Monday, 9 July 2018

Dung roaming

The Purple Emperor needs no introduction here, so much has been written about our largest British butterfly. Suffice to say that such is its celebrity that it has its own folklore and even fan-club, who worship at an online shrine to the beast, The Purple Empire blogsite.
A male Purple Emperor's wing catches the light

Same individual, slightly different angle
Last Sunday morning saw me with time on my hands so I made the journey to Bentley Wood in neighbouring Wiltshire, one of the most reliable sites for this species. Emperors occasionally make morning forays to ground level to probe for salts and moisture, and in view of the heat-wave I reasoned that an early start might be required to witness this spectacle. By 0700 I was already in the wood checking out the rides and treetops.
The stunning underside of a Purple Emperor
Note the long tongue which was constantly probing for salts
Almost immediately a shimmer of purple caught my eye, but it was only the upper-wing of the Emperor's courtier, the Purple Hairstreak. I say 'only' but while it can not compete with the Emperor on size, this is still a pretty spectacular insect in its own right, especially when seen at eye level. The early start had not paid off, however, in terms of finding an Emperor on the deck. By about 0900 I had seen just the one blatting around the canopy of a clearing either side of the main ride.
When an admirer cast a shadow over the Emperor it flattened the light but required a high ISO rating to capture the purple sheen on both wings
I had not seen the orange rings and details on the hindwing this well before
Bentley Wood is a popular place with Emperor-seekers and speaking to a few of the later arrivals, it seemed that with the hard surfaces of the rides being baked in the heat, ground-level sightings had been hard to come by in the preceding days. Fortunately, animal droppings provide a convenient source of moisture and while by the standards of most beauty spots in southern England Bentley Wood was remarkably free of dog mess, there was plenty of fresh horse dung around.
An impressive beast
Deeper into Bently Wood this Purple Emperor has forsaken dog mess for horse dung. Classy.
A few familiar faces with big lenses arrived from Weymouth around this time and after a bit more patient but unrewarding waiting around, one of them, John Wall, returned to the car park for a bottle of water. Minutes later we could see him frantically beckoning us in his direction where, we could only assume, a Purple Emperor was at his feet.
A watchful male Purple Emperor in mid-canopy
A fresh Purple Hairstreak at eye level
It transpired that a dog walker had alerted him to the presence of 'a large butterfly' on the path which has subsequently moved into a patch of vegetation where her canine charges appeared to have just parked their breakfasts. A small group of admirers was soon gathered around the insect, delighted to see the purple sheen of refracted light identifying it as a male. It was an assault to the senses: for the eyes, a splash of uncommonly beautiful colour; for the ears, a cacophony of whirring motor drives; and for the nose, well, let's just say the butterfly's chosen source of nourishment could not have been more foul.
Male Purple Hairstreak
A rare view of the open upperwing
I suppressed the gag reflex and concentrated on finding the right exposure to capture the Emperor at its best - not easy as it was sitting in strongly dappled light with vegetation casting shadows over all or part of its body.  For such a large butterfly holding its wings at angles it was also necessary to experiment with wider apertures, thus reducing the shutter speed and pushing the auto-ISO rating higher. All in all a delicate balance of factors which I am not sure I managed to pull off as well as I might, but I was happy with the results, and delighted to have enjoyed such a close encounter.
Female Purple Hairstreak
Another female - note the less extensive but more iridescent purple patch compared to the male
Amid widespread concern about the fate of our insect populations it was a comfort to be able to sit in the shade at Bentley Wood and watch the rides hum with good numbers of Whites, Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Silver-Washed Fritillaries.
A fresh Ringlet basking in the early morning sunshine
A mating pair of Ringlet - the one on the left being of the rare aberration arete
A meander further along the rides produced a couple of further sightings of more discerning Purple Emperors feeding on horse manure. By noon they had retreated to the more familiar treetops and I had returned to my own familiar habitat in Dorset.
Male Silver-washed Fritillary
Female Silver-washed Fritillary underwing
Female Silver-washed Fritillary
White Admiral in the east car park at Bentley Wood

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A pinch of saltmarsh

My sons are both 'Kentish Men', born in the Garden of England west of the Medway, but since we left the county in 2007, visits back there have been a bit few and far between. The recent birthday of a former neighbour provided one such opportunity, and Sunday morning offered a chance to reacquaint myself with an old favourite, the Elmley Marshes Natural Nature Reserve on the Isle of Sheppey.
A breeding plumage Yellow Wagtail always brightens the day 

Yellow Wagtails are very leggy enabling them to stalk through the long grass of the grazing marsh
This unusually bold bird was strutting up the entrance track calling constantly
A wider angle view perched on thistle
Although it was a brief encounter, after my last few visits when breeding birds seemed a bit thin on the ground, it felt a bit like the 'old days' at the turn of the century when I first started going there: breeding waders like Lapwing and Redshank appeared to be doing well, as were the ground-nesting passerines - Yellow Wagtail, Corn Bunting, Meadow Pipit and Skylark.
Wonderful close-up views of Redshank from the car window
Juvenile Redshank
Marsh Harriers were very much in evidence...
...much to the chagrin of the breeding Lapwings
All the photographs in this post were taken using the car as a hide on the 2 mile entrance track to the reserve centre. Since the reserve management reverted from the RSPB to the private owner a few years ago, the area around the farm complex has undergone some reconfiguration, with more provision for paying guests and conversion of farm buildings. But if that's helping to pay for the conservation work, I'm certainly not complaining.
This adult male Lapwing was sporting a spectacular crest
Increased Lapwing chick productivity is one of the key management aims on the reserve: here's one they prepared earlier
Stunning iridescence on this roosting bird
My car's reflection can be seen in the eye of this Lapwing photographed at close range
I rediscovered an interest in the natural world relatively late in life, and it was a visit to Elmley back in the late 1990s which re-ignited a childhood fascination with birds which had been dormant while I was studying and working in London in my 20s. One of my earliest memories of the reserve was a Corn Bunting singing from a trackside bush - so I was touched to see another singing from the same bush on Sunday. The children haven't yet learned to share my pleasure at being on the grazing marshes and saltmarshes of Sheppey. Thankfully, for as long as good conservation management continues, there is still time.
Meadow Pipit
A flock of Stock Dove was nice to see
Skylark
Corn Bunting

Monday, 4 June 2018

Tails and the unexpected

Swallowtail butterflies were the main target of my recent Bank Holiday weekend in the fens and I was not to be disappointed, seeing them shortly after my arrival at one of the most well-known and accessible sites for this species, Strumpshaw Fen near Norwich. I arrived mid-afternoon to find unexpected traffic chaos caused by a fair at the nearby Steam Museum, swelling the ranks of the Swallowtail admirers who head there at this time of year. The famous 'Doctor's garden', whose planted beds are a favourite haunt of the butterfly, was out of bounds but, having seen them on the somewhat gaudy flowers there some years ago, I was in any case hoping to see them in a more natural setting.
Swallowtail, Strumpshaw Fen
A wider angle showing more of the nectar source
A portrait crop which I quite like
After a short wait near the garden, a Swallowtail arrived, turned its nose up at more exotic plants, floated over the mown lawn and headed for an unkempt patch full of Red Campion. I enjoyed extended views as it sought nectar from almost every flower, some of which were close to the path. Due to the long grass it was difficult to get a clear photograph but with patience, and high ISO ratings in the gathering gloom of late afternoon, I was able to take a few opportunities to capture the butterfly in this habitat.
Swallowtail, Hickling Broad
Nectaring on Yellow Flag Iris, abundant around the Broad
A different individual, judging by the nick in the right forewing
I returned early the following morning to look for butterflies and dragonflies but, having found both in short supply, on the advice of a local butterfly enthusiast I headed a little further east to Hickling Broad, which had the added advantage of avoiding more steam fair related chaos arising from the ongoing festivities at Strumpshaw!
This pair appeared to be engaged in some form of courtship, with some elaborate parallel flying manoeuvres
Swallowtail must be one of the few butterflies large enough to photograph in flight distantly over a reedbed!
A close-up of the exquisite hindwing pattern and tails
This turned out to be good advice, as good numbers of Swallowtail were visiting a recently cut patch of reedbed in which Yellow Flag Iris were flourishing. Getting a clear photograph through vegetation was, again, difficult, but there was an uncluttered view of several flowers from a conveniently placed bench, so I made myself comfortable and waited. Eventually Swallowtails obliged by nectaring at the nearest flowers and then it was just a question of hoping that my chosen camera settings could capture the action of these restless, hyper-active insects.
The long tongue can be seen here searching for nectar
The mating pair - note the tails of the lower individual poking through the closed wings of the one above
Not something you see every day: Swallowtail threesome!
Sitting in the same spot for so long enabled me to become intimately familiar with the surrounding habitat, and eventually I noticed a pair of Swallowtail apparently mating low down in the reedbed. They were repeatedly bothered by a third individual, which seemed determined to get in on the action! The pair stayed bonded for at least half-an-hour before the indiscreet third party finally seemed to have ruined the moment for them, and they went their separate ways. Hopefully not before the seeds of the next generation were sown!
Hickling and Strumpshaw were also excellent for dragonflies - this a male Broad-bodied Chaser at Strumpshaw...
...a female Black-tailed Skimmer at Hickling...
...a Hairy Dragonfly at Strumpshaw...
...and, best of all, a Norfolk Hawker at Hickling
My view of this green-eyed monster was very restricted but made for a nice soft focus edge to this image