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?

Monday, July 9, 2018

Knepp Starting to Wind Down...

It sounds incredible, but the Purple Emperor season at Knepp is starting to wind down - on July 9th. 

I walked the 2km Knepp PE transect today, in perfect weather (i.e. dead calm), and totalled only 24 - down from 56 last week. Method: afternoons only; no box - if it's an Emperor, it counts; ignore all other butterflies (though I have taken to counting Meadow Browns, which are scarcer along the route than Emperors!).

The 2018 data set runs: Wk 1 = 14, Wk 2 = 66, Wk 3 = 56, Wk 4 = 24. We should squeeze in a Week 5 count but I doubt we'll get a Week 6 count this year, unlike last year. 

The Emperors are becoming more and more localised and spasmodic in appearance. They are inactive in the morning (kicking off around 11.45 am). Nearly all males are now looking distinctly faded.

Message: don't travel any distance to see the Knepp Emperors this year, leave it till 2019. And don't come after next weekend, you'll be too late.

Here's a female imbibing oak sap yesterday evening -

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Knepp: Day 24

The Knepp Emperors didn't bother getting up before 11.50 today. That is typical late season behaviour, though I don't understand why the females don't take advantage of the absence of pestering males to lay eggs whilst the males are sleeping in... So, in this heat and at this stage in the flight season, don't bother venturing out until late morning.

Some males are just about on their last wings now. This one was three-legged, feeding up on a small sap bleed before blundering off into the sun - 

We've seen almost daily tumbledowns, in which mated females reject amorous males. Several tumbledowns have resulted in females sitting on flowers, like this bramble visit today - 

She was not feeding on bramble, merely recovering from being pestered by a male. She soon skuttled off into the sallows.

At this rate the Knepp Emperors will be all but over by July 15th, having battled their way to Eternal Glory...

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Switch

Once all the females are out, wedded and bedded, the males tend to take the mornings off, and cease sallow searching. They also stop coming to the ground. Iris becomes an afternoon butterfly.

Photographers keep asking me, "When are they going to come down?" The answer is Next June... Yesterday, Neil and I did see one week old male down at Knepp, though he found nothing to his liking and soon went back up- 

In this heat I believe that the season will effectively be over at Knepp around July 15th, with just the odd sighting thereafter. This is the last weekend of the year for iris hunters.

For the record, Brown Hairstreak kicked off at Knepp yesterday, July 6th, and the White Admiral appears to be over (I searched hard yesterday, fifty years on from my first encounter with the butterfly, and saw none).

At some point I will count up how many 'day individuals' I've seen at Knepp this year - it's in four figures, and they're all type specimens.

I'm sorry I missed the honey dew rain at Fermyn Woods. We haven't had a drop of honey dew here at Knepp. In fact, I haven't experienced 'honey dew rain' since 1976, when it abounded (with a lesser occurrence in 1989).


Friday, July 6, 2018

A Lasting memory

I made my annual pilgrimage to Fermyn yesterday, and whilst I have a number of Emperor sites within 15 minutes of home I make the trip for two reasons -  there are good numbers to see, although Knepp has now firmly relegated Fermyn to second spot for sheer numbers, but also the potential to see the occasional aberration of which Fermyn seems to have more than its fair share.
Leaving home at 4.15 am ensured that I was in the glider club car park by 7.30am, after a brief stop for tea and toast, and with the trusty black steed assembled I was off down the rides baiting with belachan soup on the way.
As Neil has already commented, FC have done a great job opening up the ride through cherry lap and it bodes well for the future. I had quickly made my way through Lady and Souther woods down through Titchmarsh and on to Oxen baiting as I went. I had used all of the soup and by the time I had got to the end I was pleased to be able to clean my hands with some wipes to get ride of ‘that’ smell. 
Nothing was seen on the way down so I slowly made my way back. As I worked back along the ride between Lady/Souther I bumped into Bill Seager and as we chatted we watched a male quartering and land on one of Neil’s 3 day old baits - powerful stuff! 
The day got hotter and hotter and the reflection from the white rides just intensified the heat and about lunchtime as I was riding out of Souther towards Lady a male Emperor came straight at me, over my shoulder up into the shade of an ash tree. I had already sensed that it was different but on seeing it resting about 20 feet up I had a serious Oh S**t moment [which I said out loud for some reason] as it was obviously an extreme aberration. Scrabbling to get the close up lens off my FZ150, whilst not taking my eyes off the prize, I managed to get off a few shots of the underside at extreme zoom and through foliage which I have shown here. I have lightened a couple which helps improve the detail. I willed him to come down but within a few seconds he had disappeared over in to the sallows not to return. I have compared the photo to some on UKB and it certainly seems in the range afflicta/lugenda.
Having calmed down a bit I rode off to find Bill but within 20mins I was watching another ab! A male was quartering the ride about 30m in front of me and as I got the bins on it I could see no white! It stopped briefly but then flew towards me at knee hight - It was slightly worn, but with no major tears in the  wings, as it drifted by I could clearly see just just all blue with just two white apical spots - lugenda! On turning round it sailed up over some hazel but did not return.
Bill and I searched hard but sadly it was not to be.
As the sun reduced in intensity activity started again about 4pm and I watched four males chase off a Brown Hawker -  nothing came down and reluctantly I left the woods at 6.45 after a memorable 11hrs. 
Whilst I have no photos, I have an image that is burned bright in my memory that will last long.


Thursday, July 5, 2018

The sap continues to rain down...

Thursday 5th July saw me yet again at the glider club entrance to the Fermyn Woods complex at 8 a.m. for another purple fix. Although windy at this location, moving into Ladywood felt like moving into an oven as the wind was blocked out by the trees at ground level. The first grounding at approximately 08:30 was duly recorded by Mark, up from Portsmouth for the day.

My plan was to search the sallows for females, but there were long hours to negotiate before such activity could be anticipated. The time in between was spent recording male activity, and there are still many to be seen flying circuits before returning to a favourite perch. We were well into double figures by early afternoon.

Going off-piste into the grassy rides around 13:00 hours, the rise in temperature was immediately apparent. Looking up, a male left his lofty perch to see off a Brown Hawker, and then started fisticuffs with a an interloper from the oak opposite, but this aggression did not last. Nothing else was moving. What again was really evident when looking up was the amount of sap falling down like rain, and it appears to be going on all the time. I am not sure if this is a normal occurrence at Fermyn or if it is just a reaction at this time to the hot, dry conditions? I have no idea why Iris will ground here more than at other locations and whether or not this sap rain could be a factor?

I had to curtail my searching in the grassy rides due to the excessive heat. It was early afternoon, and I probably mistimed my searching for finding the Empress at her work. Returning to the junction at the entrance to Ladywood at 13:55, the ab lugenda? circled our bikes twice and was off again in seconds.

This brief visitation did not include settling on the ground, but gave us a tantalising view of an emperor with no white markings that we could discern whilst in flight. We summoned Mark who had perhaps seen this particular insect earlier and in a similar location, but it did not return again after thirty minutes. He had observed the royal colouring, whilst we were not favoured with this vision from our vantage point. I was now content at this point to leave the woods and we duly departed just after 15:00 hours.

Concerning the extraordinary run of hot sunny conditions of the last week or two, I include an image taken from my last visit a couple of days ago, of a male that took refuge from the heat by entering  the hedgerow, as has been observed and described by Matthew at Knepp. He stayed for around ten minutes here before returning to his lofty perch. (I like the green tinge afforded by the sunlight through the leaves and this season's visits to Ladywood have been a magical experience).

Upper Thames today

Brother Dennis returned from his Northern exile for a days emperor fix at a private wood in Buckinghamshire today. Together with Dave Wilton, Mick and Wendy Campbell we met at 10:45am to search the wood. With near perfect conditions we managed 31 sightings over the following two hours. My impression is that iris is having at best an average year in the Upper Thames region so seeing this number in a couple of hours was a good result.

The first hour and a quarter we saw all males mostly searching for females doing typical Oak edging behaviour. At mid day we found our first female looking to lay. She was diving deep into the shade of a large Sallow.  From that point forward we encountered a mix of males and females. I have noticed this behaviour many times before on hot days where the males are more active up until mid day and then the females becoming more prominent in the hot early afternoon.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

All Change

As Matthew has already reported, Knepp felt very different today. Admittedly, I covered much less ground than during recent monitoring visits, but my day-count of 181 was disproportionately lower. Although I saw one 'Benny Hill chase' of seven, clashes involving more than a pair were rare. The regular bundles of four, five and six or more already seem a distant dream. The head of steam has been lost; they are suddenly getting lazy. I have no doubt that there will be more fireworks to come, but they can no longer be expected.

However, the numbers present remain huge. Knepp has set the bar so high that we have come to know this species, at least here, as a quite common butterfly of scrub and hedgerows; a butterfly of the wider countryside. Of course the emperor will never be Common, but neither will things ever be the same again, and that is something to celebrate.

On the way back to the car I saw my fourth tumbledown of the day. She landed on some Bracken and peered down on me as I edged below her. There is still life in the season yet, but there is now an urgency to squeeze every possible moment from this momentous iris year.

Knepp: Day 20 - the day after the Columbia game

There shouldn't be a tinge of sadness in the Empire's air as early as July 4th but it is likely that the emergence at Knepp is almost complete for the year, with just a few females still to appear.  

The males suddenly switch behaviour when all the females are out, and have been wedded and bedded - they stop searching the sallow thickets frenetically, stop descending to the ground, start to take the mornings off, and become afternoon creatures, and increasingly territorial. There were signs of all that happening at Knepp today - and on the glorious 4th of July, gosh! Of course, they may simply have been badly hungover, having got plastered for the football the previous day...

It looks as though the male emergence at Knepp ran from June 15th to around July 1st this year. Neil and I saw a few reasonably dark-looking males today, who were sallow searching, but the vast majority were distinctly middle aged.  

I know this sounds ridiculous but I struggled to count 200 today. 

Also, the Knepp population doesn't seem to produce aberrations: I have seen over a thousand (day individuals) there so far this year, all type.

There are still a few fresh-looking ladies around, including this minx who was feeding on sap on Rosemary's Tree today -

Today at Fermyn

A couple of remarkable images from Dave Holden, today at Fermyn.

"Had a lovely morning with lots of sightings and as I was walking back to the car this large dark butterfly was spotted in the last large clearing on the right(first clearing on the left as you walk in), coming down to a muddy area.I had found a aberration in the woods in 2015 and posted pictures of it and I thought this new one today also looked promising.It was in very poor condition but I thought it was still worth mentioning."

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Monday Magic

Monday 2 July

Having seen some pics of emperors taken by my brother Mike Cope on a Knepp safari, sibling rivalry demanded a trip to Fermyn. After a 3am start from Manchester, I arrived at 6am and wandered about for a few hours.
9.30am saw me at the far end of Southey Wood, watching emperors gliding effortlessly like little paper aeroplanes against a deep cobalt sky. By an uncharacteristic stroke of luck, HIM came down and settled on a bramble leaf to sip honeydew. After a short stalk through some challenging brambles, I managed to get close enough to get a lovely open wing shot. As I started to breathe again, he retired to the deep recesses of the wood. Interested, I followed to see HIM settle on a leaf and then fall as if stone dead to the floor below,  bouncing once, then recovering to sip moisture from the forest floor.
 Later, on the walk back, a couple of bikers generously highlighted a grounding on Neil's old shrimp paste bait, still working it's magic. Before regaining the car park, after a long hot day, I hurdled the usual characters lying flat prone in the dirt, a few staring vertically through dustbin-sized lenses and a guy jealously guarding a small pile of fox faeces. Bloodied but unbowed, I noticed several emperors wheeling around close to the car pull-in and one actually settled on my wing mirror. Typical - I could have just stayed close to the car to get my pics, but then I wouldn't have met the lovely, friendly, totally bonkers people that define the Fermyn experience. A day to remember.
Roger Cope

Fermyn Patrol Monday July 2nd

The hot NE wind continued at Fermyn on Monday and these conditions, coupled with the harsh light from the moment we arrived at the Glider club entrance at 08:00 proved to affect the behaviour of Iris to the detriment of all those hoping for groundings and the opportunity to obtain "double purple" photographs. There were a fair number of people already on their way to Ladywood by this time, and we travelled on further to an area much further down the track, meeting an acquaintance who had already seen three males, and commented on the activity at tree-top level of that inveterate squabbler, Quercus, at this early hour. We immediately became aware of Iris taking flight, clearing the great tit from his airspace before commencing sallow searching, and this type of behaviour was mirrored throughout the morning at all the known hot spots. Talking to others, on the only occasions of groundings the males would not open their wings due to the heat, and did not stay long on the dry tracks. A feature encountered throughout the woods was the amount of sap that appeared to rain down, it was markedly visible in certain light and could be felt too. I do wonder if this sap rain is a feature of Fermyn that encourages Iris to come down each year? Or perhaps it is just this season that these conditions are causing stress in the trees? (I would welcome comments.) The wind was also making it uncomfortable for grounded individuals who were being blown around on the tracks.

As the morning drifted by, the woods appeared to empty of people, but the count of Emperors went on (we eventually reached 40 at the end of our stay). The majority were in great shape, and I believe that there must still be more to come, for I was informed that it was only on Friday 22nd June that the first sightings were made here. We entered the grassy rides at 13:30 and immediately were rewarded with sightings and activity. examples of rejection drops, females in the sallows and males on patrol were all made, and included in this was the sort of  behaviour described by observers at Knepp, where individuals were seen to enter the hedges and take cover in the shade. From 13:30, we managed to see a lot more males on the ground too, searching for sustenance, (also in the shade) but hardly ever opening their wings. We even found a female in shade on the ground, and suspect this girl was resting from a bout of egg laying. Later we were treated to a three-ship of males and then a four-ship, twice, of three males chasing a female. The activity was still much in evidence at 16:00, as we left the scene, with water bottles almost empty. Seven Females out of the conservative estimate of forty individuals, made for a memorable day of Emperor watching, Unfortunately, this activity was only watched by three of us, and on reaching the car park, two cars one of which was mine, were all that were evident.

Best To Date - 388

A thorough survey of the entire Knepp Wildland Southern Block has achieved our highest count yet; a massive 388 Purple Emperors. 66 were counted on the Green Lane transect and a total of 16 females were seen. 

I watched 11 'tumble downs' (when already-mated Empresses spiral down to the ground, trying to shake off amorous males), which mostly occurred in the vicinity of 'feeder trees' (those oaks hosting multiple sap bleeds, encouraging large, boisterous drinking parties). At one such tree ('Rosemary's Tree') I enjoyed a chase of nine males, spiraling tightly around my head (at c.7pm). Earlier, beside a small wooden bridge on Green Lane, I watched six dogfights occurring simultaneously, two of which comprised three males; that's 14 emperors in view at the same time! 

I ran out of unsearched areas of the Southern Block long before the butterflies became less active at 8pm. Had I not taken a significant break earlier in the day, to chase White-letter Hairstreaks, I would undoubtedly have had time to move into the Middle and Northern Blocks, probably enabling a count in excess of 400 Purple Emperors. However, the route I took allowed me to observe something I've never seen before; just before 8pm I found a mating pair of hutchinsoni (summer brood) Comma. Knepp continues to 

On Safari

Matthew and I have started our 2018 Knepp Purple Emperor Safari campaign in good form, which is hardly surprising given the excellent weather and unprecedented numbers of the butterfly. A full-day outing on Saturday 30 June gave us a count of 87, followed by a half-day tally of 56 on Sunday 1 July. 

Numbers are now at peak and although more females will emerge, the males are probably all out now. It's great to see so many people enjoying the spectacle. There are plenty of other species showing well too, including more White Admirals than usual. In the last few days we've also seen large increases in the numbers of Comma and Purple Hairstreak, the latter best viewed in the evenings.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

In case you wondered...

...Upper Thames is still here and seeing HIM!  Since the departure of our co-ordinator-in-chief Dennis Dell to pastures new in non-Iris territory somewhere well north of Watford, we've been rather in disarray.  However, rest assured that He hasn't deserted us as well and is still being seen in Bucks/Berks/Oxon woods as well as at a handful of unexpected non-woody locations.  Our first sighting was on the 19th by the intrepid Campbells at the usual wood-edge high point territory of Little Wood on the Bucks/Oxon border and there have been plenty of subsequent sightings, especially from Bernwood Forest.  All it needs is a volunteer to collect together the information!     

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Two By Two

An unexpected freedom pass had me heading north again to Fermyn on Friday 29th. Hooked up at the Glider entrance with Toby Ludlow who I'd bumped into late on Tuesday 26th. We headed off down the widened main ride at 9am under a ceiling of thick cloud, but by the time we got to the Lady/Souther Wood junction the sun was asserting itself. We visited the scene of my greatest crime ie, not being quick enough on the shutter last Tuesday (as reported by Brian Hicks) to 'capture' a perfect ab.iole. On a positive note, I am still here, having not 'topped' myself. A repeat of that lifer experience was going to be highly unlikely but you have to keep the faith. Sadly it wasn't to be.

Toby was extremely diligent and recorded everything that moved with a HIM tally of 75 by the end of the day with many groundings. Under a clear azure sky, numerous circuits around Lady and Souther presented many opportunities for shots including a number of double groundings.

Fermyn just keeps on giving. You never know what's around the next ride corner.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Fabulous Fermyn (Part 2)

My second day (28 June) at Fermyn proved to be even better, with some very fresh males descending to the rides from about 10.30 am onward. Emperors were still flying when I finally left the site at 7.30 pm (six hours later than planned). Although my belachan soup was the main draw, one male showed his appreciation of my Red Bull (other energy drinks are available; never give Red Bull to small children or babies). He's probably now at Knepp.

The best action came just before 4 pm, when a coupled pair of emperors drifted down from the canopy - manna from heaven. This allowed several of us the opportunity of some really rare shots.

As always, Fermyn provided some great experiences and created some wonderful memories. I certainly won't forget the happy hour I spent gazing at a perfect moon hanging low over Brigstock, with the air full of screaming Swifts.




Knepp Day Can't Remember: Curse & Crush this Wind

I set out today to topple the 350 figure, confident that the wind would be light, as forecast. The forecast was, however, seriously wrong (moan: how do they manage to get wind speed wrong? All they need to do is look as the isobars...).  

The NE wind increased from Light to Moderate-Fresh around 2.30, and then Fresh by 5pm. This constricted Emperorial activity to west-facing edges. Consequently, I gave up at 5pm, having scored a measly 204.

The male emergence is probably now virtually complete. There is still a goodly number of fresh-looking boys around, but the majority are looking distinctly middle aged. Males were frenetically searching the sallow thickets from 10.30 to noon. Here's one pausing during the search -

Herself remains Difficult in the Extreme: I managed 12 today, included one which assaulted me (and another which beat off a male). I suspect a lot of females are still to emerge. I witnessed eight tumbledowns (mated females rejecting males), nearly all around sap run feeding trees. Here's one tumbledown - 

In this heat a lot of males are taking up positions in hedges and low down on oaks, in places offering options of both shade and light. Many are behaving as hedgerow butterflies.

Good to learn of aberrations being recorded in Fermyn and Bentley woods. So far this year I have seen over 1500 day individuals at Knepp, all of the type. I don't think this population vars at all. However, Purple Emperor continues to be commoner than Meadow Browns at Knepp.


Fabulous Fermyn (Part 1)

On Thursday (27 June) I headed to Fermyn Woods. Having spent so much time at Knepp recently (and with eight safaris to co-lead there over the next two weeks), I was keen for a change of scenery, and also for the opportunity to photograph some more freshly emerged male Purple Emperors; most/all of the males are now out at Knepp. Although groundings are becoming far more regular at Knepp, Fermyn still outguns Knepp in this respect. In terms of population, Knepp is now in a league of its own. Although still early in the Northants season, I saw no more than c.30 emperors on either of the days I visited, despite the females being well out (three on Thursday, two on Friday).

I spent most of the two days in the excellent company of Dave Walker, who I'd met at Noar Hill during the Duke season. It was also good to catch up again with Dave Williams (plus brother), who I'd recently bumped into at Daneway Banks, and Bill & Mrs Seager (of the Fermyn Light Horse). Unfortunately, it seems I narrowly missed Neil Freeman.

The first thing I noticed on arrival was the excellent and much talked about ride widening through Fermyn proper; well done Forestry Commission! Within relatively few years, if left unmanaged, the Purple Emperors, Silver-washed Fritillaries, White Admirals and White-letter Hairstreaks would all have disappeared, leaving just Speckled Woods; it seems that many would prefer this, and are being quite vocal about it! That said, being such a well visited site, it would probably have been preferable to lift the brash mats (which protect the ground from the worst of mechanical damage) and chip them; so only 9 out of 10. The next thing I noticed was the constant rain of honeydew (I've seldom seen so much), which eventually started to gum-up my camera.

This first day of my visit was all about trouserings, of which I enjoyed four. In order to get the best angles I spent some time rolling around on the floor, performing contortions that Louie Spence would be proud of. I soon set to work laying belachan soup baits, which proved to be my most successful mix yet; apologies for the stink (not really). 95% of the emperor groundings (about 20 over the two days) came to the lures, together with c.30 Comma, a few Small Tortoiseshell and several hundred flies.