Sunday, 31 May 2015

May 30th Sheringham Park

Sheringham Park
Yesterday, I was at Sheringham Park with my parents to see the colourful display of rhododendron.
The park was designed by 19th centuary landscaper Humphry Repton, but he wasn't the one who planted the many varieties of rhododendron and azaleas here. You should thank the owner during the early 20th centuary, Henry Morris Upcher, for that. The park is now in the hands of the National Trust and the display is a major highlight of the year and attracts hundreds of visitors.

I am not a gardener or an expert on plants, but I do know that this is a display of foreign flowers. Originally from Asia, rhododendons were brought over to decorate estate gardens and have now spread across the UK. In Scotland, in particular, these plants are causing a real problem in the ancient Caledonian forests and have become quite invasive. In Sheringham Park, everything seems to be in control and is celebrated for the vibrant colours. There is even a tower to climb and appreciate the display more.

The variety of colour is breathtaking. Reds, yellows, lilacs, pinks, purples, oranges, whites, there seems to be almost every colour from a rainbow here! Looking closer at the individual flowers, I notice that the top petal of every variety of rhododendon, there is a patch of colour which was either a different shade or a completely different colour entirely. I wonder if this was the plant's method to attract pollenators like bees. With some plants, the five petals resembles a human figure with the patch as the figure's face.

Handkerchief Tree
Apart from the rhododendron, my dad (who is a keen gardener) wanted to find an unusual tree that he has heard about. After a bit of a search, we did eventually find it. The tree is indeed unusual. It appears like someone has tied rows of handkerchiefs to it, which is it is known as the Handkerchief tree. But these handkerchiefs are actually white flowers. This strange tree is native to China.

Handkerchief Tree Flower
There was also a nature garden with a wildlflower patch and a pond full of tadpoles. Beyond the rhododendrons was a large meadow covered in buttercups, a display that is just as wonderful to look at. After our walk, we had a picnic before leaving to watch the FA Cup final round one of my mum's friend's house, staying there until quite late, proventing me to write this post until now.

Bank Vole
Ragged Robin

Yellow Flag Iris
Song Thrush
Buttercup Meadow

Friday, 29 May 2015

How To Draw: Swallowtail Butterflies

Now, I know what your thinking, I have already showed us how to draw butterflies (which you can read by clicking here). Well, with the emergence of the swallowtails this week, it is hard to resist drawing such a stunning butterfly. Swallowtails are quite challenging to draw and has taken me several hours to complete. This is the reason why I am only doing one drawing today. It takes time, patience and a lot of concentration to draw a swallowtail until it is the way I am satisfied with. Before I begin, I will have to say that if you get tired in any way during your drawing, take a rest. Also, it helps to have a photo to guide you through the complex wing patterns.

Stage One

Just like during my How To Draw: Butterflies, create a cigar shape for the body and a circle for the head. Roughly draw the wings. Remember, it is not important if they look right or not, we are only focused on the general shape at this point.

Stage Three
Stage Two
My attention is completely on the body for now. I divide the body in two other parts, the abdomen and the thorax. Then I shade in the dark areas to it's body pattern and add in the eyes, antennae and legs. Repeat the process using a pen (Stage Three).

Stage Four
Now it is time for the tough part, the wings. It helps to do one side at a time. A photo comes in handy here to help work out where each stripe and marking goes. Work from the side of the swallowtail's body and work your way round from the top of the upper wing to the wingtip. It is like a jigsaw puzzle. For the bottom wing, work from the end of the abdomen and work out the pattern to join up with the upper wing, this includes the tail streamers that give the butterfly it's name. Take your time and don't worry too much if the pattern looks a bit rubbish. You have a second chance to get it right when you start to go over in pen.

Stage Five

Using a pen can make the pattern appear a lot clearer. You can adjust the areas that look tightly squeezed in and is also a good time time to adjust the wing shape too. Some stripes are boldly shaded in, while the dark panel at the top is created using a series of dots.

Stage Six

Now do the same with the other pair of wings on the opposite side. Pencil first, pen second. The challenge is to get the symmetry exactly the same. It is tough, but if you can do one side, you can do the other, too. Spend time to practice and you will get it right eventually.

Stage Seven

Finally, it is time to colour in. When freshly emerged, a swallowtail is bright yellow, but fades with age. Make sure you go over the stripes in yellow at the same time. The hind wings have panels of blue, which I dot over in pen. They also have blue and red 'eyes' on the hind wing too. Finish off by using a black pen to go over the dark areas again.

 And that is how to draw a swallowtail. I hope your drawing was worth the challenge as was mine. It is a real treat to draw as it is to see. Swallowtails are a true icon of the Norfolk Broads and I can't wait to see them again.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

May 27th Strumpshaw Fen

The Meadow Trail
This morning at Strumpshaw, I went for a walk on the recently opened Meadow Trail. Our Highland cattle has done a great job keeping the meadow in good condition for the last couple of months and now it is time to see what has been growing here. This is a wet meadow, meaning that the soil is slightly boggy and it is a perfect place to see marsh orchids later in the summer. For now, though, I find ragged robins, cotton grass and bog bean, which is my favourite as it looks fuzzy and different to the other plants growing here. The trail follows a series of ditches, home to many species of dragonflies including the rare Norfolk hawker, but I fail to see any today.
Cotton Grass
Bog Bean
Peacock feeding on the Bog Bean
Red Bartsia?

Along the river, I spot a mother pheasant with a few fluffy chicks. They don't look very old, perhaps a day or two since they hatched. I also got to see common blue butterflies and the twayblades are looking fantastic now.
Pheasant Chick
Common Twayblade
Soldier Beetle

It is another bank holiday this week and we are keeping the children busy with yet another activity trail for the children to do. It includes a set of butterflies with a letter on the back of them for them to find. They could also build a bug home which they can take home with them.
Hunting for butterflies on the activity trail
Building a bug home

Reception Hide was busy this morning. An otter with a cub was swimming along the far reedbed for a few minutes before climbing ashore and vanishing into the reeds. A bittern flew over the same area and dived into a reedbed by the far left channel. Reed buntings, swallows, swifts, pochards, marsh harriers, the family of mallards and the family of coots were also about today.

Coot family
The Mallard family
But the star of the day was the one thing that everyone visiting today seems to be after. The questions on everyone's lips was "Are the swallowtails about yet?" and "Where can I see a swallowtail?" Most of the morning we had to answer "They are about, but you never know where they'll show up". Then finally, a swallowtail turns up on the nectar garden (flowerbed) outside. If you have never seen a swallowtail before, it is a magnificent and majestic butterfly. It is the UK's largest butterfly species and it flutters with a few flaps of it's wings around the flowers and it's admirers who watch in awe at it. It's wings glow with yellow and black markings, a sign that it is fresh from emerging.

Strumpshaw is popular for it's swallowtails because this is one of the best places to see one. The swallowtails that you find here are special as they are a sub-species from the ones on the European mainland and are only found on the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads. In recent years, the Continental swallowtail has hit the headlines with an invasion on the South Coast of England due to climate change. They differ to our British swallowtail as they are slightly larger and are not fussy were to lay their eggs. Our swallowtails on the other hand, have blacker stripes and will only lay their eggs on milk parsley and are restricted to wetland habitats. It is also one of the reasons why it is so rare  compared to their Continental cousins.

The rare factor and the fact they are so stunning to look at is probably why so many people are coming to Norfolk from as far away as New York just to see them. But the smiles on their faces after they do find one makes it all worth helping fulfill their butterfly dreams. Just as I was about to leave for home, a swallowtail returns to the nectar garden and to make sure everyone sees it, I call out loudly "Swallowtail!!" and a crowd quickly circles round it. Even a couple who had been searching all morning without seeing one and were just about to cross the railway line to leave, ran over and got to see their first swallowtail. I was giving a lot of praise and handshakes with delighted smiles on their faces for that. A swallowtail does that to people. It will happen all over again throughout the next few weeks with the car parks full of swallowtail watchers.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

May 26th Norwich

Mark Harvey's beetle collection
Yesterday, I was occupied with a non-wildlife event I just had to go to. How can you say no when your team has to play in a play off final at Wembley? It was a once in a lifetime experience and Norwich won! Maybe it was due to seeing a red kite swooping low between the two lanes of the motorway along the way there or hearing ring-necked parakeets when we arrived that gave to our good fortunes? Good omens to a great day out in the capital.

Anyway, today was a different day. My dad is, by coincidence, my neighbourhood's postman and he came round with a special delivery. It seems I have a few fans with this blog on his rounds and one of them has seen my latest How To Draw on beetles and gave my dad his collection to show me. Thank you Mark Harvey for loaning this to me. Inside the case he gave me is a nice collection of beetles that he had caught throughout Norfolk for a biology degree in 2000 (I think. Let me know if I got the details right Mark).

Violet Ground Beetle
There were a few goodies inside this case. This violet ground beetle is perhaps the most stricking in the collection. You can see what gives the name away along the sides of it's body. At first glance, you may believe it is an exotic beetle, but in actual fact, you can find them in your own garden.

Minotaur Beetles

Another beetle that caught my attention is this one with the horns. It is a male minotaur beetle and the one below is a female. This fierce looking beetle is a type of dung beetle. Yep, similar to those that roll dung balls around in Africa. I'm not sure if the males actually use those horns to fight rivals for mates or if they are just decorations, but it just goes to show that even heaps of dung can attract something spectacular as a minotaur beetle.

Lesser Stag Beetle
One of the largest in the collection is this one. If I said this was a stag beetle, you will probably think of Britain's largest beetle with those impressive antlers. Well, your not far off, except this is it's cousin, the lesser stag beetle. This one is a female. The males have antlers, but they are much shorter. I have seen a male a couple of years ago at Narborough. He was just as impressive as his larger cousin.
The male I found in 2013

You might have seen these elongated beetles in your garden or crossing your path from time to time. I have certainly seen the top one a few times. They are both Devil's coach-horses, a beetle that despite being small, has a fearful reputation. It is a fearsome predator and will bite if you try to handle one. It also has a habit of raising it's abdomen if it thinks it is in danger. When that happens, it is best to just look and not touch.

There are many other beetles in the collection that  I haven't mentioned, including a few ladybirds and a few ground beetles of various sizes. What this collection demonstrates is that you don't have to go far to find an exciting array of wildlife. Some of it is just beneath your feet. You don't have to kill them and pin them to a case in a Victorian naturalist-style like this to appreciate insects. All you need is a pot, a magnifying glass and an ID book and then, when you are finished looking at them, let them go to live another day.