With sunny days as rare as hen’s teeth this summer, I reacted to the weather forecast for a hot Sunday with sunshine with, “Right, I’ll be out all day – I’ll be back at dinner time”.
It was worth risking the wrath of my girlfriend Laura because mid July means a chance to see one of the UK’s most spectacular, and elusive insects: the purple emperor butterfly. It inhabits ancient woodlands in southern Britain with a mix of mature oaks and sallows where the females lay their eggs.
I always try to get over to Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire during the emperor’s flight time and despite the lack of many species of butterfly this year and the abysmal weather, the lure of even a chance to see one of these purple glossed giant butterflies was enough. I awoke excitedly, drew back the curtains waiting for that blast of sunshine to find....grey clouds and a wind that looked suspiciously like a ‘north-wester’ – meaning only one thing...cold. So back to bed it was until a ray of sunlight hit the wall facing the bed an hour later – blue skies and sunshine. Panic mode saw me ready to go in 10 minutes (and yes, that did include time for a shower).
People come from all over the country to try and catch a glimpse of purple emperors and it was good to see two groups of kids and a wide variety of people our for a walk armed with cameras. Unfortunately, the cloud built and I reckoned on having around a dozen five minute sunny spells during my five hours walking the woods where conditions were suitable for butterfly watching. Being in the right place in a huge series of woods during one of those spells required an awful lot of luck - fortunately I had it.
I sniffed out a likely looking spot with a beautiful avenue of ancient oaks and sallows on the other side of the ride just as the sun came out. Emperors are incredibly elusive, spending most of their time in the tops of trees sipping honeydew. They do come down to woodland tracks to take up minerals from the ground and it is on such occasions that I’ve had my best views – and got photographs.
In the bag
I wasn’t prepared for what happened this time though. As the sun beams hit a big oak on the corner, a huge butterfly glided through its branches to settle in the top of a sallow. A slight change of position, binoculars up and there it was in full glory – a male purple emperor. I was well pleased. Then it took flight and flew – towards me. It kept flying – towards me. I actually had to duck as it brushed my ear with its wings. It was trying to land on my bright red rucksack! And so I was in a frustrating position of having one of the most sought-after creatures in the UK giving unbelievable views, but not being able to get a really good look because the rucksack was on my back! It eventually decided to try its luck with another source of minerals and flew up the track.
With a dozen white admirals, purple and white-letter hairstreaks completing the quarter of scarce woodland butterflies, red kites and a hobby thrown in, as well as some great woodland flowers, that lack of sunshine wasn’t so bad after all.
What's all the fuss about?
No photos this time to share with you, but in case you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, take a look at the emperor here