Sunday, 6 July 2014

Pray Silence For The Purple Emperor

I am in seventh heaven.

At 9am this morning I was watching the baby moorhens venture out from the lake across the rough patch of grass that our neighbour has rather wonderfully agreed not to mow, so all the small flying/ crawling/ hopping/ slithering people have somewhere to live/ breed/ shelter/ eat their supper etc (he will be over the moon when I tell him about this particular flutter, as he only agreed not to mow after I wrote to him about all the moths we have here and how they needed longer grasses and wild patches to flourish). There are two moorhen babies and they are just starting to grow into their feet, which are long and green and look like canoes on the end of their legs at the moment, so I was smiling to myself as I watched them, when my attention was suddenly grabbed by one of our robins who was determinedly attacking something that was almost as big as him on the path below the window.

I couldn't make out what it was for a few seconds, then it landed properly on the stony path and the robin gave up and flew off to the hedge, and I realised it was a big black flutter with a broad white stripe. Having just seen a White Admiral at close quarters while cycling the Test Way with M this week, I assumed that's what it was. I grabbed the camera and legged it down the drive, over the gate and up the path and lo! The flutter was still there, sunning herself on the stones (dangerously in my opinion, given the close proximity of the beady-eyed hungry robin).

I got some pictures, noting the damage inflicted by the robin's beak and wondering if she'd be able to fly again, and then jumping when she took off and glided (fairly smoothly considering the tears in her wings) over to the telegraph pole. I followed, put my hand down and she climbed on to my fingers.

You know I am a Flutter Person at the best of times, but this was pretty magical even by my standards as White Admirals are not often found low down, preferring to frequent the canopies. I got some more photos, put her on a leaf in the hedge and went home to tell M all about it.

When I got back in I picked up the FSC flutter guide so I could show F who was eating breakfast in the sun, and nearly fell over when I realised that it wasn't a White Admiral at all: it was a PURPLE EMPEROR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I should explain......

Purple Emperors are the pinnacle of many Lepidopterist's Life Searches. People spend years looking for them, flocking to the handful of ancient woods that are the bastion of the species' breeding grounds in the hope of catching sight of one.

That's catching sight not holding :-) 

They became increasingly rare last century, mainly because they hold this tremendous allure for people (which is probably only matched by the reverence folk hold the diminuitive Duke Of Burgundy in) and a result of this obsession, large numbers of Purple Emperors were caught and pinned to boards by eager Victorians. Poor management of their woodland homes didn't help; habitat destruction cost them, like many another species, dear.
Luckily, their numbers have started to recover in recent years. They were whacked again by the terrible wet summer of 2012 but look to be having a better year this summer. They are still heavily restricted in their colony distribution sites though and are found only in the south/ south east of England. They are on the GB Red List as a 'near threatened species' and it is illegal to sell them. 

Purple Emperors (known as 'His Majesty' and 'Her Majesty' respectively) are dependent on properly-managed ancient woodland for their survival. They live high up in the canopy of oak trees where they feed on the honeydew of aphids and on sap. The boys (I'm afraid to say) have rather revolting habits and descend to feed on the ground on rotting carcasses and poo (probably to replenish mineral salts), which is when most folk see them (in fact, tables are deliberately laid with shrimp paste beneath oak trees at this time of the year to try and entice them down to feed) but we'll overlook that. The larvae need willow to survive (Goat and Crack). We are fortunate that we are in an area which is very heavily willowed and also has a number of mature oaks. Even so, I've never seen a Purple Emperor here before, and in fact have only ever seen one once in my life and that was as most people see them: gliding about high up in the canopy of a wood.

It is this elusiveness as well as their size and magnificent colour that makes them special. They are spoken of in hushed revered tones as the most elusive of British butterflies. They will come down out of the trees to the ground between 10-11am when they probe the surface of the earth for aphrodisiac salts, but otherwise they spend their lives metres up in the canopy where only the most eagle-eyed can see them.

WS Coleman (author of British Butterflies) wrote of them in 1860: "By universal suffrage, the place of highest rank among the butterflies of Britain has been accorded to this splendid insect, who merits his imperial title by reason of his robe of royal purple, the lofty throne he assumes, and the boldness and elevation of his flight." 

The emperor was the greatest prize for collectors during earlier centuries. For Ian Robert Penicuick Heslop they were the grand passion of his life. He wrote in 1953: "I have caught exactly as many purple emperors as I have shot elephants, viz. four in each case; but I think I would rather have one of the former than all four of the latter: and nothing in all my sporting or collecting career has ever given me so much joy as the seeing of my first emperor safely in the net." 
Horrible to think of elephant's being shot and butterflies being netted in order to be pinned to a board, but I guess it was a different time with different approaches. Anyway, you get the point about how important these butterflies are to people.


In his article on the Purple Emperor in the Guardian, Patrick Barkham notes that 'no other butterfly has attracted so many names, tributes and epithets as the purple emperor. James Petiver named it Mr Dale's Purple Eye, in honour of a fellow collector, in 1704. By the middle of the 18th century, it was known as the purple high flyer. It was Moses Harris, author of The Aurelian, who named Britain's premier butterfly the purple emperor in 1766. To Germans it is the large shimmer butterfly; to the French the greater flashing mars, after the Roman warrior god. For scientists it has long been Apatura iris, an apt, and well-chosen classical name. Iris was a Greek demi-goddess, a winged messenger who appeared in the guise of a rainbow, showing colours not unlike the emperor's iridescence. Iris, as the emperor was called by devotees, was also hailed as the emperor of Morocco, the emperor of the woods and his imperial majesty, or simply HIM.'

They still hold this tremendous allure. A wood a few miles from here has a breeding colony that attracts huge numbers of visitors at Purple Emperor Time (late June-early Aug). People descend with cameras and bins to see if they can spot one and sightings are tweeted as soon as the occur. 

Having read all of that (sorry to go on but I am just a little bit excited), you'll be better able to understand my absolute delight/ astonishment/ ecstasy, when I realised I'd stumbled across one AT HOME and WITHOUT LOOKING and been holding it in my hand. Of course, I dashed straight back round to the hedge where I'd left her and got some more pictures, and once again she climbed on my finger and sat there Quite Happily for ten mins, until I took her over to the nearest oak and left her there.

I am saying 'she' because there wasn't a hint of purple on those wings, no matter how I turned her about to make the light catch them, and the girls are browner than the boys. Even the boys are only purple from certain angles, as the colour is dependent on the refraction of light by the wing scales.

Anyway, thank you for bearing with that long explanation, now you get the rewards of the pictures! Of which there are quite a few...This is a day I will remember for the rest of my life......Indeed, it may never happen to me again......

The damage from the robin's beak is very obvious in this shot. Amazing she could still fly.
 















I really hope you've enjoyed seeing those. The exciting thought is that we might just have the start of a colony here, in which case I might be very lucky and see a boy at some point....but to be honest I'm VERY happy to have been so close to the girl. First water voles, and now a purple emperor...whatever next....?

CT x













30 comments:

  1. That is so exciting! Like most people, I have never seen one of these. Have you read Patrick Barkham's 'The Butterfly Isles' - the chapter on searching for the Purple Emperor is riveting!

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    1. I haven't read it but came across him in the guardian article so will have a look. A truly magical experience, am still pinching myself! :-)

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  2. What I know about Butterflies you could write on a stamp, but I'm excited for you. The close up pics are wonderful.

    Jean x

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    1. Thanks Jean :-) All my flutter friends are rather over-excited by it! x

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  3. What a score!!! I have looked at the picture of the emperor on my identification card many times. I am happy to see brimestones (only twice last year). I love your post today and am really chuffed for you,
    Leanne xx

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    1. I know! I couldn't believe it! Brimstones are very pretty flutters-we get the boys and girls here, they stuff themselves on my everlasting sweetpeas :-) xx

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    2. I wish they'd come to mine ;)

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  4. Even from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I too am so excited and can think of no one more qualified to share the company of an Emperor. What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thank you Mark, that is a lovely thing to say.

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  5. Wow, no wonder you were pleased to see this butterfly.

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  6. Well, go to the top of the class for your close encounter with this amazing butterfly. And for her to SIT happily on your hand! It had obviously drunk deep at the aphrodisiac fountain : )

    I am so thrilled for you and although nothing else can ever compare with this, I know that the memory (and photos) will stay with you forever.

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    1. Thanks BB :-) It was an extraordinary thing, and one I shall treasure.

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  7. The best things come to those who wait and the butterfly obviously knew just how much you would appreciate the sighting and getting to hold her!!! She is amazing despite the robin damage. Another great sighting for your butterfly list this year indeed!! xx

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    1. She was definitely worth waiting for. Now I am going to keep my eyes peeled for a boy, because his colours are astonishing. My butterfly list for the year now stands at 29- which is way up on last year (although the addition of a Purple Emperor should be worth 20 in its own right!) xx

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  8. Wow! what a wonderful experience and sighting - so envious (sigh!) Have been wanting to see one of those for years and years. So glad you got such a close encounter and photos :) It would be the highlight of my year :) No wonder you are so excited and over the moon :)

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    1. I knew you'd be excited too :-) I haven't stopped smiling (or pinching myself) x

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  9. What a great post and such a lovely butterfly, such a shame the robin got to her first though.
    But really happy for you that you were able to get so many fantastic photos, no wonder you were so excited.
    xx

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    1. Thanks Linda. It's amazing what butterflies can survive- I was so surprised that her flying wasn't particularly affected by the damage, Fingers crossed we'll have a colony here xx

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  10. Unforgettable moment! Aren't they lovely? And how good to have one actually on your hand. We're hoping to get over to Bernwood Forest to see them before the season ends. All warm wishes, M

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    1. Utterly beautiful, magical things. I am keeping everything crossed that it might mean we have a colony here, but either way I just feel blessed to have seen it, and to have had one sitting on my hand was the icing on the cake. Good luck for your trip to Bernwood. Bentley woods is the place to see them here.

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  11. I totally, utterly, get your excitement (well I reckon all of us reading this do) but to try to explain that to the average person is not easy, is it? And on your hand too, now that is just amazing! What an experience. :-)))))

    I've seen a Lesser Purple Emperor in my garden, last summer - it kept flying around me driving me nutty cos I could see it was 'different' but it wouldn't settle - eventually it stopped on my rose arch briefly, just long enough for me to get some rubbish photos but which were good enough for ID. Of course I've not seen one since but I do look at treetops through my binocs sometimes in pathetic hope.
    Well done you!

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    1. Ah, I thought you would also understand :-)

      I didn't know there were lesser purples, we don't get them here so perhaps they are a continental species? How lovely - are they just smaller versions of the Emps?

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    2. I hadn't realised that the Lesser was a continental only species. As far as I understand it's slightly smaller and the female has a couple of eyespots on the wings, but it's very similar, and also lives up in the tree canopy and only comes down to get minerals from the ground or poo or whatever. I have no idea why that one I saw was down from the trees and flitting about around me but frankly I didn't care..... :-)

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  12. Wow how exciting! Great find :)

    I was directed here by Amy at Love Made My Home after I recently did a post about moths - she said I'd find plenty more here :)

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    1. Thanks Louise and thanks for the follow- I have reciprocated and look forward to reading about more of your mothing adventures, You'll have a moth trap before you know it and then you'll be hooked!

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  13. Wow, just catching up on your post, are you still smiling :)
    Think you are the Butterfly whisper, going to read up on this Butterfly later.
    Great post, and photos.
    Amanda XX

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    1. I am still smiling! Since writing the post I have heard that the females are even rarer than the boys, so I am doubly blessed (love the idea of being a butterfly whisperer too) xx

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  14. Wow how exciting to discover this! Your pictures are amazing of it too! Sarah x

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    1. I know- so lucky. I would love to see one of the boys close up now. Hope Daisy is better? xx

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x