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.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Peacock emergence

Most years I find several groups of Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars on nettles, but strangely this year I haven't found any at all. I had feared that the late spring had meant that very few had been able to breed this year, but luckily in August the Buddleia bank was covered in Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Red Admirals, so they must have laid eggs on a patch of nettles close by, unnoticed by me!

Last year there were several groups of Peacock caterpillars on the nettles in my meadow. I collected a couple of caterpillars in June and kept them in a mesh cage so that I could watch then develop.

On 4th July both caterpillars crawled up to the top of the cage and formed a J-shape and they formed into chrysalises on the 7th July.

On the 31st July one emerged at 11am. As always I missed this happening, having checked the chrysalis a little earlier in the morning. So I placed the twig that the other chrysalis was attached to on my desk, next to where I was working. At 4.45pm I heard a crack and noticed that the chrysalis had split open, so I grabbed my phone and managed to film the butterfly emerging.

Chrysalises tend to colour up a couple of days before the butterfly emerges, so it is reasonably easy to know which day the emergence will happen. I I used to imagine that they would emerge in the morning of a sunny day, but I have known butterflies appear in the early hours of the morning through to late afternoon and I have also had them emerge on dull, rainy days.

It was such a thrill to see this butterfly emerge. By the time its wings had dried out it was too late to release it that day. The following morning it was still on its twig, so I took it outside into the sun where it quickly took off.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

Some Orange Tip Observations

Although I believe that it is best to leave nature to do its own thing and not to interfere, I sometimes I think it could do with a helping hand. The spring of 2020 was lovely, but the weather took an unfortunate turn for the worse in June.

In April and May of 2020 there were a lot of Orange Tips flying around and I found loads of eggs and caterpillars. Unfortunately, we had a lot of heavy rain in early June and most of the caterpillars I had been watching disappeared. After one particularly heavy shower I could only find one caterpillar, so I popped it on a Garlic Mustard plant that I had in a pot and put it in a mesh cage for safety.

On 27th June the caterpillar attached itself to the seed head with a girdle of thread and formed into a J-shape. It stayed like that for 3 days before shedding its skin and forming a chrysalis.

I kept the chrysalis in a mesh cage under an overhang of the house. It remained there all winter and eventually emerged into a butterfly on 11th May 2021. I was surprised as this was a dark cloudy morning and only 10 degrees. However, I had noticed its colour change over the previous week, so possibly it couldn't delay the process any longer.

As each Orange Tip's under wing pattern appears to be unique I was able to photograph any I saw and discovered that my Orange Tip was still living on 24th May. It had survived though a horrible period of weather with several periods of really heavy rain.

I often wonder if butterflies can survive heavy downpours or prolonged periods of rain and this one proved that they can. I have also wondered when I see an Orange Tip if it is the same one that I had seen the previous day, or if it is a new one that has flown into the area. Checking through the photographs I took this year, I have identified at least 28 different Orange Tips and only a few of them were seen on more than one occasion.

This spring I was pleased to see plenty of Orange Tips flying around. There were so many that quite a few Garlic Mustard seed heads had more than one egg on them. This is unusual, as it is thought that Orange Tip caterpillars are cannibalistic. I noticed two Cuckoo Flowers growing on the edge of our pond which were proving very attractive to female Orange Tips. When I checked one plant had seven eggs on it and the other had nine. These are really small plants and I find it hard to believe that there is enough to eat in one plant for just one caterpillar. 

A few days later I checked and the eggs had all hatched. I kept an eye on them and then suddenly on day 8 all the caterpillars were gone. I don't know if they were eaten or if they all decided to go and look for something more substantial to fee on. I think I will try to grow a Cuckoo flower in a pot next spring and see if I can attract an Orange Tip to lay an egg so I can see if the caterpillar stays on the plant.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

How Butterflies Arrive in East Lothian

In previous posts I have described how Speckled Woods and Wall Browns have arrived in East Lothian over the last few years and then colonised the whole county.

They both worked their way up the east coast from Berwickshire, skirting around the Lammermuir Hills, which run along the south of East Lothian. This seems like an obvious route, taking advantage of the milder climate along the coast and avoiding higher slightly baron hills.

It does appear that the Lammermuir Hills, with a maximum elevation of only 535 metres, is quite a barrier for butterflies as they expand their range.

Speckled Woods were first recorded in East Lothian in 2009 right on the south east corner of East Lothian at Dunglass. A year later Wall Browns were discovered in the same location and both species spread around the coast and have also used river valleys as they have colonised the county.

When Large Skippers were also found at Dunglass in 2014 we all expected them to follow the same route, but we were disappointed not to find them further along the coast over the next few years. Instead, the odd record came in suggesting that they had followed the foothills of the Lammermuirs westwards. This summer they were found in good numbers at Levenhall Links, which is on the extreme west of East Lothian. So, it seems that they chose a completely different route across the county.

Of course, Large Skippers are not easy to spot as they whizz about between flowers and maybe they are under-recorded as a result.

It is interesting, then, that Small Skippers were first recorded in East Lothian between Aberlady and Gullane in 2011. They had been recorded previously in the Borders, but hadn’t been spotted anywhere in East Lothian. Over the years more records came in and we have watched them spread east and west along the coast. There were some early records from some woodland south of Aberlady and also up in the Lammermuir Hills at Linn Dean.

It would appear that these little guys took a completely different route into East Lothian and came over the Lammermuirs via Soutra. It is no coincidence that the two main roads coming north into East Lothian are the A1 which follows the coast and the A68 which comes up over Soutra. The highest point of the A68 at Soutra is 364 metres above sea level, so still a bit of a climb, but the lowest point away from the coast.

Last year we moved to the Yarrow Valley in the Scottish Borders. Our house is between 30 and 40 miles from the coast as the crow (or butterfly) flies, but this short distance makes a surprising difference to the weather. We are at 175 metres above sea level, which isn’t that much, but the elevation and distance from the sea appears to have quite an impact on the weather. I can’t say that it is very noticeable, but the season here is at least three weeks behind what it is in more coastal areas.

It is noticeable in the spring that the Daffodils are at least three weeks later, but even later in the year my Buddleia flower at least three weeks behind those plants in our East Lothian garden, from which I took them as cuttings.

Although the summers appear to be just as hot, if not hotter than on the coast it is interesting that the shorter season means that Speckled Woods and Wall Browns, that are now so common in East Lothian, haven’t made it this far inland. However, the more adventurous Small and Large Skippers have both arrived here. It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Wall Brown, Lasiommata megera

Back in February 2018 I reported on how the Wall Brown had arrived in East Lothian and then continued westward across the county. I am pleased to say that the species has continued to do well and has now been recorded over most of the county.

The map below shows sightings up to 2020 and this year it they have been seen right along the coast to the west.

It is interesting how they have tended to move along the coast both in East Lothian and as they have spread up the country.

I moved about 40 miles south of East Lothian last year, but there are no Wall Browns here. They are very common along the coast, but haven't ventured inland. We certainly have a shorter season here and in the spring I notice that plant are up to three weeks behind those on the coast. Possibly the season is just too short for Wall Browns, but I do live in hope that we will see them here soon.

Monday, 24 May 2021

Double Brooders

Last year I tended to take a lot of pictures of butterflies on our land using my phone. I would always have my phone in my back pocket whenever I was working outside and it was easy to take a quick record shot, rather than running to the house to get my camera, only to discover that the butterfly had then flown away!

Imagine my horror earlier this year when I discovered that all my pictures had disappeared from my phone. Luckily Google Photos automatically backs up every picture I take and so I have spent many evenings sifting through them and downloading the better pictures onto my laptop.

Amongst the pictures I was keen to save were some of a hutchinsoni form of the Comma that I saw last August. This is a lighter form of the Comma, Polygonia c-album, which it is thought is a result of the caterpillar developing while the day length is increasing. i.e before mid-summers day.

This form goes on to breed again the same year. Normally, in Scotland, the Comma just has one brood a year. The double brood is more common in England. This is the first time I have seen this form of Comma, but apparently a few have been seen in southern Scotland in the last few years. Possibly another sign of the climate changing, or maybe just a result of the lovely weather we had last spring.

Here is the normal form of the Comma.

And in contrast here is an interesting dark Comma I saw a few weeks later. This gave the impression of being a purple butterfly when it was flying.

Also, in August I found a cluster of Small Tortoiseshell caterpillars.

Here the Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae, is normally single brooded, but further south there are two generations a year. I have never found caterpillars that late in the year and this was definitely a second brood. Again, probably the result of the great spring. I reared one of the caterpillars, which emerged from its chrysalis on 11th September, very much later than the usual early July.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Holly Blues in East Lothian, Celastrina argiolus

This beautiful little butterfly is found extensively across England and Wales but there is only the odd record in Scotland. Most of those are from East Lothian, although they have been recorded in Fife and the Scottish Borders.

I was always aware of a colony on the western edge of East Lothian, but when I checked out Butterfly Conservation’s records for the area, I only found one record from 2013, although I know they had been seen there for many years before that. It just shows the importance of making sure that sightings of any butterflies are sent to the local recorder. Sadly, following a series of cold winters that colony appeared to die out.

For the last ten years, though, there have been single sightings each year from an area around three villages in the north of East Lothian. These have all been from Dirleton, North Berwick and Gullane and I suspect that there is a large private garden somewhere in that area containing Holly and Ivy where a colony of Holly Blues has secretly been living. Those individuals that were seen could all have flown from that one colony.

Despite the efforts of a few of us, we have never found where that colony may have been.

In 2011 there was great excitement, as three Holly Blues were seen on the outskirts of Aberlady. However, despite careful checking of the area since, they were not seen there again.

Then in 2019 some Holly Blues were seen feeding on Snowberry flowers on the outskirts of Gullane, right next to a popular path. I am sure that they would have been spotted in previous years if they had been there. I think the maximum count seen then was 7 butterflies.

A little later in the year a second colony was found a few hundred yards away and a couple of individuals were spotted on the outskirts of the village.

In 2020 we anticipated their return, but we were disappointed that no one saw any in these two locations during the spring. We wondered if these were yet more failed colonies that couldn’t cope with our winter weather. However, I started to receive records from other areas of East Lothian, up to 12 kilometres away. I think we had records of 38 Holly Blues that spring and later in the summer, when the second generation was flying, we had a further 52 records come in, including several from the two colonies in Gullane and from the site in Aberlady where they were seen in 2011.

I would love to find out more about Holly Blues. I get the impression that females must fly from the original colony for up to about 10 kilometres in search of somewhere to lay eggs. This would explain the individual sightings over the last few years and the new colonies that have sprung up around East Lothian. Many of these are in areas that have been regularly surveyed by enthusiasts, so any Holly Blues would have been spotted there in previous years.

Already this spring there have been quite a few records sent in from the areas we found them last year. It will be interesting to see if they expand their range further when the next generation appears in August.

I guess I will never know where the original colony was, but it is great that Holly Blues are now becoming a regular site in East Lothian.

Monday, 22 February 2021

East Lothian Butterflies 2020

For the last few years I have been coordinating the butterfly records from the Countryside Rangers and volunteers in East Lothian and then sending them in to Butterfly Conservation. 2020 was a very unusual year in more ways than one. The coronavirus, weather and my move to the Scottish Borders all impacted on butterfly recording.

After a reasonably mild, but wet winter the weather was wonderful from March until June. Coupled with the good summer of 2019 this resulted in a few early records, such as Small Coppers being seen on the coast near Dunbar on 7th April, the earliest record in Scotland.

Unfortunately in early June we had some very heavy showers and the wet and cloudy weather persisted for much of the rest of the year. I am sure the poor weather later in the summer impacted on the number of butterflies we saw.

The Covid-19 lockdown came into effect in March, meaning that we were not able to travel, other than for essential reasons. Luckily many of the East Lothian Countryside Volunteers took up the request to record the butterflies that they saw in their gardens or while they were taking their daily exercise.

The transects took a real hit, though, as it wasn't possible for people to travel in order to undertake these surveys. Only the John Muir Country Park transect was walked all season and two other transects were walked from July until September. There are normally nine transects regularly walked in East Lothian.

But, thanks to everyone's efforts we received 1,858 ad hoc records of butterflies in 2020, a bit down on the average of 2,200, but much better than it could have been. The number of butterflies recorded varies year on year, but has averaged about 13,000 over the last few years. In 2020 we only recorded 5007 butterflies. Undoubtedly the lack of transect records has contributed to this, but some species didn't appear to do very well last year, particularly those that we normally see in good numbers after June.

Because of all of the variability in 2020, it would be wrong to directly compare the figures with previous years, but there were still some very interesting results.

The spring populations of Large Whites and Small Whites, appeared to do well, but the summer generations were smaller than we are used to seeing. This appeared to correspond with the weather conditions during each generation. The ever-reliable Green-veined Whites, though, did well throughout the year.

After the bumper numbers of Painted Ladies we saw in 2019, it seemed odd that we had so few records last year. In 2019 we recorded 5,395 Painted Ladies, but in 2020 we only had 18 records. The number that arrive on our shores depends on how well they have done in North Africa and southern Europe earlier in the year, but it is interesting to see the dramatic difference there can be each year. You would imagine that with so many returning from the UK in the autumn of 2019 that there would have been a good stock to start the 2020 season with. Possibly there was limited food available in North Africa, maybe the weather in southern Europe wasn’t so good and, of course, we would normally expect to see large numbers appearing on our shores in July, when the weather was particularly rainy here.

The big story of 2020 was Holly Blues. For the last few years we have received one, or occasionally two, records of a Holly Blue in East Lothian. These records have usually been from a 5 kilometre stretch of the coast, leaving us to suspect that there was an undiscovered colony in a large garden or other secluded location in the area. Then in 2019 two colonies were discovered in the village of Gullane, right in the middle of that area.

In the spring of 2020 we we received records from that same general area, but also from further along the coast and from 5 miles inland. Then in July and August we had several more records from all these areas and a bit further afield. By the time we received the last record on September 6th, 90 Holly Blues had been recorded in East Lothian. It was an amazing expansion in their range and most of the sightings were from places which are regularly checked for butterflies so they would have definitely been seen in previous years if they had been there.

Two Large Skippers were spotted, one inland and one at the coast. I suspect that there are more of them around, but they tend to whizz from flower to flower and are often difficult to spot.

There was a mass arrival of Red Admirals at the end of June, but numbers were lower than expected later in the year. I guess the weather didn’t help, but I noticed that many of the caterpillars in my garden were attacked by parasitic wasps and perished. I wonder if the same happened in East Lothian?

However, Peacocks and Commas also seemed to do less well later in the year, suggesting that it may have been more to do with the weather.

In contrast, Small Tortoiseshells had a really good year, which is good to see. There is quite a lot of national concern because their numbers have been declining over the last few years. Let’s hope this is the start of a renaissance for the species.

I only received one Green Hairstreak record in 2020. The Covid restrictions meant that it wasn't possible to check most of the site where they have previously been recorded, which are all quite remote.

It was great seeing Wall Browns continuing to do well. It is ten years since they were first recorded in East Lothian and they can now be found almost anywhere in the county.

Meadow Browns and Small Heaths both appeared to do very well in 2020 and it was surprising to receive so many records, as they are not what you would consider to be garden butterflies.

I didn't receive any records of Northern Brown Argus in 2020. I am only aware of four colonies and three of those are not in places that people would have been able to visit during lockdown. There is a colony on a coastal golf course, where I only saw one Northern Brown Argus in 2019. I hope that they are still there and just weren't spotted by people walking past.

We had 23 species of butterflies recorded in 2020 in East Lothian, which is fantastic given the restrictions we were all under.

I am very grateful to everyone who contributed records last year. I hope it won't be too long before we are seeing butterflies again in the spring and I really hope that restrictions will have been lifted enough for us to be able to get out and see them.