The White Admiral is a stunning species and unlike any other found in Britain. It has a tropical appearance and wouldn’t look out of place in a rainforest setting. Black and white striped uppersides are eclipsed by its far more colourful bronze banded undersides; even its antennae have jazzy reddish tips. Favouring woodlands rich in nectar sources such as bramble and its larval foodplant, Honeysuckle, it glides gracefully around glades and rides using very few wing beats.
I had seen one only once before in Suffolk and so knew how elusive they could be however, I had heard from several reliable sources that Ruislip Woods in Hillingdon was a good place to try. The 755 acres of Ruislip Woods make it the largest single area of woodland in Greater London and one of the most extensive ancient, semi-natural woodlands in England. It is made up of distinct areas, some of which have wonderfully evocative names such as ‘Mad Bess Wood’ and ‘Grub Ground’. Having been recommended an exact spot where White Admirals had been seen this year, I waited for the next sunny day to make the trip to the very fringes of the capital.
The location tip off I had was for the meadows next to the carpark for the Woods and Ruislip lido so I spent the first hour of my visit walking round and round these paddocks, much to the bemusement of the resident Sussex cattle.
The meadow edges were rich in juicy bramble flowers and sporadic patches of sheltered Honeysuckle that would be perfect for an egg-laying White Admiral but no joy. Abundant Skippers and several Commas darted about the margins and a buzzard circled overhead taunting me with its mewing call. I decided to move on and explore the rest of the woods resolving that even if I didn’t see any Admirals there were plenty of other butterflies about to entertain me on a walk.
Unexpectedly, the ‘toot-toot’ of a train whistle cut through the air and I spotted a miniature locomotive chugging along tracks alongside the field. The Ruislip Lido Railway has been in operation on and off since the 1940s and takes people on a scenic journey through parts of the woodland and around the Lido, stopping at several stations. I love stuff like this and it was such a delight to watch all the children smiling and waving out of the open carriages.
Weaving along wooded paths lined largely with gnarly oak trees and sinuous horn beams, I was accompanied by several Speckled Woods, their every flutter catching my eye and causing me to double check they weren’t a less ubiquitous visitor. The dense woodland opened out into a small glade carpeted with fern and furnished with felled or fallen tree trunks. The path through the glade was no more than about 20 metres so I could have strode through in a matter of seconds but something made me stop and turn round a couple of metres in. Floating elegantly down to rest, open-winged on a frond was the butterfly I’d been hoping for, a White Admiral. I’d forgotten just how beautiful they are, especially in flight, and watched mesmerised as it glided effortlessly around the glade for several minutes before vanishing.
I glided out the woodland too, floating on a cloud of glee.
Full list of species seen 14/7/21: Meadow Brown, Comma, Small White, Small Skipper, Gatekeeper, Ringlet, Small Heath, Marbled White, Large Skipper, Essex Skipper, Speckled Wood, Large White, Purple Hairstreak, Red Admiral, Holly Blue, Small Copper, White Admiral, Silver-washed fritillary