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Pond Life

One thing we looked for when searching for a new home was a smaller garden.  Seems strange as most people want a bigger plot, yet we wanted to spend more time enjoying things and not tied to endless chores (one and a half hours lawn cutting in our last place!).  Our new garden suited us fine despite it being neglected for a while and needing a lot of clearing and chopping back.  It’s about a third the size of the previous plot but joy of joys it has a pond!  I’ve always wanted a wildlife pond (no fish) but have been too lazy to dig one, now I’m spending ages watching the comings and goings instead of getting on with other jobs.

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My new source of fascination! There is a mass of oxygenating plants and a couple of water irises so I’ve started adding marginal plants to give it more appeal to wildlife. The shrub at the back is Red-Osier Dogwood and is starting to produce white berries and the leaves a lovely autumn hue

I was delighted when I saw the first dragonfly appear and a little pond dipping revealed they had made use of the feature before, in among the weed and mud were several dragon and damselfly nymphs.  One day two exuvia (cast shells) were on an iris leaf, a darter and hawker, we had had babies!

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On sunny days a male Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) is often present. Usually it’s sitting on rocks for warmth here it’s making use of the dogwood

To date I have noted six species of odonata and egg laying by Common Darter and Southern Hawker.  Dragons are not the only visitors.  I’ve seen baby newts, a frog and lots of other bugs.

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Pond Skaters are fearsome looking creatures in macro, they prey on small insects that fall in the water and will even take damselflies!
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Yes it’s upside down. Water Boatmen come to the surface for air then swim back among the weeds using those two long legs as oars
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The wasps spend ages feeding on ivy blossom then pop down for a quick drink

I was delighted with the sixth species of dragon it was a Willow Emerald Damselfly (Chalcolestes viridis).  This damselfly only colonised the UK in about 2009 but is spreading across the country.  It lays it’s eggs in branches overhanging the water.  The larva when they emerge then drop down and continue development underwater.  Will it use the dogwood?  Probably not but it’s lovely to see one here.

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Nice visitor, the Willow Emerald Damselfly. Also known as spreadwings you can see why
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Up close with the Willow Emerald

Anyway must get on, jobs to do and ponds to watch!

NOT the Euro Finals

Time for a well earned rest from house renovations and garden clearance.  With the whole year pretty much ruined it was exciting news when Santa Pod Raceway announced they were going to run an event with spectator entry limited and on pre-booked tickets only.  I got ours as soon as they went on sale and although there was a slight ‘back of the mind’ concern about mixing with crowds it couldn’t be any worse than working in a supermarket!  Anyway it was brilliantly organised and with wall to wall sunshine we had a fantastic day out

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Great to be back! A wide angle view from our grandstand seats as the 10,000 bhp, 300mph Top Fuel dragsters of Antti Horto (red car) and Susanne Callin get ready to back up to the line after their burnouts.
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Elaine Hancock warms the tyres on her new ride ‘Lethal Zephyr’ in Comp Eliminator
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The ‘Split Second’ jet dragster piloted by Julian Webb
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A lot of preparation is needed to run the race cars especially those using nitromethane. After every run the engine is stripped and rebuilt in about 2 hours! This is ‘Nitro Bug’
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‘Nitro Bug’ on track with Andy Raw at the wheel
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It’s not everyday you witness a world record. This is Denmark’s Hans-Henrik Thomsen who set a new best for electric bikes with a 6.869 sec 195.4mph run over the 1/4 mile
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Top Fuel (nitro) Bike. Alan Smith and the ‘PBR Rocket 3’
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Flames from the headers and clutch dust from the rear. Steve Ashdown’s ‘Undertaker’ Nitro Funny Car blasts into the late afternoon sun

If you are confused by the different classes check out my page https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/drag-racing-machines-classes/

Now to try and photograph the visitors to my pond.

High Summer Hiatus

An exciting day today.  We pick up the keys to our new home, the purchase has gone through very quickly by UK standards.  Things were made easier as this is the property we wanted to buy at the end of last year but it fell through, so we had all the paper work in place.  Luck was on our side as it came back up for sale (another buyer had to pull out) as we were finalising the sale of our old place.  The house is bigger than anywhere we have lived before and we have plans and visions for decorating etc.  We hope to get the essentials done before moving in the furniture which is presently in storage.  The garden is small and not very butterfly friendly, so that needs addressing.  There is a number of mature shrubs that require a look at but best of all it has a small but lovely wildlife pond.  Fingers crossed I could have dragonflies on my doorstep!

All this work means time (we still have our day jobs to do as well).  We will be staying at the ‘Old Apple Store’ until the furniture is in.  I cannot envisage having any spare time to get out and about with the camera anytime soon, or for writing any new posts.  So, I am going to take a break for a short while.  I do hope to find a moment or two to visit your blogs and catch up with what everyone is doing (can’t work 24/7) so until whenever a few shots from the past couple of weeks.

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Gatekeeper

Mid-July and the Gatekeepers (Pyronia tithonus) start to appear.  Also known as the Hedge Brown as this is just the place to see these charming little butterflies.

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Chaser

Who needs a full set of wings?  A very old and battle scarred Four-spotted Chaser (Libellula quadrimaculata)

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Hawker

Very pleased with this in-flight of a Norfolk Hawker (Aeshna isoceles) over the old canal.  Also known as Green-eyed Hawker, you can see why.

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Flycatcher

Look what I spotted!  This rather unassuming looking bird is a Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata).  This used to be a fairly common sight however between 1967 and 2010 the population of this summer visitor from Africa has dropped by 89%!

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Holly Blue

A fresh, second generation Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) seen in the same spot as the Fritillaries.

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Meadow Brown

The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) is probably the commonest and most wide spread of the high summer butterflies in England.

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Worstead

Where is the wildlife?  Well those little dots by the church are swifts.  This is Worstead, the village is famous for the cloth named after it which was woven here since the Middle Ages by Flemish weavers.  The maize field we crossed on a Sunday walk is not destined to be eaten but used in biomass energy production.

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Essex Skipper

The Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola) was the last British butterfly to be identified.  This was because they look like the the Small Skipper (T sylvestris).  The difference is the colour of the underside of the antenna tip!  On Essex the tip is all black and on the Small, varying shades of brown.  The males also have different shaped sex brands (line on the upper forewing).  As these butterflies are so small you have to get real close to tell them apart.

https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/british-butterflies/

https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/british-damsel-dragonflies/

Southern Migrant Hawker, a return to ‘The Ditch’

In July last year I was shown the delights of the Canvey Island ditch in south Essex by John Wiltshire.  It was a very hot, sunny day and our target, the Southern Migrant Hawker dragonfly, was in no mood to settle to have it’s picture taken!  On Friday I decided to treat Mrs H to a day out as things have been somewhat topsy-turvy just lately.  It was going to be hot but with some cloud at times so somewhere nice and scenic with a bit of interest for me, where better “To the ditch!”  Ok so it’s not that scenic, I may have glossed it up a bit to wangle a day’s dragonfly watching but pack a nice pic-nic and let’s make the most of a glorious summer day.  Two hours and a hundred and thirteen miles later and we were ‘darn sarf’.

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Southern Migrant Hawker (Aeshna affinis) Deja-vu?

So a quick recap.  The Southern Migrant Hawker is a rare dragonfly in the UK.  It only colonised after an influx in 2010 and is mainly found around the Thames Estuary (hence the trip to Canvey) where it was found to have bred. It is medium sized, about 2.5 inches (60mm) long with (the male) striking bright blue eyes and black & blue abdomen.  As last year, the males were holding territory along the ditch, patrolling up and down looking for emerged females.  On the territory boundary a small clash would ensue if two arrived at the same time.  I was hoping if the cloud covered the sun for a while then they might settle, wrong.  They went into a feeding frenzy.  Nothing for it, I would have to resort to in-flight shots.  Now I know some of you have tried this amusing form of wild life photography but for others who have not, this was my approach.  Keep on the macro lens (they can come close plus the lens is sharper) set to manual focus, use shutter priority (I set 1/1250th sec), lowest iso you can get away with, in bright sun it was 320 and let the apperture sort itself out.  Watch your subject, they tend to have a flight pattern and will hover for a second or two, now is the time to focus and shoot.  Easy yes?  No!  A hit rate of about 1 in 30.

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Southern Migrant Hawkers egg laying

We noticed a pair in tandem where they fly with the male grasping the females neck (who says romance is dead?) and they dropped into the ditch.  Tina’s sharp eyes picked them out, they were ovipositing.  Most dragons lay eggs directly into the water or submerged water plants, affinis lays in the cracks in mud with the male lowering his mate down.  Here the eggs go into diapause (dormant) waiting for the winter rains to fill the ditch or until conditions are right, maybe a year or two, then the life cycle is completed in very quick time.

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Marbled White (Melanargia galathea). Fading fast but still pretty

There were lots of butterflies in the field including a few Marbled Whites which were coming to the end of their flight period.  Also hundreds of smaller dragonflies, the darters.  Mrs H was sitting in the shade and called me over to see a very friendly female Ruddy Darter (Sympetrum sanguineum).  It was sitting on a grass flower and going into the obelisk position.  This was to keep the insect cool by ensuring the minimum amount of sun was on it.

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And curtsy…. Tina’s new friend

Well not a bad day out but when the herd of cattle moved into the field, complete with calves, it was time to call it a day and head for home.

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/