Emperor’s new clothes?

purple emperor in northants  Photo: Tim Melling
purple emperor in Northants Photo: Tim Melling

I headed off, towards the end of last week, with three chums to look at flowers and butterflies, and to drink beer and wine, and to put the world to rights.

All of us could be described as senior enough to be grumpy old men, although, of course, our aim was to be happy not grumpy.  Sometimes, however, the rest of the world is getting everything so wrong that grumpiness comes through despite one’s intentions to be sunny, sunny, sunny.

Our target was to see purple emperors in Bentley Wood – one of the best places in the country to see them.

However, we visited a secret chalk downland site first – and saw lots of flowers.  I’m really trying with flowers this year and decided I would learn one each day.  I learned meadow cranesbill and then my mind was full for the day as far as flowers are concerned.  I’m really impressed by folk who can remember more than one flower a day – they must be real naturalists.

We did see some other flowers – some were very rare – but if I told you about them I’d have to kill you all, and since readers are flooding back to this blog now I am not telling you about the USA that would be too high a body count and too big a task.

However, I have a lot more vacant slots in my head for butterflies and we saw marbled whites, small heaths, a single common blue and ringlets, meadow browns etc.

I have an almost infinite number of brain receptacles for birds but not too many of them were used – we did see lots of corn buntings though, which is such a rare event in the English countryside these days that I had to have a drink.

We stayed in the Old Mill at Salisbury but Constable had moved his easel – I thought I could see where it had been though.  Salisbury Cathedral looks as wonderful as ever, even though someone has built some houses in front of it and forgotten to grow the 50ft trees first to mask them.

The Old Mill has kingfishers flying past if you sit in the garden at 6am and keep your ears open for their high-pitched cries (they can make those cries even when they have fish in their beaks I notice). They also have a nice pint of Abbot.

Conversation ranged widely through the days over what we thought about the RSPB magazine (mixed), George Monbiot’s book (mixed), the RSPB’s new TV advert (mixed), the Wildlife Trusts (mixed), the Guardian (mixed), this government (not so mixed), this book (mixed) and that book (mixed), and this old friend (we think he is great!) and that old friend (he’s great too!).  You see, it’s a bit difficult to summarise – you should have been there!

The conversation was stimulating even when I was completely sober, and even when they were completely sober.  You should have been there!  I have some very clever and very agreeable friends.

The Old Mill seemed to want to give us Saturday breakfast around Saturday lunchtime – but we negotiated it much earlier (to just before elevenses) so that we could set off to Bentley Wood where the air would be black with purple emperors.

We also made the mistake of eating breakfast when it arrived – that always slows you down, doesn’t it? So we arrived at Bentley Wood at around 10, I think it was, and just bagged the last spot in the car park which was full – this trivial piece of information is actually quite important.

The air was not yet black with purple emperors so we went walking to track them down. Phewww! What a scorcher – it was hot.   Good weather for butterflies – in fact good weather for; meadow browns, ringlets, large skippers, small skippers, white admirals, large whites, green-veined whites, red admirals, speckled woods, silver-washed fritillaries (how amazing are they?), white-letter hairstreaks and anything else I’ve forgotten but not for purple emperors.  And not for peacocks or brimstones for we were in the ‘peacock gap’ and the ‘brimstone gap’.

One or two emperors had been seen but we had been in the wrong place at the right time and so we were emperorless – like most other people.  The car park, remember the car park?, is quite a good spot for them and if we had just stayed there we might have seen one.  T’would have been a terribly dull visit though.

We had to make a move in order to get to the next pub so we left.  It wasn’t quite that easy as hordes of people were having a picnic blocking our exit so we had to lay about us with stout sticks to clear a path.  No, that’s an exaggeration – they were very kind and moved with alacrity (especially when I told them our driver was apt to veer around like a crazed, a crazed? – a crazed driver under these circumstances).

As we edged slowly out of the constricted space (remember we were last in to the car park) we found a horse fly to rival all horseflies and looked at that in awe and then edged out the last few feet to discover that a purple emperor had been performing acrobatics about 20 feet from us in the first part of the tiny car park.

That was enough to make anyone grumpy but we were soon at the pub.  So we didn’t see purple emperors – our quest was a failure apart from all those flowers (tufted vetch was my flower of the day on Saturday), all those butterflies, all that beer, all that wine and all that cheery conversation.  A failure as we did not see purple emperor even though, had we been sensitive to it, we might have felt the faintest whisper from its wings a few feet away.

So how can I have the nerve to display that lovely photo of a purple emperor at the top of this post?  Because on Monday morning, I was watching a purple emperor (about half a dozen of them in fact) half an hour from my home and at the site, Fermyn Woods, where Tim Melling took these images.

I know my chums will be pleased for me and not grumpy at all.



Purple emperor in Northants.  Photo: Tim Melling
Purple emperor in Northants. Photo: Tim Melling







23 Replies to “Emperor’s new clothes?”

  1. Great blog, as always, Mark. Has anyone written a book about wildlife viewing from car-parks? Could be a winner!

    1. SarahB – welcome and many thanks. What a thought! Off the top of my head, I once saw a big flock of waxwings from Wellingborough station car park, I saw an early swallow from the Cheltenham racecourse car park a few years ago (whilst quaffing champagne) and at Swanton novers there is a car park specifically so that you can park and look for honey buzzards. What have others seen on their ‘car park lists’.

  2. Not exactly from a car park but I was rather chuffed to see an Osprey from my train as it sat in Montrose station on my way back from Aberdeen yesterday.

  3. Much better idea would be birds seen at football matches. Best ever was Woodcock flying over Elland Road when Tony Woodcock was playing for Forest against Leeds. House Martins feeding in flood lights at York City would be a second. And we always win when I see a Red Kite driving from Carlisle to Leeds for home games!

    1. John, You can’t win that often then; I know they will perch on cars butI have yet to see a red kite driving anywhere.

  4. Saw a Barn Owl in the carpark at Summerleys once, busy hunting away in front of a transit, in the photo I got the driver busy reading the The Sun whilst a Barnie is hovering right in front of his transit, oblivious to it’s presence, also whilst coming out of this years British GP on the Park n’ Ride bus we were on the A43 just after the Silverstone exit/slip road under the bridge was a Buzzard sitting on the armco, I chuckled to myself as one self appointed expert claimed it to be a Golden Eagle and then a Scottish bloke laughed and looked at me (we had been talking all day) and said ” see you get tourist eagles here too”..made me laugh

  5. “Salisbury Cathedral looks as wonderful as ever, even though someone has built some houses in front of it and forgotten to grow the 50ft trees first to mask them.”

    Perhaps the builders of the Kings House, or maybe James I hisself, preferred the view across the Avon and the water meadows to a row of trees …

  6. Thank you for today’s blog. Fair warmed the cockles. I look forward eagerly to the publication of ‘Three men on a birdwatch”.

    Worthwhile piece in the Ecologist, just in case you didn’t see it. Here

  7. I spent yesterday afternoon in a local wood near me and I agree silver washed fritillary are fantastic companions for a walk. I also saw a lot of White Admiral at quite a low level which I haven’t seen for a long time. With Marbled White in the meadow alongside it made a good afternoon although no birds at all. Savernake Forest near Marlborough does hold Purple Emperor so I must try there.

  8. I’m always pleased when I can hear a Skylark from my office car park in the spring, eeking out an existence on the last patch of green on the Oxford Business Park, inside the Oxford ring road. It was there this April.

    1. Allen – indeed, and we hear them in that Cheltenham racecourse car park too at the festival meeting. Only 237 days to go until the Champion Hurdle – but who’s counting?

  9. I too was out butterfly watching over the weekend, Saturday at Chambers Farm Wood in Lincolnshire where White Admiral was the highlight ( remember its grim up north!) small and large skipper, speckled wood, meadow brown, ringlet, large white, small tortoiseshell, broad bodied chaser, and brown hawker plus turtle dove. Messingham Sand Quarry produced additional gatekeeper. common blue and mature peacock caterpillars. Suday in the Lakes for mountain ringlet we also saw at the same site small heath and golden ringed dragonfly, elswhere we added northen brown argus, grayling, small pearl and dark green fritillary sadly no high brown and no early scotch argus. Still would have loved to have seen the emperor though! oh and got some ticks of the wrong kind.
    On monday a local AONB member of staff telling us how wonderful grouse moor management is when challenged about no breeding hen harriers and almost no breeding peregrines in the North Pennines SPA suggested I need to get out more! Her husband is a keeper, enough said.

  10. When I’m out filming, I always check out the car park first. Being a bit nerdy I discovered that the temperature in and around the car park is usually 2 degrees centigrade (who is this celsius bloke ?) higher than the surrounding countryside. More heat, more insects. More insects, more birds, reptiles etc etc. Saves me poor ole legs from trapesing around endlessly in search of the target. At Fermyn, I usually turn up about 10.30 am, complete with a Costa Coffee and Lemon Swirl Danish ( wild bean cafe) , lean against the barrier and check out the Purple Emp hordes parading up and down Dog Pooh Alley. Then I get the Vid out to film the 2 Purp Emps that are usually checking out my tyres for salty shitbits.
    Meanwhile, Mark check this out from Summerleys

    1. Bentley or is it Halfman Halftripod? thanks for that tip – I saw you a few years back and did the same as you. it worked fine. Then I went off and saw White Letter Hairstreak half way down the track and of course there were plenty of other sightings of the PE after I’d brocken my duck at the car park! please contact me at bestagibbons@gmail.com. Thanks again.

    2. forgot to say i watched that video from summerleys of the LRP with Beetle larva. super stuff, wish i’de been there

  11. My one and only sighting (so far!) of Tree Sparrows was in the car park at Bempton Cliffs reserve. I saw my first Purple Emperors, 10 of them, last Saturday in Surrey and still smile at the thought of them. When I told my work colleagues about taking a photo of a butterfly on a pile of poo, I think I confirmed exactly what they think of me! 😀

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