Sunday 16 June 2019

Seven Swallowtails make a Summer 15th June 2019

I had to get out of the house for a day. The constant rain for all of the past week had driven me into a mood of gloom and frustration, so much so that my two old foes, anxiety and mild depression, were threatening to return to haunt me. Mark had called me at various times in the week and we had consoled each other about the weather and how downcast we were. Mark was approaching a similar state of mind to mine but the rain was relentless, day after day it came and there was nothing we could do about it.

Finally the forecast looked better and we decided to make a joint visit to the RSPB''s reserve at Strumpshaw Fen in Norfolk on Saturday. Our plan was to try and see a Swallowtail, Britain's largest and arguably most spectacular native butterfly, now, due to loss of habitat, confined to a small area of Norfolk centred on the Norfolk Broads.

Strumpshaw Fen is a long way from my home and it required an early start if we were to get there by 10am. Mornings are allegedly the best time to try and see the Swallowtails there so it was imperative we did not delay. I arranged to drive to Mark's  home in Luton and to arrive at 7.30 on Saturday morning. We would then proceed in Mark's car on a two hour drive to far off Norfolk. The plan was to first see the Swallowtails, then go and do some birding in Norfolk, dependent on what birds were around at the time. We knew there was a definite Lesser Grey Shrike at Horsey which is not that far from Strumpshaw, so we would take it from there.

The drive to Norfolk passed uneventfully but the sun soon disappeared, taking our initial enthusiasm with it. I had left my home in pleasant sunshine to go to Mark's house but slowly as we drove onwards to Norfolk the clouds had moved in and by the time we reached the outskirts of Strumpshaw it was not looking good. No sun meant no butterflies and definitely no Swallowtails. There was nothing we could do about the capricious weather so we just had to accept the situation for what it was.

We got to the car park at Strumpshaw at the appointed time and there was a slight break in the clouds and just the hint that there might be some sun. Would it come out or wouldn't it? We stopped a man carrying binoculars and a camera and asked about the Swallowtails and were told it would be best to look for them beyond the famed 'Doctor's Garden' on a big slope of wild flowers further down the track and beyond the garden. This is where they had been seen most of the time before the deluge began last Monday. 'However', he added 'you will only see them if the sun comes out.'

The track leading to the slope with the 'Doctor's Garden' on
the right
I came here last year so knew roughly where to go. We walked back down the road and turning left headed down the track leading to the 'Doctor's Garden' which lies in front of a lovely house set back from the track and has a long border planted with flowers specifically attractive to butterflies.

The Doctor's Garden
For many years butterfly enthusiasts were welcomed and allowed into the garden by the doctor and his wife during the Swallowtail's brief flight season in June but sadly the doctor died a few years ago and his wife found people abusing the trust she and her late husband had shown, so now the garden is strictly off limits.

However the doctor's wife has planted a bed of wild flowers and especially purple and pink Sweet Williams, which seem particularly attractive to Swallowtails, at the bottom of her garden right by the track. So now you can stand on the track and watch the butterflies at very close quarters, usually literally feet away, with no need to even think of encroaching into the garden.

The area planted with Sweet Williams for the benefit of both butterflies and
their admirers courtesy of the late doctor's wife
As suggested by the friendly man at the car park we walked past the garden, but not before noting a number of Painted Lady butterflies nectaring on the Sweet Williams. There has been a major influx of these butterflies in the last few days and here was the evidence as over a dozen busily scrambled over and fluttered around the brightly coloured flower heads of the Sweet Williams.They are, as would be expected of such a long distance migrant butterfly, strong and fast flyers and there was a constant turnover of them as they flew back and fore. Most were showing distinct signs of wear and tear with gaps in their faded wings but one or two were in better shape.

Painted Ladys
We walked onwards and up to the top of the nearby slope which levelled out to a narrow flat plateau with a pea field on our right. A Brown Hare and two Red legged Partridges craned their heads above the growing pea plants, watching me. The sun was still hidden by cloud but it was mild and a few Painted Lady's had found the myriad of yellow catsear flowers growing on the slope, sharing them with some Small Tortoiseshell and Meadow Brown butterflies but there was no sign of the desired Swallowtails.

Small Tortoiseshell
I suggested to Mark I would go back to the garden and keep an eye out there for a Swallowtail whilst he remained to check on the slope.We could call each other on our phones if either of us found a Swallowtail. At this point the sun broke through, bringing with it a touch of optimism as I felt its welcome warmth on my bare arms. No sooner had I got to the bottom of the slope on my way back to the garden than Mark shouted down to me to say he had seen a Swallowtail. I returned to discover it had flown through and not settled so I walked back towards the garden once more and as I did another or the same Swallowtail flew past me at speed and was lost to view. Most frustrating.

I got back to the garden to find a huddle of three or four butterfly enthusiasts watching and photographing a Swallowtail that was feeding frantically on the Sweet Williams! A great result and I immediately called Mark who came to join me. The Swallowtail could be described as almost frenzied in its feeding, fluttering with its huge wings across the densely packed individual flowers of the Sweet Williams as if in a great hurry. It fed non stop for at least half an hour, flapping its giant wings to support its rotund cylindrical body as it clumsily clambered over the flowerheads. Any semblance of its usual grace abandoned in its frantic feeding, and no wonder as after five days of rain and inactivity it must be desperate to refuel and get on with the process of mating and if it was a female, laying eggs before its short life came to an end.

They are larger than a Painted Lady (see the image below) and with a unique kite like profile due to the widely splayed and pointed upper wings. Its name Swallowtail comes from the protruding point on each lower wing. The wings are a combination of pale creamy white and black bands, divided by black lines into a chequered pattern of squares and semi circles  with a prominent eye spot of blue and red at the base of each hind wing.They are truly sensational to see and seem far too exotic for surroundings such as these Norfolk fens which are now their last stronghold.

However, although it was great to see the Swallowtail and feeling pleased we had achieved a by no means guaranteed sighting of this iconic butterfly, I was still not satisfied as this individual did not show the lovely blue and red spots which to my mind is this butterfly's most attractive and becoming feature.I have no idea why it lacked the spots as both sexes are said to show them, so it was not because, as I speculated at the time, it was a female. Presumably it was either an aberrant individual or the spots had been abraded for some reason. It was showing definite signs of wear with a chunk missing from the tip of its left wing so maybe that was the answer. Whatever was the cause,  I confess to feeling just a little cheated and disappointed.
Note the lack of spots and the worn tip to the left wing on this individual
During this time the doctor's wife had come to work in her garden and we had a pleasant chat asking her about the flowers. She seemed pleased to talk to us about the Swallowtails so hopefully any ill will from the past unfortunate events is now forgotten.

After half an hour of watching the Swallowtail constantly feeding I went back up the slope to try my luck there but again there was no sign of a Swallowtail anywhere. I came back to the garden to find the Swallowtail had now had its fill of nectar and was basking at head height on some vegetation by the track. More photo opportunities were taken and then I went and stood by the Sweet Williams and waited to see if another Swallowtail would come to feed on the flowers. Fifteen or so minutes passed pleasantly in the sunshine and then, as hoped, another Swallowtail arrived in a swooping and  powerful flight, soaring above and around the flowers, then coming ever lower in sweeping curves to finally settle on the Sweet Williams. Someone said  it was the same Swallowtail as before, returning, but it wasn't.

To my delight it was a pristine insect showing to all the world its magnificent blue and red spots with the metallic blue extending along the borders of the hind wings.Truly it was a beautiful and sensational insect. Now I felt I had really done this butterfly justice as I watched and photographed it to my heart's content.

This Swallowtail eventually departed only to be replaced by another equally, if not even more, pristine individual, if that was at all possible. This was turning into an exceptional day as the sun continued to shine strongly from a blue sky in what was an idyllic location and it was agreed that this was easily the best and most satisfying views either of us have ever had of this very rare butterfly that is unique to Britain.

Time moved on and more and more visitors came to the reserve but there was never a crowd by the garden, only about ten people at a maximum and it was all rather pleasant as we chatted to each other whilst the doctor's wife worked in her vegetable garden, and we continued to admire the long staying Swallowtail.

Admiring the Swallowtail
Mark found a Norfolk Hawker dragonfly perched in the bramble leaves on the other side of the track and I admired its green eyes and walnut brown body as it basked briefly in the sun.

An image of a Norfolk Hawker that I took a few years ago
We eventually came to a decision and agreed that we had seen enough and walked back along the track only to be distracted and diverted by another Swallowtail, resting on the top of some grass heads. in a woodland glade 

It soon flew off over the surrounding trees and towards the garden but we carried on in the opposite direction to the Visitor Centre for a coffee and a rest.

Finishing our coffee we walked out onto the reserve proper to look for another Norfolk Hawker and found one patrolling a ditch but it just would not settle, frustratingly coming very close but cruising back and fore, tirelessly patrolling the water filled ditch.

We gave up on the dragonfly and returned to the Visitor Centre and another Swallowtail flew up and over an adjacent brick building to come and feed on the small circular flower garden in front of the Visitor Centre. This was, at the very least, the seventh Swallowtail we had seen this morning.Some do not see one let alone seven.

We then drove to Horsey and after a longish walk out towards the dunes found the male Lesser Grey Shrike perched on a distant clump of sallows in some rough pasture fields. Eventually it came slightly closer, perching on a post which was part of a fenceline crossing the fields but that was as close as it ever came. 

Lesser Grey Shrike
This was the third Lesser Grey Shrike I have seen in Britain. After an hour we retreated to the pleasant pub at the end of the lane and had a coffee and a meal.

The Lesser Grey Shrike was to be our last success of the day. A later visit to Dunwich Heath near Minsmere failed to locate the male Red Backed Shrike which had been reported earlier in the afternoon and the supposed Iberian Chiffchaff at nearby Centenary Pond wasn't one in my opinion. Its song was not that of a Common Chiffchaff but neither was it that of an Iberian Chiffchaff. The song reminded me of another Chiffchaff with a strange song which turned up in my home county of Oxfordshire last year and although at first thought to be an Iberian Chiffchaff was proved to be not one but a Common Chiffchaff.

However it had been a great day out and the main purpose of our trip, to see the Swallowtails at Strumpshaw Fen had been far more successful than we could ever have hoped.

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