I am no expert photographer, preferring to capture the moment than get a perfectly composed shot. The pictures on my blog are either taken with a compact Canon, a Panasonic Lumix FZ150 or on my phone.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Small White, Pieris rapae

On 26th July last year I saw a female Small White laying eggs on some Bittercress outside my study window. As this was in the hen run I went out and lunchtime and dug up the three small plants and put them in a pot.

On 31st July I notice that the eggs had hatched and over the next few days I kept supplying more Bittercress and cauliflower leaves for the caterpillars to eat.

On 15th August some of the caterpillars started wandering around the cage and spinning silk pads and on the 17th the first chrysalis was formed.

As the eggs had been laid by a summer generation butterfly I thought that the chrysalises wouldn't eclose until the following spring. However, I was really surprised on 26th August to see a male Small White flying around inside the cage.

The next day three females emerged and on the 28th August another three emerged, one at 11.45, one at 13.15 and one at 16.45. This last one didn’t fly off, but remained on the side of the cage. The following day was really overcast and the butterfly remained in the cage and it wasn’t until 11.45 on the 30th August that it flew off.

It circled the garden a couple of times and then landed in an ornamental maple tree. Almost immediately heavy drizzle started to fall and it continued to drizzle for the rest of the day and the following morning. Later that day I found it still in the same spot and it flew off mid-afternoon. So, it spent the first three days of its life waiting for suitable weather to fly!

What I find really interesting is that of the nine chrysalises I had, seven emerged, but the other two remained in the pupal state. I hadn’t been expecting any of them to emerge, as  we would normally only expect to have two generations of Small Whites a year here. The seven chrysalises that eclosed formed a third generation of the year.

Fast forward to spring this year and I kept an eye on the two remaining chrysalises. On 3rd May I noticed that they had started to show the colour of the wings. Two days later I spotted a male Small White sitting by its empty chrysalis case.  The following day a female Small White emerged from the second chrysalis.

I was interested last year to see a third generation of Small Whites. Something that I have never known here before. What was more interesting, though, was that seven of the chrysalises emerged last year and the other two waited until this spring. They were all kept in identical conditions, yet behaved differently.

Friday, 1 April 2022

East Lothian Grayling Project

For the last four years I have been involved with an exciting project to try to create a new habitat for Grayling butterflies, Hipparchia semele.

Grayling are only known to occur in three small colonies in East Lothian. One is in a steep-sided valley, or cleugh, in the Lammermuir Hills. The other two locations are ex-industrial sites – one on a disused railway siding of an old opencast coal mine called Blindwells, the other a re-landscaped tip from an old coal mine called Meadowmill.

The colony at Blindwells was discovered in 2009 and it is suspected that Graylings could have been there for a few years before that. In 2011 they were found on the old coal tip at Meadowmill, which is just across the road. This colony is now the larger of the two and I think the maximum count of Grayling seen there was 80.

There have long been plans to build a new town at Blindwells, but there seemed to be so many issues surrounding this that we doubted it would ever happen. However, in 2017 we were alarmed to see fencing going up around the site and bulldozers moving in.

So, very quickly, a plan was hatched. The idea really came from a countryside volunteer who persuaded the East Lothian Countryside Rangers that we should try to translocate the Blindwells Grayling colony to somewhere safe.

East Lothian Council own another ex-industrial site, Levenhall, which is being restored for recreation and wildlife. The Countryside Ranger who works there identified a perfect south-facing slope. I just happened to be in the office one day and overheard the Parks Manager complaining that he was going to have to pay to dispose of a few hundred tonnes of crushed concrete from a depot that had been demolished. This, we thought, would make the perfect material to create a new Grayling colony.

In 2018 we attended the AGM of the East of Scotland branch of Butterfly Conservation, where they said that there was funding available for projects. Perfect, we secured funding to scrape the top soil from a site about 50 metres long by 30 metres. On one side we spread the crushed concrete in three long piles to replicate the railway sidings and on the other side of the site we asked the contractor to leave random piles of crushed concrete. Hopefully this would provide a variety of different slopes and orientations.

With the help of more volunteers, including the Junior Rangers, we removed rubbish (it is amazing how much wire and plastic there was amongst the concrete). The area was then seeded with Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue (the foodplant of the Grayling caterpillars) and dry meadow mix wild flower seeds were scattered along the lower slope. Between the two areas was a grassy strip, which has also had wild flower seeds, including Yellow Rattle sown.

The next problem was how to get the butterflies there. We devised several plans. Initially we searched for caterpillars at Blindwells. We were told they were easy to find at night using a torch, as they climb up grass stems to feed. Five of us crawling in the grass one night for two hours unearthed one caterpillar in May 2018.

So, we then decided to try to locate eggs in August. The sidings at Blindwells were now protected by Heras fencing, but we needed permission and full protective clothing to get in and this had to be arranged a few weeks in advance. By the time we managed to get in we discovered the site covered in dust with a diesel generator running next to it. Sadly, we found no eggs.

So in July 2019 we decided to look for eggs at Meadowmill. They were reasonably easy to find and we collected 36 eggs and we took them to Levenhall, where they were put on the now well-established Fescues.

In the summer of 2020 we regularly monitored our new site in the hope of seeing adult Grayling flying, but sadly none were seen. So, in July the Countryside Ranger caught 12 adult Graylings at Meadowmill and translocated them to Levenhall. They were put in a cage overnight, which was removed early the next morning. Five of them were still there at lunchtime, so we hoped they may have laid some eggs.

Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to record any adult Grayling there again in the summer of 2021. So, it looks as though that attempt may also have failed.

Creating a new site for Grayling butterflies has never been done before, so we made it up as we went along. We had a lot of good fortune and it has been really exciting to be involved in such a project.

We are now wondering if there is some crucial element missing from our new site. We have a south-facing slope with Fescues growing on it, but what else could it need. Two of the existing colonies are associated with coal, but the other colony is in a natural valley. Do they need a particular chemical make up in the soil, is there some sort of symbiotic relationship with ants, possibly it is something even more subtle such as bacteria, or a fungus that is required. Maybe things will change over time.

We will certainly keep monitoring the site and consider how we can persuade Graylings to move in. Last year 17 species of butterflies were recorded at the new site, so it is clearly attractive to butterflies.

Sunday, 20 February 2022

East Lothian Butterflies 2021 Part 2

Continuing on from my previous post ...

Ringlets started to appear on the 6th June, which is the earliest I have known over the last ten years. They did well and had a longer than normal season. Normally they are only around for seven to nine weeks, but in 2021 they were recorded over 11 weeks.

Large Skippers
were another 2021 success story. Having first been recorded in East Lothian in 2014, they made slow progress westwards along the foothills of the Lammermuirs. Over the intervening years I only received a handful of records of them. In 2021 I received 11 records, many of which were from Levenhall Links. There was also a record from John Muir Country Park and the Lammermuir Hills.

Meadow Browns
had an amazingly good year. In fact I received more records of them in 2021 than in any previous year, which is great because I had been worried that numbers had been declining over the last few years. The first record was on 16th June. Interestingly they had quite a short season with the last record coming in on the 1st September.

The Small Skipper had an exceptional year. Their numbers have increased year on year since they were first discovered in East Lothian in 2011. The first record was received on 17th June, which is a week earlier than in previous years, and I received records of 1643 Small Skippers, more than three times the average of the last few years.

The first record I received of a Dark Green Fritillary was on 21 June. These butterflies also had a very good year and I received more records of them than in any previous year.

It is interesting to note that the species that emerged from May onwards did very much better than the species that emerged earlier in the year. I can only put this down to the cold weather we had in the late spring.

There were a number of other species recorded in East Lothian in 2021. Some of them are regularly seen, but only in small numbers and others are rare migrants.

We had a few sightings of Green Hairstreaks in May from two sites. They are known to occur in a few different locations, but they are mostly remote and difficult to access. It is likely that there are a lot more of them around than we are aware of.

On 5th June there was a sighting of a Clouded Yellow flying along the coast at Longniddry. They are occasionally recorded in East Lothian and are migrants that have ventured north from mainland Europe.

The only Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary I am aware of in East Lothian in 2021 was one that I saw in the Lammermuirs on 29th June. They are a very rare butterfly in East Lothian, only having been recorded from a couple of sites.

Another exciting butterfly seen in East Lothian was the Brimstone. In fact there were four of them seen in 2021, two in June, one in July and one in August, all in different locations across the county. They are seen once or twice every few years and are considered to me migrants from England. Their distribution matches the distribution of the caterpillar food plant, Alder Buckthorn, which doesn't occur naturally in Scotland. However, it is interesting to speculate whether there could be a colony of Brimstones somewhere in an East Lothian garden.

I usually say that there are four known colonies of Northern Brown Argus in East Lothian. Two of these locations are really small and I fear that the colonies may have died out in them. There are, however, two strong colonies at either end of the Lammermuir Hills and I was pleased to hear that they have also been found in a location close to Traprain Law. It is difficult to assess how well they are doing with so few records. I saw some on 29th June and I heard of one other being seen on 24th July.

There were only three records of Graylings this year between 29 June and 14th July, all from the same site. I only know of three sites where they occur in East Lothian, one in the east of the Lammermuirs, one in the middle of the housing development at Blindwells and on the pyramid at Meadowmill. Sadly there were no records from the new site we have created for them at Levenhall Links.

A very rare sighting, accompanied with a photograph, of a Camberwell Beauty was reported on 14th September in North Berwick. I am only aware of two other sightings in East Lothian in the last 40 years, one in 2019 and the other back in 1984.

This last butterfly meant that we recorded 27 species of butterflies in East Lothian in 2021. I think this must be a record for the county. Over the last 50 years we have seen an increase in the number of species that breed in East Lothian, most of these species are extending their range northwards, apparently in response to climate change. In 2021 we also had three unusual visitors.

I would like to extend a big thank you to everyone who has sent in records over the last few years. This has helped to build up a great picture of how butterflies are doing in East Lothian. Every record makes a big difference, no matter how common you think the species is, or how insignificant a single record may appear. I was in touch with Butterfly Conservation a few years ago and they said that it is just as important to send in records of common species as it is for an exciting rarity. Otherwise in the future people may consider that green-veined Whites or Meadow Browns used to be uncommon.

I am looking forward to hearing about the first butterfly of 2022.

Saturday, 12 February 2022

East Lothian Butterflies 2021 Part 1

The number of East Lothian butterfly records was quite a bit lower in 2021 than in previous years. This was partially due to the additional work load that Covid 19 placed on the Countryside Rangers and, to some extent, because I am no longer living in East Lothian. I didn't receive so many records from volunteers this year, maybe because they were making the most of the reduced lockdown restrictions. However, it turned out to be a very interesting and exciting year for butterflies in East Lothian, possibly a record year!

It is a little odd reporting on East Lothian butterflies now that I am living in the Borders. I usually get an impression on how things are doing when I am out and about, but things can be very different here compared to East Lothian. I did keep a note of butterflies that I saw when I was in East Lothian on site visits, but frustratingly those dates often didn't coincide with decent weather!

So, in 2021 we received a total of 1,546 records totaling 7,996 butterflies. This is a higher number of butterflies than were recorded in 2020, but about half the number of previous years.

2021 started off very cold and frosty. Despite a warm spell at the beginning of April frosts continued into May. Thereafter the weather wasn't too bad, but the earlier cold spell appeared to impact on some butterfly species.

Despite the weather, the first butterfly to be recorded in 2021 was a Small Tortoiseshell seen at Aberlady on 17th February. This species did very well during the spring, but there weren't as many as usual later in the summer. This year I didn't find any Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars, despite looking in likely spots, which is unusual. I suspect that the late cold spells must have limited breeding opportunities for them.

The first Peacock was seen on 26th February sunning itself in a skip in Dunbar! Like the Tortoiseshells, they appeared to have a poor year, even taking account of the limited number of records received. This corresponded with how few I saw at home on my Buddleia later in the summer.

It wasn't until the 16th of March that we saw the first Comma of the year. Unfortunately, 2021 was one of the worst years I have known for them. They are not normally seen in large numbers, but this year we only recorded 24 individuals. On average over the last 8 years we have seen over 75 Commas each year.

The first Small White was recorded on 3rd April. They had a reasonably good year, but like the species above the summer generation wasn't as big as normal. It is interesting that the Green-veined White, that has a similar life cycle, did much better later in the year. The Green-vein is a species that I associate with damper areas, so possibly they are better able to cope with poor weather. The first Green-veined White was recorded on 17th April and they were seen through to 7th September.

It was exciting to see the Holly Blue doing well again in 2021. The first record was on 10th April and over the season I received records of 101 Holly Blues. They were seen in all of the locations where they were seen the previous year and don't appear to have expanded their range further. However, this is encouraging, given that many other species struggled in 2021.

The first Speckled Wood was seen on 11th April. Their numbers were lower than normal in the spring, but they more than made up for it with very high numbers seen in late August and September. It was good to see their numbers bounce back after a poor year in 2020.

Orange Tips
first appeared on 12th April. Unfortunately, they had a very poor year, probably because their flight period coincided with the cold weather. Of course the cold weather may also have meant that fewer people were out looking for butterflies, so hopefully things weren't as bad as they appeared and we will see them back in good numbers again this spring.

Large Whites
made an appearance from 21st April. They didn't do very well in the spring, but unlike its smaller cousin, the summer population was relatively high. It isn't a butterfly that is ever seen in large numbers, but 2021 was one of the best years we have had.

Red Admirals
had a particularly poor year. The first record of was on 22nd April and only one more was seen in May. June was better, but we didn't see the usual big influx of migrant butterflies. As a result the summer population was lower than we have seen for the last few years.

The first Wall Brown was recorded on 30 April and they went on to have a fantastic year. Over the last ten years, since they first arrived in East Lothian, they have increased in number year after year. 2021 was by far the best year yet with records of 663 butterflies reported.

Small Heaths had a very good year. In fact I received more records of them in 2021 than in any previous year. They had a short season, first being recorded on the 17th May and being seen until 5th September. It is said that in Scotland there is only one generation a year, but further south in England there are two generations a year. It is difficult to understand what is happening here with them being seen over such a long period and it is tempting to think we get two generations.

Common Blue
had a bit of a slow start to the season, with the first record being received on 30th May. However, their numbers soon picked up and they ended up having a very good year.

2021 wasn't a good year for Painted Ladies. The first record wasn't until 5th June, which is a lot later than usual and I only received records of 38 individuals. I suppose that when you think that these butterflies start off in Northern Africa and migrate over two or three generations before they arrive here that it isn't surprising that some years very few make it. They will need good weather and food sources throughout their journey to be successful.

I will continue this on the next post...

Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Scottish Borders Butterflies 2021

Due to Covid travel restrictions our planned holiday to Spain was cancelled for the second year in a row. I always look forward to a trip abroad and the opportunity to see different butterflies.  On previous trips to Spain I have managed to see about 40 species of butterflies, so for the second year in a row my tally was going to be particularly low.

I am lucky that we have some land where we have done much to encourage butterflies and just a few hundred metres above our house there is an amazing valley where there are a lot of interesting species. There are a few interesting species that occur a few miles away, so I decided this year to see how many species I could find in the Scottish Borders.

The year started off well with a couple of Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae,  visiting the garden in March and in April Peacocks, Aglais io, and Commas, Polygonia c-album,  joined them. Despite the good start to the season the weather was cold and wet later in the spring and I didn't find any caterpillars of these species, which is unusual. However, they obviously did manage to breed as there were more adults later in the summer, but not in as good numbers as normal.

I am always pleased to see the first Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines, of the season, as to me they mark the start of the butterfly season. This year they did well here and were seen in good numbers.

Of the other three species of whites, the Green-veined White, Pieris napi, didn't do as well as normal for some reason. Unusually, it was outnumbered by the Small White, Pieris rapae. Large Whites, Pieris brassicae, are never really numerous, but they were a regular visitor.

In early  June I drove over to Burnmouth to look for Small Blues, Cupido mimimus. Although there was a cool breeze coming in off the sea I still saw quite a few, along with Small Heaths, Coenonympha pamphilus, Small Coppers, Lycaena phlaeas, and Wall Browns, Lasiommata megera.

Back home and a walk up the valley added Northern Brown Argus, Aricia artaxerxes, and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Clossiana selene, to the count along with loads of Small Heaths, Ringlets, Aphantpopus hyperantus, and Meadow Browns, Maniola jurtina.

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, arrived in June and in September their numbers picked up as the new generation appeared. I was amazed how long they remained here with the last one I saw being on the 25th October, long after the first frosts.

At the beginning of July I headed towards Treepwood where I had seen old records of Large Heaths, Coenonympha tullia. It was difficult to find a suitable location amongst the fields grazed by sheep, but eventually I managed to find a boggy area with Cotton Grass growing. After much stumbling about I was delighted to find one Large Heath. I am not sure if numbers would have been higher earlier or later in the year, but hopefully they are doing well there.

In another visit up the valley above the house that month there were a few Dark Green Fritillaries, Argynnis aglaja, and loads of Small Skippers, Thymelicus sylvestris. Amongst them I spotted one Large Skipper, Ochlodes sylvanus.

Towards the end of July I went to Kelso to look for White-letter Hairstreaks, Satyrium w-album. Iain Cowe, the Borders butterfly recorder, had previously shown me how to find eggs on Elm trees, so I headed to the same spot. Within a few minutes I spotted some butterflies high in the trees and a little later one kindly flew down and landed on a branch next to me.

I was planning on a visit to a valley a few miles away to see Scotch Argus, Erebia aethiops, but the weather at the weekends was disappointingly poor. However, one lunchtime when I was walking around my meadow, I spotted a dark butterfly which turned out to be a beautiful fresh Scotch Argus. Of course, I didn't have my camera with me and I couldn't find it once I had run back to the house to get it! However, six days later I spotted a quite faded Scotch Argus in the meadow. Unfortunately, I will never know if it was the same butterfly!

So, I managed to see 23 species of butterflies in the Scottish Borders this year. I don't think there are many more species that I could have seen. Green Hairstreak, if I had been in the right place, possibly Grayling somewhere on the coast and Painted Lady, had there been more around this year. I was very pleased to have seen a Large Heath and White-letter Hairstreak - two butterflies I have never seen before.