Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Purple Patch (July 2011, Saturday 13th in Alice Holt)

I’m a birder at heart, but the most astonishing encounter with a wild creature that I’ve ever had was not with a bird at all. I found Him – or should I say, He found me – by complete chance just over two years ago, on a track along the edge of an obscure block of woodland in North-East Hampshire*. I hadn’t been looking for emperors; indeed, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Which made it all the more incredible when one came flying right at me, at head height along a gravel track, before settling on the ground mere inches from the tip of my boots. He opened His wings to the sun and flooded my vision with purple.

I didn’t know at the time that Alice Holt was a mere three miles away, as the emperor flies, and I daresay the encounter was not as improbable as it seemed. Nonetheless I shall never forget it, and that morning (I should also mention that my first ever purple hairstreak settled on the same track a few minutes later) set me on the road to what I hope will prove a life-long love affair with butterflies.

Alas, I didn’t manage to see iris at all in 2012, despite having the good fortune of a field-based job which necessitated spending time in Bentley Wood on the Wiltshire-Hampshire border. This felt like a shameful state of affairs for the fledgling butterfly fancier, and I was determined to put it right this year. All of which is a very roundabout way of explaining how I came to be at Straits Inclosure on Saturday morning, accompanied by two enthusiastic friends and a box of strawberry gateau.

We were initially surprised at the lack of suitable bait on the main track at Straits, and wondered too where the anticipated throngs of His subjects could have got to. Where was everybody on such a glorious July morning? It all seemed rather quiet, aside from the impressive numbers of silver-washed fritillary and white admiral. Eventually we caught up with our fellow seekers at the second observation tower, and we would like to thank those present on Saturday morning for their friendly welcome – should you be reading – with special thanks to the finder of the purple hairstreak that was resting in a low branch at the edge of the clearing.

Goose Green. He was up there, somewhere.
We departed Straits at lunchtime, and opted, despite the growing heat, to have one last try for an emperor at Goose Green. It was just as we had finally begun to lose hope for the afternoon – around 2 o’clock – that we finally saw one, darting out from the top of the tallest oak. It remained in view for a few fleeting seconds only, but returned some five or so minutes later, flying more directly this time from west to east before settling in view, wings closed. As this first insect departed again, two more appeared some way along the tree line, locked in spiralling aerial combat. Presumably a second and third male. This wasn’t quite equivalent to having an Emperor throw Himself at your feet, but it was pretty special all the same.

A longer version of this post appears on my blog, Considering Birds, with I daresay even more appropriately purple prose.

*On the south side of Sheepshouse Copse, near the village of Well, SU758456, in case anybody fancies going to have a look! I made a brief return pilgrimage on the way home on Saturday, but, inevitably, no emperors showed.


dennis said...

one never tires of watching iris!
I saw my first in 1978, and the thrill is the same whenever I see them.
Interestingly, a lot of us get more pleasure from watching their high up antics than seeing them close up down on the ground

Dennis from Bucks

BB said...

Hi Chris - be very careful - I encountered my first emperor in Alice Holt six years ago and now am completely entranced by this bewitching creature. My other hobbies have fallen by the wayside during the summer and I have been in the Alice Holt complex for ten consecutive days at some point the purple addition is all powerful...... mark

Chris Foster said...

Dennis - Thanks, indeed it seemed more fitting to see them up in the tree tops looking down on us.

Mark - fortunately work is keeping me very busy this week, however I keep plotting how to find emperors closer to home in Reading!