Tag Archive for: Waders

British Swallowtails: A Norfolk delight

It’s been a while since my last post because I’ve had so much going on lately but I want to tell you about a couple of short tours I led for Greenwings alongside author and journalist, Patrick Barkham. We spent two consecutive long weekends in Wroxham, the heart of the Norfolk Broads, searching out a particular butterfly; British Swallowtails. This blousy butterfly is a separate subspecies from the occasional European vagrant that graces our southern shores in summer and only occurs in the Broads these days.

Both weekends followed roughly the same course with some allowance for the good old British weather (!) so I’m combining them into a single post but will share images from both weekends. On both occasions we were joined by guests from a variety of backgrounds and with wide ranging interests, but the first of the two was particularly interesting to me as we had with us a coleopterist (beetle expert) who was keen to look at his specialist subject alongside the butterflies that we were there to find. If you know me by now, you’ll know that I’m forever finding small things to photograph and am interested in all aspects of the natural world. Beetles are such a huge group of insects – they represent more species than any other group on the planet – that while I know a few of the larger or more distinctive species, there are a great many which I’m less familiar with and so this also provided me with a good opportunity to learn a few things too.

We met on Friday afternoon in Wroxham and, having made our introductions, ventured out for a walk along the river bank before dinner. There were warblers singing in the willow trees and a Kingfisher zipped silently past for one of our groups, only a foot or so above the water. We found Marsh Valerian flowering in a damp spot and marvelled at how quickly one escaped the hubbub of the village centre.

The Saturday morning of the first weekend was rather a soggy one but we still made it to a couple of local reserves where we found a variety of things to look at and one of our keen-eyed guests spotted a very small Vapourer moth caterpillar.



After lunch, we visited Hickling Broad and took a boat trip out onto the broad to access a couple of hides which are otherwise not open to the public. The weather was still rather gloomy but we had some nice views of Avocets, Shelducks with young and Marsh Harriers. The most amazing thing to me was the sheer volume of House Martins, Sand Martins, Swallows and Swifts hawking low over the water for insects. When seen from a small boat at water height it made for quite the memorable experience and interestingly, the following week the weather was better and they were flying much higher and in seemingly smaller numbers, presumably because there was more food available elsewhere. We also had lovely views of a Mute Swan pair with 5 small cygnets – the photo below I actually took with my phone!




The Sunday was the best day of the first weekend and we spent all morning at Strumpshaw Fen which is an RSPB reserve. We saw our first Swallowtail of the day just outside the visitor centre as we arrived. It flew off over the reedbeds and so we began by walking down the track to the Doctor’s House on the way to which a particularly fresh Speckled Wood caught my eye.



There were two more beautiful British Swallowtails nectaring on the Sweet Williams in the garden as we approached the house. Having joined several keen photographers in enjoying them, we moved on to a meadow beyond where we encountered several more along with Mullein moth caterpillars feasting on… you guessed it, Mullein leaves. 



I had seen these stunning butterflies before but not had much opportunity to photograph them and to be honest, it was no easy task this time either. They are large and flighty which means that approaching them is tricky at best. However, I had two weekends to hone my skills and for a first attempt I wasn’t too displeased with this image above which nicely shows how they are a darker yellow with much more black marking than their continental counterparts.

On a section of boardwalk further round the reserve we paused to look for Swallowtail eggs on the Milk Parsley. We didn’t find any unfortunately but our keen-eyed guest spotted something else; the empty shell of a Drinker Moth Caterpillar which had been parasitised. The hole in it shows where the adult parasite – likely some type of wasp – emerged, having feasted on it first!




Nearby, I also came across a lovely female Common Lizard in the undergrowth. She kept a wary eye on me but didn’t mind staying put for a picture.


With the sun shining today, we were also pleased to see quite a number of Dragonflies and Damselflies including both Azure Damselfly and male Black Tailed Skimmer.



There were also quite a few Nursery Web Spiders around which made for some nice shots.



We came across a large number of Red Admirals gathering at a sap run on a willow tree too.



We heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the depths of a reedbed along with Sedge and Reed Warblers. I was also able to find our visiting coleopterist a splendid Golden-Bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle with fabulous stripes antennae and some tiny tiny weevils which he later identified as a new record for the reserve.



We had clocked up 18 Swallowtail sightings in a morning and having had a lovely picnic, we then had a short drive to our afternoon stop; Sutton Fen. This is an RSPB reserve but is not open to the public and is not managed for birds but rather for flora and invertebrates. We were shown around by Ian Robinson, the RSPB’s Regional Manager for the Broads. I found it to be an utterly beguiling place, there was so much to take in. From the smell of Water Mint underfoot, the sound of birdsong in every direction and sight of Southern Marsh Orchids in the meadows…



…to the magic of “the hover” where you walk on a floating dense mat of vegetation which feels rather like a waterbed underfoot. Here there is a proliferation of rare species including an Orchid which I hadn’t seen before, the diminutive but no less beautiful Fen Orchid.



Having spent some time taking in as much as we could, we headed back to base and enjoyed our evening meal. The following morning, we convened in Patrick’s garden to empty a large moth trap and discover what delights it held. We saved an Elephant Hawkmoth in a tub full of foliage for him to show his daughter when she got home from school, marvelled at the camouflage of the twig-like Buff-Tip and mostly failed at photographing any of the others before they fluttered away from the daylight. With one exception, the Garden Carpet allowed me a quick photo on some Cow Parsley before disappearing to a shady nook for the day.



The following weekend I did it all again but this time with less rain! Hickling was a Saturday morning affair in glorious sunshine. There were wonderful British Swallowtails everywhere from the moment we arrived at the boat jetty and we enjoyed lovely views over the Broad as we cruised towards the first hide.



From within we were treated to a flock of Black-Tailed Godwits which hadn’t been there the previous week and we enjoyed watching them forage, preen and snooze in the sun.



While we watched, a Chinese Water Deer walked nonchalantly out of the reedbed opposite, had a scratch and wandered along the far bank. Considering that these are usually quite shy, retiring animals it was a particularly special moment.



Moving on, we had fantastic views of Bearded Tits, more than I’ve ever seen before including a group of newly fledged youngsters, of which this was one.



We enjoyed a picnic by the visitor centre before heading to How Hill for the afternoon. There were sadly no Swallowtails to be seen here but having already spotted 31 in a single morning we were not unhappy! Instead, we enjoyed a walk that took in all manner of other invertebrates and other wildlife. I was pleased to find 2 species of Reed Beetle, a group that we had looked for the previous weekend but seen little of.



We also came across a large variety of damselflies including Common Blue, Variable and Azure, the latter two of which are pictured in respective order below.




Another delightful insect that we found in some numbers was the diminutive but beautiful Yellow-Barred Longhorn Micromoth, Nemophora degeerella.



Painted Lady butterflies were also whizzing past seemingly every few seconds in what was to be the largest influx of this migratory butterfly since 2009. We counted a staggering 154 that day but there must have been many more that bypassed us!



The next morning we followed the same pattern as the previous week with a visit to Strumpshaw Fen in the morning. The first Swallowtails were waiting for us in the Doctor’s Garden where they nectared on the Sweet Williams.  The meadow beyond was positively brimming with life and we found both male and female Thick-Legged Flower Beetles, the male of which displays the thunderous thighs that their common name suggests.


There were quite a few beetles around in fact, including rather a fine looking Click Beetle which posed beautifully for me on a Bramble flower bud.


On the boardwalk beyond we once again scoured every patch of Milk Parsley for Swallowtail eggs but found none. Yet the boardwalk itself had become a basking spot for dragonflies and Common Lizards as they warmed up for the day.



We came across a couple of impressively large Drinker Moth caterpillars in the vegetation beside the path.



We admired yet more Painted Ladies as they flew ever onwards overhead or nectared on the Brambles around us.



At times they were joined by Small Tortoiseshells, another of our more colourful butterfly species in the UK.



Bumblebees were also making the most of the nectar-rich flowers. This one is a Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, one of the larger and more common British species.



Then, on a particularly sunny corner where there were lots of Brambles in bloom, a Swallowtail flew directly over our heads and began to feed only feet away. We had seen plenty flying past at high speed but not many had settled in any spot for long and so this was perfect as a picture opportunity.





Further round, I also photographed a rather lovely bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly (Volucella bombylans) feeding on a thistle flower.



I found another Red-Headed Cardinal Beetle to photograph too. I have taken many images of these striking insects but I never tire of them.



I have also started to try and learn a bit more about some of our hoverflies and so I noted a couple of species as we walked around. It’s trickier than I realised and the only one I’ve been able to conclusively identify so far is below, Eristalis horticola. Not to be put off though, I’ll keep plugging away when I see more.



Once again we took our guests to Sutton Fen in the afternoon and introduced them to this magical place and to Ian who taught us some of it’s secrets. I decided to go without a camera this time and just soak up the atmosphere of the place. I kicked myself when an obliging Swallowtail came to nectar on a Marsh Thistle in the middle of our path but actually, being able to watch and observe this magnificent insect was just as rewarding as capturing an image of it.

The next morning we returned to Patrick’s garden to see what delights lay waiting in the moth trap. We were not disappointed with the variety that it held nor the number, including over 40 Heart and Dart moths! He proudly showed us the Brimstone caterpillars that he was so thrilled to discover had moved in and we were soon ready to part ways.



This second weekend we had racked up 39 Swallowtail sightings, a new record for the trip and over 220 Painted Ladies as well. Needless to say both weekends were thoroughly enjoyed by all and this corner of England is more treasured by us all for the memories we made. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

Outer Hebrides Heaven

I’m back from my latest adventure – I hope you enjoyed Ryan’s guest post while I was away? As I mentioned before I left, Scotland holds a special place in my heart and is a part of the world that I’m particularly familiar with, having been a great many times. This year though I was able to explore an area that I hadn’t visited before: the Outer Hebrides or more specifically, the Isles of Lewis and Harris.

We took a couple of days to drive up to the Isle of Skye where we made a few brief stops at some of our favourite spots on the way. One un-planned roadside pause for me to photograph some lovely light on the hills between the Old Man of Storr and the Quirang, led to some lovely plant discoveries. Firstly a pristine Devil’s Bit Scabious.




We had seen plenty of this lovely little flower which has button shaped blooms that start out looking like perfect pale purple blackberries before the buds burst. Finding them in such good condition, however, is often more tricky. The other flower I found was one that we hadn’t seen much of until now and which I am particularly fond of, Grass of Parnassus. There is a definite appeal for me in the delicately veined petals and pink centre. It isn’t actually a grass at all but I can forgive such a misnomer when the flower is so pretty!




Having crossed the Quirang to admire the views we caught the ferry across the Minch from Uig to Tarbert on Harris. I was pleased that the weather was good and the crossing was a calm one. I spent a while out on the viewing deck from where I spotted a breaching Porpoise – what a start to the trip! Sadly despite my best efforts I didn’t capture the moment on camera, but having never seen one before I was pretty happy nevertheless.

Arriving in Tarbert we began the journey to our cottage which was to take us north towards Stornoway. The area around Tarbert itself is quite mountainous and the scenery was wonderful. This was one of the first views having left the harbour.


Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides


Driving further north we passed a small sign that welcomed us to the Isle of Lewis. I should perhaps mention that Lewis and Harris, despite being referred to as separate islands, are actually separate halves of a single island which is the largest in Scotland. The terrain in Lewis was quite different to Harris, with much less bare rock and significantly lower hills rather than mountains. We found the cottage tucked into the side of a hill overlooking a pair of lochs and spent the evening settling in.

The following morning we braved clouds of midges and set out to start our exploration. With only a few days on the island we had plenty to fit in! We set out west and headed for Uig (another hebridean village with the same name!). The weather was not quite so sunny this morning but the clouds did part occasionally and lit the landscape in patches which was rather pretty. Our first stop was a brief one on the roadside to take a quick snap across the sea loch.




Further round the little peninsula, we drove across an open area at the back of a dune system and I suddenly realised that this was no ordinary spot. This was in fact the best area of machair that I could possibly have hoped to find. I found a place to park up and we got out to investigate. The flowering season is almost over by now but, being a little behind much of the mainland, there was a surprising amount to see. Here is a slightly wider shot of what we had come across.




Looking more closely there were the obvious Devil’s Bit Scabious and Harebells. I love the colour of both and there is something enchanting about the delicacy of a Harebell that makes me think of childhood books full of Flower Fairies. The drizzle had stopped thankfully but left a fine mist on many of the flowers.




There were plenty of Yellow Rattle seedheads as well and Lady’s Bedstraw amongst others. There were a few different orchids too which were well over, but then we spotted an unexpected beauty which I’ve never seen in the UK before: a Frog Orchid! It is so named because the shape of the bottom lip is said to look like a frog as seen from above with its legs tucked in.




I was thrilled that we had found something so uncommon so quickly. My happiness was not short-lived as we came across another stunning flower, and this time it was one that I’ve never found before! The Field Gentian is similar to many species I’ve seen in the Alps over the years, but has clusters of flowers up a taller stem, which are more purplish than their vivid blue Alpine counterparts.




Having wondered at the beauty of the machair and chased some interesting bumblebees around without much success of photographing or identifying them, we were forced back into the car as the drizzle began again. We continued our amble along the coast and around to the small island of Great Bernera which is connected by a bridge. We had a picnic lunch overlooking the sea before moving on once more.

The next stop was the last of the day and one I had longed to do for some time: the Callanish Standing Stones. I had hoped to capture some nice photos but due to slightly poor weather, my wide angle lens misbehaving and another onslaught of midges, I settled for a few close-up texture shots and a couple of other bits and pieces with a longer lens which I may share another time. I found that the stones themselves were particularly tactile and had a beauty all of their own. I’d have liked to stay longer and especially to have got some better images but as I often say, you have to have a reason to go back!

The following day we headed north and went for a wonderful long walk on the beach at Tolsta. White sand never fails to bring a smile to my face. We were also astonished to find quite a number of Primroses flowering there – yes, I said Primroses in September!! Following a picnic lunch a little further up the road we spent a while watching Stonechats on the heather around us, and I captured this gorgeous juvenile sitting on a small rock.




From there we went on up to the very top of the island, the Butt of Lewis. We had a blustery walk around the lighthouse there and watched squadrons of Gannets being blown around the clifftops before returning to our cottage.

Our last full day on the island began with the decision to drive down to Harris and explore some of the legendary beaches there. We couldn’t have picked a better day for it weather-wise. This shot was one of the first stops we made at Luskentyre. It took my breath away, I could hardly believe we were still in Scotland!




You may have guessed by now that I simply adore the coast. I have an ever growing seashell collection and can’t help but add to it every time I visit a beach. A particular joy for me was to stumble on a small bay which was full of cowrie shells, an absolute favourite. Having put a couple in my pocket and soaked up the sea breeze we drove on to the very bottom of the island. We didn’t actually stop in the end, as we were due to visit a friend who was doing up a cottage in Scarasta, but the scenery made for an enjoyable drive.

The afternoon was spent driving along a small side road which leads to Hushinish. Someone told me that the road was “character-building” I’m not so sure about that if taken at a slow pace, but I think my neck may have lengthened by an inch or two from straining to see over the bonnet on the many blind summits! It was worth it though as we were greeted by another beautiful beach at the end of the road. I also finally had an opportunity for some more wildlife shots as there were some waders on the beach.

The main group were Sanderling which almost look like they run on clockwork, as their little legs seem to move in a blur when they are scurrying around after insects in the sand.




They are feisty little birds too and constantly harassed the few Dunlin that joined them on the tide line. These are one of my favourite waders. They are so tiny and have beautiful patterning in their feathers. This individual had just been delving its beak deep into the sand after a prey item.




One particular favourite Dunlin image that I captured is my Image of the Month for September. These little birds forage amongst seaweed along the shoreline for small insects, molluscs and other morsels of food. They also go through tiny pools of water where they drag their feet to dredge up food that lies just under the surface of the sand. This one had just been through a patch of sea foam doing this and emerged wearing what looked like tiny foam slippers!




This encounter was especially wonderful as I was lying on the sand and this gorgeous bird came so close that I could have reached out and touched it. I love wildlife photography but even more so, I love close encounters with wild creatures like this.

The final morning on the island we left the cottage early to enjoy Luskentyre in all its glory once more, before catching the ferry back to Skye. A walk on the beach in the fresh air was only topped by seeing Common Dolphins from the ferry back over the Minch. I definitely fell in love with the island and have no doubt that there will be many more Hebridean adventures to be had in the future! If you’ve enjoyed reading about my trip and think you’d like to visit, there’s plenty of great information on the Outer Hebrides website.