Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Apatura Iris Pillars at Svernake Forest Oct 23rd

Gillian was invited down to Savernake forest to see the Apatura iris caterpillars in the wild by Matthew Oates who has been monitoring the Purple Emperor butterfly population  for quite a few years,  Gill kindly invited me to join her and i could not miss this chance of seeing such a rare creature!  might never get to see one again!!!
 The bad part was, i had to get down to Gills house by 8AM!!!  which meant getting up at 5.30!!  its nearly 1hr 45 min's drive ,but early on a Sunday morning was an easy journey down the m6.     On Saturday night she said that she was not feeling too good and might not be well enough to go, but hopefully would be ok!
On arriving at Gills , she opened the door and was really pleased to see me :)    Not on deaths door as i had imagined!  but looking more alive than i did after my long journey!    lol.
We then drove down to wiltshire to savernake which was another 1 hr 50 mins drive to meet Matthew at 10.15.  on arrival he showed us distribution maps of where he has seen the pillars in the forest, over the last 3 years the numbers have drastically declined, with bad storms just after the butterflies emergence having disastrous consequences on their numbers!

Here is a forest image. the main drive through the forest is over 4 miles long!!!!!!!!

We where taken through the forest to the first location, where Matthew showed us the first pillar!  i am amazed  he manages to find them in such a huge forest, they are alot smaller than i had imagined, about 12mm in length and have so much character, amazing little things!    we spent ages trying to photographing this first one, it was quite windy so was fairly difficult!  
Here is my first image of these fascinating pillars!

Matthew then took us to the next location where two pillars where in residence on adjoining sallow bushes.
This is when the trouble started!  after taking a few shots of the first pillar, which was too high to shoot , i took a series of shots of the second one which was only about 4 ft of the ground .  here is a shot Matthew took of me shooting with mpe , i have ringed the caterpillar so u can see its size!

and the resulting image 

Now because i hold the stem as i shoot to keep everything steady, i was kneeling down while pulling the branch down to a good shooting position,  then the  UNTHINKABLE happened, the branch snapped OFF in my fingers!!  OMG!
  Gills face was a picture of horror!   I just FROZE ! , and didn't move or say a word!    i heard Matthew behind me say " o dear, this is serious"  he then said it has happened once before and he would go back to the car to get a safety pin to re attach the leaf to the bush!    the caterpillars spin a silk pad to hold themselves in place, as can be seen in the above image.  so the pillar could not be made to walk onto another leaf!
While Matthew walked back to his car, Gill had a good laugh at my expense :(  
I was still in shock!!!   but i transferred my mpe set up onto her camera so she could take a few shots now the pillar was on the ground and easy to shoot!!!!!!!

Here is Gillian adjusting camera settings and then shooting the tiny pillar  [ ringed to show size ]

After this incident and the pillar was safely re-attached to the bush Matthew took us to see the congregation area by the  " Ailesbury Column "   where Gill passed Matthews tests on which where the best congregation trees and perches  used by the male purple emperor butterflies.  I was very impressed!

The congregation area,, where the male purple emperors look out for and intercept  passing females to mate with in late june/early july!  That is why they choose the highest trees to give a good vantage point !
 it is an amazing site to see!   believe me!

A sallow tree near the the monument had two pillars but they had gone missing a week previous and Matthew thinks they might have been munched!!!!!   most tits and finches  love eating eggs and caterpillars unfortunately!  not good :(

The next pillar we where shown decided to go walk about on the sallow branches, amazing speed it travelled at along four branches before finally settling down on a nice sallow leaf and started to spin a new web pad to attach itself too!
Here is Gill shooting the wandering catt! 

And waiting for it to FALL OFF!   lol

The final location needed the use of a ladder to see and shoot the pillar,  this was a really great moment to see Matthew climb up the ladder he carries with him to find and show us the tiny caterpillar.

and with me trying to shoot it!

Here is the resulting image, not the best but a little different from composition angle!   i do not usually like black backgrounds but think it works well on this shot!

Matthew then left us,  we had an amazing time watching these extraordinary caterpillars and learned so much information from him, and he has invited us to come back to see there progress as they hibernate on the branches and next spring grow into very large impressive caterpillars!  we cant wait!

An image of a dead oak tree and a few more pillar shots .

Here is Gillian's best image from the day :)   i must admit after just two attempts at using this extremely hard lens she is doing extremely well, i did not even need to help her this time!

And one of my close ups of the pillars head!

This day was one of the best trips of the year for various reasons , a day we will never forget !



  1. Would not notice the uniqueness of this catterpilar if not by your blog post. Nice history and I think it was worth the effort to capture the images and the good day of photography.

  2. I love the shots of those tiny little creatures. Really good shots. top photography in the Philippines