A detailed experimental study on the formation of crossflow vortex mode packets and their high-frequency secondary instability in a swept-wing boundary layer was carried out. Stationary vortex packets are most likely to be generated under natural flight conditions and transition to turbulence is quickest within these disturbances. In the present experiments, different methods of controlled excitation are used so that the crossflow vortex packets are generated by surface-roughness elements and by localized continuous suction. It is found that as the stationary disturbance reaches a significant amplitude, of about 10% of the free-stream velocity, while being below the saturation level, high-frequency secondary instabilities start to grow. Influence of the crossflow vortex packet magnitude on the development of the secondary instability is investigated in detail and below its threshold the crossflow vortex packet was found to be nearly neutrally stable. By studying the unstable packets, the frequency of natural secondary perturbations was identified and the travelling disturbances were forced in a controlled manner by periodic blowing–suction applied locally under the stationary vortex. Two modes of secondary instability were found to develop and the preferred mode was dependent on the properties of the primary stationary disturbance. Additionally, the underlying physics of the process of nonlinear formation and development of the vortices in the boundary layer is clarified. It was observed that the large-amplitude co-rotating vortices may interact, thus reducing their amplitude. Also a large-scale excitation by an isolated roughness element produced two individual stationary crossflow vortex packets at its tips, each with different preferred secondary instability modes.