Today I saw my first Purple Emperor! I've had dubious glimpses of this second largest and most elusive of our butterflies in the past: high in the treetops, briefly outlined against the sky, something very large hurtling along, or once something I'm fairly sure was an Emperor flying up virtually from under my foot, but gone before I could be certain. This time, however - this time was different...
It was a perfect butterfly day - hot late-June sun, a clear blue sky, only the slightest breeze. I got off the train at Ashtead, walked onto the common and right at the edge was greeted by Meadow Browns and Ringlets (I'd seen a couple of those dark beauties yesterday - my first of the year) and a bright Tortoiseshell. Skippers, Large and Small (and perhaps Essex), were dashing about busily, picking fights with one another and anything else that got in the way. As I headed into the woods, I was soon greeted by what I was hoping for - White Admirals and Silver-Washed Fritillaries, gliding up and down the wooded edges of the paths, in and out of the broken light, so beautiful, so heart-lifting. In my wanderings I saw too many to count - all splendid fresh specimens (though one White Admiral already had tattered wing edges). Being fresh and full of energy (the Fritillaries seemed to be all males, cruising their territories), they were reluctant to settle, but one White Admiral perched, wings folded, on a nearly sunlit leaf, I focused my binoculars on it, and enjoyed a long close-up look at those beautifully patterned white-on-speckled-bronze underwings.
A while later, I turned from my path to admire one of the common's most impressive veteran oaks (these were once pollarded, suppyling wood and timber, and acorns for the pigs foraging on the common). Nearby a couple of grey-haired men in grey windcheaters were training binoculars on a pair of oaks a little farther off - were there Emperors in the treetops? I thought about going up to them and finding out what they'd seen, or were looking for, but decided against and retraced my steps to the path I'd been on. Pondering which way to go, I opted for a small pathway to my right, and as I turned on to it, down flew a White Admiral and settled a few yards ahead of me. Except it didn't exactly settle; it was walking around in a slightly agitated, quite unwhiteadmirallike manner - and wasn't it too big for a White Admiral? And too - it briefly spread its wings - too purple?!
I don't know if my heart missed a beat. I certainly gasped with astonishment and wonder. My first Emperor! And what a beauty he was (only the males have the purple sheen, and the females are seldom seen) - a splendid newly-minted Emperor in all his imperial purple glory! I stood stock still and watched as he quartered the narrow path, testing the ground with his proboscis as he went. The path, despite the sun, was slightly damp and muddy, and clearly there was something to the Emperor's taste in that half-hardened mud (they seem to need or enjoy minerals, no one knows quite which or why, and they can be attracted to the ground by the most revolting man-made lures, not to mention horse dung). The Emperor was so intent on his task that, over the minutes that ensued, I was able to edge closer and closer. At one point he flew up and towards me, and it seemed he might be about to perch on me. I held my breath, but he turned and resumed his investigations of the mud.
In the course of these enchanted minutes, I was treated to the glory of his full-spread wings, the purple flash of the Emperor briefly in flight, and, when he finally found the patch of mud that was most to his taste, those astonishingly beautiful underwings, with their patterned blur of mixed colours - greys, red-browns, even pink and silver, and the single bright eye-spot on the forewing... It was such a perfect encounter, it felt like a dream (I've had my share of Emperor dreams) - but no, there he was, real, a step or two away - my first Purple Emperor! Eventually, of course, he wearied of his mud and flew off, vouchsafing me one last flash of his imperial purple before, with an effortless turn of speed, he disappeared into the trees and was gone. Leaving me stunned, suffused with joy, and feeling as if a great blessing had been bestowed on me.