Wednesday, 11 July 2018


Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve is one of these special places to which I return regularly. It lies between St Andrews and Tayport and is similar (but on a larger scale) to the best of East Lothian; long beaches with dune systems and woods inland, home to a huge variety of wildlife. I went there on Monday 2nd July chasing dragonflies but anticipating a splendid day out running and taking photos. I hadn't planned for it to be July's TB run but did more miles than expected so accidentally ticked that box too. 

I caught an earlyish train to Leuchars. In the past I have got off at Cupar and run a scenic route into Tentsmuir but today I was aiming for a sweep round the whole place and to meet Keith at Morton Lochs about 2pm. Keith, another wildlife fan and photographer, lives in Cupar and regularly spends time at Morton Lochs taking photos of the kingfishers, dragonflies and red squirrels that live there. He had told me the best place for odonata was a drainage ditch just North of the hides at Morton Lochs. I had only planned the trip the night before so hadn't given Keith much of a heads up. He had to drive his wife Jackie to a station that afternoon so was limited in his free time. And I knew the idea of me invading his backyard would encourage him to come out and play.

Leuchars is a military base with a few houses attached and best run through quickly. Happily after a mile you are in the countryside and having honed this route in the past I knew where to head to meet the Coastal Path as it skirts the airfield then cuts across a beautiful landscape of meadow, swamp and scrub on boardwalks right into the heart of Tentsmuir.


sorry, stonechat

a raised boardwalk crosses this amazing landscape - more later

small heath

The last time I was here was in September and the second generation of Small Coppers were out and about. Today was between generations so a wee bit disappointing to see none (one elderly, later). However there were a few very bright blue, fresh, new, uncommonly blue Blues about and they were so vivid I thought they were maybe something other than common blues. They were not particularly obliging though and I wasn't sure how much time to devote to them and the even less obliging DGFs that zipped through from left to right without touching the sides. Reluctantly I moved on knowing I couldn't dawdle that much if I was to meet Keith later.

I forget there are one or 2 miles lead in to Tentsmuir incl a bit of tarmac. Always the anticipation building. As I arrived at the bone dry entrance area it began to dawn on me that the first dragonfly ponds early on, might be dried up. I ran north through the dunes and they were little more than large puddles. There were a couple of (4 spot chasers) dragonflies bombing around but they were very shy and reluctant to let me near. I ran on knowing there would be better, later. There certainly was. Just before the turn-off for the Ice-house there was a large meadow of scrubby low growing plants. A small shower of dg fritillaries was flitting about from spot to spot. And they were landing - for just about long enough to get a quick photo or 2. I was delighted. There was also a fair number of Blues. Heaven!

There was also a lack of thistles and nettles. Which makes life much easier. Because you have to keep your gaze firmly on the fluttering subject 100% while using peripheral vision to guess where to put your feet as you approach the skittish model. Going through nettles and thistles blindfold is not fun. The rules are if you take your eyes off the butterfly for even a tenth of a second, they are allowed to use a cloaking device and disappear entirely. But they are only allowed to use ducking and diving to elude you if you keep your eyes on them and don't blink too much. My armoury consists of breath holding, blindfold nettle walking and the zoom lens. If I can get to within about 6 or 7 feet of the subject the zoom will do the rest. 5 is about optimum and the frits (about 95% of them) are likely to hop it if you get any closer.

butterfly heaven

I love this lookout tower

cinnabar caterpillars on ragwort

female common blue

elderly and knackered small copper

well travelled Painted Lady
may have migrated from Africa or France

So I didn't hang around as long as I would have liked since I had a meet with Keith over on the West side of the woods. It was 2 or 3 miles and I was already running a bit late. I cranked up the pace overtaking this family on bikes. I then stopped to photograph the shredded Painted Lady, and when I overtook them a second time the woman remarked I was showing them up. I said they were probably enjoying themselves more, but I wasn't sure. I quite like a fast canter through the woods. I kept getting distracted by blues and browns at the side of the road calling to me to take their photo. Mostly I resisted. The last mile or so to Morton Lakes is an odd route with a couple of unmarked junctions so I had programmed it into the Suunto this time and ran it in sat-nav mode taking out the guesswork. Just as I was arriving at the hides I got a text from Keith saying he was obliged to head off. He appeared coming down the path just as the text arrived so we had a 2 minute chat then he left and I headed up to the dragonfly ditch. 

the view from the birding hide
(which was very sauna like in the heat)

So this is what my life has come to - that the prospect of 80 minutes sploshing about in a drainage ditch in a field miles from civilisation is about the most exciting and entrancing thing I can imagine! It was. I only checked later on the gps upload how long I spent taking photos there and it was about twice what I would have guessed. I walked up the right hand side then back down the left. I was about 12miles into the day and anticipating another 10 maybe (turned out to be nearer 20) so was initially reluctant to get my shoes wet. 

your fault

So I was on the way back down the left side and this Fritillary landed on the right side. The photo above was as close as I could get. Oh sod it. I sploshed across through the muddy reedy slop and crept up the other side, shoes filthy with mud and water. Only got the shot below which was ok but wasn't really worth it. However having wet feet now allowed me to get properly close and better angles on the stuff in the ditch and it was the right thing to do. It also freed me up to explore the boardwalk swamp, but more on that later.

There were a number of frogs and toads hopping and shooting off into the reeds as I walked by. Most were too quick and tiny to catch but I managed to get this small toad out for a photo. The "water" was just over knee deep at the deepest bits. If I stood still for a minute or 2 taking pics, when I came to move I found my feet had sunk into the muddy bottom and were considerably harder to extricate. Happy to report I didn't fall over or sit down, so remained reasonably respectable. Even after washing my shoes with soap and fabric conditioner I still haven't been able to get the swamp stink out of them.

only noticed afterwards this was an emerald damselfly
and didn't get any decent pics

Most of these blue ones seem to be Azure damselflies, rather than Common, the markings on the abdomen right at the top letting you know. The red one below (which proved to be a favourite model as it sat still for all it's pics) is a large red which isn't any bigger; but it is larger than the small red.

there were a lot of these just back from the water perhaps drying in the sun

I think they are Common darters. And they were very tricky to see in the long grass. The sun would glint off their wings but otherwise they were a very good colour to blend in with the sticks and grasses of the field we were in. If you got too close they would fly off, but you could get close enough by creeping in slowly. It would have been the day for the evf as it was so sunny I could hardly see the screen on the back of the camera, however I find it hard enough swapping my gaze from the subject to the screen (where's it gone???!) without having to hold the camera up to one eye as well.

Keith had warned me there wasn't that much at the ditch, although the longer you stayed there the more you saw. However I did wonder at what time the fritillaries went to bed and my mind drifted back to the meadow full of them back over by the Ice-house. I had nearly gone back to Aberlady instead of coming here because of the frits there. But the forecast for here was sun all day and the coast from Edinburgh to Berwick-upon-Tweed seemed dogged by haar, at least earlier in the day. 

I climbed out of the drainage ditch like Stig of the Dump and ran back over the 2 or 3 miles to the coast. On the way I had an encounter with a Red Admiral.

ringlet is still kinglet

There is a short section of narrow path with trees either side. As I ran it this magnificent RA flew up and circled. I stopped as I hadn't seen many and had the feeling he would return to his spot in the sun and I could take his pic. Often butterflies will land on dirt paths to check out the salt and minerals there. So when he (could have been a she) flew very close by and then actually parted my hair, his fluttering wings flapping in my ear loudly! I think it was probably to check out the salty face and swampstink aromas being given off. He landed in the leaves just above my head, giving me the once over. I reckoned with the slightest encouragement he would jump onto my outstretched fingers so held them up to him keeping the camera handy. At this point I noticed a couple of walkers coming along the path towards me and possibly wondering why I was taking a selfie doing a Nazi salute. 

Back over to the coast and I had another encounter this time with 2 blues, a male chasing a female in a lightening fast dance of spiralling swoops and circles. They used me as a maypole around which they spun and dived. After a bit I took some video but it would give even the most weathered seaman the motionsickness boke. This went on for ages before the female managed to shake off the male and landed nearby. I didn't catch if they arranged a later date or whether they had managed to do the necessary in the air. The good news was that there was still loads of blues and frits about and I spent the next 50 minutes trying to sneak up on them. The dark greens seemed to be doing a last feed then heading to the trees to roost. There seems to be remarkably few photos here compared to number I took. It was great fun - as I say lack of thistles and nettles making life easier. And now that I stank like a beast of the field the butterflies mostly ignored me.

female blue

dark green fritillary

the sun was so strong you can see the underside pattern
through the upper wings

This chap was busy nectaring on this ragwort.
I realised if I got down on the dirt I could put him on a blue background


So that was, I thought, a fab end to a great day at Tentsmuir. It was getting towards 6pm and I should think about the 7 miles back to Leuchars. However there was more in store. For variety I took a slightly different line back down the coast, just slighly inland, more along the treeline than through the dunes. All day meadow browns and ringlets had been taking off as I went by. Now some brown jobs were taking off from the sandy path ahead of me as I ran down it. But they flew with a snappier rhythm than the floppy MBs and ringlets. I waited till one landed and sure enough it was a Grayling. Now the Grayling was very high on my must see checklist. I had meant to keep an eye out for it but in the excitement it got forgotten. My original plan had been to go round the coastal perimeter of Tentsmuir, before having to rush across at halfway. The Grayling is a creature of the coastal rock and bruck beside the sea. I was delighted to have this extra treat laid on. First ever sighting (although I may have seen them before and not recognised what they were). Its camouflage is so successful it is not easy to get a decent photo. 


another Painted Lady, this one in better nick

My good luck continued - I had been running low on fluids. I had frozen a half-full reservoir of juice the night before and slowly through the day drank its slowly warming contents. I could tell I was near to empty and as I left the main Tentmuir entrance was looking out for a tap or toilet. Happily there was a guy in a mobile kiosk selling COLD drinks. I poured a litre of water and a small carton of ribena into my reservoir. It was a life saver. The guy said I was just in time he was leaving in 2 minutes. Lucky lucky lucky!

more small heath

The last mile or 2 on the way out are on very picturesque paths. At the end of this meandering meadow there is a 90' right turn and the trail goes across raised boardwalks. I had seen little to no butterfly activity in the grasses but almost immediately onto the boardwalk and a couple of fritillaries flew up. Along with the dull browns. There was one settled on the top of a thistle and I knew to get a decent picture I'd have to leave the boardwalk and drop into the "swamp". 

I braced myself then stepped in - and it was mostly firm and dry. I had wondered would I step up to my thighs in quicksand but no, I could walk around easily. I might not have tried had I kept my shoes dry. I took some pics of the dgf on the thistle then set off to explore this amazing place.

As I walked through the grasses loads of butterflies took off - mostly drab browns but a few fritillaries. Also quite a lot of flies and unspecified but definitely biting insects, and crane flies and moths and macro moths. I swooshed through the long grasses taking pics and video and round the back found a tree on which the fritillaries might be roosting - if indeed they do roost. I realised I had no idea what they do overnight. They must go somewhere, and they don't build nests or live in holes in trees. 

this one had just chased another from this perch
so I'm thinking his aggressive nature accounts for the hole in the wing

Climbing back onto the boardwalk I noticed what looked too small to be a Dark Green frit. It flew over the other side of the walkway which had a line of barbed wire running along it, meaning I couldn't so easily climb over that side. I braced myself then jumped over, not sure if it would be the same or if this time I would go up to my middle. It was the same, fairly firm. I followed the butterfly till it landed and revealed itself to be a late season Small pearl-bordered fritillary. A rare treat. Wow! I am particularly pleased with the 2 following photos as whenever I held still to get a shot a hundred biting things lit on me and you couldn't tell the grass-stroke from the insect invasion at first, just a tickle, then chomp YIKES and trying to slap the b'stard while keeping the camera on this delightful if antique and slightly frail small pearl-bordered. The beautiful evening light helped, but I only got one decent sharp shot of that one perched precariously on the top of a reed. Totally stoked!

shot of the day

I know this isn't much of a photo but it gives
the idea of the thrill of the orange against the green. It was magical!

boardwalk swamp pan with barbed wire on right hand side

And that really was that. My luck certainly seemed to be in. I ran back through Luchars noticing it would be virtually 25 miles by the time I caught the train. That (plus one at the start to the station) means I only need another 4 and a war memorial to make this a Tynecastle Bronze. OK change of plan. I tried to find a grave at the church in Leuchars but a quick mooch around there revealed nothing. I took pics of the tank at the military base but am sort of saving that for maybe next time. When I arrived at Leuchars station the next train was a minute or 2 away from arriving. More random luck. The plan was now to get off the train at Haymarket and find 4 miles (and a wm) on the way home.

I ran over to the Water of  Leith which was pleasant enough. Is that 8.15pm on that clock, that's about right. I remembered the Lady Haig poppy flood gates and nominate them for the war memorial. My face is red in that photo partly because I'm standing right beside the other gate but also I may have caught the sun a bit being out all day. 

Well Tentsmuir more than lived up to its reputation. Totally FAB day out and I can't remember ever having a longer species tick list for one day's running. Meanwhile the dragonfly season is just warming up and there will be plenty more if the Summer weather continues. I must return to work at some point soon. But meanwhile...!

No comments:

Post a Comment