Saturday 8 July 2017

Back to Bernwood 6th July 2017

This year in my annual quest to see Purple Emperor butterflies I desisted from visiting my regular haunt of Bernwood Forest and slipped off to try my luck in another couple of woods. Bernwood is great for seeing Emperors and is without doubt my favourite location but it is plagued by dog walkers especially from around nine until eleven in the morning which co-incidentally is the favoured time for Purple Emperors to come down from the surrounding trees to seek minerals and salts from the ground, either in the small car park or the main track through the woods leading from it.

I do not mind dogs but I do mind those owners who exercise no control over their dogs and allow them to run up to you, jump all over you and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Just today for instance on my return to Bernwood, a couple arrived back from their walk with a soaking wet bull terrier which promptly jumped up at me and covered my trouser leg in mud. Cheers! No word of apology for this assault by their precious mutt, just a shout.  'Don't mind him, he's really friendly.'

There is nothing one can do but quietly fume hence my desire this summer to go to other places where dogs are absent. Trouble is the Purple Emperors were not nearly so co-operative as those at Bernwood and extracting nutrients from  dog poo is one of the Emperor's  less savoury but favourite habits. Hence my returning to Bernwood, where there is no shortage of dogs, in the hope of getting up close and personal with some serious Purple Emperor action. Despite its beauty and regal demeanour it has some pretty unsavoury feeding habits, liking nothing better than to suck nutrients from dog and horse excrement, rotting flesh and human sweat. It is not uncommon to be able to persuade it to settle on one's finger or arm where it will happily absorb, presumably salt from one's sweat, for minutes on end.

Today, as it was yesterday, was predicted to be scorchio and I arrived in Bernwood in full sunshine. Standing in the car park it was busy with Silver washed Fritillaries taking nectar from the bramble bush by the entrance to the main track, together with a few Commas and the inevitable Ringlets and Meadow Browns. A White Admiral side slipped through the branches of the surrounding high oaks, gliding on black and white wings held stiffly horizontal, disappearing and re-appearing before being lost in the dark green foliage of the oak trees.

Many Purple Hairstreaks were on the move high in the oaks, their presence betrayed as their underwings, flashing silver in the sunlight contrasted with the dark green oak leaves. I have not known a year like this one for such an abundance of Purple Hairstreaks. Everywhere I look they seem to be present in high numbers.

The Purple Emperor, as befits such a spectacular, beautiful and uncommon butterfly has acquired many alternative names and stimulated plenty of writing, prose and poetry in praise of it. Perhaps the commonest name is H.I.M an acronym for His Imperial Majesty and which is still widely used to this day. Others refer to it as Iris, this being the second part of its Latin binomen Apatura iris. Iris was a Greek demi-goddess, a winged messenger appearing in the form of a rainbow. John Masefield a former Poet Laureate wrote of it 'That dark prince, the oakwood haunting thing. Dyed with blue burnish like a Mallard's wing.' and Nick Baker, the naturalist and broadcaster recently described it as 'A living stained glass window.' Even more splendid are the old and now rarely heard names for it such as The Sultan of Morocco, Mr Dale's Purple Eye, Purple High Flyer, Emperor of the Woods and The Purple Shades. There is even a web site devoted to it, run by the almost fanatical Purple Emperor enthusiast Matthew Oates, where similar enthusiasts can post their sightings and photos each year

Half an hour slipped by as I watched a parade of dog walkers arriving and disappearing down the track but the only sign of a Purple Emperor was one which flew at great speed across the Car Park and was gone in seconds. Ominous clouds began drifting across the sun and although it was warm and humid the sun was soon extinguished and most butterfly activity ceased. Shortly after, it commenced to rain, so I gave up and sought sanctuary in the car where I promptly fell asleep. Not for long, maybe twenty minutes but when I awoke it seemed a little brighter and the rain had stopped and so I resumed my search for Iris but this time stationing myself on the main track. I was joined by another enthusiast, Tim from Marlow and together we stood and waited for a Purple Emperor. Quite some time passed and then one flew fast and high over the track but showed no signs of coming down and was soon lost to view.

A young couple, remarkably without a dog but with a  baby passed us and walked down the track. A minute later I turned to look down the track to find them pointing at something on the ground. Following the direction of the lady's pointing finger, there on the ground was that familiar triangle of wings sitting firm. A Purple Emperor that we had contrived to miss as it descended from the trees. We quickly joined the couple and explained why we were so delighted with their discovery. They had no idea how special was the butterfly they had discovered but soon were joining the contagious excitement emanating from myself and Tim, as we explained why this butterfly was so desirable. Their conversion was complete when the Emperor flashed open his wings and they saw the magnificent purple.

The Emperor was oblivious to all the fuss and concentrated on whatever it was that was so desirous on the ground, his yellow proboscis probing as he sucked up presumably nutrients of some sort from the ground. As he showed no signs of imminent departure and was looking set to stay for some time I suggested to the lady she get right up close and take a picture with her phone. Hesitant at first she eventually gave it a try and was delighted and amazed that the butterfly took no notice of her whatsoever. In situations like this it can go both ways, with the Emperor departing never to be seen again if you get too close or like this one, once they find something to their liking it takes an awful lot to make them fly.

The young couple walked on leaving Tim and myself to carry on admiring the Emperor.

For the most part it kept its wings firmly shut as the sun was absent and even when the sun did come out in short spells it was shaded by a sallow tree which overhung where it was feeding, but that was no hardship as I think the underwing pattern, with its pleasing pattern of orange, brown, grey and white is just as attractive, possibly more so, than the shock of purple to be seen on the upper surface of the wings.

It commenced to rain again, just a gentle shower and I feared this would persuade the Emperor to flee for cover but fortunately, as he was under the tree canopy he was only subject to the odd raindrop falling on him which was dismissed with an irritable flick of his wings and nothing more.

It soon stopped raining and we carried on as before, with the Emperor feeding and us standing round him watching. A couple from Butterfly Conservation joined us. They knew a lot about Purple Emperors and as this Emperor seemed so reluctant to open his wings suggested, with our assent, that they would place a finger under his legs and this caused it to open its wings and we had our opportunity to take our photos. 

The purple/blue on the upperwing's surfaces only shows at certain angles, caused by refracted light through the scales of the wing and I found that facing the Emperor head on was the best way of getting the blue to show. Looked at from the rear the Emperor was just a brown and white butterfly although still managing to look suitably regal

The same Emperor seen from front and rear
The Emperor had seem some action and the rear of his wings were frayed and a little ragged but that did not matter one jot, as we had now been watching a Purple Emperor from inches away, on the ground and for almost forty five minutes! So Bernwood triumphed again and believe it or not we only saw one dog and its owner the whole time the Emperor was on the ground and they were co-operative and considerately made sure their dog did not disturb the butterfly.

The Emperor took off and then circled us, four or five times, low down at knee height in swoops and glides before flying up to perch on a sunlit leaf by the edge of the track. On the leaf an extended yellow proboscis was evidence that he was now feeding on aphid honeydew Five minutes later he headed up into a tall oak and was gone from sight.

I walked on happy with my experience and leaving Tim to it. I was a hundred metres down the track and turned to see if anything had landed behind me on the track and saw that Tim was looking down at the ground again and pointing his camera at something. It had to be and it was. The same Emperor had returned and was now feeding once more on the track. I rapidly retraced my steps.

This time H.I.M. was a lot more restless but in one of his brief exploratory flights he landed on me, well in fact various parts of me, as you can see. A bit frustrating but quite comical as there was no way I could see him but Tim was having a rare old time taking photos of His Excellency perched on my tee shirt,  trousers and even my ear. Patiently I stood my ground acquiescing to Tim's entreaties not to move. 

H.I.M perched on my ear!
We finally, with the aid of a flower stem, got him off me, only for it to take to the air and alight on Tim. Roles reversed!  He did not stop long however and then took another brief flight up and down the ride, cruising low over the ground, obviously looking for another place to feed but he could not find anything to his liking. How do they locate somewhere the minerals and salts that they require are in evidence? Do they do it by smell and if so with what organ or part of their anatomy? When he landed on the ground it was sometimes evident that he had not found what he was looking for but it was obvious that what he was searching for was nearby as he walked rapidly over the ground until he found the spot that was to his liking and commenced feeding. To me the spot he selected looked no different to anywhere else on the track.

He remained for another fifteen minutes and then took to the air and in an effortless marvel of powered flight slowly gained height, swooping along the track and under the trees before shooting upwards at great speed and away above the tree tops.

This time there was to be no return

The sun was now out with a vengeance and it was very hot and humid. I walked a square mile via grassy shaded rides in the forest and coming back to the track found a White Admiral patrolling some low branches of an Oak, which it obviously regarded as its territory. The underside patterning of a White Admiral's wings are in my opinion unrivalled for beauty, even surpassing those of the Purple Emperor and this uncommon butterfly that haunts the shaded, sun dappled margins of woods is always a delight to encounter. Nothing it does, perched or flying is without elegance and grace.

White Admiral
And with this serving as an encore I left the green and tranquil woods of Bernwood to the butterflies.

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