British Swallowtails

British Swallowtails: A Norfolk delight

It’s been a while since my last post because I’ve had so much going on lately but I want to tell you about a couple of short tours I led for Greenwings alongside author and journalist, Patrick Barkham. We spent two consecutive long weekends in Wroxham, the heart of the Norfolk Broads, searching out a particular butterfly; British Swallowtails. This blousy butterfly is a separate subspecies from the occasional European vagrant that graces our southern shores in summer and only occurs in the Broads these days.

Both weekends followed roughly the same course with some allowance for the good old British weather (!) so I’m combining them into a single post but will share images from both weekends. On both occasions we were joined by guests from a variety of backgrounds and with wide ranging interests, but the first of the two was particularly interesting to me as we had with us a coleopterist (beetle expert) who was keen to look at his specialist subject alongside the butterflies that we were there to find. If you know me by now, you’ll know that I’m forever finding small things to photograph and am interested in all aspects of the natural world. Beetles are such a huge group of insects – they represent more species than any other group on the planet – that while I know a few of the larger or more distinctive species, there are a great many which I’m less familiar with and so this also provided me with a good opportunity to learn a few things too.

We met on Friday afternoon in Wroxham and, having made our introductions, ventured out for a walk along the river bank before dinner. There were warblers singing in the willow trees and a Kingfisher zipped silently past for one of our groups, only a foot or so above the water. We found Marsh Valerian flowering in a damp spot and marvelled at how quickly one escaped the hubbub of the village centre.

The Saturday morning of the first weekend was rather a soggy one but we still made it to a couple of local reserves where we found a variety of things to look at and one of our keen-eyed guests spotted a very small Vapourer moth caterpillar.

 

 

After lunch, we visited Hickling Broad and took a boat trip out onto the broad to access a couple of hides which are otherwise not open to the public. The weather was still rather gloomy but we had some nice views of Avocets, Shelducks with young and Marsh Harriers. The most amazing thing to me was the sheer volume of House Martins, Sand Martins, Swallows and Swifts hawking low over the water for insects. When seen from a small boat at water height it made for quite the memorable experience and interestingly, the following week the weather was better and they were flying much higher and in seemingly smaller numbers, presumably because there was more food available elsewhere. We also had lovely views of a Mute Swan pair with 5 small cygnets – the photo below I actually took with my phone!

 

 

 

The Sunday was the best day of the first weekend and we spent all morning at Strumpshaw Fen which is an RSPB reserve. We saw our first Swallowtail of the day just outside the visitor centre as we arrived. It flew off over the reedbeds and so we began by walking down the track to the Doctor’s House on the way to which a particularly fresh Speckled Wood caught my eye.

 

 

There were two more beautiful British Swallowtails nectaring on the Sweet Williams in the garden as we approached the house. Having joined several keen photographers in enjoying them, we moved on to a meadow beyond where we encountered several more along with Mullein moth caterpillars feasting on… you guessed it, Mullein leaves. 

 

 

I had seen these stunning butterflies before but not had much opportunity to photograph them and to be honest, it was no easy task this time either. They are large and flighty which means that approaching them is tricky at best. However, I had two weekends to hone my skills and for a first attempt I wasn’t too displeased with this image above which nicely shows how they are a darker yellow with much more black marking than their continental counterparts.

On a section of boardwalk further round the reserve we paused to look for Swallowtail eggs on the Milk Parsley. We didn’t find any unfortunately but our keen-eyed guest spotted something else; the empty shell of a Drinker Moth Caterpillar which had been parasitised. The hole in it shows where the adult parasite – likely some type of wasp – emerged, having feasted on it first!

 

 

 

Nearby, I also came across a lovely female Common Lizard in the undergrowth. She kept a wary eye on me but didn’t mind staying put for a picture.


 

With the sun shining today, we were also pleased to see quite a number of Dragonflies and Damselflies including both Azure Damselfly and male Black Tailed Skimmer.

 

 

There were also quite a few Nursery Web Spiders around which made for some nice shots.

 

 

We came across a large number of Red Admirals gathering at a sap run on a willow tree too.

 

 

We heard a Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the depths of a reedbed along with Sedge and Reed Warblers. I was also able to find our visiting coleopterist a splendid Golden-Bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle with fabulous stripes antennae and some tiny tiny weevils which he later identified as a new record for the reserve.

 

 

We had clocked up 18 Swallowtail sightings in a morning and having had a lovely picnic, we then had a short drive to our afternoon stop; Sutton Fen. This is an RSPB reserve but is not open to the public and is not managed for birds but rather for flora and invertebrates. We were shown around by Ian Robinson, the RSPB’s Regional Manager for the Broads. I found it to be an utterly beguiling place, there was so much to take in. From the smell of Water Mint underfoot, the sound of birdsong in every direction and sight of Southern Marsh Orchids in the meadows…

 

 

…to the magic of “the hover” where you walk on a floating dense mat of vegetation which feels rather like a waterbed underfoot. Here there is a proliferation of rare species including an Orchid which I hadn’t seen before, the diminutive but no less beautiful Fen Orchid.

 

 

Having spent some time taking in as much as we could, we headed back to base and enjoyed our evening meal. The following morning, we convened in Patrick’s garden to empty a large moth trap and discover what delights it held. We saved an Elephant Hawkmoth in a tub full of foliage for him to show his daughter when she got home from school, marvelled at the camouflage of the twig-like Buff-Tip and mostly failed at photographing any of the others before they fluttered away from the daylight. With one exception, the Garden Carpet allowed me a quick photo on some Cow Parsley before disappearing to a shady nook for the day.

 

 

The following weekend I did it all again but this time with less rain! Hickling was a Saturday morning affair in glorious sunshine. There were wonderful British Swallowtails everywhere from the moment we arrived at the boat jetty and we enjoyed lovely views over the Broad as we cruised towards the first hide.

 

 

From within we were treated to a flock of Black-Tailed Godwits which hadn’t been there the previous week and we enjoyed watching them forage, preen and snooze in the sun.

 

 

While we watched, a Chinese Water Deer walked nonchalantly out of the reedbed opposite, had a scratch and wandered along the far bank. Considering that these are usually quite shy, retiring animals it was a particularly special moment.

 

 

Moving on, we had fantastic views of Bearded Tits, more than I’ve ever seen before including a group of newly fledged youngsters, of which this was one.

 

 

We enjoyed a picnic by the visitor centre before heading to How Hill for the afternoon. There were sadly no Swallowtails to be seen here but having already spotted 31 in a single morning we were not unhappy! Instead, we enjoyed a walk that took in all manner of other invertebrates and other wildlife. I was pleased to find 2 species of Reed Beetle, a group that we had looked for the previous weekend but seen little of.

 

 

We also came across a large variety of damselflies including Common Blue, Variable and Azure, the latter two of which are pictured in respective order below.

 

 

 

Another delightful insect that we found in some numbers was the diminutive but beautiful Yellow-Barred Longhorn Micromoth, Nemophora degeerella.

 

 

Painted Lady butterflies were also whizzing past seemingly every few seconds in what was to be the largest influx of this migratory butterfly since 2009. We counted a staggering 154 that day but there must have been many more that bypassed us!

 

 

The next morning we followed the same pattern as the previous week with a visit to Strumpshaw Fen in the morning. The first Swallowtails were waiting for us in the Doctor’s Garden where they nectared on the Sweet Williams.  The meadow beyond was positively brimming with life and we found both male and female Thick-Legged Flower Beetles, the male of which displays the thunderous thighs that their common name suggests.

 

There were quite a few beetles around in fact, including rather a fine looking Click Beetle which posed beautifully for me on a Bramble flower bud.

 

On the boardwalk beyond we once again scoured every patch of Milk Parsley for Swallowtail eggs but found none. Yet the boardwalk itself had become a basking spot for dragonflies and Common Lizards as they warmed up for the day.

 

 

We came across a couple of impressively large Drinker Moth caterpillars in the vegetation beside the path.

 

 

We admired yet more Painted Ladies as they flew ever onwards overhead or nectared on the Brambles around us.

 

 

At times they were joined by Small Tortoiseshells, another of our more colourful butterfly species in the UK.

 

 

Bumblebees were also making the most of the nectar-rich flowers. This one is a Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, one of the larger and more common British species.

 

 

Then, on a particularly sunny corner where there were lots of Brambles in bloom, a Swallowtail flew directly over our heads and began to feed only feet away. We had seen plenty flying past at high speed but not many had settled in any spot for long and so this was perfect as a picture opportunity.

 

 

Swallowtail

 

Further round, I also photographed a rather lovely bumblebee-mimicking hoverfly (Volucella bombylans) feeding on a thistle flower.

 

 

I found another Red-Headed Cardinal Beetle to photograph too. I have taken many images of these striking insects but I never tire of them.

 

 

I have also started to try and learn a bit more about some of our hoverflies and so I noted a couple of species as we walked around. It’s trickier than I realised and the only one I’ve been able to conclusively identify so far is below, Eristalis horticola. Not to be put off though, I’ll keep plugging away when I see more.

 

 

Once again we took our guests to Sutton Fen in the afternoon and introduced them to this magical place and to Ian who taught us some of it’s secrets. I decided to go without a camera this time and just soak up the atmosphere of the place. I kicked myself when an obliging Swallowtail came to nectar on a Marsh Thistle in the middle of our path but actually, being able to watch and observe this magnificent insect was just as rewarding as capturing an image of it.

The next morning we returned to Patrick’s garden to see what delights lay waiting in the moth trap. We were not disappointed with the variety that it held nor the number, including over 40 Heart and Dart moths! He proudly showed us the Brimstone caterpillars that he was so thrilled to discover had moved in and we were soon ready to part ways.

 

 

This second weekend we had racked up 39 Swallowtail sightings, a new record for the trip and over 220 Painted Ladies as well. Needless to say both weekends were thoroughly enjoyed by all and this corner of England is more treasured by us all for the memories we made. I can’t wait to do it all again next year!

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