I’m a birder. Birds are the creatures of which I am most fond: that much must be evident from the name of this blog. But the most astonishing encounter with a wild creature that I’ve ever had was not with a bird, but with that most enigmatic and magnificent of British butterflies, the Purple Emperor. I found Him – or should I say, He found me, on an obscure track along the edge of an obscure block of woodland in an obscure corner of North-East Hampshire.
I was trudging wearily back to my car after some hours digging pitfall traps (a part of my MSc project research the summer before last), when I saw a huge butterfly winging purposefully towards me at head height above the track. It made a couple of passes, swooping closer each time, in an almost aggressive display of powerful, controlled flight, before settling on the track a matter of inches from my boots, wings closed.
I scrambled around in my mind, trying to recall what this impressive, beautifully patterned animal could be. I was only beginning to properly learn the butterflies at the time, and the flypast had so taken me aback that I don’t recall noticing any tell-tale hint of royal colouring. But all uncertainty was dispelled as my eyes were opened by a blast of purple; the transformed spectrum of a shaft of sunlight reflecting off the now likewise opened wings of the butterfly.
After a few years birding I had seen a few rarities, some of them almost an emperor’s aesthetic equal; but the majority were seen upon deliberately visiting a regular haunt of the species or by twitching vagrants. What made this butterfly so special, besides the evident beauty and power of a male purple emperor, was the entirely unexpected nature of its presence. It was a near magical rendezvous, so dreamlike that I often wonder if I actually did conjure up the whole thing in the midst of a post-fieldwork nap. A suspicion enhanced by the fact that I have no photographic evidence of the event at all. I know I had a camera with me that day, so I can only assume that I was too busy being flabbergasted to remember to take a picture.
I may, for all I know, have been in a well-trodden emperor hotspot, and now that I see its proximity to the traditional purple emperor haunt of Alice Holt Forest – a mere three miles away as He flies – I can see that the presence of Apatura iris was by no means improbable. But I prefer not to think about the meeting in a logical way. What really defied logic – or at least the odds – is that a few minutes later, and a hundred metres or so further along the track, I came upon a grounded purple hairstreak. Another ‘lifer’, if I may slip into birding parlance, and a second unbelievable stroke of luck on the sort of morning which should inspire a lifetime’s love of butterflies.
Speaking of a lifetime of butterflies, I landed on my fledgling butterfly-fancier’s feet last year by netting an RSPB fieldwork job that included working in the butterfly paradise of Bentley Wood on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border. Ostensibly I was there to survey birds, but butterflies would be active before birds reached their late morning lull. As a result I would often be waylaid whilst walking between study plots or back to the van, drawn into the woods by a passing fritillary or white admiral. At Bentley my first ever pearl-bordered and small pearl-bordered fritillaries, Duke of Burgundy and grizzled skipper all came in one memorable morning.
But there was to be no repeat Emperor encounter in the summer of 2012. If I’m honest, I didn’t really try hard enough. The previous year I was blessed with beginner’s luck, but from now on, I realised I would have to pay my dues and put in the hours. Like any loyal subject of His Imperial Majesty. So it was that I ended up, on Saturday morning, in Straits Inclosure (part of the aforementioned Alice Holt Forest complex) with two enthusiastic friends and a box of strawberry gateau.
We probably should have brought along a snack more suited to an emperor’s palate, for the main track seemed surprisingly clear of suitable bait, big purple butterflies, or indeed anybody else out looking for them. They – the people that is, not the purple butterflies – all turned out to be clustered at the westernmost observation tower, for no evident reason other than that like-minded folk clearly enjoy each other’s company. And it was good company, for which we thank those present – especially the finder of a purple hairstreak that was resting in the lower branches of an oak on the edge of the clearing. A first for my friends and the first I had seen since my own first.
We left Straits at lunchtime, having failed to lay eyes on the day’s chief prize, but we could hardly call the morning a failure. We had all seen more butterflies in one morning than we ever recall doing before, of which silver-washed fritillary and white admiral were impressively numerous. Still, fortune favours the brave, and whilst it may have been more like foolishness than bravery to stay out much longer in the hot sun, we opted to have one last try for an emperor and dropped in on the ‘assembly point’ at Goose Green. These are trees, or clusters of trees, usually in commanding positions, that afford a good view of the surrounding forest, where male purple emperors congregate to do battle over territories.
What we assumed to be the right trees were easy to find. We sat in the deepest patch of shade available, enjoying a merciful breeze which made the wait just the right side of tolerable. A solitary large white barrelled past, followed a bit later by an equally lone marbled white, somewhat incongruous in such a well-wooded place. Little stirred in the mature oaks. The leaves waved charmingly in the breeze, the occasional bee drifted high against the trees, but no further butterflies emerged.
Then, just as we had finally lost hope for the afternoon, I saw a suggestion of beating wings in the corner of my eye. I looked up, and saw Him at last, immediately identifiable by virtue of size, bearing and lofty flight. This was no white admiral. It remained in view for just a few seconds, but our mood was transformed immediately, the eager anticipation of the morning restored. A few minutes later, presumably the same individual swung back into view, flying more directly this time from west to east along the tree line before settling, just in view, near the top of the tallest oak.
We had time enough to get a view through binoculars of the underside of its closed wings before it launched back off the way it came. As soon as we lost sight of this first, two more appeared some way further back along the trees, locked in spiralling aerial combat. Presumably a second and third male. This wasn’t quite the same as having a purple emperor throw Himself at your feet, but it was hugely satisfying to see this classic behaviour from an insect in its natural setting. Whether I’ll ever get as close to one again as I did that first time, I can’t say. Yet proximity hardly seemed to matter, when before our eyes flew the ruler of all British butterflies, imperiously patrolling His oak canopy empire.