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, 25 November 2013

East Lothian Butterflies 2013

The weather in 2013 was a big improvement on the previous two years. Although the winter wasn’t particularly hard, it dragged on for a long time, and spring didn’t arrive until half way through April. This, and I think last year’s very poor weather, had an impact on the number of butterflies early in the year. Other than a couple of sightings in March, the first records of butterflies didn’t come in until 26th April!
However, from mid April until the end of August, the weather was reasonably warm, dry and sunny. It was never particularly hot, so there was a continuous source of food plants and the number of butterflies really picked up during July and August. The weather in September and October was rather disappointing, so we didn’t get the influx of butterflies migrating north, that we were hoping for. The first frosts arrived in early November, putting an end to the butterfly season.

Peacock, Aglais io
The first record I received this year was a Peacock, seen on North Berwick Law on the 1st March. There were a few seen throughout the spring, but the number seen dropped at the end of May. In August, though, there was a sudden explosion of Peacocks when the next generation appeared. Numbers through August were the highest I can remember seeing.

Small Tortoiseshell, Aglais urticae
The first record this year of a Small Tortoiseshell in East Lothian was on 2nd March. After that they appeared regularly through to May. Like the Peacock their numbers picked up considerably with the new generation in July and August.
Small Tortoiseshell

Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui
One Painted Lady was recorded on 25th April, but it wasn’t until the end of June that more were seen having worked their way northwards through Europe. They weren’t seen up here in great numbers this year, though.
Painted Lady

Green-veined White, Pieris napi
The butterfly season kicked off properly with the first record of a Green-veined White on 26th April. Numbers were a little low, but they were seen regularly up until the middle of June. In July the second generation appeared with a vengeance. It seems that the weather conditions must have been perfect for them this year with numbers peaking around the middle of August.
Green-veined White

Small White, Pieris rapae
The first record of a Small White this year was on 29th April, which is more than a month later than last year and two months later than 2011. This just shows how their emergence is related to the weather. Like the Green-veined Whites, their numbers were low for the spring generation, but when the second generation started to appear at the beginning of August they were seen in far greater numbers than they have been for many years.
Small White

Comma, Polygonia c-album
The Comma is a butterfly that isn’t seen in great numbers here. It was first recorded in East Lothian in 2004 and is now seen all over the county, but rarely more than one at a time. The first one recorded here this year was on 30th April and a few records kept trickling in until the end of October. I find it odd that we never see it in greater numbers like the Small Tortoiseshell or Peacock with which it shares a similar life cycle and food plant.

Orange Tip, Anthocharis cardamines
The first Orange Tip seen this year was on 7th May. Their numbers were lower than average, but considering the rain and flooding we had last year this isn’t surprising. They don’t have a second summer generation like the other whites, but hopefully they should do well next year. Strangely, I didn’t see very many eggs or caterpillars, which are normally fairly easy to spot.
Orange Tip

Large White, Pieris brassicae
The first Large White was seen on 7th May. Generally we don’t see Large Whites in great numbers here, however this year, as with the other species from August onwards we had unusually high numbers of Large Whites. It wasn’t unusual to see more than 40 on a buddleia bush.
Large White

Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria
Speckled Woods are butterflies that excite me a lot! In 2009 we received our first couple of records of them in East Lothian. The following year I found a small colony of them and since then they have increased in numbers year on year. The first record this year was on 14th May. After that records came in from all over the north and middle of the county. It seems that they first arrived here on the east coast having spread up from the Scottish Borders. This year they have worked their way almost along the entire length of the coast and up the River Tyne valley. It is amazing to see such a rapid spread of this species and next year I won’t be surprised if they are seen all over the county.
Speckled Wood

Holly Blue, Celastrina argiolus
I only received one record of a Holly Blue this year on the 21st May. This was sad after they had been seen in various locations over the previous two years. Hopefully this one sighting means that they are still clinging on at the long-established colony in the west of East Lothian.

Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta
The first Red Admiral we saw this year was on May 22nd. Thereafter they were seen a few times, but compared with other butterflies this year, they weren't around in great numbers. I think the long winter was too much for any of them to survive and we didn't get very many making their way up from Europe.

Small Copper, Lyceana phlaeas
The weather this year seemed to suit Small Coppers with the first one being recorded on 30th May and thereafter higher than normal numbers being spotted. It was interesting to note that last year the majority of those seen were of the caeruleopunctata aberration, with a number of blue spots on their hind wings. However, this year very few aberrations were noted. It is interesting to speculate whether the aberration is a result of the climate, or quality of the caterpillar food plant, or for some other reason.
Small Copper

Wall Brown, Lamiommata megera
Like the Speckled Woods, Wall Browns were first recorded in East Lothian only a few years ago, but they don’t seem to have spread as quickly. We had a new record of them on North Berwick Law, so they have spread about half way along the coast in that time. The first record this year was on 30th May. They seem to occur mostly on the coast, but in August I saw one six kilometres inland at Woodhall Dean.
Wall Brown

Small Heath, Coenonympha pamphilus
The first Small Heath was recorded on 2nd June. It 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.
Small Heath

Common Blue, Polyommatus icarus
The common Blue had a fairly normal year. I think that because they have come from eggs that were laid last year, they seem to be affected less by this year's good weather. The first Common Blue was seen on 16th June and they were on the wing until the middle of September.
Common Blue

Ringlet, Aphantopus hyperantus
Ringlets have a very short flight period. They occur in damp grassy areas and normally start to appear in late June, and this year they turned up right on cue on 21st June. The number of Ringlets on my transect this year was lower than normal, but that isn't surprising given that the area was flooded twice last year. At other sites around East Lothian there were good numbers of Ringlets.

Grayling, Hipparchia semele
The Grayling was restricted to a couple of very small sites in East Lothian, with the odd record of them being found at other coastal sites in the past, but these seem to be one-offs. The first Grayling recorded this year was on 25th June at one of the established sites. Last year a new colony was discovered on a re-landscaped mining spoil heap close to one of their other colonies. When I visited this colony in mid July I counted 80 individuals in a short visit, double the number that I saw last year.

Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina
Meadow Browns seemed to do very well this year. The first record was on 25th June and they were seen in good numbers up until the end of August. I only saw one on my transect this year, but again, this isn’t surprising given the flooding we had in that area last year.
Meadow Brown

Dark Green Fritillary, Argynnis aglaja
The Dark Green Fritillary is a lovely bright butterfly that occurs in many coastal areas and valleys in the Lammermuir Hills. The first one was seen in East Lothian this year on 30th June. They never occur in great numbers, and this year proved to be about average for them.
Dark Green Fritillary

Northern Brown Argus, Aricia artaxerxes
I am aware of four colonies of Northern Brown Argus in East Lothian, but I am sure there are probably more in the Lammermuir Hills. The colonies are very small, one being based around a patch of their food plant – the Rockrose, Helianthemum nummularium on a golf course and another on a small patch of Rockrose in a private garden.  I tend to go and specifically look for them where I know they occur and this year they seemed to be a little later than normal, but in reasonable numbers.
Northern Brown Argus

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Boloria selene
Having visited a reserve in the Scottish Borders this year to see Small Pear-bordered Fritillaries, I was delighted to find them at a site just inside East Lothian a couple of weeks later. There have previously been a few unconfirmed sightings of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries in East Lothian, but this time I saw them long enough and took some pictures which confirmed their identification. It is funny how seeing a butterfly elsewhere can lead to identifying them in different sites. If I hadn’t seen those in the Scottish Borders I may have dismissed these as Dark Green Fritillaries and not looked any closer!
Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Small Skipper, Thymelicus sylvestris
Another very exciting record this year was the discovery of a number of Small Skippers at Aberlady Local Nature Reserve. There had been three isolated sightings of Small Skippers at two locations in East Lothian the previous two years, but on 12th July I received an excited phone call from a local volunteer who had found more than ten of them on a patch of thistles in the reserve.  She went on to find more at the reserve and I then received other records of them at three other locations within three kilometres of this site. It is great to hear that they are doing well and if we have good weather next year I am sure we will find them at various other locations.
Small Skipper

Clouded Yellow, Colias croceus
We only very rarely see Clouded Yellows here. I saw one thirteen years ago and a colleague saw one seven years ago. This year we received two records. The first was seen in North Berwick on 31st July and the following day we were told of one about 25 kilometres further along the coast in Musselburgh. I guess it must have been the same individual. In August and September high numbers arrived in southern England from the continent. They were seen laying eggs and I was hoping that we would be invaded by the next generation. Unfortunately the cold weather proved too much for them and they didn't venture up here!

All together this has been a fantastic year for butterflies. In total I received sightings of 23 different species, which I think must be a record for East Lothian. Only ten years ago eight of those species hadn't been recorded here. It is amazing that so many species continue to expand their range into East Lothian. We seem to be losing more and more habitat, and yet the butterflies seem to be better than ever. I wonder what the next new species will be. I can't wait for next year!

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Monarch - Danaus plexippus

I find the story of the Monarch butterfly amazing. Starting in Mexico in the spring, three generations make their way north up through the USA. Then the fourth generation, or super generation, makes it way all the way back to Mexico to the same bit of woodland its great grandparents left so many months earlier.
It is impressive enough that a butterfly can fly 2-3,000 miles, but how can the information about where to migrate to be transferred between generations like that?

Monarch seen in Lanzarote, 2011 
It is also interesting that this species, which is so strongly migratory in the USA has spread to other corners of the world where it remains sedentary. I don't remember seeing any Monarchs in the USA, but I have been lucky enough to see them in Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, St Lucia, Lanzarote and Tenerife. They also occur in Mauritius and I believe Australia and New Zealand. In these countries it seems to have discovered the good life and it occurs and breeds there all year around.

Monarch seen in Gibraltar, 2012
This summer when I was in Tenerife I went walking in the area around a village called Masca. I walked along a path in the village where I saw a couple of Monarchs gliding on the thermals below the path. I tried, unsuccessfully, to take some pictures of them floating in the air.

I then noticed that they seemed to be attracted to some orange flowers beside the path. One of them would fly down and feed on them for a while and then fly up and settle in a palm tree. As I watched another Monarch , I realised that it was laying eggs! And then I noticed that there were eggs dotted all over the plant.

Even better, as I was looking for eggs, I suddenly realised that I was staring at a caterpillar and slowly it dawned on me that there were hundreds of them amongst the plants!

What I didn't know then was that the plants were Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

Tropical Milkweed. When I enlarge the original of this picture I can make out nine caterpillars, one butterfly and several eggs!!
Having found three life stages of the Monarch, I was sure that there must be some chrysalises close by. After searching the cracks and crevices in the dry-stone-wall I eventually found some empty shells hanging in a doorway.

I was surprised not to find any occupied chrysalises, but having seen a few large lizards amongst the Milkweed, I suspected that many of them may have been eaten. I don't know if they would be toxic to the lizards. Just as I was about to give up, I saw one on the underside of a Canna Lily leaf.

I was so delighted to find it!! What a fun half an hour it had been. I have never found all four stages of a butterfly on the same day before.


Thank you very much to Maria Firpi, a fellow blogger from Puerto Rico, who has sent me links to information about the Monarchs that occur in the Caribbean. It seems that in most Caribbean islands the Monarchs belong to a sub-species, Danaus plexippus megalippe. These have slightly different markings and less pointed wings. Maybe more obvious are the markings of the caterpillar, with the Caribbean sub-species having thicker black bands.
It isn't quite as simple as that, as in Puerto Rico and other northern islands the population is supplemented by the nominate form, when it migrates south from mainland USA.
Judging by my pictures of caterpillars seen in Tenerife, it would seem that the populations of Monarchs occurring in Europe originate from the USA migratory Monarchs (which is probably not surprising).
There is a picture of the caterpillar of Danaus plexippus megalippe on Maria's blog here.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Red Grouse

Early yesterday morning I drove across the Lammermuir Hills, just south of where we live. The sun was just hitting an old stone sheep pen and below it I noticed a Red Grouse, Lagopus lagopus scotica.

I turned onto a track and slowly drove closer and watched as it flew up onto the sheep pen. Another grouse came out of the vegetation and drank from a puddle in the track. It was amazing how close they would let me get in the car. Had I been on foot they would have flown off before I could get anywhere near them!

Grouse shooting brings in a lot of income for the landowners in this area. People will spend thousands of pounds for a day's shoot. As a result a lot of effort is put into creating the perfect habitat for them. Grouse mainly eat the shoots of Heather, and to keep a mosaic of different stages of Heather, various areas will be burnt each winter. This Heather will then form fresh shoots in the spring for the young Grouse to feed on, while the older, taller Heather offers them shelter. Sheep also graze the hills to keep the grasses down.
If the hills were left unmanaged, they would most likely be covered in trees!

The Grouse struggled through two very poor years in 2011 and 2012, suffering from parasites and with the bad weather. This year they have done very well and there seem to be thousands of them on the hills. It is ironic that there would be far fewer Grouse around if people didn't shoot them!

Wednesday, 11 September 2013


I have to admit that I do find this time of year a little depressing. The long Scottish summer evenings are noticeably shortening each day, the temperatures are dropping and the butterflies are decidedly tatty!
The Swallows have started to gather on the power lines, psyching themselves up for the long flight to Africa. I'm actually rather envious. I would love to spend some time in Africa in search of insects!

I had a surprise package arrive last week. My wife phoned me to say that an envelope had dropped through the door, which said "Live insects, handle with care"! She opened it to find a little container with four caterpillars in it! Four years ago I ordered some Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, eggs. They didn't arrive because of a lack of stock, and as they were part of a bigger order I wasn't to concerned. The following year I inquired about them, but heard nothing more and so I forgot about them. Now I have some little companions to keep an eye on over the winter! I rushed out and dug up some dock plants and put them in a pot and so far the caterpillars are doing well.

I also noticed that our neighbour has a row of Nasturtiums planted along the foot of her fence outside her garden. These have become more skeletal over the last few days as a result of the abundance of Large White butterflies, Pieris brassicae. They have obviously laid a lot of eggs and the Nasturtiums are covered in caterpillars. Amongst them are a few Small White, Pieris rapae, caterpillars.

Knowing that our neighbour is a very keen gardener, I am sure the Nasturtiums will soon be pulled up, so I took the opportunity to liberate a few of the caterpillars and put them on our Nasturtiums.
I even noticed that most of the Garlic Mustard plants around the fields are covered in Large White caterpillars. I hope the farmer doesn't plough too close to the edges and that these caterpillars make it through to adulthood.

During August there were more Large White butterflies here than I have ever seen before. Some years I only see about ten in total, but this year I have been getting used to seeing more than 20 a day. Hopefully a good proportion of the progeny of this year's butterflies will make it through to next year.

The adults are starting to look rather tattered now. There are also quite a few Peacocks, Aglais io, still flying.

I have allowed a patch of Pepper Mint to take over a corner of our garden as the flowers are proving to be very attractive to all sorts of insects. I would love to be able to identify the bumble bees that are all over it, but I find it really difficult to separate one from another.

The mint has even taken over much of the pond. The frogs don't seem to mind, though. Under all of that weed there are hundreds of tadpoles. I don't know why they haven't developed more quickly. Normally they would be little froglets by now.

It is a funny thought that although, in a month or so, I won't be seeing any more butterflies there will be eggs, caterpillars, chrysalises and adult butterflies hiding away waiting to emerge next spring. This year has been fantastic for butterflies. I really hope that next year will be as good!

Friday, 16 August 2013

Tenerife - Butterflies - July 2013

Our family holiday this year was spent in Tenerife during the last two weeks in July. I managed to sneak in a few walks while my wife and kids were enjoying the beaches and swimming pool. We were at a resort in Callao Salvaje in the south-west which wasn't a particularly good area for butterflies, however with the island only being about 80 kilometres long, nowhere was more than about an hour and a half's drive away.

Most of the southern side of the island is semi-desert with various succulents and drought-tolerant plants growing. In the spring it must be quite colourful when the plants are in flower, but at this time of year there was nothing much flowering.

The north of the island is greener and a little cooler and much less developed.

On the first morning I was delighted to see African Grass Blues, Zizeeria knysna, on the grass outside
our villa. They seem to occur on almost every irrigated grassy area and many flowerbeds in the towns and resorts. I didn't see them in any natural areas, so I guess that they will be one of the few species to have benefited from the developments there.

Most days we would see one or two Small Whites, Pieris rapae, flying through the resort and later on our holiday my daughter spotted about thirty Small White chrysalises on an abandoned building across the road from our resort. They were probably the most widespread butterfly we saw while we were there.

Each evening, at about 7 o'clock, a Monarch, Danaus plexippus, would cruise amongst the trees opposite our villa. It occasionally landed on a leaf, stayed for a few minutes and then flew around again. There was one tree that it appeared to feed on, but I couldn't figure out why it landed on the other trees, or why it always seemed to arrive at that time in the evening! I never managed to keep track of it, so possibly it came to those trees to roost for the night.

A few days into the holiday, I drove up to the north west corner of the island for a walk in the Laurel forest near a small village called Erjos. Having only seen three species of butterflies in the first three days, this proved to be a good move! I saw ten species of butterfly that day. Sadly, the first one was a road casualty, a Canary Red Admiral, Vanessa vulcania, making its last few flutters at the side of the road. It was a very striking butterfly, noticeably more of a deep red than our Red Admiral, with fewer white markings. Unfortunately, this was to be the only one I saw on our trip.

Once in Erjos, I walked out of the village, through some small fields where there were several Small Whites. I guess that the local cabbage production is severely impacted, as one small field had over 100 Small Whites amongst the Brassicas!

Outside the village, on a shady path, I saw my first Canary Speckled Wood, Pararge xiphioides. It was the first of about 50 I saw in the Laurel forest and they turned out to be the most common butterfly on the tracks through the forest.

A little further up the path, in a sunny spot, there were several Clouded Yellows, Colias croceus, chasing each other without stopping for a picture! This spot also proved attractive for Small Coppers, Lycaena phlaeas, and Southern Brown Argus, Aricia cramera.

Once into the cooler Laurel Forest, I saw my one and only Canary Grayling, Pseudotergumia wyssii, and later I saw a Canary Brimstone, Gonepteryx cleobule, flying towards me. It was rather ragged, but quite a bright yellow. Unfortunately neither of them stopped for a picture.

Further down the track I saw a Canary Large White, Pieris cheiranthi, on a thistle growing in a gorge below the path. There was too much vegetation between it and me for a picture, but later I saw another. After scrambling and sliding down the side of the gorge I did manage to get a few pictures, but not very good ones. They were worth all of the cuts and grazes, though! The Canary Large White is noticeably larger than our Large White and much more strongly marked. When it flies it appears to be yellow, black and white, but when it lands the yellow isn't so obvious.

The other butterfly I saw that day was a Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtina, that was at the side of the path back into Erjos.

Two days later we drove up to the Parque Nacional Del Teide. I was very surprised to see quite a number of flowering plants and shrubs in this high, dry landscape. At the visitor centre, close to 12,000 feet above sea level, there were plenty of Canary Blues, Cyclyrius webbianus, flying among the Shrubby Scabious and White Broom.

I saw what I assume were Bath Whites, Pontia daplidice, flying by. The Tenerife Green-striped White, Euchloe belemia hesperidum, also occurs up there, but I think it was a little too late in the season for it to have been them. There were also a few Clouded Yellows flying among the sparse vegetation.

The following day I dropped my wife and kids off at a water park at Puerto de la Cruz on the north of the island while I visited the botanical gardens. Unfortunately, it was a rather overcast day and the gardens are very leafy and shaded, so I only saw a couple of Small Whites there. So I went for a walk in the Pine forest instead!

Back in Puerto de la Cruz to pick up the family I saw a couple of African Migrants, Catopsilia florella, amongst the Small Whites. The flower beds outside the water park were teaming with Geranium Bronze, Cacyreus marshalli, and African Grass Blue, Zizeeria knysna.

A couple of days later I decided to go for a walk near a village called Masca where I had been told there were good walks. The village is reached down a death-defying road, consisting of nothing but hairpin bends on a steep mountain side. I couldn't find much in the way of paths to walk, but enjoyed walking along the road and among the terraces of vegetables. Amongst the numerous Small Whites there were quite a lot of Clouded Yellows laying eggs. Also Long-tailed Blues, Lampides boeticus, Bath Whites, Southern Brown Argus and Small Coppers. It was lovely watching Monarchs floating on the thermals at the side of the road.

One day we visited Siam Park, which claims to be the biggest water park in Europe. I had plenty of time to look for butterflies while queuing up for the water slides. Strangely, I only saw three butterflies, despite the lush vegetation and flowering plants. Later that week, back at our resort, we received a note through the door to say that they would be fumigating the gardens the following day. This consisted of one person with a knapsack sprayer spraying insecticide and another with what looked like a leaf blower puffing out smoke. This was to keep the cockroaches down, but I am sure this sort of treatment must also repel butterflies. And I think this probably explains the lack of butterflies at Siam Park, too.

On my second last day I drove up to the north east of the island to Anagar. Much of this area is a national park and covered in Laurel forest. I thought that probably the best area to look for butterflies would be around the edge of the forest, and I found an amazing road going down to a collection of houses called Bejia. Many of the houses were built into the rock faces and much of the area was terraced with various fruit and vegetables growing.

I walked down the road and then over a path to the neighbouring village of Los Batanes. This area proved to be very good for butterflies. It was much cooler than the south of the island (21 degrees Celsius as opposed to 28 degrees) and very green and productive. The first butterfly I saw was a Canary Blue, Cyclyrius webbianus, and it was strange seeing it in a completely different habitat to Mount Teide. During my walk I came across and another six or seven.

It was interesting that at the top of the road there were a lot of Canary Speckled Woods, but as I descended they became less common and further down the road the area was also alive with Small Whites and Bath Whites.

I saw one more Canary Large White, several Southern Brown Argus and a number of Clouded Yellows. Sadly, I didn't see any Canary Red Admirals, which was what I was hoping to find that day. I was told that they were quite common on the south of the island over the winter, but that they are rare during the summer due to the lack of flowers. They should still be around on the north of the island during the summer, though.

However, I did manage to see 17 species during our holiday. I was surprised not to see a Painted Lady and I did spend a lot of time checking out areas of grassland for Canary Skippers,  Thymelicus christi, without success. The only other butterfly that I potentially could have seen would have been a Cardinal, Argynnis pandora.

I would love to return to Tenerife, maybe in the spring time, as it is a fantastic destination for walking, once you get away from the developed areas.