Tuesday, 29 May 2018

in search of the small blue

The way to improve your outlook is to stand on the shoulders of taller people. I had ticked the Green Hairstreak box by paying attention to Victor who led the way to the right spot, at the right time, in the Pentlands. Similarly I sought advice before setting off after the Small Blue. Iain Cowe had posted news on the Butterfly Conservation East Scotland Branch that Small Blues had just been sighted along the coastal paths between Berwick and St Abbs. I knew the area was famous for several species of butterfly although I have had little luck the last couple of jaunts there. 

What I needed was better intel and Iain was the right person to ask. He made the news a while back reporting the return of the White-letter Hairstreak to Scotland after over a century's absence. (And eggs and caterpillars of same have since been discovered proving it is once again breeding here. No doubt due to global warming.) Iain was excellent giving me a shopping list of potential wildlife to look out for and a yard by yard idea of where to find it. I thought he was being over-optimistic. As I said last couple of runs here it was just meadow browns and whites. However right from mile 1, I had what seemed like very good luck. I went up the road rather than head to the coastal path and found a petrol station for a toilet and to stock up on snacks. From there I hit the last railway bridge to the coast for miles where Fiona had soaked her feet in a large puddle last July, ahh the good times!

Iain had warned that the first 5 miles wouldn't hold many treasures and apart from a number of small coastal birds and some whites, he was about right. Good to get past the caravan parks. There was a misty halo round the sun but that burned off to leave a scorcher of a day. Both myself and butterflies are big fans of the sunny weather.

another one of these

I was pleased in an unusually nationalistic way, that none 
of the goodies occurred before I crossed the border into Scotland.

I took a photo here hoping it wouldn't be the only photo of a small blue I got.

Iain had given me grid locations and descriptions of where I might find small blues. The first of 2 was near the North end of the "reserve" which is a wee dip between railway and coast where the groove gives shelter from the wind and kidney vetch is abundant. I searched from the sign carefully - at times even patting the grass down like a prison search. I had been wondering about the odds of finding these creatures. Who knew how many there were? About the size of a small postage stamp and not very brightly coloured, I was running about 20 miles and there were maybe 20(?) hidden in specific places along the route. 5.5 miles into the run and I was going back down the groove again, reluctant to leave the area without sign. All the necessary things were there: Kidney Vetch, sunny shelter, an embankment, thin soil and exposed rocks. 

I was there about 10 minutes before I saw a flutter and in the excitement my addled brain shouted Holly Blue. (The underwing is similar but lighter in the Small.) However it was a Small Blue. Of course. I was totally stoked and took selfies of my cheesy grin which I shall spare you. I was there 40 minutes taking photos of at least 2, maybe 6 small blues. Difficult to know whether it was different individuals or the same 2 or 3 as I never saw more than 2 at the same time. They all looked male to my untrained eye as the female upper is lacking any trace of blue. They were exactly where Iain had said they would be. And I completed the day's task about 90mins out of the train station.

Small Blue on Kidney Vetch

Drinker Moth caterpillar

Iain had said to watch out for Drinker Moth caterpillars and sure enough one turned up while I was taking pics of the blues. As did a hawk, but I don't know if it was a Peregrine as advertised on optimistic signs pointing out badgers, peregrines and rare butterflies. I felt I was getting the whole show and beyond lucky. This might be a better time for spotting the good stuff than late July? 

THIS is the place; last gorse bush before the fence/gate looking North.

They really are tiny. Our smallest native butterfly. 18~25mm wingspan, which means when they fold their wings they are about the size of my thumbnail. Which makes for tricky photos. I was crawling around on the ground, trying to find a line of sight without a blade of grass getting in the way or stealing the focus. I knew they had cute eyes and antennae very like the Green Hairstreak (or Small Copper), (all 3 right beside each other on my laminated identification chart, hell's teeth I've turned into a butterfly noodler!) but I was only just able to tell which way round they were, and hoped the details were looking after themselves. Things are getting bad if you need reading glasses to hunt animals in the wild. I did a quick check to make sure I had some decent photos then headed on.

I hoped my good fortune would hold out though I wasn't sure what could possibly match that for exotic thrills! If you want to see how thinly Cupido minimus is distributed have a look at the UK map here. "The butterfly tends to live in small colonies and is declining in most areas. Found throughout Britain and Ireland but rare and localised".

I was pleased to get this Small White as I didn't have a positive photo proof of having ticked this one off when I was doing Whites outside Dunbar. Those grey tips are the defining id. There were hundreds of whites along the next section into Burnmouth. Having done this route recently with Graham I knew exactly how to navigate the poorly signed path across the field and down the steep drop into the back gardens of Lower Burnmouth. Iain had mentioned the chances of a Speckled Wood near the village hall. Sure enough on the Beech Hedge one flew out to check I wasn't planning any moves on his territory. He then took his place back on the beech leaves and posed handsomely for as many photos as I wished to take. I reported this back to Iain who responded with delight...."I'm laughing when I see that you found the famous Village hall Speckled Wood at Burnmouth. There has been one there for 5 years without fail. Generation after generation guarding that Beech Hedge corridor. They all seem to be the same Butterfly somehow 🙂" I get that totally, even though it is impossible, as Speckleds only live for a short while.

Beech corridor

the immortal Speckled Wood

is that a portrait of a young John Muir on the forewing?

I had enquired about Wall butterflies (another favourite and not overly common,) and been informed I might see loads between Burnmouth an Eyemouth. I was not convinced because last year I only saw 2 the whole season and I had to go looking for those. However Iain was right again and from the cliff top walk at Burnmouth onwards I kept coming across this oranger version of the Speckled Wood. They are very frisky and will spot you a mile off while sunbathing on the dirt trail and fly off, landing further down the path. Photos had to be taken from a distance as I crept forward slowly. Lovely to see so many. Eventually I stopped taking photos, they were that regular.


bug utilising a green-veined parasol

The second Small Blue hotspot was Blakie Heugh, at the top of the hill before the descent into Eyemouth. Through the gap in the wall where this shelf provides shelter. I had a quick scout about but there wasn't a whisper of Small Blues and a bit of a chill wind. Which neither they nor me are fans of. So having already found the SBs I moved on without properly frisking the whole area.

lovely to see the sea pinks out

Small Blue hideout?

While at the top of the hill a butterfly shot past at huge speed, did a couple of circuits then landed on the wall and then the grass. I closed in taking loads of photos although I wasn't sure exactly what it was, my brain wobbling between Grayling (never seen one) and a vanessa of some sort, which turned out to be the case. The reason I didn't identify the Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) quicker was the faded wings which from a distance greater than these pics looked grey and washed out. I should have been quicker to recognise this one as the first time I met one was on this very trail almost exactly 2 years ago. The boldness of the migration of the Painted Ladies struck me when I first learned of it and I blogged about it, along with that run here. I also misidentified the Drinker Moth caterpillar!

cropped one beak and only just got the shot as the other was leaving

I had a pint of Belhaven Best in Eyemouth (in the Contented Sole) which was a safe bet for not getting looks for eating my own sandwich. I must have been getting low blood sugar and a bit toasted by the sun as I felt really quite weird, possibly just drunk, for a few miles afterwards. I had applied sunscreen in the toilets and washed my hands. (I carry the camera in my hand the whole way and on sweaty days like today best to wash hands regularly.)

After a bit of a hike along field perimeters you come to the delights of Coldingham Bay and things continue to get more scenic all the way to St. Abbs Head. By this point I decided to return to Berwick by bus to catch the return train at 7.30pm I think. There was a 20minute bus ride from St Abbs at 6.20pm or the like. Which gave me about 90minutes to have a quick run round the nature reserve. I double checked the bus time and place, at the visitor centre - they were very kind and helpful, then set off in search of the final treasure of the day. Iain had mentioned Small Coppers at Mire Loch. So for once I didn't go up to the lighthouse but went over to the amazingly picturesque loch for a wander round the shore. I hadn't gone quarter of a mile when I came across the copper coloured gems!

another Wall

St Abbs

another one of these at the bus stop

the sign of things to come

yes, every dot is a fly

last treat of the day - Small Coppers!

Their colours were really arresting.
(coppers, arresting)(I'll get my coat.)

As well as SCs there were a few Walls looking for a spot for the night. I was in butterfly heaven and frequently I'd be following one waiting for it to land and another would cross it's path and I'd be trying to run off in both directions.

I met a bloke out walking his dog who asked directions. I think he was suffering from an instant suntan as well and while we chatted (me ranting on about, can you guess? butterflies!) I pulled out my sun block and while I took photos of Small Coppers he put some on. When I stood back up I nearly burst out laughing as he had over-liberally applied it to his bald head and face and was now wearing a suncream custard pie.

So my 2 ambitions left, stacking the icing on an already well-iced cake, were to get a photo of a Small Copper on a Sea Pink and a Wall on a wall. I nailed the first as the SCs were very obliging and still zooming about full of vigour. The last Wall or 2 were looking for roosts and reluctant to take directions, me shoo-ing them off the path and onto the rocky outcrop; (nearest I was going to get to a wall.)

Mire Loch - totes amazeballs

had to lie down on the snooker table to position the white behind the pinks


closed for business

coppers still on the wing

I only got halfway round the loch - too many distractions - before the bus timetable made return to St Abbs imperative. From there I caught the 6.15? and then the return train home from Berwick. I spent a lot of the journey checking through the photos. I had seen most of the shopping list Iain had suggested and was most impressed he knew all of the local butterflies by their first names! Totally fab day out and such a blast to see so many good things. Big thanks to Iain for all his guidance. He is leading a walk from Eyemouth this weekend if you want to see the Small Blues and other pals of his! Details here

I ran about 19 miles here plus 2 more station/home miles


  1. Brilliant day for you Pete, what a haul! btw the hawk is a falcon, a Kestrel.

  2. Thanks Brian, May has been fantastic, weather unseasonably sunny!