Friday 19th July 2013

Boiling in Scotland!

We are currently enjoying a spell of incredibly warm, sunny weather here in Scotland, and the butterflies are appearing at last – not that there are many new species for my overall list here, but the numbers are encouraging.

On Tuesday 16th July, we visited the beautifully located Corsewall Point, at the northern end of the Rhins peninsular, offering panoramic views to Arran, Kintyre and the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland, with the pudding-shaped rock of Ailsa Craig towering out of the Firth of Clyde in the middle distance.

In addition to large numbers of Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, the vegetation just above the rocks produced numerous Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina, and a few Green-veined Whites, Pieris napi. Here I was able to locate a new species for my Scottish list, Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus, of which at least three were quite vigorously defending their territories against passing Common Blues. Small Heaths, formerly common and widespread in Galloway, seem to have declined noticeably in recent years, so it was encouraging to see these individuals here.

A rocky area at Corsewall Point, Wigtownshire

Down at the very bottom of the rocks, just above the tideline, two larger, more boldly marked butterflies flew by, and a binocular view revealed them to be a new species for my overall as well as for my Scottish list for 2013, the Grayling, Hipparchia semele. I was unable to approach them in the hope of obtaining a photograph, but as this species is widely distributed around the rocky areas of the Galloway coastline, I should see several more before their flight season ends.

Wednesday 17th July saw me walking up the 711 m Cairnsmore-of-Fleet, our local hill. Following another Small Heath, once I had passed through the first belt of woodland, I came out into a relatively recently felled area, and fairly soon spotted a rather faded butterfly gliding over the bracken. This turned out to be a Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Clossiana selene, a new species for my Scottish list. I later went on to see four of these, all looking close to the end of their lives.

A Small Heath, a formerly common butterfly in Galloway

Also in this zone there were numerous Ringlets, Aphantopus hyperanthus, and a few Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina. A little further up, particularly where a forestry road crosses the main hill path, an open area held several Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus, and another new species for Scotland in 2013, the Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja. At least 25 of these splendid gingery-brown butterflies (their name refers to the ground colour of the underside of their hindwings, with the incredible silver spots setting off the green ground colour) were sailing about of the bracken, the males chasing the females, at least one of which I observed fluttering low through the grass, searching for violet plants on which to lay her eggs.

A Dark Green Fritillary, showing its green background colour with the silver spots

Today, Friday 19th July, has again been a blazing day, and a short walk this evening added two new species for my 2013 Scottish list: Peacock, Inachis io, and Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, bringing the total up to 13 species.

2013 butterfly list as of 19th July: 68 species

2013 Scottish list: 13 species


Saturday 13th July 2013

New Northern Brown Argus site discovered on 85th birthday – not a bad present!

Today is my father’s 85th birthday, and in true Champion style, we spent the morning searching for butterflies. Yesterday, 12th July, following my success with the Large Heaths, Coenonympha tullia, near Dumfries the previous day, we prospected another potential locality for that species, not far from New Galloway, and were rewarded with sightings of at least six individuals, but none would sit conveniently for photography. Still, it was encouraging to see several, as this is not a species for which we know many sites and it can easily end up missing from the annual list.

Large Heat habitat, complete with Cotton Grass and Cross-leaved Heath

Despite the spell of outstandingly warm weather we are experiencing, butterflies are few and far between. I did manage to add Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, and Green-veined White, Pieris napi, but even these normally common species were not numerous.

A beautiful loch close to the Large Heath site

However, today has proved to be somewhat more productive. We set off after breakfast to an area of rocky coast not far from Gatehouse-of-Fleet in search of a diminutive but very attractive butterfly, one which we had not seen since our most favoured site had been blocked off to access some years ago. Almost as soon as we had left the car, a tiny, darkish butterfly with paler undersides was spotted, twirling in a battle of wits with a male Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus, eventually landing on a sprig of bramble flowers and settling down to feed. Binocular views confirmed, once we had clearly seen the white spots on the underside, that this was indeed our target species, the Northern Brown Argus, Aricia artaxerxes.

Following this initial sighting, we finally ended up seeing around 20 individuals. I tried to obtain satisfactory photographs, but the warm sunshine meant that the butterflies were extremely active, only sitting briefly, and flying off almost as soon as I approached. I did manage to obtain one reasonable picture of the upperside, with the characteristic white spot on the forewing, and one (as usual with a grass stem in front!) of a butterfly nectaring on Bird’s Foot Trefoil.

The upperside of the Northern Brown Argus, showing the distinctive white spots

A Northern Brown Argus nectaring on Bird’s Foot Trefoil – with a grass stem in front!

After the frustration of chasing these tiny butterflies, which were hard to follow in flight, and would not sit still for long, my luck changed. I found a mating pair of Northern Brown Arguses, which were much more reluctant to fly. These I managed to approach extremely closely, and photograph in flagrante!

Northern Brown Arguses caught in the act

The mating pair of Northern Brown Arguses

My father has just looked at his records, and finds that he had not seen a Northern Brown Argus for at least seven years, so these sightings, in a new locality for us, were not a bad 85th birthday present!

How could a Champion better spend his 85th birthday than prospecting a new site for butterflies?

2013 Butterfly List as of 13th July: 67 species

2013 Scottish Butterfly list: 7 species


Thursday 11th July 2013

I take it all back – well, almost!

Following my disparaging remarks about butterfly-watching in Scotland, and about the climate, I find myself having to eat my words! On the way home from the ferry terminal in Newcastle, I stopped at a boggy reserve near Dumfries, which I knew held another species which I would have looked for at its (almost) only site in the Netherlands, but did not manage to squeeze in a visit.

Arriving at the reserve car park in temperatures approaching 30 degrees and blazing sun, I was first pleased to start my 2013 Scottish butterfly list with numerous Ringlets, Aphantopus hyperanthus, and two Large Skippers, Ochlodes venatus, the latter of which only occurs in the south-west of the country, and which I missed last year.

I then ventured through some pinewoods, and came out into what looked like a snowfield! The cotton grass was turning the entire place white, an extraordinary sight.

The cotton grass looked like snow

This area was formerly used for small-scale peat extraction, but is now a well-protected reserve, although removal of young birch and pine saplings is a constant struggle. I met a man who told me that he used to walk and play here as a child during the War, and he could remember the peat cutting going on, all done by hand. Luckily this magical place has escaped the fate of a similar bog at Eastriggs, near Gretna, which is in the process of being completely decimated by peat extraction for the garden industry. The moral of the tale is, FOR PEAT’S SAKE DON’T BUY PEAT!!!!

At first there seemed to be nothing moving, and the heat shimmer above the bog made scanning with binoculars almost useless. However, eventually a medium-sized, rather drab-looking brownish butterfly fluttered by – my target species the Large Heath, Coenonympha tullia. This species has suffered heavily across Europe in the face of the destruction of peat bogs, and many of those bogs that do survive are no longer suitable as they have become too dry. Here, the drainage channels have been blocked, allowing the water level to rise again, which in turn provides ideal conditions for the Large Heath’s larval foodplant, cotton grass.

A channel reblocked to allow the water table to rise

Large Heaths are notoriously difficult to photograph. They fly for extended periods above the extremely rough and boggy terrain, and then land, usually in an inaccessible spot. By the time one has plunged through the tussocks, they have flown on again. I tried to photograph them with my Panasonic Lumix camera, but the autofocus focussed on the surrounding grass stems. I managed to obtain a few passable record shots with the 300mm lens on my Nikon D70s, but they are nothing to be proud of.

A distant Large Heath nectaring on Cross-leaved Heath flowers

There is a Large Heath in there somewhere!

By the time I finally retreated from the sun (such a rare experience in Scotland, and then I complain about it!), I had seen at least 25 Large Heaths, showing that on this site at least, the species seems to be thriving. But for its sake and the sake of other bog inhabitants, DON’T BUY PEAT!!!

2013 Butterfly list as of 12th July: 66 species

2013 Scottish list: 3 species