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.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Red Admiral Invasion

Red Admirals, Vanessa atalanta, are regularly seen here most summers. They can't survive the winters in the UK, although there are some sightings early in the year suggesting that in some circumstances they do make it though the winter. In central Europe they hibernate as adult butterflies reappearing when the weather warms up in spring. During the summer they migrate northwards ariving in East Lothian over the summer.

It is thought that Red Admiral butterflies may be able to withstand the cold of our winters, but they tend to wake up too early if there is a warm day early in the year. At that time there are no flowers for them to feed on, so they can't replenish their energy reserves and sadly therefore perish.

This year I had only received three reports of Red Admirals in East Lothian up until the end of June.
Then, on 1st July I was walking our coastal path on a cloudy and windy day and I saw my first Red Admiral of the year. As I walked a little further another Red Admiral flew in from the sea and over the path. In the short distance that I walked a further five Red Admirals blew in from the coast. I thought this rather unusual and wondered if it had been the same butterfly that had been flying in circles!

When I arrived home I received an e-mail from a recorder who had seen seven Red Admirals flying or blowing in from the sea a little further up the coast and over the last few days I have received various similar reports suggesting that thousands of them have arrived.
Last night I drove along a local farm track and eleven Red Admirals flew up in front of the car. So, this evening I returned at the same time with my camera. There did not appear to be any on the track, but as I walked into a slight dip a Red Admiral flew up next to me.

It flew up into the trees and was joined by a second butterfly. Then, as I watched, two other Red Admirals flew out of the tree and spiraled up into the air together. There turned out to be at least eight Red Admirals in those trees.

Occasionally one would fly down and land on the road, or on a plant next to the road, but as soon as another flew past they would spiral up into the tree again!

They were so brightly coloured when their wings were open, but the underside of the wings is incredibly well camouflaged.

It was fantastic watching so many butterflies in such a small area. There were also four Speckled Woods, Pararge aegeria, in those trees and they would join in the aerobatics each time the Red Admirals flew close to them!

It wasn't until I enlarged this photo that I noticed how many flies there were amongst the branches of the trees!

I have never seen so many Red Admirals in one place. It was a delight to see them and they were unusually approachable. As usual I am left asking more questions. Firstly, I wonder where they have all flown in from? The wind was blowing in from the south-east, so I wonder if there had been a westerly wind further south pushing them out to sea. Their instinct to fly north could have brought them into line with our south-easterlies. Imagine if the wind had been blowing the other way!
I am also intrigued as to what was so attractive about this particular spot on the farm track? And was this spiraling flight a form of courtship?
There are always more questions than answers!!


  1. A very interesting encounter Nick and super photos.

    The spiraling upward flight is typical activity of rival males in an attempt to dominate each other for a territory.

    Can't explain the directional influx but they might have come from the continent on a south-easterly.

    1. Thanks Frank. Yes, the more i read the more convinced I am that they have come over from the continent. Maybe we were lucky as they seem to have arrived in south east Scotland and the north east of England. I wonder what triggered this with this species? I still haven't seen a Painted Lady this year!

  2. Red Admirals naturally migrate north and I suspect the high temperature air currents emanating from North Africa / Southern Europe have assisted their lengthy movement. If these individuals hang around you'll need to look out for the next generation in about 50 days time. Many of the 2nd generation will then begin their return journey south in the Autumn.

    It is possible that more of this species are overwintering both in the South-East and at similar latitudes in Europe thereby enabling them to migrate much further north each year ... climatic changes may be the reason.

    I haven't seen a Painted Lady yet but some have been reported in Surrey ... High numbers were reported in Southern Europe in mid June so again I think they just need the right temperatures and winds for them to migrate northwards towards you.

    1. I remember in 2011 we had a lot of Red Admirals here, but not in the numbers we are experiencing just now. The second generation was even more numerous then, so we may not be able to move for them in September!

  3. Quite amazing indeed to to observe so many together in one area.
    Your post is very interesting.
    On the contrary, where I live, I see very few butterflies, especially Nymphalidae, this season except for the plentiful Maniola jurtina...
    As I read Frank's comment, I think what he says makes perfect sense but then why don't I see more in the south of France?!!
    Well maybe we can't yet give an answer to everything!!
    Keep well Nick :)

    1. Noushka,
      It is interesting how butterflies appear to choose one area over another year after year. There is a place near where I work where I see Commas each spring. It is a lovely sheltered spot, but I just wonder how each generation finds exactly the same spot.
      At the weekend I visited my father and I told him that there were a lot of Ringlets in a clearing in his woods. There were none in the neighbouring area, which appeared to be just the same. He said that it is like this every year. There must have been some subtle combinations of conditions that suits them perfectly. I wonder why you have so few butterflies with you?

  4. Your dip along the farm road is likely popular because the low lying area probably retains a bit of moisture. Red Admirals, especially the males, tend to partake in "puddling" and can be found sipping liquid from mud, leaf litter, damp soil and rocks. You'll tend to see this in low lying places and at the edges of waterways.

    Red Admirals will also sometimes feed from fallen fruit, dung, urine and even carrion. If you have any pieces of fruit past their prime, slice them and lay them out in areas where you observe Red Admirals. You'll get a nice show.


    Kristen from MOSI Outside

    1. Hi Kirsten,
      We have no shortage of mud at the moment!! Yes, there was certainly plenty around that dip in the road and I guess that minerals would also be washed into it. When I was at the farm at the weekend there were no butterflies at this spot, but it was rather overcast. It will be interesting to return on a sunny day to see if they are still there. There is also a small orchard on the farm. I remember last year seeing a lot of butterflies feeding on the fallen fruit.

  5. Hi Nick:
    Interesting what happened with the Red Admirals. You’ve got some very nice images also. I hope it’s all for the better and that they are safe there.

    1. Hi Maria,
      I saw one laying eggs on some nettles near where we live, so hopefully we will be seeing even more later in the year!

  6. Wow they are so lovely butterflies. We have lots of butterflies but i don't know if all of them are really from here, or maybe there is one or two that are migrants.

    1. Sometimes it is difficult to tell if they are migrants or resident, particularly with this species that can survive the winters in southern England. We know these were definitely migrant as we saw them blowing in from the sea!!