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.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

East Lothian Butterflies 2012

The weather in East Lothian in 2012 was terrible. It started off quite well and we had two glorious weeks in March when butterflies started to appear, but from April onwards we had a ridiculous amount of rain. There were barely two days without rain right through to August. September was a little better, much to the relief of the farmers, who were able to harvest their crops, but we also had some periods of very heavy rain. We twice suffered fairly serious flooding in July and September, with rivers bursting their banks and fields being flooded.
The weather certainly had an impact on butterfly numbers earlier in the year, but species that appear later in the season didn’t suffer so badly. We had a few sightings of Red Admirals, Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells in late February/early March, but things really took off on 21 March. For the next ten days I had records of various butterflies coming in and it looked like we were going to have an amazing year. April, however, was a complete wash out and I received very few records of butterflies that month! After that numbers picked up a bit, but were generally very disappointing.

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta
The first record I received this year was a Red Admiral on the 15th March. We had a really good year for them in 2011, but it is not considered that they survive the winter in Scotland. There was another record on 21st February, but then no more were seen until June. Possibly Red Admirals can survive the cold of a Scottish winter, but they wake up in a period when there are no flowering plants for them to feed on.
The Red Admirals that turn up later in the year have most likely worked their way up here from southern England or the continent. A few individuals were seen in the early summer, but like last year, numbers really picked up in September when they were commonly seen furiously feeding on buddleia. Hopefully, many of them will have flown south where they will be able to make it through to next spring.

Peacock, Aglais io
Peacocks have become a butterfly that you can rely on here, whilst numbers of other species tend to fluctuate. The first record I have this year was from 21st March and they made regular appearances through to June. As is normal they were not about in July, but the next generation started to appear at the end of August and they were seen in good numbers until the end of September.

Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae
Small Tortoiseshells seem to be doing better here than they are further south. Over the last few years there has been concern that the number of Small Tortoiseshells has been declining and it is thought this may be due to a parasitic fly, Sturmia bella, becoming more common in the UK. If it is true that this fly is spreading up from Europe then hopefully it won’t make it up to Scotland!
Despite the poor weather Small Tortoiseshells were frequently recorded here. The first record was on 1st March and they were seen throughout the year until early October.

Comma, Polygonia c-album

The Comma is a butterfly that I am always excited to see. I saw my first one in East Lothian in 2004 and since then the numbers have gradually picked up. Certainly this seems to be a butterfly that is extending its range northwards. Unfortunately, this year it hasn’t done so well. I spotted my first one this year on 21st March, and on the same day the Countryside Ranger at John Muir Country Park saw one. I received one other record in May, but then nothing at all until September. I was beginning to worry that the wet weather had wiped them out, but having now had four reports of them I hope that they will be able to bounce back next year.

Small White, Pieris rapae
I saw my first Small White on 22 March in the middle of the exceptionally nice weather. Given the right weather conditions they can start to appear at that time, but normally they are a couple of weeks later. For the remainder of the spring the numbers were lower than normal due to the cloudy, wet conditions. The second generation in July and August was a little better, but Small Whites are never as numerous as Green-veined Whites here.

Green-veined White, Pieris napi
The first Green-veined White was reported on 25th March. The spring population was hit quite hard by the weather (both last summer and this spring), but they struggled on. Luckily they obviously managed to lay eggs between the showers and the second generation that appeared at the end of July was a lot more numerous. They continued in good numbers until the middle of September. There was a very definite gap between the two generations this year, which isn’t always the case.

Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines
The first Orange Tip I saw this year was a female on 27th March. This was exceptionally early and sadly for her just before the weather turned really bad. I saw the odd one in April, but the poor weather really seemed to impact on numbers.  The numbers I recorded on my transect were about a third of last year’s record, although they did continue later in the year than normal. Strangely I didn’t find any eggs on the common food plant here – Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, but I later found them laying eggs on Dame’s Violet, Hesperis matronalis, which was new to me. Unfortunately, shortly after finding the eggs the area was flooded. I fear that this could have an impact on numbers next year, but it will be interesting to see.

Large White, Pieris brassicae
The Large White is a butterfly that for some reason doesn’t occur in great numbers here. Normally, I only see them occasionally, so this year didn’t seem much different from the norm. The first record was on 27th March and I received a few more record later in the year. The numbers were higher for the second generation, with more being reported in August.

Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas
Earlier in the year it was noted all over the UK that the number of Small Coppers being recorded was lower than normal. The first record I received for East Lothian was on 12th May, and very few more were reported until the next generation started to appear in July. Numbers really seemed to pick up then, so it seems that the few that were spotted earlier in the year managed to breed successfully.

Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria tircis
In 2009 I received a couple of records of Speckled Woods in East Lothian, making me hopeful that they may move up here from the Scottish Borders. I received one more record in 2010 and last year I found a small colony at John Muir Country Park. Later in the year more were found elsewhere in the Park. This year they seem to have extended their range further along the coast. I saw my first one this year at exactly the same spot in John Muir Country Park on 16th May. They were subsequently seen in various sites up to 20 kilometres further west, right through until September. Not having any previous data it is difficult to say how the weather may have impacted on them, but it is exciting to see them doing well and extending their range.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

East Lothian Butterflies 2012 (2)

Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus
The Small Heath is a common butterfly along the coast in East Lothian and it is also found in the Lammermuir Hills. This year they appeared to do as well as ever and I saw over 50 of them during a visit to John Muir Country Park in June.

Holly Blue, Celastrina argiolus
Holly Blues have been recorded right on the western fringes of East Lothian for some years now, but last year I was excited to hear that a new colony of Holly Blues had been found in the coastal village of Aberlady, about 15 kilometres east of the original colony. When I checked this out I found three individuals, so it wasn’t a big colony! This year, despite several visits, I didn’t see any there. However, on 23rd May one was spotted a short distance away in Gullane and two days later I received a record of one five kilometres further along the coast. I live in hope that there is a colony somewhere around that area and that if we have a better summer next year I will manage to see them again.
Sadly, I heard no Holly Blues were recorded at the original site near Musselburgh this year and it is feared that they may have perished due to the poor weather. I really hope for better news next year.

Wall Brown, Lasiommata megera
Wall Browns were first recorded in East Lothian two years ago, having worked their way up the east coast of Scotland. Last year they extended their range only a few metres, but this year they seem to have moved even further up the coast. The first one I saw this year was on 25th May near the boundary with the Scottish Borders, but later in the year I received several reports of them along the next five kilometres of coast. I am hopeful that they will continue to expand their range over the next few years as there is a lot of good habitat further along the coast.

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui
2012 was not a good year for Painted Ladies in the UK. I received one record on 1st June and two in August. I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t see one myself, but on a warm day in September I found one in amongst some Red Admirals and Small Tortoiseshells feasting on some buddleia. This was to be the only Painted Lady I saw in 2012.

Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus
The Common Blue seemed reasonably unaffected by the weather. It is a butterfly that can be locally common at some coastal sites and disused quarries. This year I specifically went to look for them where I knew I had a good chance of finding them, so I may have a false impression of how many there were. The first ones I saw were on 14th June at an area within John Muir Country Park in an area that is the first place I look for them each year.

Grayling, Hypparchia semele
The Grayling is a butterfly that may have quietly been living unnoticed in East Lothian for a few years. After hearing rumours that there were some living on an old railway siding in an ex-opencast coal mine, I checked the area out last summer and immediately spotted one. Later in the year some were reported on a re-landscaped mining spoil heap less than a kilometre away. This year I checked out the railway siding on 29th June and despite the wind I saw one Grayling. In July I checked out the spoil heap and saw over 40 of them, so they now seem to be well established in the area. There were also two records of individuals at two sites on the coast.

Ringlet, Aphantpopus hyperantus
Ringlets tend to occur in damp grassy areas, and normally start to appear in late June. This year I didn’t see any until 3rd July when I counted 16 on my transect. Luckily for them, this was after the worst of the wet weather, and just after the first floods, so their numbers weren’t that much lower than normal. They tend to be quite a short-lived butterfly, and their numbers tend to drop off by early August, but this year they were still being noted in the third week of August. So, it seems that they delayed their whole adult life by two weeks.

Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina
The emergence of Meadow Browns was also two or three weeks later than normal, and although their numbers were low to start with they picked up later in the season. I recorded my first one this year on 17th July. If anything, I think this season was better than average.

Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis laodice
Along with the other two butterflies above this butterfly was about three weeks later than normal. The first record I have for this year is the 27th July, but normally they would be seen at the end of June or early July. Once they did appear their numbers seemed about normal.

Northern Brown Argus, Aricia artaxerxes
Northern Brown Argus tend to live in small colonies based around their food plant – the Rockrose, Helianthemum nummularium. The adults tend not to fly any distance from the areas where Rockrose grows. I am only aware of three sites where there are colonies of Northern Brown Argus in East Lothian, although I am sure there must be others still to be discovered. Adults normally start to appear in mid-June, but I didn’t get to a site just inside East Lothian until 26th July when I saw a good number of them.

That was 20 species of butterflies recorded in East Lothian this year. Not bad considering the appalling weather. I was constantly amazed that butterflies appeared after fairly long periods of cold wet weather. Numbers of most species seemed to be down on normal, but hopefully they will bounce back if we have a summer next year!

The two species that seem to have suffered were the two that are probably the rarest. Holly Blue numbers were down and we didn't record any Small Skippers. Last year was the first year that Small Skippers were recorded in East Lothian. I hope we see them again soon.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Orange Tip - Anthocharis cardamines

My favourite butterfly is the Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines. When it first appears in April, I know that the butterfly season has started in East Lothian. Other butterflies appear around the same time of year, but they all produce a second generation later in the year. The Orange Tip only has one generation and in East Lothian they usually occur from mid April until the end of June. They are commonly found in the lush vegetation along the edge of water courses.
It is only the male that has the beautiful orange tips to its wings. The female lacks the orange and has slightly larger black tips to its wings. When they are freshly emerged they have a lovely checked edge to their wings and white antennae.
The underside of the wing is a marbled white and green and when they completely close up they are remarkably well camouflaged.

Around here the most common food plant for the caterpillars is Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata. Cockooflower, Cardamine pratensis is also listed as a common food plant, but I have never found eggs or caterpillars on it. The adults feed on the flowers of both of these plants and you can see from the picture of Garlic Mustard below how the underside of the wing looks just like a flower head!
The spring and summer of 2012 was particularly rainy here and this appeared to have quite an impact on the butterflies trying to survive at the time. I didn't find one egg on any Garlic Mustard, but discovered that this year they had chosen a garden escape, Dames Violet, Hesperis matronalis to lay their eggs on.
The butterfly above is laying an egg and you can see the tiny white egg on the Dames Violet below.
Sadly the area where I do my butterfly transect is along-side the River Tyne and in July it flooded and all of the Dames Violet was submerged. After the waters subsided I didn't find any surviving eggs or caterpillars. Hopefully, there will be others on higher ground that have survived and they will colonise the river banks again next year.

The caterpillars are cannibalistic, and the female butterfly only lays one egg per flower head.

 Within a couple of days the egg turns orange ...
... and the caterpillar hatches sometime between one and two weeks later depending on the temperature.
The caterpillar lives its life feeding on the seed pods and by the fourth instar it has developed a white  shading to its upper side.

Up until this year I have never managed to find an Orange Tip chrysalis. The butterflies, eggs and caterpillars are relatively easy to spot, but the chrysalis is cunningly disguised as a thorn or bud. Last weekend I was at my father's house. He lives in a woodland and in a sunny spot I saw some dried Garlic Mustard seed heads. I spent some time searching them and the surrounding shrubs and I was delighted to find a chrysalis on a dried seed head of a Garlic Mustard plant growing in the wall of a derelict mill. I was thinking that if we have heavy snow this winter the Garlic Mustard plants would be flattened, but the plant with the chrysalis was beautifully sheltered under the branches of some elm trees. It is amazing that butterflies seem to consider these things when they lay their eggs!
I have been told that there are two colour forms of the chrysalis. Brown is more common than green. Now I know what I am looking for I will have a look for some more the next time I visit my dad. It is amazing to see the way the caterpillar has woven silk onto the stem of the plant to attach itself. It should remain there until next April, when hopefully it will emerge into a beautiful butterfly.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Malaga, Spain - Butterflies - July 2012 (1)

This year's family holiday was in Alora, about 50 kilometres north west of Malaga. I had reasonably high expectations, thinking that there may be more butterflies in the hills rather than the more built-up coast. However, Spain has experienced a hot, dry spring and a fairly normal, hot, dry summer and then was in the midst of a heat wave while we were there. Daytime temperatures were up to 40 degrees Celsius in the shade and we certainly noticed how parched the country looked as we flew over northern Spain.
Our rented villa was a couple of kilometres outside the village and offered a lot of opportunities for walking. Much of the surrounding country was used for growing olives and the earth under the trees had been rotivated. Other areas were dry scrub, with rosemary, thyme and lavender plants. It was so dry that these herbs didn't produce any smell when they were walked on!
In the bottom of the valley were well irrigated orange and lemon groves and the river Guadalhorce still had water running in it despite the dams upstream and the amount of water being taken out of it for irrigation.

Our villa was set in a lovely garden, but most of the plants were palms and other drought tolerant species. Not ideal for attracting butterflies. There were a few lantana and a plumbago that proved irresistible to some regular visitors.
As is so often the case, the first butterfly I saw this holiday was a Geranium Bronze, Cacyreus marshalli. There were quite a few geraniums in the garden, but they were very dry and woody and I couldn't find any evidence of caterpillars on them.

This lovely little Southern Brown Argus, Aricia cramera, was in the garden on the day we arrived, but I didn't see any more in the garden after that. There were others in the hills around the villa and by the river, though.

Lang's Short-tailed Blues, Leptotes pirithous, were the most numerous butterfly in the garden. They were mostly found around a plumbago plant, where I saw them laying eggs.
I took this picture of an egg, and only when I viewed it on the camera screen did I notice that there was also a caterpillar on the plant. I couldn't actually see it with the naked eye - it measured about two millimetres long. My daughter and I spent ages searching the flower heads on the plumbago looking for larger caterpillars, without any success.

The best area I could find for butterflies close to the villa was along a short length of track that had been cut into the hillside. This seemed to offer a bit of shade to the plants and the thyme was in flower there. This seemed to be one of the few food sources in the area for butterflies.
I was very excited when I saw several small blue butterflies there, but they all turned out to be Common Blues, Polyommatus icarus. They were very much smaller than those back home. I don't know if that was because the food plants were so shriveled up.

The most common butterfly in that area was the Southern Gatekeeper, Pyronia cecilia.

They spent much of the day hiding away in shady areas and were remarkably well camouflaged when they closed up their wings. One day I scrambled along a dried up stream bed and I was amazed at the number of Southern Gatekeepers that flew up ahead of me. There were constantly about five to ten of them in the air, flying up when I disturbed them and then landing in another shady area.

It was interesting that out of the several hundred Southern Gatekeepers I saw, I only noticed two males. They could be recognised by the dark sex brand on their upper wings. Maybe there were more males around, but they were less inclined to open their wings, or maybe the males emerge later than the females.

The other butterfly that was almost as common was the Dusky Heath, Coenonympha dorus. I love the markings on the underside of the wings, particularly the silver edging. They would briefly open their wings on landing, but spent most of their time with their wings firmly shut.

I'll continue with the other butterflies I saw in a separate post.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Malaga, Spain - Butterflies - July 2012 (2)

As well as the Southern Gatekeepers, Dusky Heaths, Common Blues and the Skippers mentioned in my previous posts there were a few other butterflies that occasionally appeared on the track close to our rented villa. This is a Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas

This is a female Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina.

And this is a male Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina.

This Clouded Yellow, Colias croceus, spent a long time feeding on thyme one evening allowing me to get very close.

Another day, I spent ages following this Bath White, Pontia daplidice, along the track before it stopped long enough for a quick picture.

The temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius in the shade during the day, but early morning it would be about 25 degrees. I tended to get up at sunrise to make the most of the cooler weather. One day I walked up into the hills above Alora. This was a fairly steep climb and as soon as the sun came up, temperatures rose quickly. There were quite a number of Wall Browns, Lasiommata megera, defending territories on the path. 

I didn't see any females at all. Occasionally one of them would fly into another's territory and a short chase would ensue. I was amazed to see that one of the more aggressive Wall Browns was completely missing one of its rear wings. This didn't seem to hamper its ability to fly or defend it territory, though.

One morning I saw a small brown butterfly chasing after a small grey butterfly and trying to make passionate advances towards it. The grey one was intent on getting away from the brown one, so they weren't hanging around for a picture. I managed a couple of shots, which allowed me to identify them as a Southern Brown Argus, Aricia cramera, chasing an African Grass Blue, Zizeeria knysna. 

A few days later I decided to walk along the Guadalhorce River to see what butterflies there were there. The most common butterfly there was the African Grass Blue, which at least confirmed my identification of the grey butterfly above.

The river valley also proved to be popular with Small Whites, Clouded Yellows and Small Coppers, but surprisingly nothing that I hadn't seen closer to the house. I noticed that some of the Small Coppers by the river were the darker form.

I explored the pine forests near the Guadalhorce Lakes, but didn't see any butterflies there at all! I also explored the edge of a wooded area near Alora and the well irrigated orange groves in the valley, but didn't see any new species of butterflies in those locations.

Back at the track by the villa, I was beginning to think that I wouldn't see any new species, but one late afternoon a Long-tailed Blue, Lampides boeticus, briefly landed ahead of me. These are beautiful butterflies and I have only ever had a momentary view of one. 

On one of the last days of our holiday a small, orange butterfly landed in the garden as we were having lunch.   Luckily my camera was close by and I was able to take a picture of it before it flew off. Thanks to the zoom on my Lumix FZ150 I was able to identify the butterfly as a Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus, but this is the southern, second generation, which looks very different from the Small Heaths I see back in Scotland. 

I have to admit to being a little disappointed that I didn't see more butterflies during our holiday. I had hoped to see a lot of different species of blues that occur in that part of Spain. I was also surprised not to see any fritillaries, or even a Painted Lady or Swallotail flying past!
Judging by the dried up wild flowers I think I would have been a lot more successful in April or May and the area must look really beautiful then they are all in flower. We were told that Spain has experienced an exceptionally hot, dry spring and it was experiencing  a bit of a heat wave when we were there. Judging from what I saw in Gibraltar, I think that had I managed to find some cooler, damper areas I would have seen a lot more species of butterflies. 
However, after the horrible weather we have been experiencing in South East Scotland this year, it was fantastic to be somewhere hot and sunny where I could see butterflies every day! I saw 21 different species while we were there which is more species than occur in this part of Scotland. 

This is a beautiful part of Spain. I haven't mentioned the amazing villages built on steep hillsides, the castles, the friendly people, lovely food and the fantastic lifestyle. A great place for a holiday.