The earlier pictures were taken on my wee compact Canon ixus 970IS, which involved sneaking up on the butterflies. This can be very frustrating when they fly off, but very rewarding when they don't!

Since 2012 I have been using a Panasonic Lumix FZ150, which allows me to zoom in to the butterflies from a couple of metres away.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Sierra Nevada, Spain - Butterflies - July 2014

When looking through my butterfly books before we went on holiday to Spain, I kept noticing a little blob on the distribution maps to the east of Malaga. After further investigation I discovered this was the Sierra Nevada, a relatively isolated area of mountains and apparently the second highest range in Europe after the Alps. The highest peak is 3482 metres and due to its isolation many butterflies occur there that are not found in much of the rest of Spain.
120 species of butterflies have been recorded there and I am really grateful to Merche from who told me that July was a great time to look for butterflies there and she suggested a walk I should go on.
So on 4th July I got up early and drove for three hours from Alora to Hoya de la Mora. In winter this is a ski resort 2,550 metres up in the mountains. The road is blocked there, but if you want you can continue further up the mountains in a mini bus to over 3,100 metres.

The walk that had been suggested to me left the road at the barrier at Albergue Universitario and ran across the eastern slopes of the mountain to a stream called Borreguil de San Juan. The walk was only a couple of miles, but it took me three hours there and back because I spent most of my time watching butterflies!
Much of the landscape was very rocky with scree slopes and occasional green, damp areas. It was almost like walking through a giant rockery with the Alpine plants such as Sempervivum, Dianthus, Saxifrage and Gentian carpeting the ground.
Almost as soon as I set off an Apollo, Parnassius apollo nevadensis, landed on the slope above me. The subspecies occurring in the Sierra Nevada has orange markings within the ocelli, rather than the usual red. As the day warmed up I saw several of these big butterflies gliding up and down the hillsides, constantly on the move, and hardly ever landing.

I wasn’t able to identify most of the blues that I saw, until I looked at my pictures afterwards. Even then, I find it very difficult to differentiate between some species. I bought a great book about the butterflies of the Sierra Nevada “Las Mariposas Diurnas de Sierra Nevada”, which has detailed information about each species that lives there and a section on differentiating similar species. Unfortunately some of the characteristics mentioned in the book are not very apparent and the advice conflicts with information from other sources.
Both the Idas Blue, Plebejus idas, and the Silver-studded Blue, Plebejus argus, occur in the Sierra Nevada. The book says that for the Idas Blue the orange markings on the underside wings are more extensive and that the black spots have white rings round them. The fantastic Butterflies of Europe app says that the blue scales are more extensive on the hind wing of the Silver-studded Blue, but I have been told that this may not be the case in the Sierra Nevada! I have come to the conclusion, though, that those that I saw in this area were all Silver-studded Blues, but I would be happy to hear from anyone who thinks otherwise!

It was interesting that I could walk for 50 metres and see no butterflies and then come to an area where there were several flying around. It seemed that a subtle difference in habitat made a big difference in the number of butterflies.

This was the only Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, I saw that day.

I am pretty sure that the following pictures are all Escher’s Blue, Agrodiaetus escheri. These were the most common butterflies I saw high up in the mountains and they were mostly in areas around the prostrate Juniper scrub. They seem to have quite bold markings on the underside of the wings.

This Large Wall Brown, Lasiommata maera, flew across the path in front of me and kindly stopped for a picture. The form found in Sierra Nevada and much of the Iberian Peninsula is adrasta, which is lighter in colour with more extensive orange markings.

I descended a small path to a damp area with water running through it. Here I noticed the blues seemed a little smaller and lighter in colour. They turned out to be Nevada Blues, Polyommatus golgus.

This area also had quite a number of Common Blues flying in it. They were noticeably darker blue than the Nevada Blue. Recent genetic studies have revealed that in Europe the Common Blue is actually at least two different species, which look almost identical. Polyommatus icarus covers the majority of Europe, but Polyommatus celina occurs in the Iberian Peninsula and south east Europe. It is thought that one common ancestor split into the two species with celina occurring in north Africa and southern Europe and icarus inhabiting the colder north. As the climate varied over thousands of years the divide between the two species moved north or south. As if this isn't complicated enough the high, isolated Sierra Nevada, which is in the middle of the celina population has been found to also to be home to Polyommatus icarus. To make life even more confusing a third species, Polyommatus abdon, has been described from the mountains in south east Spain!
I have no idea which species of Common Blue I saw that day! They had much bolder markings than others I have seen, but the Common Blue is a very variable butterfly.

As I continued down to the Rio de San Juan I was excited to see some orange butterflies. They were very flighty and difficult to approach and they turned out to be Small Tortoiseshells, Aglais urticae. They seemed more orange than those in Scotland.

It was here that I briefly saw my first Purple-shot Copper, Lycaena alciphron. Later I was to see more of them near the Albergue Universitario where I got into trouble for taking pictures close to their military building. After I showed the soldier the pictures of butterflies I had been taking we parted on good terms!

On my return to the car I saw some Clouded Yellows. Most of them didn't stop, but I managed a distant picture of this one. Looking at the picture I thought that it was a Berger's Clouded Yellow, Coleas alfacariensis, given the lack of a dark border showing through on the hind wing. However, I have been told that it is standard Clouded Yellow, Coleas crocea.

After that, there was a bit of a Fritillary-fest. First a Heath Fritillary, Melitaea athalia

Then a Niobe Fritillary, Argynnis niobe. The subspecies occurring in Sierra Nevada is altonevadensis, which is said to be smaller and more brightly coloured than the nominate form.

A Queen of Spain Fritillary, Issoria lathonia.

And finally a Cardinal Fritillary, Argynnis pandora seitzi, just as I was getting into the car.

Frustrating moment of the morning was having a Spanish Brassy Ringlet, Erebia Hispania, in the view finder only for it to be chased away by a blue just before I managed to take a picture!
Other butterflies seen that morning were a Bath White and Wall Brown.
After that I drove down the mountain and stopped a couple of times to check what was flying in different areas. I'll put those butterflies on a separate post.


  1. Hello Nick!:) Well, what a delightful set of images. I have scrolled up and down several times to admire your photos of all these exquisite butterflies. The Apollo is lovely, and all the tiny blues. The lighter coloured Nevada Blue is so pretty, but they all are, I just love blue butterflies! I'm glad you saw the Purple-shot Copper, they are common here where I live, but I never miss an opportunity to take a photo of these small but beautiful butterflies. Congratulations on all your sightings Nick, a pleasure to see.

    1. Thanks Sonjia. It was an amazing place to visit, with so many species that I hadn't seen before. Is that a Purple-shot Copper at the head of your blog? They are lovely butterflies - another one I hadn't seen before!

  2. Wow! Wow! Wow! So gorgeous. I am just thrilled that you got the Apollo! I desperately want to see one. It is really at the top of my list. This is just such a gorgeous place. I know you have to be quite happy with all those blues, as they are your favorite. They are really a lovely bunch, and you got some fantastic shots. But the frits and the coppers! I really love those shots. Nick, this is just a really great assortment you got at this place.

    1. Hi Sylvia, the Apollos were lovely flying up and down the hillside. I was lucky that I saw the one I photographed, as that was the only one I saw land. I guess that had I been there earlier I would have seen more basking in the sun. It was a fantastic experience seeing so many different species of blue. They are all quite similar, so I had to wait until I could see my pictures before I knew what species I had seen. I did notice that they were different sizes and shades of blue, so I was hopeful I had seen a few species! I could spend days walking in that area. It was fantastic and I didn't see another sole while I was there!

    2. You know, I'm quite drawn to all the new species for me in this post. But every time I scroll through, the one shot that just really grabs my attention is the Tortoiseshell on the rust colored rocks. Just stunning! I'm so glad you got a shot of the Apollos. You've inspired me. The minute the rain lets up, I'm climbing up Jade Dragon Snow Mountain ago to look just for them!

    3. Ha ha. It is funny as the Tortoiseshell was the one butterfly that I was disappointed with! At first I thought it was a Large Tortoiseshell, but it turned out to be a Small Tortoiseshell, like we get here! They were more orange in Sierra Nevada than here.
      I hope you manage to see an Apollo. If they behave the same way there, you will want to arrive as early as possible to catch a photo before they warm up properly. Later in the day in Sierra Nevada they wouldn't stop flying up and down the mountain side!

    4. It's easy to be disappointed when it turns out to be something you've seen so many times. But I'm always thrilled when I get a really spectacular shot of any butterfly. And you got one with the Small Tortoiseshell. I read that there are 54 species of Parnassius, but only 4 in North America. The rest are all in Europe and the Palaearctic. But I'm working on compiling a list of the butterflies of China, and there are 47 species of Parnassius in China. So I figure I have a good shot. I just have to be intentional and go look for them. I just hope they are still out this late in the year, as I have not been able to find out what months they are about. I'll take your advice and get out early!

    5. Yes, I am always after a better picture!
      According to my European book there are three species of Parnassius occurring here, although my one criticism of this book is that it doesn't include Europe east of Greece!! These three species fly May to September, June to August and April to August, so it seems that any time in the warmer months should be good. I imagine that earlier in that time would be better than later, particularly if you want a picture of a nice fresh specimen.

  3. I love the Escher’s Blue and the Queen of Spain Fritillary. Awesome landscapes as well.

    1. Thanks Maria. It really was a special place and I was so lucky to see so many different butterflies!

  4. Hi Nick!
    Yes, it is a Purple-shot Copper on my Header. They are attracted to my Santolina Plants.

  5. WOW!
    What a post!
    I can't comment on each pic but they all would deserve a word!
    I was thinking of leaving my comment on your latest post, but when I saw the Apollo, I was startled!
    That one fantastic catch!
    I still haven't seen them this year!
    I am still hoping and wishing to see at last Charaxes jasus also.... Quite elusive this one!!
    Brilliant pictures Nick!
    Keep well and enjoy your weekend!

    1. Thanks Noushka. The Apollo was a first for me, and particularly good being the Sierra Nevada sub-species. I was lucky that one stopped as all of the others I saw were very active!
      I managed to see some Two-tailed Pasha on a trip to Gibraltar during this holiday. They are fantastic butterflies. I love them!