When the weather is fine then you know it’s a sign
For messing about on the river.
If you take my advice there’s nothing so nice
As messing about on the river.
There are long boats and short boats and all kinds of craft,
And cruisers and keel boats and some with no draught.
So take off your coat and hop in a boat
Go messing about on the river. Josh McCrae (1961)
A couple of weeks back and that’s just what we did. Along with Mick & Rose, Alan & Janet, Mrs H and I hired a small cruiser for a day of exploring the Broads.
Norfolk Broads, a quick guide for those around the world and to dispel the myth of US servicemen stationed here that they are the local ladies!
The Broads are in two sections, north and south. We were on the north. The main river flowing roughly west to east to the sea at Gt Yarmouth is the Bure (32 miles/51km). Joining the Bure, north to south, is the River Ant (17 miles/27km) and the River Thurne (7 miles/11km). Not all these rivers are navigable for the full length. Adjacent to the rivers, often connected, are the flooded remains of Medieaval peat diggings (the peat was used as fuel). These shallow lakes are the Broads.
Of course one advantage of slowly cruising down the river is seeing the wildlife. A lot of birds are used to the boats and allow a close approach. Myriads of dragon and damselflies lined the margins, a Swallowtail butterfly was seen as we took a picnic lunch and majestic Marsh Harriers quartered the reedbeds.
There are bridges and locks and moorings and docks
When messing about on the river.
There’s a whirlpool and weir that you mustn’t go near
When messing about on the river.
There are backwater places all hidden from view,
And quaint little islands just awaiting for you.
So I’ll leave you right now to cast off your bow,
Go messing about on the river.
It’s that time of the year when the UK’s most sought after butterfly is out and about. The Purple Emperor (Apatura iris) is not that rare but due to its habits and habitat not that easy see. The Emperor otherwise known as HIM (His Imperial Majesty) or Iris dwells in woodland. Not that unusual for a butterfly, however they spend most of their lives in the canopy. Unlike other species Iris does not nectar on flowers, no it prefers delicacies such as dead animals or poo! This is the second largest of our butterflies and the beautiful colour of the male is only seen when the light catches it just right, it’s called refraction.
On the 17th I headed out on a six hour round trip to their stronghold the legendary Fermyn Woods part of the ancient Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire. It was hot, very hot, high 20’s C. Arrived early at 8am and spent the next four hours wandering the rides. I had ten sightings but few came to ground and if they did it was only for seconds. I found one feeding on moss and eased it onto my finger where it licked the sweat for several minutes.
Sadly I got no images of the open wings though to be fair I have had many in past years. One species that was quite noticeable was the tiny Purple Hairstreak (Favonius quercus). This butterfly lives almost it’s entire life in the tops of Oak trees and feeds on the honeydew produced by aphids. On Saturday many were at low level and some came and searched for minerals on the paths.
Today (19th) I again went in search of Emperors. This time it was local just 20 miles to Foxley Wood. For the past two years Iris has been reported, would I be lucky? You bet! Just a few yards along the main ride and I had my first sighting as one cruised around a big Oak. Further on and two more were searching Sallows for newly emerged females (the caterpillars eat Sallow leaves and pupates on the tree). As the temperatures rose to mid 20’s I saw a few more and then bingo! One came down on the ground to gather minerals. For several minutes it paraded around flashing off it’s regal sheen. This butterfly was last recorded in Norfolk in 1961. Then around five years ago a few sightings were reported a few miles away from Foxley. Now they are back and breeding and I no longer need to travel half way across the Country!
At last a chance to get over to Santa Pod Raceway the home of European drag racing since 1966. Built on what was the former USAAF base, home of the 92nd bomb group, the track has improved immensely but still retains the charm. To re-live the ‘old days’ for the last ten years the Pod has held a meeting called ‘Dragstalgia’ where the vehicles racing are either originals from the time or modern reproductions.
Why ‘ish’? Well due to this pandemic things are not yet back to normal. The tickets had to be booked in advance as the crowd capacity is very restricted. Sadly as things stand we can no longer be treated to seeing competitors from across Europe who would have made the event even more memorable. Enough waffle, let me show you a variety of the classic machines that gave us a great day out. I guess this post will not be eveybody’s thing but hey I have been spoiling you with the wildlife and there is a clue in the blogs name!
Cannonball.The fastest cars on show. Nitromethane or methanol, three rounds of racing over two days the two cars with the lowest combined times contest the final.
Supercharged Outlaws A real mixture of dragsters, altereds even street legal cars. They must run quicker than 9.90 seconds over the quarter mile.
The Wild Bunch Again dragsters, altereds and funny cars. These are a real taste of the early days. They race on a handicap basis so the slower vehicle has a head start.
Outlaw Anglia Ford Pop, Anglia, Prefect or Fordson vans fitted with big v8 powerplants.
Nostalgia Super Stock Pre 1980 American v8s raced on a handicap (what we call dial in). There were 45 entries!
Willys Wars 1933 to 42 Willys coupes, sedans or pickups race for fun and ‘bragging rights’.
Gasser Circus Nose high throwbacks to a popular class in ’60s America. They run on ordinary pump fuel.
Old School Stockers Classic Pro Stock bikes of the ’70’s based on wickedly fast Japanese machines of the time.
NSABike Shootout Famous bikes brought out to play! Not quite as quick as they once were but a joy to see.
Well I have certainly had a few of these in June. Having managed to photograph three new species of dragon/damselflies so far I was greedy for more. For my next target I had to visit a site forty miles away. I’d had one trip with no luck but was only wearing my hiking boots. This fen was very wet so I returned with my wellies (rubber boots), now I could really get amongst it!
And there we have it, the Small Red Damselfly, I hope you are impressed. Put into context this is probably East Anglia’s rarest odonata. It only occurs at the one site, the nearest colonies are in the most south, south/west counties or west Wales! In these areas it is at it’s most northern range in Europe. The Small Red is typically found in acidic pools on heath and bog, hence the need for the rubber boots!
I carefully and slowly squelched my way through the bog keeping my eyes peeled for any movement, the smell not the most pleasant. In recent years these damselflies have been in very low numbers and fears are that the colony may die out. Suddenly a weak fluttering ahead, careful approach, not this time, it was a Large Red one of our commonest damsels. Then another, a quick record shot, zoom in on the back of camera and YES! Red legs, all red body this was my target. It moved around low in the luxuriant plant growth, teasing me, and then it alighted on a lone reed stem as if to say “I give up, go on take your photos and leave me alone”. And that’s what I did and I couldn’t ask for a nicer set of shots. In all I found at least four Small Reds including a female. Another red-letter day.
Keeping to the red theme. Butterflies have been very thin on the ground recently. The changeable weather has not helped but when the sun has shone good numbers of Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) have been in the garden and their flower of choice? Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber).
The start of June was glorious, now? not so much. I mentioned in my last posting that we had been out and about making the most of the summer sun so today I thought I’d share a few images (not a dragonfly in sight, I promise 😥, but maybe a butterfly 🙂)
Speaking of great artists I mentioned last time visiting ‘Constable Country’. The Constable being John (1776-1837) and the Country is the River Stour on the Suffolk/Essex border. It was here that JC painted his greatest landscapes such as ‘The Hay wain’. It was our first visit to the area and, well it’s ok but the paintings are better. Times change and I prefer the more romanticised view of the past to the reality of the modern scene, cafe/visitor centre/activity centre/paddle boarders/etc.
I have spent a few mornings visiting Hickling Broad. As well as the usual suspects I have been keeping my eyes open for a very special wasp. Regarded as extinct in Britain the Fen Mason Wasp (Odynerus Simillimus) was re-discovered here in 1986. These very small wasps nest by burrowing in the ground and forming a ‘chimney’ style entrance. I was delighted to find some on my last visit.
Of course no visit to Hickling would be complete without a shot or two of our Broadland beauty the Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon ssp britannicus). Thing is they have been few and far between due to the cold spring. However the day I saw the wasp six were on the wing.
As I mentioned last week everything is bursting into life. So as not to rush around like a ‘headless chicken’ I tried to plan places to visit and species to see. Had to make the most of the heatwave as today it’s broken with heavy showers and thunder due. I have seen and photographed lots of interesting things in the last ten days but I thought I would treat you all to more odonata including a couple of first time sightings!
My old buddy John came up from Hertfordshire for a couple of days. We visited Strumpshaw Fen primarily for Swallowtail butterflies. The butterflies were notable by their absence but the dragons put on a great display.
So what about these two lifers? I always like to have a target to aim for. If you fail to see what you travel a long way for this can leave an empty feeling. A successful trip and it’s big smiles for days. Damselflies are not the most ‘in your face’ creatures. Unlike their big, brash, colourful cousins the dragonflies, damsels keep low in the vegetation and go about their business in a slow, quiet way. Make no mistake these tiny insects are vicious predators in their own right. A day out to the Suffolk/Essex border produced the first and also a look at ‘Constable Country’.
The next target was going to be much more tricky. The species can be found only at one site in East Anglia, it is usually found in the south, south/west of the Country. I happened to meet an old friend who knew the exact spot for this tiny damselfly. The place is kept somewhat secret to protect this delicate species. I knew roughly the area but armed with a map, x marks the spot, I found them. Without my friends help I would still be searching now! Let me introduce…..
I still have one more rare species to see locally however it should soon be time for the summer butterflies so who knows what I will post next!
This last week has seen an explosion of activity on the odonata front. Not surprising really, after the awful spring we are now in full-on summer mode. Early morning and it’s emergence time at the pond. As the heat builds the damselflies are returning in numbers to mate and lay eggs. So much to see I’m struggling to decide where to venture to next.
With most very rare species I find myself hitting the road and travelling for hours to see them. Not so with one dragonfly. In the County of Norfolk the Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) can only be found in two adjacent ponds and as luck would have it they are just ten minutes away. I won’t name the ponds due to the fragile nature of this species hanging on and limited access though most keen dragonfly enthusiasts know of them. Yesterday (7th) I managed to obtain my first half decent images. The males constantly patrol the pond margins and if they settle it’s high up on a leaf in the overhanging canopy. The lighting is not ideal as you are looking into the sun. No matter, I came home with a big grin on my face (just don’t ask how many shots I took to get six reasonable ones!).
The Cut-off Channel is a man-made waterway in the west of the Counties of Norfolk & Suffolk and runs for 28 miles (45 km). Construction was finished in 1964 and it has a dual purpose. In winter it collects the flood water from three rivers and transfers it, via a pump at Denver, out to sea in the River Great Ouse. Summer and the flow is reversed and water is supplied to fill a reservoir in the County of Essex.
The spoil from the digging formed steep banks which are now lush with flora and support a wide variety of fauna. After Foulden Common a small stretch at Stoke Ferry is the only other site in Norfolk to find the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae). The Skippers normally appear in April but due to our very poor spring I was wondering if any would be out now in June. Yesterday (2nd) with temperatures hitting 26c I took the 90 minute drive to find out.
In the sweltering conditions I counted five Skippers which I was well pleased with. There were many more butterflies to keep me amused and a few dragon and damselflies. The air was filled with birdsong and apart from a couple of joggers and dog walkers I had the place to myself.
Two posts in one week? What have you lucky people done to deserve this. As you know I have been avidly ‘pond watching’ of late as the dragon and damselflies have been emerging, in the case of the Large Red Damselflies in good numbers. One of my aims was to capture the moment a dragonfly left it’s watery home of the last two years and ‘transformed’ into a winged beauty. Well this morning I got my wish…..
This whole process from start to finish took two hours and was fascinating to watch. I then had to go out. When I returned a couple of hours later the dragon had flown. Earlier this week I witnessed a damselfly emerging, in contrast to the dragon it took only fifteen minutes!
April was cold and very dry with a record number of frosts. May has been cold and very wet/windy. Only one day this month has the temperature got in the high teens centigrade compared to twenty last year. Not the spring I was hoping for when I took early retirement. But nature is resilient, It has to be to survive. Given a good day butterflies will appear and eggs will be laid, maybe not as many but just enough to ensure a future generation.
We took a walk with Rose and Mick and chanced the forecast. Our route, to the west of town, was quite familiar during this pandemic. Ominous black clouds to the west, cracks of thunder, yet it rolled on by and not a drop fell. It was a lovely morning.
Searching for Skippers
Every year in early May I try and get across the County to Breckland. It is here, at only two sites, that Norfolk’s rarest and smallest butterfly can be found. As I approached Foulden Common it was obvious there had been a good helping of the wet stuff. However the sky was clearing, sun appearing and after an hour long drive I was going to make the most of it. This year I didn’t have my extra pair of eyes, Mrs H was at work, so I had to carefully scan the ground alone. As it warmed up the butterflies emerged from wherever they had sheltered for the night. Brimstones, Orange-tips, Small Coppers, Peacocks and Speckled Wood. Then, suddenly, what I was searching for. A tiny dark butterfly flew up to chase a smaller, greyer variety, a Dingy Skipper seeing off a Grizzled Skipper, my target. In all I saw four Grizzles, not many but at least they are still surviving.
It’s all systems go at the garden pond. Every time I turn my back it seems another dragonfly has emerged! I’ve still yet to see the actual breaking free of the exuvia but there’s plenty of time. The total now is 3 Broad-bodied Chasers, 1 Four-spotted Chaser and 5 Large Red Damselflies. The rains have left the pond brimful and all the new arrivals have had to bide their time to take flight.
For the weekend and beyond the forecast is for proper spring weather, bring me sunshine!
I have been a huge fan of Drag Racing ever since my first visit to Santa Pod when I was 7-years-old. I love all Motor Sport but Drag Racing is still the one that gets me jumping around enthusiastically. Despite America having the larger NHRA Championships, which I also continuously follow, I have always preferred European and British Drag Racing. This is mainly because I have grown up with it - the first official FIA European Championships were held in 1996 and I haven't missed a big event at Santa Pod since 1997. When an event is on I get to the track, plonk myself down somewhere along the spectator banking and would very happily sit without moving for the entire weekend watching the racing.