Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Swallowtails 6th June 2016



A quick check of the weather forecast for Norwich on Sunday night revealed the following Monday to be one of solid sunshine so I made the decision to visit the RSPB's Strumpshaw Fen Reserve, some six miles east of Norwich, to try my luck at seeing Swallowtail butterflies for which the Reserve is a well known hotspot.


Swallowtails are a deliciously large and attractively patterned butterfly, the largest resident species of butterfly in Britain. Formerly they were found in marshlands throughout southern Britain but historical draining of the fens for agriculture and the consequent loss of suitable habitat means they are now restricted to the last remaining vestiges of fenland on the Norfolk Broads, and then only on reserves especially managed for them where the required habitat is created and maintained. British Swallowtails are a unique subspecies and differ from the more widespread Continental race which is paler but occasionally makes it across The Channel to southern England.

The Swallowtail requires Milk Parsley, which thrives in fenland, on which to lay its eggs and on which the larvae exclusively feed and at Strumpshaw Fen, clearance of encroaching scrub and a three year cutting cycle of reeds and sedge has increased  the amount of Milk Parsley available and hence improved the population of Swallowtails to such an extent that now many butterfly enthusiasts make their way there, knowing there is almost a guaranteed opportunity to see the Swallowtails. Similar programmes of scrub clearance and reed cutting also take place at the other Swallowtail hotspots such as Hickling Broad and Wheaten Fen.

It is a three hour car journey to Norwich from my home in Kingham and it is always a gamble with the weather as it can change for the worse and you can end up with the nightmare scenario of arriving in Norfolk to cloud and no butterflies. I had no need to worry today though, as from the start it was brilliant sunshine all the long weary miles from Kingham to Strumpshaw Fen. I got to Strumpshaw at 1130am figuring that this comparatively late arrival would have given time for the day to become thoroughly warm and induce lots of Swallowtails to emerge.

The road leading to the Reserve car park runs along by the railway line from Lowestoft to Norwich with the Reserve car park on one side of the line and the Visitor Centre and Reserve on the other and accessed by two white gates allowing visitors to cross the railway line. 


The Lowestoft to Norwich railway line as seen from
the Strumpshaw Fen  crossing gates
When I got to Strumpshaw the car park was full, even the overflow car park, so I parked along the approach road and rather than go to the Visitor Centre I walked a few yards in the other direction and turning left headed down a Bridleway running parallel with the Reserve and railway line to the legendary 'Doctor's Garden'

This is a garden that entails about a five minute pleasant walk down the Bridleway.

Looking back up the Bridleway from the Doctor's garden
The garden belongs to a local lepidopterist, Dr Martin George who with his wife has planted in their herbaceous border a variety of flowering plants, such as Dame's Violet, Lupins and Sweet Williams amongst others that are attractive to Swallowtails and they open their garden to visitors during the Swallowtail's flight season which is from the end of May through to July.


The house and garden are in an idyllic location overlooking and only a hundred metres or so from the Reserve and on sunny days the Swallowtails fly over from the reserve to visit and nectar on the flowers in the garden.You are completely at liberty to wander along the flower border right up to the front door and one can only admire and be thankful for the generosity of spirit from both the Doctor and his wife
The Doctor's house, garden and herbaceous border
I arrived with much anticipation at the famed garden only to be greeted with disappointment as there was no sign of any Swallowtail and I was told by a glum faced fellow enthusiast that there had not been one seen all morning here. Somewhat deflated by this news after all my anticipation I  stood in the shade of a hedge and surveyed the flower bed, bereft of any Swallowtails. Some rather tatty Peacocks, a couple of Painted Lady butterflies and the odd Brimstone were nectaring on the Dame's Violet but that was about all there was to see.

Painted Lady
Peacock
Brimstone
Fifteen minutes later and still in a quandary as what to do or where to go, a local butterfly enthusiast came along the footpath and told me there was a Swallowtail feeding in the small flower garden right opposite the Visitor Centre but he did not know whether it was still there. It certainly was when he left some ten minutes ago he assured me. Cutting my losses I made haste to the Visitor Centre and crossing the Lowestoft to Norwich railway line through the two small white gates entered the Reserve and there to my absolute delight I saw a small flower garden adjacent to the Visitor Centre, filled mainly with Dame's Violet and surrounded by people all pointing lenses of various sizes, even phones, at the profusion of white flower heads. The Swallowtail had to be still here. 




The Flower Garden by the Visitor Centre
On getting closer I could see a Swallowtail feeding on the flowers. It was not long hatched and pristine and I watched as it moved from flower to flower with constantly fluttering wings as if not sure if it would remain. It was rarely still but when it was for a brief couple of seconds I managed to get some images of it and curbing my impatience and any temptation to impetuosity  I remained in one spot as it moved from flower head to flower head and soon enough it came round to my side of the tiny garden and gave me ample opportunity to photograph it. It was a truly superb insect, black and yellow with a row of violet blue spots culminating in an innermost orangey red spot on the edge of its hindwings and of course the two prominent spikes or tails, one on each hindwing from whence it gets its name.








Its rotund yellow and black body supported on delicate black legs carried the proportionately enormous wings. It had some difficulty settling on the flowers appearing to be too heavy for the flowers to support its weight, the fluttering maybe helping to support it as it fed from each individual flower and it would hang from the flower probing all the time with its proboscis before moving on Every so often it would fly off and swoop around the surrounds of the garden only to return and glide back onto the flowers to recommence feeding.










I watched it for thirty or so minutes before it flew up and away through a sunlit wooded glade, over a Yellow Iris clump and out into the nearby vast reed beds. It was over.



A call went up from the nearby screen by the Visitor Centre. Otter! And there, out on the lagoon in front of us was an Otter fishing by the reeds. It remained for around ten minutes, upending and diving, its tail occasionally sticking up like a broken branch out of the shallow water as the rest of it remained submerged and then it melted into the reeds to be seen no more.


Otter
The Lagoon as seen from the Visitor Centre.
The Otter was swimming on the left
I decided to explore some of the reserve which is pretty large and walked down a couple of the sunlit grass trails listening to the quiet, ineffably soothing rustle of the reeds moving gently in the warm breeze. A male Marsh Harrier flew high in the sky above and a Jay upset the Reed Warblers as it cased the reed beds for a nest to pillage.






I decided to give the Doctor's garden another go and found myself alone by the exalted flower bed. A fluttering of wings on the Dame's Violet attracted my attention. Painted Lady? No not a bit of it, here was another Swallowtail and all to myself. It was restless, moving the entire length of the flower border seeming to be discontent with any of the flowers but finally it settled on the Sweet Williams by the Doctor's front door. It remained for ten minutes  joined by a Brimstone with which it had a minor conflict, the two of them flying at speed around the border before the Brimstone gave in and flew elsewhere and the Swallowtail resumed feeding on the Sweet Williams, before it too was gone, flying away strongly, looking more yellow than black as it powered its way back to the reed beds on the other side of the footpath and railway line.




A Chinese photographer joined me, notable for the fact he was wearing heavy woollen knitted gloves! I did not ask why and we chatted amicably about butterflies hoping for another visit from a Swallowtail but sadly it was not to be.

I left the garden and followed the footpath onwards through two more gates across the railway line and embarked on a not unpleasant meander down a long grass track surrounded by reeds and watery channels. A Scarce Chaser dragonfly sunned itself on a dead reed splint and Peacocks settled on the grassy trail, shutting their wings and becoming like black triangles. 


Scarce Chaser
Two more individual Swallowtails came flying down the track but did not stop. I turned and eventually made it back as far as the Doctor's garden. I enquired of the few enthusiasts waiting patiently there if any Swallowtails had come by but the answer was no. At that very moment two Swallowtails appeared, flying together and headed for the flower border but only one stopped just for a minute whilst the other carried onwards.


It was now three in the afternoon. I had been here for three and a half pleasant and fulfilling hours and it was nearing time to go but I decided on one more trip to the Visitor Centre and flower garden and as I passed through the gates guarding the railway line I noticed yet another Swallowtail feeding on some Dame's Violet right by the railway line. So seven Swallowtails in all which is more than acceptable considering it is early in the season and I was more than happy with my day at Strumpshaw Fen.

I sat by the flower garden, drank a black tea and prepared for the long drive home but life felt pretty good at that moment and all was well in my world.




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