Swallowtail Encounter

Papillo machon ssp britannicus

I am fortunate in that I live only a few miles from Hickling Broad and I don’t have to work in the mornings, so if the weather is good I can be there in about ten minutes.

Swallowtail butterfly at Hickling Broad Norfolk.



So it was on the 28th of June 2016, with the sun beating down and no wind I made my way to my favourite route, walking east from Decoy Road along the Weavers Way.  The conditions were perfect for Swallowtail butterflies at the peak of their flying season.  I have seen many of these, Britains largest butterfly, in the past but usually it is as they fly quickly over the vast reedbeds, today was to be different!



Broadland beauty

Having walked about half way to Rush Hills I came across a large bed of thistles and there were not one but two of these magnificent insects, happily nectaring on the flowers. I have been lucky to see Swallowtails close-up before but not with my camera.



I’ll just pose, you take as many pics as you want


I feared that these two would soon disappear when I pointed the lens in their direction, and with trembling  hands (thank goodness for vibration control) I fired off some record shots.  However my fears were unfounded and they were in no hurry to leave.  I managed to get dozens of frame filling images from all angles before I reluctantly had to leave to get ready for work.



Female Variable Damselfly
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Norfolk Hawker at Upton Fen, Norfolk 2019

The day was not just about the Swallowtails.  Earlier on my walk I saw many types of damsel and dragonflies, including our own Norfolk Hawker but could not get any images of them, being far too warm and sunny for them to settle.  One damselfly I did photograph turned out to be quite scarce, it was a female Variable which was a bonus. Also on the wing were several male Large Skippers.








To have the best chance to encounter the Swallowtail two points are important to remember.

Timing.  All things being equal the butterfly should start to emerge at the end of May or beginning of June.  The earliest you see them the better condition they will be in.  Due to their habit of roosting low in the reeds their wings can soon become damaged.  I have found they will generally be on the wing mid-morning.  The flight season is only ’till July though in a good year there may be a small second brood.

Weather.  Warm, sunny and with little or no wind.  Swallowtails do not like being blown about!





There are several sites across the Broads where you may encounter ‘the Queen’.  Obviously my first choice is the Weavers Way on the southern edge of Hickling Broad but a visit to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve will be worthwhile.  Another very popular site is the R.S.P.B. reserve at Strumpshaw Fen a few miles east of Norwich on the north bank of the River Yare.  Other options are Wheatfen south of the Yare.  The Butterfly Conservation reserve at Catfield Fen or NWT’s Upton Fen.  If holidaying by boat you may see them almost anywhere near the reedbeds.





To obtain good photographs keep an eye out for patches of their favourite nectar flowers.  Early in the season red campion and ragged robin, flag iris then later on they love thistles and bramble flowers.  At Strumpshaw there is an artificial flower bed outside the reserve reception which they like or the nearby ‘Doctor’s Garden’ but ask permission there.

Large Skipper sun bathing, I like the spider silk coming from the leaf
Swallowtail butterfly. A Norfolk treasure. 2017 encounter
A fresh Swallowtail on campion. 2018 encounter
As the butterfly is much heavier than the campion they will often take nectar by hovering
Nectaring on flag iris. 2019 encounter
8th of May 2020. So beautiful and so early. Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus). There are many Swallowtail species around the world, this one can only be found in the Norfolk Broads
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A Swallowtail (Papillo machon ssp britannicus) on campion, 2020
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Sideways and you can see the wingtip blur, 2020
June 2021. A very late start due to a prolonged cold spring. This one favoured the Ragged Robin
June 2021
Go too late in the flight season and your sightings could be like this one! An old warrior that’s had a hard life   June 2020

5 thoughts on “Swallowtail Encounter

  1. Well Brian,among the many butterflies that I have not had the pleasure in seeing as yet,is the British Swallowtail.A magnificent species.Perhaps I will get a chance to visit Norfolk to see this butterfly.
    A great pic of a variable damselfly,not seen over here but also well worth the trip.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Swallowtail can be very hit & miss Peter, get the weather spot on late May/early June and it can be fantastic. 2017 and I had a stunning week with over a dozen in a hundred yards on one morning. The Variable Damsel (female) was i.d ed(?) by a good friend, I have not imaged anymore yet.


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