile. The first shot is pre-storm.

A Rude Awakening

As winter descends, many of our native wildlife species are busy mating and having young, not least our grey seals that are resident all around the British Isle's coastline and have some large colonies on the East cost of England. When I walked out to one such colony a little before the busy grey seal mating and pupping season I came across a lone juvenile common seal. Common seals unlike the greys give birth in summer. The seal was asleep on the beach both aware of and totally unconcerned about my quiet presence. The high autumnal winds were blowing sand across the beach and the breakers were high - it was a bright breezy day. What he didn't notice in his state of utter relaxation was the tide had turned and was now rising and was close to encroaching onto the sand shelf he'd been resting on. I was fortunate enough to capture the moment when the first wave washed over his head, which must have been quite a shock even with his insulating layers. He opened his eyes, then flopped his way up the beach closer to me then resumed his peaceful napping. 

A basking juvenlie common seal is engulfed by a foamy white wave breaking on the sandy beach

Source: http://www.kiri-online.co.uk/

Season's Turning

Shafts of sunlight slanting down through autumnal woodland

As summer heat starts to fade into autumn mists and storms, its time to set my macro lens down with a tinge of sadness. Its been a wonderful butterfly year for me with three new first evers to my list, but now the season is turning. The butterflies are fading into warm bright summery memories of warmth with just the hardy commas and admirals feeding up on the flowering ivy preparing to hibernate. But of course the turning leaves augurs in one of the most beautiful landscape and wildlife photography seasons, so it is also time to pick up my landscape lens for the autumn colour and my long lens for the deer rut and the wintering birds all in their bright new winter plumage…

 

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

Clouded yellow butterfly nectaring on smooth cat's ear 

The clouded yellow butterfly, colias croceus, is a wandering migrant butterfly to the southern half of the UK that often arrives from southern Europe in Spring and has a second summer brood that flies in August and September. Historically British winters have been too harsh for the clouded yellow to survive overwinter and establish a year round naturalised presence here, but climate change is in its favour and there have been recent indications that sucessful overwintering may be becomimg possible. This was my first and only sighting of this vibrant custard-yellow lively wandering butterfly and a lovely end to the 2013 butterfly season.