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Meet the Neighbours

Earlier in the week I managed to get out and explore my new surroundings.  I walked for many miles along the old canal and around the country lanes.  The weather was not perfect but since then summer has temporarily left us and it’s been a bit soggy.

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Female Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens). I just can’t resist photographing these little beauties

The Banded Demoiselles were present all along the old waterway.  If it had been a touch sunnier I’m sure I would have seen more dragon and damselflies.  There were however Brown and Southern Hawkers, the big boys of the dragonfly world.  A few Black-tailed Skimmers warmed up on the footpath, always difficult to approach they rarely sit anywhere other than the ground.  A good number of Azure Damselflies (Coenagrion puella) were in the nearby ditches.

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The Azure Damselfly synchronised egg laying team need a bit more practice!

Even in overcast conditions several butterflies danced among the grasses that bordered the fields.  These were the Meadow Browns and Ringlets.  I did see my first Small Skippers (Thymelicus sylvestris) of the summer.

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Smile….please?  This Small Skipper looks somewhat put out having a lens poked in it’s face
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A Leaf-cutter Bee busy at work

Sometimes you come across an area that may look just like dozens of others but for some reason is an absolute magnet for butterflies and other insects.  It may be that it’s position is slightly different so offering the perfect micro-climate. I glimpsed one such spot on Sunday and went back Tuesday before the rains came to confirm my sightings were no fluke.

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How beautiful is that? White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)

Situated alongside a country lane and public footpath, nestled on the edge of an impenetrable wood was a patch of bramble, nettle and other various wild plants.  Here dozens of butterflies sipped nectar or soaked up the odd minute of sun as the clouds gathered.  Commas, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Large Skippers, Green-veined and Small Whites, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and better still up to six gorgeous White Admirals.  The best of all was magnificent Silver-washed Fritillaries (Argynnis paphia).

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The female Silver-washed Fritillary is a big butterfly with a wingspan of about 3ins (75mm). Duller than the male it is an impressive sight

Now I have to admit I absolutely love Silver-washed Frits and I was jumping for joy at finding these here.  It was only ten years ago that this butterfly re-colonised Norfolk after being extinct for some thirty years.  They are a wonderful sight and I tried to convey this to walkers who paused to question what I was photographing.  I got the feeling most thought I was slightly eccentric, “a grown man taking pictures of butterflies, how odd”.  Some took an interest and it was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm.

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The male Silver-washed Fritillary, what’s not to get excited about?

Moving On

Some of you may recall back in April I mentioned that we had sold our property and might end up homeless.  Well, in the last couple of weeks everything has moved very quickly.  We were given a date to exchange contracts and complete the sale so all our spare time has seen us packing away thirty years of our life and yesterday we moved out.  Thankfully we are not on the streets as Mrs H’s great friends Angela & Simon are letting us use their annex while we wait, hopefully, for the purchase of our new home to proceed.  We thought our old house was in a rural location, the ‘Old Apple Store’ is even more remote.  Surrounded by beautiful garden and only a two minute stroll to the disused North Walsham and Dilham canal.

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The delightful ‘Old Apple Store’ our temporary home

A spare day before back to work so we decided to explore the old waterway.  The sun was trying to peep through and it was warm and sheltered from the strong breeze.  Flitting around the reeds were dozens of Banded Demoiselles (Calopteryx spledens) looking for all the world like overgrown blue butterflies, I have never seen so many in one place.

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A male Banded Demoiselle glistens in the sun

The females of this species are green and lack the coloured wings.  Difficult to pick out they are charming in their own right.

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Female Banded Demoiselle on a leaf of an Alder tree

We saw several butterflies including our first White Admiral (or as the better half called it, a black and white Swallowtail!) of the year.  I think a copy of the ‘I-Spy Book of Butterflies’ may be on her birthday list!  The habitat is fantastic here and I will probably spend a fair bit of time checking it out when there is a bit more sun.

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A summer brood Comma (Polygonia c-album) adds a dash of colour

So a very special thanks to our new ‘landlords’ for allowing us the chance to relax and catch our breaths until we move on again.

 

Gems on the Heath

What are your early memories of butterflies?  For me back in the mists of time it was the long hot summers of the school holidays.  A neighbour had a buddleia so big we could physically climb it and it was always smothered with Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks, Red Admirals, Painted Ladies and various members of the Whites.  They were attracted to the gorgeous heady scent that even today is one of my favourite smells of late summer.  We, as children, were attracted to these brightly coloured living jewels.  Armed with our little nets and jam jars we hunted the best and brightest, they were always released at the end of the day, it was just the fascination to see them and hold them.   Walking, the then, overgrown and traffic free country lanes the brown butterflies would abound, my favourite being the chocolate brown Ringlet.  Looking through my old butterfly books there were species I dreamed of as a boy, the Purple Emperor and the Duke of Burgundy, all the Fritillaries, not the sort of butterflies that would appear in my back yard.  They lived in places far away and unreachable.  However the ones in the books that really caught my eye were the little blue ones.

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The male Silver-studded Blue (Plebejus argus), no longer a childhood dream

I don’t have many memories of encounters with blue butterflies but I still have the fascination.  Today I can, if I wish (and I do), travel the Country in search of those rarities and childhood dreams.  For one species I need go no further than two miles down the lane to a local heath where the beautiful Silver-studded Blue was introduced a few years ago.

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The female is small and delicate it is also brown not blue. The butterflies name is because of those little blue marks in the outer row of black spots on the hindwing

On Tuesday I paid a visit to see if they had emerged.  The heath had undergone some serious clearance during the winter.  All the gorse bushes had been removed apart from around the perimeter.  I presume this is to allow the heather to regrow.  It was a bit confusing as the paths I used to follow were no longer there!  I headed in the general direction of the Silver-studded Blue colony and was delighted to see these sapphire coloured gems on the wing and that the massive amount of ‘destruction’ had not affected them.

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This male was the deepest of blues and surprisingly not on the heather

These delightful little butterflies like to keep low and nectar on heather.  No chance of nice clean backgrounds to my images, I had to get right down to their level and let me tell you, all that debris left on the ground from the gorse removal is very painful to kneel on and difficult to remove from clothing!

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Female on heather

Several males were looking for love, criss crossing the ground stopping briefly to nectar on the heather.  I saw a few females searching for places to lay eggs.  Inevitably a male would find her and pester her to mate.  The ladies were having none of this.  They may have been smaller but managed to see off the unwanted advances with much wing flapping and aggressive posturing.  Once spurned, the male would sulk off for a quick nectar or tussle with a rival.

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“Don’t you come near me!” This female Silver-studded Blue is less than impressed by the males attempt at ‘courtship’

A lovely couple of hours spent in the company of these beautiful creatures.  How nice to fulfill those childhood dreams.

Homage to the ‘Queen’

If you are in the right place at the right time with the ideal conditions then what you wish to see should happen.  So it was towards the end of May when I went for a wander along my favourite part of Hickling Broad.  It’s Swallowtail season and the UK’s largest butterfly is on the wing enjoying the driest, sunniest spring on record.  Early to mid-morning and the newly emerged adults will look for a quick boost of nectar before embarking on their quest to reproduce.  One of the butterflies most liked flowers at this time is red campion.  Not the tallest of plants so any photos will have a ‘messy’ background of reeds and sedge.  Later into June and the thistles will be in flower.  Better images can be had but by then most of the Swallowtails will have tatty wings, I like to catch then nice and fresh.

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A Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus) on campion

It was a reasonable morning and I counted seven individuals, not a bad total.  One thing I like about this species is when it feeds it’s upper wings are almost constantly flickering but the body is still.  Nice to have shots of a static subject, wings open, but I thought I would experiment and try and get some to relay that movement.

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Sideways and you can see the wingtip blur
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Head on and the motion is more extreme yet the head is stock still. I actually quite like this shot.  Nikon D5300, Sigma 105mm 2.8 macro +1.4x converter, iso 500, f18, 1/400sec, centre weighted metering

I have mentioned before that ‘britannicus’ is unique to the Norfolk Broads.  It’s caterpillars only eat the milk parsley that grows in the reedbeds.  Also the butterfly has a smaller thorax than it’s continental cousin and as such is a weak flyer unable to travel far to colonise new areas.  Thankfully it and it’s habitat are well protected and butterfly lovers from all over the Country come to admire and pay homage to our ‘Queen’.  The only dark cloud on the horizon is if sea levels rise with global warming the Broads will be flooded and the habitat lost.

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The ‘classic’ shot

https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/swallowtail-encounter/

Butterflies on the Edge

Something a bit different.  Comments from Mike over at https://alittlebitoutoffocus.com/?wref=bif on my last post made me realise that many readers may not understand that in the UK several species of butterfly are or were in great danger of becoming extinct.  I thought in this post I would try and explain why but not in minute detail.  I am not an ecologist so these are views purely of a layman, though many years ago I was heavily involved in angling conservation and river habitat restoration.

Why are butterflies in danger?  Each species has it’s own special requirements but it’s all down to habitat.  The UK is a (relatively) small but heavily populated island(s) so there is great pressure on land use.  More people want more houses, places to work, better transport.  Farmers are being asked to produce more food to feed the growing nation.  Nature has very often taken second place to these needs.  Britain has been shaped by man’s activities for millennia and because of this many butterflies have adapted to the man-made environment.  Now as our needs change many of the old practices are stopped and the butterflies are struggling with the effects.

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Pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) Bentley Wood, Hampshire 2018

Into the Woods.  It was said that thousands of years ago the British Isles were covered in woodland.  People have always exploited this natural resource and over time the ‘wildwood’ disappeared and in it’s place came commercial forest.  Certain trees were grown for various purposes, for instance Oaks for naval shipbuilding.  In the 1920’s huge areas were planted with quick growing non-native conifers with little benefit to wildlife.  One ancient practice was that of coppicing.  This is where sections of wood are cut down to generate new growth and was done on a rotational basis.  In these coppices some species of butterfly thrived as their caterpillar food plant grew in the newly opened areas.  These included the Heath, Pearl-bordered, Small Pearl-bordered and High Brown Fritillaries.  When the coppicing no longer became commercially viable the woods grew back, blocking light and the under-storey choking out those plants the butterflies needed, the Violets and Common Cow-wheat.  Populations crashed to the brink of extinction.  The High Brown Fritillary can now only be found on a few limestone hills around Morecambe Bay in Cumbria and some valleys on Exmoor.

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High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), Latterbarrow Cumbria 2018

Green, green grass.  It is not just woodland that has suffered change.  Many areas of open grasslands are no longer grazed in the traditional way as this became unprofitable.  The effects were the same.  Plants that require certain conditions could not flourish and those species that rely on them collapsed.  The situation was made worse when the rabbit population, that helped keep the coarse grasses short, suffered the deadly disease myxomatosis which was introduced by man.  One species hit hard was the beautiful Adonis Blue of the warm southern chalk downs.

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Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus) Yoesden Bank, Buckinghamshire 2017

Queen of the Broads.  In my home County of Norfolk we have a butterfly that is just hanging on.  The Swallowtail is unlike it’s close Continental cousin in that it is totally reliant on Milk Parsley, a plant that grows in the reedbeds of the wetlands of the Broads.  If these reedbeds are not maintained this plant and the Swallowtail will die out.  It has lost the ability to wander far in search of a new home.

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Swallowtail (Papilo machon ssp britannicus), Hickling, Norfolk 2018

What is the future?  These are just a few examples to show how butterflies have adapted to the way we managed the countryside.  It is that sudden change of use that has put them in peril.  We have moved quickly in land management but they have not had time to evolve.  Add in the consequences of global warming and things look dire.  It is not all doom and gloom.  More people are acutely aware of the problems and are acting quickly to address the situation.  Conservation groups are working on habitat restoration under the guidance of the scientists.  There have been massive success stories like that of the Large Blue (Phengaris arion). This has been reintroduced to it’s former areas after becoming extinct in 1978 when it was discovered what it needed to survive.  For people like myself who delight in seeing such wildlife we owe a debt of gratitude to these conservationists and must support them however possible.

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Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina), Totternhoe, Bedfordshire 2018. Hanging on but hopefully with conservation work will still be around for future generations to admire

TO DO NOTHING IS NOT AN OPTION     WHEN THEY ARE GONE THEY ARE GONE

 

Hockley Wood’s Heath Fritillaries

June 2nd.  It was three years ago, when this blog was in it’s infancy, that I last drove the 120 miles south to Essex in search of one of Britain’s rarest butterflies.  Except for our trip to the Brecks, all my driving this year has been the 5 miles to and from work on our local country lanes.  So, it was quite daunting and a bit nervy to hit the dual-carriage ways at 70-80mph and battle it out with the endless line of heavy goods vehicles and business men on a mission, yep ‘lockdown’ is over it seems.  Anyway two and a half hours later I arrived safe and sound.  With blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70’s and a very light breeze it was a lovely day to hunt butterflies.

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Heath Fritillaries just love bramble flowers

The butterfly in question is the Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) and as I said it is a very rare beast.  Athalia can only be found in three areas of the Country, Blean Woods in Kent, some coombes (steep valleys) on Exmoor and here in sth Essex with Hockley Wood the biggest colony.  What makes this little (wingspan 1.5-2 inches 39-47mm) butterfly so rare is habitat.  The only food plant of the caterpillar is common cow-wheat and this will only thrive in regularly coppiced woodland.  The practice of coppicing is no longer a commercial activity so we are reliant on conservation bodies to carry out this work.

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Caught in the spotlight. A Heath Fritillary in a sunlit glade

In all I saw about thirty individuals.  The males zig-zagging low over the clearings whilst the slightly larger females enjoyed a feed on the bramble flowers.  It was here I captured these images.  I thought it would be nice to try and show the butterfly as part of the scene as in the two shots above.  I still got the up close and personal images with the macro but with that type of photography you are limited by depth of field, so step back a bit, use the same lens to capture the fine detail and the results can be quite pleasing.

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It’s difficult to get a clean background in a woodland setting so shots like this are a bonus

For more images from 2017 and this week take a look at this portfolio https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/heath-fritillary-in-essex/

 

 

A Matter of Life & Death

A very dramatic title but it sums up a lot of observations I have had this week.

As I mentioned in my last post we planned to take our first trip out since ‘lockdown’.  Saturday was much sunnier than forecast so we packed a picnic and headed south-west to the furthest part of the County from where we live.  The area is called Breckland.  The Brecks is a Special Protection Area (SPA) the landscape is one of gorse covered sandy heaths.  Rows of Scots Pine act as windbreaks and there are several areas of non-native conifer plantations including Thetford Forest, England’s largest lowland forest.  The site we visited was Foulden Common, home to two rare (for Norfolk) butterflies.

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Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) gives me a nice photo opportunity

The two species are both members of the Skipper family the Grizzled and the Dingy.  They are small (1 inch or 25mm wingspan) and fly low and fast to the ground.  So with my faithful spotter Mrs H it was eyes down as we quartered the more sheltered areas.  We found 1 Grizzled and 4 Dingies before heavy cloud cover came over and with the breeze put a halt to activity.

So on to Sunday and typically the sun stayed out all day, that’s what we call ‘Sods Law’.  However I paid a short visit to a pond a few miles away hoping to see a rare dragonfly.  No luck on that but it was lovely to just sit and watch the comings and goings.  Hundreds of damselflies were emerging all around.  Their first weak flights taking them up into the overhanging trees.

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A twig in the pond was a popular place to emerge. This newly emerged damselfly is transparent in the backlighting but look closely and you can see the shells or exuvia from which they have broken out. In all there were six on this stick

Most of the life of a damsel or dragonfly is spent under water.  Here the nymphs will live for up to two years, in some species even longer.  They are fierce predators.  When their time comes they climb from the water and split from the shell or exuvia.  Once free they must let the wings dry and harden before attempting flight.  Life in adult form is short, maybe just a few weeks as they seek mates to reproduce, sometimes it is even shorter.  As is the way of nature there is always someone on the lookout for an easy meal.  On Sunday it was a pair of Reed Buntings.  Obviously they had a nest of hungry chicks to feed so were making the most of this harvest.

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Male Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) with a beak full of damselflies

Tuesday and time for a walk by Hickling Broad in lovely weather.  Dragonflies were emerging in numbers.  Like the damsels their first flight is weak and fluttery.  Most of those I saw were the Four-spotted Chasers  There were a few Broad-bodied Chasers and several mature Hairy Hawkers.

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With wings soft and shiny a Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata) has recently emerged

Like the damselflies on Sunday even the larger dragons can be in danger at this stage of adulthood remember this https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/2019/08/04/kiss-of-death/.  Today it was not a bigger odonata but something much smaller but no less deadly.

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Bad choice of perch. The Four-spotted chaser gets entangled in a web and the maker moves in for lunch. If it’s wings were fully hardened the Chaser would probably have broken free. I could have intervened and freed the dragon but the spider needs to live too

And if all that is making you a bit sad well here is something to cheer you up an Orange-tip, oh yeah you’ve seen these before haven’t you.

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And smile!!

 

Bits & Bobs

No story behind this post just a few images I thought would be nice to share with you.  These were taken over the last couple of weeks in the garden.

 

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Perhaps the smallest bee I’ve seen. This is a male Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis). It is about 3/8th of an inch (9mm) long and it’s seen here collecting pollen from a geranium
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During sunny spells in spring there were a lot of these hover flies around the garden. They are Eristalis tenax we also call them Drone Flies. They do like to hover in front of your face and make a droning sound, so a good name all round!
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It’s hawthorn blossom time and the Honey Bees are drawn to the lovely musky scent
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A female Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) taking a rest on a lilac leaf after I watched her lay eggs on the new tips of the holly bush
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Not sure I’ve shared an image of this butterfly before, oh I have? Never mind you can not have too many Orange-tips (Anthocharis cardamines). To show how small the bee was in the first photo this is the same flower

We have had a little relaxing of our lockdown so if the sun shines on Sunday I hope to catch up with some spring butterflies that are a bit further afield.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Hunting Dragons

Well, right now I should not be here, in front of the laptop, tapping out another post.  I should in fact be 500 miles away and enjoying a weeks holiday in Berlin, probably sitting in a bar overlooking the River Spree with Mrs H and the Lemming enjoying a nice cool pilsner (or three).  For obvious reasons (unless you have been on another planet for the last few months) the vacation is binned 😢.

Friday dawned warm and sunny.  I still have ten days off work and frustration is starting to build, so I jumped in the car and drove the ten miles to one of my favourite sites in the Norfolk Broads.  The joy and relief washed over me like a wave as I stepped out along the footpath between reed bed and wet woodland.  The rich, dank smell of bog, ditch, mud and water plants is nicer than the finest perfume.  Greeted by the excited chatter of Sedge Warblers marking their territories among the reed.  They finish their song by fluttering up several feet and parachuting back down.  In the alder trees, Willow Warblers sing their sad descending refrain and from a bush by the dyke a majestic Marsh Harrier eyed me with suspicion before gliding off.  As quick as a flash a Hairy Hawker appeared, snatched an insect then sped away, my first dragonfly of the season.

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Mini dragon! This is a freshly emerged or teneral Variable Damselfly (Coenagrion pulchellum). Over the next couple of days it will acquire it’s blue colouration

During the winter scrub clearance had been taking place.  A couple of areas looked pretty sad but the short term loss is the long term gain.  The Broads are not a natural feature.  They are the result of flooded medieval peat diggings.  Over the centuries nature moved in and some of this nature is rare and precious.  Left to it’s own devices the Broads would eventually silt up and revert to wet woodland or carr.  The reed beds (another man made feature to supply thatching material for roofs) would be lost and so too those iconic creatures that have made it home, Bitterns, Harriers, Bearded Tits, the unique Swallowtail butterfly and a whole host of others overlooked by all except the conservationists and naturalists.

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A male Variable Damselfly in full colouration

It took a little while to get my eye in.  The winter had left my observation skills a bit rusty.  Eventually I picked out the weak flutterings of damselflies.  Most had yet to attain full colour and are known as teneral.  They are difficult to track at the best of time and even harder in this form and they tease and torment as they settle, allow you to get in position to get a shot, then fly off a couple of feet away.

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Male Azure Damselfly (Coenagrion puella). One of our most abundant odonata but a joy to see the first of the year

I walked the path enjoying every sighting, a Kingfisher on a branch over the Dyke, Buzzard cruising above the wood, various spring butterflies and more Hairy Hawkers though it was far too sunny for any to settle.  As I turned around to retrace my steps I was stopped in my tracks.  On the path ahead sat a Swallowtail butterfly, so fresh not a mark on its wings.  This is the 8th of May, even if the weather stayed fair I would not have expected to see this stunning beauty for at least two weeks!

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So beautiful and so early. Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus). There are many Swallowtail species around the world, this one can only be found in the Norfolk Broads

A fantastic ending to my ‘escape from lockdown’.  The weather is about to change for the worse and I expect the Swallowtail will succumb but there will be others and more mornings like this one.  It can’t replace the hollow feeling of not seeing my daughter but it put a smile on my face.

Orange-tip. Butterfly of Spring

I make no apologies for doing another post featuring this little butterfly.  Only two species have probably been aired more, the Purple Emperor https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/purple-emperor-fermyn-roberts-field/  and Norfolk’s own the Swallowtail https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/swallowtail-encounter/   Now those two are big, showy and in your face ( in the case of the Emperor quite literally).  No, the Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) is small, dainty and goes about it’s business in a random and haphazard sort of way.  If it was to appear in summer it would probably be overlooked among the myriad of other butterflies.  However emerging as it does in April it is, for the butterfly lover, the harbinger of spring, the sign of good times ahead.

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Sometimes you capture an image that you really like, even if it’s not perfect but then we are dealing with nature that doesn’t always like to pose! Orange-tip on lilac. Nikon D5300, Sigma 105 f2.8 macro + 1.4x converter, iso 250, f11, 1/400s, centre weighted metering

As I have mentioned the Orange-tip is small.  It has a wingspan of 1.5 – 2 inches (40 – 52mm).  The female lacks the orange but both are beautifully camouflaged on the under hindwing.  Although this looks green, when seen close up it is a mass of yellow dots on a black background.  The ability to blend in when roosting is excellent but if threatened by a predator a quick flash of that orange will give warning that it is not good to eat.  The caterpillars eat garlic mustard and lady’s smock.  Both these plants contain bitter oils which is passed through the butterfly’s life cycle.

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Up close and you can see how the camouflage is made up Nikon D5300, Sigma 105 f2.8 macro + 1.4x converter, iso 200, f9, 1/2000s, spot metering

Across Europe this dainty spring sprite has names more befitting to it’s beauty.  The old English name was lady of the wood, in France ‘LAurore’ the rising sun and in Germany ‘Aurorafalter’ sunrise butterfly.  So this innocent creature can’t possibly have a dark side?  A few skeletons in the cupboard?  Well yes.  The eggs are laid singularly on the food plant and for good reason. When they hatch if the caterpillar happens upon a smaller brother or sister, well, they’re lunch!  They are cannibalistic!

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This April has been the sunniest on record.  Though we have often had an easterly wind so it’s not always been warm.  The last two days we have had some much needed rain.  In a normal year I would see this butterfly in woodland rides, on riverbanks and along verges.  However this has not been a normal year and those places are more or less ‘out of bounds’ and I have had to be content with seeing the ‘OT’ in and around my garden.  As Countries start to ease restrictions be even more careful, stay safe!