Ups at the Downs

Housework done? tick, garden tidy? tick, Mrs H at work? tick, sun shining? tick, well better get out for the day!  But where to go is the problem, sunny yes but it’s a cold easterly blowing and the temperature is only forecast to hit 11c (51f) that is on the limit of when butterflies are active.  I have a hunch.  The ‘voices’ tell me “go to Wiveton Downs and if you luck out just pop to the coast and do some birding” can’t ignore ‘the voices’.  The Downs are the highest point in this flat part of the Norfolk coast, 2 miles from the sea and right in the teeth of the wind so why the hunch, I must be mad……or am I?

Anthocharis cardamines the Orange-tip and spring Bluebells
Mrs Orange-tip lacks the orange but is still beautiful

No not totally crazy.  It’s all down to micro climates.  Find a sheltered spot in the sun and the butterflies will be there (hopefully), and that is what happened.  Not the numbers of previous years, just one or two of each species, but enough for me to spend over two hours in the one 50 yard area.

Cabbages beware! My first Large White (Pieris brassicae) of the year settled on a Hawthorn flower
Nicest sighting of the day a female Wall Brown (Lasiommata megera). A butterfly that locally has been in very low numbers in recent years. One day I will get a lovely photo of one on a flower….one day
Any closer and this vicious fellow is likely to give you a black eye! Well maybe not, a spring favourite at this site the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) is only the size of a thumb nail but can’t tolerate anything flying in his air space

Well, off to Corfu on Friday.  Unfortunately the weather forecast for this Greek island is not too great, looks like I will be taking our spring weather with us but will try my best to bring you some nice images.

Desperately Seeking Spring

Spring, spring, wherefore art thou spring?  Ok I know I’m forever going on about the weather, too much this not enough that, but it’s what we Brits do, a sort of national pastime if you will.  But honestly last month was a washout, literally.  In my part of the UK it was the wettest March for 40 years and the 4th wettest on record, three times the average rainfall fell and it was cold and frequently windy, quite often all at the same time.  April started in a similar vein then on the 4th……sunshine! (with a side order of overnight frost and cool easterly breeze).

Time for walkies.  Off on our favourite trail (see winter walk post).  I knew if we could find a sunny sheltered spot the year’s first butterflies might appear, and so it proved.  As we left the first woodland on the edge of a housing estate there was an area with a mass of Celandines.  Out of the sky twirled a small blue butterfly which alighted on an Ivy leaf, a Holly Blue.  This was not expected.  I was thinking we would see one or other of the five species that overwinter as adults in ‘hibernation’ not one that had emerged from it’s pupa that morning!  It got better.  Minutes later Mrs H pointed to another incoming butterfly, a Speckled Wood, another emerged butterfly.  We ended with four species in that one little ‘hotspot’.

Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) A small butterfly can produce a big smile!
Joy of Spring
Speckled Wood (Parage aegaria) Nice to see one so fresh before it starts fighting with it’s siblings
Bumble Bee, blossom and blue skies, nice!
Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) enjoying a rare break
A female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumpies) getting stuck into a pulmonaria bloom

We saw several more butterflies on our walk.  Male Brimstones were fairly numerous in places.  They were forever searching for newly awakened females.  The Peacocks spent their time stuck to the bare earth absorbing heat before speeding off a few yards as I approached camera in hand.  It was a lovely day hopefully not a ‘flash in the pan’.  As I write this the rain has returned yet again.

Chalk That One Off

Is it really four years since I last visited the Iron Age hill fort Warham Camp near Wells-next-the-Sea up on the Norfolk coast?  Apparently so.  This is the best preserved site of this period in the County and was probably home to an Iceni tribe.  Who knows, even the legendary, fearsome, warrior queen Boudica may have walked here before going off to kick some Roman bottoms, started well, didn’t end well.  All’s peaceful now, well apart from the constant roar of fighter jets overhead.  Just practicing in case the lovely Mr P decides to widen his horizons even further.

The fort is now home to Norfolk’s only colony of the delightful Chalkhill Blue butterfly (Polyommatus coridon) which were introduced here some years ago, not the done thing you know tut tut.  As I left the lane to cross the field to the ramparts I noticed a few Chalkhills fluttering about.  “that’s odd” I thought “never seen them here before”.  When I climbed the outer ring ditch it became apparent why, I have never seen so many!  The ground was shimmering with hundreds of the silvery blue males.

Lovely fresh male Chalkhill Blue

There were so many I could pick and chose which I wanted to photograph.  In the past I’ve not managed to get them nectaring way off the ground.  So I watched the best Scabious and Knapweed and waited ’till one alighted and hopefully open their wings (they were not always keen on the last part!)

A little bit worn

The females were less numerous.  Mind you with that many amorous males about they did well to keep their heads down!  Like several other of the ‘blues’ family the females are brown on the upper wing with variable orange lunules on the outer edge.  The under wing is also browner in hue.

Female Chalkhill Blue
That’s not a butterfly! Nope it’s a Six-spot Burnet moth (Zygaenea filipendulae)

All in all a rather good day out!  In total I saw 18 species of butterfly.  Better not leave it quite so long before my next visit but I can chalk this one off for this year.

Back to the Heath

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.

Female Meadow Brown in the wooded area on the edge of the heath
Large Skipper

Nice to return to a favourite site and watch the comings and goings.  Must get back home, another room to refurbish.

Chequered Skipper a Chequered History

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.

Chequered Skipper, Fineshade Woods Northants.  I could not have asked for a better memory of my visit

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.

My first sighting, not immaculate but worth the sore feet!

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.

The second individual was in great condition

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.

The habitat improvement has been good for other species like this tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae). Surprised to see so many (7) in June and in fresh condition too

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!

Swallowtail Time

(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’

What it’s all about, the ‘Norfolk’ Swallowtail (Papilio machaon ssp britannicus) perhaps my best shot to date

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.

Pushing the shutter up to 1/1000th almost freezes the action. Those wings are nearly always fluttering

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!

Fresh Four-spotted Chaser, one of thousands
Male Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)

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).

The Wall Brown, a small butterfly that nearly always is seen sunning itself on the ground (or walls!)

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.


Visiting Old Friends

“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.

Recognise this little fellow? Yes, the Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi)

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.

You must remember this handsome creature? The male Orange Tip (Anthocharis cardamines)

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.

Speckled Woods (Pararge aegeria) like slightly shady areas but are very territorial
We found one area with several Hairstreaks in but they spent most of the time kicking lumps out of each other!
Check out this fuzzy little guy! A male Green Longhorn Moth (Adela reaumorella). I bet he gets great radio reception with those antenna!
Green-veined White (Pieris napi) small and delicate
Speckled Wood and Bluebells

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.

Unto the Realm of the Purple Emperor

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.

Finger licking good!  An Emperor with the taste for human flesh, mine!

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.

Not one I’ve featured before, Purple Hairstreak the purple prince

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!

His Imperial Majesty alights at Foxley
And flashes it’s royal colours

Green Meanies and other Wiveton Beauties

A nice morning so re-visited Wiveton Downs for a couple of hours butterfly hunting.  The Downs is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and is an esker, in layman’s terms a glacial crevasse which was filled in and forms a winding ridge.  Situated a mile or so inland from the Nth Norfolk coast.  The top of the ridge is mostly Gorse and on the north side the lower slopes are clothed in Bluebells and well sheltered.

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi). How innocent does this tiny butterfly look?

My target was seeing the Green Hairstreak.  Spurred on by Mike’s post yesterday  I was hoping the locals would be out and about, I was not disappointed.  I have posted about this species before and have mentioned their rather nasty temper (yes B in Illinois, hard to believe but true).  These butterflies are the size of a thumbnail but that doesn’t stop them from beating the living daylights out of each other and attacking any thing else that flies past!

Seconds out, round two!
Spot the Ninja

All the butterflies were condensed into one area near a flowering Hawthorn and a bank of Bluebells.  There was more than Hairstreaks though, in all I saw ten different species.

The first of an influx? Reports of Painted Ladies (Vanessa cardui) have come in from southern Britain. I spotted this one. Worn and faded but considering the migration journey it has just had that can be forgiven
A new season Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) risks the wrath of the Hairstreaks for a sip of Hawthorn nectar
Migrant or local? A slightly worn Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) enjoys a Bluebell

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

“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.