Tag Archives: small tortoiseshell

A day out at Minsmere

RSPB Minsmere is nestled on the North Sea coast in Suffolk sandwiched between the heather and gorse of Dunwich Heath and the nuclear power station at Sizewell. I spent a day there at the end of June and the plan had been to make a 5 a.m. start and get there for the sunrise. But the weather on that morning was foul so I started later and stopped off on the way there at RSPB Lakenheath Fen, on the west side of Suffolk, to wait for the rain to abate. Lakenheath Fen was previously owned by the Bryant and May match makers so the woodland there is primarily poplar which is apparently the wood of choice to make match sticks. Consequently the air is filled with that wonderful noise that poplars make when the wind blows.

Despite the pouring rain, which precluded photoghraphy on the Fen, the omens were good. There were reports of a red footed falcon which I didn’t see, but I did see a wild otter, the first time I’ve ever seen one. And I heard a bittern booming, and it was the first time I’d heard that too. So that was two new encounters even before I’d reached the coast.

The bittern (Botaurus stellaris, Dansk: rørdrum) is a small brown heron which lives in reed beds and hunts fish so stealthily that it’s next to impossible to see until it moves. The booming is an amazing sound and the recording can’t really do it justice, it can be heard for more than a kilometer and the only thing I can liken it to is a distant foghorn. Coming through the reedbeds early on a quiet rain sodden morning gave it a ghostly quality which is difficult to describe. Bittern are rare and to give you an idea of how unusual it is to see, or hear, one, there were only 600 individuals in the whole of the UK in 2010/2011 and only the males boom. East Anglia is a good place to look though because they migrate here across the North Sea from Holland, and the first breeding record was in Norfolk in 1911, having been extinct in the UK in 1868.

From the Fen I headed off in my rainsoaked state to Minsmere. But the gods were with me as the sun came out on the way and stayed out for the rest of the day. It turned into a scorcher.

Common whitethroat male guarding his bushes

On the way into the reserve from the carpark the habitat is woodland which opens out onto grassland before arriving at the fresh water and salt water lagoons. There were reports of stone curlew on the heath and an old twitcher with a telescope claimed to have spotted them, but I couldn’t find them and remained sceptical. But in an adjacent bush was a male whitethroat patrolling the apex, even though it was the end of June he was one of the first I’d seen this year. Pausing momentarily to snap the whitethroat I then wended my way to a hide overlooking the salt water lagoons.

Sandwich tern (Sterna sandvicensis, Dansk: splitterne) snapped from the comfort of the hide

The main hide overlooking the lagoon is, in my opinion, pretty much perfect. It’s a modern and substantial affair and it made me chuckle listening to the twitchers grumbling about how they preferred sitting in a draughty cold shed with limited views and no comfort whatsoever. I’ve got no problem doing it the old fashioned way when it’s the only option, but when the facilities are to hand I much prefer to sit in warmth and comfort with panoramic views through huge glazed windows which can be opened if so desired. And on this occasion the facilities were available, so that’s what I did, and I hope you like the results…

A pair of common terns – “Where’ve you been? I’ve been worried sick. You treat this place like a hotel!”

The common tern (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) on the left had been sitting there for many minutes, then the one on the right arrived to be scolded mercilessly by it’s companion, and this happened each time the second one came back after a brief fishing trip. The common tern could easily be mistaken for the arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea, Dansk: havterne) but is easily distinguished at a glance by the black tip to its beak which is absent in the arctic tern. Both species are consummate aeronauts and fishermen, and they both breed in Europe before migrating south to Africa and beyond.

There were big numbers of all kinds of seabirds on the lagoon including the terns. Gulls, black tailed godwits, a spoonbill (another first ever sighting for me), and numerous ducks including shoveller and shelduck, none of which I got really good photographs of. But this pair of gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk knarand) were feeding close by and did allow me to photograph them:

Male gadwall behind nesting black headed gulls…and the female of the species

Gadwall can often be seen on lakes inland in the winter when they appear drab and uninteresting compared to say a shoveller or a goldeneye, but in bright light in their finest breeding plumage I think they’re quite splendid.

The star of the show at Minsmere is often the avocet. I’ve seen them and photographed them here before but this time they were nesting on a mudflat close by:

The iconic avocet (Recurvirostra avoseta , Dansk: klyde)

Avocet parent-to-be looking after the nest

The other avocet parent was sitting on the nest and occasionally stood up to turn the eggs. It did this every few minutes giving nice views of the eggs which would be extremely well camouflaged when exposed to potential predators such as the great black backed gull.

At one point a pair of peregrine falcons appeared and proceeded to launch multiple waves of tandem attacks on the ground nesting birds. It reminded me of the scene at the start of the film ‘Battle of Britain’ when the Luftwaffe fighters swoop down and shoot up a British airfield. Suffice to say all hell broke loose, it was highly entertaining to watch, and I’ll write more about that in my next post.

It’s not just the birdlife which marks Minsmere out as a special place for wildlife. I knew there were red deer (Cervus elaphus) in this part of Suffolk but I’d only ever seen occasional individuals and one or two small groups in the past. But on the way off the reserve in the early evening there was a big field in which there were several hundred of them.

Grazing red deer

On first spotting these I thought they were livestock on a farm, but then I realised there were no fences that they wouldn’t be able to simply step over so they must be wild. I’d never seen so many of these in one place before.

On an unrelated note (the trip to Minsmere was in June and I’m writing this in August), so far this year in Cambridgeshire there has been a dearth of butterflies especially small tortoiseshell. But the day before yesterday there was one flitting around the entrance to work when I came home and when I got here there were five more on my buddleia bush. And yesterday there were more in the garden. So I hope they’re making a late recovery, along with other hard hit species, from the Lepidopteran devastation inflicted on them by the cold weather in previous three years.

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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!


Local Lepidoptera

The class of insects known as the ‘Lepidoptera‘ is the one that encompassses moths and butterflies. Many species of both have emerged from hibernation and can be seen aplenty in gardens, parks and in the countryside.

Speckled wood (Pararge aegeria) and orange tip (Anthocharis cardamines) are abundant in scrub and hedgerows.


Speckled wood butterfly warming up on a bramble leaf

The speckled wood is an interesting butterfly for a couple of reasons. It has a north/south colour variation where  more northerly individuals have  whitish spots and more southerly ones have orange spots. The other unique feature of this species is that it can overwinter as both a larva and a pupa resulting in adults emerging all the way through from Spring to Autumn.

I don’t have a good picture of an orange tip as they are very difficult to catch stationary. I watched one sat on a cow parsley flowerhead for several minutes last weekend, but of course I’d left my camera at home. The males have a 40-50mm wingspan, creamy white upper parts with big orange patches on the wingtips which alaso have a black margin. Underneath they have wonderfully intricate green lacework which makes highly effective camouflage. The females don’t have the orange tip, which is thought to be a warning to predators that they are unpalatable, but they are easier to see on food plants as they are not busy looking for mates in the same way the males are. Photographs to follow, hopefully!

A few red admirals (Vanessa atalanta) have been spotted by me in Histon so far this year, although not more than two or three, but in the last two weeks large numbers of small tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) and holly blues (Celastrina argiolus) are flying around in the hot sunny weather.


Red admiral on a bramble stem


Small tortoiseshell butterfly looking somewhat tatterdemalion after emerging from hibernation, warming up in the early morning sunshine on an old farm machine

Holly blue butterfly

I haven’t seen many interesting moths yet this year, but late one evening last week, whilst quietly watching TV, this beauty emerged from behind the sofa, to the general consternatiion of all in the room, fluttered around very rapidly for several seconds before homing in on a lamp and alighting inside the shade:


Emperor moth female inside a lampshade

As you can imagine, her choice of resting place gave an additional challenge to the photography but I like this picture. The male is even more colourful with orange hindwings and believe it or not the emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia, is native to the UK, not an import from the rainforests! Emperor moths are big with a wingspan over 7cm, and they live on moors and in open countryside where they feed on brambles. The males are out and about in daytime looking for mates in April and May and the females are abroad at night, I guesss looking for safe places to lay eggs. It is the UK’s only resident member of the Saturnidae family.