A species of butterfly in this country that has near mythical status, that’s the Purple Emperor. Living deep in ancient oak forests, out of sight in the canopy. This insect has captivated the imagination of naturalists for centuries. It is the Emperor that started my quest this year, I just had to see one!
It is not difficult to locate Emperors. The internet is invaluable. This butterfly has such a devoted following of admirers with its own web site ‘The Purple Empire’ http://apaturairis.blogspot.com/ What is crucial is timing, to have a chance to see them on the ground you must go early in the flight season, this is when the males search for salts and minerals. 2017 everything is 2 weeks early, so on 25th of June, one week after the first emergence. I went to Fermyn Woods near Corby Northants.
Arrived at 8am, morning is the best time, and walked the northern bridleway. Saw nothing here so crossed the field into Lady Wood. Within a few minutes I was watching my first Emperor on the ground, stunning! Photos obtained, walked further another came down then another this was magical. The purple/blue sheen is caused by the light reflecting off the scales, it usually only appears on one wing, I tried very hard to get an image with the colour on both wings but just could not get the angle right.
The best moment of the day was when an Emperor landed on my jacket. I eased it onto my finger there it sat happily for five minutes licking the sweat. If only I had my short lens on! In total I saw about a dozen different Purple Emperors.
There were lots of other butterflies in the woods. White Admirals were abundant and Silver Washed Fritillaries plus more commoner species.
For the afternoon I went to Robert’s Field. This reserve is located between the villages of Pickworth and Hollywell north of Stamford Lincs.
The sweeping hill is carpeted in wild flowers and orchids. Here large numbers of Marbled Whites and Dark Green Fritillaries flitted from bloom to bloom, a wonderful sight. It was only as recently as 1994 that this site was cleared of a conifer plantation and restored to limestone grassland. Historically it was famous for rare butterflies like the Duke of Burgundy though these can no longer be found here.
A return in 2018 and another super day in the company of John Wiltshire. A very misty cool start but by mid-morning very hot and sunny. The Emperors were not keen on grounding to start with but by mid-day a few settled in partial shade.
Sighted the ‘Holy Grail’ a possible ab Iole the all purple aberration without any white, sadly no images. As I was photographing Iris on the track JW shouted out “What have we here” (not the exact phrase families may read this!). I looked up to see this purple ‘mirage’ float past. As it came to land two Ringlets skirmished with it. This amazing creature circled us twice then drifted into the wood.
A few very worn Black Hairstreaks were seen as were several White Letter Hairstreaks but for an image of the latter I stopped at Bedford Purlieus near Peterborough where they were nectaring on bramble.
July 5th 2019
Emperor emergence was delayed this year across the country due to a spell of poor weather in June. With warm sunny conditions forecast I visited Fermyn, even though little has been reported.
It was hard, hot work searching for Iris with just one fly-by and a brief closed wing grounding before lunch. These were in the Souther Wood section. Nothing else until 2pm when another fly-by was seen going into the shade of a large conifer and joined by two others. Running out of drink I decided to head for home. Just before leaving Lady Wood I saw an Empress who settled in a sallow but was spooked by a cyclist speeding past! Then close to the car park in Fermyn another male.
Only eight sightings in seven hours. Numbers so far have been low at all sites countrywide. Are they yet to peak? At the Fermyn complex there has been a lot of widening of the main rides. This has involved the removal of a lot of sallow, the Emperor’s food plant. Most of the sallow’s remaining are in poor condition due to an aphid infestation. The clearance work has been of benefit to other species though with lots of various browns and skippers and a great showing of magnificent Silver Washed Fritillaries.
17th July 2021.
Having missed last year due to very poor weather I made the trip over to Fermyn. Emergence was late this year due to a cold, erratic spring. However I missed the prime time for groundings by a few days, mid-week over 40 were reported. It was a hot day with temps in the high 20s C and things looked good when at 8.30am an Emperor ‘buzzed’ me on the main path through Souther Wood. It went and sat up in a tree and didn’t come to ground and that set the scene for the rest of the morning.
I had 10 sightings in total and any landings were just for a few seconds. Luckily I found one totally engrossed in a bit of moss where some clearfell had taken place. I eased Iris onto my finger and he happily licked the sweat for several minutes.
Lady Wood has been the subject of a lot of forestry work and ride widening. The sallows have been left and are looking good which bodes well for next season.
Whilst the Emperor was not keen on coming down I was very surprised to see it’s small prince, the Purple Hairstreak, taking minerals from the path in Souther. A lot of Hairstreaks were at low level which makes me wonder if there was a lack of aphid honeydew in the oak canopy.