Tuesday 22 May 2018

One Swallowtail makes my Summer 21st May 2018

It is a long way to the RSPB's Strumpshaw Fen reserve in the Norfolk Broads but at eleven on a sunny Monday morning we found ourselves standing in an area of nettles and trampled grass, you could call it almost a glade, surrounded as it was by tall trees on three sides, just off the rural byway that leads to the famous 'Doctor's Garden'.

Our aim was simple. To see a Swallowtail butterfly, the first of which had been seen at Strumpshaw Fen just a few days prior to this day. Formerly widespread throughout marshland in southern England it is now, due to the drainage of its former habitats, restricted to carefully managed reserves in the Norfolk Broads, where thankfully it thrives.

We learnt that currently the 'Doctor's Garden' is out of bounds to Swallowtail enthusiasts hence our standing in this alternative but less floral piece of Norfolk.

We were not alone, as a few other Swallowtail 'disciples' were already here, waiting expectantly, but of a Swallowtail there was currently no sign although we were told that up to three had been here earlier.

We stood to await developments and did not have to wait long before a Swallowtail appeared, its large pointed wings flickering in a curiously fast and bat like flight as it approached, its black and yellow markings accentuating the flickering impression. Its flight carried it high above our heads, thence to circle back and fore in alternate glides and bursts of wing flaps around this little squared area of grass and nettles we stood in, gazing skyward.  It had come from beyond, over a crop field and circled endlessly around where we stood, sometimes at tree top height and at other times just above head height, looking as if, at any moment, it might settle on one of our heads.Time and again it circled and examined the area as if looking for the other two of its kind that had been here a short while ago.

Slowly its endless, questing flight brought it lower and lower and for a heart stopping moment it dithered, stalling and then fluttering to a stop on the tip of a nettle, settled with wings wide spread. This was the moment and everyone set about taking its picture.

Its size can take you by surprise as can its magnificent outline, the upper wings curved and pointed expansively and the overall beautiful latticed  markings of yellow outlined in black. The lower wings each come to a finger point below a pair of orange red eyes, each eye set next to a necklace of deep blue squares on each hindwing. It is early into their flight season, just a few days and many more are to come but for now this individual was in the vanguard and in absolutely perfect condition. Flawless in every way.

This large and rare insect of such exotic beauty looked incongruous, crowning as it did the unlikely top of a humble nettle. It stayed there for less than a minute and then took flight again, to circle as before, frustratingly teasing as it flew high and then low and made several false landings but then it settled once more for slightly longer, maybe just over a minute and then it was gone, up into the air and high over the tree tops towards the adjacent 'Doctor's Garden'. It returned a couple more times, never settling and then came no more.

We left, content after our brief encounter with such a rare and magnificent insect. The ultimate prize in Britain's small complement of butterfly species. Sometimes it is good to leave wanting more and our appreciation was all the more satisfying and rewarding because of the transient time we were privileged to spend in its company.

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