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.
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...
As world cup fever gripped the Nation and England reached the football semi-finals for the first time in decades, and Brexit negotiations seemingly reached an even more parlous state of play, I was instead becoming fascinated by my new moth trap, and the amazing moths being attracted to the lights...
In last July's blog I wrote of my bitter disappointment at my foiled attempt to see the most celebrated British butterfly, the Purple Emperor, while discovering that, in the famous words of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, "there's no place like home".
To rub salt into the wound, 2017 proved to be an amazing season for Apatura iris and a particularly bad year to be benched. Right as my blog was published, Purple Emperors were, remarkably, seen for the first time in the Sheringham/Beeston area on the North Norfolk coast. They will need to be recorded for five consecutive years however to be classed a Norfolk resident.
I spent the year conserving my energy and biding my time, yet all the while the memory of the trip I hadn't made to see the King of butterflies in a peak season linged in the recesses of my mind, surfacing occasionally to niggle away at me. His majesty had ensnared me after all, at least a little.
Come late June and I had some leave left at work. The timing looked on paper to be perfect, but after a bumper year last year, I fretted that the early super-cold snap might have affected them. What if the population had collapsed, or this year's weather proved unfavourable?
My first week off was an anti-climax, dry but coolish, windy and unsettled. No reports showed and I felt fidgety, restless and frustrated, fearing that my timing was off and I would have another run of bad butterfly luck.
Suddenly the temperatures rose, the long predicted heatwave actually appeared and reports started to trickle in. I grasped my last chance to take the trip and headed towards a less visited Wood in Northamptonshire, close to the Purple Emperor's stronghold at Fermyn Woods.
I experienced butterflies of the tummy variety as I drove up the deserted, deeply rutted dusty track at my destination. I'd been running a little late and the temperatures were soaring. Emperors are notoriously active in the afternoons and apparently once charged up rarely come down from the canopies. Was I already too late?
As I got out of my car my spirits lifted. A large black and white butterfly immediately swept past the car door zooming along, low above the ground at a high rate of knots. Could it be that easy? Had I already seen my target? Was it a female Purple Emperor or the smaller also black and White Admiral? I'm not sure I will ever be certain whether that was really my first sighting. The flight was fast and powerful, though I definitely didnt catch a flash of purple.
Nonetheless it proved a good omen, as I had barely entered fifty yards into the woods when I found an elderly Black Hairstreak and an unusually confiding White Admiral basking by the side of the path.
Just a few yards further on I suddenly spotted a fellow Emperor hunter photographing a sizeable butterfly "puddling" (taking up salts from mud) on the ground. The richly marked russet-orange underwings were unmistakeable - this was was no White Admiral!
The Purple Emperor continued to probe the ground with its proboscis, wings stubbornly closed, for some minutes. Then suddenly it snapped its wings open vigorously, catching the sun's rays.
The light glanced off the Purple Emperor's wings obliquely and a flash of iridescent purple appeared from nowhere. His Majesty resplendent in his imperial cloak. Just as quickly the sparkling colour vanished and reverted to black as the butterfly rotated further round towards the sun. Mission accomplished.
For around an hour or so the Purple Emperor and at least one Purple Empress wafted up and down the track in their finery, alternately mud-puddling and looping up high in a figure of eight around what seemed to be a pair of "Master" trees, one an Oak, one a Common Sallow. I was also treated to the sight of a female Purple Emperor perched up in the more attractive setting of a Sallow tree, apparently feeding on honeydew. Shortly after one o'clock I enjoyed my last figure of eight looping fly past and both I and his Majesty parted ways and headed off to attend to the rest of the day's business.
It all seemed so strangely easy in the end that I actually felt a little nonplussed. Why all the fuss, I wondered? Wasn't Iris famously elusive? Where was the challenge, the mystery? Maybe there was none and my scientific research had paid off, maybe I had simply been lucky or maybe, just maybe, fickle fate had at last taken pity on me and requested Iris to grace me with his royal presence in a random act of kindness.
Whatever the answer, I drove home at peace, with the ghost of the Purple Emperor past of 2017 that had never been seen, well and truly laid to rest.
Watching Nar Cottage's nature pond transform from a muddy hole in our clay earth into a lush, thriving, diverse insectopolis has been one of the most fascinating and rewarding experiences of our five-year wildlife gardening project. Each year we've seen a new species of dragon or damselfly colonise our pond. This year a further arrival brought the grand total to some nine species, five dragonflies and four damselflies. Here they all are, in order of appearance and colonisation. This is the story of a humble pond's evolution into a local wildlife mecca.
First on the scene was a large male Broad-bodied Chaser dragonfly, Libellula depressa, arriving the very first week of June 2014, our pond's first spring, closely followed by a female. A beautifully marked dragonfly of early summer with a penchant for shallow sunny ponds, the males are a dusky shade of powder-blue and the females a rich mustard yellow.
Next to move in on the 1st of July was my very first damselfly species, the vivid Azure Damselfly, Coenagrion puella. Blue damselflies can be quite hard to identify but I discovered the Azure's distinguishing feature is that it has two short black stripes on the side of its thorax, whereas the Common Blue Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum only has one. They took to our pond enthusiastically and set about ovipositing eggs for future generations!
Our third arrival was the dramatic and impressive Emperor Dragonfly, another species I'd never encountered before. Carrying an equally imperial latin name Anax imperator is one of the UK's biggest dragonflies and undoubtedly the most regal. According to Lewington, the Emperor's "vigour, aggression and agility in flight are unequalled in Britain".
The Emperor has a reputation for being a bit of a pioneer species and is known for colonising younger ponds so it made sense to see it early on in our pond's existence. The larva have a fearsome reputation for their creative hunting methods and can occasionally mature in a single year although they usually take two. The surrounding meadow and in subsequent years also pond foliage rapidly filled in to envelop the pond so I never did see an Emporer again.
August brought another two species, one dragonfly, one damsel and the total to 5 dragonflies in our first season. Next up was the Common Darter, Sympetrum striolatum, first spotted basking on the bare earth next to the pond. A month later I was even more excited to see a mating couple zooming around our pond, hopefully ensuring future generations to come.
My second August arrival proved to be the Common Blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, which has a flight period from May through to September. Blue damsels can be tricky to distinguish from each other, but the single short stripe on the thorax and all blue tail segments help to separate the Common Blue from similar species, its also a stronger flier.
My next new species didnt show up until nearly a year later in late July 2015 but, a bit like busses, suddenly two came at once. The Blue-tailed damselfly, Ishnura elegans and another life first for me, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata both showed up the same day. Blue-tailed damselflies are variable in colour and also change colour as they mature so can vary a lot in apperance, in particular there are so-called rufescens (pinkish) violacea (violet) and infuscans (green) female forms.
With its fast, agile flight and distinctive wing markings, the Four-spotted Chaser dragonfly, Libellula quadrimaculata, was a exciting addition to my wildlife pond's dragonfly tally. Much like the Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly, the males are highly territorial and persistently patrol their patch and return to the same perches to challenge rivals and the two males often held sparring matches over my pond.
2017 only saw one new arrival, bringing our total to 8 different species. Our pond was now 4 years old and becoming pretty mature as a micro-habitat. The Ruddy Darter dragonfly, Sympetrum sanguineum, was our new addition. In the past this dragonfly was a major source of identification confusion for me due to its similarities with the Common Darter and it was satisfying to finally get a good view of the jet black legs that distinguish it most readily.
Last but by no means least in my line up is my recent 2018 sighting of the Large Red damselfly, Pyrrhosoma nymphula. It made its debut on the Nar Cottage wildlife pond stage on 28th May. Frequently one of the earliest damselflies to be seen, I'd often spotted it in late May on visits to Stoke Ferry and Hoe Rough . With its distinctive colour it was most definitely a newbie in our garden.
Its wonderful to still be seing new species colonise this micro-habitat we created even after 5 years and though my pond's evolution is perhaps slowing and stabilising now I continue to hope for more sightings. Who knows, someday this line up may yet turn into a top-ten list!
I spent a gorgeous bank holiday weekend pottering around our wildlife pond, watching the Azure damselflies wafting about in pairs and aerial dragonfly wars between the powder blue Broad-bodied Chaser and custard yellow Four-spotted Chaser dragonflies to rival any aeroplane dogfight as each fiercely competed for territory.
Suddenly among all the vivid blue Azures I quite literally saw red, that is, a pair of red mating damselflies! It was another first for Nar Cottage pond as they proved to be Britain's Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula). Flying earlier than its cousin the Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum), it can also be distinguished by its black legs and strongly striped antehumeral markings.
This photo marks the ninth species of Odonata (dragonflies and damselfles) recorded in our wildlife pond (more on that here) and not bad for a pond thats only five seasons old...
After a second fruitless jaunt hoping to photograph some rather shy Green Hairstreaks, which seem to be having a good season this year, my sunny late May Sunday ended up being an impromptu tale of two Blues in my own back garden instead.
As I was resting on my patio I spotted our first blue Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly posing ostentatiously by the side of our (now very low) wildlife pond, barely a day after our first Four-spotted chaser appeared. Both were trying to hold territory and I was entertained by some impressive aerial battles.
A subsequent gentle lap of our garden yielded a female Holly Blue Butterfly busily ovipositing on the native shrubs in our wildlife hedgerow that borders our garden and now in its 5th year is nice and dense. Our wildlife garden just keeps on giving year after year.
A surprising number of tadpoles survived this year's late snow and frosts to hatch out, proving that nature has long coped with such seasonal extremes. Once hatched, a tadpole's lot does not get easier by any means, because along with the warmth, their nemesis the Common newts have returned.
Common newts, also known as Smooth newts, predate heavily on tadpoles and frogspawn in springtime, and male Common newts can be spotted due to their vivid orange and black spotted underbelly which is a temporary colouring worn during the mating season.
Hopefully the treacherous weather will not be too damaging to this year's frogspawn. Hard to believe just three days ago my wildlife pond was an amorous hotspot with over half a dozen frogs busy making frogspawn. Today the pond is frozen over again and the ground has at least 2 or 3 inches of snow being swept around by the "mini Beast".
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.