An Audience With The Purple Emperor

Purple Emperor Banquet

Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) feasting on fresh dog turd

Such a beautiful creature with such un-photogenic habits! Infamously the Purple Emperor butterfly (Apatura iris) spurns the sweet nectar of wildflowers in favour of dog faeces amongst other delicacies.

Now mostly confined to the ancient deciduous woodlands of Surrey and Sussex in the UK, the Purple Emperor has a devoted following in the world of butterfly fans.

Normally it flies high in the woodland canopy and only occsionally will the male descend to the ground to replenish its liquids and salts in this peculiar fashion.

On these rare occasions the Emperor’s acolytes fill their boots.

Here on Bookham Common in Surrey, within sight and sound of the M25 motorway, the lack of a long lens is no handicap when this butterfly is distracted by a fresh deposit:

Purple Emperor Phone

Purple Emperor posing for a mobile phone photograph

The less exotically coloured female at least has more refined tastes, and generally remains high in the oak trees feeding on the sticky sweet honeydew secreted by aphids. She returns a little closer to earth only to lay her eggs in a suitable sallow tree nearby.

Purple Emperor Laying

Female Purple Emperor laying eggs on willow sapling

Such is the lure of the Purple Emperor that fanatics have been known to entice ‘His Majesty’ down from the trees with a number of foul smelling concoctions. In the absence of dung a rotting carcass may occasionally do the trick. This recently deceased rodent at a favourite butterfly haunt in the wood may have benefited from a coroner’s inquest:

Suspicious Death

Suspiciously well placed mouse carcass!

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Surrey Glow Worm Quest

If you’re looking for a photographic challenge then wildlife macro at night is guaranteed to keep you amused and frustrated in equal measure.

Glow worms (Lampyris noctiluca) come equipped with their own bioluminescent light source, and with a bit of research shouldn’t be too difficult to locate in the right environment. But in the dark simple tasks become considerably more complicated.

These ‘worms’ are in fact a beetle. On summer nights the flightless female glow worm climbs a grass stem,, or other vegetation, and emits a bright chemical light from her lower abdomen. This luminous display attracts the flighted male glow worm and mating begins, at which point the happy couple turn out the light and retire to bed together in the undergrowth.

In the UK glow worm numbers – or at least the number of people reporting them – have diminished over the years. Light pollution from sprawling urban areas may be one reason for this, as the female doesn’t like competition, and seeks out the darkest rural recesses in which to display to potential mates. The inexorable rise of the motorcar has also meant fewer people traversing the countyside on foot at night, and so less likelihood of happening across these creatures. Modern use of pesticides may also have played a part.

The wilds of South Dorset proved good hunting grounds for me last year and I was keen to have another crack at this subject in Surrey over the summer.

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty: Dorset glow worm (Lampyris noctiluca)

Initial research turned up not much however. Almost every contact I quizzed looked at me with bafflement and a little wonder when I enquired about glow worms in the county, as if they’d become semi-mythical beasts in this stretch of the London commuter belt. A bit of Googling turned up a handful of vague mentions and precious few images.

The excellent UK Glow Worm Survey website, run by the extremely dedicated Mr Robin Scagell, offered more precise records and this especially tantalising glimpse of days gone by:

Box Hill, nr. Burford Bridge, Whole slope of Hill covered with glow-worms, summer 1915

Promising, but a long shot more than 90 years later perhaps. Then a chance meeting with a twitcher confirmed glow worms sighted in a very specific area of the hillside in the 1980s and the balance of probabilities swung in favour of action!

From my vantage point atop the steep chalk slope of Box Hill the sun began to set impressively, and the exhausting vertical scramble required to get there faded into memory.

Tight security in preparation for the Olympic cycle race meant that the entire National Trust property was ringed with high steel barriers. A checkpoint restricted traffic up the narrow zig-zagging road to the top, and guards with walkie-talkies patrolled its length. The pedestrian gates thankfully remained open.

Dorking at night

Town of Dorking in Surrey from Box Hill after dark

Bright lights from the dual-carriageway below continued to illuminate the entire downland slope after the sun had faded, which wasn’t promising. But in a deep, shady dip behind the ridge a twinkling greenish light in the grasses finally caught my eye.

In total 8 glowing females were located along a short stretch of chalk track.

The first young lady was tucked well back into the shrubbery and inaccessible to my lens. The second was more exposed, on leaf litter near to the ground. With a bit of tripod gymnastics and some macro slider extension action I edged within range.

Glow Worm Filigree

Glow Worm Filigree: Surrey glow worm on leaf litter

In this shot the natural glow from the beetle was supplemented with indirect light from an LED torch off to one side. It’s a balancing act to expose the whole subject without drowning out the insect’s own subtle illumination.

The same creature on a long exposure without the artifical light source gives a quite different visual impression:

Glow Worm Limelight

Glow Worm Limelight: Glow worm (natural light)

More typically glow worms can be found in thick grass, clinging to the stems a short way up, and rotating their bottoms skyward as this next one was:

Glow Worm Jade

Glow Worm Jade: Glow worm in grass

Where the beetle is tightly surrounded by reflective surfaces the light she emits is magnified.

In all the above images the glow worm’s head is firmly concealed beneath her carapace, and this is usually the case I’ve found. But before I departed for the night another individual proved less coy.

Glow Worm Red Light

Glow Worm Red Light: Glow worm under red filter LED

In these circumstances a bright white light can disturb the beetle, which then turns tail and vanishes, which is no good for observing behaviour. So I used a red filter, hoping she would be less sensitive to light in this part of the spectrum. It appeared to work and she continued to clean her antennae for some while:

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Arne claypit reclamation

Post-industrial landscape reclaimed for wetland wildlife at RSPB Arne

The Arne peninsula in Dorset juts out into Poole Harbour, separating the Wareham channel from the main body of water. Right out at the tip, concealed by the remains of ancient oak woodland, lies a former ball clay pit.

The extraction company, Imerys, finished mining the deposit in 2008. Since 2010 they have been restoring the area as part of their mitigation agreement, before transferring ownership of the site to the RSPB, who manage the surrounding nature reserve at Arne.

Arne Claypit, July 2011

See immersive 360 degree view.

I was asked to document this reclamation process on behalf of the RSPB, in particular the flooding of the claypit basin with water from the harbour to create a saline lagoon habitat for wading birds and other species.

Earthworks

With mining activities ended the pit was re-profiled with heavy earth-moving equipment, and a layer of topsoil deposited above the expected final water level in the summer of 2011.

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Next, a channel was cut through the embankment to join the claypit with the harbour at the south end of the site. On especially high tides the water from the harbour would flood this channel to gradually fill the lagoon.

This process was expected to take many months and it was decided to document the process with a timelapse camera.

View to a spill

We surveyed the best location for the camera – somewhere with a wide view of the pit, a glimpse of the harbour in the background, a small island in the middle ground and some vegetation in the foreground to provide varied visual interest.

Unfortunately this necessitated pointing the camera due south, so we also calculated the position and angle of the sun in future months to try to minimise its dazzling effect on the camera’s lens and sensor.

Arne claypit timelapse project plan
Arne claypit timelapse project plan

The pit itself is off-limits, but there is public access to the surrounding area and it is too remote to monitor. Exposure to the elements over such a long period was also a consideration, so an expensive DSLR setup was not a practical option, and a relatively cheap-and-cheerful alternative was sourced.

The pit filled much more rapidly than the engineers had predicted and in April of the following year, after only 7 months, the rising water had achieved its final level.

The following video sequence shows events over that period, compressed to just 1 minute, using stills taken at 3 hour intervals:

Life returns

The island habitat is already frequented by shelducks and sika deer regularly visit its shores. It will take longer for the waters to settle and for other species to establish themselves.

It’s hoped that the regular interchange of water with the harbour will prevent the process of eutrophication, which would otherwise make the lagoon inhospitable. The suspension of clay particles in the water can be a serious problem in this respect.

Arne claypit reclamation stills sequence

Whether this industrially exploited area becomes the wildlife oasis hoped for only time will tell.

With thanks to Mark, Rob, Damon, James and Em at RSPB Arne.

Short-eared Owl Invasion

I’m told there hasn’t been a short-eared owl seen in this part of Surrey for the last 30 years. I can’t be sure that this is true, but the presence of 3, 4 or possibly 5 individuals on the local water meadows this winter is highly unusual and they’ve become local celebrities. The human observers frequently outnumber the owls several-fold.

Short-eared owl and observers

Short-eared owl watched by human observers

It’s been a bumper year for voles in the UK, and also lemmings in Scandinavia where our crop of over-wintering short-eared owls originate. Consequently the owl population seems to have exploded and many of them have flocked to these shores to escape the icy conditions back home.

Short-eared owl in flight

Short-eared owl in flight

Papercourt Meadows where the owls perform each afternoon is a gloriously serene stretch of the River Wey near Ripley.

Double rainbow

Double rainbow over Papercourt Meadow Nature Reserve

Surrey Wildlife Trust graze one of the plots for conservation and the owls appear to like what they find in the grasses.

Short-eared owl silhouettes

Short-eared owl montage with prey

With any luck the shorties will be resident with us for the remainder of the winter.

Oak Denizens After Dark

The English oak (Quercus robur) provides wonderful habitat for numerous creatures, but in the (relatively mild) depths of a British winter, they keep a low profile. Wait an hour or so after dark however and the trunk of an unassuming oak tree suddenly becomes an insect super-highway.

Oak bush-cricket, harvestman and winter moths montage

Oak bush-cricket, harvestman and winter moths montage

A particularly interesting creature is the flightless female winter moth, which emerges from the ground and climbs the nearest trunk to liaise with the flighted male moth at altitude. She then lays her eggs high up in the canopy.

Female winter moth

Female winter moth climbing oak tree

Male winter moth

Male winter moth lying in wait

In a ‘good’ year hundreds of female winter moths may be seen to climb the trunk of one tree in a single night. This is not necessarily good news for the tree however, as the caterpillars rapidly denude the leaves after emerging in the spring.

Taking photos of small wild creatures in the dark presents a few challenges!  To light these subjects I used an LED lamp attached to my tripod. This is a lot more predictable than using flash in inhospitable outdoor conditions, but does require a relatively long exposure time.

Many of these bugs will freeze in the bright white light required for conventional photography. This is not necessarily a bad thing for macro work, but it can alter their behaviour in an undesirable way. A young leopard slug was quickly in defensive posture for example, and remained so:

Young leopard slug

Young leopard slug

It’s also cold, dark and more than a little spooky in the woods after dusk in December, so requires several thermal layers and a degree of commitment!

Upton Heath Fire

In the scorchingly hot, dry month of June 2011, Upton Heath near Poole in Dorset caught fire. I happened to be on the Arne peninsula at the time, and recorded this video footage from the opposite side of Poole Harbour:

Fanned by strong winds, the fire spread rapidly to become the largest heathland blaze in Dorset for decades.

Upton Heath was home to some of the UK’s rarest wild creatures, including the smooth snake, sand lizard and dartford warbler.

Over the following few days I documented the aftermath of the fire for the RSPB and Natural England, with permission of the Dorset Wildlife Trust’s team on-site:

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More images of the fire’s aftermath on my photographic site.

Spherical Panoramas

I’m always interested in finding new ways to combine my photographic skills with interactive technology.

A couple of years ago I experimented with panoramic photos taken through a complete 360 degrees, stitched together, and then animated inside a Flash player to enable the user to scroll left or right and explore different aspects of the view. I incorporated these panoramas into a Google Maps interface, to provide a ‘virtual tour’ experience for the website of a local country park and nature reserve.

More recently I’ve taken this to its logical conclusion and stitched together full spherical panoramas, which not only scroll horizontally through 360 degrees, but also up to a ‘zenith’ in the sky and down to a ‘nadir’ beneath the viewer’s hypothetical feet, through 180 vertical degrees.

When viewed in a dedicated Flash or Shockwave player the effect is suitably immersive. Click the images below to be transported (requires Adobe Shockwave).

RSPB Lodmoor

RSPB Lodmoor 360° x 180° Panorama

And this wintry scene from RSPB Arne after an unusual snowy spell:

RSPB Arne

RSPB Arne 360° x 180° Panorama

To make this exercise worthwhile you ideally want plenty of interest in the upper and lower extremities of the scene. Architectural interiors work well for this reason, as do dramatic cloudscapes.

* Shockwave wizardry courtesy of SPi-V – developed by the very talented Aldo Hoeben.

Avocet City

Symbol of the RSPB in the UK, the avocet was extinct as a breeding species by the mid 19th century, only returning to these shores during the second world war after the flooding of East Anglian marshes for coastal defence restored ideal wetland territory for the birds. Since then the reintroduction and careful managment of this scarce habitat elsewhere in the UK has proved to be a major conservation success story.

Hundreds of avocets overwinter on the south coast of England in Poole Harbour – the second-largest natural harbour in the world. In autumn they can often be found huddled together in the lagoon on Brownsea Island close to the busy shipping lanes at the harbour entrance. As winter draws on the birds seem to disperse, favouring the more sheltered harbour channels. The Middlebere channel to the south of the Arne peninsula is a particularly popular location.

Avocets in Poole Harbour

Avocets gather in Poole Harbour

My main goal on this day was to film and photograph some winter finches along the crop trail managed by the RSPB’s wardens on the Arne Reserve. However it quickly became overcast and I wandered off in the direction of Coombe Heath to see what wading birds were on the Middlebere channel instead. By the time I reached the viewing screens the clouds had cleared and a ‘raft’ of several hundred avocets was beautifully lit in the low winter sun:

Avocets

Raft of avocets on the Middlebere channel from Arne

Unfortunately the birds moved off before I could set up my tripod for video but one of the RSPB’s wardens kindly pointed out a sheltered spot near the shore where I could get a closer view of their new location.

As I sat and watched the light on the harbour just got better and better with each passing minute. The calls of the waders could be clearly heard in the still air and, as the tide turned, the raft of birds gradually dispersed in my direction, scouring the mud for tasty morsels:

Hen Harrier Fox Ambush

We’re lucky to have at least two male hen harriers overwintering on the shores of Poole Harbour this year. They’re visually quite distinct from the female hen harrier and other local raptors like the buzzard and marsh harrier. From a distance they might be mistaken for a gull as they patrol above the reed beds.

On this particular afternoon I’d been sat in a freezing hide at Middlebere overlooking a channel off the harbour with several other people. The male hen harrier passed the hide on 2 occasions as it hunted, and we were well pleased.

As the light began to fade and the temperature dropped so my companions began to leave. As dusk approached it was just me and my camera when this fella chose to alight on the neighbouring fenceline:

Hen harrier

I couldn’t quite believe my luck. It was clearly aware of my presence but seemed entirely unbothered. The bird continued to survey the reeds from its vantage point for some minutes. I hurriedly assembled my tripod and mounted the camera to switch to video mode. At which point this happened:

The harrier clearly spotted something edible in the reeds and swooped in to grab it. Either it missed, or the prey got away at the first attempt, but the harrier did not give up and flapped around after it in the reeds.

Seeing this grounded raptor the local fox recognised a golden opportunity and rushed in while its back was turned. Foxy must have come within a couple of feet of success. In the slow motion sequence you can see the harrier attempt to lift off, with the prey in its grasp, but gets snagged on the reeds with almost fatal delay. What appears to be a small mammal, probably a vole, then falls from its clutches as it finally gets airborne.

The slightly dejected, but still rather smug looking fox, then sauntered off right past the hide:

Fox

Wily fox walks away

Osprey Encounter

Ospreys are regular visitors to Poole Harbour in the autumn, on route to Africa where they flee for the winter. These birds are especially well adapted for catching fish and extraordinary to watch.

We’re very lucky to have such magnificent neighbours but I’m not sure that many inhabitants of nearby Poole and Bournemouth realise they exist, let alone where to find them.

The National Trust have a wildlife hide at Middlebere on the edge of a channel running into the harbour. It’s tucked away in the woods opposite the RSPB’s reserve at Arne. In season the ospreys can regularly be seen commuting up and down the channel on fishing expeditions. Great to watch through binoculars and scopes, but for photographic purposes they remain a long way off.

Having watched them from the hide on a few occasions I became familiar with a regular perch nearby. It looked accessible and there was decent cover nearby, so I determined to get closer.

On more than one occasion I observed ospreys perched in the branches of a dead tree after arriving on site. However ospreys are quite happy to spend hours sat in the same location and are difficult to approach. This was the closest I managed to get with a long lens without spooking the bird:

Osprey in dead tree

Perched osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

To get any closer I was going to have to get into position early one morning, before the birds became active, and wait for them to come to me. Several times I hid my gear nearby, tripod-mounted camera at the ready, and waited fruitlessly for a bird to appear.

On this particular occasion I was late to arrive and could see an osprey already in position.

Osprey perched in dead tree

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in dead tree

Having snapped a few long distance shots I might have turned back at this point but they’re beautiful birds to watch, even at a distance.

By the time I’d crept to the next viewing position the osprey had flown, but I seized the chance to scurry into position deep in the reeds, close to the dead tree perch, and hurriedly assembled tripod, camera and improvised camouflage. Pulling the reeds back over my head I settled in for what I thought might be another long, uneventful afternoon.

But within 20 minutes I saw a large bird flying in low over the reedbed. Through the binoculars I could make out a large wriggling shape in its grasp. It could only be a returning osprey!

I ducked down out of sight and watched the perch on the camera’s LCD monitor. Nothing. Wrong branch! Swivelling the lens to the left brought this majestic osprey into focus, a freshly caught bass pinioned in its enormous talons:

Osprey with bass

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) with freshly caught bass

Over the next hour I was privileged to watch this mighty bird devouring its meal at close quarters, and captured some memorable stills and video footage in the process:

Canon 550D | Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L | Adobe Premiere Pro

The reedbed was enveloped in low cloud or mist and – together with the hissing sound of the reeds in the gathering wind – the conditions heightened an already surreal, unearthly atmosphere. Something I will never forget.