Strolling into September

Autumn is on it’s way.  The year is slipping by.  Day after day, week after week of heat, humidity and drought is slowly coming to an end.  We have finally had a little rain, not much, just enough to settle the dust.  This morning was that cool I had to put on a cardigan!  The last couple of weeks we have decided to reprieve our walks that were such a feature of the covid lockdown.  Sadly one of my favourites, by the old canal, has been blocked by the landowner who had received abuse when asking dog walkers to control their pets.  The minority spoiling it for all.  Still, there is plenty to see at this time of the year as a different suit of species take front of stage.

With the flowering of the Ivy comes the Ivy Bees (Colletes hederae), really cute little mining bees
I mentioned in my last post Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) romance, here it is in action at Hickling Broad
Just hanging around. One of the largest UK dragonflies is the Southern Hawker (Aeshna cyanae). This is a beautiful male
The most numerous of the butterflies encountered on the walks has been the Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria) which likes shady areas
Sometimes you capture a shot you are really pleased with. A female Common Darter on dead Bracken, simple muted colours of Autumn

A Few Dragons

Not featured our flying assassins much this year.  This is mostly due to the fact I have not been out very often looking for them and when I have not actually seeing many.  The start of the season was good but it tailed off a few weeks back when we started this drought and spells of extreme heat.  Coincidence?  The larvae that have spent one, two or more years underwater and can time their emergence should be fine.  Of course if a pool dries up, as is happening, they are in big trouble, this will have an effect in future years.  As for the lack of adults maybe it has been just too hot at times.

Here are a few I have managed to see in the last few weeks.

Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta) at Winterton

End of July and I took a walk in the dune system at Winterton-on-sea. Last year this place was heaving with odonata.  Those with a long memory may recall the rare Lesser Emperor I found.  This year a three mile hike turned up just ten, yes TEN, dragonflies!  Yes it was a bit breezy but even so….  One of the pools in the main breeding area had been filled in to stop the spread of an invasive water weed, the others all but dry and with no rain since, well, they must be dust now.

Female Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) Upton Fen

Upton Fen in the Broads was better but still not as prolific as in recent years.  On my first visit the Darters were just starting to show.

Black-tailed Skimmer (Orthetrum cancellatum) Upton Fen

The Skimmers are a pain to photograph.  They usually sit on the paths, let you get nearly in lens range, then fly a few feet away and repeat ad-nauseam.  The one above obviously had not read the rule book!

Small Red-eyed Damselflies (Erythromma viridulum) Pensthorpe

Saw a few different species when we went to Pensthorpe with the Lemming but again not big numbers.  The highlight being two Lesser Emperors by one of the lakes but frustratingly no photo opportunity.  The damselflies above were egg laying in an ornamental pond and that shot was taken with my 600mm lens.

“Oi mister take my picture!”
“Very well but you must sit nice and still” Male Common Darter, garden pond

The garden pond has been almost deserted for some weeks, just the odd Blue-tailed Damselfly.  This Common Darter arrived a week ago and is good company it even tolerates the macro lens a foot from his face.  What he does not tolerate is any other male Darter trying to muscle in on his territory.  These are given a quick kicking.  Any females are treated to ‘Darter romance’, grabbed by the back of the neck, dragged into the bushes, brought back to the pond by the back of the neck and dunked in to lay eggs, the little charmer, not even a “what’s your name babe, care for a dance?”

If You Go Down in the Woods…

The house renovations (for this year) are nearly finished.  As I write this the dining room carpet is being laid, soon all the furniture will be in it’s proper place!  Just to keep my sanity and collect my thoughts I took a couple of days off over the past months to immerse myself in nature.  Purple Emperors started emerging in the third week of June down south.  On the 23rd, more in hope than expectation, I visited Foxley Wood our local Emperor site.  It was a lovely morning and the first Silver-washed Fritillaries and White Admirals were on the wing.  I sat in the shade watching the coming and goings and had just finished chatting to a lovely couple who were on holiday when out of the blue his loveliness landed on the path right in front of me!

The year’s first Purple Emperor (Apatura iris)

Spurred on by this early success the following week I decided on a trip to Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire.  I have struggled in the past couple of years at this Emperor mecca and have even pondered foregoing the delightful (not) two and a half hour journey.  Perhaps I should have listened to my inner self.  The sun was intermittent but the wind far too strong.  I kept to the more sheltered areas but sightings were few and far between.  After several hours and many miles of walking the grand total was just nine with only four on the ground!  In future, conditions will have to be perfect before I venture here again.

His Imperial Majesty enjoying brunch, Fox scat!

Back at home the dragonfly activity in the garden pond has been poorer than last year.  Not sure of the reason as the weather has been ok.  There was some emergence in May and the damselflies returned to breed but now sightings are thin on the ground.  One species I did see, and a new addition to the garden, was a female Banded Demoiselle.

A female Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens) spreads her wings by the garden pond

Into July and for the first time in three years I took a look at Holt Country Park 18 miles to the west.  As I got to the site a band of dense cloud had covered the sun.  No going back, I was sure it would clear.  I made my way up to the heathland called the Lowes.  This is a great place for Keeled Skimmer dragonflies (Orthetrum coerulescens).  Making my way down the slope to the boggy area where the Skimmers breed I was stunned to come face to face with a Roe Deer and her fawn.  What a lovely but very brief sighting.

I’ve been spotted! The Roe Deer (Capreolus capreolus) and fawn about to flee

Normally the Skimmers are highly active and very difficult to approach.  The cloud worked to my advantage and I managed to get my best shots to date of this species.

Female Keeled Skimmer at Holt Lowes
Male Keeled Skimmer. The blue colouring is a waxy powder called pruinescence which will wear off with age and mating

Sure enough the sun eventually appeared and I made my way back down to the woodland.  Like turning on a switch butterflies were everywhere including the one I had come to see the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia).  They hungrily searched out the last of the bramble flowers for a boost of nectar before seeking out a prospective mate.

Male Silver-washed Fritillary nectaring on Ragwort

Now the paint brushes are put away ’till next year hopefully more trips out are on the cards.  Watch this space.

Challenge

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.

Easy to see how the Hummingbird Hawk-moth gets it’s name. A plain background, in this instance paving slabs, helps the auto focus lock on. The settings for this shot were iso 320, 1/1500s @f8 using my macro lens. The image is slightly cropped to get decent dof
This background challenges the auto focus
An evening shot. Without the benefit of sun iso was 500, 1/1500s and f.stop only 4.8 = very shallow depth of field

Simply Red

red-letter day
/ˌredˈlet.ə ˌdeɪ/US
a specialhappy, and important day that you will always remember:
Well I have certainly had a few of these in June.  Having managed to photograph three new species of dragon/damselflies so far I was greedy for more.  For my next target I had to visit a site forty miles away.  I’d had one trip with no luck but was only wearing my hiking boots.  This fen was very wet so I returned with my wellies (rubber boots), now I could really get amongst it!
Small Red Damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) male.  Scarning Fen, Norfolk

And there we have it, the Small Red Damselfly, I hope you are impressed.  Put into context this is probably East Anglia’s rarest odonata.  It only occurs at the one site, the nearest colonies are in the most south, south/west counties or west Wales!  In these areas it is at it’s most northern range in Europe.  The Small Red is typically found in acidic pools on heath and bog, hence the need for the rubber boots!

The lady of the species comes in three colour forms, this is intermedia with a red and black abdomen

I carefully and slowly squelched my way through the bog keeping my eyes peeled for any movement, the smell not the most pleasant.  In recent years these damselflies have been in very low numbers and fears are that the colony may die out.  Suddenly a weak fluttering ahead, careful approach, not this time, it was a Large Red one of our commonest damsels.  Then another, a quick record shot, zoom in on the back of camera and YES!  Red legs, all red body this was my target.  It moved around low in the luxuriant plant growth, teasing me, and then it alighted on a lone reed stem as if to say “I give up, go on take your photos and leave me alone”.  And that’s what I did and I couldn’t ask for a nicer set of shots.  In all I found at least four Small Reds including a female.  Another red-letter day.

Large Red Damselflies (Pyrrhosoma nymphula) gave several false alarms. They are not that much bigger than the Small Red but have all black legs and the males have black on the abdomen. When dealing with creatures only just over an inch (30mm) long not easy to see with my dodgy eyesight!  This is a mating pair (the male above) forming a wheel, or heart for the romantics

Keeping to the red theme.  Butterflies have been very thin on the ground recently. The changeable weather has not helped but when the sun has shone good numbers of Red Admirals (Vanessa atalanta) have been in the garden and their flower of choice?  Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber).

Before the Rains Came

The start of June was glorious, now? not so much.  I mentioned in my last posting that we had been out and about making the most of the summer sun so today I thought I’d share a few images (not a dragonfly in sight, I promise 😥, but maybe a butterfly 🙂)

Monet would be pleased! The first Lily flower to open in my pond the variety is ‘Xiafei’

Speaking of great artists I mentioned last time visiting ‘Constable Country’.  The Constable being John (1776-1837) and the Country is the River Stour on the Suffolk/Essex border.  It was here that JC painted his greatest landscapes such as ‘The Hay wain’.  It was our first visit to the area and, well it’s ok but the paintings are better.  Times change and I prefer the more romanticised view of the past to the reality of the modern scene, cafe/visitor centre/activity centre/paddle boarders/etc.

Willy Lott’s (house) Cottage. A feature in some of Constable’s works. Mr Lott was the tenant farmer at the time and apparently only spent four nights away from the property in his whole life! (oh, and you can’t go inside)
The famous Flatford Mill. This is the best view I could find, there were a lot less trees about in Mr C’s day
The Stour at Flatford. Looking through the lock gates toward the bridge. The length of time I waited ’till the bridge was clear of folk and no day-glo paddle boarders were in view!

I have spent a few mornings visiting Hickling Broad.  As well as the usual suspects I have been keeping my eyes open for a very special wasp.  Regarded as extinct in Britain the Fen Mason Wasp (Odynerus Simillimus) was re-discovered here in 1986.  These very small wasps nest by burrowing in the ground and forming a ‘chimney’ style entrance.  I was delighted to find some on my last visit.

Fen Mason Wasp, Hickling Broad, Norfolk, June’21

Of course no visit to Hickling would be complete without a shot or two of our Broadland beauty the Swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon ssp britannicus).  Thing is they have been few and far between due to the cold spring.  However the day I saw the wasp six were on the wing.

June 2021. A very late start due to a prolonged cold spring. this one favoured the Ragged Robin

The Butterflies of the Cut-off Channel

The Cut-off Channel is a man-made waterway in the west of the Counties of Norfolk & Suffolk and runs for 28 miles (45 km).  Construction was finished in 1964 and it has a dual purpose.  In winter it collects the flood water from three rivers and transfers it, via a pump at Denver, out to sea in the River Great Ouse.  Summer and the flow is reversed and water is supplied to fill a reservoir in the County of Essex.

The spoil from the digging formed steep banks which are now lush with flora and support a wide variety of fauna.  After Foulden Common a small stretch at Stoke Ferry is the only other site in Norfolk to find the tiny Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae).  The Skippers normally appear in April but due to our very poor spring I was wondering if any would be out now in June.  Yesterday (2nd) with temperatures hitting 26c I took the 90 minute drive to find out.

A surprisingly fresh Grizzled Skipper. Very difficult to spot, the usual sighting is a tiny grey blur zig-zagging low and fast to the ground
Not so fresh but at least this Skipper had the decency to sit up off the ground for a few seconds

In the sweltering conditions I counted five Skippers which I was well pleased with.  There were many more butterflies to keep me amused and a few dragon and damselflies.  The air was filled with birdsong and apart from a couple of joggers and dog walkers I had the place to myself.

Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi) behaving itself and not attacking anyone!
Brown Argus (Aricia agestis) not much bigger than the Grizzles. This was attacking everyone!
Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus). Lovely and fresh the colour is deep and vivid

Bring me Sunshine

April was cold and very dry with a record number of frosts.  May has been cold and very wet/windy.  Only one day this month has the temperature got in the high teens centigrade compared to twenty last year.  Not the spring I was hoping for when I took early retirement.  But nature is resilient, It has to be to survive.  Given a good day butterflies will appear and eggs will be laid, maybe not as many but just enough to ensure a future generation.

Sunday Stroll

We took a walk with Rose and Mick and chanced the forecast.  Our route, to the west of town, was quite familiar during this pandemic.  Ominous black clouds to the west, cracks of thunder, yet it rolled on by and not a drop fell.  It was a lovely morning.

Comma (Polygonia c-album) on daisies. I really enjoy getting down to ground level and being amongst nature
Say “hello” to an Early Mining Bee (Andrena haemorrhoa)
A female Orange-tip carefully lays an egg under the flower head of Garlic Mustard. Only one egg will be laid per plant as the caterpillars are cannibalistic
Another Andrena Bee. This is a male and several species look similar

Searching for Skippers

Every year in early May I try and get across the County to Breckland.  It is here, at only two sites, that Norfolk’s rarest and smallest butterfly can be found.  As I approached Foulden Common it was obvious there had been a good helping of the wet stuff.  However the sky was clearing, sun appearing and after an hour long drive I was going to make the most of it.  This year I didn’t have my extra pair of eyes, Mrs H was at work, so I had to carefully scan the ground alone.  As it warmed up the butterflies emerged from wherever they had sheltered for the night.  Brimstones, Orange-tips, Small Coppers, Peacocks and Speckled Wood.  Then, suddenly, what I was searching for.  A tiny dark butterfly flew up to chase a smaller, greyer variety, a Dingy Skipper seeing off a Grizzled Skipper, my target.  In all I saw four Grizzles, not many but at least they are still surviving.

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae) at Foulden Common. With wings open barely an inch across, like a miniature chessboard
Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas) form punctata, on a Cow Slip at Foulden

Pond Update

It’s all systems go at the garden pond.  Every time I turn my back it seems another dragonfly has emerged!  I’ve still yet to see the actual breaking free of the exuvia but there’s plenty of time.  The total now is 3 Broad-bodied Chasers, 1 Four-spotted Chaser and 5 Large Red Damselflies.  The rains have left the pond brimful and all the new arrivals have had to bide their time to take flight.

After sitting out strong winds and an overnight downpour this Four-spotted Chaser has a chance to spread it’s wings and dry out

For the weekend and beyond the forecast is for proper spring weather, bring me sunshine!

More Pond Life

I try and post once a week(ish) and usually have a topic in mind.  Now, if I get to go out unexpectedly and get some images I’m really pleased with a curved ball is tossed in my direction.  What to do?  As you lovely people have had an overdose of butterfly shots just lately I will stick to the original plan, especially as things have happened in the last few days.  Intrigued?  Carry on reading.

Those of you who have been with me for a while will know when we moved home late last year we ‘inherited’ a garden pond, no fish this is just for wildlife.  It needed a bit of sorting out and I added a lot of plants.  Now the work is starting to bear fruit.

Large Red Damselfly (Pyrrhosoma nymphula)

As well as the butterflies, during the warm months (🤣🤣😂) I am fascinated by dragonflies.  Our spring here in Norfolk, as well as most of the UK, just hasn’t got going.  The dragons and damsels (odonata) are at least three weeks late.  For spring butterflies to suffer poor weather will mean next year the numbers will crash.  The dragons can delay emergence under water until things are better, sometimes up to a year.  However late last week we had a visit from the first Large Red Damselfly.

Helophilus pendulus also known as the Footballer Hoverfly due to it’s stripey thorax supposedly resembling a soccer shirt, yeah ok
Bogbean (Menyanthes trifoliata). Lovely to see one of my plant introductions in flower and such a beautiful flower it is

The exciting events started this week with the first Large Red Damselfly emerging.  I noticed the very pale damsel hanging from an old Iris stem.  At this stage they are known as teneral, it takes a day or so to attain full colour.

Morning reflection

Monday morning it was cool and grey.  I went for my daily look at the pond and to say “Hi” to the newts (yes, I’m loosing it).  There hanging from an Iris a freshly emerged Broad-bodied Chaser (Libellula depressa)!  I was ecstatic.  Rushed indoors to get the camera and Mrs H so I could record the event.

The dragonfly was in an awkward spot to photograph. An hour earlier and I would have witnessed the actual emergence.  The little white threads coming from the exuvia are the breathing tubes
The sun came through early afternoon. This allowed the dragon to open her wings into the normal position and inflate them. An hour later she had taken her first flight. The female can be told by the shape of the anal appendages, these are the two tiny points on the tip of the abdomen. Female Broad-bodied Chasers will become a bright gold colour whilst males will produce a substance called pruinescence which turns them blue

My Kind of Norfolk

Last Saturday and it was my turn to choose a walk.  After going through a pile of assorted maps and books that Mick and Rose had accumulated, I had ear-marked a few.  Trouble was they all involved sections of wetlands I am familiar with and at this time of the year could be muddy underfoot.  I settled on what I thought would be the easiest, following the River Ant from Ludham Bridge upstream to How Hill then across fields to Ludham village.  I was hoping for a bit of brightness but unfortunately the day got gloomier and by the time we had done the seven or so miles it was almost dark.  It made photography tricky with such low light but I think adds an atmosphere to the landscape shots.

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Turf Fen drainage mill.  Nikon  D5300, Nikkor 18-140mm @35mm, iso 250, f10, 1/100s

When I worked at the last boatyard, I would spend a fair bit of time ferrying boats to and from different yards in the winter.  Scenes like these are very familiar and to me captures the nicest season on the Broads.  This mill was built in 1875 to drain the Horning Marshes into the River Ant so they could be used for livestock grazing.

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Fly past. A Mute Swan flushed from a nearby field gives us a close view
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Boardman’s drainage mill at How Hill.

How Hill is an 800 acre estate with the mansion house built for Edward Boardman in 1905, it is now an environmental education centre and nature reserve.

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Cormorant tree
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Toad Hole cottage

The men who worked the marshes cutting reed lived in cottages like this.  Very basic with no luxuries like running water and electricity.  Toad Hole is now a museum and furnished to show the marshman’s life.

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Turf Fen