Monday, September 17, 2018

People's Walk for Wildlife Sat 22nd Sept London

We, The People of Purple Persuasion, are gathering for the People's Walk for Wildlife at the WH Hudson Memorial (Rima carving) in Hyde Park (due west of the main event gathering point at Reformer's Tree) between10.15-10.45 next Saturday morning.  Nearest tube station is Lancaster Gate.  

Dress Code: Purple.

Condition: Sober (optional)

Contact Number: Matthew on 07771 971488.

Hudson was Purple. He saw iris in Newbuildings Woods, W Sussex, just north of Knepp, where I saw my first...

Sunday, September 2, 2018

News from Savernake

I am a little over half way through my annual standardised search for larvae in Savernake Forest, and have found 61. I should end up with a little over 100. This is the tenth (and perhaps final) year that I've done this. Most years I struggle to find around 25 but I've recorded three years of plenty: 2009, 2013 and, almost certainly, 2018.

However, I don't think 2018 will better 2009's or 2013's tally, for several reasons. 

First, and oddly, the sallows along Grand Avenue are unsuitable this year. This is because the FC resurfaced the Avenue in late winter, using limestone chippings which produce a whirlwind of white dust every time a vehicle speeds by (vehicles have the right to drive along Grand Avenue, and do so at great speed since the speed bumps were removed a few years ago. The dust storms must be visible from space.)  All foliage within at least 50m of the Avenue was covered in white dust during the dry July.  

Secondly, there's a lot of sallow mildew around this autumn. Larvae fail on it, like this (the remains of an L2 larva at the leaf tip) - 

Here's a close up of sallow mildew, which develops on overhung sallows. It comes off easily if you run your thumb over it - 

Larvae are bang on time, changing from L2 to L3 (an instar which lasts for 8 long months). Here's one from today, it's about to skin change -

Finally, I saw this in Savernake today - a fresh 2nd brood camilla

There could be a sizeable second brood of White Admirals this Sept in southern England... But rest assured, iris is not going to double brood. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Assorted Doings (in the UK)...

You may be relieved to read that iris is unlikely to produce a second brood here this year. The larvae I've been following at Knepp, some of which were in the 2nd instar before July 20th, haven't made much progress since then - in fact, they're still in the 2nd instar.  

Here's a 2nd instar larva, with a seriously good isthmus (either side of his feeding), and the old egg case base (laid, unusually, on the leaf tip) -

Knepp Wildland suffered badly from drought. No rain fell there between May 31st and July 28th, when the Heavens opened. The young sallow thickets shed leaves copiously, especially the sub-canopy sprays which iris favours at this time of year. The population must have taken a fair hit, but after a massive egg lay. This is what I'm panicking about - these sprays are crucial to young larvae -

Finally, spot the 'master tree'. The leeward side of this clump of ten or so Scots Pines, in a wood near Lewes, E Sussex, is used by males each afternoon. Up to five have been seen in the air at a time. The clump is on a high point in the middle of the wood, and is quite well sheltered from the west by tall hornbeans (out of picture) - 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Near-final Doings in the Pyrenees

What should prove to be my last iris of the year tried to push me off a pinnacle of rock with a 500m plunge below. I've sent for a platoon of Knepp Wildland males under Lt. Hulme to sort him out...  Here's the view from the pinnacle, just before the assault - 

And here's the thug in question -

My guess is that adults will be on the wing here (near Setcases & Lanllars in the Catalan Pyrenees) into early September, if anyone fancies taking over from me - I can't find where the males are assembling for serial violence, it's too steep... But at least I saw some good sallow searching today.  

I'm coming home tomorrow evening, Ryanair permitting, with the intention of working iris larvae until next June, and finishing my book on the Purple Emperor (Bloomsbury, 2020).  

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Apatura iris on Dead Cow

By popular request, the gross out photo - 

False Heath and Dark-green Fritillaries were also feeding on it

Doings in Pyrenees: Day 3

Failed to find where Purple Emperor males are assembling for territorial behaviour today. Probably went too high up (though one male has been recorded hill-topping, beating up Erebias, nearly 3000m up in Andorra) - that's way above the tree line. Today, we did see one male sallow searching in a steep stream combe at 1750m. 

Tomorrow, my last day, I'll look lower down, directly above the meadows where males and females are feeding on sap flowing from weevil-damaged Woolly Thistle heads.

It looks as though the weevil which damages the thistle heads is a thistle-feeder called Larinus turbinatus (Curculionidae). Some click beetles are probably also damaging the bud heads. 

Whatever, in one 1 ha meadow I counted 20 Emperors (16 males, 4 females), 14 Comma, 10 Red Admiral, 9 White Admirals, 8 Pearly Heath and a Camberwell Beauty feeding on these damaged heads, probing their tongues right in to the damaged cracks - plus a whole host of flies.  

I have been hugely impressed by Scarce Copper males on this trip. It's a feisty beast, capable of mixing it with the best. It would make an excellent addition to the UK fauna.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Doings in the Pyrenees: Day 2

The Woolly Thistle Show continues, with Emperors, Red Admirals, White Admirals, Commas, Camberwell Beauty, Large Tortoiseshell and Pearly Heath all feeding merrily on damaged parts of Woolly Thistle heads (there are no Speckled Woods here, or they would be at it too, I'm sure).  One four occasions now I have found male and female iris feeding together -

Older adults are not doing it - old males are batting around old buildings. Here's a fresh male, it could be on dog pooh -

And here's the weevil which is doing most of the damage -

I think it's called Larinus turbinatus, a thistle feeder.

And here's the riverine woodland habitat -

I saw some sallow searching going on this morning but couldn't find any territories. I think they're going seriously far up slope, but they seem very sedate - decidedly dopey. Tomorrow I am venturing Up Top.

Also today, I had my most disgusting experience with iris (at least since 1982 when we found two feeding on a dead deer in a slurry pit). This is on a dead cow - the smell wasn't too awful but the flies were. I'll spare you the worst photos -

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Doings in the Eastern Pyrenees...

Greetings from the Catalan Pyrenees, where iris is at peak season 1000m up, breeding on sallows in steep-sided riverine woodland. 

25 were seen today, most of which were feeding on Woolly Thistle heads which had been damaged, I think by a weevil (I've photoed the weevil and sent pics through to Andy Foster, weevil expert). 14 were feeding on Woolly Thistles in one small meadow, including three on one head -

Here's a close up of what they are probing -

Both males and females were doing it. Here's a girl - 

Various other butterflies doing it too - White Admiral, Red Admiral, Comma, a Morning Cloak (much better name than Camberwell Beauty), and the biggest female Large Tortoiseshell ever seen -

Here's the habitat -

And in case you're wondering whether iris has finally lost its marbles altogether, they were also feeding on stone & concrete (not lime mortar) on buildings -

I remain, determined to get plastered this evening... ... ...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Apatura from around the world

I saw this on facetube and thought you Purple souls might like it! There are 5 species within the genus Apatura...

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Lord, thou hast brought us to our journey's end...

Here's my last Knepp Emperor of the year (unless, perchance, a second brood ensues...) - a ridiculously worn and torn male who was behaving badly in a territory called Gratuitous Violence on Monday:- 

I am, though, seriously worried about the impact of drought on the butterfly, especially at Knepp when most of the breeding sallows are young and relatively shallow rooted. 

Thundery showers are forecast for that region on Friday, and are desperately needed (though first instar larvae are prone to being washed off the leaves by heavy rain).

Please, pray for rain in the Empire...

Monday, July 23, 2018

Audience with an empress

I stole a few hours at Knepp on Saturday 21st July and saw eight emperors. 

The best moment occurred in a sallow glade just off Green Lane. Trevor Apsley and I shared a wonderful fifteen minutes or so with a graceful empress who came floating out of an oak like a small paper kite to flit and glide in a flowery clearing. She sailed around us at chest height and lower, frequently stopping to take salts from the baked ground with a proboscis like a garden hose. She was a whopper, a spectacular insect. This was my most thrilling encounter with an empress. She was in reasonable condition but though she seemed serene she was in reality just spent, and as she drifted off into the sallow we wondered how many days she had left.

To end on a happy note, in Green Lane I met a couple called Christina and Roger. As very recent emperor converts they had missed peak Knepp but were hoping for their first emperor. When I bumped into them for a second time they told me they hadn’t clocked any, but had at least photographed a white admiral on the ground. They showed me the photo, and I was delighted to be able to congratulate them on their mistake - it wasn’t a white admiral. ;) 

Here's "my" empress. 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Ending Now...

Emperors are now definitely winding down at Knepp. I suspect they'll be almost impossible to find by Wednesday. 

I'm heading home tomorrow evening - but I've got one last trick up my sleeve, I'm flying off to the eastern (Catalan) Pyrenees to work a colony 1300m up, which is only just starting to emerge now!

Today, I struggled to see five females and eight frayed males at Knepp, all of them pensioners. The sap bleed branch in a spot known as Skinhead Alley (it's a good spot for violent males) was being visited by four females -

Note the hornet on the right. Fresh Emperors beat the hornets up, but old one's get displaced by them.

This is what I'm worried about: massive fall of sub-canopy leaves in the Knepp sallow thickets (these bushes are about 15 years old, in what was an arable field, the older sallows in the laggs and close to the ponds are fine) -

I'm worried because there are at least five days of >30C temperatures to come, and no rain is forecast (it last rained at Knepp on 31st May). 

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Purple Emperor Season Without End...

Folks, we're starting to enter Paradise: this Emperor season simply wont end, at least at Knepp.  I managed 21 today, including seven females.  

The males are seriously faded and torn now, and are active for only a couple of hours or so, from about 1pm, on territory. I witnessed a clash of three males. 

Neil and I watched an exhausted female visit a sap run, then collapse on to the nearest sallow. I doubt she'll make tomorrow -

Meanwhile, these girls were getting tanked up on a sap bleed alongside a Comma -

Purple Emperor season without end, Amen!

PS  We didn't get any rain, again; and the Brown Hairstreak remains surprisingly scarce.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Next Season

Rather too dull for Emperor activity at Knepp today, so I went egging instead.

One alpha sallow produced two early-second instar (horned) larvae, a skin-changing first instar larva, a just-hatched larva, two about-to-hatch eggs and a classic yellow-brown egg, and an egg case base with no sign of the larva. Total = 8.

I think I last found horned larvae in July back in 1976 but will check my diaries when I get home. Whatever, eggs are obviously hatching very fast in this heat and larvae are then racing through the highly vulnerable first instar, which is all good news. The bad news, though, is that no rain has shown up, and the sallows desperately need some. 

For the record, four dog walkers went past me whilst I was up my sallow. None noticed a bloke 4-5m up a tree...

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Knepp: Day 35

Purple Emperors have now been out here for five long weeks. 

Today, I managed to see 19, which would be a decent tally for a day at peak season at nearly all Emperor sites...

They are becoming increasingly localised, and the males are only active for two or three hours during the early to mid- afternoon period. The females are either egging or sitting around doing nothing.  

I think they'll peter out here on about Monday. Meanwhile, we carry on fighting...

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Apatura: Green Light for Full Genome Sequencing

Exciting news received today, confirming that funds and facilities are all in place for the full genome sequencing of the first Apatura species (A.ilia). This will be conducted in conjunction with Professor Chris Jiggins (University of Cambridge) and Dr Richard Durbin (Wellcome Sanger Institute). The data will most likely appear on the Butterfly Genome Browser which Chris setup for his Heliconius project. Link as follows:

No further information is available at present, only that we've got the green light and that the relevant breeding (from 2 differing parental strains) is currently in progress. As soon as the F1 adults emerge I can start to submit the specimens for sequencing. I'll update you all as/when further information becomes available.


Knepp: Day 34

Back at Knepp this afternoon, following a couple of days 'off', at home. I saw ten Emperors, or rather eight Emperors and two Empresses. 

At this late stage in their flight season they are active for only about three hours each afternoon, from about 1pm, and it was cloudy between 2pm and 3pm today. 

At one point I saw a chase of three males, but mostly it was a matter of spotting OAP males active in known territories. Then I visited a 'feeder tree' where two females were imbibing oak sap - 

Then, after being disturbed by a hornet, one female went an sat in a sallow bush, sulking -

The butterfly will have been out here for six weeks come Friday, which is quite impressive. There should be a few left that day, but I suspect I'll see the last of the Knepp 2018 Purple Emperors on Sunday or Monday.

Knepp: A look back to a stunning day

Knepp, Wednesday 27th June: Eleven hours walking goodness knows how many exhausting miles at the site during a heatwave. Three litres of water barely touched the sides. At the end of it all, the traditional lemonade from the fridge in the Go-Down was nectar. 

Emperors aside, the sheer abundance of life at Knepp blows my mind. I hope other farmers follow the example of Charlie and Isabella. But we were here for iris, and hoping for lots of them. Last year Nick and I doubted our own count of 96 - surely not - so this year we brought with us a pair of clicker-counters of the sort favoured by bouncers. It seemed appropriate, given the thuggish nature of our quarry. 

After the sort of heady day that causes you to question your senses, our counters displayed the number 349, a count that has now been exceeded by Matthew and Neil, who were pushing 400. Madness.   

Towards the end of our day a big, multi-storey oak near Camilla Corner gave us an unforgettable experience when, for a bizarrely brief window, it played host to a spectacular congregation of emperors. We'd never seen anything like this, even at Knepp. 

A zig-zagging male told us the tree was a feeder; if Matthew hadn't taught me the sapping flight of emperors a week before, we’d have moved on and missed the wonders that followed. We soon found him (the emperor, not Matthew) low down on a visible sap bleed - a wound oozing white froth. 

The branch and others around it soon transformed into Your Favourite Local Bar. Our male was joined by a quercus, four or five hornets and a procession of emperors. Various individual iris came and went while others spiralled and occasionally squabbled half-heartedly at all heights around the tree, while we became giddy with numbers as we tried to count the traffic. 

At times there were three or four sapping, at times five or six, and, briefly, a magnificent seven. The humans below laughed in disbelief, knowing we were sharing something special. There were never more than three emperors within wing distance of one another, but different groups of two or three and the odd loner were like punters at their beer. A much larger emperor blundered into the midst of a sapping group but was hassled immediately and quickly vanished. An empress, we guessed. 

Happily, we bumped into a couple of chaps at the tree, and one of them was a photographer. It is his photographs you see here; thanks Ben Richardson for sending them to me. 

In the early evening of that wonderful day, gangs of hooligan purple hairstreaks were harrying emperors who clearly just wanted a rest - especially adjacent to Hammer pond, where the big oaks were lit up like cathedrals, bathed in golden evening light. 

Looking back, we should have known the day would be a special one when we stumbled upon a 'streak on the ground by Hammer Pond at nine am. Later in the day, a young grass snake crossed a path under our feet. Minutes later a hobby shot directly over our heads like a missile. 

And we saw huge numbers of damsels and dragons, surely an early sign that the day would be a fairy tale. 

Emperor by Ben Richardson

Just the five sap-feeding emperors by Ben Richardson in this shot. For the original size image, contact me via comments. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


Those of us who were around during the long hot summer of 1976 will remember the impact of the great drought on sallow trees, when even in shady woods on heavy clay soils sallows died off willy-nilly.  

The current drought is not a patch on that of 1976, but most places in The Empire seriously need some watering - and no rain is forecast for the foreseeable future. Some districts enjoyed a useful watering last Friday evening (the 13th) - Alice Holt, for example, had 8mm (1/3rd of an inch) - but Knepp missed out (the rain ran just to the north).  

The sub-canopy leaves which the egg-laying females favour are often the first leaves to drop. Here's what to look out for - 

So, take your watering can with you.

I've just had two days off, of necessity, having Emperored for 28 consecutive days (beating Heslop's 1969 record). I'm now going back to Knepp, for the grand finale. I've seen over 2000 day-individuals there so far this season. In contrast, in 1976 I saw 257...

Monday, July 16, 2018

Phil Gilbert

Sorry; I should have mentioned that Phil Gilbert of East Midlands section took me there and made most of the sightings

Dennis has moved to Sheffield

I no longer report for the Upper Thames Section, since I now live in Yorkshire.
Of course, I am quite a long way from iris habitats now; the nearest is Cotgrave Wood in Notts where I have seen 3 in two visits.
This afternoon I visited Chambers Farm Wood in Lincs, which is about 60 miles due east of Sheffield; it was worth it! Ten were seen in a two hour period between 12.40 and 14.40; most were gliding around the tops of the Oaks,  and two were ride skimming. One clash was observed. Clearly, being the most northerly iris wood, they are being seen a bit later up here compared with Sussex.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Knepp PE Transect

Neil and I run an Emperor transect at Knepp. It runs along 2km of green lane, fringed by oaks and bordered in places by huge sallow thickets. We walk the transect once a week during the five or six week Emperor season, in afternoons only (when males are in the oak canopy), and when the wind is below Moderate strength. The main difference is that there is no transect box (the 5m box used by the UKBMS is inappropriate for iris) - if it's an Emperor we haven't already seen, it counts...  

This year, from five heady weeks we have counted 184 Emperors. Last year's six week tally was 118, and 2016's was a meagre 89. If I remember correctly, in 2017 a mere 14 Emperors were recorded by the UKBMS transects (mainly males on dog muck)...

We may be able to fit another weekly count in at Knepp this year. Today's tally (Week 5) was 24.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

OAPs Now...

Knepp's males are now OAPs, but they're still fearless and utterly amoral. Here's two from today, one getting plastered on oak sap, the other on territorial red alert -

Incredibly, we saw a freshly emerged - virgin - female, who was not spotted by two or three patrolling males, surely the last of the mighty 2018 Knepp emergence -

One or two sallows here are starting to show signs of drought.  The first leaves to yellow are the small sub-canopy sprays which the females favour for egg laying. Has anyone else noticed this?

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Still Getting Plastered...

Behaviour of both sexes worsened today at Knepp, as they imbibed more and more fermented oak sap. I saw females fighting each other (with handbags), a female chasing off a male, and a lot of general drunken brawling - and a male flying off upside down.

But numbers are dwindling by the day and activity is becoming more localised. They'll be hard to find at Knepp by this weekend...

Meanwhile, various Commas, Red Admirals, Specked Woods and Purple Hairstreaks are also enjoying the oak sap.  

I once came across a conga of drunken football supporters at a station chanting, 'Let's all go effing mental....': maybe they'd been on oak sap?