An Audience with the Emperor

As Tom mentioned in his previous post, we recently had a very regal visitor to the Visitor Centre. I had been told by one of our Rangers that a Purple Emperor butterfly had been seen around the Centre, and that this wasn’t uncommon. As I had always wanted to see this species, I was thrown into a state of high alert and made it my mission to track one down. Tom and I even placed ‘decoy Emperors’, cut out of paper, around the place in the hope of luring one in. With no success.

Then, one tea break, I wandered into the mess room and was told by our Caretaker, John, that there was a ‘big black butterfly’ in the Education Barn. Pausing only to mop up my spilled coffee and grab a camera, I rushed over and there, as reported, was a big, black butterfly sitting on the glass of the Barn entrance. I clicked off a few photos, but really I wanted a shot of it somewhere a little more natural. Aided by Office Administrator Tracy and an old plum stone, his majesty was coaxed off the window and on to Tracy’s hand, where he posed for several more photos. He was then carried reverently outside and placed on an oak leaf.

Tracy lends a hand

Tracy lends a hand

Unperturbed by all this irreverent treatment, he continued to pose for several minutes, whilst members of staff and visitors filed past to pay their respects.

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So why all the fuss? I’m not alone in being captivated by this particular butterfly; whole books and websites have been devoted to the Purple Emperor. It is neither the biggest nor the rarest native butterfly but it has a kind of mystique about it. Some of this is due to its elusive habits; the adults frequent the highest branches of, usually, oak trees, only coming down to the ground to drink or suck minerals from, of all things, animal droppings. There have been stories of particular ‘master’ trees where the males congregate in large numbers, though this seems to be a myth. And then there is the colour.

Both sexes appear similar from a distance; a dark brown upper surface to the wings relieved by white flashes. But when the light catches the male at the right angle, the reason for the common name becomes apparent; a glorious iridescent sheen unlike the colouring of any other native species.

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I was lucky enough to see Emperors twice more over the summer, but nothing can compare with that special, first close encounter.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer