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/



Musings & Marsh Fritillaries

Into February, another step closer to spring (hurrah!).  We had a little drop of the white stuff mid-week, it had all gone the next day, just enough to make a mess.  Some parts of our country had it bad, closing roads and airports, but stuck out in the North Sea this time it missed us.  Must admit I’ve not been out with the camera since the new year, the cold does not inspire me and it’s been mostly wet and grey.  Today it’s glorious sunshine (slightly frosty) so when I’ve finished here I’m out into the garden.  There are two weeping willows that need pollarding and I can’t put the job off much longer!

For this post I’m cheating a bit and re-visiting a subject that I aired way back when I first started blogging…… Marsh Fritillary the stained glass window of the butterfly world.

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Stunning Marsh Fritillary

Back in May 2017 I travelled up to Chambers farm wood near Wragby in Lincolnshire.  In an area called Little Scrubs Meadow a colony of Marsh Fritillaries had been introduced many years earlier.  Numbers were never very high, however on my visit there had been a record emergence and I saw well over a hundred, it was an amazing sight.  One day I shall have to return.

Beautiful underwing pattern

Marsh Fritillary (Eurodryas aurinia) a few facts.  This is a declining species that is mainly confined to the south west of the UK and Ireland.  They prefer slightly boggy ground (hence the name, duh) which must have a plentiful growth of devil’s-bit scabious, the food plant of the caterpillar.  These are the smallest of our Frits only up to 2″ (50mm) wingspan (larger females).  They are also very short lived on average four days.  The beautiful colouration (scales) is soon lost which led to them once being called the Greasy Fritillary.  When fresh they remind me of stained glass!  For a bit more  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/marsh-fritillaries-in-lincolnshire/

Now where are my loppers and saw.


Silver Lining

My last post concerning the fate of the Grey Partridge was slightly depressing, so I thought I would redress the balance with something positive.  It is still a few months before the butterflies start to appear and today is grey and wet.  For a ray of sunshine I bring you ….. The rise and rise of Argynnis paphia, the Silver Washed Fritillary.

Male Silver Washed Fritillary at Holt Country Park

It was in 2010 when I saw a report of a Silver Washed Fritillary in a North Norfolk wood not too far from home.  At the time it was dismissed as someone releasing a captive bred specimen, possibly for a moment of fame, or to fool those who would rush to see such a rarity.  Might sound a strange thing to do but people have been doing such things for a couple of hundred years!  Indeed the Chalkhill Blues at Warham  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/iron-age-blues-2017/ , and the Brown Hairstreaks in Ipswich https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/pipers-vale-brown-hairstreaks/ , are two recent examples.

However this was not the case.  The numbers increased and colonies were discovered in other woodlands.

A slightly faded female in August

These magnificent butterflies start to appear in July.  They are the largest of the British Fritillaries with a 3 inch (75mm) wingspan.  The males are a striking bright orange when fresh.  They are powerful fliers and will glide for quite some way along a woodland ride, stopping briefly to nectar on bramble flowers.  The males can be told apart by the four very prominent raised black veins on the upper forewings.  These are called sex brands and release a scent during mating.  The females are slightly larger and duller in colour.  An unusual feature of the SWF is that a very small percentage of females turn out a fantastic blue/green in colour.   These are the Valezinas and sightings are something to cherish.

A stunningly beautiful female of the form Valezina

So why are Silver Washed Frits doing so well when other members of their family i.e the Pearl Bordered and High Brown are disappearing fast?  A lot depends on habitat.  The latter two require special conditions.  Since woodland was left neglected, or worse planted with conifers, they started to die out.  They needed areas cleared on a regular basis so they could lay their eggs on violets, the food plant of their caterpillars.  The Silver Washed lays its eggs on tree trunks (and my jeans on one occasion!).  The caterpillars after hatching descend to the ground to seek out violets.  As I said these are powerful fliers and this has enabled the species to spread and colonise and now provide a delightful sight in a high summer woodland.

Silver washed fritillary at Holt, beautifully backlit. The name derives from the markings on the underwing

For a few more images of these butterflies  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/silver-washed-frits-2017/

Now that’s cheered me up!

Cumbrian Discoveries pt1

At last a weeks holiday!  A return visit to Southern Cumbria.  This year we are picking up our daughter Victoria (the Norfolk Lemming) from Manchester Uni a few weeks later, so I hope to see and photograph some new species.  Beautiful weather and on day one we went to Latterbarrow nature reserve.  This is a narrow site on a hill near Witherslack, the vegetation was parched dry due to the very hot summer with few flowers.

High Brown Fritillary at Latterbarrow

Tina spotted a Fritillary whilst I was searching for Northern Brown Argus.  To our great delight it was a High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe) one of the UK’s rarest and most threatened species.  Once widespread in woodlands across Britain it can now only be found on a few limestone hills around the Morecambe Bay,  and at a couple of sites on Exmoor.  The population has crashed by over 90% since 1970!

New species number two, a Black Darter

Absolutely elated.  I noticed a small dragonfly, eventually it settled on a swaying grass head and I reeled off a few shots.  It was a Black Darter (Sympetrum danae).  I have never seen one before.  In Norfolk they only occur at two sites in the west of the County.

Then a really pretty moth, a Mint Moth (Pyrausta aurata)

Mint Moth
Slightly worn but still beautiful, the High Brown Fritillary

Day one a great success!  I have updated the portfolio on my HOME page https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/butterflies-in-cumbria/



Bentley Wood Pearls

I had a target at the start of the year to travel and see some new species of butterflies.  A long weekend away in Hampshire enabled me to see the Pearl Bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) at Bentley Wood, which straddles the border with Wiltshire.  This is one of the UK’s premier butterfly woods and the Frits are found in the eastern clearing which is just a short walk back from the car park.

First sighting of a settled Pearl Bordered Fritillary

The Fritillaries are a fast declining species in the UK, they require open sunny areas of woodland with plenty of violets for their caterpillars to eat.  Woodland management has changed and these areas are only cleared through conservation work.  They are medium sized with a wingspan of 38-46mm (1 1/2-1 3/4 inches)

Tina and I saw several, they were constantly on the move, criss-crossing low to the ground, very rarely stopping.

Difficult to get a nice clean shot

There was so much more to see, moths, bugs and other butterflies.  I have put together a collection of images,  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/bentley-bucknell-woods/.  For the journey home we stopped in Northamptonshire at Bucknell Woods near Silverstone.  Here I saw my second target the Wood White (Leptidea sinapis) the smallest 42mm (1 3/4 inch) and most delicate of the whites.  It is also now a rare butterfly which inhabits sunny woodland rides, and like the Pearls rarely stops.

Wood White, not stunning but to me very special

A fantastic weekend.  Don’t forget to check out the other images on the HOME page.  https://blhphotoblog.wordpress.com/portfolio/bentley-bucknell-woods/