The colour purple became my leitmotiv during early July. It is the season of the purple butterflies and therein lies a tale of mystery and obsession...
Two very different, yet equally enigmatic, purple butterfly species are on the wing towards the end of June into mid-July. Though very different in fame and stature, both share two things in common: a fondness for the heady heights of mature Oak tree canopies in deciduous woodland and a strong reputation for elusiveness and ability to evade the gaze of even the most determined of butterfly seekers.
Since becoming increasingly drawn into the world of butterflying, I've discovered that, since time immemorial, avid butterfly chasers have gone temporarily a little doolally at this time of year. The hysteria is all over a certain famous, purple-cloaked member of the royal family who is not, officially at any rate, resident in Norfolk at the moment - the magnificent Purple Emperor.
Known affectionately to his followers as "his Majesty" or sometimes simply "Iris", the Purple Emperor is neither Britain's largest butterfly (our very own Norfolk Swallowtail), nor the rarest (the once extinct, recently reintroduced Large Blue), nor even the brightest (arguably the Silver-washed Fritillary or Swallowtail) so this seemingly bizarre purple emperor obsession had been puzzling me for some time. Just what quality is it that bewitches them all- the dramatic colour purple? Their reputed vigorous flight? Or some other mysterious factor altogether ....?
After an inspiring talk by renowned butterfly conservationist and Emperor acolyte Matthew Oates at Norfolk Butterfly Conservation's AGM back in 2016, I became intrigued and not a little bewitched myself; in a bid to cure my curiosity and discover the obscure reason for the Purple Emperor's celebrity status for myself, I started planning a field trip to visit his imperial majesty's haunts of mature Oak and Sallow woodland rides.
Alas fate was not on my side, despite attempts to make visits to Fermyn Woods in Northants, Wood Walton Fen in Cambridgeshire or Theberton in Suffolk, life events intervened and scuppered my plans well and truly for this year. Perhaps Iris is to be my new five year nemesis butterfly, who knows.
With my ability to range much curtailed, I was crestfallen and deeply disappointed. But there was still a second less famous, but to me, equally elusive purple butterfly to discover closer to home: the Purple Hairstreak butterfly.
Although much smaller, the Purple Hairstreak butterfly shares a surprising number of characteristics in common with its larger imperial cousin. it too favours mature deciduous oak woodland and so is also highly elusive by nature (and under-reported) as a result to its habit of dwelling up high amongst the tree canopy, living on honeydew produced by aphids and only rarely descending from the "throne" for the odd sip of bramble nectar.
This time I did my research thoroughly. Purple Hairstreaks being far more widespread than his majesty, I was able to find some promising local locations in Norfolk, and had in fact already experienced a brief glimpse of a old faded and tattered Purple Hairstreak on a dog walk at Holkham Hall one August a few years back. I took a chance on just a short run up to Syderstone Common nature reserve, nearby on the edge of North Norfolk coastal strip. Its a large reserve of lowland gorse heathland, an SSSI famous for its Natterjack toads, but not all that much else, in fact a previous visit had left me visually underwhelmed.
My fieldcraft skills must have improved somewhat as I was delighted to spot an active Purple Hairstreak quite soon into my visit. There it was, a small grey blob fluttering away right up high in the treetops, initially silhouetted against the cloudy sky. Its flight was erratically and it was hard to keep track as the butterfly flitted amongst the oak treetop and nearby birches in the mature woodland circling this beautiful SSSI.
After spotting my Hairstreak Oak I stayed for some time, craning my neck to try to spot this diminutive butterfly amongst the oak leaves. Eventually one dropped a little lower and permitted a quick shot before circling up high again in a cluster of nearby Birches.
Perhaps the star of the show was Syderstone Common nature reserve itself, which was tramsformed from my prior visit and at its peak of summer glory. The common was beautifully adorned in abundant vivid pink Rosebay Willowherb flower spires, intermingled with creeping carpets of yellow Tormentil, rambling native Honeysuckle and bramble in full bloom, and every plant dancing with a host of orange skipper and meadow butterflies flitting about as far as the eye could see.
On my way back to the car I spotted a beautiful young buck Roe Deer, who paused, checked me out for a little while then barked at me before trotting off back into the Oak woodland, a beautiful end to my successful visit. Although my sightings had been distant and tantalising, I had bagged my first purple.
As for purple Royalty... I must now be patient, wait and bide my time till 2018 brings a whole new season and fresh opportunity for his Imperial Highness to enlist me as subject.
We shall see...