I had to get out of the house for a day. The constant rain all this 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 Doctor's Garden|
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
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.
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.
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.
|Admiring the Swallowtail|
|An image of a Norfolk Hawker that I took a few years ago|
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.
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.
|Lesser Grey Shrike|
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.