Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Swallowtail Safari

Our other target species for the Norfolk half-term break was the Swallowtail - one of the rarest and most spectacular British butterflies.

It's a particularly fussy insect and seems to be doing its best to make its very existence difficult. It lives only in the Broads and only breeds on Milk-Parsley.

It almost died out in the 70s before better conservation and new demand for thatched cottages gave the reed-covered fenland and the butterflies a new lease of life.

Around 65 per cent of its caterpillars are eaten by spiders and a further two thirds are eaten by birds - especially the Reed Buntings which are particularly abundant in the areas where the self-contained colonies live.

Reed Bunting at Hickling Broad
But the ones that do survive emerge in early June as some of the most beautiful winged insects you could wish to see.

We've travelled to the broads specifically to see them in the last few summers but only had fleeting and distant glimpses of their powerful flights above the reeds. If it's too cloudy, too wet or too windy they vanish into the stems.

So we weren't overly optimistic when severe winds were forecast on the coast just a few miles away from the RSPB Strumpshaw Fen reserve.

Sure enough we'd almost completed a circuit without a glimpse. But then what looked like a Large White butterfly came careering towards us. And it magically turned into a Swallowtail before our very eyes.

It fluttered very close before spotting another adult and going off in pursuit. Delight all round and we headed off quietly satisfied.

But then as we left the gate of the reserve things got even better. On the flowery borders of a private house a pristine Swallowtail was feeding on the Sweet Williams.

Not only that, the house owner had placed a hand-written sign on the flower bed inviting people onto his lawn to inspect any butterflies that caught their eye. Top bloke.

No single butterfly can have been enjoyed for so long by so few.

After that it was off to the Bridge Inn in Acle for delicious ham salads and lashings of Adnams Lighthouse bitter - glasses raised to the what the French call Le Grande Porte-Queue - The Great Tail-bearer.

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