I made a rare foray "north of the border" at the weekend to search for the UK's largest species of butterfly, the swallowtail, at RSPB Strumpshaw Fen nature reserve. Late spring is best time to see these impressive butterflies, and, sure enough, we saw several during our visit, including two posing for photographs in the garden outside the reception hide.
The UK race of swallowtail is restricted to the Norfolk Broads, and Strumpshaw is probably the best place to see them. The continental races, which are slightly differently patterned, are much more widespread and do very occasionally turn up on shores. I did see one at Minsmere many years ago, and more recently they have been found breeding in Sussex, but if you want to see a swallowtail then you really have to plan a trip to the broads in late May or the first half of June.
Another insect was, until recently, also confined in the UK to the Norfolk Broads, and even takes it's English name from our northern neighbours - the Norfolk hawker. However, in recent years this large dragonfly has colonised first Suffolk, and more recently Cambridgeshire, so we should, perhaps, adopt it's common European name, the green-eyed hawker.
Norfolk hawker by Christine Hall
The green eyes are very obvious in this photo, and can usually be seen in the field. Less obvious, especially on flying insects, is the pale yellow triangle , located just behind the point at which the wings connect to the body. This gives the species it's scientific name - Aeshna isosceles.
Norfolk hawker is one of the 70 species to spot at Minsmere, and June is a really time to see them. While you may see them hunting along wetland ditches, or the pond near the visitor centre, it's often best to look in woodland rides, such as along the Woodland Trail or near Bittern Hide, where they catch smaller insects to eat.
I have tried to photograph Norfolk hawkers for several years, without success, so was pleased to get this shot of a mating pair at Strumpshaw.- behaviour I had not witnessed either!
Norfolk hawkers are only one of several dragonflies to look out for this week. There are still several hairy dragonflies on the wing, as well as lots of four-spotted chasers, a few broad-bodied chasers and the first black-tailed skimmers. Damselflies are numerous too, including large red, variable, common blue, and azure - like the male pictured below.
I had also enjoyed a fabulous evening here at Minsmere on Saturday, with brilliant views of bitterns at Island Mere, as well as marsh harriers, hobby, bearded tits, great crested grebes and reed warblers. The Savi's warbler gave a brief burst of song, and a willow warbler sand from the foot of Whin Hill. Later, two barn owls hunting over the meadows at Eastbridge, before a dusk walk on Westleton Heath produced sightings of three nightjars even before it got dark, with birds heard churring as darkness arrived.
There were several other notable sightings during the second half of last week too. The purple heron put in a couple of appearances over the reedbed, and a cattle egret was reported in flight on one occasion. The male red-backed shrike reappeared on Whin Hill, where it showed well for one day only. Both that and the heron may still be in the area. At least one honey-buzzard has been seen on a couple of dates, and a very late short-eared owl was seen on Saturday - they have usually migrated back to their breeding grounds by now.
Most visitors will have missed these unusual birds, but the bitterns and harriers have been putting on a good show, and there's lots to see on the Scrape. Highlights for many are the avocet and oystercatcher chicks. Less popular, perhaps, are the lesser black-backed gulls that continue to predate many of the black-headed gull chicks! Nature, raw in tooth and claw and beak, as always.
The black-tailed godwit flock has peaked at almost 200 birds, with at least a couple of bar-tailed godwits among them to test your ID. Other waders have included greenshank, spotted redshank, turnstone and ruff. Several Sandwich terns remain among the common terns and Mediterranean gulls. Another ID test has been provided by an usual "red-legged" kittiwake. Don't panic, this is not a rare visitor from the Pacific Ocean, but an aberrant form of the more familiar black-legged kittiwakes that collect nesting material from the Scrape to take back to their colony at nearby Sizewell. Kittiwakes with red legs are very unusual, so many thanks to Bob Hutchinson for sharing his photos of this very interesting bird with us. Certainly one to keep an eye open for!
Finally, and another one for the cute factor. Wesley the water vole has been regularly seen in the pond this week, so it's worth spending a bit of time there with the sand martins darting overhead and dragonflies patrolling the pond.
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