Monday 26th August 2013

A butterflying visit south of the border

In spite of poor weather and the lateness in the summer, my butterfly list is still slowly creeping up. This weekend, we ventured southwards, over the border into England, heading for the butterfly mecca of the limestone hills just south of the Lake District, around the picturesque villages of Arnside and Silverdale. This remarkable area hosts several species of butterfly which do not make it any further north, and we had high hopes of boosting up our lists.

However, Friday evening was cloudy and dull, offering no hope of butterflies at all, and Saturday morning revealed that it had rained torrentially all night, and we were forced to resort to birdwatching at the RSPB’s wonderful reedy reserve at Leighton Moss – not too great a hardship.

Following this, we headed a short distance southwards, to the cliff face at Warton Crag, where even though the weather was still dull, I managed to locate three Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, all roosting on bedstraw and marjoram flowers.

A Common Blue roosting on bedstraw

A Common Blue on marjoram

Most of the afternoon it remained cloudy, although frustratingly we could see a band of sunshine out to sea all along the coast, but the cloud would not move away – butterfly-hunting can be so irritating, especially when one is short of time!

Finally, towards mid-afternoon, a semi-clearance came, and we immediately made for the most renowned butterfly area of all, Arnside Knott. This high hill, with its mixture of woodland, bracken, grassland and scree, is well known among butterfly enthusiasts as one of the few remaining strongholds of the rare High Brown Fritillary, Argynnis adippe, which I had seen here in previous years, but for which we were too late this year.

Classic butterfly country at Arnside, looking across to the Lake District mountains in the distance

Other than the Large Whites, Pieris brassicae, Small Whites, Pieris rapae, and Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, all of which we had observed on the buddleia bushes in the village below, our first sighting actually on the hill was a rather washed out individual of a new species for the year, the charmingly-named Gatekeeper, or Hedge Brown, Pyronia tithonus. I would normally have expected to see numerous Gatekeepers in the Netherlands, Belgium and northern France, but due to my early departure for Scotland, where the species does not occur, I had given it up as a missed butterfly for the year. Nonetheless, we went on to see three individuals, all looking tired and faded.

A washed-out female Gatekeeper, with an irritating grass stem crossing the picture as usual!

Having unsuccessfully scoured the screes for Graylings, Hipparchia semele, and the oak trees for Purple Hairstreaks, Neozephyrus quercus, we ventured slightly further downwards into another favourite butterfly clearing, and it was not long before a dark butterfly appeared. A closer look revealed it to be a female Scotch Argus, Erebia aethiops, also a rather tired-looking specimen, but a good one to see as this species only occurs at two sites in England, both on limestone grassland, whereas in Scotland, where it is far more widespread, it is to be found in boggy areas dominated by its larval foodplant, purple moor grass.

A female Scotch Argus basking on bracken

A few Common Blues were also to be seen here, as well as three or four Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, and a fly-by Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja, a surprisingly late individual of this species, which should normally be nearly over by now. This brought our English lists up to eight species, and there they remained, as by now it was getting late and we needed to set forth on our journey back to Scotland.

Yesterday, Sunday, dawned with cloudless skies and hardly a breath of wind – ideal butterfly conditions. If only we had stayed one more night at Arnside, we could perhaps have added several more species to our English lists!

Still, one should not cry over spilt milk, so we decided to make the most of the ideal conditions by investigating a beautiful peninsula close to the picturesque harbour village of Garlieston. The vegetation was alive with butterflies all along the shore, and our walk began with us chasing a Wall, Lasiommata megera, a long way along the track – each time it settled on a sunny patch, we scared it along in front of us. Perhaps this is one way in which butterflies can involuntarily spread their ranges!?

A male Wall which we constantly disturbed!

Also to be seen on a flowery area just above the beach a were numerous Large and Small Whites, at least five more Walls, and a beautiful, fresh-looking Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui. But it was once we were back in the shady wood that the most interesting sighting of the day occurred: a Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria. Although we had seen several the day before at Arnside, this one here was much more exciting. Galloway and southern Scotland in general form a surprising gap in the Speckled Wood’s distribution. It is found in northern England, in Scotland north of the Central Belt, and in Northern Ireland, and yet not here, although perhaps a colonisation is now taking place before our very eyes.

The Speckled Wood, a rarity in Galloway

We had seen a few Speckled Woods at this same location two years ago, but despite thorough searches had seen none last year, so we assumed that that first sighting had been only a temporary blip. But here, basking on ivy in a patch of sunlight, was an undoubted Speckled Wood. Indeed, we then went on to see another two individuals, too many to be pure coincidence. Clearly the Speckled Wood is making a concerted attempt to become a regular feature of the Galloway woodlands. And for me it was an unexpected bonus, bringing my Scottish list up to 22 species, a remarkable score when one considers that I was not here for the Spring butterflies, and that I had not expected to see more than 15 during my summer stay here.

The picturesque village of Garlieston

Total 2013 list as of 26th August: 71

Total Scottish list: 22

Total English list: 8

Total UK list: 23


Tuesday 13th August 2013

La Belle Dame

Today we visited an area near Dumfries which achieved notoriety during the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak, as this was one of the sites where large numbers of cattle carcasses were disposed of by burning and burying. Out of this horror came a positive result for butterfly enthusiasts, as this blighted spot now harbours a new species for Scotland, the Essex Skipper, Thymelicus lineola. The larvae of this butterfly may well have reached the area in the hay used to burn the cattle, some of which must have been discarded, and the resulting butterflies have now colonised the site.

Not only does Essex Skipper now occur here, but so does its close relative the Small Skipper, Thymelicus sylvestris, which I have also never seen in Scotland. We approached the area with high hopes, as the butterflies had been reported only a few days ago, but despite intensive searching, we found no skippers. Nonetheless, as so often happens when one is looking for a particular species, one does not find that one, but another one appears. Today’s bonus was a beautiful, totally fresh Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui, which brought my 2013 Scotland list up to 21 species – not a bad total, considering the fact that I did not expect to get much beyond 15.

Today’s beautiful Painted Lady

Scottish butterfly list as of 13th August: 21 species


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