Saturday, 11 June 2016

Strumpshaw Fen

In my quest to finish off my UK butterfly list this year I'd been keeping a keen eye on the Strumpshaw Fen web-site recent sightings page. The spectacular Swallowtail butterfly is pretty much only found at Strumpshaw and is therefore one of the must-visit locations for anyone who is keen to see all the resident UK species. According to the updates, the start of the warm weather this week had brought out all the Swallowtails which were being seen regularly every day - they were even being seen in the nectar garden right outside the reception area. With the weather forecast to break by the end of the week I realised that I needed to act quickly and so it was that this Thursday I made the three hour pilgrimage in the Gnome mobile eastwards to just outside Norwich to pay homage to this most exotic of butterflies.

The weather was forecast to be cloudy all morning but to clear for the afternoon so I didn't bother leaving too early but instead set off sometime around 9:30 a.m., opting for the usual A43/A45/A14 route towards East Anglia. The journey itself was uneventful though it seemed to drag on for far too long. Fortunately the weather behaved as predicted and the rather overcast conditions had just given way to full-on sunshine as I pulled up at the heaving car park. Indeed it was so full that an RSPB volunteer stationed there was suggesting that I use the back-up car park which was 1km's walk away. Having just driven all that way I wasn't going to be told that I had to park miles away and walk back and was all set to go and  indulge in some nearby "creative" parking instead when someone came back to their car right outside the reserve and headed off so I was able to park up and get ready. Then it was just a matter of walking across the railway line to the reception area at the entrance to the reserve.

The Reception Area

On arrival I could already seen several people pointing lenses at the bank of flowers in a raised bed right in front of reception and sure enough there was an immaculate Swallowtail feeding away frantically on the flowers. It was all so easy! I busied myself with taking some snaps though the ultra bright conditions and the fact that the butterfly was moving ceaselessly meant that it wasn't that easy to get a decent pose but I got some reasonable shots in the end. I was very thankful that all the pressure of finding a Swallowtail on this trip had been removed so quickly and that I was now free to go and look for some bonus insects and flowers.

A very convenient Swallowtail right outside the reception area
I popped into the reception to ask about where the best place was to see the East Anglia dragonfly specialities, namely Norfolk Hawker and Scarce Chaser, both of which, according to the blog, were on the wing now. I was told that the Meadow Trail and the Fen Trail would both be good spots for them and noted this down on a map. I then asked about the location of the Common Twayblade orchid which I'd read on some blog were located near the reception area. The receptionist didn't know though she did mention that there were some Bee Orchids just by the entrance gate. She decided to head off to the main office to ask someone so in the mean time I headed back to the car to pick up my packed lunch and to see if I could find the Bee Orchids. These turned out to be easy enough and I soon found one right underneath the main reserve sign.

Bee Orchid
Whilst I was in the reception area it also turned out that there was several Hawkmoths dotted around the place on the various walls - presumably the fruits of a successful trapping the previous night. I busied myself with taking some snaps: there was one Elephant, a couple of Poplar and a couple of Eyed, the latter actually being a personal moth tick.

Elephant Hawkmoth
Eyed Hawkmoth
Poplar Hawkmoth
I returned to reception where the lady was now able to tell me where the Twayblade were - no more than 30 metres from where we were standing though tucked away under a tree and so easily missed if you didn't know that they were there. I wandered over and soon found some.

Common Twayblade
So that was one Swallowtail, 6 Hawkmoths and two different Orchid species all within a few yards of each other - most impressive! Having mopped up on everything I headed off towards the Meadow Trail to see if I could finally get to see the two speciality large dragonflies.

The Meadow Trail

The path lead down through a wooded area before opening out onto a clearing where a few people were watching another Swallowtail which was flitting about actively and rather high up in a tree. Given the great views that I'd already had a point blank range by the reception area, I didn't hang around but headed onwards. After only a few minutes walk the path opened out onto the Meadow Trail. This was a wonderful open flood meadow criss-crossed with slow flowing drainage ditches a few metres wide and lined along the borders with what were still rather low reaching reeds and sedge. The surrounding meadow area was a riot of colourful flowers and sedges and there were plenty of dragonflies patrolling the ditches. Willow Warblers were warbling their melancholy cascade and I could hear distant Reed and Sedge Warblers singing away from the nearby reedbed. In the brilliant sunshine it was a wonderfully pastoral scene that nourished my soul as well as got me salivating at the prospect of routing out some interesting dragonflies. All in all it was pure heaven for an odonata enthusiast such as myself.

The start of the Meadow Trail area
These ditches are where the dragonflies hang out
To start with it was just Four-spotted Chasers and Hairy Hawkers that I was coming across as I worked my was slowly along the path.

Four-spotted Chaser
Turning the corner by a small wooden footbridge I started to search the next ditch where I soon spotted a large brown-coloured Hawker patrolling the area. A quick look in my bins: clear untinted wings, no markings on the side of the body and nice green eyes - yes, it was a Norfolk Hawker! Fortunately it settled briefly and I was able to get a shot.

A Norfolk Hawker
I was very pleased to have seen one of my target dragonflies relatively straight-forwardly though despite scouring the rest of the ditches along the trail carefully all I could unearth was one more Norfolk along with numerous Hairies and Four-spots and there was no sign of any Scarce Chasers.

Another Four-spot
There were loads of interesting plants to view whilst I was in the Meadow Trail and I took lots of photos as I went along. As a relatively newbie botanist I didn't immediately recognise all of them so it was great to have a good rummage around to see what I could find.

Southern Marsh Orchid

Marsh Valerian


Marsh Thistle
I had a chat with a fellow dragonfly enthusiast whilst I was there and he helpfully told me that the Scarce Chasers were usually to be found along the river over on the Fen Trail side and now that he mentioned it, I did recall reading how they were more of a riparian species so I decided next to head off in that direction along the river

The Fen Trail

I'd adored the Meadow Trail with it's open views, narrow ditches and wonderful wild flowers. By contrast, walking along the river (which was looking rather swollen and fast-running) was not nearly as enjoyable. The bankside vegetation was much taller and it was consequently harder to see anything. To start with there was little of note apart from the odd Banded Demoiselle but as I headed further along the river I started to come across some small bays where there were inlets from the river into the water complex on the other side of the bank. There were sluices there so the RSPB could presumably control the water levels on the fen side to ensure optimal conditions at all times. It was in these bay areas that I first came across my quarry when I spotted a teneral Scarce Chaser posing on a branch in amongst the vegetation. Unfortunately I was looking into the sun and it was facing the wrong way but I could see all the tell-tale diagnostic features of dark patch at base of lower wing, yellow veins in lower wing and grey-blue upper eyes that all told me that I was watching my first ever Scarce Chaser.

Teneral Scarce Chaser - shame it's facing the wrong way!
Further along I chanced upon a mating pair in another bay area.

Mating pair of Scarce Chasers
In yet another bay I managed to get my best views so far of yet another of these interesting dragonflies. So that was at least four Scarce Chasers seen along the river section with several more fly-overs that were "probables".

Another teneral Scarce Chaser
I've not mentioned birds at all so far along this stretch but I did manage to see a couple of Marsh Harriers and a Hobby soaring over the central area of the reserve and all long the river bank there were Whitethroats, Blackcaps and Cetti's Warblers singing away. I stopped to eat my sandwich and gave my VLW a call to see how she was - apparently all was OK back at base. I then followed the path further along the river until it turned inwards along a wide, well-mown path following a small river. I was expecting to see more dragonflies as I walked along this bit though sadly I only saw one brief unidentified fly-over on this entire section. I did get another Swallowtail sighting as one flew over the path but that was it.

Eventually the path turned back towards the direction of the reception area and I came across a boardwalk detour right into the heart of the reedbed. The idea of this was to give you an idea of what went on in the middle of the reeds and I must say that it was really great. For a start I finally came across some Milk Parsley - the larval foodplant for the Swallowtail butterfly and the reason why they colonise Strumpshaw Fen. The Parsley wasn't in flower yet but the leaves were quite unmistakable.

Milk Parsley - the Swallotail larval foodplant
I also came across the strikingly-coloured Marsh Cinquefoil, a really stunning plant and much larger than the usual yellow Cinquefoils that one comes across. Then it was back along the boardwalk to the end of the trail where the path crossed over the railway line and lead to the end of Tinkers Lane.

Marsh Cinquefoil
Common Meadow-rue

Tinkers Lane

At the end of Tinkers Lane there was the famous "Doctors House" where a retired lepidoptera-loving doctor and his wife lived. They'd planted a fantastic nectar-rich flower bed at the front of their house that was buzzing with all sorts of insects and which Swallowtails apparently regularly visited. The couple very kindly allowed open access to the flowers so that people could see the butterflies at close quarters. In fact, it was generally understood that it was the best place to see this species on the reserve and had I not seen the one at the reception area so well then I too would have come here first of all.

The famous Doctor's House
I had a wander up the path and there was indeed a single Swallowtail feeding frantically at the top of the flower bed. I tried taking some photos but it was moving about so rapidly that in the end I gave up and just took some video instead. 

Having had my fill I started to wander back along the lane. I'd only gone a short distance when I spotted a group of photographers all gathered around one spot and papping away like fury. I came over to see what they were looking at and it turned out to be a single pristine Swallowtail settled on the top of a tall grass stem and feeding away avidly. I was somewhat surprised as grass isn't know for its nectar but the butterfly seemed happy enough and what's more it was posing perfectly with only a bit of a breeze that had sprung up troubling what would otherwise have been an easy photographic opportunity. Still in between the swaying I managed a photo that I was pleased with.

A perfectly posing Swallowtail

Greater Stitchwort, growing along the lane
Then I ambled back along the lane towards the reception area where I treated myself to a nice cup of tea and a flapjack which I enjoyed whilst sitting in the shade near the Common Twayblade and contemplating what had been a most successful visit. Still, time was marching on so I finished my tea and headed back onto the roads. The journey back took a little longer as I hit a traffic jam on the A14 and in the end decided to go back on the A428 via Bedford and Milton Keynes instead which at least made for a bit of variety. Still, it couldn't spoil what had been a really great day out with lots of really interesting insects and plants and I was now one step closer to completing my UK butterfly list.


SteffLeese said...

Fantastic! I'd love to see the Swallowtails!

Adam Hartley (Gnome) said...

Thanks Steff, they're definitely worth making an effort for though I know it's a bit of a journey from where you are