Some people relish a challenge, me not so much. Nowadays I much prefer the ‘easy life’. That said there has been an insect in the garden that threw down the gauntlet and challenged me to photograph it. The creature in question is the Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum). These are summer migrants mostly from southern Europe. Some years they appear here in good numbers, this is one of those years. The difficulty in getting a good image is they are hyped up and seem to run on a mixture of full strength coffee and nitromethane! Luckily the little devils love Red Valerian, a flower that we have plenty of in the garden. So it was a case of bide my time and be patient.
Since moving to town some of my old haunts are now a few miles further to drive to. Because of this (and the forever on-going renovations) I have not visited them as much as I used to or as much as I would like to. Mid-week, before the mini heat wave hit, I dropped in on the (now not so) local heath to see if the Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus) had started to emerge, they had!
On the purple heather flowers these lovely and fresh butterflies made for some nice colourful images. When the sun was hidden by cloud they would temporarily ‘roost’ in the long grass. I found them quite easy to spot even though there were only no more than ten on the wing. Here’s a little sequence of shots I took as one got active again.
I have featured this species before in the past so will not bore you by repeating various facts. Just a couple of things for anyone new to the blog. The name is derived from reflective metallic scales in the outer row of black spots on the under hind wing, some adults lack these. The upper wing of the female is not blue but brown with orange spotting (lunules) on the outer edge.
Two other species were seen for the first time this year. The Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina) Which is the UK’s most widespread and commonest butterfly. Also spotted was a Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus) which really isn’t that large.
Nice to return to a favourite site and watch the comings and goings. Must get back home, another room to refurbish.
In 1976 England lost a species of butterfly as the Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus palaemon) was declared extinct from it’s heartland in the East Midlands. Once again it seems as though the blame could be placed on habitat loss. This pretty little butterfly requires wide open rides and glades in woodland with plenty of blooms to nectar on and the grass False Brome for it’s caterpillars to eat. The forests were not managed as in the past and huge swathes of non-native pine planted for commercial timber production.
In 1939 colonies of the skipper were discovered in north/west Scotland, some 400+ miles from the English Chequers. There were none in between, just two isolated populations. Although the same species, the Scottish variety lived in a slightly different habitat and they bred on Purple Moor-grass. Here, despite the sometimes adverse weather, the butterfly was doing quite well and over the years more were found in the ancient Oak woods close to lochs (lakes).
A few years ago Butterfly Conservation, Forestry England and the Back from the Brink partnership began to restore the habitat in a large block of woodland in Rockingham Forest Northamptonshire, the last stronghold of the Chequered Skipper. In 2018 adult butterflies were brought over from strong colonies in Belgium and released in the secret site. They bred successfully but more Belgian stock were added in 2019 to help boost numbers. The skippers did well, though numbers were never high (60 recorded in ’21), so early this year Butterfly Conservation revealed the site details so the public could visit and, hopefully, catch a glimpse of this tiny star which has had much media coverage.
I waited excitedly for an opportunity to visit the woods. Last Thursday the weather was perfect and the flight season being May to June I had the best chance of finding one. It’s a big area and ‘needle in a haystack’ sprang to mind. BC were holding guided tours but I don’t like crowds, I much prefer doing things my way. As luck would have it my mate John from Hertfordshire had been the week previous and pinpointed on a map where he found some.
I arrived at the ‘hot spot’ John found and with four other butterfly mad enthusiasts scanned the bramble flowers for our target. After two hours, nothing. It was decided to go to another area the skippers had been seen, quite a hike in the warm sun! When we arrived a skipper was nectaring, relief! My first ever sighting, I was elated.
After sometime and only a couple of other flight views I made my way back to the first spot passing the BC tour en-route, yes far too many people. As I neared the area I could see there was a lot of people watching but obviously nothing to see. A small brownish butterfly flew up the path and landed on a bramble flower next to me. I could not believe my eyes or my luck! An almost perfect specimen. When a cloud covered the sun it flew up onto a grass head and gave me the best images I could have ever wished for, what a little beauty.
Well that was a 200 mile round trip more than worth the cost of fuel and several miles walking worth the sore feet. If the butterflies had not been re-introduced here it would have been a 1000 mile round trip to add it to my British list!
Not the great line up pre-Covid. A lot has changed in the past three years. The cost of travel has sky rocketed, there is a shortage and long wait for spare parts but most telling is that post-Brexit there is now a customs duty called ‘carnet’. This is a refundable payment imposed on teams travelling to the UK and is based on a percentage of the value of the vehicle, parts, tools etc. Each Country has a different levy, Sweden (from where a large number of teams come from) has the highest and as a result only one team from there made it over. I feel this is making the ‘European Championships’, if not a mockery, a devalued event.
Enough politics. I went over to Santa Pod Raceway on Saturday to watch the third day of qualifying. Not disappointed. There were many records broken including a world record for the quickest and fastest electric vehicle when Hans-Henrik Thomsen of Denmark ran 6.6197secs at 206.24mph 0ver the 1/4 mile on his bike ‘Silver Lightning’. On Sunday the European Top Fuel record fell to Ida Zetterstrom with a 3.782sec run (the first in Europe to go in the 3.7s) and Samu Kemppainen went 5.999 on his new nitro Super Twin bike to set a new European best.
A lot of drag cars are based on American vehicles. Here is a selection of truly British ‘classics’ though the engines are not what came off the production lines!
A lot of people think drag racing must be easy. After all they are going in a straight line for just 440 yards, what could go wrong? Things can go wrong and very quickly. Thankfully accidents are few and far between but on Saturday I witnessed the worst I’ve seen. Kevin Chapman launched his 10,000bhp nitro Funny Car which will reach 100mph in less than a second. The car headed right toward the centre line. Correcting this it made a sharp turn left, the back end broke free and it smashed into the concrete wall at the 330 foot mark. Here the fuel tank, about 15 gallons of nitromethane, exploded. The car slid down the track against the wall, the body flew off and the chassis, complete with driver and engine, ended upside down against the opposite wall at 1,000 feet. Amazingly KC walked away completely unharmed. This all happened in a matter of seconds. At the time I was photographing in burst mode and this is the last shot, not for the faint hearted.
I hate seeing this. All the safety gear worked and the rescue crew were brilliant. 40 years ago and the outcome might have been so different. I called it a day and came home rather subdued.
(or, Visiting Old Friends ptII)
One of the joys of living in our part of Norfolk is that in late spring/early summer the UK’s largest, most colourful butterfly can be seen. Of course you need to know where to look, they don’t pop up everywhere. You also need our old friend the un-predictable weather to be favourable. A good spell of warm, sunny and wind free conditions will bring this enigmatic insect out of it’s pupa deep in the reedbeds to grace the area we call ‘Broadland’
Last weekend was ideal so a trip to my favourite haunt Hickling Broad was in order. The usual area was disappointing, there had been clearance work over winter and few nectar flowers were available. A few hundred yards further on and there was a good amount of Red Campion and with it a newly emerged, mint condition Swallowtail eagerly fueling up. This beauty allowed plenty of photo opportunities.
The dragonfly season is also now in full swing. The early species were dominated by the Four-spotted Chasers (Libellula quadrimaculata). I have never seen so many in one place, almost swarm like!
As well as these ‘old friends’ there were a couple of surprises. Firstly a butterfly that has been in very low numbers in my part of the world and I have never seen at this site, the Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera).
So, a small brown bird sitting in an alder tree. I was so pleased to get this shot even though I was using my macro lens! This is a Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti). This bird first bred in the UK in 1972 and unlike all the other warblers (except one) does not migrate. As an insect eater it’s population could crash in harsh winters. The thing is the Cetti’s is extremely difficult to see, keeping deep inside vegetation by rivers or ditches. It gives away it’s presence by it’s explosive call repeating the cetti name (though it was named after an 18th century Italian zoologist, Francesco Cetti). An unusual fact, this is the only UK bird with 10 tail feathers, good luck trying to count them!
All in all a great day out and I’m glad to get my upload issues sorted so I could share it.
Those of us who have raised children will know the demand the ‘little darlings’ can place on us. Then spare a thought for the Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) parents. An average brood is 7 or 8 and I have read that each chick will be fed around 100 times a day! Those adults are run ragged and their plumage soon gets a bit scruffy.
When we moved here almost two years ago I brought one of our old nest boxes with us and put it on the north facing end of my workshop. Last spring, much to my surprise, a pair of Blue Tits took advantage and raised a brood (only one per year), this year they, or another, are back so I thought I would try and snap some comings and goings.
The chicks will remain in the nest for about three weeks. Then they will emerge, usually in the early morning, they quickly disperse to learn to fend for themselves. Survival rate is not that high hence the large broods.
The type of nest box is called ‘Woodcrete’ by Schwegler. Though they are slightly expensive they will out last all other types and offer perfect insulation for the nesting birds and are easy to clean at the end of the season. They are available for most species who use cavities to nest in.
“Roll up, roll up folks. Come and see the amazing spring. One day only, be sure not to miss it. roll up roll up”
Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic but our little bit of England, whilst being ‘green and pleasant’, has been a bit, er, ‘under the weather’. Others have been ok, over here northerly winds, grey and very cool but also extremely dry. Plants are growing and flowering but the poor old insects need to put on an extra woolly jumper! However the last day of April and the sun shone! After a week of having my head stuck in a pot of paint we just had to get out and enjoy it. To some this post will seem a bit ‘deja vu’ but I do like to visit old friends.
My choice of destination was Wiveton Downs about 20 miles west up near the North Norfolk coast. A lovely place at this time of year. The top of the hill is covered in flowering Gorse bushes which have a heady scent of coconut. The lower northern slope is sheltered and awash with Bluebells the flower of spring. We had not gone far when a tiny butterfly caught my eye as it fluttered low down by some Gorse. The first Green Hairstreak of the year. If it had not been flying almost impossible to see when perched.
Butterflies were out in good numbers along the lower path. Male Orange tips zig-zagging among the Bluebells looking for love, only stumbling across another male so a fight ensued. In fact all the butterflies were getting a bit aggressive, pent up hormones I guess. Only the little Holly Blues seemed quite sedate but not giving me many photo opportunities.
A really enjoyable few hours and with the forecast now set fair hopefully more to come. I have a lot more ‘old friends’ I would like to visit.
Somewhat out of sync due to my little drag racing post, this is my third and final offering from our trip to Berlin at the beginning of April. Sunday dawned quite sunny, the wind had dropped but it was still a bit nippy. Today we took the ringbahn to Westend which is oddly enough on the west side of the City. From here it was a short stroll down Spandauer Damm to the beautiful Charlottenburg Palace. Up ahead thousands of runners competing in the Berlin half marathon streamed round the bend accompanied by what sounded like a brass band. We arrived just as the Orangery cafe opened so popped in for a hot chocolate and generous slice of cake to set us up for a walk around the park.
The Palace was first built in 1699 for Sophie Charlotte the wife of Friedrich I. It was extended in the 1700’s. Of course in those days Berlin was a fraction of the size and the area it was built in was the village of Lietzow. Today the 55 hectare (135 acre) park is nestled among housing, shops and busy roads. The River Spree borders one side and apart from the main lake there are several other watercourses. All this set amid beautiful trees and areas left to grow wild. This was the best place I have seen so far for wildlife with numerous bird species. In the summer I would think this is an oasis for butterflies and dragonflies.
We saw gorgeous Red Squirrels, a dashing Kingfisher and a mystery animal swimming across the lake. Beaver or Coypu? I will never know. I made my way to where it was heading but with a swirl it disappeared and we never saw it resurface. There was a tree by one of the channels which had been brought down by a Beaver so it could have been my first ever sighting of one.
We got back to the Orangery in time for lunch, a big, steaming bowl of creamy vegetable soup and crusty roll. A perfect end to the visit.
After seven long winter months and two years of countless cancellations the European drag racing season kicked off, without restrictions, over the Easter weekend. Easter in the UK is usually plagued by cold and rain, not this year, wall to wall sunshine, light southerly breeze and temperatures in the 70’s, perfect.
Long time readers will know that as well as butterflies, dragonflies and birds my other great interest is drag racing the loudest, fastest and most powerful motor sport in the world. I’ve been going to meetings for over forty five years and have witnessed so many changes. If someone had said back in the seventies what speeds and times these cars and bikes are doing now they would have been laughed at, we think we are at the limit now but are we? Take a look at a bit of action from the Sunday eliminations, just a handful of the hundreds of shots I took!
2nd April. “It’s going to be dry this weekend, we’ll go to Potsdam on Saturday”. So informed my daughter the purple furred Lemming. The next morning we caught the bus to Alexanderplatz station and from there the S7 train for the half hour journey west of Berlin to Potsdam Hauptbahnhof. We were going to spend the day at Sanssouci Park so took the 695 bus.
I am used to visiting stately homes in the UK but the scale of Sanssouci was something else. For a start there are four Palaces in the 300 hectare grounds plus a whole host of temples and other associated buildings (you have to have somewhere to keep your lawnmower 🤔). The first Palace we visited was the Orangery.
This Palace was built in 1864 for King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Inside, seen through the huge windows, were stored all the ornamental trees and shrubs that would decorate the grounds in summer. It actually felt a few degrees warmer here.
We wandered west through the parkland to the New Palace which was completed in 1769 for King Friedrich II. It has over 200 rooms and the outside is adorned with over 400 statues! Although it looks like red brick it is actually painted plaster but very convincing. After the King’s death in 1786 the Palace was not used for seventy years until Frederick III took it on.
The hours flew by and it was soon time to return to Berlin. We had not even had a chance to see Sanssouci Palace and gardens and you could spend another day or two exploring the City itself. Not sure how many miles we walked but ‘Chilli’ the dog slept well that night!