Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.

Of Yellow Flags and Swallowtails

In an unprecedented week that saw the president of the largest Western Great Power turn his back on the Paris Accord to reduce emissions causing global climate change, I took advantage of ironically hot, sunny weather to visit Strumpshaw Fen RSPB Nature Reserve to see one of the UK's rarest and most threatened butterflies, the British Swallowtail, Papilio machaon britannicus.

British Swallowtail, found only in Norfolk, busy nectaring on native yellow flag iris flowers. Taken from at least 1.4m away on a 300mm 4/3 crop OMD.

British Swallowtail, found only in Norfolk, busy nectaring on native yellow flag iris flowers. Taken from at least 1.4m away on a 300mm 4/3 crop OMD.

The trip was an impromptu reprise of my longstanding attempts to enjoy watching this beautiful endangered Norfolk butterfly, which inspired a earlier blog post on my misadventures over several unsuccessful seasons attempting to find them at various Norfolk nature reserves. Last year, I was even interviewed as part of a BBC OneShow item on the native Swallowtail covering the story of a much more famous lepidopterist's longstanding desire to see them.

This time I was hoping for more than a record shot of this rare and uniquely beautiful butterfly, one of only 6 butterfly species fully protected by UK Law since 1992. With the weather so fair sightings had been good all week so I was daring to hope for some natural behavioural shots of it amongst native fenland flora and habitat, rather than perched upon the pretty Sweet William in the renowned Doctor's flower garden.

After a pleasant chat with a Welsh couple now close to completing a multi year hunt to see all of Britain's 59 native species, I had not  ventured far into the reserve before I enjoyed a wonderful encounter of a freshly emerged Swallowtail first basking low down then fluttering up with its ghostlike flight pattern onto a nearby patch of deep yellow flag iris flowers where it began to nectar frenetically. Then the inevitable happened. It was after all Strumpshaw Fen, a sunny Sunday and Swallowtail peak season: The Lepidopteran papparazzi descended.

Within minutes a host of papparazzi lenses, many far too short for the purpose, had surrounded the poor butterfly and their owners, caught up in the viewfinder, became oblivious to both other nature observers as well as the butterfly's wellbeing, and lens hoods started to encroach within inches of where the butterfly was attempting to feed up, blocking out both light and other people. I gently chaperoned and chastised as best I could to create space for the butterfly to feed and all to take turns to see, before moving on frustrated as the crowd grew too big and closed in again around the butterfly.

I reflected on how , perfectly polite people, behind the viewfinder in focussed pursuit of the perfect digital trophy shot, rapidly became so blinkered and oblivious as to unwittingly block our others and even potentially disturb the rare and protected creature they had come to see. I speculated how many had walked right past numerous other fascinating wildlife and flower species without really stopping to enjoy and appreciate them, in their single-minded mission to capture the one famous "celebrity" species. It prompted me to question the drivers behind my own past mission too, though my long lens's minimum focus always helps ensure a respectful distance.

On a bigger scale, it made me contemplate whether charities' tendency to focus on preserving single "blue chip" star species (using gallons of pesticides in the process) rather than untouched habitats is more a help or a hindrance in our efforts to help environmental recovery.

Thinking back to the Paris Accord. I wonder whether it will ultimately ever really be possible for us, collectively as the human species, to overcome our ingrained survival instinct of self interest to do "the right thing" on a big enough scale in time. I hope so. If not, then perhaps our nation's own beautiful custard-yellow Swallowtail sub-species truly is already the ghost it sometimes appears to be, fluttering amongst it's beloved milkweed and flag iris.

Taking off from a yellow flag iris flower, the British Swallowtail butterfly has been fully protected in UK law since 1992.

Taking off from a yellow flag iris flower, the British Swallowtail butterfly has been fully protected in UK law since 1992.

On the Trail of the Swallowtail

Sometimes as a naturalist and photographer, certain subjects remain so stubbornly elusive that they become a bit of a nemesis. Britain's largest and most iconic species "papilio machaon britannicus", our very own British swallowtail, was one such unlucky species for me. So much so, that it took me some five years to achieve my first photograph of this amazingly beautiful butterfly.

Our British swallowtail butterfly is actually a subspecies of the European strain that has adapted itself to use the delicate and somewhat sensitive fenland plant milk parsley as its caterpillar host plant. Once comparatively widespread in the south east, its range is now restricted to the Norfolk fens.

Many of you will know that butterflies are one of my favourite wildlife species and I'm a passionate supporter of the Butterfly Conservation Society, which does a great job of raising awareness about the threats to this beautiful animal. Though scarce, I live in Norfolk, the same county that this elusive butterfly calls home. So just how hard can it really be to see one?

Well timing is everything they say. The swallowtail is single brooded and has a relatively short flight period, from around mid May to mid June. If you add to that the need for reasonably clement weather, the window of opportunity is fairly narrow. In my defence, years one and two of my five year wash out were before I had relocated to live in Norfolk.

My natural history and local knowledge was still comparatively limited, and I was restricted solely to weekend trips to Norfolk targeted for the start of its flight period. These were planned using field guides, with the sole aim of seeing this amazing butterfly. Sadly that was just as we entered that phase where our winters were harsh, spring arrived late and the weather utterly uncooperative. Thus for two years in a row, bleak grey skies, cold temperatures and high winds put the kaibosh on my naive optimism and my target remained stubbornly and mysteriously elusive...

Year three and I relocated to Norfolk, surely now I would just stumble across one right? Cue multiple trips to Hickling, How Hill and Strumpshaw, all known Swallowtail hotspots over the course of the next three years. Yet these attempts attempts to witness the beauty of this butterfly were always ill-fated. I forget how many times I met people and heard them say frustratingly, "oh there was one just down that path there " . Of course said Swallowtail invariably had vanished by the time I reached the spot, for all my luck, the Swallowtail might have been a capricious sprite from the cast of Shakespeare's a midsummer's nights dream.

Last year life simply overtook me. My hunt started far too late in the season for success. So this year, I was determined, was to be the year of the Swallowtail. Come what may I was determined, I would find this iconic, awe-inspiring butterfly, no matter what!

Spring this year was again cool and I was nervous, conditions were far from auspicious for a prompt emergence or a bountiful butterfly season in Norfolk.

A visit to RSPB Strumpshaw Fen offered me my first fleeting, tantalising glimpse, but my bad luck struck again! Just as I arrived I glimpsed a large custard yellow butterfly swoop in...and it was, yes! ,,,.a swallowtail swooping in and aiming to land to nectar on white violet flowers at the main entrance. But even as I approached it was immediately spooked by an over-enthusiastic visitor waving his camera at it! This tourist seemed to be the incarnation of my Swallowtail nemesis, the butterfly equivalent of the "Man from Porlock" and opportunity lost. Assured by staff that they often returned, I stood stationary, sentinel-like for over an hour. Eventually a friendly gentlemen suggested another spot where he'd seen them "only a few hours before" - so off I trooped, yet to no avail. Another Swallowtail near miss, thwarted by mischance or fate, who knew and I finally started to see the funny side of it all.

Perhaps my resignation and acceptance swung it and the gods took pity on me. I had only one last day left of even remotely suitable weather between what were quite vicious storm showers and off I went one last time on my Swallowtail mission.

Back at Strumpshaw, now a familiar friend of a reserve, I ambled around the areas I'd been shown over the years, my jacket still done up against a nippy morning chill. Mercifully, the weather stubbornly refused to close in as forecast. I dawdled up and down the footpaths for about an hour, amidst cloudy intervals and cool, breezy conditions. Eventually, quite suddenly the sun won its battle against the grey and the temperature rose sharply.

Swallowtails nectar on many pink and purple flowers including red campion, as well as yellow flag iris

Suddenly, to my immense surprise and joy, an immaculate, freshly emerged swallowtail materialised from the tree canopy above, landing to nectar on some wild red campion blossoms, bouncing from flower to flower. I was taken aback by the  sheer size and presence of this impressive, majestic almost magical, butterfly with its vibrant colours and bird-sized wingspan.

At last, this bird-sized stunningly beautiful butterfly posed for me, even basking, its impressive wingspread outstretched whenever the sun vanished behind the lingering cloud to warm itself up in the spring breeze.

My five year long mission was accomplished.

This freshly emerged swallowtail basked with its wings open during cloudy intervals