nature

A late flurry

Small copper butterfly nectaring on cats ear
Small copper butterfly nectaring on cats ear

Some friendly September weather did seem to bring out a small flurry of late emergences in some species who had a tough year like small coppers. Finger’s crossed for a better season next year!

Sea Lavender Skies

Sea Lavender at Holkham in Norfolk
Sea Lavender at Holkham in Norfolk
Sea Lavender at Holkham in Norfolk

 

Sometimes muted grey skies can be a blessing in disguise, as was the case with this shot. High contrast full summer light can be tricky to contend with during the day. This soft pastel palette of sea lavender in Holkham bay was only possible thanks to some heavy leaden grey cloud skies creating soft even light conditions. Taken with the new Olympus 300mm pro-lens.

Lawn,Yawn…

Selfheal amidst white clover meadow

 

Selfheal amidst white clover meadow
A combination of Selfheal and White Clover makes a wonderful, low-maintenance turf-lawn alternative

With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people these days seem to detest the idea of  spending precious leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013 around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable.

This is a tragedy for humans, the eco-system and wildlife alike. Most especially because there are some truly beautiful, natural, wildlife friendly alternatives out there , are far more attractive than block or shingle replacements yet are still vastly less effort to maintain than a traditonal turf lawn.

Flooding has become a real issue in urban areas due to block paving of front gardens for maintenance or driveway purposed, so much so that planning permission is now required for non permeable paving with no drainage. As awareness grows of the flooding and ecosystem impact of artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener alternatives to paving that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is rapidly increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.

Grass lawns themselves are a monoculture habitat with very poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm it has little to offer wildlife, as well as limited visual appeal to the human eye. With a little imagination your dull, bland green lawn could be transformed into an artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low level, slow growing wildflowers that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. Many of these plants are native or long naturalised so cope with our long dry summer weather far better than garden centre grass mixes will do.

Probably the star performer for an alternative turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.

Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.

Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for as an alternative to a bland green turf lawn, but many  other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with regular mowing. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.

Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.
  • Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.
  • Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v.  persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)
  • Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.
  • Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring
  • Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.
  • Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.

Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.
  • Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native  buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.
  • Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without a daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.
  • Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.
  • Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.
  • Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.

Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns

  • Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.
  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.
  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.

Green / Non Flowering

  • Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.

Traditional Wildflower Meadows 

If you don’t need a low level lawn like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual hay or winter cut you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and are cut around February or sowing a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow. This has a similar regime timed as a hay cut in late summer.

Abandon your Mower

So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.

But whatever you do –  throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!

Further Reading

Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article

http://wildseed.co.uk/articles/2012/06/06/flowering-lawns-give-your-mower-a-holiday

Reading University research shows what can be done creatively

http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/

The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report

https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/7-ASC-paving-survey-report_for-publication.pdf

Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees

http://www.meadowmat.com/meadowmat/meadowmat-birds-bees.html

Red campion and bird bath in the old rose garden
Red campion, daisies and bird bath in the old rose garden

 

Buttercup and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn
Buttercup and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn

 

Broad-bodied is Beautiful

Meanwhile our faithful broad-bodied chaser dragonflies were busy making themselves at home in our new meadowmat flowers in the west facing Old Rose Garden…

Broad bodied chaser dragonfly basking on red campion
Broad bodied chaser dragonfly basking on red campion

Here There Be Dragons

Its been a big week for Nar Cottage’s wildlife garden as we discovered that our first “home grown” dragonfly had completed its three year lifecycle. This photo is of an emperor dragonfly nymph “exuvia”, the exoskeletal shell left behind after the nymph transforms into a dragonfly and emerges as a winged adult. The Emperor’s emergence happens overnight so sadly we didn’t see it happening.

Emperordragonfly larvae exuvia after metamorphosis
Emperordragonfly larvae exuvia after metamorphosis

Emperors are know as early pioneers of new ponds and were one of the very first visitors to our brand new, bare-earthed pond back in 2013. Three years on and our pond looks very different, teeming with aquatic life and surrounded by lush native plants and wildflowers creeping to cover much of its surface. The Emperor dragonflies never returned after the first season, but we continue to see lots of Broad-bodied Chasers, Southern Hawkers as well as damselflies about.  Emperors will take other chaster dragonflies, so I hope our population of those survives its emergence!

Springtime in der Eifel

Spring has well and truly sprung with a couple of weeks of glorious weather in the UK and the continent. Here a small selection from a short trip to the beautiful Eifel Nationalpark on the German-Belgian border, with lush meadows dripping in springtime wildflowers and vivid dappled green woodland trails bursting with life…

Spring stitchwort flowers
White spring stitchwort flowers
Spring apple blossom
Spring apple blossom
Woodland path in dappled light
Woodland path in dappled light
Lush green springtime tree canopy
Lush green springtime tree canopy

Signs Of Spring – Insect And Amphibian Emergence

Queen buff-tailed bumble bee

At last…! Some milder days in between the blustery weather, ones when you can really feel the sun on your back. Slowly more signs of spring are present. Insects start to emerge from their overwintering. Though I’ve yet to photograph my first butterfly of the season (a brimstone on 25th March) I’ve enjoyed watching out for the early emerging bugs, bees and, that renowned augury of springtime, the first amphibian frogspawn.

My first sign of early spring insect life was this female Minotaur beetle. One of 8 British “Dor” beetles, she emerges in March and roams woodland and pastureland. Despite their size and fearsome looks, Minotaur beetles are herbivores feeding on ruminant dung. After mating she will dig a burrow up to a metre long to lay her eggs.

Minotaur beetle or Dor beetle
Minotaur beetle or Dor beetle

My second insect sighting was while out gardening. I saw the most gigantic queen buff-tailed bumblebee crash land and nectar furiously on my white crocus. She clambered across our daisy-filled “Meadow Mat” at a surprising rate of knots, looking like she was on a mission, perhaps seeking a nest site to  establish her colony for the season. Sometimes known as the Large earth bumblebee from their latin name Bombus terrestris, Buff-tailed bumblebees are one of the earliest bees to emerge in spring and also among the largest to visit gardens in Europe.

Queen buff-tailed bumble bee
Queen buff-tailed bumble bee

Looking closely you can see some mites hitching a ride on her thorax. Unlike some mites, they are not parasitic but are in fact harmless detrivores, who survive by living in the bumblebee nest and providing a cleaning service to the colony, feeding on old beeswax and other detritus.

Queen buff-tailed bumble bee with parisites
Queen buff-tailed bumble bee laden with parisites

And last but not least, frogspawn arrived to our pond on the 26th March this year, 4 days later than last year and in smaller quantities. With a greater amount of protective pond plants established, hopefully the tadpoles will stand a better chance this year against our hungry newt population.

Frospawn and mite
Frospawn and mite

In the Bleak Midwinter…

Its January, normally the time of Jack Frost and blankets of white, mittens and snowballs…well not th

Winter oak galls
Winter oak galls
Winter sorrel and spiders webs
Winter sorrel and spiders webs
Bramble leaf in dappled light
Backlit bramble leaf in dappled light
Early birch catkin clusters
Early birch catkin clusters

is year!

El Nino seems to have put paid to all that white stuff in East Anglia for 2016 , which could be one of the warmest (not to mention wettest and windiest!) on record in the UK.

The mild weather also has our plantlife well and truly fooled, with primroses and daffodils nodding alongside snowdrops and aconites. So, instead of a classic snowy winter’s scene, this January’s blog is of a winter’s walk amongst the silver birch catkins at Narborough.

 

Lone Pine in Lava Fields

Lone young pine tree growing amongst barren lava flow
Lone young pine tree growing amongst barren lava flow

I was spoilt for choice in picking December’s photo of the month, having enjoyed a repeat festive trip to Cologne Weihnachts Markt (blog followers, the piano man was still there playing) a beautiful walk at Cley beach as well as having a multitude of landscape photos from my second visit to Los Gigantes in Tenerife. Yet it was this simple, stark shot of a lone pine tree in a blasted lava landscape on the flanks of Mount Teide volcano that has stayed with me.

Perhaps because it simultaneously represents both the fragility of nature and its stubborn resilience. The barren lava flow depicts the sheer magnitude of devastation that nature can unleash – despite Man’s hubris these are forces well beyond the power of humankind to influence or control. Yet in that small, vibrant splash of green the image also contains a germ of hope. However bleak the landscape may become, nature soon starts to fight back; this young little pine tree is the first tree in a slow process of recolonisation of the lava-blasted the volcanic foothills centuries after the violent 1798 eruption that created this strange landscape.

Hazy Days of Autumn

Woodland in hazy autumn light
Woodland in hazy autumn light

Autumn is a capricious season, with shortening days cloaked in gold, rust and greytone. Some days dance lightly, soft and still, cloaked in a gentle warm haze, lulling us that summer’s still close by. Others lurk darkly, oppressive and leaden, lumbering irrecovably on towards winter.

Hunstanton Sundog

Parhelion at Sunset - Hunstanton, Norfolk
Parhelion or Sundog at Sunset – Hunstanton, Norfolk

On my last landscape trip I witnessed a truly beautiful natural phenomenon. As I arrived at Hunstanton beach and gazed at the sunset it appeared as if there were not one but two setting suns in the sky, both positioned low on the horizon, the second with a hint of a rainbow-hued glimmer in an arc shape. This optical atmospheric effect is called a parhelion, or sun dog and is one of many types of ice halos  caused by the refraction and reflection of sunlight through small ice crystals high up in the atmosphere. I discovered that the atmospheric conditions had also created the faint sun pillar in the photograph, which is not  caused by a vertical ray of light at all, but by the glinting of many tiny hexagonal-shaped plate ice crystals, the same shape of ice crystals that create sundogs.

Many thanks to atmospheric optics expert Les Cowley for his assistance in identifying the specific type of atmospheric optical effects I observed and photographed in this image and to the clear scientific explanations provided by his website of the many unusual atmospheric phenomenon  that can be observed by day and night. Click here to see a scientific diagram explaining the optical effects in my image

Sea Lavender Sunset

Late July into August, the oft-times bleak and blustery North Norfolk Coast becomes cloaked with a carpet of lilac sea lavender flowers and paints a vivid picture of tranquil beauty at sunset…

Sea Lavender Sunset at Stiffkey Saltmash on the North Norfolk Coast
Sea Lavender Sunset at Stiffkey Saltmash on the North Norfolk Coast

A Silver Studded Summer

Silver-studded blue butterfly amongst grass stalks

It seems that summer has been slow to start, but nature can’t afford to wait and one of Norfolk’s rarest butterflies has taken to the wing pretty much on cue. Silver-studded blue butterflies have one of the most amazing symbiotic lifecycles you could imagine. Frequenting heathland, they plant their eggs on fresh low lying gorse or heather and depend upon just two specific species of black ant, Lasius niger and Lasius alienus to complete their lifecycles.

Silver-studded blue butterfly on ribwort plaintain
Silver-studded blue butterfly on ribwort plaintain

Silver-studded blue butterflies live in small colonies. They are a sedentary species, tending to stay local and fly low to the ground. Unlike the blue males, female studded-blue butterflies are brown in colour, but both share the same silvery blue scales in the black spots on the underside of their hind wing for which the butterfly gets its name.

Adults survive only a few days each summer, just long enough to mate and lay eggs. The caterpillars hatch in spring and are and nurtured by the black ants in exchange for a sugary secretion produced by a special gland. The caterpillar pupates underground in the ants nest before emerging as an adult.

Silver-studded blue butterfly amongst grass stalks
Silver-studded blue butterfly amongst grass stalks

On the Trail of the British Swallowtail

British Swallowtail butterfly basking wings spread

Sometimes as a naturalist and photographer, certain subjects remain so stubbornly elusive that they become a bit of a nemesis. Britain’s largest and most iconic species “papilio machaon britannicus”, our very own British swallowtail, was one such unlucky species for me. So much so, that it took me some five years to achieve my first photograph of this amazingly beautiful butterfly.

British Swallowtail butterfly preening
British Swallowtail butterfly preening its antenna

Our British swallowtail butterfly is actually a subspecies of the European strain that has adapted itself to use the delicate and somewhat sensitive fenland plant milk parsley as its caterpillar host plant. Once comparatively widespread in the south east, its range is now restricted to the Norfolk fens.

Many of you will know that butterflies are one of my favourite wildlife species and I’m a passionate supporter of the Butterfly Conservation Society, which does a great job of raising awareness about the threats to this beautiful animal. Though scarce, I live in Norfolk, the same county that this elusive butterfly calls home. So just how hard can it really be to see one?

Well timing is everything they say. The swallowtail is single brooded and has a relatively short flight period, from around mid May to mid June. If you add to that the need for reasonably clement weather, the window of opportunity is fairly narrow. In my defence, years one and two of my five year wash out were before I had relocated to live in Norfolk.

My natural history and local knowledge was still comparatively limited, and I was restricted solely to weekend trips to Norfolk targeted for the start of its flight period. These were planned using field guides, with the sole aim of seeing this amazing butterfly. Sadly that was just as we entered that phase where our winters were harsh, spring arrived late and the weather utterly uncooperative. Thus for two years in a row, bleak grey skies, cold temperatures and high winds put the kaibosh on my naive optimism and my target remained stubbornly and mysteriously elusive…

Year three and I relocated to Norfolk, surely now I would just stumble across one right? Cue multiple trips to Hickling, How Hill and Strumpshaw, all known Swallowtail hotspots over the course of the next three years. Yet these attempts attempts to witness the beauty of this butterfly were always ill-fated. I forget how many times I met people and heard them say frustratingly, “oh there was one just down that path there ” . Of course said Swallowtail invariably had vanished by the time I reached the spot, for all my luck, the Swallowtail might have been a capricious sprite from the cast of Shakespeare’s a midsummer’s nights dream.

Last year life simply overtook me. My hunt started far too late in the season for success. So this year, I was determined, was to bethe year of the Swallowtail. Come what may I was determined, I would find this iconic, awe-inspiring butterfly, no matter what!

Spring this year was again cool and I was nervous, conditions were far from auspicious for a prompt emergence or a bountiful butterfly season in Norfolk.

A visit to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen offered me my first fleeting, tantalising glimpse, but my bad luck struck again! Just as I arrived I glimpsed a large custard yellow butterfly swoop in…and it was, yes! ,,,.a swallowtail swooping in and aiming to land to nectar on white violet flowers at the main entrance. But even as I approached it was immediately spooked by an over-enthusiastic visitor waving his camera at it! This tourist seemed to be the incarnation of my Swallowtail nemesis, the butterfly equivalent of the “Man from Porlock” and opportunity lost. Assured by staff that they often returned, I stood stationary, sentinel-like for over an hour. Eventually a friendly gentlemen suggested another spot where he’d seen them “only a few hours before” – so off I trooped, yet to no avail. Another Swallowtail near miss, thwarted by mischance or fate, who knew and I finally started to see the funny side of it all.

Perhaps my resignation and acceptance swung it and the gods took pity on me. I had only one last day left of even remotely suitable weather between what were quite vicious storm showers and off I went one last time on my Swallowtail mission.

Back at Strumpshaw, now a familiar friend of a reserve, I ambled around the areas I’d been shown over the years, my jacket still done up against a nippy morning chill. Mercifully, the weather stubbornly refused to close in as forecast. I dawdled up and down the footpaths for about an hour, amidst cloudy intervals and cool, breezy conditions. Eventually, quite suddenly the sun won its battle against the grey and the temperature rose sharply.

British Swallowtail butterfly nectaring on pink campion
Swallowtails nectar on many pink and purple flowers including red campion, as well as yellow flag iris

Suddenly, to my immense surprise and joy, an immaculate, freshly emerged swallowtail materialised from the tree canopy above, landing to nectar on some wild red campion blossoms, bouncing from flower to flower. I was taken aback by the  sheer size and presence of this impressive, majestic almost magical, butterfly with its vibrant colours and bird-sized wingspan.

At last, this bird-sized stunningly beautiful butterfly posed for me, even basking, its impressive wingspread outstretched whenever the sun vanished behind the lingering cloud to warm itself up in the spring breeze.

My five year long mission was accomplished.

British Swallowtail butterfly basking wings spread
A freshley emerged British Swallowtail in Norfolk butterfly basking with its wings spread

 

Storm Clouds

Evening Storm cloud

We seem to be having April’s weather in May this year all of a sudden, which has given me some amazing big sky scenes from my own doorstep. Here’s a very simple composition, a “skyscape” image of nothing but clouds brewing into a full on storm that I took on the verge across my road in quite magical evening light.

Evening Storm cloud
Evening Storm cloud

 

First Frogspawn

Fresh frog spawn

This humble image was taken today after a week of cold days and grey leaden skies. For me first frogspawn truly symbolises the onset of spring. What was particularly joyous this year was to find it in my own garden despite my wildlife pond being first filled little over a year ago! While the frogs had left the scene there were plenty of newts hanging around to enjoy a spring feast.

Fresh frog spawn
First Nar Cottage frogspawn

Valentine Damselflies

Mating azure damselflies in a heart shape

The days are getting longer and it won’t be too long before we start to see frenetic activity as spring start to show little signs of its impending arrival and our native wildlife begins to feel that romance is in the air, indeed garden birds will already eyeing up their territories. Here are two azure damselflies in a heart shaped embrace reminding us that love is in the air…

Mating azure damselflies in a heart shape
Mating azure damselflies in a heart shape

 

 

 

Frost ferns

Frost ferns in morning light

My first photo of 2015 was a reminder that you can discover beauty in the most mundane of places. This is a photo taken one morning of my bedroom skylight that slants southwards just as the sun just started to hit it with a peachy golden glow after a cold and deeply frosty night. I have cropped to tidy the composition and stretched the tonal contrast just a little to convey the depth and contours of the ice crystals but everything else is simply as nature intended….

Frost ferns in morning light
Frost ferns in pink morning light

Star Trail and Low Light Photography

Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk
Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk
Hunstanton lighthouse at dusk

When photographing at night you will be using a slow shutter speed to capture the light source against a dusk or dark sky. A stable camera is absolutely essential for night time photography in order to avoid image blur caused by camera shake.

Use a Tripod & Remote Release

Much as we all hate them, its vital to use a robust tripod to get lovely crisp shots during longer exposures. Avoid skinny aluminium ones with cross bars as I’m afraid they will not be up to the job. That doesn’t mean you have to spend the earth. A budget tripod in the Hama Traveller range shouldn’t set you back more than about £50. Feisol a mid range brand will set you back about £250 and Gitzo can set you back anything from £350-£600 or more. Your tripod mount is also worth considering as a loose one can ruin a long shutter speed shot. As well as being robust, a ball head and camera plate allows for easier camera manipulation and control than entry tripod plastic heads, which can become wobbly and hard to lock rigid for shooting over time.

Using a remote shutter release is useful as it will give maximum control over your exposure time with an on off button. These can be purchased from most photography retailers and you now have a choice of a standard cable or on newer camera models wireless options. You can also use the self-timer on the camera up to the cameras maximum shutter time typically around 30secs for a mid range camera like a 600D. Longer exposures require a cable release and bulb mode.

Shoot in “Bulb” Mode for Longer Shutter Speeds

For the best results I would always recommend shooting in ‘Bulb’ mode using a remote shutter release; this will allow you to keep the shutter open for as long as you hold down the shutter button. Bulb mode can usually be found in two ways; one can be on your dial where you will have the letter ‘B’ along with your manual mode, shutter priority and aperture priority modes. If the B is not there on your dial then try changing your camera to manual mode and changing the shutter speed until you see the word ‘Bulb’.

Image Quality, ISO and RAW files

For high image quality shots use the lowest ISO number you can (ideally ISO 100) as long exposures can cause noise. Some cameras have a “long exposure noise reduction” control setting that is worth experimenting with.

If you shoot in RAW file rather than in JPEG, you will get greater latitude to reduce noise, boost saturation and the contrast of the lights and generally tweak your exposure up or down without damaging the image.

Night Photography Scenarios

Fireworks and Lightning

You will use a slow exposure to capture the movement of the fireworks so don’t forget your tripod and ballhead.

Plan your composition in advance as far as possible. Think about obstructions, features of the landscape, where to stand and what sort of shots you want ahead of time. Get to the location early to get a good, unobstructed position; the last thing you want is people’s heads in your shots. Factor in where the fireworks are set, wind direction and strength (especially if there is also a bonfire) and what direction and area of the sky they are to be fired into; this will help deciding what focal lengths you might want to use and to choose appropriate lenses for the show.

Try both portrait and landscape compositions are they can both result in interesting compositions. Keep looking at the segment of the sky where the fireworks are exploding this can help you to anticipate the right time for a shot as you’ll see the light trails of unexploded rockets shooting into the sky.

Lenses, Focal Length and Aperture

Try shooting at a fixed focal length at first to ensure you get focus correct and consistent. You may need to switch to manual focus as auto focus doesn’t work well in low light, it can take a couple of goes to get it spot on but try turning your focus to infinity to start with and work it from there. The fireworks are not always going to explode in exactly the same place so if you use infinity and an aperture between F8 & F16 then you have a good chance of getting nice sharp shots. Once you start getting the hang of it try different focal lengths wide angle and zooming in if you have enough lens length; if not you can always shoot wide and crop afterwards.

Shutter Speed

If you use Bulb mode you can hold the shutter button down as the firework explodes, once the explosion has stopped release the shutter button and your shot will be captured. Remember to not keep the shutter open for too long because the camera sensor is absorbing light all the time and your image can easily become over exposed; a few seconds is usually plenty. Some of the latest micro-four thirds cameras, such as the Olympus E-series, have started to introduce clever in-camera technology called “live composite” shooting modes that ignore dark areas and only exposure bright parts of an image can are perfect for this style of photography

Once you have some well exposed shots in the bag, experiment a little with your shutter speed. You can also experiment with multiple exposures using black board. Start the exposure when the fireworks start holding the piece of board in front of the lens. Every time a firework explodes move the board out of the way and you will get multiple firework explosions in one exposure for a creative arty effect.

Northern Lights and Aurora Borealis

Firstly, for these images you really need to avoid other light sources if possible. Towns and houses light pollution will decrease the intensity of the aurora you can capture on film and may mess up your exposure. Get as far away from cities as you can.If you can, find higher ground that gives you lots of directions to shoot from, if you can’t, go for a North facing view point.Take a dim torch to help you set up and turn it off and cover over your eyepiece (to stop light intruding into the lens) while your images are being taken.

Think about what you can do compositionally to add foreground interest or a focal point for your eye to rest on – it will be silhouette based so think about lines, layers shape and form and remember the rule of thirds (though rules are sometimes made to be broken)

Focus to infinity and take a test shot then zoom in and ensure your horizon and if relevant foreground subject matter is nice and sharp, you will have movement in the aurora anyway.  Autofocus performs badly in low light so if need be switch to manual and use your focus ring.

Most exposure times seem to be between 15 seconds and 60 seconds. It will depend how much light there is and how good a display there is so don’t be afraid to experiment.

As you’re focussing to infinity its a long way away and you will get relatively large depth of field with a surprisingly small f number. Start at f2.8-F4 and see how you go. If you can’t get everything you need in your composition within the plane of focus then increase as necessary (increasing ISO as you go to maintain the shutter speed you want)

If shooting in AV mode Set the ISO to the right number that will give you the shutter speed you need at the f-number you’re starting at. Try ISO 400 as a starter for ten and take it from there. If you want longer exposures at the same f number reduce your ISO and vice versa. Use as low an ISO number as you can to get the best image quality.

If necessary use your exposure compensation to darken the sky – remember if you are in aperture priority mode your cameras light meter will wrongly try to brighten the dark scene to be an average mid tone. Start with minus 1 stop of light and adjust as needed. Exposure compensation will alter your shutter speed slightly so check that as you go.

For less than 2 second shots  use your two second timer so your camera does not get camera wobble from depressing the shutter. I would also (once you have composed your shot as in that position the mirror blocks the eyepiece viewfinder) set mirror lock up in your camera settings which will again reduce movement in the workings in the camera.

Your camera will have a minimum shutter speed and if you are experimenting with longer exposure you will need to use your cable release in click on click off mode, to use this turn your cameras wheel into Bulb or “B” mode. You will need to shoot in manual shooting mode (M) for this and in fact you may find it easier to work in manual the whole time as that removes the issue about the camera setting the speed for an incorrect “average” exposure that you have to correct for. The only difference is that in Manual shooting  mode the brightness or darkness of your exposure is a direct output of ISO + f number + speed so when you change the shutter speed or f number the exposure will go up and down directly. Take a stopwatch or use your mobile phone to time the length of exposure you need.

Star trail photography

This uses all the same principles as above except that the exposure is much longer, could be anything from 10-15 minutes or more. Some people take lots of time lapse 30 second exposures and then use image blending software to merge them all together afterwards into a composite image in photoshop.

If you want to do a long single shot exposure, experiment with 30 second exposures at a higher ISO number eg  ISO 1600 until you get an exposure you are happy with, then multiply the 30 seconds by the ISO number with the two zeros knocked off then divide by sixty to get the minutes rather than seconds to take the same shot at ISO 100 to avoid noise.

Here is an example long exposure ISO adjustment calculation

 30 secs x 16 (if you used ISO 1600) = 480
Divide 480 / 60  = 8 minutes

Or if you used ISO 3200 it would be 30 secs x 32 / 60 = 16 minutes.

Case Study – Los Gigantes Pole Star – Tenerife

Tenerife is renowned for its clear skies, even being home to a well regarded observatory and was an ideal place to demonstrate the technique. The pole star (the fulcrum around which the star trails will curve) was perfectly positioned above the cliffs in the evening just after dark fell.

In the first image you can see the starry sky as we humans see it, taken using a shockingly high ISO of 6400 and a 4 second exposure and then as the camera captured it over a period of 20 minutes (1236 seconds). Both shots used an aperture of f 4.0 and had long exposure noise reduction switched on.

One other thing to remember is that it will take as long to store the image on completing the shot as it did to expose it in the first place, so this technique definitely isn’t something to try in a rush!

Star trail against Los Gigantes cliffs
Star trail against Los Gigantes cliffs
Star filled night sky above Los Gigantes cliffs
Star filled night sky above Los Gigantes cliffs

Car Light trail photography

Again using the same basic principles, this scenario involves finding a spot where you’ll see the light trails created by cars, securing your digital camera, selecting a long exposure setting on your camera and shooting at a time when cars will be going by to create the trail of light. Then its just a case of experimenting with the length of shutter speed and exposure.

Some extra night photography tips:

  • Timing/Light – one might think that the middle of the night is the best time for light trail photography (and in a busy city it can be) – however one very effective time to do it is just as the sun is going down (just before and after). If you shoot at this time you’ll not only capture light from cars, but ambient light in the sky which can add atmosphere to your shots. You also might find that earlier in the evening you get a little more ‘action’ in your shot with more cars and even the movement of people through your shot.
  • Creative Perspectives – some of the most effective light trail shots are taken from perspectives other than at the height of a normal person standing up. Get down low or find a place looking down on your scene that will create an unusual angle.
  • Location, Location, Location – the most obvious thing with location is that you’ll need it to be somewhere near a road – however there’s more to think about than that. Choose a location that adds interest to the shot in some way. This might be one where there are well lit buildings along the road, one where multiple roads merge together to create light trails in different directions, on the bend of a road so that the trails sweep through the image, near a roundabout so the trails create circular shapes, in the middle of dual carriageways (on a traffic island) so that you get traffic coming in two directions etc.
  • Composition  – the normal ‘rules’ of composition apply in this type of photography. Images need some sort of point/s of interest, the rule of thirds can be applied effectively, draw the eyes into your image using lines smartly, foregrounds and backgrounds should add to and not distract from the image.
  • Camera settings – as the ambient light and speed of cars will differ in every situation there’s no single exposure combination that will work in every setting. Try starting with shutter speeds between 10 and 20 seconds (which gives cars time to move through the frame) and with apertures in the mid range (start with something around f/8). If your shots are overexposed –increase the f stop number) or if your shots are underexposed decrease the f stop numbers to let in more light through the aperture. If you want the car’s lights to go further through the frame go for a longer shutter speed and if you want it to travel less through the frame shorten it.
  • Light Contamination – One thing to watch out for is letting any other light source in your image (whether it be street lights signs etc) cause over exposure – for very long exposures they can easily bleach or wash out your image altogether. Lights that burn too bright can cause distractions and draw the eye of your viewer away from subjects.

One last word on personal safety…

Ideally don’t go out alone, if you do ensure you plan exactly where you are going, tell someone where you will be and when to expect you back and stick to that plan faithfully as a safety precaution. Ensure you have your watch and mobile phone with you and it is all charged up. Take a rucksack with some water, extra layers of clothing and some emergency snacks, and if anywhere remote, a full first aid kit.

Do please wear appropriate outdoor gear for this type of shoot.  In hot climes remember to take out mozzie repellent and cover your arms for biting insects. In temperate and northern climes use 4 season gear, and take extra over-layers you can add on during the night to wrap up warm as the temperature will plummet – don’t underestimate how cold you will get if you are out for a while and not moving much.

Lastly – Have a great time!

Kiri

Rainbows and Ripples

Pilot whale dorsal fin

On a gloriously sunny December’s day, whilst holidaying in Tenerife, I was fortunate to have my closest ever encounters with pods of both short-finned pilot whale (globicephala macrorynchus) and bottlenose dolphins. Cetaceans are mammals like us, giant creatures and yet unbelievably graceful in their element that it is always magical experience to gain a fleeting glimpse into a mysterious life that is so very very different from our own.

I had taken a similar trip once many years ago and had only a distant and fleeting sighting, so that was what I was expecting again this time. I was quick to grab a backlit fairly distant shot at the first sight of a pilot whale dorsal fin. The notches and marks on a cetacean’s dorsal fin are unique to every individual and are used as key identifying marks for scientists researching the pilot whale pods in Tenerife

But this time, I was in luck, the pilot whale pod ventured much, much closer. As I watched them spout water from their blowholes the droplets were refracted into a beautiful rainbow through the sunlight. Then a mature pilot whale swam right across the bow of the boat enabling a top down shot through sunlit dappled water into the sea.

 

Rainbow and pilot whale
Water droplet rainbow from a pilot whale’s spout

 

Pilot whale in dappled light
Full length photo of a pilot whale in sunlit water ripples
Pilot whale dorsal fin
Pilot whale dorsal fins are uniquely marked and used to identify individuals

After a last look at the pilot whales we moved on in search of the bottlenose dolphins. Once again we were in luck and watched a small family exhibiting fascinating group hunting behaviour. The dolphin pod was working as an organised team in herding a shoal of fish, much in the way a collie might herd a flock of sheep, curving round in arcs and keeping them tightly packed together in a group. The group worked closely as a co-ordinated team to keep the shoal of fish close together. Then individual dolphins would take it in turns to nip in for a quick snack. There were several calves in the group which may well have been observing this complex team hunting and learning the feeding technique in preparation for adulthood.

Mother dolphin teaching calves to fish
Mother dolphin teaching calves to fish

 

Dolphins herding fish
Dolphins herding and hunting a shoal of fish

 

Underwater bottlenose dolphin herding fish
Underwater bottlenose dolphin feeding on a shoal of fish

Photography in the Dog Days of Summer

Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom

One of the things I chatted about on my recent BBC Norfolk radio appearance was the difficult light and the challenges it presents to photographers in high summer. But there is always something to shoot for….

By the time we reach August., though its still very hot and to us the height of summer, in the natural world the days are already drawing in and autumn is just around the corner. Its already getting a little easier to capture soft light in mornings and evenings and if you rise early after a clear night you might even find dew on the ground.

August is a great time to to visit our lowland heaths where the beautiful pink carpet of flowers is just coming into its own and can make a wonderful backdrop for close up photography.

Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom
Common blue butterfly perched on pink heather blossom

 

Cross orbweaver spider against heather
Cross orbweaver spider against heather

 

August is a good month to spot late dragonflies as well as second brood and migrant butterflies. Most first generation butterflies are getting very tatty by now and make poor photographic subjects but some species have second broods that metamorphose into a second brood in late summer.

The late summer harvest means that hares, who have enjoyed the cover of the growing crops since spring become easier to spot hunkered down in the stubble of harvested fields.

Brown hares nestling amongst stubble
Pair of European Brown hares nestled in their form among crop stubble

Many birds are already preparing for their Autumn migrations and this month I’ve immensely enjoyed watching the fledgeling swallows and house martins practice their flight techniques and feeding up for their forthcoming long journey by swooping around my wildlife pond.

Swallow hunting insects over pond
Swallow hunting insects over pond

Red Kite Soaring

Red Kite Soaring

Red Kite Soaring
One of my favourite birds is the beautiful and graceful native red kite. I used to love watching one above my garden back in Oxfordshire but I now see them very rarely in Norfolk, so I recently took a short break to Wales to enjoy seeing them in flight at a feeding station. Sometimes known as a pirate of the sky, they are generally carrion scavengers with an important role in the ecosystem and take live prey far less frequently than is often thought.

They are agile flyers and will happily snatch other bird’s pickings and feed in mid air. Not all that long ago they were a species wrongly persecuted by farmers and estates to the brink of extinction but populations in Wales and the Chilterns have recovered thanks to a massive conservation and education effort. While they are far from common and poisoning remains a problem, their numbers appear to be rising in Norfolk as the recovery area population disperses and I hope soon to see these elegant birds of prey gracing our skies more frequently.

Seasons turning

Dappled light in forest glade

Dappled light in forest glade
As summer heat starts to fade into autumn mists and storms, its time to set my macro lens down with a tinge of sadness. Its been a wonderful butterfly year for me with three new first evers to my list, but now the season is turning. The butterflies are fading into warm bright summery memories of warmth with just the hardy commas and admirals feeding up on the flowering ivy preparing to hibernate. But of course the turning leaves augurs in one of the most beautiful landscape and wildlife photography seasons, so it is also time to pick up my landscape lens for the autumn colour and my long lens for the deer rut and the wintering birds all in their bright new winter plumage…

Clouded Yellow Butterfly

clouded yellow butterfly nectaring on cat's ear

clouded yellow butterfly nectaring on cat's ear

The clouded yellow butterfly, colias croceus, is a wandering migrant butterfly to the southern half of the UK that often arrives from southern Europe in Spring and has a second summer brood that flies in August and September. Historically British winters have been too harsh for the clouded yellow to survive overwinter and establish a year round naturalised presence here, but climate change is in its favour and there have been recent indications that sucessful overwintering may be becomimg possible. This was my first and only sighting of this vibrant custard-yellow lively wandering butterfly and a lovely end to the 2013 butterfly season.

Glorious Summer!

Two spot ladybird amongst pastel meadow grasses

two spot ladybird in pastel meadow grasses

It is amazing how much has changed in a month – both in nature and in my home life…

We finally moved in to our bungalow, the builders have gone and so have most of the cardboard boxes. I am finally starting to relax as the stresses and strains of 18 months of a major renovation project and house selling and buying start to fade. We are loving living in the light and airy space we dreamt of and designed at last.

And the sun has finally come out with a vengeance, bringing a flaming July in place of the flaming June of the proverbs. The wheat and barley is turning golden, the rape has gone to seed and everything is becoming parched and bleached from day after day of unrelenting blue skies. As I explore the local trails the meadows are displaying beautiful pastel shades of greens, pinks and beiges with hundreds of ringlet, meadow brown, skipper and gatekeeper butterflies flitting up as you walk through the grasses. They are host to many other mini creatures too and I was pleased to capture this shot of a ladybird, which evokes, for me at least, the feeling of the gloriously hot halcyon days of summer we’re experiencing right now.

Summer arrives, sort of

Large Red Damselfly Mating

The camera is hardly getting a look in, except on class days, and I am restless in anticipation of our long awaited impending move to Nar Cottage. Butterflies seem few and far between this season in Norfolk, suffering after such a long hard winter of lying snow, but the dragonflies and damselflies seem to be doing well, this is a mating female large red damselfly with f. intermedia markings I spotted on one of my favourite walks.

Large Red Damselfly Mating
Large Red Damselfly Mating

Early Purple Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

My so very nearly ready bungalow renovation has been swallowing all my time and is already showing a fun diversity of wildlife, today I saw partridge strutting on my summer house roof plus, doves, a pheasant, swallows, house martins as well as sparrows and other hedgerow finches and a couple of white and comma butterflies flitted past the new hedgerow… This is one of very few occasions I’ve been out with my camera, late in the day on my Birthday visit to Foxley wood for the bluebells, and this Early Purple Orchid shot is an even rarer occurence – that of a flower shot without my 180mm macro on my camera.

Early Purple Orchid
Early Purple Orchid

Little Egret on White

Little Egret on White

Little Egret on White

This little egret and I were each as surprised as the other when we suddenly came face to face when I walked round a bend in the path at my local North Norfolk nature reserve. I only had time to fire three shots off and got just this one sharp against a grey cloudy sky. He’s been a resident all winter and I often see him on the same stretch of the river, but he’s relatively shy. We have both permanent and migrant little egrets in the East of England so I very much hope he sticks around now spring is approaching. According to the RSPB little egrets are relatively recent permanent arrivals to the UK with the first breeding pair being recorded in Dorset in 1996.

Meet the neighbours

Barn owl hunting over meadow in evening light, Norfolk wildlife

Its been quite a grey and leaden-skied February and my photography teaching has been keeping me busy. Back at our new ranch to be we have planning permission and are excited to see diggers and cement mixers arriving at the house. We’re also talking to a local landscape designer about turning the large plot into a wildlife garden complete with pond and meadow so things are looking promising.

Our new home to be is not far from the Nar Valley Way and I’ve been visiting it a fair bit to familiarise myself with my new neighbourhood. On the way home I spent a little time in a nearby meadow and saw a few of our new neighbours – a beautiful barn owl and brown hare…

Barn owl hunting over meadow in evening light, Norfolk wildlife

Alert brown hare in meadow, Norfolk wildlife

 

 

 

A faint whisper of spring…

Winter Aconite Peeping Through Snow

Winter Aconite Peeping Through Snow

 

Even though we have had thick snow on the ground for a week and a half now there are still faint augurs of spring all around us if you look hard enough.

This delicate yet plucky little flower is a winter aconite and is one of the very first herbs to flower in the new year; peeking its cheery yellow buttercup like head bravely up even when it has to tunnel through thick snow to do so, when all the while the more famously celebrated snowdrops are still little timid shoots only just starting to appear.

Eranthis Hyemals is perennial herb and a member of the hellebores family. It was first introduced in the 16th Century before naturalising itself in England and can now be enjoyed in many parks and woodlands, particularly in the East of England.

The little aconite is a symbol of hope when all around is still bleak and harsh and, for that, I love it all the more.

 

Winter Arrives

Female Blackbird in Snow

Female Blackbird in Snow

Just as we were being lulled into the idea of a mild winter, the snow struck, and with a vengeance. In rural mid-Norfolk we’ve been experiencing night temperatures of minus 12 or so, making it extra tough for birds to survive. I put out extra food and make a point of melting the bird bath as its also  important that the birds are able to find fresh water to drink and keep clean, and salt puddles of melted snow water on the roads is not a good option.

This picture is one of one of about 7 blackbirds that visited the garden simultaneously. Many garden birds are highly territorial, so I was careful to spread the food out in patches  which helped keep squabbles to a minimum and save precious energy.

 

 

Happy New Year

Round hay bales in pink light in arable field on a frosty morning, Norfolk

Round hay bales in pink light in arable field on a frosty morning, NorfolkThe brief hiatus of Christmas and the end of a year always makes me a little introspective and thoughtful, of both what has gone and what lies ahead.

For me, 2012 was a year of upheaval and transformation and in many ways quite a challenging year, leaving my beloved Ridgeway behind in Oxfordshire to start a new life here in Norfolk.

The changes it brought now see me based in a new, yet familiar,  part of the world. One that I am rapidly growing to love, as indeed I knew I could, and one that has led me to form solid foundations from which I can build my new home and new life. I’m very much looking forward to putting down my roots and establishing my new life here in Norfolk

It seems that the theme of change and transformation will certainly be continuing with me into 2013, for the first quarter at the very least, with work to renovate and transform my new home set to begin soon and coinciding with the launch of my new photography business.

I certainly will not be bored!

 

A Berryless Holly This Christmas

Berryless holly leaf with melting frost

Berryless holly leaf with melting frost

There was a specific image I’d had in mind to post for this month ever since my move to Norfolk in February, which was of a frosty holly packed full of beautiful red berries taken in the plantation where I often walk my dog which is a copse full of holly as well as oak and beech.

Well it seems both frosty days and, more worryingly, berries are in short supply. When I first started to notice the absence of any bright berries I put it down to the unusually mild Autumn we’ve had with lots of rain but little in the way of true wintry weather and assumed the harvest would just be a little late.

But it is now only 4 days away from Christmas and still only one or two bushes in the whole copse have berries, and even then it is very often just a sad, small, lone anaemic-looking berry.

This year Norfolk again had very high numbers of seasonal migrants and waxwings due, it is believed, to a berry/fruit harvest failure in Scandinavia. If my fears are realised and our berries have indeed failed too, then it may well be a tough Christmas for many of our over wintering birds and they will need all the help they can get.

 

Autumnal Change

The essence of autumn
The essence of autumn
The essence of autumn

 

As the seasons are finally turning things are changing in my life too. I am finally taking my first steps into photography tutoring and its a wonderful reminder of the creativity that taking up photography as a hobby can unlock in people. It put me in mind of the period when I was still very much on the steep part of my learning curve and was starting to experiment with my camera. This was a shot taken in Scotland trying to evoke the essence of autumn.

 

Zugunruhe

Restless swallow preparing for migraiton
Restless swallow preparing for migraiton
Restless swallow preparing for migraiton

One of the early signs of autumn for me is the steady gathering of swallows, not to mention swifts and martins, into larger congregations as they make the most of the late summer insects to feed up and prepare for winter and their impending trip southwards.

As time for their autumn migration approaches their unsettled behaviour becomes increasingly intense, so much so that German researchers coined the phrase “Zugunruhe” (literally translated “moving unrest”) to describe their increasingly evident restlessness and growing drive to start their long migration.

This season watching them gathering into little groups and whirling and darting around with ever growing intensity has struck a particular chord with me; I am very much feeling my own Zugunruhe, though, in contrast to the swallows, it has much to do with finally completing my prolonged personal migration and settling into my own new long term home rather than setting out on a new migratory adventure!

I can’t wait….

 

 

Chalkhill blue butterfly on ragwort

Chalkhill blue nectaring on ragwort
Chalkhill blue nectaring on ragwort
Chalkhill blue nectaring on ragwort

One species of butterfly that seems to be faring well despite the awful summer we’ve been having is the chalkhill blue butterfly. It is no small irony that after living at the bottom of the Ridgeway National Trail for nigh on four years, my first sighting and image of a chalkhill should be taken in Norfolk instead! Its not a butterfly you would expect to find in Norfolk; as its name suggests the chalkhill butterfly is a lover of warm chalk and limestone hillsides. Its caterpillars are accompanied by ants and the adults favour knapweed and other purple flowers as a nectar source.  It is a real testament to the rich diversity of habitats in Norfolk that such a thriving colony exists here and long may it remain so.  More of my images of chalkhill butterflies can be seen in my lycaenidae butterfly gallery.

Water Meadow Wildlife

Little owl on chimney stack
Little owl on chimney stack
Little owl on chimney stack

One of the most challenging things about relocating to Norfolk has been having to seek out new wildlife havens.

After four years in Oxfordshire I had finally begun to get a really good feel for nature in my the “local patch” through the seasons and which places to visit when.

Starting all over again in a new environment with very different habitats and species has been a little daunting at times, but is also very exciting.

I have been discovering that Norfolk, known for being “big sky” county, is far from being just flat plains and wetland; there is a suprising variety of habitats including heathlands, forests, water meadows, golden beaches, dunes and coastal saltmarshes as well as the famous broads, marshes and fens.

My explorations are starting to yield dividends though and I passed a pleasant sunny (yes, sunny!) evening in golden light at a nearby water meadow.

In just a few hours I had sightings of barn owls, a little owl (my second sighting of a wild little owl and giving me my first ever photo) as well as a roe deer, grey heron and a kingfisher.

 

Promising indeed….

 

Ringlet Butterfly Surviving Showers

Ringlet butterfly perched on thistle
Ringlet butterfly perched on thistle
Ringlet butterfly perched on thistle

In between the showers I’ve been venturing out to try to find butterflies that are surviving the difficult summer we are having. One species that seems to be faring well are ringlets, a new species for me that I’ve seen only since moving to Norfolk. In the last couple of weeks there have been several sites where there have been large emergences and I’ve counted over 30 individuals in a short walk.

 

July Rainstorms

Bumble-bee grooming himself dry after rain shower
Bumble-bee grooming himself dry after rain shower
Bumble-bee grooming himself dry after rain shower

Thanks to arctic meltwater and the jetstream we look set to break the record for the wettest July in history as well as the wettest June. Its not just humans that are affected by these unusual weather patterns though. This buff-tailed bumble-bee got caught out in a torrential downpour and became soaked through. Wet wings make it impossible to fly and, being cold-blooded, warming up enough to dry out properly in cool conditions can be quite a challenge.

At one stage the bee was hanging precariously off the lavender stalk due to the weight of the rainwater. Eventually though he managed to separate his soaked together wings and start vibrating them to shake off  the moisture and warm up his body temperature. A thorough groom and sunbathe later a very clean, fluffy bumble-bee was refuelling his energy reserves by drinking nectar from the lavender flowers.

Broad-bodied chaser dragonfly

Broad bodied chaser dragonfly perched on reed

In between the summer storms we’ve been having I made a quick dash over the the Norfolk Broads in my first attempt to see a swallowtail butterfly. I had no joy but did see my first broad-bodied chaser dragonfly which was busy egg laying in a pool.

Broad bodied chaser dragonfly perched on reed
Broad bodied chaser dragonfly perched on reed

Courtship Dance

Shag seabirds courting on nest
Shag seabirds courting on nest
Shag seabirds courting on nest

I’m not really a birder, but the hive of activity that is an island seabird colony in peak summer mating season is an impressive sight to behold, and the Farne Isles in Northumbria is one of the best places in Britain to witness the spectacle. No sooner than I scrambled precariously over the bow of the boat onto Staple Island, my senses were bombarded by a cacophony of seabirds, all frenetically busy mating and raising their young, and the pungent smell of guano.

Atlantic puffins are iconic and utterly addictive to watch as they phlegmatically return after each fishing trip, beaks full of sand eels back to their burrows to feed their chicks, running the gauntlet of the herring gulls on the way. But my most memorable experience of the trip was something very different. A few hundred metres further back I found a timber viewing platform and I settled down to watch the nesting guillemots, razorbills and European shags on the cliff edge. I found myself fascinated by the courting and nesting behaviour of the European shags. I watched one proudly bring a large stick to its partners nest and them interact with its female partner in a beautiful and tender courthsip dance which was suprisingly touching to observe. Not a great deal is known about mating behaviour in Europhean shags, but the courting ritual is highly important in partner selection and the pair I oberved seemed, to my eyes at least, to be forming strong emotional bonds of attachment. Watching scenes like those makes me wonder just by how much human beings are underestimating  the sentience of fellow animals on planet earth.

To view all of my seabird images from the Farne Islands select the image gallery menu option The Farne Islands

A Tale Of Two Butterflies

Orange tip butterfly opening wings
Grizzled skipper butterfly and cobweb
Grizzled skipper butterfly and cobweb

At last, belatedly, the butterfly season has arrived. My first butterfly photo of 2012 was of a grizzled skipper, a relatively rare species, particularly so as far north as Norfolk and a new butterfly species for me. Its the earliest skipper to appear, and rarely visits flowers, instead it stays close to the ground basking. Wild strawberries are one of the favourite foodplants of their caterpillars.

My second was an orange-tip butterfly, which seems to be faring well in recent years and has increased its range. Though they’re far from scarce I’d never seen an orange-tip butterfly until I moved to Oxfordshire and I still have a soft spot for them. Its been interesting to note how much later spring arrives in Norfolk than it did back in Oxfordshire. I saw my first orange-tip butterfly at Whistley woods on 12th April but they didn’t emerge in my patch of Norfolk until exactly a month later, the 12th of May. It will be interesting to see how the wettest April for some time will affect the butterfly population, which suffered last year from the impact of a very dry sunny spring. Time will tell..

Orange tip butterfly opening wings
Orange tip butterfly opening wings

 

 

Spring Wildflowers

Three snowdrops
Three snowdrops
Three snowdrops

Nature has been capricious this spring with early promises of warmth vanishing back into chilly weather and rain, which of course we need badly. Nonetheless spring flowers have still been emerging and are still a sign of better weather to come..

Spring Is in The Air

Mating common toads

At last we are having some brighter warmer days and it feels like Spring is just around the corner. Norfolk seems to be quite a hotspot for common toads, and they have been very busy in my neck of the woods…

Mating common toads
Mating common toads

 

 

Farewell to Oxfordshire

Silhouetted brown hare at dusk

Well I had to move quite suddenly away from Oxfordshire to the county of Norfolk. This is a quick, belated post to say farewell to the county that brought me back to nature and introduced me to wildlife photography. I will miss the rolling open countryside and the shadow of the Ridgeway on my dog walks greatly. Although I only lived near South Oxfordshire’s chalkhill downland for four years, it became a true home for me and it will always have a place in my heart.

Silhouetted brown hare at dusk
Silhouetted brown hare at dusk

During some of my farewell walks in my favourite places I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of short-eared owls and a beautiful brown hare silhouetted against the skyline, so I leave Oxfordshire with those images as a beautiful memory.

 

Ural Owl In Snow

Ural owl on snowy branch

We’ve had an exceptionally mild winter so far, but in December 2010 Britain was covered in snow. This photo of an adult ural owl on a snow covered branch was taken at the Hawk Conservancy Trust mid last December. Ural Owls are predominately creatures of the northern boreal forests and very used to snow, though there are smaller ural owl populations in the mountain forests of Southern Europe. They are closely related to tawny owls; both species are highly territorial and have a fierce reputation for agressive behaviour.

Ural owl on snowy branch
Ural owl on snowy branch

Since my wintery ural owl shot was taken, I have been fortunate enough to see and observe (from a safe distance!) an adult ural owl watching over its young fledgling in the mosquito -drenched Finnish midsummer.

Ural owl chick perched on branch
Ural owl chick perched on branch
Ural owl parent watching young
Ural owl parent watching young

 

Royal Tern Feeding Fledgling

Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched
Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched
Royal tern feeding young wings outstretched

Sea birds are one of our favourite birdwatching species in Britain and in November I took a much needed trip to Fort Myers in Florida and spent a lot of time bird watching and of course photographing on Sanibel Island and in their famous Ding Darling Preserve.

My highlight from the trip was undoubtedly a day on Bunche Beach where a tern colony consisting of royal terns, sandwich terns and forster’s terns had all set up camp for winter.

Many of the birds were fledglings still being fed by their parents. It was great to see the hustle and bustle of the tern colony with individuals taking off and returning from their feeding trips.

One of the royal tern fledglings was floating on the water and from the corner of my eye I saw one of the adult  terns returning with a fish fly in towards him. The adult swooped in until his feet dipped in the water and transferred the fish into the hungry youngster’s gaping beak before lifting off again for another hunting expedition. It all happened in a few seconds and was incredible to watch.

 

Red Deer Rut

Silhouetted red deer stag standing alert in mist

Red Deer rut in the month of October, and there are many very accessible places you can witness this natural spectacle. I went for the first time with my husband John Stuart-Clarke to Bushy Park in London. The best time is at first light, before the park becomes busy with humans going about their daily activities.

We arrived shortly before sunrise after a chilly clear night which had created a dense fog. As we walked into the park grounds visibility was only a few feet, and I started to hear the bellows of the rutting stags.

Silhouetted red deer stag standing alert in mist
Silhouetted red deer stag standing alert in mist

The sound echoed in the fog and seemed to come from all sides. It was an eerie, atmospheric experience. Then gradually the fog thinned and I started to make out shadowy figures of the stags. As the mist cleared I witnessed more of the Stags’ rutting behaviour –  staring and snarling, licking their lips, tossing their antlers in bracken and charging each other. Within couple of hoursthe sun had risen, the park was filling with people and all the action had subsided and the deer settled down to rest. As we left it was funny to think that these joggers, dog walkers and parents with prams were using the park totally oblivious to the drama that had unfolded at first light.

Note: Please take care if you decide to visit a deer park during the rutting season. Even in parks such as Richmond, Bushy or Bradgate, where they are semi-habituated to humans, deer become extremely aggressive at this time of year. Several people are killed each year trying to approach too close to rutting deer.

Please exercise caution and common sense at all times and bear in mind the following hints and tips for watching the deer rut safely without disturbing the animals:

Keep a respectful and healthy distance away at all times when observing deer and be watchful for any sign of response to your presence or disturbance.  Retreat calmly straight away if you find any deer starting to stare, pull back its lips or show teeth – they are warning you you’re too close and they could charge. Always move slowly and steadily and avoid sudden, unpredictable movements. Keep your arms and tripods low. Never wave or try to attract their attention. Always avoid a deer’s path and move out of its route if one approaches you. Be aware of you position in the herd and avoid getting between a stag and his hareem of females or a mother and young, which could trigger an attack. Never approach a deer directly, head on or or from behind -antlers are daunting but they can buck and kick too.

Photo of the Month October – Stag Silhouetted In Fog
Taken: Bushy Park, London

Red Squirrel

Red Squirrel On Mossy Tree


I was recently fortunate enough to visit Simon Phillpotts up in the Yorkshire Dales (find out more about Simon at www.wilddales.co.uk).

He’d been very busy building a new red squirrel hide and wanted to give it a test drive. It was getting to be the time of year when the squirrels were starting to get very busy  squirreling away (forgive the pun) their nuts for winter.

Red squirrel on a mossy tree trunk
Red squirrel on a mossy tree trunk

They didn’t stop around for long, and they’re harder to photograph than you might think, but I was lucky to catch this one doing a mission impossible impression.


Photo Of The Month September 2011 – Foraging Red Squirrel

Taken: The Yorkshire Dales

 


Southern Hawker

Male Southern Hawker Hovering

Its late summer and already the weather is feeling very autumnal. I recently visited one of my favourite secluded dragonfly haunts and found the southern hawkers and common darters still zooming about and dancing over the water.

Southern hawker dragonfly  hovering in mid flight
Southern hawker dragonfly hovering in mid flight

Hawker dragonflies are a fearless and highly competitive dragonfly species. They spend most of their time in flight hunting out smaller insects as prey. They are also highly competitive. It’s beautiful to watch them do acrobatic battles with other dragonflies above the water, quite often there are conflicts between several dragonflies at once, reminiscent of a battle of Britain dogfight.

Like most predators. hawker dragonflies are very curious by nature and quite often one would come right up to hover in front of me for a few seconds before “buzzing” me and zooming off again. This shot was quite a challenge – it was taken handheld using manual focusing on my 180mm macro lens.

 
Photo Of The Month August 2011 – Hovering Southern Hawker Dragonfly
Taken: Sole Common Pond, West Berkshire

Poppies at Sunset

Wild red common poppies silhouetted at sunset

Poppies are one of Britain’s most iconic flowers. One evening I visited a poppy field near my village. Right at the end of twilight after a cloudy sunset the sky suddenly flooded for a brief few moments in vivid pinks and purples.

The vivid  colours were so fleeting I only managed to grab three or four shots before the sky faded into twilight.

Wild red common poppies silhouetted at sunset
Red poppies silhouetted at sunset

 

Photo Of The Month July 2011 -Poppy Field At Dusk
Taken: Letcombe Basset  Oxfordshire

Fox and Leveret

Red Fox In Rapeseed

June is the season for leverets. March may be the famous month for seeing the “mad March hares” boxing in courtship, but hares live in the arable fields surrounding the Ridgeway all year round. They raise their young in late spring into early summer.

During the day hares hunker down into their “forms”. Dawn and dusk are perfect times to watch them. One evening shortly before dusk I was crouched in a rapeseed field margin watching a young leveret. All of a sudden it reared up on its hindlegs, sniffed the air and dived off into the rapeseed crop.

A few moments later out of the bushes trotted a large dog fox. He paused just a brief moment, his head turned towards me. We exchanged looks, acknowledging each other’s presence, then he moved calmly onwards, following the scent of the leveret. On the way home I spotted a fresh trail of pigeon feathers, I like to think the leveret lived to fight another day…

Dog fox crossing field margin
Dog fox crossing field margin
Leveret on hind legs in rapeseed
Leveret on hind legs in rapeseed
Photos Of The Month June 2011 – Fox and Leveret in Rapeseed Field Margin
Taken: The Ridgeway, Oxfordshire