New Photographic Opportunities

My new telephoto zoom lens has arrived. It’s huge and heavy and not for taking on dog walks. It’s a Nikon 200-500mm and it weighs in at nearly two and half kilos. Wandering around outside, strap on shoulder, hand on the camera grip ready for test-shot action, I felt like a paparazzi. A self-conscious one. This new set up will take a bit of getting used to.

I decided to shell out what was around twice the cost of the camera itself to enable me to get better shots of the various animals and birds that pass through (and sometimes take up residence in) our garden and the adjoining field. It should result in noticeably more detail than I’ve been getting with my 70-300mm lens. And it should mean less cropping generally.

View of the adjoining field, taken back in May

I’ve told myself that the expense is justified ‘A’ because of lockdown – what else you gonna do? – and ‘B’ because we do get quite a lot of wildlife – and resultant photographic opportunities – from Roe Deer and Muntjacks to stoats and water shrews. When it comes to bird life we’re lucky too. We’ve had Egrets on the stream and even occasional visits from Kingfishers, though with no fish to speak of in the shallow stream they’re only ever passing through (I’ll have to be quick and have the camera within reach if I’m ever going to get a shot of one). We get a few bird species you’d normally see in open countryside, as well as the more typical garden birds, but not too many of them. They all look bit nervous. I suspect it’s because we have a lot of Corvids here as well – particularly Magpies, Jays and Jackdaws – and Raptors too. Buzzards nest each year in a tall oak a couple of hundred yards away, and we usually have Sparrow Hawks nesting nearby.

The buzzards have had a tough time of it this year as the rabbit population locally was devastated by Myxomatosis. It was horrible to see the sickly things struggling blindly about in the field and finding their way onto the patio occasionally where it was my job to dispatch them. Within a week or two there were no rabbits left. It seemed to me the Buzzard fledglings, when they appeared, were squawking more loudly for food from their parents than in previous years. And for longer.

One of the squawking fledgelings, waiting for the next food delivery

There were two survivors from the nest and they sounded increasingly desperate as the days went by. On one occasion I saw a parent trying to teach them the basics of hunting with a tiny mouse – or at least that’s what I think was happening. Maybe she was just making them work for it. Whichever, it felt like an indicator of just how tough things were getting for them.

Hungry buzzard fledglings, desperate for that mouse. Hopefully sharper images will be get-able with the new lens.

Anyway, we’re hoping we’ve seen the back of the Myxomatosis – for now anyway. I saw a couple of rabbits chasing each other the other day and that’s as many rabbits as I’ve seen in the field at any one time for a few months now. 

Without rabbits we don’t see their predators so much. There’s always been a buzz of excitement when a fox wanders through the field or peers out from behind some undergrowth, or just sits there watching on.

Surprisingly – to us anyway – the rabbits usually seem pretty relaxed about it. Some of them behave as if they’re sentries, sitting up ramrod straight, watching, listening. It looks like they know when a fox is on the hunt and when it’s just passing through. They also seem to know exactly when they need to make a dash for their burrows – or the adults do. The carefree young ones, with their first days out in the open air, full of the joys of fresh grass and buttercups, are not so wary. You see the mothers shepherding the young back towards the safety of their burrows when they stray too far away. And they do it quite briskly sometimes. The young rabbits don’t always want to be told.

Spot the point of interest

In the winter the foxes can look a bit skinny and muddy, from getting in and out of their earths during wet weather, I’m guessing. But during the summer when it’s dry and there’s usually plenty of food about, they’re in peak condition.

Longer shots with animals seen in the context of their surrounding are possible with the 70-300mm.

The device you’re viewing this on may have cropped the ends of the picture which would defeat the purpose of it. Apologies if that’s the case.

And when you’re looking to emphasise distance between predator and quarry, the less strong telephoto lenses are also okay. In fact I seem to remember I knitted two shots together for the picture above, as the wider end of the zoom couldn’t capture both rabbit and fox at the same time. It will be nice, though, to have the possibility of closer shots.

The relationship between foxes and rabbits provide much of the wildlife drama here. And the rabbits provide a bit of humour too. Their chases and their crazy acrobatics in particular. Not sure whether the whirling backward flips that some of them do is to impress prospective mates or just the result of over excitement. Whatever, it’s one of the things I’m hoping I might be able to capture this year with the new lens. We’re hoping the rabbit population recovers more quickly than it did when Myxie passed through a few years ago.

Now that I have my new lens, there have been fewer opportunities to use it. The migratory birds have gone and there are fewer daylight hours than there were. We’ve had a Roe Deer appearing in the field now and again. But she’s always at the further most point – a hundred yards or more away – where she likes to lie down and watch over the valley (if you look at the view of the field at the top of this blog, she’s between the small copse and the hedgerow at the top left of the field). And we only ever seem to see her when the light is gloomy. Now the sun is out, she’s nowhere to be seen. Managed to get a few shots of her when she was here, hiding behind tufts of grass. I couldn’t see her with the naked eye – or my naked eyes anyway (it was Chantal who spotted her). Below is my first attempt – cropped a bit – with the new 200-500mm.

Promising, I think. But here’s hoping for some sunny days in the next few months with beautiful creatures doing interesting things. And for me to have camera to hand when I spot them.

Photographic Cautionary Tale – yet another

And Some Late Season Surprises

When I did the regular dog walk on Friday I didn’t bother taking my camera with me as it was overcast and I didn’t expect much in the way of butterfly action anyway. And sure enough there wasn’t any. The days definitely have an end of season feel to them now. But then, when I arrived back home the sun popped out I saw a couple of Small Whites fluttering about in the front garden and also, more interestingly, a Small Copper. It landed and stayed landed on a grass bank. I hadn’t taken a picture of Small Copper in the garden this year, so I nipped inside to get the camera and when I got back the butterfly was, unusually, still there. The sun had gone in but it was sheltered in that particular spot and the butterfly was very still. I decided to try dropping the exposure speed down to 1/50 to see if I could get a sharp image with a reasonably low ISO. And I did. The result is below.

Small Copper on a tangle of grass

Fast forward a couple of minutes to the back of the garden.

I thought I’d have a bit of a walk-about to see if there were any other late season butterfly surprises. There was nothing, initially. And then Chantal, who was enjoying the warmth of the Autumn Sun with a cup of tea at the back of the garage, called out that there was a yellowish butterfly heading towards the garden from across the field. And she thought it might be a Clouded Yellow. As soon as she’d said it, the butterfly had turned round and landed somewhere in the thick undergrowth, so I didn’t get to see it.

I hadn’t taken a picture of a Clouded Yellow in the adjoining field – or the garden – before, so I thought it worth a try. I asked Chantal to keep an eye on where it had landed as I clambered down to cross the stream. I also had to get over the barbed wire fence on the other side which can be a tricky manoeuvre when you’re holding a camera, making you effectively one-handed for holding down the springy barbed wire while balancing on one leg to lift the other one over. But I managed it without any nasty rips in awkward places.

The field back in May. (The white of the Hawthorn Blossom at the back of the field has now turned to berry red.) The garage from where Chantal gave directions (bench just out of shot) is to the right of the stream

Once in the field I asked Chantal to direct me to the where she thought the butterfly had landed, which she did. “Left a bit, right a bit, keep going…”. It’s usually quite boggy ground in that part of the field and that’s what it felt like underfoot (it’s difficult to see where you’re treading with the weeds waist high at this time of year). I’d discovered previously, when following escapee whippets or stalking small butterflies in the field, that the best way to cross the boggy ground, when you’re not wearing  boots, is to try to step from tussock to tussock, of which there are quite a few. But searching for the next one through the thick undergrowth is not easy. You haven’t got much time to look ahead for butterflies. It was tricky.

“You’re just about there,” was the call from behind the back of the garage. 

I looked over and around the foliage in front of me and, sure enough, there it was: a Clouded Yellow. “You were right,” I called out. And then as I was manoeuvring into a good photographic position, the butterfly flitted off again. “Oh well, opportunity gone for another year,” was my immediate reaction. Clouded Yellows spend a lot of time flying quickly and not a lot of time landing and keeping still – in my experience – and I wasn’t expecting it to land again close by. But this time, to my surprise, it did. It landed almost immediately on another piece of vegetation just a few paces away. In my excitement I forgot the tussock to tussock rule and immediately felt a slip-on deck shoe splodge into the watery bog between them. A brief pause as I felt water seep in between the laces and then I was off again. And the slip-on deck shoe, predictably, slipped off. I’d never managed a shot of a Clouded Yellow in the field before so leaving the shoe behind didn’t seem like too big a deal, and within a few one-shoed paces the butterfly was in range. I manoeuvred into position – it still hadn’t flown off – and started taking pictures. Through the lens it looked like I was getting one or two nice shots. I managed to move round to the other side to get a couple of shots with the sun on the butterfly which would mean a nice variety and a few shots to choose from. Brilliant. And then the butterfly was off and this time it didn’t stop, disappearing behind trees at the edge of the field. But I’d got my pictures. I found my shoe, slipped it back on to a soggy-socked foot, and wandered back towards the garden. I have to admit to a small feeling of triumph at that point.

And then I had a thought: had I changed the speed back to my usual default setting of 1/500 from 1/50 which I’d set it to when I took the shot of the very stationary Small Copper.

I checked the setting on my camera. The answer was no. 

It had somehow got to 1/100, but with the breezy condition out in the middle of the field, and the way the butterfly had been moving about, it meant the chances of having a good crisp picture were low.

And so it proved. Below is the best of the bunch.

As you can see, the picture is not sharp. And it could’ve been a nice shot: the composition was okay; the background was nicely blurred; the wings had a little bit of illumination from the sun, which I like, and the rusty brown markings on the yellow wings nicely echoed the rusty brown markings of the fading leaves. What can I say? When it comes to taking photographs it’s a good idea to check the settings before, rather than after, you’ve taken them. Even if I was a bit excited at the time, it was a schoolboy error and yet another good opportunity blown. I stomped about in my soggy sock and waterlogged shoe for a bit before I stopped cursing.

The story does have a more positive ending though.

The next day, Saturday, I was walking towards the garage when I noticed a yellow butterfly beyond it, flitting about over the grass. I hurried back to the house to get my camera, and about half a minute later I was in the middle of the lawn, looking around for yellow butterflies and this time double-checking the exposure on the camera. And then there it was: high up, moving along the line of a tall hedge and flying at speed away from me. I went in pursuit, hoping against all reasonable expectation that it might just change direction and fly directly at me. And that’s exactly what it did. I couldn’t believe it. And it landed on a late flowering blue geranium a few paces away. I managed to get about a dozen shots and the best three are below. Simple as that.

The dead and dying foliage with the bright green background makes for a confusing image, but the contrasting blue of the geranium in a garden pretty devoid of colour in early/mid October was a positive. And this time the focus was pretty crisp.

I noticed a couple of things in the pictures when I saw them on the computer screen.

Firstly, judging by the markings on the wings (particularly the shape of the smaller of the two white dots ringed in brown) the one I saw on Saturday was a different individual from the one I saw on the Friday. Secondly, there were some blueish markings near the base of the wings of the Saturday Clouded Yellow, which I don’t think I’ve seen before. I’m wondering whether they are actually unusual markings or whether perhaps it’s been smudged with blue pollen on its travels. Do any flowers out there have blue pollen? Or could it be some kind of bruising? One to check out.

Then today, the sun came out again. After the last couple of days I had my camera (settings checked) with me while I enjoyed the end of a Sunday lunchtime beer behind the garage. I could see a couple of what looked like Small Whites flitting around some bramble bushes some distance away and was absent-mindedly wondering whether the butterflies might be sipping the sugary juice of the over-ripe blackberries, when another butterfly, a brown and orangey one, suddenly appeared and landed on one of the few remaining flowers of Catnip in the garden. I had a vague idea it might be a Gatekeeper, but were they about at this time of year?

As soon as I saw it through the lens I could see it was a Wall Brown, the first one I’d definitely seen in the garden. I managed to get a couple of shots before it was off again, landing twenty feet away on a tiny Herb Robert flower, and this time it kindly opened its wings. I managed to get a picture of it there too. And then it was off and away and the visitation was over. A look at the Butterfly Conservation website confirmed that Wall Browns are around until Mid October.

So there we are. I’d thought the butterfly season was pretty much over, and within the space of three days I’d seen two species I’d never seen in the garden before. And taken pictures of them too, even if I did fluff the first attempt. Lesson learned. At least for the time being.

First Ground Frost of Autumn

We had our first ground frost of Autumn a couple of nights ago. Our two courgette plants were the first casualties: we found them collapsed in a heap of bent stalks and damp grey leaves. I managed to salvage a couple of the remaining courgettes that were not frost-damaged and they are now marinating in olive oil and lemon juice (with a little crushed garlic and chopped parsley), ready to be seared in the griddle pan for supper. A last taste of summer, or one of them: the tomato plants, closer to the shelter of the house, are still holding out.

We’ve had a few sunny days since the official start of Autumn on the 22nd, and there’ve been butterflies about – at least in the shelter of the valley here, not so much up on the plain. It’s been a mixture of freshly emerged hopefuls and others that are reaching the end of the road. They still have a kind of tattered beauty about them though.

Below, a tired-looking Speckled Wood, a Large White on an almost over Valerian flower, and what must be pretty close to the last of the Meadow Browns.

Below, some of the freshly emerged hopefuls included a Green Veined White on Viburnum, in pretty good condition

a Large White, head buried deep in late-flowering clover

And a speckled Wood, enjoying the Autumn Sun.

There have been plenty of Red Admirals and Commas about, and a few Small Coppers, though they’ve only ever landed when there’s been no camera to hand. But still quite a lot happening. Took a few shots of a Large White on the remaining daisies. Against the shadows of the long grass in the background they have an almost studio look to them.

Hummingbird Hawk-moths were visiting the garden up until about a week ago. Most of their favourite Valerian and  Buddleia are over, so they’re been having to make do with what they can find. The Lobelia proved popular. Didn’t get any pictures of them but here’s one I came across on Tilshead Down a couple of weeks ago, taking a rest on a bed of soft moss. The first I’d seen at rest.

And here’s another from a couple of years ago, sipping nectar from Campanula flowers at the front of the house. I see from the date the picture was taken that they were still around on October 7th in 2018.

The sun just came out, as I was sitting here at my desk, so I thought I’d wander off up the garden with my camera to see what was about. There were one or two whites and several fresh-looking Speckled Woods, one of which I took a picture of as it rested on an ivy leaf (below). Muted colours but a beautiful butterfly. It’s been a good year for Speckled Woods.

It’s been a good year for quite a few species. Not a great year for Common Blues though, or Painted Ladies. Despite having seen my first one arriving a week or so earlier than last year I haven’t seen another. Just goes to show: one Painted Lady does not a Painted Lady summer make.

Exhausted Adonis

Addendum to previous post.

Pictures taken on August 28th, the day after the second storm abated.

This Adonis Blue still has its full set of undamaged wings, only a little frayed around the edges. His problem though was getting a good grip on the grass strand, pictured in the slideshow below. But then he’d been clinging on to strands of vegetation for days – and nights – while the storms raged around him. So if his grip was a little weak it was understandable.

“If I could just pull myself up here a bit”… “That’s better”… “Oops, slipping again”… “Maybe I should try some less challenging vegetation”

He flew off to find another perch. And this one, with its several seed-head fronds, proved more stable and easier to get a hold of. All six legs taking the strain.

But a nice flat blade of grass was better still.

Back to business and keeping an eye out for the next passing female.

After the Storms

Green-veined White on wild mint in the field next to the house, a couple of days after the storms

The sun was out for much of the dog walk up on the plain yesterday morning but there weren’t many butterflies about. During the course of the mile or so walk to our local Special Site of Scientific Interest, the total number of butterflies seen came to: one Small White, one Meadow Brown, a couple of Small Heaths and not a single blue. It looked like most of the species that were usually on the wing at this time of year had gone. Taken out, I was assuming, by Storms “Ellen” and “Francis”. It had been a stormy week or two.

The Adonis Blues at the SSSI had faired better. There were a dozen or more that I saw flitting about on the gently-sloping top of the escarpment.

One of the Adonis Survivors, a little faded and frayed around the edges

I’m guessing the Hawthorn bushes – of which there are quite a few there – would have given more shelter than on more open areas of Salisbury Plain. But wherever butterflies had ended up roosting it would’ve been pretty tough, clinging to a piece of vegetation for dear life – literally – with winds gusting to over fifty miles an hour. One can imagine they might easily have been battered by the other strands of vegetation flailing about – maybe thistles or scrub branches – or ripped from their stalk and thrown to the winds. And that would have been it. It was blowy enough in our sheltered valley at home. Up on the exposed Salisbury plain it would’ve been fierce.

On the way back to the car, I didn’t see many more butterflies – one or two – but I was pleased to see a Wall Brown that was still flying along one of the tracks.

Another intrepid survivor, it had a bit of its front left wing missing and a chunk of the right rear looked to be absent too, but it was still flying. Maybe it would find a mate with which to produce some of the next generation. He/she would have deserved it. But the chances – bearing in mind how few other survivors I’d seen – looked a bit slim. It struck me that it’s no good being the fittest to have survived if there are no others left to survive with.

Far more butterflies were about in our relatively sheltered garden, and in the adjoining field, the day before: Meadows Browns and Small Heaths, the odd common Blue and a few Green-veined Whites.

But Large Whites were the most prevalent. They were all over the place. And they all seemed to be in beautifully fresh condition.

It looked like they’d emerged that day – or very recently – and it made me wonder what had triggered it. Do their chrysalises know somehow that conditions are favourable? Are they maybe sensitive to temperature or levels of sunlight? But then again, some of the winds have been pretty warm and the skies had been clear while the wind was blowing fiercely. Could they be sensitive to vibrations caused by high winds perhaps? Is their an instinct in the dormant chrysalis that makes it wait until things have calmed down?

Whatever had caused the new generation to appear, it was like a Large White carnival: butterflies chasing each other and dancing and feasting on the nectar of flowers in our garden, and in the field too where there was a profusion of wild mint in bloom. 

And what about the Adonis Blues up on the Plain? I’d comes across one male on a walk during the last couple of weeks that was about quarter of a mile from where they were normally found. Perhaps blown there by the wind? But it wasn’t the location so much as the condition of the butterfly that I found intriguing. The worst of one storm had only subsided a day or so before, and this butterfly was in pristine condition. It had to have only recently emerged, perhaps that morning.

At the time I had wondered whether this was just a lucky individual who’d avoided the storm by chance – in emerging a day or two after it – while other butterflies had been emerging and perishing in the fierce winds. Or whether this was the tail end of the Adonis Blue emergence, and there was some innate instinct that made the chrysalises that were left wait. Instinct or chance, it looked like timing was pretty much everything, as usual. Though, having said that, there was no way the butterfly – or chrysalis – could have known that another storm, Francis, was just round the corner. But then there’s bad luck as well as good timing.  

Big Downpour, Tiny Lizard

Male Common Blue in low evening sunlight, in amongst bullrushes

We had a tropical downpour in rural Wiltshire the night before last. We were woken by seriously big rain clattering on the roof and there was instant dual springing out of bed and panic closing of all the wide-open windows upstairs. One of our dogs, Roxie, was shaking and whimpering downstairs – she’s not a fan of thunder and lightening – and we had to feed her slithers of ham to calm her down. You give slithers of ham to one dog and you have to give slithers of ham to the other. And then you start getting a bit peckish yourself – at two in the morning. All to a background of dramatic lightning flashes and rumbling thunder. Strange night.

Was hoping the downpours might have eased the humidity a bit but not so far. This is the second day of cloudy damp and drizzle, which is not great butterfly weather. It hasn’t been great butterfly-spotting weather for a while now:  either too hot for the dogs to walk out in the open where the butterflies generally are, or it’s been overcast but still hot and steamy and not great walking weather either, for man or dog. 

Walking has been confined to early mornings under the trees. We’re lucky to have shady woodland at the top of a breezy escarpment five minutes drive away. It doesn’t attract many butterflies but does attract a lot of other dog-walkers. In these socially-distancing times it’s often the most human interaction we get all day.

So, not many butterfly pictures lately. We do now have a few Common Blues in the garden and field along with all the Small Whites which seem to be looking for places to lay their eggs at the moment. About a week ago I managed one or two evening shots with low sun of Common Blues. The one at the top is an example. The one below another.

Female Common Blue on dry grass

The last good sunny walk we had was at Tilshead Down, a week and a bit ago, where I saw my first Small Copper of the year. 

Thought it was a female Common Blue flittering about in the long grass (I’d just taken a picture of one) before I saw it through the lens. And then it was up and away and we didn’t see another. The angle wasn’t right for showing off its shiny copper wings, but good to tick off another species for the year.

UPDATE, AUGUST 28th: I misidentified the butterfly below left. I’m now pretty sure it’s a Brown Argus. Another first of the year for me!

And then we saw a tiny thing wriggling its way across the dusty path just ahead of us. A closer look showed it to be a Common Lizard, no more then a couple of inches long, including its tail.

Not the best shot in the world. But it was almost impossible to see it against the dirt with its perfect camouflage. The autofocus struggles when there is little contrast and low light. And it’s difficult to focus manually when you can’t make out the tiny thing you’re trying to focus on. I include the picture here as it was not only the first lizard I’d seen this year, it’s the first I’ve seen in two or three years. We don’t get to see many of them – or at least I don’t – in this neck of the woods. I suspect the dog element of walking doesn’t help. When you’ve got a couple of them running about ahead of you, scaring away anything sensible that might be in their path, you get to see less small wildlife than you otherwise might. But of course if I wasn’t walking dogs I wouldn’t be out there anyway.

Small Blue or not Small Blue?

When you’re learning about butterflies and identifying them, and you’ve made one or two howlers in the past, you tend to be a little cautious about flat out, definite identifications. Particularly when the individual butterfly in question is worn around the edges and even more so if you see it at a time when the species in question is not supposed to be about.

According to the UK Butterfly Conservation website, the second Generation of Small Blues normally appear in the third of fourth week of August. I saw this particular butterfly (above) on August 2nd – last Sunday at Tilshead Down – and its tatty condition suggested that it had been around for a good week or more before that. I decided it was extremely unlikely to have been a left-over from the first generation which would normally have petered out by the end June. So if this particular butterfly was a Small Blue and part of the second generation, it had been around getting on for a month before Small Blues were supposed to start emerging.

But looking at the pictures, I can’t see what else it could be.

The following day, I saw the first of the second generation of Common Blues that I’ve seen this year in the area where I normally walk the dogs – I’d been keeping an eye out for them for a week or two. I only saw a couple of them on the two or three mile walk – one male, one female. When they’re in full flow you’ll see dozens in that area. So it looked like the emergence was only just beginning. And the appearance of these two individuals suggested that they may well have only broken out from their respective chrysalises hours before.

Do the clearly visible markings showing through from the underwing suggest that the wings haven’t dried out fully yet, the butterfly having only recently emerged?
Wings looking strikingly fresh on this female Common Blue. And it looks like the forewing on this side is crumpled. Maybe, still stretching out/unfolding from the confines of the chrysalis? (She’s also wearing very smart stripy socks that I haven’t noticed before.)

This was on August 3rd, and the Butterfly Conservation Website suggests that Common Blues (second generation) normally start to emerge in mid July.

So you’ve got a Small Blue appearing getting on for a month earlier than you’d expect it to. And Common Blues appearing maybe a couple of weeks after you’d expect – in a typical year. So no particular pattern. And of course these were isolated, local sightings of no statistical significance, but it did get me wondering about what it might be that affects the timing of the emergence of these different species of butterfly. 

How much of it is down to the weather leading up to their emergence – perhaps affecting the prevalence of their food plants? Can the inhabitants of chrysalises time their emergence to make the most of conditions? And if so, how on earth would they do that?

With the Small Blue I didn’t see any other Small Blues about, so perhaps it was just a mutational aberration. In which case this individual wouldn’t have got to pass on its genes to the next generation. Maybe, when it comes to emerging from your chrysalis, as is the case with many other areas of life, timing is everything. But then again maybe there were plenty of other Small Blues about that I just didn’t get to see, and they were all just ahead of the crowd, having their only little exclusive party.

Tilshead Down. Picture taken a couple of weeks ago. The ‘X’ marks the spot where I saw the Small Blue two weeks later – and a month earlier than expected.

To Camouflage or not to Camouflage

If the whole world was made up of faded Lemon Verbena plants, then Cabbage White butterflies would be perfectly camouflaged. I’m guessing, though, that success, when you’re an adult butterfly, has more to do with attracting mates than avoiding predation. Of course when you’re a caterpillar and uninterested in members of the opposite sex, your top priority, while you’re concentrating on eating your cabbages, is to avoid being eaten by birds and wasps – or being removed by eagle-eyed gardeners for that matter – so green would be the successful colour for you at that more stationary stage of your life cycle. And so it is for the Small White caterpillar.

The above picture was taken in our garden with the shade of long grass along a fence in the background, hence the dramatic lighting. More dramatic lighting in the next shot of a Holy Blue I spotted yesterday in the dappled light from overhanging trees up on the Plain.

And below, the same butterfly in direct sunlight a foot or two away. 

A hundred or two yards earlier on the dog walk I’d seen Gatekeepers and a Wall Brown (or two – difficult to differentiate between them when they’re in flight) chasing each other on the edge of the same escarpment wood. It looked like a bank of Willowherb, covered in floss, was the real estate they were fighting over. I’m guessing the Wall was winning as he tended to perch near or on the Willowherb…

Wall Brown with its exotic underwing markings

… while the Gatekeepers seemed to be retreating to the branches of some kind of wild plumb or damson tree overhead, their fruits beginning to ripen.

Also seen on the walk were Chalkhill Blues – first of the year for me – at the SSSI where I often drop in on dog walks to see what’s happening.

The Harebells were out, as were the Clustered Bellflowers, enjoying the sun of the south facing chalk escarpment.

Harebells in the sun
Clustered Bellflowers

On my way there, over open grassland, I thought I saw a clouded Yellow zooming along in the distance, though it could possibly have been a Brimstone – there are one or two of them on the wing at the moment. But I knew there were Clouded Yellows about as well as I’d seen a couple chasing each other on the plain about a fifteen minute drive away on Sunday. I managed to photograph one of them after a mad, zig-zagging chase over grassland. A first for me.

Eyes bright, almost radio-active green. A bit spooky.

Will try next time to get a shot without grass in the way, but these migrants from Southern Europe and North Africa do not like sitting still – or giving you many chances with a camera.

Am looking forward to the emergence of the Common Blues, a favourite for me – and much more laid back when it comes to having their photos taken. Should be with us in the next week or two.

Bit of a Workout

On a recent dog walk I noticed the Essex Skipper above struggling to get a grip on a grass stalk in the undergrowth. Made me think of athletes doing a workout on the bar, but more slapstick comedian than dainty little gymnast. In one of the shots it even looks as if he/she has deadpan eyebrows. These are unconventional little butterflies.

More conventional were the Gatekeepers I saw a couple of days ago on some bramble bushes – the first of the year for me. They have more varied markings than most butterflies, and some quite exotic – in a brown and orange sort of way.

Otherwise not many new arrivals around. The cloudy weather is probably not helping but it should get more lively within the next week or two. Didn’t see many Common Blues earlier in the year – just one in the field next to the house and not many up on the plain. It’ll be interesting to see how many we’ll get in the second generation. Sunny days forecast for next week so should find out soon.

Getting Your Eye In…

Was chatting to a knowledgable neighbour the other day about Ringlet butterflies, as you do, and he said that when you get your eye in you start to see them everywhere. The fact that we’re approaching peak Ringlet season helps too, but it’s also approaching peak Meadow Brown season, so the Ringlets can easily be lost in amongst the hoards of their more common brown cousins. So it definitely helps to have your eye in.

Ringlet in pristine condition
The best shot I managed of a recently emerged Ringlet with open wings showing off that dark velvety upper wing. They do a lot of flittering and not much landing. And even less resting with wings open.

I got my eye in the weekend before last. I’d read somewhere that Ringlets are unusual in that they often fly when it’s overcast. It was cloudy that day and the dogs needed walking so I decided to put the theory to the test. If the Meadow Browns weren’t flying and the Ringlets were, it would make it much  easier to see and identify them. And that was how it turned out. I saw a couple of dozen Ringlets on the walk and managed to get pictures of a few. Pretty much the only Meadow Browns that were flying that day were the ones I’d disturbed while walking through long grass – along with the Marbled Whites and skippers that were also sheltering there. It was windy, and on the rare occasions the Ringlets landed it seemed always to be low down, sheltering in amongst the grass. Which made photographing them difficult. As you can see…

Once you’ve seen a few Ringlets, you notice that they have a faintly blue, misty tinge to their dark wings in flight – particularly newly emerged ones. And they seem to me to have a preference for longer grass, often not far from trees and scrub, whereas the Meadow Browns can be seen almost anywhere, from bramble bushes, which they sometimes congregate around in large numbers, to fluttering on their own across wide open grassland. Knowing where to look for Ringlets makes it easier to find them. Having said that I’m not sure I’d feel confident enough to put money on identifying one in flight. The picture below is of a male Meadow Brown I photographed in the garden which, before it landed, I’d convinced myself was a Ringlet.

And here’s a picture of a Ringlet that landed on the Michaelmas daisies by our back door and which I thought initially was probably another Meadow Brown.

Those upper wings, which are often most of what you see when they’re flying low to the ground, are still very similar to me. Maybe I need to get my eye in a little more.

Also flying in the field by our house at the moment, along with the whites and the browns, are skippers. Here’s a Small one who decided to rest its front legs for a bit.

And here’s an Essex Skipper, the first I’ve seen this year, that was chilling out on an Umbellifer bud on the overcast day mentioned earlier. With their antennae tips dipped-in-ink look, they’re one of my favourites.