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/

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/

 

 

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!

Butterfly Walk

Tuesday was a beautiful day.  Blue skies, warm, light breeze and no work so decided to take a walk down the country lanes to our local heath.  Thought I would take along my pheromone lure to try and entice the exotic Emperor moth.  Heathland is always pleasant in the spring, the bright yellow gorse flowers give off the lovely scent of coconut.  Flitting around in the trees and shrubs the small olive/brown Chiffchaffs stop to call out their name.  Hidden deep in scrub the Blackcap announces it’s return from Africa, starting with a squeaky, scratchy opening before bursting into a glorious warbling refrain.  Overhead a pair of Buzzards display over their territory.

No luck with the moths, time to make my way home.  On the edge of the heath some blackthorn was in blossom.  There was my first Red Admiral of the year but it flew off before I had a chance to photograph it.  At least six Peacocks were peacefully enjoying the nectar, unlike the raging battles taking place in my garden!  Comma and a fly through Green-veined White were also noted in this sun trap.

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Peacock (Aglais io) enjoying the blackthorn

Wrenching myself away from this lovely little area and moving on, the first garden in the old part of the village has wonderful lilac bushes coming into flower.  A small white butterfly was investigating the blooms.  On close inspection it was indeed a Small White.  The significance of this unassuming butterfly (and the earlier Green-veined white) is that it has hatched from it’s chrysalis this spring (most likely this morning) and not awoke from hibernation.  The second generation of this species is much larger.

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Small White (Pieris rapae) on lilac

Further along and another bank of thorn full of blossom.  Here two Small Tortoiseshells posed for a few shots.  A bit faded and worn, they probably spent the winter in a garden shed or hole in a tree.  Usually this is a fairly common species but I’ve only seen three so far this year.

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Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

Just a few steps from home and another little white butterfly caught my eye across a field.  It seemed to land so I carefully approached the area and yes the unmistakable flash of orange!  My first Orange-tip of the year!  On all fours I crawled slowly in to a grass free view, one shot then gone.  After nine months cooped up in its cocoon as chemicals changed it from caterpillar to butterfly, this gorgeous fellow has only one thing on his mind, lady Orange-tips!  It will spend most of the day wandering here and there pausing only briefly for fuel in it’s search for a mate.  Lifespan for an adult is only weeks.

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Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) my first of the year

Back home and after lunch let’s see what the garden has to offer.  High up among the hawthorn branches with their freshly opened light green leaves, small and delicate like a piece of wind-blown, sky coloured confetti, a Holly Blue.  The first of the blues to emerge.  We are fortunate to have a good colony around the garden with plenty of holly and ivy for their caterpillars to eat.

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Male Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus) resting at ground level

Another Orange-tip flies into the garden.  It makes you dizzy watching as it wanders haphazardly up and down the flower beds, over the fence and back again.  Then a male Brimstone, another of natures restless nomads,  stopped to fuel up.

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Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) liked this wallflower

Nine species seen, the day couldn’t get better and it didn’t.  Watching a Green-veined White going to roost I crept backwards up the lawn wearing Mrs H’s slippers.  Not looking where I was treading I lost my balance and performed a rather ungraceful back flip onto the concrete patio!  Desperately trying to save my camera (I did) I managed to cut both knees, badly grazed a shoulder, cricked my neck and bent a finger!  As my little ‘Florence Nightingale’ patched me up she warned me to be more careful as at my age I break easily 😲!  Cheek!

If you are a new visitor to my blog and wish to see other butterflies our Country has to offer check out this page https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/british-butterflies/

Spring Awakes (briefly)

Hello blogworld wherever you are.  Hope you are all coping with whatever restrictions your governments have put upon you.  Here we should only leave home to go to work (which I must), buy essentials or one daily exercise.  It’s not been a great hardship this week as after early morning frosts we have had wall to wall sunshine and temperatures up to a whole 11c!  Which means we have had visitors to the garden, yes butterflies!

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Blue sky + blossom + butterfly = Spring!

Much like a repeat of last year the first species spotted was a lemon yellow male Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni).  Not long after I noticed a dark shape flitting about the flowerbed, could only be a Peacock (Aglais io).  Straight out of hibernation they spend a lot of time sat on bare earth to absorb as much warmth as possible.  Not much feeding is noticed apart from the attraction of the blossom when they first wake up.  Then it’s all down to fighting!  Territory is important as the testosterone kicks in.

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Comma (Polygonia c-album) on Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum)

Next seen was the Comma.  It has a very distinctive fast glide with flickering wingtips.  These too like to bask in the sun and squabble among themselves and with the Peacocks.  The garden has been like an insect battleground at times.

Since Saturday the weather has changed.  The wind has swung 180 to the north, got very strong and being only a couple of miles from the North Sea it’s a bit chilly, as I was typing this we had a snow shower!  Stay sane everyone.

 

Blue, Blue, Electric Blue!

“One last hurrah before the summer fades away”  My reply to John from Hertfordshire on a fb group when he jokingly comments I’ve not been out and about much recently.  He’s quite right though.  The only butterfly trip I have been on this year was back in July to see the Purple Emperor in Fermyn Woods.  A hot, hard day with only eight sightings in six hours and only two half decent photos, so no post.

With Mrs H on holiday, my day off and the weather set fair I knew the perfect place to visit and the perfect species – Yoesden Bank and the Adonis Blue.

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“There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues” sang Eddie Cochran. Well here’s one. The stunning male Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus)

It was two years ago when I made my previous visit to this beautiful nature reserve ( https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/adonis-blue-delight/ ).  The journey is a round trip of 330 miles that takes eight hours so we were up before dawn to make the most of the day.  Yoesden Bank is in the county of Buckinghamshire on the border with Oxfordshire in the village of Bledlow Ridge.  The area is known as the Chilterns.  It is a range of hills that form a chalk escarpment across four counties.  Yoesden is a steep south facing hill covered in wild flowers and the most northerly site (and closest to home) to see this enigmatic butterfly.

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The world looks so much nicer this way up

The Adonis (named after the Greek god of beauty and desire)  is one of the largest of the blues with a wingspan of 1.5 inches (40mm).  The caterpillar only eats horseshoe vetch and they require the perfect conditions.  Because of this they were predicted to become extinct in the ’80s as farmers stopped using the hills for grazing and the rabbit population was hit with myxomatosis.  The grass grew too long for the Adonis to survive.  Now thanks to major conservation work the butterfly is back from the brink, still rare but increasing.

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Ta dah!  As the sun appears the Adonis reveals his beauty

It was a touch breezy on the bank and every now and then the clouds would hide the sun.  We sat and watched.  When the sun appeared so did the butterflies.  Hundreds of sadly faded milky Chalkhill Blues rose from the turf flapping weekly about as their life cycle draws to a close.  Smaller but vivid Common Blues fed on the scabious and marjoram making you think Adonis?  Then the real deal, so bright and electric.  The males kept low down to the grass, searching for newly emerged chocolate brown ladies without luck.  Not interested in nectar they were difficult to photograph.  I had to wait for cloud cover, then they settled, carefully get in position and try and clear a few grass stems.  When the sun comes out they open their glorious wings to warm up allowing time for a couple of shots.

Well that’s probably a wrap as far as butterflies are concerned this year.  For sure there will be plenty around for weeks to come if the weather behaves and I might make a few more images.  If you are interested in the butterflies of the UK check out this page I have put together, those who already have big thanks!  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/british-butterflies/

All of a Flutter

August has so far been an excellent month for all things fluttery in the garden.  It’s been warm and mostly sunny.  We have had the odd spectacular thunderstorm but not the flooding experienced in other parts of the Country.  The last two days have been very windy, but this has not stopped the little winged ones.  The buddleias are living up to their common name ‘butterfly bush’.  At times dozens of Red Admirals, Painted Ladies and Peacocks have been feasting on the light purple sprays with their heady scent.  These are joined by various species of white and brown.

And now the dragonflies are appearing.  Hyperactive Migrant Hawkers zipping around, slower, larger and more colourful Southern Hawkers, even a Brown Hawker but with none of the drama of my last post.  Now they just seem satisfied to hunt tiny flies, not each other.  The seasons are slowly starting to change.  The fruits of the hawthorn hedge are turning red and the elderberries a deep glossy black, a sure sign summer is on the wane.

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Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) takes a breather on the ripening haws.
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Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) on garden blooms

Mid-week I took a drive a few miles east around the coast to Winterton.  In autumn this is an excellent site for finding migrant birds but I went to look for butterflies and odonata.   This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and managed by Natural England.  The beach is wide and sandy and is backed by an extensive area of sand dunes that stretch for several miles.  At this time of the year the inland section is covered in beautiful flowering heather.  There are also a few little groups of stunted oak trees.  It was among the heather and along the sandy paths that I searched for the Grayling (Hipparchia semele).  These butterflies are the masters of disguise.  You see one in flight, it lands and almost instantly folds it’s forewing into the hindwing.  It turns to angle itself into the sun so as not to cast a shadow and disappears, only to fly up when you step too close.

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Grayling caught with forewings raised

About a mile west of the village, nestled in the dunes, are two ponds known as the ‘toad pools’.  The toads in question are the rare and protected Natterjacks, none around today.  There was a lot of damselfly activity but since I last visited a few years ago someone has kindly erected a fence.  No one about so let’s get closer.  The damsels were Emeralds (Lestes sponsa).  In the past the very rare Southern Emerald has bred here but I found none today.  Two large and impressive Emperors patrolled the pools and dozens of tiny darters, Common and Ruddy, went about the business of creating a new generation.  A lovely morning out.

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Male Emerald Damselfly. Possibly photographed from behind the fence with a massive lens or probably not

Invasion

An invasion of the most beautiful kind.  After several days of torrential rain we have had some dry spells.  I had been noticing several Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies passing through the garden, not stopping, heading northwards.  Today was lovely and sunny (showers now).  We had to go out in the car and during the drive of some twenty miles hundreds of these gorgeous insects were flying across the road.  When we got home they were in the garden in good numbers, this one enjoying the catnip.DSC_0215aDSC_0254a

Every once in awhile here in Europe we experience these ‘Painted Lady years’.  Millions of them migrate out of north Africa and head our way.  They stop and breed en route and the offspring continue the journey.  Come the autumn the second or third generation in this country then start heading back south, they cannot survive our winter (yet).

This species is also found in America.  Earlier this year I heard they had also had a mass migration in places like California with countless millions heading through.

Sleeping Beauties

Even after x number of years kicking around this planet I still get excited when I witness something new.  Just last week was a good example.  I was mowing the grass, the day had been cool and cloudy now the sun was breaking through.  In a patch of nettles and other assorted wild plants a flash of orange caught my eye.  Went to investigate, there to my absolute delight were three male Orange-tip butterflies (Anthocharis cardamines) roosting together on the same flower head of cow parsley.  I have never seen this before so thought it better be recorded, the grass can wait!

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Three.  As the sun breaks through one stirs
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Two.  A little flutter around and a move to another flower
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One. “With those two gone think I’ll get my head down for another forty winks”

And there he stayed for the rest of the afternoon.  What were they missing out on?  Well as they dozed away the day two female Orange-tips were in the back garden patrolling the flower beds, unlucky boys!