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 east 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.

Hello My Lovelies

As had been hoped for in my last post I got the chance to switch to the macro lens for the first time this year.  Last Thursday was sunny and warm (out of the easterly breeze) so we decided on another stroll around the edge of town taking in a small wood, adjoining a housing estate, that I had not been to before.  The butterflies were out to greet us, not in great numbers yet but spring is only just kicking off.

Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

There are five species of UK butterfly which spend the winter in adult (imago) form in what we call ‘hibernation’.  They are actually in a state of dormancy or diapause.  The beautiful Small Tortoiseshells are a joy to see and several were enjoying a drop of nectar.  A big surprise was a small plain white butterfly on a roadside verge.  I had to do a double take.  This was a species not awakened from it’s winter slumbers but one that hatches from a pupa usually in April!  Why so early?  We have not had any sustained high temperatures, in my view, to trigger the hatching process.  This species is also known to migrate from the Continent, so that’s a possibility but unlikely.

Small White (Pieris rapae) a totally unexpected sighting
Mrs H makes friends with a Peacock (Aglais io)

There were a lot of Peacocks lapping up the sun and indulging in territorial battles with whoever flies by.  Also spotted were the first Commas of the year adding a touch of bright orange to the hedgerow.  Not just butterflies though.  Hoverflies and bees were noted.  One species of bee caught my eye.  It was very small and several were attracted to a sunny, sandy bank.  I posted some images to a specialist fb group and it was identified as male Andrena clarkella, a species of mining bee and new to me.

The male mining bee Andrena clarkella

We shall be off to Berlin in a weeks time, hopefully the weather is as kind and we can enjoy a bit of spring in the German capital with our daughter.

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 https://alittlebitoutoffocus.com/2021/05/10/green-hairstreak-butterfly-val-dherens-switzerland/  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.

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
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.

The ‘classic’ shot


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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/