Monday 15 July 2013

"His Imperial Majesty Alights From His Throne", Purple Emperors at Fermyn Woods - 15th July 2013

July is a magical time for us here in Northants. It is a time when naturalists from all over the country descend onto a few sites in remote Northamptonshire woodlands to see some very special butterflies. I have already mentioned our Black Hairstreaks in the previous post but most of the people who saw them come back very soon after to see the most amazing butterfly of them all - the Purple Emperor. These large butterflies have a mystique of their own and is the elusive prize for many amateur Lepidopterists. They spend most of their time up in the canopy of the large Oaks in ancient woodlands and occasionally come down to take salt off the ground. There are populations further south but our main site here in Northants is Fermyn, Lady and Souther Woods. During the previous week the first ones were reported and as always in these cases I was working. The weekends weather forecast was looking very favourable as England was experiencing it's mini "heat wave" and I waited patiently for Sunday (which was my first day off) to arrive. I cannot help but admit a thrill of excitement was running through me as despite living fairly close and seeing them every year the sight of your first Purple Emperor of the year is always a special one. Today had another bonus though in the shape of a little reunion of Twitter followers. Those who know me personally will know I am a great user of cyberspace and social media (if you want to follow me on Twitter find me at @dave_b_james ) so it was nice when an impromptu meeting developed on Twitter the previous night. So at 8am I met Ian Pretty and Stuart Mundy at the site to be joined slightly later by Jon and Kirsty. It was nice as some of us had never met before despite striking up friendships and talking regularly on Twitter. Unfortunately the weather wasn't working in our advantage though and the long spells of morning sunshine didn't materialize until midday. Ian had to go home due to other commitments and Stuart had seen them the previous day so Jon, Kirsty and I headed off into Lady Wood while the skies were still full of cloud. It wasn't long before patches of blue sky gave way to large chunks of blue sky and things started to hot up. No sooner had the sun come out the butterflies sprung into life with Ringlets, Large and Small Skippers and Speckled Woods all seemingly coming out of nowhere and busying themselves in the hedgerows. A tantalising glimpse of what we assume to be White Letter Hairstreaks whirling around at the top of an Ash tree and a glimpse of a Purple Hairstreak shinning in the sun whetted our appetite for more and as we headed further into the wood (into the Souther Wood section) we met a chap who proudly showed us the images of Purple Emperors on the back of his camera. As we went around the corner a large butterfly was seen flying along the ride before coming to rest in the tree above us. My first Purple Emperor of the year was calmly sunning itself above me! We continued along the ride and met a few very pleased people along the way and we continued to have Purple sightings as we walked. After the long mornings overcast start they were now coming to life and trickling down to the path to take the salt. We went from seeing none at all to being spoilt but as anyone who has attempted to take a shot will know, getting the "purple" all the way across the wings is a flipping nightmare and despite snapping away all day I never quite managed it. I got great shots though all the same with some cracking underneath pics.
Purple Emperor Butterfly

Purple Emperor Butterfly

Purple Emperor Butterfly
We also had good views of White Letter Hairstreak at the top of an Elm which was nice as I have never had prolonged views of one before, also a few White Admiral dotted around added a bit of variety too. This whole wood is a butterfly watchers paradise and everything is worth checking out in fact it takes a long time to get round when you do it properly. Purple Emperors were everywhere and they seemed to be flying along every ride we walked along with a couple even landing on Kirsty! The other thing that is worth mentioning is they do have a soft spot for dung. In fact many a good Emperor shot has been ruined by it's background but it was quite a nice surprise though when we walked around a corner to find 2 pieces of dung - one with an Emperor on and the other with a Comma.
Comma and Emperor on dung
We continued our walk back into Fermyn and made our way to the visitor centre for a cold drink. Jon and Kirsty thankfully offered a lift back to my car which was a relief as the weather was getting very hot now. We decided to have one last look along another ride and we were very glad we did. We made our way to a clearing and stood there for quite a while admiring the sights around the edges of the vegetation. A couple of interesting spiders could be seen with a Labyrinth Spider in it's tube like web and a Green Orb Weaver protecting her eggs sack.
Labyrinth Spider

Green Orb Weaver
Labyrinth Spiders are so called as below the tube they spin an intricate series of webbed tunnels all leading off to form the Labyrinth ad in one of these will be her egg sack. While we chatted away and remarked at how well the day had gone despite the poor weather in the morning another Purple Emperor flew around the corner and landed on me. Jon was quick on the trigger as always and managed to grab a few pics.
Emperor on my leg - pic taken by Jon Philpot
The following day the weather looked much better and I couldn't resist another go at getting the elusive "purple winged shot". I got the site early again and from the car window as I pulled up an Emperor could be seen flying along the ride infront of me. Wow, it was only 9 in the morning so this was looking good! I made a bee line for Lady Wood again and found myself along one of the most productive areas we had found the day before. I had come armed with Fish Oil this time and distributed it about around the vegetation and it wasn't long before Emperors were coming down all around me. I had five down at once at one point but again the sun was too strong and trying to get the blue pic I wanted was proving impossible. Despite this it was still a very nice moment, I was sat on my own with just a Chiffchaff singing away and the constant drone of the Bees in the hedge behind me, just me and 5 Purple Emperors! I turned the camera off and put it on the ground next to me and just enjoyed the view. The flashes of Purple as one took off and disturbed one of the others and the flutter of the wings as they fly around you before coming back down to the ground again are all things that cannot be represented in a photograph and is all the more reason to come out and experience it for ourselves. After enjoying this for an hour or so I reluctantly headed away from the area, constantly looking back to see if my companions were still there. It is hard not to get a little romantic about these butterflies, and it is just as hard to explain why you do become so enthralled by them. I continued my walk around the circuit of Souther Wood and back into Lady Wood with more and more Emperor sightings. Eventually I noticed that the more shady areas of the woodlands provided better views of the butterflies with their wings open and the more I walked in the more I could see posing nicely with their wings wide open. I guess the extra shade in this area must mean they have to bask a little longer to get up to temperature. I jumped on the opportunity though to get the pics I was so longing to get and here is the results.
Purple Emperor Butterfly

Purple Emperor Butterfly
Not quite entirely blue on both the wings but it will do for me and I am happy with them. I then turned back on the path and headed back to Fermyn Wood and eventually reached the car. It had been an incredible day once again and the Emperors certainly put on quite a show. It was really nice to spend some time with them with no one else around. It is quite a rare feat to get some to yourself as these woods get very busy with people at this time of year, and quite rightly so as people should get out here and see them for themselves. That moment when I sat on that secluded ride surrounded by Purple Emperor butterflies is one that I will not forget. The urge to get the "pic" is often one that can distort the real reason for coming here in the first place, which is of course to enjoy these incredible creatures. I would encourage anyone coming to see them to put the camera down once in a while and enjoy them for what they are. Although I do have to admit that while I laid the camera next to me as I took in the view of the many Emperors in my ride I couldn't resist the temptation to take just one picture as one decided to take the salt from my finger. I love these butterflies and I am already looking forward to returning here on my next weekend off. As I have already got the photo's I wanted I will let the others I am going with hopefully get theirs, which means of course I can just spend the day enjoying the moment. I can't wait!
Purple Emperor Butterfly On My Finger


  1. Hi David

    Thank-you very much for your recent blogs which are very informative and capture your passion and zeal for watching wildlife. I'm sure your Purple Emperor account and excellent images will inspire plenty more visitors over the next week or so! Keep up the good work!


    Neil McMahon

  2. Wow they are such stunning creatures! Beautiful photos too :)

  3. Thanks Lou and Neil for the nice comments. I do have an enthusiasm for wildlife which I do try and put across when writing this blog. I like to give it a more personal touch. Lets hope it does encourage people to go out there and witness these things for themselves!


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