In Celebration of Spring

English weather rarely follows any sort of predictable pattern. It’s all jumbly, bumbling around all over the place like a drunken bee in winter.

This year, though, a period of spring-like weather has coincided neatly with the official start to Spring. How very un-British.

Just in these last couple of weeks I’ve already seen 7 species of butterfly – a very good start to the year:

Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Small White, Brimstone, and Holly Blue.

In sheer celebration of this colourful and rapid emergence of Spring butterflies, here are a few photos taken over the last few days, all on the sun-kissed edges of Summerfields Woods, Hastings:

Peacock
Peacocks: two for the price of one
Comma
Holly Blue, on rhododendron leaves
Small Tortoiseshell:
a butterfly that’s been making a remarkable and very welcome comeback in recent years after suffering major decline for many years

A Winged Messenger

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

These were some of the reassuring words read out at the funeral I attended of a young man today. A service at which I was filled with sadness.

On the way there I stopped at the Old St Helen’s Church ruins for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer.

As I entered the grounds I saw my first butterfly of the year – a Red Admiral brought out of hibernation by the Spring-like weather. What a wonderful divine reminder of the resurrection hope and eternal life that so many of us believe in. 🦋

(Just a phone pic on this occasion)

An Admirable Autumn

It’s been a bumper year for Painted Ladies, as reported in many places, with the Big Butterfly Count revealing the spectacularly super-flying migrant as the most prolific butterfly of 2019.

Painted Lady, June 2019

But if the count were carried out now, in September, the Red Admiral would surely win hands-down. Or wings down.

Red Admiral, this summer

They’ve been blooming everywhere this month! Buddleias, at least, seem to be teeming with them. Including the large bush that overhangs our patio from next door. On one day there were about 10 Red Admirals at once on this particular buddleia.

Red Admiral, Sept 2019

We then also have the delight in watching them settle on the fence or bird-table, wings open, catching the sun.

The Painted Lady bonanza hit the headlines because it only happens about every 10 years and because of the incredible 1000s of miles the species flies from Africa to British shores.

Painted Lady, June 2019

The Red Admiral fest may not be so newsworthy, but has been equally enjoyable, and worthy of logging here – for my own reference, at least.

This Red Admiral, which had been feeding on the buddleia that overhangs our garden, settled next to the left-over rice we’d put out on our bird-table. It seemed more interested in the rice than the birds had been.

Let’s keep enjoying the everyday as well as the unusual.

Butterflies in the Belfry

I’ve written before, in Life out of Death, about the wildlife habitat that is the ruins of the strikingly photogenic Old St Helen’s Church, one of the oldest buildings in Hastings. During last year’s hot summer it was a joy to see the old, disused graveyard teeming with butterflies.

I rarely use filters but Old St Helen’s Church is just made for photo effects!

This summer I’ve been longing for a chance to go back and see the butterflies there again, take some more photos, and check on the prevalence of the Common Blue that was so…common there last year. It’s been predicted that this is going to be a bumper year for the brilliant blue, British butterfly, yet I’ve seen very few so far this summer (although plenty of Holly Blues).

Today I managed to grab a few minutes to visit the site and was pleasantly relieved to see quite a number of Common Blues there again.

Common Blue, today

Even more excitingly, though, I spotted at least two Brown Argus (and took the photo below). Like other butterflies I’ve reported on in previous blog posts, this pretty, petite butterfly is a species I’d normally associate with the countryside, especially downland, so to see them populating this wild patch of urbanity is sheer delight.

Some time I intend to make an attempt at writing some reflections I’ve been pondering about the harmony of man and nature. But for now suffice to say that this little area, although abandoned in terms of its original use as a place of worship (but now conserved by Sussex Heritage Trust together with local community groups), is thriving with living colours of the Creator, giving rise to a different expression of worship.

One in which nature sings with vibrant wings.

A Day on the Downs

About once a year, in the summer, I take a day off just for myself, away from work and family – some time alone to pray, walk and enjoy nature. A solitary retreat, to take stock, connect with God and nature, and enjoy what I love.

For some, church worship or other spiritual practices are the gateway to blessing.
For me, solitude in nature is a gateway to heaven.

For this introvert/contemplative/Christian/nature-lover with a normally busy schedule, it’s a perfect combination. Today was no exception.

Near Jevington

Actually, today I wasn’t alone – I took Gorka. And spent the first part of the day worrying that I was taking him out for too long in the heat!

Gorka

We were out walking for 5 hours on the South Downs, from Wannock, over Butts Brow, through Jevington, to Lullington Heath, and back.

Whitethroat, at Butts Brow

About 9 miles in all. But he was fine.

We took a few respite breaks in the shade, including a stop at the Eight Bells, just for Gorka’s sake of course….

But, mmm, that Harvey’s Best was DE-licious!

Small Tortoiseshell (now unfortunately scarce), at Lullington Heath

When I lived nearer the Downs many years ago, I didn’t take it for granted. But I sure appreciate it a whole lot more now. Its flowery meadows, inhabited by swirls of butterflies and filled with the sweet aroma of wild marjoram and the call of skylarks, are the kind of thing normally only talked about in hushed tones of fond nostalgia these days.

Viper’s Bugloss

Here on the Downs those meadows, as you can see from the above photos, still exist!

Marbled White: one of the delights of the South Downs.
They were abundant here today.

I counted at least 16 species of butterfly in the small area I covered today, not to mention the incredible array of other flora and fauna, including wild orchids and a few interesting moths.

Today was the first day this year that I’ve seen Burnet moths. Their metallic sheen and their tendency to stay for some periods of time on thistles and other flowers made them a prime target for my camera….

Six-spot Burnet

…not that they were always all sitting ducks, and I quite like these in-flight shots, showing off the red hind wings:

Of some excitement to me, though, was seeing another member of the Burnet family for the first time ever: the Forester, of which there were quite a number at Butts Brow:

Forester moth on wild marjoram

This Brown Argus butterfly was also a rare treat:

But perhaps the greatest delight of all was seeing and capturing on camera one of those butterflies seen only on chalk hills: the aptly named Chalkhill Blue, which seems, for me, to perfectly symbolise the rare beauty of the South Downs.

Chalkhill Blue

Admirals and Emperors

As a childhood lepidopterist I had a recurring dream of seeing a Purple Emperor. (OK, confession time: I’ve had this dream as an adult as well.)

Three years ago, I chased the dream and saw my first Purple Emperors, in Ashdown Forest, high up in the trees; then, last July, took the 1.5-hour trip to the incredible ecological project that is Knepp Wildland, to photograph these rare butterflies.

Knepp’s website explains that it is:

a 3,500 acre estate just south of Horsham, West Sussex. Since 2001, the land – once intensively farmed – has been devoted to a pioneering rewilding project. Using grazing animals as the drivers of habitat creation, and with the restoration of dynamic, natural water courses, the project has seen extraordinary increases in wildlife. Extremely rare species like turtle doves, nightingales, peregrine falcons and purple emperor butterflies are now breeding here; and populations of more common species are rocketing.”

Purple Emperor, feeding on sap

My visit to Knepp might be becoming an annual fixture. In any case, I returned today, at the peak of Purple Emperor season, this time with my wife, Janine, again in the hope of some decent pics.

As soon as we stepped out of the car on to the Knepp estate, we were treated to the sight of several Emperors flitting between the oak trees and the roofs of nearby houses. Purple Emperors tend to stay in the trees, often high up, feeding on sap, making decent pics a challenge. Elusive beggars that they are!

Purple Emperor, feeding on sap

We enjoyed watching them in several sites, but as for photos, these were the best I could do.

In fact, everything seemed to be on the move today, making it difficult to get a good snap of any bird or butterfly.

Female Purple Emperor

However, I love just being in that kind of environment, absorbing the richness of the habitat, the hum of nature all around. And we enjoyed plenty of other natural wonders, apart from the Purple Emperors.

…such as the deer that shot out from bushes at the beginning of our walk and ran across our path, causing us shock and delight in equal measure.

…such as these White Admirals: the first I’ve seen for a few years – almost as much of a treat as the Emperors:

A slightly tatty White Admiral
White Admiral

…the Purple Hairstreaks that fluttered around many of the same oaks as the Purple Emperors.

…the ubiquitous Cinnabar moth caterpillars:

Cinnabar Moth caterpillars

…the many Marbled Whites that adorned nearly every field and hedgerow.

Marbled White taking off as I pressed the shutter!
Nothing stood still for long today.

…and these storks (yes, storks!), which are part of a fascinating project to reintroduce the species to the UK, which you can read about here.

Storks in England!

My new dream now will of course be to achieve some better Purple Emperor pictures. But if that never happens, I’ll still be content with having fulfilled the original dream of simply enjoying watching this majestic butterfly.

Urban Butterflies

One of the many things I love about Hastings is its large green spaces, with their surprisingly rich habitats.

Four-spotted Chaser, just outside Hastings town centre, July 2019

I’m talking here about parks and woods that are part & parcel of actual urban Hastings & St Leonards, not Hastings Country Park or any of the other scenic surrounding areas.

Hoverfly on Oxeye Daisy, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019

This week, for the first time that I remember, I saw a Ringlet on the edge of Summerfields Woods (a 5-minute walk from the town centre): a butterfly I’d normally associate with the countryside. I don’t have a photo to show you as I didn’t have my camera with me…

But it prompted me to post a slightly nerdy list of the butterflies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in urban Hastings & St Leonards over the last few years, interspersed with a few photos I’ve taken in these areas. I’ve left some of the rarer treats till the end of the list:

  • Speckled Wood (probably the most prolific butterfly in Summerfields Woods)
Speckled Wood, Summerfields Woods
  • Meadow Brown
  • Ringlet
  • Gatekeeper
  • Small Copper (quite a few in and around Summerfields Woods and White Rock Gardens)
Small Copper, Summerfields Woods, July 2018
  • Comma (lots on bramble flowers especially)
  • Painted Lady (also around the brambles)
Painted Lady, edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019
Painted Lady, edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019
  • Red Admiral
  • Peacock (I used to find their caterpillars as well, but haven’t done in recent years. I think this butterfly has declined here.) †
  • Small Tortoiseshell
  • Orange-tip
  • All the usual Whites (Small, Large, Green-veined)
  • Brimstone
  • Large Skipper
Large Skipper, Summerfields Woods, July 2019
Large Skipper, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019
  • Holly Blue
  • Common Blue
Holly Blue, on the wall of Bohemia Walled Garden, Summerfields Woods
Female Common Blue, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2019
  • White-letter Hairstreak (a very special treat, last July)
White-letter Hairstreak, edge of Summerfields Woods, July 2018
  • Purple Hairstreak (just one at the end of the season a few years ago, again on the edge of Summerfields Woods)
  • Clouded Yellow (a few in White Rock Gardens, where I guess is a first stopping point after crossing the Channel)
  • White Admiral (just one fairly ragged specimen at end of season, in the woods at the top of Alexandra Park)

There may be one or two others that I’ve forgotten.

Hopefully there will be a few more to add to the list as time goes on.

Longhorn Beetle (Rutpela maculate), edge of Summerfields Woods, June 2019

In the meantime, it’s good to remember not only that Nature is unstoppable even in the face of humanity’s urbanisation, but also that humanity is in fact part of Nature.

We do well to acknowledge this oneness and thus rediscover our divinely-ordained harmony with all things.

Cockchafer (aka Maybug) on my hand, Briscoe’s Walk, June 2019

Living At The Edge

(Throwback Thursday)

Male Brimstone

I used this image as the cover photo for my book, Coming Home for Good.

The picture holds significance for me for a couple of reasons, as explained in the inside cover of the book:

“Taken in 2010 at the outer corner of a field where my car was parked,

at the very edge of Bath and West Showground,

where I was attending New Wine, a large Christian conference,

the photo was one of the highlights of my week.

Probably the best butterfly picture I’ve ever snapped,

it’s often reminded me of how the beauty and dignity of hidden treasures are to be found

on the edges rather than in the limelight of society, or indeed of any community.

I’ve discovered it’s my introvert personality that often takes me away from the centre, towards the edges of conferences, parties or other events.

But there’s also something else, from the Spirit, that keeps driving me to speak and act for those who find themselves on the edges of society, marginalised by the few who hold the power.  

Coming Home for Good describes the journey I’ve travelled, from choosing to live on the edges of society as a teenage itinerant, to my work now as a nurse managing a healthcare service for homeless and other marginalised people.

Find out more about Coming Home for Good here on Amazon.

Small is Beautiful

While land conservation efforts are usually, understandably, focussed on relatively large areas, sometimes just the smallest local patch of wildlife takes on what might seem to be disproportionate significance.

When our local Council cut the grass verges around the law courts here in Hastings recently, I was so relieved they didn’t stray over on to this little area on the edge of Summerfields Woods that was delightfully overgrown with long grass and wildflowers.

This is where I photographed the Red Campion for ‘Champion Campion’, and the Ribeye Plantain for ‘Weed or Wildflower?

It’s also saturated with all manner of other wildflowers, including Oxeye Daisies, Horseshoe Vetch, Foxgloves (pink and white), and Clover (red and white).

Foxgloves

As for butterflies, this week has seen Large Skippers, Common Blues and Meadow Browns enjoying this rich diversity of flora.

Common Blue

Then a few days ago I learned that this wild patch was left alone by the Council only because it in fact belongs to Optivo, the housing association that also owns the neighbouring block of new flats.

I’d been chatting to a fellow dog-walker who lives in the block.

Red Clover

He told me that residents had been complaining to their landlord about their communal garden area which had overgrown; that Optivo had responded and were soon to cut it back.

Large Skipper

My fear was that the housing association would mow down the wildflower patch at the same time. In my experience, Councils and other bureaucratic landowners generally have far less regard for wildlife than they do for keeping green spaces neat and orderly or concreting planet Earth.

I was genuinely worried and even considered contacting Optivo asking them to preserve this mini-wilderness.

Thankfully, however, it was left alone. Another reprieve for one of my favourite little patches of land. Phew! Another answered (unspoken) prayer.

One to watch in future years, though, I reckon.

Horseshoe Vetch

First Ladies and Skippers

Things are hotting up for butterflies around Summerfields Woods in Hastings during this warm spell. Meadow Browns and Large Skippers are coming out in force.

Large Skipper

And today was the first day this year that I’ve seen that famously marathon-flying migrant, the Painted Lady. There were a few of them there today, enjoying the blackberry flowers on the edge of the woods, near the ambulance station.

Painted Lady today, Summerfields Woods

The area must be no more be no more than about 200 metres from the seafront as the crow (or butterfly) flies.

So my guess is that these specimens had just arrived from their ultra-long journey from the continent, perhaps even North Africa.

You can just see a second Painted Lady in the background here

This was probably their first stopping point, replenishing their energy on that bramble nectar.

Ladybird thrown in for free!

Watching these elegant and exotic visitors, knowing they were nourishing themselves at the end of such a mammoth trek, was quite a privilege.