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.

Tenth Green Damselfly

Female Banded Demoiselle, Calopteryx splendens, perched on Common Knapweed

How time flies, I had a whole series of late spring early summer blog posts planned to write, got waylaid and now suddenly its midsummer already! Although this image is an imperfect “grab” shot rather than a nature study, I just had to share it because it is exciting news for our wildlife pond..

Last year I blogged about the nine damselfly and dragonfly species my widllife pond had attracted as it evolved over its six years and speculated that might be the maximum a relatively small pond like mine could achieve due to the way pond habitat changes.

Then unexpectedly on 5th July I spotted this iridescent green female Banded Demoiselle damselfly, grandly named Calopteryx splendens, its vivid emerald green contrasting beautifully against the deep purple of the Common Knapweed flowers it was perched amongst.

She represents the tenth species to have visited our Wildlife pond and garden. Not all consecutively of course, and some will never return'; we've learned that ponds evolve over time naturally to gradually fill in, undergoing an inevitable acidification in the process, which some species can’t tolerate.

The male Banded Demoiselles are blue with a clear blue band across the forewings so she definitely is a female. The species is easily confused with the Beautiful Demoiselle, Calopteryx virgo, but that species is a species of fast-flowing rivers and isn’t resident in Norfolk. In contrast Banded Demoiselles prefer slow flowing watercourses with a muddy bottom. There’s plenty of debris in mine with all our surrounding vegetation so I wonder if she was eyeing up our pond for ovipositing. Only time will tell…

Cheery Cowslips

Cowslips are invaluable to early pollinators and have a long flowering period

The mid-Spring superstar of our wildflower meadow this year was undoubtably the humble Cowslip, Primula veris. I’d always hoped to see them in my wildlife garden, as not far up the lane from my cottage is a little tucked away-clearing near a small copse that is too small to farm and in springtime always seemed to be bursting full of rich custard-coloured Cowslips mixing in beautifully with the deep indigo of native Bluebells.

Disappointingly, despite their inclusion in my native seedmix for clay soil, for the first two years not a single one materialised. I philosophically put it down to the soil conditions or an unlucky batch mix and thought I might sow some plugs another year.

Then unexpectedly, the very next spring just a smattering appeared! I was overjoyed to learn that it was simply that their seeds can take several seasons to germinate and interpreted it as an encouraging sign our meadow ecosystem was establishing itself well naturally.

Since then they’ve gone from strength to strength, spreading almost right across the small sward. They must particularly like cool dry springs as this year, our meadow’s sixth season, has been their best appearance to date.

Aside from their cheerful colour and long lasting flowerheads, they have a healthy wildlife value. Their flowers are a vital resource for pollinators, particularly for early solitary bee species, quite a few of which frequent our garden, but also for butterflies such as the Brimstone butterfly and other insects such as beetles. They are also the caterpillar plant for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly, which is unfortunately not resident in Norfolk.

A member of the Primula family, the Cowslip shares more than a passing resemblance to it's cousins the Primrose Primula vulgaris and the Oxlip Primula elatior, however both of these lack its pleasant apricot perfume and have more open paler lemon-hued flowers.

Cowslips can take several years to establish in a new meadow

Amusingly the Cowslip’s latin name Primula veris romantically deems it the “true” primrose, while its established English name more, ahem, rustically refers to its habit of growing near “cow’s slops” or cowpats in grazing pasture. It does have over two dozen pleasanter names in traditional folklore including other farming references such as Milk Maidens, descriptive names such as Freckled face, Golden Drops and Long legs as well as biblical names mentioning Mary or alluding to a myth that Cowslips sprang up where St Peter dropped the keys to heaven, perhaps in a cow pat!

Cowslips’ varied folklore names include: Artetyke, Arthritica, Buckles, Bunch of keys, Crewel, Drelip, Fairy Cups, Fairies' flower, Freckled face, Golden drops, Herb Peter, Hey-flower, Paigle, Peggle, Key Flower, Key of Heaven, Lady's fingers, Long legs, Milk maidens, Mayflower, Mary's tears, Our Lady's Keys, Palsywort, Password, Petty Mulleins, Plumrocks, Tisty-tosty. Welsh: dagrau Mair meaning Mary's tears, Anglo-Saxon: Cuy lippe, Greek: Paralysio.

The Cowslip has a rich cultural and culinary history too; traditionally it decorated Mayday garlands and was strewn along churchyard pathways at weddings and religious festivals. The Cowslip was used medicinally to aid sleep and heal coughs as well as to make Cowslip wine and “Tisty-tosty”, little balls of crushed up Cowslip flowers.

In the literary world the Cowslip’s honours include mentions in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “Henry V” plays as well as featuring in Keats’ poem of Springtime romance “Hither, hither love”.

Hither, hither, love —

‘Tis a shady mead —

Hither, hither, love!

Let us feed and feed!

Hither, hither, sweet —

’Tis a cowslip bed —

Hither, hither, sweet!

'Tis with dew bespread!

Hither, hither, dear —

By the breath of life —

Hither, hither, dear!

Be the summer’s wife!

Though one moment’s pleasure

In one moment flies —

Though the passion’s treasure

In one moment dies —

Yet it has not passed —

Think how near, how near! —

And while it doth last,

Think how dear, how dear!

Hither, hither, hither

Love its boon has sent —

If I die and wither

I shall die content!

John Keats









And Breathe... Spring is here!

Just when you think you really can’t take it any more, finally the temperatures drift up, the first Blackthorn blossom appears in the hedgerows on still naked stems and you know that Spring, at long last, is here.

February Gold and a Fool's Spring

With the synthetic cheer of the twinkling fairy lights of Christmas in the dim and distant past, the long dark trek to springtime always feels like a brutally hard slog.

The ground seems stark, barren and lifeless. Yet all the while beneath the surface plants and trees are quietly, imperceptibly getting ready to burst out from their winter buds.

Catkins, male flowers of many common native shrubs and trees such as Hazel (Corylus avellana) and Birch trees (Betula pendula) are among the earliest augurs of that yearned for spring. As the days rapidly lengthen, golden evenings start to appear, bathing the delicate, golden chains of late winter catkins in beautiful light.

In contrast to the deep chill and bitter Beast from the East last year, winter 2019 has been remarkably mild. This February has even proven to be the warmest one on record thanks to a brief flurry of sunny mild days that heartened us all with a tantalising promise, however fleeting, of warmer days to come. One mild evening in mid-February I took advantage of the rich late afternoon light during our "fool's spring" to do a little study of the Hazel and Birch tree catkins in my garden.

I learned that branches carry both male and female flowers with the male catkins emerging first. Hazel trees carry tiny little female red flowers that emerge soon after higher up the branch stem, whereas Birch trees have small, bright green, upward curving female catkins.

Catkin pollen is intended to be windborne to pollinate other trees, there being so few insect pollinators about at the time of year, so it has evolved to have a self-repelling quality meaning that bees and other insects struggle to collect much of it, although it is a food source for them at a time of scarcity.

Despite the luscious hue of light, the days rapidly turned back to chilly ones with even our fool’s spring warmth quickly forgotten. But soon, soon true Spring will burst forth in her lush green finery and the late winter gold fade out of memory.

Male Birch tree, betual penduula, catkins

Male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin in golden light

Close up of male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin

Male Hazel tree, Corylus avellana, catkin in the dying embers