Monday 29 June 2020

His Imperial Majesty 28th June 2020

Late June and throughout most of July is when my focus shifts to one of the highlights of the year for me and that is seeking an audience with H.I.M (His Imperial Majesty). To those of you not having succumbed to its spell, I refer of course to the Purple Emperor butterfly. By far and away the most capricious, frustrating, temperamental, exasperating and enigmatic insect you could possibly choose to study but it is these very qualities that make it so alluring.

They are never easy to see, as the males spend most of their time high in trees, especially oaks, while the females hide themselves away from the males, lower down in sallows, and are rarely seen as they go about laying their eggs on the sallow's leaves.

Occasionally the males will descend to the ground to feed, extracting minerals from all sorts of unsavoury items such as dog and fox faeces, horse droppings and anything that is rotting and utterly repugnant to us humans. Such is the enigma of this, the largest and most beautiful of our native butterflies.

The mystique attached to them is legendary and some, such as Matthew Oates have devoted a lifetime to studying them and to adding, in their own unique way, to the charismatic reputation of this butterfly but still there is much that is unknown about them as they are so elusive.

When one does come to earth it is a cause for minor celebration as the chance of seeing one is so random. I can recall countless times when I am patiently waiting along what appears to be a suitable ride in the forest only for one to show up to delight others with  its company, not that far away, but unknown to me, That is what it is like if you are a devotee of His Excellency The Purple Emperor

The male is basically brown with white markings across all four wings but catch its wings at certain angles in the sunlight and they take on a colour like no other, a wondrous shimmering blue or purple that seems to change in intensity even as you look at it. One slight move of its wings and they once more adopt the colour brown and you think you may have imagined what you saw, another flick and the blue/purple flashes like a beacon once more.

It is a breathtaking and exhilerating surprise that never fails to captivate and elicit wonder from anyone who has not seen it before and indeed from those that have. Employ every superlative you can and still the experience exceeds an adequate description. Once seen you are entrapped forever in a desire for more, Couple the butterfly's elusiveness with its short flight season of just a few weeks and one can understand the allure. it is without doubt the highlight of the butterflying year for me and many others.

Purple Emperors are not scarce and in fact are increasing but their treetop lifestyle means that the impression is that they are uncommon. Some years are better than others for sightings. The maximum I have seen in a day is seven but usually a good day for me is seeing one or two. Often I just see them flying high above the treetops but occasionally I am granted what everyone of us yearns, to watch one feeding on the ground, impervious to a gaggle of admiring human faces peering down at it or prostrating themselves on the ground next to it, as if in worship, in order to get that definitive shot.

The butterfly once ensconced on its food source will not move, a picture of concentration and it would take heaven and earth to shift it when in this mood. You can even coax it onto your finger if you have a mind to, where it continues to imbibe sweat from your trembling digit. All sorts of other foul smelling lures have been tried, some work some do not and those that work on one day do not always work on another.There really is no short cut to attracting this insect. Infinite patience and a great deal of luck are the only constants

This year, so far, I have  seen six emperors but only one remained on the ground for any period and then it was for only two or three minutes. Sadly it was looking tired and worn, its wings tatty, scuffed and frayed but nonetheless it was an emperor and the magical aura of its visitation still lingered about it.

The heatwave we have experienced recently has gone and the weather has become as capricious  as the insect and now three days of very strong winds have been added to the mix of cloud and rain causing even more upset to both watchers and butterfly.

I was becoming disheartened and desperate to see an emperor close up and for an extended period of time but today the weather, as predicted was one of light cloud with just occasional sunny periods all accompanied by a very strong, gusting southwest wind. Not good at all.

I refused to be deterred and set off, not for my favoured location of Bernwood Forest but to Bucknell Wood in nearby Northamptonshire. I left my home early and arrived at the wood at 8.30am with the sky completely overcast but every so often the sun would shine for a few minutes before the cloud rolled over once again. The wind was troublingly strong but the ride I had in mind would be sheltered by the mature oak trees on either side. The crucial factor was the sun, would it shine long enough to persuade any butterfly and one in particular to take to the air?

I parked the car, walked to a cross roads of tracks and set off up the narrow track bisecting the ride in front of me. Sheltered from the buffeting wind it was warm when the sun shone down the ride but cold when under cloud. Hardly any butterflies were to be seen. A few of the ubiquitous Meadow Browns and Ringlets were all that accompanied me along the ride in the sunny spells, jinking and bouncing above the wet grass or clinging onto grass blades when it was cloudy awaiting the next sunny spell.

For me it was just a case of waiting and hoping, the chance of seeing an emperor at this precise moment was more fantasy than reality. I walked the ride several times but had only a Red Admiral to add to my meagre butterfly total. 

Red Admiral
An hour passed unremarkably and the sunny periods became a little longer. More butterflies were persuaded to move and amongst those was that most elegant of insects, a White Admiral, that with shimmering flicks, propelled itself at speed, on flat wings, to glide ethereally through the trees and bushes. Another stopped to feed on bramble flowers, its dark brown almost black, white banded wings spread to absorb as much of the available warmth as possible. The underside of this butterfly's wings are to my mind the most beautifully patterned of all, a pleasing mixture of chestnut brown and white.

White Admiral
Sacrilege I know, when I should be exclusively looking for an Emperor which closely rivals the Admiral's underwings for beauty but there you are. Long waits for His Majesty often bring other rewards to savour.

Silver washed Fritillaries also stirred with the increasing sunny spells and began hurtling along the ride, not many but all seemingly on an urgent mission, with no time to stop. Finally one settled on a thistle  and nectared for a few minutes before realising it had places to go and was off at speed into the green mystery of the wood. Such fantastic looking insects, big, bright and orange.

A male Silver washed Fritillary
It was now over three hours that I had been waiting and wandering the ride. I would give it thirty more minutes which would take me up to noon and then depart. Fair enough, I told myself, I had gambled with the weather and it had not paid off, too much wind and not enough sun.  I looked down the ride for one more time and there was something different, the distinctive triangular outline of a large butterfly's closed wings on the ground. A shark's fin outline in the middle of the muddy track, fifty or so metres up the ride. It could only be one thing. His Excellency. I took off, running and made myself stop well short of the insect just in case it was  not settled. Nothing would be more dispiriting or deflating than to allow any over eagerness on my part to put the butterfly to flight as this would likely be my one and only chance. I edged towards it, expectant, excited and apprehensive all at once. It could go either way now. If it was settled it would remain and allow me to walk right up to it but if not it would fly off and disappointment would claim me for its own.

I moved slowly forward and the butterfly took no notice. I stood over it and walked around it, the butterfly immune to my presence. I could see its yellow proboscis, curved like a minute spaghetti string into the horse dung. I abandoned myself to a heady delight, alone and triumphant in the middle of a wood. The long wait forgotten in an instant. I checked my phone. It was 1143. 

The butterfly moved slowly over the horse dung, sucking up the minerals, changing angles as it did so, closing and then opening its wings, flattening them wide to catch the warmth of the fleeting sun but so far not a flash of regal purple. I changed my stance to look at it from another angle. 

The butterfly responded by shutting its wings, displaying an intricate patterning and large 'false' eye on the undersides, then it opened its wings, placing them flat to the ground and there was that breath expelling flash of glorious colour on its wings. Not just on one wing but both! Oh yes. Thank you sir and please let's have some more if you so desire. It did and I received regular shots of adrenalin as the butterfly showed me its hidden glory. 

It lasted for twelve minutes, the butterfly feeding avidly but then, presumably satiated it lost interest and wandered off the horse dung and onto the surface of the track, walked around aimlessly as if it was searching for something but obviously failed to find it and fluttered into the air, describing a couple of low circles around my legs, then once round my waist before flying off at speed into the trees, brushing off the impertinence of an over inquisitive dragonfly on the way. 

His Imperial Majesty had left and I never saw him again.  

I wanted more, so much more your Royal Highness!

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Black Hairstreaks at Bernwood Meadows June 2020

I returned to Bernwood Meadows to spend another day with Black Hairstreaks. Their flight period is so short, a matter of weeks, that I wanted one more time in their company before it is all over for another year.

I chose a suitably sunny and warm day and got to the tiny car park at the bottom of the reserve early. I walked through the meadows, currently very dry due to the lack of rain, following the extensive blackthorn hedges that ring the reserve. As I was early, I left the reserve through the gate that leads into Bernwood Forest, following the track up to the main path through the forest.

What a contrast to the quiet and peace of the meadows greeted me, as the always popular track was already being well used by families and dog walkers. I stood at a cross roads of tracks for an hour wondering if I would see an early Purple Emperor in the surrounding oaks and sallows but there was no sign of one. A couple of White Admirals, always good to see, floated through the oaks and several Silver washed Fritillaries were on the wing, their bright, ginger biscuit coloured wings, a shock and flash of colour against the multitudinous greens of the forest as they hurried along beside the track.

White Admirals

Silver washed Fritillary - male 
Tiring of the endless stream of people and the resultant commotion I returned to the meadows to look for the hairstreaks. I went to the area of blackthorn where I had seen up to a dozen a couple of weeks ago but now there was little sign of any although it was obvious that they had been here recently as the grass was trampled where others had been watching them. Finally one showed itself for a few minutes, perching low on a glossy blackthorn leaf before fluttering up and over the hedge.

I decided to walk around the meadow, checking the blackthorn on the far side and came upon two large, low growing clumps of bramble, a torn tablecloth of white flowers covering the pale green leaves and alive with insects. Many Meadow Browns flew up on my approach, like leaves blown in the wind but soon settled back on the flowers, flexing their wings as if to indicate their delight in the nectar they were imbibing from the flowers.

I was looking for something different however, in the form of a tiny triangle of mouse brown wings perched on a bramble flower, which would indicate a Black Hairstreak and I was not disappointed. In minutes I found one, as usual immune to my close presence, allowing me to virtually touch it. Then another, un-noticed, fluttered up to give away its presence and looking further I found yet one more sharing the bramble flowers with a Dark Bush Cricket and a Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle.

Black and Yellow Longhorn Beetle
Dark Bush Cricket
I wandered over to the other mound of bramble nearby and immediately found a Black Hairstreak slowly examining a flower for nectar and for the next hour I spent my time happily watching, admiring and photographing this, our rarest native hairstreak, by good fortune found in good numbers in Oxfordshire and Bernwood Meadows in particular .

There is nothing more to be said.

Here are some images of this scarce and beautiful butterfly.

In the above two images the uptilted 'tails' on the hindwings suggest this is a female as does the fat body
which is probably full of eggs

Sunday 21 June 2020

Redfoot Redemption 20th June 2020

I planned to go to Bernwood Forest this morning to search for Purple Emperor butterflies but the weather, as is often the case, was against me. Nevertheless I made my way there hoping that the sun might break through. Even at nine in the morning the car park was virtually full but I got the last place available and duly set off down the main track. I knew as soon as I commenced walking it was a lost cause as the skies were stubbornly grey and a chilly wind blew down the track. After an hour of futile searching and wandering around I knew the game was up and my search for Purple Emperors would have to wait for another day.

It was now 1030 but I had no wish to return home. I considered a visit to my local reservoir at Farmoor but there would be little to see and I baulked at a fruitless wander around its concrete vastness. I sat on a log and consulted my twitter feed and saw a very nice image of an immature male Red footed Falcon taken in Somerset and posted a few minutes ago.This sparked my interest and I checked RBA (Rare Bird Alert) to find exactly where it was in Somerset. The entry in RBA told me it was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty called Cothelstone Hill in the Quantocks, near Taunton.

There has been a notable influx of Red footed Falcons into Britain in the past month or so and they are still  arriving. The majority are in their second year of life and therefore will not breed this year so there is no urgency to get to their breeding area  and they usually remain for some days anywhere they find in Britain that is to their liking. Their annual migration is phenomenal, one of extreme long distance, spending the winter in southern and south western Africa, where they congregate in flocks of thousands in favoured areas and then moving northwards in spring to breed from eastern Europe across Russia to Siberia.

Then and there I decided to go. It was a two hour drive but if, and it was a big if, I saw the falcon I would feel my day had been well and truly made. Red footed Falcons are lovely birds, in my opinion superior to our Common Kestrel. I was also keen to see one properly and close up. which this one apparently offered the opportunity to achieve, being described as 'showing well'. This would make up for the distant views I had of an immature female that had visited my own county of Oxfordshire some weeks ago. I had also declined the opportunity with Moth to go and see a first summer male at Lower Beeding in West Sussex a week ago, choosing instead to go to Lincolnshire to see a very confiding Blyth's Reed Warbler. It would be a form of redemption if I saw this first summer male Red footed Falcon in Somerset.

I have never been to Cothelstone Hill and had no idea about where the falcon might be on the hill so sent a message to Cliff who had posted the very nice image of the falcon on twitter and he very kindly sent me a detailed map of directions. I was all set.

The drive was comparatively straightforward and two hours later I passed through Taunton and then through a village called Kingston St Mary, winding my way ever upwards to reach the brow of a hill where I turned left and five hundred yards later turned into the car park on Cothelstone Hill. Saturday lunchtime was probably not the best time to look for a space in the car park and my heart sank when I saw a sea of cars before me but I managed to squeeze the car into a gap and got myself together. By luck a birder was just returning to the car park, having presumably been viewing the falcon. I gestured to the track he had come down and that led further uphill through some woodland. 'Is that the way to the falcon?' I enquired. 'Yes, you just follow it all the way up to the top. The falcon is showing well and you will see some other birders there' he told me, adding 'Keep an eye out for redstarts when you get to the more open areas.'

I set off up the broad track. It was uphill for some way from the car park but eventually I left the woodland, passed through a wooden gate and the topography became one of an open grassed landscape of gorse bushes, scattered small hawthorns and rides passing through extensive areas of bracken and bramble. At the summit of the hill were three immense trees and a bench on which two birders were sat. The view was stupendous with the Bristol Channel away to my right and the sweep of Somerset to my left. All very nice on another day but I had but one thing in mind, to see the immature male Red footed Falcon.

One of the birders on the bench told me the falcon had just flown off down the slope below us and I could see several other birders scanning the slope. I could hardly believe my bad luck but followed where they pointed and soon saw the distinctive grey shape of the falcon, not too far away, flying between two hawthorns. It disappeared and did not come back into view. Well at least I knew where it was and I had seen it but I wanted more than this.

No one seemed particularly interested in walking down further to get closer to it, if it was there, so I set off on my own, following grass rides cutting through the bracken and found the falcon perched on a bare branch at the top of a small hawthorn. It was preening and looked settled. 

The ride faded away to nothing, a dead end and it was a case of now walking into and through the bramble and bracken to get closer. I instantly regretted wearing shorts as the brambles wreaked vengeance on my bare legs and I amassed a nice collection of scratches but you ignore such things when you are single mindedly set on getting close views of such a lovely bird.

The falcon showed no concern about my making my way towards it and sat relaxed and content on its perch. I stopped where I considered it was close enough, so as not to chance scaring the bird into flight. The other birders who were still on the summit would not thank me for that. The falcon ceased its preening, looked about and then flew down to an area of short grass to seize a beetle and flew in a tight circle to return to the same perch to consume its prey. Its flight was fluid and elegant in the air, the falcon describing a smooth sweeping curve with its pointed wings.

For fully fifteen minutes I watched it from my vantage point in the bracken as it caught another beetle and then preened some more on its favoured perch but then it rose and flew uphill a short distance to perch on another bare branch at the top of another hawthorn where it could survey the adjacent open, pony cropped grass ride. I followed in the direction it had flown.

It quickly saw something and swooped down to seize it and returned to its perch. I just enjoyed the moment and taking images of it but I could feel rain in the strong wind and soon the summit was enveloped in low cloud and rain. The falcon sat on its perch while I cowered on the leeside of a hawthorn which gave me some shelter from the rain. The shower and the cloud would soon disperse on the wind as I could see the sun illuminating the distant land far below and beyond the rain. I would wait for the weather to improve and then resume watching the falcon which was just the other side of the ride. Fate however took its turn to confound my plans 

Some trailbikers came hurtling down the ride from the summit, noisily shouting to each other, close enough to the falcon's tree that it took fright, wheeling away on the wind up and over the summit. I waited for the rain to cease and then followed to where I assumed it had flown. 

The falcon was perched at the top of a hawthorn a little way down the other side of the hill but then took off and flew directly over my head, back to the hawthorn it had been scared from by the trailbikers. On the way it hovered in the wind, kestrel fashion, looking down on the ride, before landing on the tree. The rain and cloud had cleared just as rapidly as they had arrived and it was now reasonably pleasant once more. The falcon remained on its perch for ten minutes, swooping down yet again to catch a beetle, clutching the unfortunate creature in its foot and consuming it once back on its perch. It flew again but not very far, back to its original perch, the one where it was when first I arrived. It became obvious that this small area was its favourite, presumably as the open grass rides afforded it ample opportunity to look for prey. 

Closer and closer I edged, taking careful step after careful step until  I was as near as I wanted to be to the falcon, which continued to show no anxiety. I found a small depression in the bracken so that I could stand with only my head and shoulders above the bracken. It was ideal as it reduced my profile not that I think it mattered as the falcon was well aware of my presence and was, as they often are when they arrive in Britain, untoubled by a human presence 

I took any number of images and just hoped they would be satisfactory. Then I stopped and watched it in my bins, buffeted by the strong gusts of wind, balancing its body on the slender twig on which it was perched, facing into the wind.

Although a predator they have what you could call 'a nice face'. Not the fierce uncompromising frown of an eagle or hawk's brow but a gentle benign look, the eyes large, soft, dark and liquid but with an innate intensity, the bill petite on its small rounded head. 

The plumage indicated this bird was a first summer male, its plumage in transition from the juvenile feathers of its first year of life to being replaced by adult ones. When fully adult in its third year it will be all grey with chestnut undertail coverts and thighs, orange legs and feet, bare orange skin around its eyes and an orange cere above its small hooked bill. The tail feathers were still juvenile apart from two adult feathers having replaced a juvenile feather in the centre of its tail  and another on the outer edge, while another or was it two, appeared to be moulted but not yet replaced, leaving a distinct gap in the centre of the tail when spread. The flight feathers were all retained juvenile feathers betrayed by the fact they were worn and brown on the upperside and barred on their undersides. The breast still retained the orange wash of a juvenile which presumably will be moulted out as the bird adopts its full adult plumage.. Its legs and feet were a striking orange and they will become more intensely coloured with age as will the cere and the bare skin around the eye.

The falcon takes flight showing the barred juvenile flight feathers in wings and tail. Note the two grey adult tail feathers in the tail having replaced the juvenile ones and the gap in the centre of the tail where two feathers are missing presumably to be replaced by adult ones
Slowly and carefully I retreated back through the bramble and bracken, leaving the falcon to its solitary vigil and made my way to the main ride. The falcon doubtless watched my departure but now others had arrived to look at it so it was their turn to enjoy the falcon. I left them to it but not before encountering a fine male Redstart, its alarm calls leaving me in no doubt about its concern at my presence near to its recently fledged young.

I retreated  further, heading for the summit but as I did the falcon joined me, flying past to land on a hawthorn close to me. I am sure if you had a mind you could almost walk up to it and it would remain where it was but I had done very well, I felt fulfilled and there was no need to do anymore.