Tuesday, 20 August 2019

"walls" I scream

Saturday 17th August
Just the usual circuit around Gullane and Aberlady. It was too windy to expect any Holly Blue action although they have been spotted on windy days sitting on the ivy at the back of the public toilets on Goose Green Road. And it was too windy for most of the butterflies. Really just Walls, Meadow Browns and a stray Painted Lady or 2. I suspected the Painted Ladies were the offspring of the first migration back in the first week of June. Now just beginning to appear. Not sure if that tallies with gestation periods. 

wall brown on brown wall

climbing walls

Painted Lady

Meadow Brown

weekend Mary

bridge to enchantment

Marl Loch

brand new Lady

older blue


I didn't see the ancient Painted Lady in these flowers till later

small copper

raggedy blue

Yeah! That sunhat again!

I half expected to bump into Abbie. We email, and she said she was doing some community service with the (was it the) RSPB? She is always helping out with the Rangers or birders or botanists. I think it must have been the botanists not the RSPB as it was a plant survey. She mentioned little blue flowers we were to look out for but we didn't see anything matching her description. It was good to see folk out with wheelbarrows looking after the place. I think. I am far too lazy and self centred to follow other people's agenda and behave like a model citizen. 

I was hating the wind for chasing off the butterflies but Mary was enjoying it blowing away the cobwebs. I felt it was the nail in the coffin of the Summer and the end of the butterfly season. It, Summer, seems to have come and gone far too quickly and I am depressed about the 6 fallow months till Spring again. This is no way to behave. I know I should be finding joy in the Autumnal light and colours of the harvest fields and berries. And that makes me more depressed still. And all the butterflies are old and tattered. Fuck.

the holly blue story

hooray hooray it's a Holly Holly day

Chapter 1,   Saturday 3rd Aug

And having no particular run plans for the weekend we did much the same as usual - down to Gullane for coffee and a scone before the usual 6 mile route along to Aberlady and back via the beach. I had tried to suggest a change of scene might in order but Mary saw through my suggestion to go for a run in Melrose and that it might be something to do with the Scotch Argus butterflies between the golf course and the Eildons. We drank our coffees, exited the Berlingo parked, as ever, near the public toilets. We always run with cameras. First stop is to check out the buddleia at the bench for butterflies but as we approached it Mary raised a finger to her lips, made a shush-ing noise, and pointed to a small white butterfly on the blue flowering Ceanothus bush (Californian Lilac). I asked her later what made her do that and she was unable to say exactly. She is becoming more knowledgeable about, and keener on butterflies due to the proximity of my rabid enthusiasm. But she had no idea she had just pointed to one of the most elusive of Scottish resident butterflies, the Holly Blue.

I nearly flipped my kipper. I'd never seen one before. The Holly Blue is so rare it is nearly mythical. There are dots on the record map where it has been seen - quite a few round Edinburgh and along the Forth coastline. Normally when you find a butterfly species, the following year it shouldn't be hard to find it again by checking in the same place in the same weather. A single HBlue will fly into and out of a sighting never to be seen again in that place. Or lives high in the crow's nest of a huge holly tree, a telescope away from being discovered.

Ken has been camping out beneath the 40' holly trees in the botanics (where sightings have occurred but not recently!) wondering if the distant insects flying round the tops are Holly Blues. Until he gets hover boots we may never know. Iain looked for ten years before a visit to a garden in Kelso where rumours and a handful of male HBlues circulated. I spent the springtime adjusting my running routes to travel past the locally recorded dots of past sightings (from Newhailes to Dunbar), and if nobody was looking, a gentle shake applied to the nearest holly tree. Other places, small sticks were lobbed skyward that they might stir (not hit, you understand) a dozing Blue butterfly from its treetop repose. I saw a couple of (unlikely) silhouettes against the sky but largely the upshot was a big fat zero. That is the punchline in most Holly Blue stories. (Except down South where it is depressingly common.) And somewhere along the way I lost interest. How many holly trees can you visit without joy before you give up on it as a bad joke? 

Then Mary points to one right under our noses at just the right height for photos! It opened its wings just a small bit to show the dark bands on the forewings revealing it to be a female. It hung around for a few more photos then took off, flying in a random manner across the road (Gullane Main Street) and over the buildings nearby. I was really stoked. Like somewhere between a four and five figure lottery win excited. I double checked the photos were in focus!

Then we went our normal run. It was fun and there were butterflies to photograph but every now and then I'd just say Holly Blue out loud and smile. I was looking forward to the online stir it would create within the butterfly community. Mary was happy that I was happy but managed to contain her enthusiasm in a way I clearly couldn't. And she didn't even seem that bothered to be entirely responsible for setting things in motion. Would I have just walked past the small blue tinged critter on the way to the buddleia next door? Probably. 

Mary at the Ceanothus bush (California Lilac)

Common Blue for comparison
photo Mary

On the way round the run we came across this unusually friendly common blue (above). I got Mary to take a photo of the underwing. They are the same size and the upper wings of the male Holly Blue could easily be mistaken for a Common Blue. The underwing markings are what really differentiate the species. Most of the time the Holly Blue will sit with wings closed. The silvery white underwing has a slight bluish tinge near the body and small insubstantial dark dots with whiter surrounds. (No orange.) But the overall impression from a distance is white underwings. But too small a creature to be any of the whites. Same size as Common Blue, although with a similar spread; some larger, some smaller.

When coming back into Gullane I suggested we climb the hill after Gullane Point and continue upwards to the high point of the golf course then round the big houses at the West end of Gullane (Whim Rd.) going back down the hill on the front, returning to the car that way. Something Abbie had said when talking about DGFs and good places to see butterflies had steered me over the hill and sure enough there were a couple of patches of heather and warm sunny walls where it is possible to find Walls sunning themselves. As we passed the snowberry bushes that start near that white arrow on the map, a couple of common blues zoomed past doing that territorial combat thing. One stopped to nectar on snowberry flowers and I took a picture. But it was very distant and poor quality.

into the wild

what's the opposite of common blue?

It was only when I got home and the photo was sent to NASA for analysis that I realised it looked awfully like, could it really be....?

Chapter 2,   Sunday 4th Aug

I was very pleased with Mary. Not only had she discovered Holly Blues at Gullane but was sporting enough to drive us back there the very next day to further examine the snowberries up the hill. If those Blues were Hollies not Commons then might there be a colony? News began to circulate online and it caused a certain amount of interest. The forecast was not great for Sunday afternoon with a storm warning. But there was a window of sunshine before that. I think we were there about 1 or 2 and the storm was to arrive about 3. Our working hypothesis was the female HB in Goose Green Road was just passing through. The ones up the hill were maybe the epicentre of things. Big gardens with suitable trees all around. But lets check everywhere on the way there. And let's nobody get their hopes up.

Hopes were instantly through the roof when we found this female sat on a patch of ivy at waist height on the Main Street. Not even a substantial patch of ivy. And all the traffic going past! We did a quick tour round the churchyard. Plenty ivy, some buddleia and some of the usual butterfly suspects but no further Holly Blues. Let's get up that hill!

The snowberry sticks started at the top corner. And almost right away we could see blue butterflies. They were chasing each other and patrolling but occasionally one would land to nectar and if you were very lucky, open its wings. Most appeared to be male. I didn't get any confirmed photos of females up the hill. And yes they were Holly Blues. The day had started off wonderfully and was only getting more so. From the top of the hill you could see dark ominous clouds out in the Forth gathering for the 3 o'clock storm but the wind seemed to keep them from coming ashore. Then a distant figure approaching. I recognised Abbie's sunhat. 

Mary at the best spot for photos

Abbie knew from my ear-to-ear smile we had hit the jackpot. Then realised herself that it wasn't just some silhouettes at the top of a tree (often the story) but that they, the Holly Blues, were flying back and forth over the snowberry canes and landing within shout of a decent photo. Astonishment turned to delight and she threw herself into the chase; following the butterflies up and down their 100yards of territory, quickly establishing they were sheltering in a sycamore tree at the North end of the snowberries. We all lost ourselves taking photos for a while until the approaching storm insisted we move off the top of the hill. There was an electricity and excitement in the air. Although Mary hadn't met Abbie before they got on really well and we all descended the hill in great spirits, getting Abbie back towards her car before the first rain fell. 

Abbie getting stuck in.

gathering storm

myself and Abbie near that nice heathery bit
where you often find various butterflies

There was a certain dream-like quality to the weekend. To find a singular rare butterfly is one thing; to find and photograph loads of them is another. I was a yabbering fool by the end of it so when we bumped into Nick and Susan on the way to the car I wasn't making much sense. They must have wondered what drugs I was on. (Holly Blues!) I like to record things for this blog so I took a photo. The heavens were just opening so we had to curtail our chatting and run for our vehicles as heavy wet raindrops dashed off the ground and a huge thunderstorm kicked off while we sat in the car.

But wait! A last magical trick. I only took one photo of Nick B and Susan. I don't think we've ever bumped into them here before - they don't live locally. Now, see the car in the background. That is Nick W's daughter's. He and Georgia were out for a drive and although they didn't stop, they saw Mary and I in conversation outside the cafe here. I accidentally caught them in the background of this photo. We began to wonder when we would wake up from this curious dream.

Chapter 3,   Thursday 8th Aug

Word was out there were Holly Blues about. Possibly 6 or 7 or more. That's a flippin' colony! A small group of interested parties were making plans to take time off work or shift things about to arrange a trip to the hill outside Gullane. The weather had broken slightly though and those who turned up on Monday got no joy. Wind and rain and no HBs. The next decent forecast was Thursday. Although I doubted I'd get any better photos, you just don't get that many chances to get any photos of this butterfly so let's make hay while the sun shines. I cycled out on Thursday lunchtime.

As I pushed my bike up the hill at the side of the golf course I was admiring all the huge gardens that surround the large homes going up the hill. I stopped to photograph butterflies (normal ones!) on buddleia just the other side of the boundary wall. Then put my camera away. I could hear voices from the top of the hill 50 yards away round the corner. My heart sank. Were there crowds come to witness the miracle on the mount? Has this little corner become over-run with humans and were there rows of deck chairs and folk selling tickets? I got round the corner and to my relief there were only 4 people. Tom, Abbie, Nick and Richard. And myself made 5. And the butterflies were out and about doing their stuff. I stayed for 45 mins taking photos and chatting. I felt even 5 people made an impact. When I went over to get something from my bike, the far end had 2 HBs flying about and landing. The end where 5 of us stood willing the HBs to land and nectar in front of our cameras; not so much. Already we were altering their behaviour. There was a motion voiced to not over-publicise the situation, and perhaps not to rush home and post photos on facebook etc. Folk came and went over the next few days. I was surprised that 2 days later on a sunny Saturday afternoon there was nobody on the hill but Mary, Nick W and myself. 

everyone turn and show me your backs!
Tom, Richard, Abbie and Nick

2 males jostling among the snowberries

at the California Lilac in town

Chapter 4,  Saturday 10th Aug

At Goose Green Rd.

Mary and Nick closely examining the Blue Bush while I buy scones across the road.

You can tell they are not quite as disciplined about the hunt as myself. We also bumped into Toby and his GF. They live locally and were unaware that the HBs were in town. Their excitement was also subdued, but they promised to check the bush on the way back from lunch. There was a limited amount of HBs about but happily we managed to find one for Nick to admire (near the toilets) and there were one or 2 up the hill. 

More recently there have been strong winds and the butterflies have been hanging out at the ivy that covers the wall behind the toilets. Presumably that is the headquarters for the in town "colony". Which has more wind shade but less available light. Several have been seen flying about in the sunlight at the top of the ivy bush. I spoke to the owners of the garden last spring when I was interviewing all the suspicious holly and ivy in East Lothian. While they were pleased to potentially own some rare butterflies they did not go so far as to invite me into their garden to confirm presence. We will be watching both venues, up the hill and in town come Spring 2020, and will keep you posted. Happily it's one of our most regular running routes so we will be there whether these mysterious and elusive butterflies are, or are not.

 to be continued...