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.

Lone Pine in Lava Field

I was spoilt for choice in picking December's photo of the month, having enjoyed a repeat festive trip to Cologne Weihnachts Markt (blog followers, the piano man was still there playing) a beautiful walk at Cley beach as well as having a multitude of landscape photos from my second visit to Los Gigantes in Tenerife. Yet it was this simple, stark shot of a lone pine tree in a blasted lava landscape on the flanks of Mount Teide volcano that has stayed with me.

Perhaps because it simultaneously represents both the fragility of nature and its stubborn resilience. The barren lava flow depicts the sheer magnitude of devastation that nature can unleash - despite Man's hubris these are forces well beyond the power of humankind to influence or control. Yet in that small, vibrant splash of green the image also contains a germ of hope. However bleak the landscape may become, nature soon starts to fight back; this young little pine tree is the first tree in a slow process of recolonisation of the lava-blasted the volcanic foothills centuries after the violent 1798 eruption that created this strange landscape.

Autumn Haze

Autumn is a capricious season, with shortening days cloaked in gold, rust and greytone. Some days dance lightly, soft and still, cloaked in a gentle warm haze, lulling us that summer's still close by. Others lurk darkly, oppressive and leaden, lumbering irrecovably on towards winter.


Chiaroscuro Angel

Chiaroscuro, from the Italian words for light "chiaro" and dark "scuro", is an artistic term describing the use of strongly contrasting light and dark shades in an image or composition. Sculpting light creates shadow, bringing out the contours of a subject in relief and adding a sense of depth and dimension. What better subject to practice on than a beautiful sculpture in Rome's Pantheon, just before the lights were switched off for the night....

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

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

Spring Orchids

Green-winged Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

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.

Storm Clouds

We seem to be having April's weather in May this year all of a sudden, which has given me some amazing big sky scenes from my own doorstep. Here's a very simple composition, a "skyscape" image of nothing but clouds brewing into a full on storm that I took on the verge across my road in quite magical evening light.

Lush Springtime

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.

First Frogspawn

This humble image was taken today after a week of cold days and grey leaden skies. For me first frogspawn truly symbolises the onset of spring. What was particularly joyous this year was to find it in my own garden despite my wildlife pond being first filled little over a year ago! While the frogs had left the scene there were plenty of newts hanging around to enjoy a spring feast.

Frog spawn

Happy Valentines Day

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...

Winter blossom

January's photo marks a return to home ground, both in genre and location. This frosted winter blossom image was taken in Nar Cottage's garden and is of one of our new winter cherry trees  "prunus x subhirtella autumnalis, planted to help winter insects, and it certainly seems to be flourishing even in its first year of growth. 

The Pianist

Over Christmas I had a little dabble in street and night photography, a little off piste from my usual fare. This busking street pianist caught my eye on my trip to the beautiful Cologne Christmas Market. He wheeled his battered old grand piano on a rickety old trolley over to a shop window and then proceeded to play really rather well.

Frost Ferns

My first photo of 2015 was a reminder that you can discover beauty in the most mundane of places. This is a photo taken one morning of my bedroom skylight that slants southwards just as the sun just started to hit it with a peachy golden glow after a cold and deeply frosty night. I have cropped to tidy the composition and stretched the tonal contrast just a little to convey the depth and contours of the ice crystals but everything else is simply as nature intended....