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.

Ringlet
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!


















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