This time last year we had only just caught the butterfly bug on the back of a walking holiday in the French Alps. Last July we walked around Bookham Common in Surrey in the hope of seeing the Purple Emperor, but we were unlucky. This weekend was the first time we had been able to go looking this year, and with the warm weather and some reliable sightings at locations in Alice Holt we tried again.
We set off from the car park for the Straits Inclosure. The walk took us down a firm path, and we were entertained by Silver-washed fritillaries and the usual Ringlets and Meadow Browns. The Silver-washed Fritillaries were just warming up, so they were happy to sit on the thistle flowers.
The path took us through a grass field that was high with grasses and thistles. The sun was now quite warm, and all you could hear was the sound of bees buzzing, and grasshoppers and crickets singing from the long grass. On the thistle was a few Meadow Browns, and Ringlets.
From the field we followed a wet footpath, finally coming out into an opening with an observation tower. This was the reported location and we were not alone and were greeted with the news that there had been some sightings just before we had arrived. We stood and waited scanning the trees and bushes, but all we saw was Silver-washed Fritillaries, a single White Admiral, Meadow Browns and this Large Skipper.
Never ones to enjoy standing still for too long we set off along the track to another observation tower, in another clearing. The sun was now fighting with the clouds, and every so often would disappear. When this happened the activity would drop off, but with the sun out the Silver-washed and White Admirals would patrol the bramble and thistles. This White Admiral sat in the sunshine, it's a shame that the left hand upper wing is damaged.
The Silver-washed Fritillaries looked stunning on the thistle heads, and with the height of the thistles it was also possible to photograph them from different angles.
This one looks stunning from below as the sun lights up the upper wings
All this was very nice, but we hadn't managed to see our quarry, so we started to walk back to the original site. Truth be known we had probably given up and were ready to go back to the car. But as we stood there watching the trees, and hoping that a butterfly would turn up and say "I am a Purple Emperor", along came Mark. His entrance was announced by one of our fellow watchers, and we found out that the emperors had shown well yesterday here and that there were non seen at the other location, Abbots Wood.
Within minutes he had pointed out two Purple Hairstreaks in the oak next to us, The view wasn't brilliant but I now know what to look for around the Oaks. After the hairstreaks he found almost as quickly an emperor, it was a female flying between the Oaks and the Sallows. It never settled but I was able to get on it with binoculars, and could see the large size, and the white in the wing. The flight was strong and direct, and not as flitty as the White Admirals that then appeared to tease us. The female would put in short appearances, but did not settle.
One of our fellow observers had walked down the path, and called out that there was a male, and sure enough once we had got there we were treated to the sight of two males flying along side the Sallows. Apparently according to Mark they do this to search out the females. I was able to watch them again with binoculars, and the white in the wing stood out so clearly. We followed one male back in thee direction of the females, but then lost it. But as we searched for it a female flew out of one of the oaks and perched in another, at last the chance, but as I focused the camera she was off, and all I got was this abstract blur of a Purple Emperor.
The female was then joined by another, and they were both prepared to sit in the Sallows close to us. Still up high, I was able to get this shot as she perched on the edge of the tree.
The other female came back around in front of us, and then sat in the middle of the tree, and stayed there for a while.
So at last we had caught up with the emperor, unfortunately we were not able to photograph the male, but that is just being greedy. It is a stunning butterfly to watch, the flight is so strong, and it exudes this majesty that you do not see in others. We were also very grateful to Mark, because without him I don't think we would have seen them. Now we know exactly what to look for. They do not perch in front of you like the smaller butterflies, they make it difficult for you, and you have to know the jizz, and to get that it helps to have it pointed out.
We walked back to the car as the clouds now gathered and the shade became more of the norm than the sun. As we approached the car park Helen stopped suddenly and pointed out a beautiful tall orchid. It turns out this is a Broad-leaved Helleborine. They grow in the shade due to the fact that they have a relationship with a fungus that provides them with food not available through photosynthesis. Another new find to go with the Purple Emperors.