Friday 10 July 2015

Emperors and Admirals 9th July 2015

Nine in the morning finds me standing at the beginning of the main track through Bernwood Forest. The sun has yet to warm the forest but the clear blue sky intimates it will not be long before the air will lose its chill, dissipating in the  sun's strengthening rays.

There is a sense of tranquillity about the forest that enters my soul each time I come here. The ancient Oaks impart an air of permanence and peacefulness and seem to absorb all the problems of life into their leafy arbours.

The sun increasingly encroaches on the shadows of the trees across the track as it moves through the sky. Although I am partially shaded below, the tree tops are in full sun with butterfly and insect life well and truly active.

The main track through Bernwood Forest.This particular section is much
favoured by Purple Emperors due to the combination of Oak and Sallow
Silver Washed Fritillaries, huge and obvious, full of the sun's vitality, bright orange in the white light, bustle across the leafy stands or rest on high upon a leaf with wings open to the sun, before careering off on yet another breakneck mission. They are so frequent here that one almost but not quite dismisses them such is their abundance, but undeniably they always bring a  frisson of excitement when yet another appears in a headlong odyssey to a destination unknown. Others have found the pale pink bramble flowers at the edge of the small car park and are feasting on the nectar, forever flighty and touchy, constantly flexing their wings and ready to fly at a moment's notice, Unwilling to share a flower with any other insect, the slightest touch or intrusion causes them to zoom off, forever restless.

Silver washed Fritillary  (male)
The humble Ringlets, those plebiean lepidopteran denizens of the grass, appear drab, dreary and mundane compared to the exotic and extrovert fritillaries but are present in their dozens, flopping and flouncing in their jinking restlessness at all levels from ground to tree top. They are literally everywhere, fluttering deep in the lush stalks of the long summer grasses to spiralling high in the dark green leaves of the Oaks  as they enact their brief existence. 

A pale grey flickering high in the trees, moving dizzyingly fast and erratically is not a wind blown scrap of leaf but resolves itself into a Purple Hairstreak, delicate and paper thin it ceases its flight and clings to an oak leaf at the highest point of the tree, a tiny pale triangle just about visible, drinking in the honeydew from the leaf.

I stand in contemplation, pleasantly warm now in the middle of the morning. A dark shape careers past and behind me, to be almost dismissed as just an imaginary shadow but not quite. It is a large dark butterfly and flies strongly down the track and then returns to land by the side of the track a few feet away from me. At last. A Purple Emperor. A male, he allows me a glimpse of white bands and imperial purple on his open wings before he is away, unsatisfied with whatever he sought on the ground and disappears into the forest.

It is never commonplace to see a Purple Emperor. Unpredictable, capricious and frustrating they appear almost contemptuous of those of us that wait for them to descend from on high. And why not? For the month of July they reign supreme in the forest and bring a beauty, a regal majesty and mystique that lasts long after they have perished and left the forest somehow bereft until next summer.

Another 'Emperor' descends to the earth from its throne of leaves and remains for a minute or so. This one is huge and with no purple sheen on either wing no matter from what angle it is viewed. It is a female, so perhaps should be called an 'Empress.' Females are far more hard to see than the males and it is unusual to find one at ground level but soon she too is away and then there are no more. Some days you can sit within inches of one for a long spell as it absorbs nutrients from the ground but on other days like this they seem nervous, edgy and unsettled and will not remain still. That is the charm of them. They are never easy to see and chance plays a huge part in any success, which only adds to the attraction.

Purple Emperor
I slowly become more aware of the White Admirals which although never abundant seem to be here in greater numbers than I can recall in other years. They are the prima ballerinas of the wood, bringing an ethereal and fragile grace to the wood, buoyantly gliding the air currents on flat wings as they float through the sun dappled edge of the forest. Occasionally they delicately come to rest on a leaf but are rarely still for long. Their lives are all too short, days only and there is much to do. Procreation, the all consuming driving force of nature inexorably guides their purpose.

White Admiral
Then an aberration. Flying in low glides just above ground level along the track, stopping for seconds and then fluttering onwards with a series of short flights, interspersed with brief stops to examine the ground for nutrients or who knows what. It is a White Admiral but there are no white markings on its matt brown wings. It is a rare form of the White Admiral, colloquially called Black Admiral and the first I have ever seen. I follow its unhurried progress along the track and finally it settles on a nettle leaf long enough for me to record the moment on my camera before it flies off once more.

Black Admiral- a rare aberrant form of White Admiral in which the white on
the wings is virtually absent
It is now noon and I am forced by the strength of the sun to seek the shade at the side of the track. The Purple Emperors are enthroned high in the Oaks and it looks unlikely that they will be granting further audiences. Only the White Admirals continue their gentle quests along the wooded rides of the forest. I turn for home. It has been a good day.


  1. Every one of your posts reads like a chapter from a beloved nature journal that we may all have the pleasure of dipping in to.

  2. You are too kind.The next Cream Tea is on me!
    All the very best