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.
Not the best picture I can find. But roughly 50% of the canopy trees in this wood are ash. Imagine.
This summer, I became acquainted with ash trees for the first time. By which I mean that I noticed I was seeing them all the time. I always knew such a tree existed, of course, and was probably very common – think of the number of place names rooted in ash – but somehow they slipped under my radar. Oaks I knew, of course; some others were obvious, like weeping willows or silver birch. Chestnuts I could just about identify, especially in the autumn when their fruits are conveniently scattered about all over the place in parks and on pavements. When I first had the idea for this (admittedly sporadic thus far) series about trees, I was therefore greatly looking forward to expounding my newfound love of the ash.
I was going to write about the attractiveness of their gently cracked, pale grey-brown bark. The way their leaves, such delicate appendages, shimmy and shimmer in the breeze and glow of a summer’s morning, letting a spellbinding tapestry of light permeate the canopy to the woodland floor. How their solid boughs seem so sturdy, timeless, everlasting, stoic survivors rooted deep in the soil even as their leaves arrive and depart in the blink of an eye, hurrying into existence if rain threatens in spring (‘ash before oak, in for a soak’) and rushing down with a great, overnight ‘whump’ at the first hint of cold in autumn.
The nearest birding spot to the house in Maryland is the WB&A trail, a recreational path constructed on the route of a disused railway. Despite heading through suburban Bowie, it is lined mostly with second-growth forest, and crosses several small creeks and streams – on which in the past we’ve seen belted kingfishers, a green heron, and evidence of beavers. Where major roads through the town are lined with ever-growing housing developments and strip malls, the trail, by way of cocking a snook at the all-conquering motorcar, presents a different view of Bowie’s neighbourhoods. Viewed from the trail, wild America yet lingers on amongst the busyness of the densely populated eastern seaboard, a network of forest, scrub, stream and swamp that is fragmented, but persists.
What I didn’t know was that the ‘end’ of the trail where we usually start is not really the end at all. Heading north from the carpark, one can reach a small overlook on the Patuxent River – which at this stage of its course is wide, but not dominating the landscape, still overgrown by trees.