‘Steve, we have this mad plan…’
‘Tomorrow – on the hottest day of the year – do you want to film Purple Emperors with us?’
It didn’t take long to think about and I didn’t stop to enquire where the madness lay in the plan. We’d all seen Matthew Oates’s tweets from Fermyn woods.
By 9am it was so hot that to stand still in shade felt deeply unpleasant. By 10am we were crawling up the A1. Heat haze over parched brown fields, seen from the backseat in a traffic jam. This was the Hertfordshire of my childhood and some things never seem to change. Purple Emperors are changing though. When I lived in Hertfordshire I wasn’t that interested in the specifics of nature, though a nascent interest in birds was growing. If I’d been into butterflies I would have struggled to see a Purple Emperor: as with too much of our native wildlife its numbers dwindled throughout the twentieth century and colonies outwith its southern English heartland disappeared. Its mystique was formed in its absence. Regal characteristics were projected on to it, as if it was an actual emperor of English woods. It earned the nickname ‘His majesty’, was to be tempted down with offerings and talked about in hushed, reverent tones. Its elusiveness was a thing of legend; as was its peak time, the hour before lunch, when the chances of it deigning to descend to the ground in search of minerals, were slightly higher.
We arrived at Fermyn at peak time; peak temperature edging over thirty degrees. I knelt down to get my work camera from its bag and I caught a glimpse (and felt) a butterfly skimming over my head. ‘Purple Emperor’, Fiona said. I span around and saw a large purple butterfly disappearing over the road and into the wood. Purple Emperors are changing. It’s hard to imagine a collective noun for them. A parade? A stately procession? An enthronement? A commonwealth? But in the thick of Fermyn woods there are currently, literally, hundreds of them.
We were a short distance down the path, hardly into the wood when we found our second and third of the day. His Majesty has a foible, an earthy one for a creature with its rarefied reputation. His Majesty licks dog crap for minerals and the more fragrant the better. It allows close approach while it does this: you can wave a macro lens less than a foot away from it, and it doesn’t bat an antenna, flick a wingtip and disappear in a purple blur. I prostrated myself and fiddled with an unfamiliar camera, trying to ignore the stones in my knees, the dust in my face and the pungent stench of the excrement it was busily licking. Their proboscis is an unexpected lemon yellow and restlessly flicks over the surface of the scat. The underwings are delicate, clean white and maroon stripes on a grey base, with a thick red and black eye, complete with a pale spot like light reflecting from a pupil. However, we had copious footage of a Purple Emperor’s gorgeous underwings: we were really waiting for them to open those extraordinary purple upperwings, but I took the opportunity for practice. Using a Nikon for seven years and then turning to Canon is a little like trying to write left-handed after a lifetime of using your right-hand. The content is still there, but everything is in the wrong place. It no longer comes naturally and the end results are a little messy for the amount of effort put in. Not quite sharp enough. Not quite well exposed enough. Not quite stable enough.
We’d been here twenty minutes and I’d seen more Purple Emperors than in my entire life before. I think this was part of the madness of the mad plan. The other part was the bag carrying: hacking off down tracks through the woods in pursuit of my bosses, carrying heavy spare lenses and large camera bags. In this heat I was feeling frazzled already, sweating like my pores had sprung a leak to stop my skin catching fire. I grabbed shade where I could, a mouthful of warm water, look up as another Emperor flies overhead, and hope I don’t get sunstroke. Of all the days to not own a hat, this might well have been one of the worst.
There are roughly two reasons why a butterfly lands like it does. It lands with open wings when its cold, to bask and warm up from sunlight. It lands with wings closed when it’s too hot, to minimise the area hit by the sun’s rays. This is reductive, naturally, but it holds true on a day like this day. All Emperors held their wings fast shut whenever they’d descend to the ground, no matter if they were on excrement, on the track; in the middle of the shady woods or by the hedgerow that links the two parts of the wood together. But with the frequency we were finding them, we were never short of moments for the tense wait, with cameras trained upon the insect, waiting for it to open up its wings.
It would - of course - not be this simple.
The Purple Emperor is not really, properly, purple. It is a dark brown, with a purple-blue sheen from where the light refracts at certain angles from its skin of minute scales*. It can be sat wings open looking ordinarily dark brown, like an oversized White Admiral, when a slight change in angle or light causes it to flare with colour. Some can be an intense blue, most a shade of Cadbury’s purple. We also don’t mention that the emperor bears a passing resemblance to a chocolate wrapper elegantly blown by the breeze.
With the sun beating down with an unEnglish intensity at this point, no butterfly would seriously consider opening its wings. That didn’t stop us waiting, cameras in hand around everyone we could come across. Or other people for that matter. Whilst five people were crouched around one on the track another one flew past at eye level, eventually landing on my camera bag, where, amazingly, it started to mineral from where it had rubbed against my sweaty body. That was unexpected. That got attention. At that moment through the camera’s viewfinder a spider ran across the bag and clipped the butterfly: a flick of the wing and the spider was sent flying: the butterfly held its wings open for less than one glorious purple second.
With the footage slowed down we could work out exactly what happened. This was not a collision, but instead the spider had reared up and clambered onto the underside of the butterfly’s open wing. The instinctive reaction slowed down shows the butterfly snapping shut its wings and flicking them open, with an action similar to taking off.
That wasn’t the only open-winged one we found. In the true fashion of clichéd endings, we’d spread out as we walked back to the car. Fiona first, then me, then Max. Max came back bearing a big grin and a camera with footage of slow motion Purple Emperor upperwings.
It was an extraordinary day. One I’ve never experienced before and one I don’t really expect to see again. Butterflies can have these incredible local explosions in population due to an extraordinary aligning of many variables. The hatch this year must’ve built on an extraordinary last year for the species. It’s so extraordinary it almost feels churlish to think that it might have been responsible for putting a dent in the mystique of this species. This hardest, most elusive, most rarefied of species that happens to flutter to the woodland floor in search of dog poo, no longer seems so difficult, so elusive, or quite so mysterious.
*I have no idea why it should be so for this and no other species of British butterfly. Anyone?