The Purple Emperor needs no introduction here, so much has been written about our largest British butterfly. Suffice to say that such is its celebrity that it has its own folklore and even fan-club, who worship at an online shrine to the beast, The Purple Empire
A male Purple Emperor's wing catches the light
Same individual, slightly different angleLast Sunday morning saw me with time on my hands so I made the journey to Bentley Wood in neighbouring Wiltshire, one of the most reliable sites for this species. Emperors occasionally make morning forays to ground level to probe for salts and moisture, and in view of the heat-wave I reasoned that an early start might be required to witness this spectacle. By 0700 I was already in the wood checking out the rides and treetops.
The stunning underside of a Purple Emperor
Note the long tongue which was constantly probing for saltsAlmost immediately a shimmer of purple caught my eye, but it was only the upper-wing of the Emperor's courtier, the Purple Hairstreak. I say 'only' but while it can not compete with the Emperor on size, this is still a pretty spectacular insect in its own right, especially when seen at eye level. The early start had not paid off, however, in terms of finding an Emperor on the deck. By about 0900 I had seen just the one blatting around the canopy of a clearing either side of the main ride.
When an admirer cast a shadow over the Emperor it flattened the light but required a high ISO rating to capture the purple sheen on both wings
I had not seen the orange rings and details on the hindwing this well beforeBentley Wood is a popular place with Emperor-seekers and speaking to a few of the later arrivals, it seemed that with the hard surfaces of the rides being baked in the heat, ground-level sightings had been hard to come by in the preceding days. Fortunately, animal droppings provide a convenient source of moisture and while by the standards of most beauty spots in southern England Bentley Wood was remarkably free of dog mess, there was plenty of fresh horse dung around.
An impressive beast
Deeper into Bently Wood this Purple Emperor has forsaken dog mess for horse dung. Classy.A few familiar faces with big lenses arrived from Weymouth around this time and after a bit more patient but unrewarding waiting around, one of them, John Wall, returned to the car park for a bottle of water. Minutes later we could see him frantically beckoning us in his direction where, we could only assume, a Purple Emperor was at his feet.
A watchful male Purple Emperor in mid-canopy
A fresh Purple Hairstreak at eye levelIt transpired that a dog walker had alerted him to the presence of 'a large butterfly' on the path which has subsequently moved into a patch of vegetation where her canine charges appeared to have just parked their breakfasts. A small group of admirers was soon gathered around the insect, delighted to see the purple sheen of refracted light identifying it as a male. It was an assault to the senses: for the eyes, a splash of uncommonly beautiful colour; for the ears, a cacophony of whirring motor drives; and for the nose, well, let's just say the butterfly's chosen source of nourishment could not have been more foul.
Male Purple Hairstreak
A rare view of the open upperwingI suppressed the gag reflex and concentrated on finding the right exposure to capture the Emperor at its best - not easy as it was sitting in strongly dappled light with vegetation casting shadows over all or part of its body. For such a large butterfly holding its wings at angles it was also necessary to experiment with wider apertures, thus reducing the shutter speed and pushing the auto-ISO rating higher. All in all a delicate balance of factors which I am not sure I managed to pull off as well as I might, but I was happy with the results, and delighted to have enjoyed such a close encounter.
Female Purple Hairstreak
Another female - note the less extensive but more iridescent purple patch compared to the maleAmid widespread concern about the fate of our insect populations it was a comfort to be able to sit in the shade at Bentley Wood and watch the rides hum with good numbers of Whites, Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Gatekeepers and Silver-Washed Fritillaries.
A fresh Ringlet basking in the early morning sunshine
A mating pair of Ringlet - the one on the left being of the rare aberration arete
A meander further along the rides produced a couple of further sightings of more discerning Purple Emperors feeding on horse manure. By noon they had retreated to the more familiar treetops and I had returned to my own familiar habitat in Dorset.
Male Silver-washed Fritillary
Female Silver-washed Fritillary underwing
Female Silver-washed Fritillary
White Admiral in the east car park at Bentley Wood