Tuesday 19 July 2016

Finger lickin' at Fermyn 18th July 2016

In my previous post I referred to Dennis Watkins-Pitchford or 'BB' which was the pseudonym under which he wrote his now highly collectable nature books. His sixty or so published books are gems from another era, illustrated by the author's distinctive scraperboard drawings  and written in the old style, no graphs, no charts with indecipherable numerics, just plain, simple, good nature writing, which is easy to read and vastly informative. BB was interested in and highly knowledgeable about many aspects of our natural world and was what would now be described as 'of the old school' being a hunting, shooting and fishing man as well as an all round naturalist.

I am not sure if I would have agreed on everything he espoused, fox hunting for example, or even got on had we met but we are of very different generations and upbringings and our respective differing outlooks and attitudes reflect the situation of the world as it was in BB's time and as it is now in mine. 

After he retired from teaching art at Rugby School 'BB' lived on a large estate in Northamptonshire where he indulged his passion for natural history to its fullest extent. Apart from the enjoyment his writing and books bring to me, what really fired my imagination and admiration was the tale he told of collecting the eggs of the Purple Emperor from a wood which was due to be destroyed to make way for a Motorway back in the 1970's, and his nurturing of those eggs until their fruition as adult insects to be released thus bringing the successful re-introduction of the Purple Emperor to the Oak forest that is Fermyn Woods, This site is now probably the best and most reliable place in the country to see Purple Emperors and is a living memorial to 'BB.' 

I planned to pay homage to this by going to Fermyn Woods, which is part of the huge Rockingham Forest that covers 200 square miles of Northamptonshire, and like Bernwood Forest on the border of my home county Oxfordshire was a favourite hunting place of William the Conqueror in times long past. Like Bernwood, Rockingham Forest is now fragmented into separate areas of woodland adrift in an arable landscape but there are still large areas of forest remaining to explore and enjoy.

With my planned visit on this day of fortuitous sunshine, I hoped to see many Purple Emperors and possibly to gain a faint feeling for 'BB' himself. His birthday was July 25th 1905 so I was just seven days short of the anniversary and tomorrow the 'BB Society' would be paying their annual visit to Fermyn Woods.

The day was set to be non stop sunshine, dawn to dusk, very hot and humid and would be ideal for butterflies. I had done my homework and had a detailed map of where to go to have the best chance of seeing the Purple Emperors. The particular area I needed to go to was called Fermyn Woods Country Park but this encompassed not just Fermyn Woods but also beyond were Lady Wood and Souther Wood which were the two most propitious areas to seek out Purple Emperors. Enticingly these latter two woods adjoined and were almost two miles away from the busy Visitor Centre, Shop and Cafe, and normally only frequented by butterfly enthusiasts at this time of year.

In brilliant sunshine I found myself, after a two hour journey, passing the entrance to the Visitor Centre and further down the busy main road turning right onto a quiet country lane and after a couple of miles, parking in a small layby where a wide bridleway cum track of hardcore led into Fermyn Woods. The bridleway was surrounded on both sides by large Oaks and Sallows, ideal habitat for the Emperor. Looking at my map it appeared that to get to Lady Wood and Souther Wood I just needed to follow the bridleway for a mile and a half, so without further ado I set off.

It was nine in the morning and already the air was warm but in the shade of the ancient trees the sun was filtered through the leaves and branches so the bridleway was currently cool and slightly damp which meant it was unlikely to be attractive to Emperors. I walked on as the bridleway turned at a right angle leading me out of Fermyn Woods, into the sunlight once again and across flower laden grass fields to the commencement of Lady Wood.

Looking back to Fermyn Woods in the distance
I met four other enthusiasts here and to my amazement I knew one of them from meeting him on Fair Isle some four years ago. Bert and his three colleagues were from Tees-side and had driven down especially to look for Emperors. We walked on further into Lady Wood but soon parted as they got to grips with a Silver washed Fritillary, a butterfly not seen in their part of the world but very familiar to me at Bernwood Forest.

Other Silver Washed Fritillaries, characteristically always appearing to be in a hurry hurtled along the edge of the bridleway as Ringlets, Small and Large Whites jinked along the hedgerows and up into the lower reaches of the trees. Another right turn of the bridleway took me between high hedges of hazel, sallows and blackthorn with Oaks towering above.  I looked down the bridleway and coming straight towards me was a Purple Emperor, powering along in determined flight and not looking likely to stop. It passed me at head height and at great speed, veering from side to side and was gone in a flicker of black and white. I got to a left hand bend and met another two Emperor enthusiasts and as I stood on the corner another Emperor swooped and glided, high above me along the side of a tall row of pines. This area looked promising as the bridleway was bathed in sunshine and already I had seen two Emperors in flight. The two enthusiasts were waiting in the hope of one coming down onto the bridleway as my four friends from Tees-side finally caught up with me. We all waited for a while but there was no sign of anything happening so I walked on to the far end of the bridleway where it made another turn to the right. I stood here, alone, on the corner, under some mighty Oaks and looked up into their vastness.

The bridleway with Lady Wood on the left.This was the prime
location for Purple Emperors coming down to the ground
A family of Willow Warblers were flitting about in the upper branches of the Oaks, as was a family of Blackcaps but they soon moved on, forever active in their quest for food. I waited under the Oaks, shaded by their towering presence whilst the bridleway to my right turned almost white in the strengthening sunshine. A couple of Purple Hairstreaks moved around a particularly large Oak but remained, as they mostly do, high in the tree settling on a leaf to sit in the sunshine and imbibe aphid nectar from the leaves.

A shadow of a large butterfly passed along the sunlit bridleway and then from behind me, the cause of the shadow became apparent as another Emperor glissaded up and around the Oaks. So distinctive, so evocative in flight. Strangely I have had more sightings of Emperors on the ground than in flight so it was a real pleasure to observe one regally patrolling the airspace above me. I followed it as it flew high and fast on an erratic course through the Oaks. It was gone down a shaded ride in a trice and I lapsed back into patient observation. Fifteen unremarkable minutes had passed and then another Emperor arrived, again announcing its presence as a shadow passing along the sunlit track and then appearing from behind me and swooping up ever higher against the dark green foliage of the trees, finally to be silhouetted against an azure sky.

A call from one of the Tees-side group alerted me to the fact that there was now an Emperor on the ground at the other end of the sunlit bridleway and I walked up to where that familiar and thrilling shape was sucking invisible nutrients from the seemingly inhospitable ground. We stood at a respectful distance. It flew closer to us and then came right to our feet, flickering and fluttering, wheeling rapidly around us at almost ground level, fussing and hesitating, making many false landings before finally settling and allowing us to admire and photograph it at our leisure. 

Another landed a few metres away and then there were no less than three flying around together before one settled on a conifer spray and the other two headed off down the bridleway. 

And so it went on for around forty five minutes with Purple Emperors coming and going, flying back and fore.

With the sun behind it the Emperor looks an almost mundane brown and white

With the Emperor facing the sun the glory of the full purple colouring manifests itself
One particular Emperor feeding from the track seemed very set and I suggested to one of the Tees-side boys that he try putting his finger under its proboscis as it could well sit on his finger. I have done it successfully a couple of times myself at Bernwood. He was sweating profusely so there was every chance the Emperor would find it an attractive proposition to suck up the salt on his finger. 'Are you sure about this?' he enquired. This was his first encounter with His Excellency. 'Yes go on it often works. Trust me,' 'Well if you say so but if it flies off we will not be popular with the others.'  He sounded dubious. I looked to the others and they were admiring another Emperor further up the bridleway so I could see little likelihood of incurring anyone's displeasure. He gingerly lowered his finger and gently put it right up to the Emperor's 'face' and calmly it walked onto his finger as if pre-ordained. He stood up and raised his finger in triumph with the Emperor now stationary on the top with its yellow proboscis fully extended, licking the salt from his sweaty finger. Colonel Sanders had nothing on this! The rest of the group clustered round and we all got the phones out to record the moment. What a magnificent creature.

Finally it parted company from the finger and returned onto the ground but as I looked up and across the bridleway to some thistles I noticed a tiny brown butterfly feeding on a thistle flower. It was too small to be a Ringlet. It was a White letter Hairstreak! A good find and one that incurred an extra sense of pleasure as it was me that found it. 

White letter Hairstreak

There now followed a difficult time and a real dilemna as getting a picture of the hairstreak involved standing right on the edge of the bridleway but with the unusual hazard of a Purple Emperor fluttering around our feet and also providing tempting photo opportunities as it looked for the best place to feed. I got my pictures of the hairstreak but as I was just about to stand back to allow one of my new found colleagues to have his turn at the hairstreak I heard a voice say  'Don't step back whatever you do, it's right behind you on the ground. I froze. 'Move your right foot slowly'. I did as I was told and saw that between my feet an Emperor was feeding, as much oblivious to any danger, as I was to its presence. 

And so it went on. Sighting after sighting. Almost continuous for a time. It was both amazing and enthralling to have so many Purple Emperors coming and going. I estimated by now I had seen a minimum of ten and it was only mid  morning. Satisfied with my pictures I walked off on my own. wanting to explore further into the woods.

It was a pleasant and relaxing time wandering on my own along the sunlit rides, the warm breeze flowed through the trees and created a soothing, rustling, susurrus of gentle sound. Something for the soul, replenishing and reassuring. I turned another corner and there on the ground was yet another Emperor feeding from a muddy depression, its wings firmly closed. As the sun got progressively stronger and the air much, much warmer I noticed that the Emperors tended to keep their wings firmly shut when on the ground and it was difficult to get any images of them with their wings open let alone showing the purple iridescence. It hardly mattered though as I had already seen many Emperors in all attitudes during the preceding two and a half hours.

I slowly retraced my steps from this morning making the long walk back to the car through the thankfully shady and cool bowering of the Oaks. A lot more people had arrived by now responding to the reputation of this mecca for Purple Emperors and frankly for me some of the magic of the early morning's freshness and the serene calm of the woods had dissolved with the increased presence of people and a party of  not un-naturally  excitable children.

I walked back towards the car and a slightly ragged Emperor, as if to say goodbye, landed on a sunlit part of the bridleway just before I got to the car. It was that kind of a morning and I said a quiet thank you to 'BB' who  reintroduced this butterfly to these woods all those years ago and whose spirit surely walks these woods to this very day.

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