Close Encounters with the Purple Emperor 

Extracts from my diaries on the Purple Emperor in Hampshire since I became the co-ordinator in 2000

10th July 2011 West Wood 

 

Visited West Wood close to Winchester today, and at 09:30 my first encounter was a female which flew down and sat at the base of a beech tree for a few minutes. It was very odd seeing a female so early on in the day, as they are normally seen well into the mid-morning period. She may well have been fending off the amorous advances of a male suitor in the area.

 

The males started to grace us with their presence at about 10:40, when a magnificent male, probably the largest specimen I’ve ever come across, flew down the ride, and then at 10:45 he settled on the ground and started feeding. He  imbibed on the stony ground and then flew off and settled into a fir tree for a minute or so, and then flew to a young Sallow bush close by.

Taking off again he flew up and down a short distance of the ride, at 11:05 he was back on the track where he stayed for a short while and then disappeared into the same fir plantation. That's the last we saw of him, although another came through without stopping. We went to the car in the car-park, where another male flew down and settled on my wife's chair as we were just about to have a coffee and some lunch, then he started flying feverishly around several of the cars, settling briefly on the tyres and hubcaps.

 

The smells of the car engines, and my mighty cheese and pickle sandwiches, were just too inviting to ignore! He even went into the boot of my car, which I shall never ever clean out again! He finally settled on the fencing, close to the ground just inches away from me, then he flew onto the Forestry Commission's sign. Several people were looking on with anxious expressions, with comments like ' let’s drive away quickly as that man is trying to take a photograph of that 'thing'! Well I ask you, I soon put them right!

 

The male was with us in the car-park for about 20 minutes altogether.

This is a male probably on its first encounter with a human being as it looked so fresh. I was in Crab Wood in an area where I have had good encounters with his majesty. This male flew around me and briefly landed on my back and on my hat, and then onto this Hazel leaf. He imbibed on the sticky surface giving me good views of his yellow straw like proboscis. He was in perfect condition and I will never forget this encounter.

Over the years I have had the pleasure and privilege of seeing and experiencing many close encounters with 'HIM'. None more so than this experience shown here when I was in West Wood, and just about to leave. This male obviously had other ideas. It alighted on my walking boot, so I sat down whilst it imbibed on my rather smelly boot. I could have walked out of the wood with it still on my boot, the butterfly was so engaged. My boots were very old and had all sorts of delights embedded in them!

 11th July 2015 Havant Thicket and Bells Copse

 

Weather: Dull and overcast until 11:15 brief interludes of warm sunny periods

Temperature: 60f-75f

Recorders: Ashley Whitlock and Field Trippers

 

As usual today started off very cloudy and breezy, there didn't seem to be any hope of engaging with our target species the Purple Emperor. We walked along the main ride from about 10:30 and were generally looking in the rides where there were many Small Skippers, Large Skippers, Meadow Browns, Ringlets and Marbled Whites.

 

It gave everyone an opportunity to see the various species with wings open and shut just waiting for the sun to come out. We got about two thirds down the main ride where the Oak stands are predominant, and the sallow was getting very tall and common on both sides of the rides. Here, at about 11:15 over a very large Oak, I espied my first Purple Emperor which was Oak edging, and as the sun came out it was zipping in and out the tall oak sprigs going south along the ride.

We got to Bells Copse and I explained about Assembly points and the Sallow stands along the Oak rides, and again at 11:55 another Purple Emperor male was seen going from east-to west. We were walking through Bells Copse counting the White Admirals and Silver-Washed Fritillaries when we saw the ‘Valezina’ form of the Silver-Washed species, which was probably the same one I had seen earlier in the week. What a treat to get so close to such a shy species!

At 12:15 another male Purple Emperor was seen oak edging in the main ride, the weather by this time had cleared up and was very warm and sunny, and the males were now flying with much enthusiasm. Another was seen at 12:30, he was quite close to the ground and went up again into a sallow bush.

We had reached the area close to the car-park and were getting ready to eat our lunch when we all stopped at 13:00 in a small ride very close to the car-park. Above our heads were three male Purple Emperors, two engaging in a chase in and out of the sprigs of oak, they were about 15 feet above our heads, what a spectacle. In and out the chase went, one male went one way and another went the other, a third male was seen on the opposite side of the ride, then they all came together and the chase was on again, it wasn't assembly point 'fisticuffs’ as I think they were just frolicking in the sunshine. This behaviour went on for a good twenty minutes, and it was a joy to watch, were these Emperors just engaging in male testosterone antics, or was it all in aid of looking for the female of the species. At one point I thought one of the males was a female as it did look a bit larger than the other males as it was being chased, but it wasn’t really behaving like a female.

My only regret was it wasn't all filmed on somebody's mobile phone, it would have made great viewing!

 

I have over the last few years always thought this small ride should produce more sightings, but never on this scale. It is very sheltered here and with the warm sunshine was ideal conditions for the Purple Emperor. There are lots of sallow below the oaks making it ideal for sallow searching. The oaks where there was a lot of ‘engagement’ are only small oaks and the Emperors could be seen very easily, about 15-20 feet above our heads.

We left rather reluctantly to have our lunch and everybody munched into their sarnies very happy. One male was still hanging around this area when we returned but the ‘hors-de-combat’ had ceased. In the afternoon another two were seen, one over the major oak at the crossways from the car-park where it was Oak edging  then flew across the main ride.  At the Assembly point none were seen, I think due to the windy conditions. Everybody was more than happy and the 'Purple Emperor Experience' lived up to its name, many thanks to everybody who enjoyed the spectacle with me, a great field trip.

Copyright Peter Eeles

When Purple Emperors come to the ground males especially, they are on the look out for minerals in the ground. They normally source this on stony hard surfaces, and can be very tame whilst they do this. Wing waving every so often to keep flies away, or just to warn you not to get too close.

Every year I have several field trips especially to look for the Purple Emperor. Here we are looking at the Assembly point in Goose Green Inclosure in Alice Holt Forest. In a good year there can be up to half a dozen males flexing their muscles and giving spectacular chases over the Oak crowns.

One of the UK's favourite sites for viewing the Purple Emperor was Bentley Wood which straddles the border of Hampshire and Wiltshire. The site probably hasn't got such a draw as it once had as there are better sites to see the Purple Emperor now. Here is a Purple Emperor on a car bonnet being photographed by my wife Jackie.

A male Purple Emperor on my hand in Botley Wood. It stayed here for about an hour just imbibing off my sweaty hand! I didn't wash my hand for a while.

Visiting Bentley Wood can get rather busy at times, so to get a good look at the Purple Emperor there are plenty of rides dotted around the site where there is a good chance to encounter one. However the main area of activity is usually around the car-park, which attracts the butterfly, maybe because of the smells of the car engines, or humans? Here is a male on the hub of a land-Rover which had rotting manure on it.

It had been quite foggy and cool in West Wood when after about two hours I took off my coat to eat my sandwiches. I was just minding my own business when I noticed what I thought was a bat flying up the ride towards me. It was a Purple Emperor flying from side to side in the ride, looking ridiculously large, he flew onto my jacket, and then hopped on to my camera bag, where he started to imbibe with vigour. We sat and had our lunch together and put the world to rights!

The female (left) is a very shy creature, and very few people see it throughout the Purple Emperor butterfly season. If you do see it it's normally flitting through the sallow bushes looking for a suitable spot to egg lay. The first hint that you have a female in your area, is a lot of frenzied activity by the males as they start patrolling in and out of the sallow stands. I have noticed females sitting on sallow leaves looking very sheepish, before an egg lay, which is normally in the middle of the morning. She will sit very quietly hoping that the males flying in and around will not detect her. In the middle of the day right through to the mid afternoon she will be seen looking for suitable sallow to deposit her eggs.

This is what a sheepish looking female Purple Emperor looks like, and she about 12 feet above my head. She sat there on a sallow leaf for the best part of an hour, slowly opening her wings and then shutting them again as the warmth heated her up. Several males flew quite close to her but they did not detect her.

This is a female which was brought to me in a cardboard box. It was found on the ride floor of a private wood. The right hand side of the wing had been torn off and for the most part the butterfly was well past its best. It looked as if it had been egg-laying and the butterfly had been attacked by a Jay or another bird and managed to escape but obviously could not fly. It remained alive in this box with sugar solution to feed it for about another 5 days.

This is a female Purple Emperor which was found on the ride floor during a field trip to West Harting Down a few years ago. She was lucky not to have been trodden on, as she looked exhausted. You cannot normally pick them up and place them on a leaf, but we did this to get her out of the way, so it wasn't trodden on by somebody else less observant. I expect she had just been on a bout of egg-laying, but her end was very near, such is the sad fact for this beautiful creature.

  6 July 2020  Abbotts Wood Inclosure

Weather: Cloudy for the most part, occasional good sunny spells

Temperature: 23c

Observers: Ashley and Jackie Whitlock, Kevin Freeborne

Jackie my wife and I arrived in slightly cloudy conditions but the sun was out and quite warm. We saw our first Purple Emperor at 10:05, flying in and around the main Oak stand in the small triangle. We noticed another, what we thought was a male in a sallow bush in the triangle at 10:20, however this turned out to be a female as it remained rooted to a sallow leaf for good 30-50 odd minutes.  One male came over the sallow at 10:20 searching for females and another male was passing in and around the area so close to finding the female, but she stayed rooted to the hazel she was sat on. How this male missed her I do not know, he did several passes around and around at 10:25-10:30, but still did not detect her.

A third male flew over our ride, searching again, will he detect the female? Time was 10:40, she was still there, even with all this testosterone flying about! She was still there at 10:50 now with wings open, however the sun was disappearing. Another male flew over the sallow  and right down to the end of the ride when Kevin then suddenly called, ‘’another female a lot lower down!’’ and we all rushed down the ride and sure enough this pristine female was looking at us from about 15-20 feet up at, this was at 10:55.

Her wings were spread out as the sun reappeared again then at 11:18  she went off to egg-lay. She weaved in and out of the sallow looking like a graceful bird, giving us all a lovely view of her flying. She settled down a bit further up, and then she was off again weaving in and around the sallow and into the back of the sallow stand, presumably to lay another egg or two. The time was now 11:20 and she was resting then she eventually flew off and we lost sight of her..

We noted another male sallow searching at 11:30.

11:47 Male Oak edging and sallow searching over our small ride and then back again over the tall oaks. It was quite cloudy again now.

12:10 2 males were noted sallow searching and oak edging on the main ride, both interacted briefly, then both went their separate ways. One came over sallow searching again at 12:15, the sun was in but it was quite warm and no wind, which made a change. I wandered down the main ride about 50 yards and noted a male on a hazel bush, quite close to me, then he buzzed off over the sallow area at 12:15.

12:20 one male was seen oak edging in the small triangle again and possibly another at 12:32 sallow searching and oak edging. One male was seen with a chunk out of its wing at 12:35 going from north to south in the ride. The sun was out now with a lot less wind, which really helped with observations.

One male was again oak edging down the ride, at a spot I call ‘Dead Oak Dip’, which is near to the small car-park. Then two males were together at 13:05  one going north and the other going south. At 13:12 one male was sallow searching over the ride, then again (2) over the large oak in the triangle and then both oak edging again at 13:15.

It was cloudy again at 13:20 and a male was seen settled in an oak in the triangle, then he was off again at 13:24, just as the sun peeped through the cloud.

Goose Green Inclosure

I used to visit this Assembly Point without fail many years ago, but somehow, for me, it’s lost it's shine. For some reason the Purple Emperors seem to feel the same way. I think this Assembly Point reflects the number of Purple Emperors in and around certain parts of the Inclosures. In 2018 I recorded two or three here but in 2020 I only saw just one on station, but we may have seen more had we been around a lot longer.

Jackie and I arrived at 14:30 and one male was flying in and around the main Oak area vista, utilising the large Oak on our right as we sat in our chairs behind the main vista. It was partly sunny and he was flying around his vista again and settled down on an oak sprig facing westwards. The wind had abated somewhat, although the breeze got up at times. The clouds seemed to moving quite fast.

At 15:00 just the one male, flying again I suggest one on station which is unusual, although it’s been like that for several years. Patrolling the vista around and around and then settling down facing west. I went to look further down the ride to see if there were any on the large oaks but there didn’t seem to be any.

No clashes or chases at 15:05 so we decided to leave, it was getting quite cloudy now.

I should really stay at an Assembly Point for at least an hour in good conditions, but the butterflies have been sadly lacking of late.

All things being equal it turned out to be an excellent day with observations of males totalling up to 30 but the actual count was about 8-10 males, as we probably counted several two or three times, including two females and one male at Goose green Inclosure.