The car park on the edge of the woodland is full mainly with dog walkers but also butterfly watchers. The two groups have an interesting relationship; the latter are highly dependent on the irresponsibility of the former but, of course, not vice versa…
The purple emperor Apatura iris male is not often drawn from the high oaks where it takes sugars from aphid ‘honeydew’ but will come down to take salts from fresh dog shit (and cow pats, dead animals, and all manner of attractants such as bananas and even shrimp paste). So thank goodness for the profusion of unbagged deposits that often ruin a walk but here brings ‘His Majesty’, the most fabulous and fabled butterfly in the country, within view.
The mature woodland is predominantly sessile oak Quercus petraea, beech Fagus sylvatica, hornbeam Carpinus betulus and sweet chestnut Castanea sativa woodland with much bracken Pteridium aquilinum, bramble and tall hogweed Heracleum sphondylium. The beech has a heavy mast and the winged seeds on the hornbeam hang like light green Christmas lanterns. The finch flocks in winter will have an abundant food supply.
At the bottom of a hill on the track that runs the periphery of the wood, the path passes over a trickle of a stream and here a sunny glade offers hope with honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum, bramble Rubus fruticosus and marsh thistle Cirsium palustre. The first is the host plant of the white admiral Limenitis camilla and others potential nectar sources. A red admiral Vanessa atalanta stops by briefly, but then a white admiral glides down from the tree tops and circles the goat willow Salix caprea before disappearing. Further high circling and then finally one drops to nectar on the bramble and then to suck salts from the wet mud. Three in view at one point gave the impression of local abundance but no sooner do the trio collide in the glade than they disappear with only fleeting further views. Another butterfly right at the top of the oaks looks larger and may be a purple emperor but the view is of a fast-gliding silhouette.
Two local experts report that a male purple emperor was watched en merde at 10am but also advise that the fickle fliers will not descend much after this time. On down the path and a group of watchers has eyes to the sky and suddenly a female, identified by a quick-eyed watcher, circles down to settle briefly on a sunny segment of path but the view is distant and inconclusive to this untrained royal eye. Merde alors!
Silver-washed fritillaries Argynnis paphia charge through the glades and one, then another briefly settles in the sun, as does a comma Polygonia c-album but the latter also hops and walks about the track to siphon salts. There are also abundant hoverflies and occasional dragonflies and damsels.
We return a week later and find the usual assemblage and again stake out various merdes de chiens but only manage another fly by from a tree-top purple emperor. However, an active male purple hairstreak Favonius quercus is spotted by a photographer and, although just too far up in the oaks to see clearly, is a handsome male. A young common toad Bufo bufo crosses the muddy track where we wait in vain for admirals and emperors, the round brown warts on the sandy skin create a perfect camouflage against the drying earth.