Monday, 30 July 2012

THE PURPLE EMPEROR: An Audience with His Imperial Majesty!

I received the most wonderful birthday present a few days ago. No, it wasn't the lovely earrings or the pile of Nature books...not more Nature books? Yes, afraid so ;-) No, it was something very, very special, so special that books have been solely devoted to it and pilgrimages are made year after year by its subjects who travel many miles for just a glimpse of its extraordinary beauty. Sumptuous banquets are held for it with white clothed tables bearing many varied and exotic dishes. It is of course the much sought after but very elusive Purple Emperor!

 Purple Emperor (Apatura iris)

When we arrived at our destination which was less than an hour's drive away from home I was well aware that these magnificent, regal creatures held court there but also well aware that to actually see them at close quarters is a rare privilege, so my main quarry was the lovely Silver-washed Fritillary which I had high hopes of seeing. And see them I did...but...every time I spotted one it was a case of 'here's one'. Zoom!...'It went thataway' ;-) So that was the end of that idea. Of course I kept a very close eye out for any sign of His Imperial Majesty but much more in vain hope than any real expectation.

Enter, one half of the Butterfly Brothers! We hadn't been walking for long when we saw someone coming towards us with camera round neck. Now, usually I will smile, say hello and carry on but buoyed up by the sunshine and an eagerness for any help I could get ;-) my usual reticence (shyness!) took a back seat and I asked if he had seen anything interesting. ''Yes, I've seen three or four and got some photos", he said!! 'He must be talking about Silver-washed Fritillaries', I thought. "Of course the best time to see the Emperor is between about 10:00am and midday which is when I saw them", he continued!!! As it was just after 2:30pm I resigned myself to possibly getting a glimpse high in a tree canopy if I was very, very lucky. He told us his brother was further down the track and after wishing me luck we went our separate ways. It wasn't long before Butterfly Brother 2 hove into view, we exchanged smiles and hellos and carried on.


 'Above the sovereign oak a sovereign skims,
The purple emperor, strong in wing and limbs.'
(George Crabbe)

It was a very hot and sunny day and although I find extreme heat very difficult it was such a joy to be out in the sunshine after the last three to four months of continual rain. Meadow Browns were everywhere, thankfully they at least seem to be doing well. As I mentioned earlier I did see Silver-washed Fritillaries but none were interested in settling, they would dart from the forested area into the sunny glade and back again without settling at all.


We were eventually pleased to find a seat to rest on, sip some water and enjoy the surroundings for a few moments and while doing so I suddenly saw a very large butterfly, larger than any other I have seen.. my very first sighting of His Imperial Majesty, The Purple Emperor! Unfortunately, he wasn't interested in a lowly subject like me and regally flew on his way giving me only a fleeting glimpse and not even time to raise my camera in deference!


A pleasant walk produced more Meadow Browns and some Marbled Whites. I have seen and photographed Marbled Whites in five different locations recently, another species which seems not to have suffered too badly this year :-) Eventually we decided to retrace our steps and work our way back to the car park. After a while who should we see coming towards us but Butterfly Brother 2! We had a bit of a chat and he told us that he and his brother travel all over the UK in pursuit of butterflies and had been to Scotland last week to see the Scotch Argus. He also said he does butterfly transects in his own area and voluntary work coppicing etc. in the Winter months. He was clearly very knowledgeable and if I hadn't known better I would have sworn he was a certain blogging friend of mine from Kent ;-)
I asked where his brother was and he said he was lagging behind and as we were talking I spotted Butterfly Brother 1 in the distance. The next moment an enormous bellow rent the air "Purple Emperor! Purple Emperor!"


Needless to say we scurried down that track as fast as we could towards BB1 and there, sure enough, gliding back and forth from one side of the track to the other was His Majesty in all His Imperial Glory! We stood entranced, loyal subjects worshipping at the court of the sovereign! I truly expected him to disappear into the trees never to be seen again, when all of a sudden he dropped to the ground and proceeded to feed, probing between the aggregate with his long and impressive, yellow proboscis in search of salts and minerals.

'Stay near me—do not take thy flight!
A little longer stay in sight!'
(William Wordsworth)

In keeping with their reputation he was completely unperturbed by us and we humbly gathered around him to pay homage. Moments later there was an anguished cry from one of the Butterfly Brothers, "Oh, no, I don't believe it! Bl...y dogs!" "Keep the dogs back, control the dogs!" they both shouted, and amazingly the owners did. I would never have been brave enough to have done that...I could have kissed the Butterfly Brothers :-) Moments later the same thing happened with more dogs and owners and again the BBs triumphed and we continued our reverence.

For all its regal airs this beautiful creature has the most revolting dietary preferences and likes nothing better than a good old helping of dog pooh or fox scat! All of which brings me back to the tables laden with white cloths (His Majesty has been proven to have a preference for white!) each adorned with a fat candle and groaning with delectable dishes bearing such delicacies as king prawns, rotten bananas, horse manure, shrimp curry, crushed grapes, pickled mudfish, honey water and a particular brand of shrimp paste so rancid it had been pronounced unfit for human consumption in the UK! 'The Purple Emperor's Breakfast,' held in the glade of an ancient royal hunting forest, was a contemporary art event arranged by an art gallery as part of an experiment to find out which bait the butterfly was most attracted to. More information can be found here.

We must have worshipped at The Court of his Majesty for getting on for an hour, carefully moving around him and marvelling at the iridescent sheen on his magnificent wings, the hue varying from several shades of blue through to purple as the light struck them from different angles. The even more elusive female is deep brown with the white markings but lacks the purple sheen which the male's dark brown wings show as a result of light refraction.

'O butterfly on whose light wings,
The golden summer sunshine clings.'
(Richard Watson Gilder)

Just as we were wondering whether it would be impolite to leave His Majesty before he had finished dining he rose, replete from his meal and left us without a backward glance. What an encounter it was and one I will never, ever forget. Some people spend a lifetime hunting for this incredible butterfly without success. I feel very, very privileged to have had such a close encounter with His Imperial Majesty.

I hope this hasn't been too long and tedious but I felt The Purple Emperor deserved a post all to himself, there is so much more I could have included! Thank you for indulging me and staying until the end.

N.B. There was a debate as to whether we dared remove the grass which was throwing unwanted shadows on to the butterfly but it was decided it wasn't worth the risk of disturbance. Consequently, and oddly, in some of the photos the butterfly's white markings appear to be on the blade of grass! I assume it is something to do with reflections on the lens.

 Until the next time...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Snatching Some Light for the Marbled White!

Often, during a 'typical' British Summer, we are hard put to snatch the occasional warm and sunny week, sometimes it is just the odd day here and there but this year it has been difficult to find even an hour or two of nice weather! It is immensely disappointing for those of us who like to get out in the countryside with our cameras. But if it has been disappointing for us it has been devastating for our wildlife with ground nests washed away, nests in holes in river banks flooded out and much needed grubs and insects washed from foliage resulting in many dead nestlings. Unfortunately, many people too have had their homes flooded out, some more than once...truly devastating! And while we in the UK suffer the effects of extreme weather, many abroad are also experiencing devastation with baking temperatures and dreadful, damaging fires. Whether these extremes are anything to do with global warming will no doubt be the subject of much discussion and, I suspect, little conclusion.

I have managed to get out with the camera from time to time but have been dismayed by the small number of butterflies and Odonata seen in comparison to other years. This Common Blue was photographed in the rain so not the best of photos.

Common Blue Butterfly

 This one was taken in much better conditions! 

 '[Butterflies] That flash like meteors through the shady bowers,
And rest like broken rainbows on the flowers,
Themselves more rich and beautiful of hue
Than any flower that's nourish'd by the dew.'

The Song Thrush, with its predilection for snails, will be one bird which has seen some benefit from all the rain! This one was seen in fading light so the photo has been lightened a little.

Song Thrush

When I was coming to the end of a walk, again in not very favourable conditions, I spotted what I thought was a fledgling among the grass but quickly realised it was this handsome fellow.

Common Toad

'The world has held great Heroes,
As history-books have showed;
But never a name to go down to fame
Compared with that of Toad!

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!'
(Kenneth Grahame)

Something which, by any stretch of the imagination, couldn't be called handsome but is nevertheless impressive, is this fearsome looking Yellow Dung Fly. Had I found it in the place which its name suggests it wouldn't have found its way on to my post but luckily it was on a flower. They do feed on pollen but it was most likely to have been hunting for smaller insects to prey upon.

Yellow Dung Fly

Not quite as fearsome from this angle!

This Grey Squirrel was intrigued enough by me to pose for a photo.

Grey Squirrel

A walk along this stretch of a local canal a few weeks ago should have produced a wealth of Odonata. The vegetation is usually teeming but on this occasion absolutely nothing at all was seen!

More recently on a different stretch of the canal I have seen a few damselflies but nowhere near as many as other years. These were in the classic 'wheel' (copulation) position.

White-legged Damselflies

One rare, fine afternoon recently (the sun only lasted for about an hour!) I decided to look for the butterfly with which I started this post, in a location within easy walking distance of home. I have seen them there in the past and was pleasantly surprised to find them straight away.

Marbled White Butterfly (female)

'A rustle of corn-leaves;
a tinkle Of bells on the hills;
a twinkle Of sheep in the lowlands;
a bevy Of bees where the clover is heavy;
A butterfly blundering by, —
And that is July!'
(James Newton Matthews)

I wasn't able to get one with wings fully open. I do think they are very attractive butterflies!

I have no idea why but the next little insect is one I always enjoy finding each year and I nearly always see one on the same clump of Ox-eye Daisies. It's my old friend the Fat-legged Beetle (Oedemera nobilis).

Fat-legged Beetle

Finally, they say this is the weather for ducks so I thought I would finish with Mrs Mallard

Mallard Duck

and baby mallard.

Mallard Duckling

Until the next time...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.