Quest Of A Lifetime

My Mum has always wanted to see a Swallowtail butterfly. Last year we went on a couple of missions to try and find one but without success. These aren’t straightforward ventures – she had a stroke three years ago and needs a wheelchair to get anything more than a few yards. Fans of nature reserves will be aware they’re rarely the ideal terrain for wheelchairs. But we’re stubborn both of us so we go along anyway and do our best.

Having seen my first Swallowtail last week at Strumpshaw Fen, I knew we needed to strike while the iron was hot. And while the weather was hot – there’s no point going butterfly spotting if it’s windy and rainy. Today felt ideal – baking hot, cloudless, not excessively breezy. It’s a bit late in the year (the first two weeks of June are generally best) but 2015’s Swallowtails have been slightly delayed by the cold periods in May. My sighting last week was freshly emerged so I knew there was every chance there would still be some around.

The plan was to return to the scene of my previous encounter, typically the favoured area of Strumpshaw for Swallowtails. Unfortunately it can only be reached in a wheelchair by doing about 90% of the circular path (and then retracing all the way back afterwards). We had about two hours. I would push for an hour and see how far round we got. Hopefully it would be far enough.

As I’ve said before, there is stacks to see and hear at Strumpshaw. At this time of year there are plenty of flowers still in bloom, with orchids lurking among the meadow grasses by the path. Cetti’s warblers erupt into their too-loud singing which can at times sound slightly like a Star Wars gun battle. Dragonflies buzz vigorously back and forth while the more demure Damselflies flit about almost apologetically. Across the reeds, Marsh harriers soar, swoop and circle with lugubrious muscularity, confidently ignorant of their own rarity.

I couldn’t really focus on any of this. I was constantly scanning the path just in front of the wheelchair, trying to spot and dodge any stone, root or divot that could snare one of the pathetic shopping trolley front wheels. However hard I tried, there was still the occasional hole disguised as grass that stopped us in our tracks. It was roasting. We stopped to rest whenever the path was dappled in shade. My camera dangled and swung about annoyingly. I could have left it behind but, well, if you’re even slightly into photography you’ll know how that would have made me feel much more uncomfortable.

I hardly dared look at my watch but knew I needed to be strict on turning back after about an hour. The tyranny of the domestic care timetable. Fortunately it was a late lunch call otherwise it wouldn’t even have been worth going. I knew it was nearly an hour. We were still well short of the reedbed area we were aiming for. The path was very patchy.

Movement to the left! A flutter and then, what? a hover or even a soar. Too big, too different, too yellow and black, to be anything other than a Swallowtail. The first thing was to point it out to Mum, to help her find it in the sky with her distinctly sub-par eyesight. Settle, come on, perch, stop flying for a moment, stay still. It came to rest on some nettles next to the path. It sat there with its wings outstretched. She saw it, focused on it, took it in. I grabbed my camera.


In truth it was a bit of a poor old thing, raggedy, missing its eye spots, probably not long for the world. But it was still mesmerising to spend time in its presence, especially after all the effort of getting there. Its flight was like no other butterfly I’ve seen, soaring on fixed wing facing the wind, more bird than insect. For a time it tootled about the nettles, before returning to a perch up in a tree. Some other people came along and we pointed out the Swallowtail, much to their delight. I checked my watch.

Back round the path. Now I was really hot with increasingly tired legs and arms and hands so sore from the grips. To the Reception Hide to trumpet our triumph and plonk a Swallowtail marker on the map in that previously unregarded location, then back to the car and home in time for the lunch call (well, maybe half a minute late but who’s counting?) Mission accomplished. Now we have memories.


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