Category Archives: Butterflies

Back yard safari

A couple of posts ago I described my Fenland safari and since then I just happened to have had my own ‘back garden safari’! Lots of colourful creatures have been stopping by to refuel.

I’ve previously expressed concern for the depleted populations of insects, in particular butterflies and dragonflies, due to the mad weather we’ve experienced in the UK this year, but in the last couple of weeks there have been some great sightings outside my back door.


Common darter (Sympetrium striolatum) female perched on the clothes line

The dragons have been late to appear but since the last week in August there have been common darters regularly alighting and migrant hawkers hunting overhead.

And of course it’s that time of year when the arachnids are most in evidence, and my garden is festooned with garden spiders, there are webs attached to every surface: walls, plants, windows… everywhere.

Garden spider female, Araneus diadematus, despatching her prey, a small fly

The female garden spider has a bulbous abdomen which is adorned with the fabulous diadem that gives the species its name. The male is smaller than the female and has a flatter, kite shaped, abdomen, but he also carries the diagnostic markings. A couple of years ago I posted about the perilous love life of the garden spider, suffice to say the sex life of the male can be dramatically and terminally curtailed if he fails to show the lady sufficient respect!


This garden spider male set up home inside the bedroom window – until  the resident arachnophobre found him and relocated him

As well as the spiders, the occasional cricket strolls by, and this little chap was taking shelter under a sunshade from the unseasonally hot weather last weekend:


Oak bush cricket – Meconema thalassinum – the male of the species. The female has a long, upturned ovipositor protruding from her rear

The oak bush cricket is quite a small example of the genre, they are 13-17mm long and are carnivorous, feeding on small insects. They live on the edge of woods and in gardens and appear from July into the Autumn.

Also putting in a welcome appearance was a common buzzard, Buteo buteo:

The buzzard has been one of the birds which has really bounced back since the more stringent controls on of agricultural pesticide use were introduced in the 1980’s. I’d never seen a buzzard until I was in my 20’s and even then it was the occasional sighting in the wilds of west Wales or down in Cornwall. But they can now be seen over all of England – even from my garden.

Hoverfly – Volucella inanis

Hoverfies rarely have common names, they’re simply known under the generic name ‘hoverfly’. And V. inanis is no exception, at least as far as my research reveals. There was great excitement when it first buzzed into the garden because at first glance we thought it was a hornet due to it’s size and its yellow and red colouration. And it was a whopper! They can grow up to 15mm long and this one was one of the bigger ones. It eventually settled and posed rather obligingly on the edge of the rabbit run while I snapped a portrait, and it is a very handsome fly. It has an interesting breeding tactic too laying its eggs in the nests of other social wasps, including hornets – which probably explains its size and colour scheme – where they hatch and feed on the larvae of the host.

Comma – Polygonia c-album

I waited expectantly for this comma to open its wings and show the gorgeously ragged orange symmetry, but it didn’t. So I had to content myself with this silhouette of it perched on a cooking apple.

Turn of the century

After 20 months of posting this is the 100th episode of The Naturephile. The original plan was to post once a week wherever possible and I’ve averaged around five a month, so that stayed roughly on track. I thought I may struggle to find enough subject material and to acquire sufficient photographs of the necessary quality to post as often as I wanted too, but that hasn’t been a problem, so far.

When I started off writing The Naturephile, the idea I may reach a hundred posts never entered my mind, so to mark the moment I’ve trawled back through the archive to find my favourite posts to give them another airing. I’d anticipated it would be a straightforward venture but of course I’d rather underestimated the amount of subjects/species and photographs I’ve written about. But the number of posts was eventually whittled  down to 14.

1) At the end of September 2010 one of natures more brutal rituals was played out right outside my back door involving garden spider courtship. Like other spiders this can easily end up in the death of the male as it did in this case. ‘Araneus diadematus‘ posted on 2nd October 2010:


I really love you… . Male on the left, Shelob on the right

2) A little farther afield are dragon flies, the most common species I encounter are common darters and migrant hawkers. This Common darter appeared in a post on 19th October 2010. I like the symmetry of the fly and the seedhead and the red colour of this male darter against the brown grass.

3) A few years ago when my sister lived in a house (she lives in a kennel now. Only joking, she lives on a narrow boat ;-)) they were digging the garden and this piece of rock turned up. It’s an Acheulian hand axe made from flint and the marks on it are where it was worked with a deer antler. It dates from around 400,000 years ago which means it could have been made by a pre Homo sapiens hominid! It fits beautifully into the palm of my hand and after that many years the edges are still sharp. Even if I was blogging about topiary or book binding I’d have to find a way to slot this in.

4) The winter of 2010/11 was known as a ‘waxwing winter‘. Every winter a  few waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) migrate to our shores from Scandinavia to overwinter. But occasionally the weather up there is fearsome so the waxwing migrate in large numbers and we then have a ‘waxwing winter’. And I hope you’ll agree the waxwing is a beatiful  bird:

A group of waxwing perched at the top of a rowan tree in north Cambridge

5) Another consequence of the bitterly cold winter of 2010/11 was that most stretches  of open water were frozen over and our herons (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) were starving because they couldn’t access their normal food supplies. During this winter  a hungry heron appeared in my friends garden and taking pity on its plight he fed it some fish. And of course one fish supper turned into rather more than one so the heron came to expect it, and if dinner was late it came and tapped on the window to complain to the management.

6) Sea mammals of any description are always a delight to see and photograph and one of my favourite places on the planet for doing that is the Farne Isles situated just off the Northumberland coast.


Atlantic grey seal in the North Sea off the Northumberland coast

Our holiday last year was to Northumberland and I can’t go there without taking in a boat trip to the Farnes where hundreds of Atlantic grey seal were basking on the rocks and generally taking life easy in the water.

7) Closer to home, April last year was hot and sunny and a great time to see songbirds in the countryside. One of my favourite birds is the yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella, Dansk: gulspurv) and they’re regulars in the hedgerows around Cambridge.


Yellowhammer male  – what a gorgeous colour!

8) A creature I’d never encountered before last year was the great crested newt. My friend told me of a place where they could be found so we ensconced ourselves in the nearest pub in preparation for a nocturnal newt hunt after closing time.

It was a very successful trip, a few pints followed by finding  not only the great crested newt but the other two species of UK newt, palmate and smooth newts.

9) As the year rushes headlong into summer and the butterfly season really gets underway I can spend many an hour chasing our Lepidopterans round the fields trying to get that perfect picture. One of my favourites is the common blue and this is about the closest I got to that perfect picture:

Common blue male sipping nectar – one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken

10) As well as being a top location for marine mammals the Northumberland coast is also home to huge numbers of seabirds so it’s a very happy hunting ground for me!

Just poking your head over the seawall at Seahouses can reveal lots of seabirds including oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus, Dansk: strandskade), knot (Calidris canutus, Dansk: islandsk ryle), eider (Somateria mollissima, Dansk: ederfugl), turnstone (Arenaria interpres, Dansk: stenvender) and this  redshank (Tringa totanus, Dansk: rødben).

11) RSPB Fowlmere, to the west of Cambridge is famous for its water rail. On a trip there in December 2011 I was tipped off by a local that a particular hide was good for water rail (Rallus aquaticus, Dansk: vandrikse) and one had been seen there that morning, so off I went to try and see it.


My informant was correct. There was just the one bird there, but it scoured the mudflats in front of us for a whole hour before disappearing into the reeds, giving me plenty of good photo opportunities. I was very pleased with the primeval feel of this image with the bird face on infront of the horsetails.

12) In January this year the weather was absolutely freezing causing a small group of red-legged partridge at Tubney Fen, east of Cambridge, to seek the warmth generated by a mountain of dung:


13) My favourite bird of prey is the kestrel (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) and they are always to be seen hovering in the skies over the fields around Histon. I love watching the highly specialised hunting techniques all birds of prey in action, but the kestrel beats them all in my opinion:


A male kestrel showing off all his hunting hardware: talons, flight feathers, eyes and aquiline beak

14) And lastly, I couldn’t write a post like this without including my battling blackbirds. Of all the bird species that visit my garden these are the ones that provide the most entertainment:

My garden gladiators locked in aerial combat

These were a few of my favourite posts, favourite for various reasons: the stories attached, the rarity of the sighting or simply the exquisite natural beauty of the subjects. I hope you like them!

And lastly, I’ve been stunned by the numbers of people from all round the world who read The Naturephile and like it enough to follow it or click the ‘Like’ button. Thanks to everyone for stopping by and enjoying a read, I love sharing the nature from my corner of Cambridgeshire with you!

The curse of the cabbage patch – and other beauties

The last post on this blog, ‘The Frozen Fen‘, had a decidedly wintry feel, and because of that, combined with the fact that I didn’t manage to get out and about and get any interesting pictures last weekend, I feel like brightening things up with some colourful butterfly pictures which I didn’t get a chance to publish in 2011 because of the dire shortage of butterflies.

I mentioned in a post last year that 2011 was a very bad year for butterflies, and that was a result of the mild Spring and very hot April which kick started the proceative processes. But after April the rest of the Summer was dreadful – cold and wet – and that resulted in catastrophic depletion of butterfly numbers. This winter has been mild so far (which is why I have had almost no birds in my garden compared to other years) and I’m hoping it stays that way and our Lepidopterans have a chance to recover their numbers this year.

So here are a few of the butterflies which I hope will put in appearances in and around the village this summer:


A comma (Polygonia c-album) soaking up some rays from a cluster of oak leaves

The comma is a member of the Nymphalidae family and is primarily a woodland butterfly which gets its name from its only white marking which is on the underside of the wings and is shaped like a comma. Bizarre that such a distinctive butterfly is named after such a tiny part of it’s anatomy, a bit like calling a tiger a ‘full stop’ because of the black spot behind its ear!  They are also seen in gardens (including mine) in the late summer where they stock up on nectar to replenish their body fat reserves prior to hibernation. Until fairly recently they were restricted to the west of England but have now spread to cover virtually all of England and Wales with sightings in Scotland and Ireland too.

Large skipper (Ochlodes faunus)

I like the large skipper, it is a butterfly of open grassland and I often see them feeding on field scabius flowers, as this one is, and the colour combination is sumptuous, set against the green and brown of the grass stems. I like the geometry too – it reminds of a hornet (as in the McDonnel Douglas F18 hornet – the American navy fighter plane) – but I’d rather have the skipper flying around Histon!

Small copper (Lycaena phlaeas)

The small copper is a handsome little butterfly who frequents open grassland, heathland, wasteland, verges and woodland rides and is distributed throughout Great Britain. I see it here because it likes to feed on ragwort, yarrow, thistles and red clover which are all abundant in the fields close to Histon. They also feed on daisy, dandelion and buttercups which are common throughout the UK too. Despite their dietary promiscuity I don’t see them very often so I was pleased to get this picture.


Large white (Pieris brassicae)

The curse of the cabbage patch! The large and small white are collectively known as ‘cabbage whites’ due to the devastation their caterpillars can wreak on the fruits of the labours of hapless allotment owners. The one pictured here is a male and he is easily distinguished from the female because she has two black spots on her forewings and another small black streak where the wings join and the male has no spots or streaks. As a species they are easily distinguished from other whites because they are noticeably bigger. The cabbage whites are also two of our most common butterflies which renders them additionally unpopular amongst the vegetable growing fraternity. Which is a pity really, because a field full of whites on a hot summer day mixed in with browns, blues and all the other butterflies is a spectacular sight.

2011 – That was the year that was

Every month of the year has different conditions which create environmental niches that favour different flora, fauna and stages of life cycles. So as 2011 rushes headlong to its wintry conclusion, for my last post of the year I was going to select a single photograph to represent the month to month changes in our wildlife throughout the year. And that was of course impossible for a number of reasons, mainly because it was impossible to represent any one month with a single image, and also because I have lots of images that I like and I want to share. I eventually managed to whittle the number down to an average of two per month which include a wide range of our native creatures in the UK including birds (migrants and natives), butterflies, moths, flowers, amphibians and fungi. I hope you like them!

January

Every autumn  lots of bird species vacate our shores to head to warmer parts of the world while we endure the cold of winter, and they’re replaced by other species which come from the north to the relative warmth of the UK in winter. Last year the autumn and winter weather in Scandinavia was ferocious and consequently many birds arrived here in larger numbers than usual, including the gorgeous waxwing. Along with the waxwing, redwing and fieldfare came too, as they do every year, and remained until the spring, providing some welcome colour.

On a bright cold January day a lone fieldfare perched in a tree

February

February was cold and the middle of the month saw us taking the children to the coast for our annual spring half term excursion, and this year we headed to the Suffolk coast at Dunwich. Dunwich is a really interesting place for lots of reasons, not least because the wildlife there is rich and varied. One of the harbingers of springtime which I look forward to every year is the flowering of snowdrops, and the woods on the edge of Dunwich were covered in them:


A carpet of snowdrops in the woods at Dunwich Greyfriars

March

By March many flowers were blooming and the fauna was turning it’s thoughts to matters procreational. And this dunnock was no exception:


A dunnock serenading the ladies from a bramble stem on Cambridge Science Park

Dunnocks have a rather to-the-point approach to the art of regeneration. They don’t get together in pairs as most birds do, they form small groups and mate with multiple partners and the males go as far as to remove packets of sperm from the cloaca of females who have been inseminated by rivals prior to passing on their own DNA. No nonsense!


A robin singing for a mate in an alder tree, also on Cambridge Science Park

And of course the birds aren’t the only creatures to get the urge in March. For the past 2-3 years a guided busway has been built between St Ives and Cambridge and as it approaches Cambridge Science Park it passes alongside a lake that is a spawning ground for thousands of toads which live in the adjacent woods and fields. The busway has therefore cut off the toads from the lake and, driven by the unstoppable instinct to reproduce, this pair were trying unsuccessfully to negotiate the sheer walls of the track. For a week in March I would get off my bike every morning on the way to work to help as many of them across as I could find.


The male toad is hitching a lift on the back of the much larger female on the way to the water to spawn

The male toad locks onto the back of the female with his front claws around her chest and he’s not at all keen to relinquish his grip until they’ve reached the water and he’s fertilised her eggs. After which armies of lone toads can be seen heading back the other way.

Fortunately for the toads Cambridge City Council funded the installation of toad tunnels under the busway so next year they should be able to negotitate the track and avoid the carnage which would otherwise have ensued. Hats off to the Council!

April

This month was a real wildlife fest and many types of creature allowed me to take some great photographs. The trees now have shooting leaves so everywhere has that lovely green colour from all the fresh growth.


Windswept male yellowhammer in the top of a hawthorn tree

The yellowhammer is a species which has become less and less common in recent decades as a result of hedgerow destruction and other modern farming methods, but we’re lucky to have plenty of hedgerows still in situ on the outskirts of Histon, and consequently, good numbers of these lovely yellow buntings. The hedgerow this one is on is mature and has old oak and ash trees in so it plays host to alot of bird species including blackcap, chiffchaff, dunnock, common whitethroat and green woodpecker, to name but a few.

Whilst sitting watching TV late one evening in March, what I initially thought was a bat emerged from behind the sofa I was sitting on with my wife. There had been no prior warning of its presence and myself and my wife both levitated off the sofa uttering something along the lines of “What the heck was that!?”. It fluttered into a lampshade where it staid long enough to get a photograph, and it turned out to be an emperor moth:


Our emperor moth inside a lamp. I though creatures like that only lived in tropical rainforests!

Unfortunately, a couple of days later I found her dead (she was the female of the species) still inside the lampshade. I extricated her and measured her and she was 7cm wingtip to wingtip. A magnificent beast.


A willow warbler beautifully framed by new leaves and blossom of the blackthorn tree

These little warblers which weigh on average around 9g have just arrived from southern Africa. I think bird migration is one of the most amazing natural phemonena – how does such a tiny creature navigate and survive a flight across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean? It’s absolutely incredible.


A pair of great crested newts getting ready to mate in a shallow pond – male on the left, more slender female to the right

The great crested newt was probably the highlight of my year. I’d never seen a newt before and in this pond there were great crested, palmate and smooth newts. I turned the flash power down and used an 18-55mm lens and got some reasonably good photographs of the newts underwater. And that at 1am after a few hours in the pub!

May

I’ve spent many a fruitless hour chasing orange spot butterflies up and down the hedgerows of Cambridgeshire, but they never seemed to settle for long enough to get a photograph. But one morning in May I must have timed it just right, they were in the mating mood.


Female orange spot announcing her availability in somewhat unambiguous fashion to a passing male who was just out of shot


Common whitethroat – these warblers also migrate to the UK from sub-Saharan Africa

The common whitethroat breeds in my local fields in good numbers. It’s easy to identify by its song and the way it perches on brambles and low scrub and then flits almost vertically up into the air to alight a few seconds later close to where it took off from and continue singing. This one is a male, he has a blue/grey head whereas the female has a brown head. As well as avian migrants from warmer climes, at this time of year many species of dragonfly are emerging:


Scarce chaser dragonfly at Milton Country Park

I like dragonflies. In the days of the dinosaurs there were dragonflies with a 75cm wingspan! They are fun to photograph (and often, not too difficult) they look awesome, and they have very interesting life cycles. My scarce chaser sat on a seed head for several minutes whilst I stood a few feet away photographing other dragons and damsels, occassionally he took off to circle the pond before returning to the same spot where he let me get to within around 50cm to capture his portrait.

June

In a normal year the weather will be warming up  nicely by June and flowers and insects and birds should be in abundance. But 2011 wasn’t a normal year, April was unseasonally warm which kick started everything, but the rest of spring and summer were cold and this had dire consequences for many butterflies and other species. One of the few that I did see in reasonable  numbers this year, although not as many as last year, was the large skipper.


Large skipper feasting on the nectar of a thistle

The marsh woundwort is so called because it has been applied to wounds to assist the healing process. I don’t know what the medical basis for that is, maybe it has antispetic properties. It  has a beautiful flowerhead and is one a good number of wild flowers growing in the drainage dikes on the local farmland around Cambridge.

Marsh woundwort poking it’s lovely head out of a drainage ditch which is full of various wild flowers every year

July

I found this splendid looking cricket lurking in the grass in a field on the edge of Histon. I first thought it was a very green grasshopper until I looked more closely at the photograph, and it turned out to be a Roesels bush cricket. It is an introduced species from mainland Europe which until recently was only found in the most southerly parts of England. There are two varieties and this is the long winged one which can colonise further afield faster than its short winged cousin, and is now as far north as Cambridgeshire and beyond.


Long winged Roesels bush cricket

This was the first of its kind that I’d seen and a few days later another one appeared on a blind in my house, so I guess thay can’t be that uncommon in this region now.

A pair of juvenile linnets

Before I got out walking in my local countryside around Histon I can’t remember the last time I saw a linnet, but they breed here in good numbers and in the winter flocks of many tens to hundreds can be seen on farmland around and about Histon. Linnet are finches which feed on seeds and the adult males are splendid with a cerise breast and a crimson spot on their foreheads.

August

When I was at school, many years ago, my Dad would feed the birds in the garden and it wasn’t particularly unusual to see the occasional bullfinch.  But mainly as a result of persecution their numbers declined dramatically through the 1970’s and 80’s and I didn’t see one for years. The males are beautiful birds and I’ve been after a good photograph of one for a long time. And finally…


A male bullfinch crunching seeds at RSPB Fen Drayton

I love this picture – so far it’s the first and only half decent one I’ve managed. Hopefully I’ll get a few more to share with you in 2012.

Later in August, we were on holiday in Northumberland, and amongst the many gulls and other seabirds on the beach at Seahouses was this redshank. I think it’s nature at it’s aesthetic best!


A lone redshank looking for nourishment in the rockpools at Seahouses

September

The biggest garden spider I’ve ever seen – she was around 4cm across

Another of natures harbingers, this time of autumn. My garden fills up with these polyocular purveyors of terror in September, and this lady was huge. She was 4cm across and was big enough to distract my son from a telling off. ‘Dad, there’s a big spider in my window‘ was an imaginative and very effective way to divert my attention from the misdemeanour of the moment. I ran to get my camera and I had to lay horizontally out of the bedroom window to take this photograph, as a result of which I couldn’t stay still for more than a few seconds!

October

After the coldest summer for 18 years we then had a mild autumn which meant that many creatures could be found out and about long after they have normally  migrated or hibernated, or died off. Swallows and swifts were still being seen into October and a bumblebee flew past my lab window one day last week. During a visit to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge, on 28th October, to see what winter wildfowl had arrived, there were some winter visitors including tufted duck, gadwall and widgeon. But the pontoon I was stood on had around half a dozen common darter dragonflies on it along with several species of damselfly in the surrounding reedbed and a lone migrant hawker patrolling the air which took a common darter and butchered it on the wing right over my head. Dragonflies can be seen late in the year when the weather permits, but even so I was surprised to see so many at the end of October.

A pair of common darters mating in the late autumn sunshine

November

One of my November excursions took me to RSPB Fowlmere, between Cambridge and Royston, which is renowned for its water rails. I don’t think I’d ever seen one before but I was tipped off by a fellow naturalist that there was one in front of a particular hide, so I headed off there and there it was, busy foraging in the pond for the whole hour I sat there. It was very murky so the photographic conditions were difficult, but I managed to get a couple of decent pictures and I particularly like this one:

A water rail in the primeval swamps of Cambridgeshire!

And another of my trips in November was to Norsey Wood in Essex which is a very different ecosystem to Fowlmere, consisting of ancient oak, beech and birch wood. So in autumn the forest floor is a really good location for fungi and this fly agaric was one of a large group growing out of the leaf litter.


Fly agaric mushroom amongst the fallen beech leaves of Norsey Wood

December

And finally, a wildlife success story is the long tailed tit. Until the last 10-15 years I only saw these occasionally but they now seem to be common, in direct contrast to so many other species of bird whose numbers are declining. I regularly see flocks of long tailed tits on the feeders in my garden and in the hedgerows and woods around Histon. They’re gorgeous little birds and I love watching a flock of them follow each other one after the other along a hedgerow before bunching together when they have found a food  source and then heading off again in line astern.

A long tailed tit in the hedges along Guns Lane in Histon

I stood quietly for several minutes watching the flock of around 15 birds that this one belonged to and they didn’t seem at all bothered by me as they picked insects from the trees.

So there you have it. 2011 in pictures. If you had the stamina to get this far, thankyou and I hope you enjoyed it.

Best wishes for a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and successful New Year from The Naturephile!

Butterflies, and all that jazz

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club isn’t where I would expect to find subjects for wildlife photography. And, along with the inside of various other hostelries around the City of London, so it proved. That’s where I found myself this weekend and consequently I didn’t manage to take any photographs. So as the weather is so dull and foggy I thought I’d try to brighten things up with some butterfly pictures which were captured at another, less crepuscular, time of year.

Last year I went to a place called Fermyn Wood near Kettering in Northamtonshire with a friend of mine, to look for purple emperors. For the more ornithological among you, particularly if you like birds of prey, this was one of the original release sites for red kites (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente) , and they are still there in abundance. And sure enough one appeared very low overhead before lazily flapping off across the treetops.


This splendid creature is a white admiral (Limenitis camilla), feeding on the nectar from bramble flowers at Fermyn

We set off early to arrive around 8am because at that time of day the butterflies are sunning themsleves on the ground and taking in salts. They get salts from various sources including animal droppings, carrion, sap runs on trees, and sweat. My friend has a photograph of a purple emperor sipping sweat from his sock by inserting its proboscis through the eyehole of his trainer! We encountered a few emperors but they were all whizzing past higher up in the tree canopy. They live in deciduous woods where they spend most of their time feeding on aphid honeydew, apart from this one who sat obligingly on the path and let us take photographs:


Purple emperor (Apatura iris) taking on salts from the substrata

He was sufficiently obliging to unable us to take pictures of the underside of his wings, which are themselves spectacular, but he wasn’t willing to reveal the full irridescent splendour of the top side, which is where their name derives from.  They are big, with an average wingspan of around 8cm, and the males are the most gorgeous deep purple. Alas for the female of the species, she is a rather less dramatic brown colour. I was therefore on a mission to get pictures of the upper side of the wings in 2011 but they are only around for 1-2 weeks of the year and it wasn’t when I could get there. But that’s fine, it gives me something to look forward to next year… or the year after.

On the ground close by the purple emperor was a small tortoiseshell, which are considerable more common and can be found on buddleia bushes up and down the country, but are also amazingly colourful.


Small tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)

I don’t usually like full on portraits of butterflies, but I like this one because set against the parched earth the flamboyant colours of the butterfly are a sight to behold, all the tiny cells of the different colours in the blue and white peripheral spots are clearly visible. It’s a stunner!


Unseasonal Lepidoptera

I was walking in the countryside last Saturday morning around 8am and the weather was bright and sunny. It was also freezing and the grass was glistening  with the first frost of the Autumn. Despite the temperature it was a beautiful morning, enhanced by a deep blue, cloudless, sky and a three quarter moon, and as I wandered along a hedgerow a red admiral butterfly fluttered past.


Red admiral – not the one that fluttered by on Saturday, this one is from earlier in the year.

The colours of the red admiral are gorgeous. It was only when I studied a photograph of one that I really noticed the electric blue spots at the back of the wings and lining the tip of the forewings, and I wonder if the red circle is meant to resemble a fearsome Cyclopean eye to deter potential predators. Whatever the biological rationale they look stunning against the green foliage.

The appearance of the red admiral surprised me for two reasons, firstly because it was so cold, and secondly because in my part of the world all butterfly numbers seem to have been massively reduced compared to last year.

Last year was a really good year for butterflies and in early August, on a hot summer day, myself and my daughter went to a close-by fallow field and did the Big Butterfly Count organised by Butterfly Conservation (http://butterfly-conservation.org). We counted 9 species in our 15 minute survey window, including painted ladies which migrate to the UK for the summer from as far afield as Africa.

Painted lady

I think intercontinental migration is an astonishing feat of endurance for any creature, but for one as delicate and ephemeral as a butterfly it’s totally awe-inspiring. The odds stacked against any individual surviving such a journey must be mightily slim!

Conversely, it was very noticeable that the weather in 2011 was alot colder (it was the coldest summer since 1993 apparently) and butterfly numbers were significantly down compared to last year, in particular the common blue:

The aptly and, this year, inaptly named common blue. This one, with his wings wide open, is a male…

…and with his wings closed


Bizarrely, the female common blue is actually brown

She is looking ragged after a hard summer of mating and egg laying necessary to secure next years population. Common blues and brown argus butterflies can commonly be seen together, they are closely related and the brown argus and female common blue can be tricky to tell apart. She is distinguishable from the brown argus by her overall shape which is very similar to the male above, the white around the orange spots on the hindwing, the blue along the wingroots and the lack of a black cell spot on the forewing, all of which are not observed on the brown argus:


Brown argus sipping nectar from ragwort flowers above. And below revealing the slight differences in the spot pattern compared to the common blue female:


The brown argus can have a blue irridescent sheen when it catches sunlight at the right angle and the wing veins extend through the white wing border, which they don’t in the female common blue.

During a walk through our field at the start of August last year I would see tens of common blue, both male and female, but on the same walk at the same time this year I was lucky to see more than 2 or 3. The results from this years Big Butterfly Count corroborated my unscientific observations and it reports that common blue numbers were down by 61% in this years survey. I’m hoping we get a milder winter this year and a warmer summer next year so the numbers of these beautiful creatures can recover.

I took lots of cool butterfly pictures last year, but as it was before I started writing the Naturephile I was hoping to post them this year. But it didn’t quite come to pass so I’ll try to sneak some of them out under spurious pretexts to brighten up this winter!

Cragside

Whilst exploring Northumberland in August we ventured into  Bamburgh Castle which is well worth a visit not least because it houses a museum dedicated to the Victorian engineering genius and arms manufacturer, William Armstrong. Armstrong used a portion of his colossal wealth to build a remarkable house at Cragside near Rothbury, which is also well worth a visit because it is set in some pretty amazing countryside which is teeming with wildlife. It’s also remarkable because it’s the first house on the planet to be lit by hydroelectricity. So the man who amassed wealth beyond belief by producing arms which were responsible for the deaths of an awful lot of people also set the stage for renewable energy. And that’s a dichotomy which, in my book, makes him a very interesting man.

So… on the way home from Northumberland we decided to avoid the A1 as far as we could which involved going close to Rothbury, and when, completely serendipitously,  we passed a road sign for Cragside (and having joined the National Trust whilst on the Farne Islands) we rapidly decided a visit there was on the days agenda.

And that was a good decision. The house itself would take a long time to explore so we stuck our heads in the front door and decided to explore the surroundings instead. It was a cold and windy day threatening rain, but despite that the gardens were full of flowers attracting bumble bees and butterflies, particularly red admirals. The wooded slopes were full of birds, particularly tits, and most particularly coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse).

My son spotted a baby toad in the long grass but I didn’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t get a photograph, but I was rewarded shortly after when I found this little chap walking along the woodwork of a bridge over a stream:


This nascent toad, Bufo bufo, was smaller than a 50p piece and slipped  into the water whilst crossing the bridge, but he sat still for just long enough

And as we were chasing toads a handsome cock pheasant appeared in the adjacent field,


Pheasant male, Phasianus colchicus (Dansk: fasan) showing off his magnificent plumage

The pheasant was introduced to the UK from Asia, where it’s native range extends from the Caucasus to China, around 1000 years ago. It is extensively hunted, which probably explains why it has been introduced to so many countries!

But the ornithological highlight of the visit to Cragside was the dipper (Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær). It flew past me at high speed low over the stream before landing on a rock which it used as a springboard to hunt insects underwater. I thought it is called a ‘dipper’ because of it’s diving prowess, but while it was perched on terra firma it flexed its legs resulting in a dipping motion of it’s head – so maybe it’s this action that gives it its name. I was wondering why it did the dipping and thought it may enable it to see small prey items underwater more easily.


Dipper perched on a rock contemplating a snack…


Hunting in the stream…


And with a catch – I think it has landed a damselfly

Dippers are unique in that they can swim underwater and even walk on the bottom as a result of having solid bones.

Photographically the dipper posed some interesting problems. It’s mostly a dark coloured bird and was in a dark coloured stream under tall trees on a cloudy morning so there was very little spare light, and it didn’t stay still for very long. Consequently I had to use ISO 800, f5.6 and 160th sec exposure and cross my fingers! Fortunately I was able to focus on the white breast and managed to get a few good shots. It’s a charming little bird and I was very pleased to be able to share some pictures with you.

A trip to the coast

Last weekend I found myself poking into the nooks and crannies of Fareham in Hampshire. My only previous visits to Fareham had been when I was playing rugby against them some years ago. So it was fun to go back and explore it in a more leisurely fashion and find out what flora and fauna are there. And I was very pleasantly surprised. (A bit of a digression, but as I’m sitting writing this, back in Histon, I can hear a muntjac deer barking somewhere along our road).

Our friends who we were staying with live a short 10 minute walk from the town centre, a route which took me across a piece of ‘managed wasteland’ called the Gillies. This is a mixture of scrubby woodland and is thick with flowers and an abundance of insects and birds.


A common blue damselfly – Enallagma cyathigerum perched on a grass stem

I was hoping to see some species which I don’t see in Cambridgeshire, but alas this was not the case. But I guess that’s a tad churlish as I saw lots of great wildlife. The approach to the Gillies took me under a bridge which I think carries a railway line and glancing up as I passed under it early on the Saturday morning a pair of fallow deer sauntered across. I can’t think of any other town in the UK where I’ve seen that! Alas. I’d left my camera behind.


A somewhat tatterdemalion gatekeeper sipping nectar from yarrow flowers

A glance skyward in the midst of a butterfly hunt with the children, with several blackcaps singing in the bushes, revealed this buzzard circling lazily in the scorching sunshine over Fareham town centre:

…and then a few minutes later:

Shortly after the buzzard had disappeared we had ventured into some adjacent woodland where the quiet was shattered when a pair of fairly big birds chased each other into the top of a big old oak tree screeching as they went. They continued their slanging match for a couple of minutes and it turned out to be two sparrowhawks, and this one appeared in this gap for just long enough to snap a photograph. It’s not the best shot ever of a sparrowhawk but I really like it as it was in the midst of a fight and it sat still for just long enough for a single shot.

One creature I didn’t see but which my host told me she saw during a run through here earlier in the afternoon was a slow worm which slithered across the path infront of her. I haven’t seen one for many years but there are rare reptiles frequenting this place too. It’s a truly remarkable location.

So if you ever find yourself in Fareham feeling a tad disappointed by the 1950’s town planners’ attempts to rectify the damage done by the Luftwaffe, ask a local for directions to the Gillies and go and marvel at all the local wildlife.

The Butterfly Summer

Two weekends ago whilst walking through a meadow of long grass and wild flowers such as scabius, ragwort and bramble it was immediately noticeable that butterflies are now out in force. On several outings around Histon since then many species are frequenting the hedgerows and grasslands. The species which I think heralds the onset of the butterfly summer is the gatekeeper. It always seems to be the the one I see first in June/July and is rapidly followed by the other summer species:


The Gatekeeper – harbinger of sunny summer days


Holly blues were around in the spring months but have now disappeared in favour of species more associated with summer such as the common blue:

Common blue male. I think this is one of the best photographs I’ve ever taken – it’s a beautiful creature!

…and

A comma soaking up some intermittent morning sunshine perched on a cluster of oak leaves

I particularly like commas with their ragged edges and the rich colours of a young one are exquisitely juxtaposed against the green foliage of the oak leaves.

Small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral regularly abound on the flowers of a huge buddleia in my garden. And whilst I’m not averse to getting up really close to snap pictures there, it’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a tad more challenging to get good pictures out in the countryside on some of our indigenous wild flowers:


Small tortoioseshell feeding on nectar from field scabius flower, and

A red admiral

I spent 20 minutes lurking in the undergrowth waiting for this red admiral to open it’s wings and when I looked down amongt the nettles I was standing in it was festooned with caterpillars:


Peacocks before pupation – the ‘ugly duckling’

And after pupation – a spectacular metamorphosis (this one is on the buddleia in my garden, but I love the colours)

A notable absentee from the rollcall of butterflies is the painted lady which was here in good numbers last summer but I haven’t a single one yet. Despite that, lots of other species are out there too, such as speckled wood, brown argus, large and small white and small skipper. But more of those next time I post about butterflies.

Summer songbirds mainly, especially linnet

The summer solstice was a couple of weeks ago, the weather is warm and sunny and the evenings are light until after 10pm. For the last week I’ve been heading out across the fields in all hours of daylight and the wildlife has changed significantly. Until a few weeks ago there was alot of bird activity around the nests and I could watch whitethroat and blackcap in the same place for several weeks before that.


Common whitethroat about to head for the nest

The birds are still around but they have dispersed and a tad more legwork is required to see the same species I was seeing 2-3 weeks ago. But now, the first broods of the next generation have all fledged and while my garden has played host to families of starling, great tit, and goldfinch – the fledglings easily distinguished from the adults by their lack of a crimson face – further afield, the hedgerows are thronged with linnet, whitethroat, reed bunting, corn bunting and yellowhammer.


An adult goldfinch and two fledglings on the niger seed feeder in my garden. The speckled brown and lack of a red face makes the youngsters easy to identify.

Another finch of which there are many adults and fledglings in the countryside are linnet. Linnet are one of my favourite birds for several reasons: they are delightful to look at with their cerise breast patches, they have a lovely song as they fly overhead and as long as I don’t do anything daft they will often sit tight and let me get really close to photograph them.


A cock linnet, underlit by the late evening sun, showing several diagnostic freatures including the cerise breast, grey head and pale grey grey cheekspot and the crimson spot on the forehead

Rather interestingly the taxonomic nomenclature is Carduelis cannabina, which approximately translates from the Latin as the ‘cannabis finch’! The linnets diet consists of small seeds so I imagine the name derives from the days when hemp was grown to make rope and they were seen in numbers feeding on the seeds.

There is a field of oil seed rape on the edge of Histon which I had always imagined to be devoid of wildlife but in the last few weeks families of linnet, reed bunting, greenfinch and whitethroat are regularly perched on top of the rape plants.


Greenfinch male in the middle of the rape field

The rape seed pods are full of small black seeds and if you squeeze one seed between your fingers there’s enough oil in it to make the ends of your thumb and forefinger really greasy, so it’s easy to see why rape is a lucrative crop and why it is a good energy source for songbirds.


Female linnet perched on top of a hawthorn tree at the edge of the rape field, she doesn’t have the cerise breast patches of the male, but lovely colours none the less

Linnet are migrant and resident breeders and passage and winter visitors. In the winter they can be seen in flocks of several hundred over farmland and often mingle with other finches. There conservation status is red due to population decline over the last forty years even though the European population numbers between 10 and 30 million pairs! Despite the overall numbers, along with a multitude of other bird species they are the victims of habitat destruction and the systemic use of herbicides which kill off their food supplies.


Cock linnet perched on top of an apple tree also on the edge of the rape field…

… and another one sitting on power lines. Look at the colour of that breast – they’re beautiful birds!

So if you can’t think of anything else to do this weekend and you feel like some gentle excercise and peace and quiet take a walk in the countryside and keep your eyes open for all the songbirds.

Many species of butterfly including large and small white, red admiral, small tortoiseshell, ringlet and small skippers were flapping lazily around the hedges on Guns Lane this morning, basking in the warm sunshine and I saw the first gatekeepers of the year today too:

A gatekeeper probing for nectar in ragwort flowers

All in all, it’s well worth a trip to the countryside armed with a pair of binoculars!