Monday, 6 August 2018

melrose marvels

In search of the Scotch Argus.
That should really be Scots or Scottish Argus as it is not that much of a drinker. (I just googled the word Scotch to see if I had that right and found definition 1 was "decisively put an end to" so maybe I'll let it stand as it is the last species of the butterfly season.) It is a cracking mid-sized late season butterfly that predominantly lives north of the border. Mostly over in the West and North West, so I consulted Iain the butterfly guru about where would be a good place to look for them. "At the back of Melrose golf course, in the foothills of the Eildons" was his reply, "just over the rickety fence". Friday 3rd Aug was the nearest to a sunny day I could find, so I jumped on the borders line train to Tweedbank, for once having no ticket buying incidents or difficulties at Waverley, where staff were working well to deal with the festival influx.

end of the line

tour of the Eildons
The detour to the green blob marks the rickety fence.

Weirdly I felt I was familiar with Tweedbank and Melrose mistaking them for Gala and Selkirk. So it was just as well I roughed out and uploaded a Tour of the Eildons route into my Suunto; about a dozen miles taking in the rickety fence, the path over the highest Eildon and passing a couple of waterholes to search for dragonflies. I was extremely pleased about this later, while running along roads and trails I'd never seen in my puff. I had enough to worry about. On the train journey we passed maybe a million buddleia bushes in sidings and gardens. And I hadn't seen one butterfly. I was cursing the lack of sunshine and wondering if I was on a fool's errand. I was thinking this as I passed an office full of people at screens, which made me appreciate that whatever the outcome of my day it would be preferable by a long way.

it could be worse - much worse

So I ran up the roads past the golf course with the Eildons looming ever closer. Then took this path (above) that crosses the course then trails off into the foothills and gorse. Lots of fields of long grass, thistles and gorse. Ideal butterflying country. Before I even got to the rickety fence I had seen a Scotch Argus. They appear velvety black, and fly low to the ground, as if searching for a deep trough in the long grasses where they can hide, away from the camera lens. Iain had said they would be easy to spot but harder to photograph and this was about the size of it. I spent an hour or thereabouts at the first location and although there was a near continuous fluttering of SAs out of the long grasses as I approached, they would flitter-flutter off with short fast wingstrokes dropping back into the un-photographable depths of congested undergrowth. Which is a shame as they are very handsome critters, being velvety black with black and white dots surrounded by red/orange patches. And there wasn't an excess of light what with the sun hiding in low thin cloud. Occasional drizzle would have me shaking a fist at the skies till I remembered the poor slaves chained to their screens in that office and I would laugh and put the camera in a polybag till it brightened up again.

rickety fence - surprisingly firm and substantial

I am still a bit confused about telling the sexes apart. The males emerge almost black on the upperwing; and the hindwing underside has a silver/grey band. The female is lighter brown on the upperwing and has more of an ochre colour hindwing underside, rather than grey. However as the male ages he gets lighter upperwings and looks more like a female. And also the number of spots and dots seems like a moveable feast. All sorts of varieties. Just as I thought I was getting the hang of them I'd see an older faded one and it would throw me.

typical behaviour
which involves quite a lot of getting down on your knees

this NEVER happens!

Most butterflies will sit on flowers taking nectar. Or land on prominent vegetation or shrubs. Which makes for decent photos that separate the subject clearly from the background. SAs deliberately shun the highspots for a nice shady spot with grass stems and leaves criss-crossing them and making steam come out the photographer's ears. It is a continual frustration and means that if one of them breaks the habit of a lifetime and flies up to nectar on a thistle flower-head the photographer's hand invariably shakes with excitement so much it can jeopardise the image anyway. 

From the number of perfect photos you see online, most butterflies might come across as completely sedate and only too pleased to collaborate on making the best pictures. Often you don't realise the fights, the struggle, the deep bramble gashes hard won, the barbed wire fences climbed, the broken equipment and skinned knees that go on behind the final perfect images. In aiming to underline this I have included a few more realistic pics, to show how the butterfly actually appears in real life on an overcast day. (That said, they aren't as bad as Pearl-bordered fritillaries, who seem to go out of their way to take the piss.) When an SA bumped into my right hand early on, the hand holding my camera, I took it as a sarcastic f you. However having spent another hour or 2 in their company I warmed to them considerably. They do fly up when you get too close but they don't then disappear miles off and if you keep a yard or 2 away they will sunbathe with open wings while one takes the time to arrange exposure and composition. And they gather in large colonies so there were probably several hundred in a quarter mile square, which makes life easier as well.

I was completely won over when this one (m or f? your guess is as good as mine, I'm thinking male) landed just above my sock and started licking my leg (no doubt for salt as I had run several miles by then.) It stayed long enough for me to get some video and loads of close-ups and lends itself to the Man-bites-Dog reversal of Scotch enjoys a mouthful of Buchanan.

gv white - lots of whites about today everywhere I went
 - even one flying past the trig point on the hill top

While wandering up and down the fields flushing out dozens and dozens of Scotch Argus there were occasional other individuals. There was this (above) ghost of a ringlet who had plainly forgotten to die a few weeks ago and must have decided to live forever. Still flying after a fashion, though so washed out I thought it was a moth.

silver Y moth

no hindwing dots or spots

lots of spots and dots: incl. four on the forewings

 quite a few freshly emerged peacocks

After about an hour of taking photos, I ran up to Bowden Loch, where I had been hoping to see some odonata. However apart from a couple of small damselflies there wasn't much about. Then the rain came on and fell heavily for about 10 minutes, or long enough for me to put on a jacket and put the camera away into the back pack. Then it stopped and the sun came out, so I took the jacket off, got the camera back out, and ran up the path to the hilltops - specifically Eildon mid hill which is the highest.

Bowden Loch - popular spot for anglers

I was most of the way to the summit and enjoying the views but thinking, what am I doing here when I could be down below hunting butterflies and dragonflies? At which point a Painted Lady, the first of the day, flew over and landed under my nose to pose for a few photos. And to prove me very wrong. There was also a white by the trig point, and a load of Peacocks in the heather over the other side. By now the sun was belting down and the freshly emerged peacocks were looking ridiculously dazzling. 

painted lady

Others I have seen this year have looked well-travelled and a bit faded. (They could have migrated here from France or Africa.) The ones seen today looked like they had emerged locally and were in great condition, making for lively photos against the flowering heather.

I had to crawl through the rough heather to get these 2 lined up

You can see the route I took on the map. After descending from mid hill I headed towards Eildon Hall Loch. The Hall, a large mansion house in red brick maybe, was covered in scaffolding - obvs doing a bit maintenance - up the hill on the other side of the field. The loch was a swampy stagnant-looking pond with a dirt path round the edge that the sheep were using as a watering hole. Over by some reeds were the only odonata I could see. Initially I was uninspired - they were the tiny creatures you see not much longer than a match and a fraction of the thickness. However I remembered that the emerald damselflies are far more exotic-looking under magnification than they appear to the (my) naked (and failing) eye. So I persisted, just about keeping my feet dry (if muddy) and spent about 25mins taking pics. It is noticeable that the images improve when the sun comes out, contrary to ideas promoted by people in the know who have suggested that cloud cover and less harsh shadows and contrasts is preferable. But that may be because I am using a compact camera and they use expensive large cameras with long lenses. For me a bit of sunlight sparkling off their wings is unbeatable.

I was doing a photography day out with Anna the following day. (Coming soon to this blog!) Designed to encourage you to get the maximum out of your camera and to "get off Auto", so I spent some moments remembering how to focus manually and use aperture priority and set shutter speeds. Although I use a compact camera it is close to top of the range and has a lot of settings more common to DSLRs and mirror-less. However butterflies are not always keen to wait while I slowly finesse the focus and I'm afraid to say it but I slunk back to iA (idiots automatic mode) pretty quickly and stayed there the rest of the day, as usual. In terms of taking photos, and technicalities, the camera is still much smarter than I am and I am happy to credit it with the majority effort and skills in our collaborations.  And don't get me started on RAW. Ha! When I can afford a suitcase full of external hard-drives I'll shoot raw. No actually even if I won the lottery I wouldn't. On principal.

There was a bit of tarmac running for a while after that - and the amount of white butterflies playing on the roadside plants was phenomenal. There must have been hundreds lining the road. I then nearly missed a turn-off to take me up the hill on thin trails and skirt round Eildon Wester Hill, before meeting the path I had taken earlier. I had planned a different route back to Tweedbank station but decided to go past the golf course and see if, perhaps tiring towards the end of a long day flying, the Scotch Argus had become any less flighty. Just 5 minutes to check. Honest!

nice trails contouring round Eildon Wester Hill

hint at tomorrow's activities

The SAs were behaving in a very similar manner to before (alas!) but I was glad I had checked in by the rickety fence again as there were maybe 3~6 Painted Ladies, who were landing on flowers and happy to pose for photos as long as you kept your distance. Of course the area of preference for them (and twice that number of Peacocks) was a stand of thistles surrounded by gorse. I would have needed a suit of armour to have climbed through it to get near the butterflies, so I made do chasing the ones who flew outwith its boundaries.

Peacock underside

finishing on a last shot of an SA as I remember them:
deep in the obfuscating grass, but handsome as hell!

what a day!

The weather continued to improve all day and when I was leaving the sun was belting down on the station platform. There was an annoying sign advertising a bottle shop that was closed. I nearly had to jimmy the door I was so parched. How thirsty is THIRSTY? (I had long since run out of fluids and the people closing up the nearby cafe couldn't tell me if it was 1 mile or 3 to the nearest shop.) Well when I got on the train and someone had left 2" of water in a bottle on a table, I sat next to it and after removing the top, drank it. I think it said ebola on the label. 

14 miles, plus 2


  1. Brilliant - really enjoying these butterfly pictures. Its making me more aware of the critters in my garden too, I've had 10 or so white ones and a couple of brown with coloured bits one and one larger one with more elaborately shaped wings that came right up to my window (where I was trapped at a screen!) and fluttered bat-like until I got my camera...

  2. Thanks Jen, it has been a brilliant year this Summer for wildlife. Don't know how we're going to cope going back to normal Scottish summers. I'm off to Caroline's part of the world tomorrow for a couple of days camping and taking photos. Hopefully still some nice things on the wing through there.

  3. Again Pete another great post and I'm not at all jealous of you photographing the SA's, well I am. Saw one in Cumbria in July and they had not even been reported then, so probably the first of the year, could I get an image? could I hell! bumped into another photographer who asked for id on a butterfly he just snapped, yeah you can guess what it was! searched for another hour but no more sightings :-(

  4. Thanks Brian,
    Only just seen your comment here, wonder why email isn't notifying me. I meant to make fun of all my butterfly friends down south who have been posting things we just don't get here; when finally we get the Scotch Argus that you don't. It is a cracking butterfly esp when fresh. Loads about this year but more through in the West than over here on the East. Bad luck in Cumbria!