There’s a spot just twenty minutes drive from the heart of Sofia in Bulgaria. It’s a wooded area where a small stream joins a larger river alongside the main road, near enough the city that there’s a bus stop. Nothing remarkable, that’s it in the photograph. You could drive past on your daily commute for years, and never feel a need to stop.
Nothing remarkable, except that on a sunny day (and there are many here in Bulgaria), one could reasonably expect to encounter around a hundred different species of butterfly within the confines of this little area. It is, in the parlance of butterfly seekers, a veritable hot spot, where purple emperors vie with chequered skippers, and black hairstreaks sport with chequered blues. Where you will quickly tick off your chestnut heaths and Hungarian gliders, your twin-spot fritillaries and dappled whites.
The Aurelian won’t reveal the exact location, because that’s not the point. Any local lepidopterist will direct you to it if you’re planning a trip to the Balkans. No, the point is that there are certain places that are worth your time, and others that quite clearly are not.
Where and when
Let’s face it, for most of us our time is limited. We have a few weeks of spring and summer when butterflies are up and about. Maybe even just a few precious hours at weekends, hours which are themselves subject to the vagaries of the weather.
You ask, what is the use of butterflies?
I reply, to adorn the world and delight the eyes of men”
John Ray, Historia Insectorum, 1710
As a schoolboy, the Aurelian would cycle large distances, a billowing net draped across the handlebars, stopping perhaps to sweep up an errant green-veined white or common blue. Generally the take was nothing to write home about, although he did all the same, since it was always hard to find things to write about in the weekly letter home.
But what this schoolboy had was time – plenty of it. Time enough to explore the highways and byways of rural Sussex, to tramp along every footpath marked on the Ordnance Survey map 182, and to accept that most expeditions resulted in little more than a Dingy Skipper or a female Orange Tip.
Then one day he chanced upon Marlpost Wood. Not through any plan or design, it was just another gap in the hedgerow, a different stile to clamber over. The next in a series of forays into the unknown. And suddenly, a whole new world was revealed.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. The Aurelian doesn’t claim to have discovered Marlpost Wood. The county recorder will tell you that generations of schoolboys had gone up and down those very same forest rides collecting their white admirals, purple emperors and high brown fritillaries, but every one of those schoolboys had had to discover the wood for themselves. And presumably at the very same cost of countless hours wasted at sites that offered no such bounty.
These days, Marlpost Wood is rightly revered as part of what is generally referred to as the Southwater Woods complex. Visit on a warm sunny day in late June or early July, and it’s as busy as a London park. And with good reason – these are excellent woods, well worth the drive from whichever conurbation is home for the other six days of the week.
What’s changed? A couple of things – first and foremost perhaps the revolution in information technology, which has put the sum total of human knowledge in the hands, or the smartphones, of everyone, everywhere. Blogs, such as the one devoted to sightings of the Purple Emperor, Apatura iris, even give daily updates as to where and when particular species can be most readily viewed.
But behind it all is surely the replacement of collecting by digital photography, which has made observers much readier to share information. When a single butterfly can be photographed by dozens of individuals before ascending safely to the tree tops, we no longer need to be as coy about our favourite locations as earlier generations were, concerned that rogue collectors might wipe out a vulnerable colony.
What this means is that our few hours at the weekend can now be much more interesting and productive, spent in areas where we may hope to encounter those hard to find species.
Because with butterflies, as with real estate, it really is all about location, location, location.