2017 in Butterflies

Like the bees in my last post – butterflies are summer’s companions. Whilst the bees add movement and sound, their gentle buzz providing the background to many a summer’s day, the butterflies are all about the flair and colour.

Below are a few of my favourite encounters as we moved through 2017.

Green hairstreak – Callophrys rubi

This is a species I have only ever seen briefly before, flitting in the low grasses as we walked The Ridgeway through Oxfordshire a few years ago. A hunt around Barnack Hills and Holes in May soon turned up a hawthorn shrub with several males standing guard over their patches of territory. This one was settled on an unopened flower bud, poised and ready to spring into the air as soon as another flew past and questioned his ownership of this space. You can read more about this encounter in this blog post!

Green hairstreak male guarding his patch - poised ready to chase an intruder!

Green-veined white – Pieris napi

With the exception of a couple of rarer species, it is easy to overlook our white butterflies as most people view them as pests in the garden. But like almost anything – they’re beautiful when viewed in their own right and on their own merits. My favourite part of this photograph is those chequered blue eyes as this butterfly feeds on forget-me-not flowers at Treswell Wood.

Small pearl-bordered fritillary – Boloria selene

We were walking through the dunes and forest at Newborough in Anglesey in May and spotted this static shape at the side of a path – a small pearl-bordered fritillary resting on the seedhead of a plantain. It’s rough brown textures gave it excellent camouflage. This species is widespread across the UK but only occurs in discreet colonies, commonly in the clearings in deciduous woodland but also marshland and moorland further north.

Ringlet – Aphantopus hyperantus

This is a common species of grassland and woodland habitats, but one which always delights me. The veins in the soft-brown wings are such good parodies of those found on the leaves it settles amongst, and the five eye spots are striking. This photo was taken at the Hills and Hollows behind Grantham, the butterfly sheltering amongst the grass on a windy afternoon.

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Marbled white – Melanargia galathea

This white is actually more closely related to the browns than the other whites, despite name and appearance. It is a species I usually associate with the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire as these are where I have encountered them most often on walks and surveys, so it was lovely to find a healthy population down the road in Bedford Purleius. This was taken in the meadow close to the carpark, along with the silver-washed fritillary pictured below.

Burnet moth – Zygaena sp.

Technically not a butterfly but a dayflying moth, I felt I had to include this photograph. This was taken at Lolly Moor – a Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve – when I called by this year. The marsh helleborines were my main aim but there were many other orchids and these burnet moths were bouncing between them. This is one of the five-spot burnet moths, but I am unsure whether the ‘regular’ or the narrow-bordered. Any tips welcomed!

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Small copper – Lycaena phlaeas

Some years I see this delicate little butterfly everywhere but others it is a real treat to encounter. Sadly 2017 was the latter – the only time I came across this species was whilst walking on a path above the Thames in Oxfordshire. The set-aside margins in the fields were particularly species-rich, drawn from the local wildflower meadows, and this was one of several species of butterfly enjoying the flowers on the day we were there.

Silver-washed fritillary – Argynnis paphia

This was a rather ragged specimen but its grace and presence was un-diminished – they stood out a mile flying alongside the marbled whites in the meadow at Bedford Purleius. This is our largest fritillary species in the UK and gets its name from the streaks of silver on the underside of the wings.

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Wall brown – Lasiommata megera

A walk from Cheddar up the gorge to the quarry at the top rewarded me with this butterfly. The wall used to be much more common across the UK but suffered severe declines and now has a much smaller distribution. This is certainly the first time in a number of years I have come across this butterfly.

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Common blue – Polyommatus icarus

Taken at sunrise in Muston Meadows, this common blue had spent the night roosting on the seedhead of a black knapweed and was waiting for the morning rays to warm it before taking to the wing. These little blue butterflies are abundant within the grasses, feeding particularly on the bird’s foot trefoils and other meadow wildflowers.

Red admiral – Vanessa atalanta

The last butterflies I saw in 2017 were those set to see out the winter in their adult form – the red admirals, small tortoiseshells and peacocks. Ivy flowers provide an abundant source of nectar for these late-flying species and they joined the bees and hoverflies on the flowers beside Grantham Cemetery.

2017 in Wildflowers

Common Whitlow Grass – Erophila verna

This little wildflower is everywhere in the springtime – at only a few centimetres high it is easily overlooked but it is forever offering up tiny bunches of flowers to those who would take note. I especially liked the setting of this photograph – on a grubby pavement in Grantham next to cigarette butts and other litter you find this little thing of beauty just waiting to be noticed.

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Oxlip – Primula elatior

I made a pilgrimage to Hayley Wood in Cambridgeshire this year to see these wildflowers. A relative of the more abundant cowslip, these are an ancient woodland species with a curiously restricted distribution, now found growing wild only in that part of the country where Essex, Cambridge and Suffolk meet.

Oxlip (Primula elatior) in Hayley Wood, Cambridgeshire

Green-winged Orchid – Anacamptis morio

I am lucky now to live just a few miles from Muston Meadows meaning there are ample opportunities to visit this ancient haymeadow – designated a National Nature Reserve. This is one of the green-winged orchids for which the meadow is so famous, set against the grassland in the sunset light in early summer.

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Greater Stitchwort – Stellaria graminea

Treswell Wood in Nottinghamshire is a beautiful place to spend some time exploring, especially when the sun is setting. Amongst the spring flowers, these greater stitchworts are one of my favourite woodland species with their bold white petals and delicate green framework.

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Bee orchid – Ophrys apifera

The return of these flowers each year seems like the return of a smile – their colourful, beaming faces always mean summer is here. This photo was taken among the dunes in Anglesey at the end of May, where these orchids arose from the sands along with the round-leaved wintergreens and dune pansies.

Man Orchid (Orchis anthropophora) and Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris)

Barnack Hills and Holes is situated just a mile or two off the A1 – it was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times and now it is home to a stunning array of flora. At the right time of year, can reward you with two national rarities in a single shot!

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Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera)

A visit to Bedford Purleius to see these delicate little fly orchids has become something of an annual tradition for me now. They are so hard to spot at first, but once you get your eye in on the first flower, more and more appear amongst the grasses of the meadow.

Lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus)

This photograph was taken overseas – in the Dolomites – but this is the one flower I was hoping to see most and the one which was most elusive. We spotted a single one, just as my dad was asking ‘what do they look like?’, I said ‘like… that!’ and there it was, nestled amongst the greenery beside us on the path.

Lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium calceolus) in the Dolomites

Broad-leaved helleborine (Epipactis helleborine)

I watched the plants of the broad-leaved helleborine grow beneath the beeches at Bedford Purleius for several months before arriving one day to find them finally in flower. A new species for me, these orchids are subtle but beautiful, blending with the greenery of the canopy leaves above them.

Great Willowherb (Epilobium hirsutum)

This is a late-summer wildflower blooms in the meadows above Grantham and adds a beautiful swath of colour to the browning grasses around it.

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Black knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

A late-summer return to Muston Meadows saw the black knapweed in full flower amongst the late-summer grasses. The orchids of springtime are almost alone in the meadow, along with cowslips and cuckoo flower, but summer sees a riot of colour and contrast as different species vie for space and light.

Knapweed at sunset at Muston Meadows

Heather

An August walk along Cheddar Gorge as the mist was lifting, leaving droplets on the grasses and flowers. The colours behind the flower are provided by the bracken beginning to brown with the grass still fresh and green.

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Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia)

The soft sky-blue of the harebell set with the thin wiry framework of the stems is one of my favourite flowers to photograph – since finding a colony in the meadow above Grantham, I have watched the flowers persist through the summer and into autumn whilst the colours of the vegetation change behind them.

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Heather

The heather which covers much of the Peak district in late-summer is a spectacular sight – especially at sunset when the light softens and glows golden. Along with the bluebells of spring, I think heather would be a worthy focus for the Japanese concept of hanami – flower viewing – as a national pastime here in the UK!

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Dove’s foot cranesbill – Geranium molle

I was out surveying on the day Storm Ophelia passed over the country and cast the countryside in that strange apocolyptic light. This was one of a number of flower portraits I took that day – I especially liked the contrast of the fresh pink  with the fallen poplar leaves.

2017 in Trees

The darkness of the winter is always a good time to reflect on a year passed, not only to appreciate what you’ve seen and experienced but to look forward to the treasures which await the eager explorer in the year ahead.

As always,  I find trees feature strongly when I look back at the photos I’ve taken. There is much to appreciate in the natural world and each element has its own pleasure and essence. Trees feel like communing with the elders (no pun intended!) – even a stand of spindly silver birch will have been alive almost as long as I have and some of the trees you meet allow you to reach back through the generations, to the limits of living memory and far beyond. Here are a just a few such encounters from this year.

Clumber Park

Clumber has much to offer at any time of year – the double lime avenue on the entrance just keeps rolling the trees before you like an unfurling scroll as you drive in, and the old parkland has many veterans to tell you their tales. This photo was taken across the lake, as the sun sunk low on a Sunday afternoon in January, lighting the trunks and stretching the reflections out across the water.

Grantham

This tree sits proudly on top of the hillside overlooking Grantham and I pass it most days on my lunchtime walk. It is a sycamore and sits at the end of an incongruous line of old oaks, beeches and other sycamores which speak of an older time. A friend refereed to it as ‘that amazing oak’, assuming the species from its stature and prowess. I wonder if she’ll read this… Stretching out below is the course grassland and gorse of Harrowby Hill and above it lies the Hills and Hollows where barn owls and short-eared owls hunt through the winter months and marsh orchids nestle in the summertime.

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Hatfield Forest

We went with some friends to listen to Sam Lee’s ‘Singing with Nightingales‘ at Fingringhoe Wick in spring, and took the opportunity for a walk around Hatfield Forest. Hornbeam was growing in the woodlands with a frequency and regularity I never see here in the Midlands, but this particular specimen was exceptional. This is an old hornbeam pollard where the heartwood had rotted away and the tree split into two live, healthy halves which were easily large enough to walk through.

Treswell Wood

Treswell Wood is a very special place – Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve, it is an ash dominated ancient woodland in the north of the county which now plays host to the successfully reintroduced dormouse populations as well as supporting a whole range of other species. Springtime sees the trees burst into an abundance of fresh green leaves and creamy white blossom and this photograph of the mixed canopy captures this exuberance for me.

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Muston Meadows

Muston Meadows is an ancient haymeadow in Leicestershire – it’s deep ridge and furrow grassland supports an exceptional population of green-winged orchid as well as a burnet, pignut, cowslip, quaking oat grass and meadowsweet. This photograph of the oak and ash within the boundary hedgerow was taken as a starlapse at midnight under moonlight in the springtime. I love to be somewhere that allows you to feel such a strong connection to the past, I imagine scenes from D. H. Lawrence’s works where the haymaking in these meadows was a time of great importance for sustenance and survival, as well as opportunities for intrigue and romance.

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Bedford Purleius

The light filtered through a thousand leaves has subtleties of which vary from species to species, from place to place and from month to month. There can be few however to match the soft light of sunshine through newly unfurled beech leaves, as this stand in Bedford Purleius. Later in the season, the ground beneath these trunks will support helleborines which flower in mid-summer.

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Millstone Edge, Derbyshire

Leaving the twisted, gnarled oak woodland of the valley beside the Burbage Brook, you turn onto an entirely different scene – one of light and green and air. This edge is populated almost entirely by silver birch with sketch a monchrome array between the greens of foliage above and grassland below.

Robin Hood’s Bay

This was an opportunistic photograph of the sunlight playing through woodsmoke from a bonfire in the clearing below. It’s not often that mist and fog will persist long enough through the day to allow such vertical shafts of light in a woodland scene, so I took advantage of serendipity to catch a shot which reminds me more of rainforest than an English woodland.

Quantocks

The Quantocks has become one of my favourite places to visit – the different characters of the trees and woodland set within an ancient landscape are irresistible. You can read more in this blog post from the autumn, but below are a couple of my favourites.

First is the gnarled oak woodland crowding the road which ventures up over the wooded hillside from Nether Stowey towards Crowcombe.

Next is the massed boughs of the coppiced beeches which line the Drove Road – a prehistoric track which runs across the ridge of the hillside above Crowcombe.

This photograph is perhaps my favourite of this year – it shows the woodland closing over the road with Tolkinesque grandeaur. If these were ents which came to life, I wouldn’t be so very surprised…

Cambridge Botanic Garden

This shows the beautiful soft browns of the autumn needles of swamp cypress – an evergreen conifer – against the backdrop of yellow maple leaves. I was in Cambridge for a meeting and had an hour before catching my train which gave a perfect opportunity to explore the botanic gardens which were conveniently close to the station. As well as the stunning floral displays and specimens, they have some beautiful trees and it’s a great spot for autumn colour!

Wappenbury Wood

Small-leaved lime used to be the key component of the woodlands around the midlands, before the clearance of the wildwood and the generation of the stands we see today. They still occur if you know where to look – Steve Falk‘s guides can help if you’re lucky enough to be in Warwickshire – and these old coppice stools within Wappenbury Wood are a fine example of a tree with which we should all be more familiar. Coppicing was the ancient practice of cutting the tree down to a bole, from which new growth would appear and could be substantially harvested without ever killing the tree. On the contrary, some of the oldest trees you can find are coppices and pollards, including small-leaved lime coppices in Westonbirt Arboretum thought to be over 2000 years old. This photo shows the tall, straight trunks of the regrowth many years after their last cut.

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Bottesford Church

This photograph was taken at a local churchyard one frosty morning on Novembe. The night had turned the grass and gravestones to white whilst the sunrise caught the embers of autumn leaves on this beech and ignited them into a celebration of orange, umber and yellow. It was only a few more days before the leaves fell, but this was a moment when autumn had not yet given way to winter and the right morning can provide you with the best of both.

Staverton Park

I was very pleased to find myself within a few miles of this woodland in November, and took the opportunity to explore one of the most impressive assemblages of ancient trees in the country. You can read more in my blog post, but here area couple of my favourites.

The path through The Thicks wound its way between trees and shrubs, but split around this majestic old oak which stood in the centre of the path and demanded all that pass must pass around it.

This photograph was taken at sunrise, of one of the idiosyncratic old oaks on the edge of the parkland. The ground layer beneath is dominated by bracken, and I thought the frond and the tree made a nice contrast against the morning sky.

Whatton-in-the-Vale

Grantham Road is a bypass to the old road, which was subsequently bypassed again by the new A52 which avoids the village altogether. The road now links the two parts of the village and, though less than 100 years old, is bestowed an authority and antiquity by the double-line of planes which enclose it. The houses at the end are where the Griffin’s Head pub once stood. I liked the way the glow of life and civilisation lay at the end of the imposing avenue against a starry sky, like coming out of the woods into the safety of a home.

Millstone Edge

Back once more amongst the silver birches of Millstone Edge – their black and white stems through the snow transports you to another country, to Russia or else eastern Europe.

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Bedford Purleius

With the seedheads of the helleborines still standing, this was the last view I had of these beech trees in 2017. I love the softness of the light which seems to remain as a memory of those leaves from early springtime.

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On the orchid trail…

I’ll be straight up front: this blog post is really just an excuse to post some pretty photographs of orchids! But also to encourage others to get out and explore these places on our doorstep – there are many excellent National Nature Reserves (NNR)’s and Wildlife Trust Sites within 30 minutes or so of Grantham, many of which are meadows which are designated for their botanical interest. I took the opportunity today, on a sunny Friday in June, to tour a few and see what I could find. The star attractions at many of the sites were the orchids – I found a total of seven species across five different sites – but many other interesting flowers were beginning to appear. Links below will take you to the webpages for each of the sites if you are planning a visit of your own!

Barnack Hills and Holes

This site is a series of mounds, hollows and trails which are rather labyrinthine after a while – easy to get lost! They are situated around 20 minutes down the A1 from Grantham, just beyond Stamford. The site was formed by quarrying limestone in medieval times, it was first exploited over 1,500 years ago. Now it is home to a stunning array of flora, including some flagship species such as the pasque flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) and the man orchid (Orchis anthropophora) – both of which could still be found in early June.

This shows one very late pasque flower, along with the many seed heads from earlier blooms.
One very late pasque flower, along with the many seed heads from earlier blooms.

This was my first stop today and the location of the first two orchid species – man orchid and fragrant orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea).

Fragrant orchid - the first orchid find of the day at Barnack Hills and Holes.
Fragrant orchid – the first orchid find of the day at Barnack Hills and Holes.

Man orchids are one of the most threatened species of orchid in the UK and this site is one of the more northerly of its distribution. These are rather unassuming orchids at a glance, but quite intricate when you get down close to them. You can see the derivation of the name in the shape of the individual flowers.

This is a close-up of the man orchid’s flower – they are have tall, narrow flower spikes.
This is a close-up of the man orchid’s flower – they are have tall, narrow flower spikes.

I found so many species in the limestone hummocks which I have never come across before but I will restrict myself to sharing just one other – this exotic flower is dark mullein (Verbascum nigrum).

Close-up of the dark mullein flower spike - the incredible purple anthers set within the yellow flowers make this quite an exotic looking flower.
Close-up of the dark mullein flower spike – the incredible purple anthers set within the yellow flowers make this quite an exotic looking flower.

Other species included milk vetch, kidney vetch, dropwort, common valarian, salad burnet, deadly nightshade, knapweed broomrape, rockrose, field mouse-ear and many more besides.

Bedford Purlieus

A new site for me but a recommendation from @mushy1977 on twitter made a visit essential – it is just a few miles further down the A1 from Barnack, accessed off the A47. The site is predominantly woodland and has a range of interesting bird species including nightingale and lesser spotted woodpecker as well as hairstreak and fritillary butterflies. Definitely worth a return visit but today, I went in search of the diminutive brown-flowered fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and managed to find a single flower spike nestled within the long grass.

Fly orchid flower amongst the long grasses at Bedford Purlieus National Nature Reserve
Fly orchid flower amongst the long grasses at Bedford Purlieus National Nature Reserve

Wansford Pasture

On the way back to the A1, I stopped off at Wansford Pasture, a small meadow field with a wet flush running through and it is here that southern marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza praetermissa) thrive. There were many plants amongst the reeds, along with common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) and at least some of the plants seemed to have intermediate characteristics, perhaps indicating hybridisation.

Southern marsh orchids at Wansford Pasture.
Southern marsh orchids at Wansford Pasture.

Cribbs Meadow NNR

Next stop was the third National Nature Reserve of the day – Cribb’s Meadow just outside of Thistleton on the way back towards Grantham. This has a number of important species, principally adder’s tongue fern (Ophioglossum vulgatum) – an species often associated with old grasslands. A fellow orchid hunter kindly showed me my first example of this species – it is easy to overlook amongst the other leaves and flowers of a meadow in June!

Adder's tongue fern at Cribb's Meadow NNR
Adder’s tongue fern at Cribb’s Meadow NNR

Two more orchid species to add to the day’s list here. First is the green-winged orchid (Anacamptis morio) which were largely gone over – they reach their peak in May – but this specimen was still in flower at the far end of the meadow.

Green winged orchid flowering at Cribbs Meadow NNR - you can see the green stripes in the lateral sepals which give the flower it's common name.
Green winged orchid flowering at Cribbs Meadow NNR – you can see the green stripes in the lateral sepals which give the flower its common name.

Walking along the base of a disused railway track which intersects the reserve, I came across a number of common twyblade (Neottia ovata) orchids. These are quite an inconspicuous species which could easily be overlooked unless you keep you eye in for their characteristic almost translucent green flower spikes in amongst the sward.

Common twyblade flowers at Cribb's Meadow NNR.
Common twyblade flowers at Cribb’s Meadow NNR.

South Witham Verges

Finally a stop at the South Witham Verges – a section of road verge designated for its limestone flora and used by a wide range of mammal and bird species.

I had hoped to find bee orchids at this site, but no joy. There were common spotted orchids (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) a-plenty however and it was inspiring to see how so many wildflowers flourish on a busy roadside – it just shows what is possible with the right management regimes!

Common spotted orchids flourishing on the protected South Witham Verges nature reserve, owned by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust
Common spotted orchids flourishing on the protected South Witham Verges nature reserve, owned by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust

With so many great meadow nature reserves within 30-40 minutes drive of Grantham, I would suggest you check them out if you have a chance! To find even more wildlife sites, check out the Wildlife Trust’s: Find a Nature Reserve site.

Common blue butterfly resting on a common knapweed seedhead at Cribbs Meadow NNR.
Common blue butterfly resting on a common knapweed seedhead at Cribbs Meadow NNR.