Saturday, 2 July 2022

The Sultan of Morocco 30th June 2022

Sultan of Morocco is an almost forgotten name from the past for the Purple Emperor butterfly which flies in England from June to July. This epithet, along with another, His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M) reflect just how much this magnificent insect is revered by butterfly enthusiasts both ancient and modern! Matthew Oates, who is indisputably the premier enthusiast and devotee of the Purple Emperor uses H.I.M to this day when referrring to his beloved Purple Emperors. 

Personally Emperors, for me, are without doubt the top butterfly when it comes to our fifty nine species of native butterfly. They are one of the largest and most powerful fliers of them all. Enigmatic, unpredictable, contrary, frustrating, infuriating, charismatic, these are all adjectives that are applicable to the Purple Emperor. Males are fearless and will attack anything that comes into their orbit as they sit high in an oak tree guarding their territory. Even birds and cars are not immune but such antagonism often proves fatal to the butterfly.

To see one you must go to a wood that contains a mix of oak and sallow and there are now plenty of woods that fit this bill. Emperors, although still highly elusive are now easier to find and see, as joy of joys they are expanding their range and increasing in numbers after a long period of decline and it is well worth looking for it anywhere in our southern and midland counties that contain suitable habitat.

It may well take some time to see one and often there will be disappointment and frustration but the sense of achievement and delight when you finally do connect with one is immeasurable. They spend a large amount of their time sitting in or flying over the tops of trees but will also come down to feed on the ground, when they can be remarkably tame and spend anything up to half an hour imbibing minerals from all manner of unsavoury items such as horse droppings and dog faeces.

Magnificent in appearance, its feeding habits can be far from regal at times.

The beautiful purple colouring on the wings of the male can only be seen from certain angles.Often when it first lands the wings appear dull brown with prominent white markings but as the butterfly moves the light refracts and suddenly there is the flash of magnificent colour that without fail brings a gasp of sheer wonder and a surge of exultation.

This morning I made a trip to Bernwood Forest which straddles the border of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.The forest has always been my go to destination to see this lovely insect.  It was my first visit since covid struck two years ago, bringing a long deferred chance to renew my acquaintance with this most sought after butterfly. 

I left home in brilliant sunshine but soon light clouds began to obscure the sun and my optimism and enthusiasm slowly faded just like the sun. I knew I would be highly unlikely to encounter an Emperor in such conditions.

Neverthless I was two thirds of the way to Bernwood and so decided to carry on regardless. Maybe the sun would prevail despite the weather forecast stating to the contrary. The forecast has been wrong before after all. It was my only hope.

Arriving in the forest car park comparatively late at 1030, I had avoided the morning onslaught of dog walkers, the scourge of butterfly seekers here and the main track from the car park was deserted by any human or canine presence. This track, bordered by oak and sallow, is one of the best places to wait for an Emperor to appear but it is also dog walker central and butterflies on the ground, such as a feeding Emperor, and dogs, often uncontrolled, do not make happy companions.

Since covid, matters have become worse and there are more dogs now than ever before, even professional dog walkers are now bringing multiple dogs to use the track. However today it was pleasantly  quiet, maybe the weather, and it being mid week and late morning were all factors contributing to the fact I was on my own.

Exiting the car I discovered a blanket of cloud above me with the odd patch of blue promising a chance of brief sun. This was not good but I followed my familiar routine of checking the oaks in the car park. Nothing doing. I walked a couple of hundred metres down the track from the car park to a crossroads of sorts where two rides branched off either side of the main track as it continued onwards downhill.

This, from past experience, is as good a place as any to stand and check the surrounding oaks and sallows as it also allows one to look back up the track towards the car park. An Emperor can appear anywhere here and frequently does.

The weather was not propitious and I held little hope of success. Even the humble and profuse Ringlets and Meadow Browns had hunkered into the long grass.There was not a butterfly to be seen. A short burst of weak sunshine stimulated some to emerge from the grass but then the sun went in again and the butterflies hid.

I fiddled with my phone, checking messages and spoke to a couple of friends while hoping another spell of transitory sunshine might come my way. As I stood, phone in hand a large butterfly flew low, erratically and at high speed around me. Once, twice it circled, going so fast it was difficult to follow. It careered around me in another tight circle and disappeared. I knew instantly that it was an Emperor, no other butterfly flies quite the way an Emperor does, brazen and spectacular, but had I missed it? Was this to be my only sighting, an enticing brief encounter that would leave me feeling cheated? Seconds later it re-appeared, flying almost at ground level and at speed above the stony track, before settling on the ground.

There it was not two metres from me. Careful now, let it settle and find a food source it is happy with before approaching it closer. I hung back, my excitement and the rush of adrenalin passing through my veins making it hard to curb a natural impulse to rush towards it, as it imperiously paraded around with wings held at a shallow angle above the ground. At this moment it was, to my eyes a large brown butterfly with prominent white markings. Nothing regal apart from its presence.


Unmistakeable in size and behaviour, it stopped to examine a number of likely looking spots with its yellow proboscis, before settling on one that took its fancy. Now fully absorbed and occupied in sucking up minerals from the ground, I knew it would be unperturbed by me or anything else. I gently moved to stand over it.



I manouevred around it to allow the light to refract from its wings from other angles and slowly, like a drawn velvet curtain that delicious, unforgettable purple revealed itself.







His Excellency is alive and well in the forest and I can now look forward to other visits to the forest in the coming days. It will soon be over for another year so best to make the most of it.               

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