One morning last week I saw dragonflies on our street for the first time. Two large hawkers – probably southern hawkers – were flying sorties along the edge of some mid-sized trees that fringe the end of the road. At the end of each pass they would make an impossibly tight U-turn with a few deft wing flicks and bustle back in the other direction, holding steady at approximately the height of the second floor windows opposite. I can scarcely imagine a creature more at home in the air, one that exudes such complete confidence. The dragonfly looks ahead to see the space it wishes to occupy and in the blink of a compound eye fills it with the looming presence of a merciless, deadly hunter. Little wonder that around 95% of their attempts to catch prey end in success, a percentage beyond the wildest dreams of all vertebrate predators.
On Friday I broke the first rule of birding: never get caught without your binoculars.
Out on an insect-collecting fieldwork session, I was too busy concentrating on the first rule of entomology – never get caught without pots – and, to a lesser extent, the first rule of botany (since my fieldwork also involves being able to identify the plants I’m collecting from), though I’m not sure what that is. Always carry a camera? Use a hand-lens? Wear a feather in your hat? Speak only Latin?
Whatever, thanks to that oversight – perhaps I should say under-sight – I can’t be certain whether the bird I was hearing calling from a small wood on the other side of a cornfield was a lesser-spotted woodpecker or a kestrel. This may sound like an alarming admission from somebody who prides himself as a half-decent ‘ear-birder’, one who spent quite a number of hours last spring and summer in the company of Dendrocopos minor whilst living and working in Kent. But factor in the heat, humidity, tiredness, unusual context and the fact that the two can sound surprisingly similar at a distance (compare this clip to this one, for example) and I think I can be forgiven.
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.