2015 British Butterflies – 18: Purple Emperor and White Admiral at Bernwood Forest sites – 11 & 15th July

Not having seen Purple Emperor at the first attempt, I returned a day later to a different site in the Bernwood Forest complex for another try. Butterfly Conservation’s Purple Emperor field meetings were taking place in Oakley, Shabbington and York Woods on 11 & 12th. I have attended these in the past but now prefer butterfly watching alone or with just one or two companions. That’s because whereas birding is best done in a group I have come to enjoy a communion with insects that is impossible when numbers of people are standing around talking or jostling for camera space.

Hence I headed for Finemere Wood, Bucks (SP722217) hoping for a less crowded option. The area most usually referred to as Bernwood Forest is the Forestry Commission property visited a day earlier (10th), but the ancient hunting forest of Bernwood once covered much more land either side of the Oxon and Bucks border. Now a mosaic of woodland and hay meadows remains stretching north-eastwards from the villages Beckley and Stanton St John, just outside Oxford into countryside beyond the A41 between Bicester and Aylesbury. The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) manages five nature reserves within this complex: Finemere, Rushbeds and Whitecross Green Woods; Bernwood Meadows and Asham Meads. These are variously important for the “big three” woodland butterflies of July and the scarcer Hairstreaks.

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click to enlarge

Arriving at Finemere Wood at 10:30am I joined a small number of thankfully knowledgeable observers who were watching two Purple Emperor (pictured below) in tree tops about a third of the way along this site’s main ride. But these did not descend to the ground as they can be relied upon to do at the Forestry Commission location. Being accessed along a farm track from the nearest road where there is limited parking, Finemere is not troubled by dog walkers or joggers and when the sun shines its only open ride becomes a corridor of frenetic butterfly activity. While we were watching the Emperors, two White-letter Hairstreak were active in the same tree tops, my second 2015 sighting of that species.

Tree top Emperor

Tree top Emperor

There were White Admiral gliding about at intervals but these are not generally inclined to perch for long openly, and hence it can take some time to secure good photographs. I then relocated to Whitecross Green Wood (SP600150) to try my luck there. This second location has a lot of brambly spots to attract White Admiral and Silver-washed Fritillary, but the grassy record shot below was the best I could manage this time. Once flying the condition of White Admirals can deteriorate quickly as the lower image demonstrates, so if they are not captured when newly emerged acceptable pictures can be difficult to come by.

White Admiral

White Admiral

white admiral_01.1502 whitecross green wood

My photography has definitely suffered at times from compiling this series, since there is now always a pressure to secure pictures of a certain standard for each species I feature. Last summer I was wiling days away with less photographic purpose and hence results were often more creative. It was good to get the tree top record since this is how Purple Emperor are often seen, but the required image is of this majestic butterfly at ground level and in five years I have yet to secure a truly satisfying photograph of White Admiral.

A three day rain break ensued then as the weather brightened again this morning (15th) I headed back to Oakley Wood. Arriving at 11:15am as the sun was breaking weakly through blanket cloud cover, I hoped that if like me the Emperors had been stuck at home for three days they might now be more inclined to come down from the trees and pose on the ground. I walked the main track again as far as Shabbington Wood, seeing one Purple Emperor flying amongst Oaks and my year’s first Purple Hairstreak, another speciality species at this site.

Returning to the car park to retrieve my sandwiches at around midday I hung around to see what would happen. Sure enough a male Purple Emperor glided down from on high and settled on a car. This was in just the same spot where I had parked on the 10th (see here) and later been told that a female had settled nearby. Whatever it is that they gather from the gritty surface of the main track, today’s butterfly was probing for with its proboscis on the car tyres. It then set about striking interesting poses on another nearby car.

purple emperror_01.1506 oakley wood

Purple Emperor (male)

These pictures (above) are a bit different from what I’ve taken before. Well everyone gets the ground level shots don’t they, but here’s a couple more anyway (below). I went to alert two enthusiasts from Bristol whom I had passed on the track, and being still nearby they hurried back to the car park. It was one of them’s first Emperor and both were delighted with my find.

Purple Emperor (male)

2015 Purple Emperor (male)

purple emperror_01.1504 oakley wood

The pressure now being off I next followed the main paths around York Wood to see what else was about. On this walk one of many Silver-washed Fritillary indulged me with an almost premium quality photo shoot, and I also captured two more local butterflies (pictured below) that had yet to fill their supporting roles in this series.

On reaching the gate from York Wood into Bernwood Meadows (SP609112) I did a circuit of this lovely wild flower meadow. There was a profusion everywhere of one of my favourites, Knapweed that made for still more photo opportunities. The sound of grasshoppers was all around and countless dozens would zip in every direction to escape my footfall. Eventually I just had to get down on all fours with my macro lens to record these. I believe they are Meadow Grasshopper –  confirmation please anyone?

Wild flowers in Bernwood Meadows

Wild flowers in Bernwood Meadows

It is possible to enjoy many hours browsing these various sites in the Bernwood Forest complex, that are managed for the greater public good by BBOWT, WREN and the Forestry Commission. I spent around four hours in these woods today and in that time what was a half-baked blog post has become a celebration of high summer wildlife. We are so lucky in Oxford to have all this habitat and its nationally important butterfly populations on our doorstep.

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