Saturday 10th August 2013

Butterfly list hits 70, and Scotland list hits 20!

During the few days since I returned to Galloway from the Outer Hebrides, my two butterfly lists have passed major milestones, my overall annual list reaching 70 species, and achieving the perhaps unexpected total of 20 species during the few weeks I have been back in Scotland.

While driving across the Isle of Skye on the way home, fleeting glimpses of blackish butterflies fluttering across the road were almost certainly of Scotch Argus, Erebia aethiops, but it was not until the following day, 5th August, that I managed to obtain satisfactory views of this species, which was out in some force in boggy areas dominated by purple moor grass close to Newton Stewart. This dark butterfly is one of only two members of the genus Erebia to occur in the UK, the main headquarters of which are in the Alps, Pyrenees, Scandinavia and other high mountain ranges right around the Northern Hemisphere. Scotch Arguses are one of the characteristic sights of late summer here in Galloway, their dark shapes being easily seen along the roadsides in the boggy, upland areas and along the margins of coniferous forest plantations.

A Scotch Argus by the roadside, refusing to open its wings to reveal the characteristic red stripes on the upper side of its wings

Also in evidence along this same back road was another new species for my Scottish list, the Small Copper, Lycaena phleas; a highly territorial male was to be seen aggressively chasing all other butterflies which passed his prominent look-out perch on top of a tall thistle. Here several Peacocks, Inachis io, Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina and a totally washed-out Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperanthus, were in evidence as well.

A pristine, newly-emerged Peacock

A beautiful Red Admiral, clearly recently emerged

A short drive from here took me to a large oakwood, traditional home of an elusive butterfly of the treetops, missed by most observers, the Purple Hairstreak, Neozephyrus quercus. Although not officially recorded on the distribution maps as occurring anywhere in Scotland until the 1970s, my father used to see it on his local cycle rides during the Second World War, and my grandfather F W Champion also found it here in 1948.

During my childhood, we used to visit a particular oak tree in this wood, sometimes even shaking the tree if the weather was not particularly sunny in order to provoke the butterfly into flight. Purple Hairstreaks only rarely venture down from the treetops, where they obtain sufficient nourishment from the honeydew exuded onto the oak leaves by aphids. I have yet to obtain a satisfactory photograph of this elusive butterfly, but despite only intermittent sunshine, we did see one individual fluttering around the crown of one of the very same oaks we used to visit during my childhood.

Today, 10th August, my father and I headed along the coast to Mossyard, a sheltered, south-facing beach at the mouth of Fleet Bay. Here we managed to add a further two species to my Scottish list, the first being Wall, Lasiommata megera, of which I saw three individuals, all of which only appeared briefly, flying rapidly along the shore or along the sheltered, sunny tracks through the gorse bushes.

Much more in evidence was an astonishing emergence of Small Whites, Pieris rapae. This widespread species must be one of the most numerous butterflies in the world, and yet I have found it remarkably difficult to find here in Galloway in recent years. Now that cabbage fields are all sprayed with pesticides, Small (and Large) Whites have begun to find it harder and harder to breed, being now restricted to gardens, where they lay their eggs on cabbage plants and nasturtiums, much to the disgust of gardeners, or to the coast, where wild cruciferous plants provide an alternative food source.

One of more than 30 Small Whites I have seen today

Our second destination today was the old pier at Creetown quarry, from where granite of the highest quality was extracted and exported until the 1960s, but which now provides an excellent-looking habitat for butterflies, with extensive areas of short grass dotted with wildflowers. Today, however, other than several Large and Small Whites, one further Wall and two Small Coppers, nothing was to be seen.

Suitable-looking habitat near the Creetown quarry, where little was flying

A Small Copper, ready to defend its territory against any intruder

2013 butterfly list as of 10th August: 70 species

2013 Scottish list: 20 species


Sunday 4th August 2013

Butterflying in the outer isles

I am just back after an amazing 10-day trip to the Outer Hebrides, those isolated, wind-swept islands off the north-west coast of Scotland. Not surprisingly, considering both their climate and their geographical isolation from the mainland, the islands’ butterfly list is short, with only 15 species, some of which are only occasional migrants.

Despite this overall poverty, numbers of some species are impressive, and in my short visit, I managed to find 9 of the 15. Perhaps the butterfly of the trip was for me the Large Heath, Coenonympha tullia, which I found on the mainland near Ullapool while waiting to catch the ferry, on Harris in considerable numbers wherever cottongrass was to be seen on the peaty ground, and on North Uist, where some were even to be seen in the flowery “machair”, the sandy, lime-rich grassland found in a strip all the way down the western coasts of the islands, a habitat where I might have expected Small Heaths, C. pamphilus, which I did not see at all.

A Large Heath feeding on Eyebright, a common flower on the islands

The commonest butterflies were undoubtedly the Green-veined White, Pieris napi, which abounded, emerging from the damp vegetation when even the slightest gleam of sun appeared, and the Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, which here is represented by the brighter subspecies splendida. These butterflies were everywhere, occurring in all habitats I visited.

A visit to the far northern tip of the island chain, the Butt of Lewis, added two species to my 2013 Scottish list: Large White, Pieris brassicae, and Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta. These are both migrants, and they seemed to be still heading northwards, although if they headed out to sea, they would certainly be doomed, as the likelihood of their reaching either the Faeroe Islands or Iceland, the only land between here and the Pole, must be negligible. Either they know they have to stop here, or they head out to sea and eventually tire and die. It is a sobering thought.

Cliffs at the Butt of Lewis, beyond which butterflies venture at their peril

Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, were also in evidence on the flower-rich grasslands just behind the cliffs, as they also were further south, in the Uists, my next destination.

A Common Blue perched beautifully on a lichen-covered rock

North Uist turned up Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, while further south I came into contact with an additional two species that do not occur on the more northerly isles: Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja, several of which were to be seen both on the machair close to the southern tip of the island, and on the offshore island of Eriskay, and Grayling, Hipparchia semele, one of which posed kindly for me to photograph, also near the southernmost point of South Uist.

A cooperative Grayling at the southern tip of South Uist

Outer Hebrides total: 9 species

Scottish 2013 total as of 4th August: 15 species

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