Wednesday, 17 April 2019

running with butterflies

transcript of the slideshow/talk I was invited to give on 16/04/19 at the Carnethy Winter Talks series at Teviot Row House

Dark Green Fritillary

Red Admiral


Running with Butterflies

As you age, through your 40s and 50s, unless your name is Whitlie or Donnelly you will probably hit your running peak. You will pass over the summit of your most noteworthy endeavours and gradually your running will start to go downhill. This can be imperceptible, but slowly comes the realisation that your best days are behind you. It was with some consternation recently I realised I had, 5 years ago, peaked in 2014.

Speckled Wood

Scotch Argus

Red Admiral

Small Tortoiseshell


Green Veined White

Green Veined White

And so you are left with less reason to keep training hard; knocking your head against the pre-work morning runs; the long weekend marathon training runs, the Thursday night wintervals.



Should you just bash on regardless, while getting slower and further down the field? (Yes! Of course.) But I have found in recent years a number of activities that get me out the door, reasons to be cheerful, that are running based without actually being solely, running for running's sake.

It won't be a surprise to readers of my blog that I like to take photos while out running. If the weather is decent I won't go running without a camera. You never know when an eagle will swoop down on someone's baby and there's you without a camera.

Green Veined White

Orange Tip

Common Blue

Small Copper


And it is mainly wildlife that drives this. Wildlife and scenery. We are blessed with some glorious countryside within a short bike or train ride and it is this combination of scenery and wildlife that has me hurrying out the door in running shoes, far more than the thought of race times and fast marathons.

I am fortunate to be self-employed: this allows for a certain amount of bunking-off midweek. Nothing stirs my heart like the sight of Thursday's forecast of blue skies and sunshine all day and temperatures high enough to bring out the butterflies.


Cinnabar Moth, Holyrood

Northern Brown Argus

Butterflies became my specialist subject almost by accident. I began to notice them while out running trails several years ago. I'd get home and google a description to see what I'd caught with my camera. My background is art school and I've always been a visual person. Butterflies captured my attention partly because they are like great miniature paintings. And unlike birds you can mostly approach them close enough to get a decent photo without a huge DSLR and a five grand lens.

Meadow Brown

Small Copper

Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary

I began to get to know the names of the familiar species and see them at the venues we'd regularly run. Mary, my other half, would roll her eyes and mentally drum her fingers while I climbed over fences and stumbled, eyes down, through long grasses in search of a reticent insect. Then, later, a huge improvement; Mary got a camera as well, and the amount of time allowed chasing Common Blues at Aberlady extended up to 20 minutes. Excellent. A surprising amount of butterflying is the pursuit. Common Blues are neither common, nor particularly obliging and when they get the sense you are on their tail will dive into the thickest thickets burying themselves where it's almost impossible to get a decent photo. 

Common Blue hiding in long grass

day flying Burnet Moth

However, different species have different characters and not all are camera shy. The Burnet moths, a superb day-flying moth, playing Aberlady every July for 2 weeks only, are an excellent example of a slow moving species that will sit on top of a flowering thistle while you take a whole SD card of photos. Their confidence is due to them producing hydrogen cyanide, a chemical compound that makes them taste super-bad to birds and other predators. Their brilliant colours of scarlet red spots on a greeny black background tell the story to anyone foolish enough to put them on the menu. So far I have resisted tasting them. 

The downside of these splendid insects is the variety. There is the Six spot Burnet. And there's the Five spot Burnet. Both can be seen at Aberlady Nature Reserve. Now you'd think basic arithmetic would allow you to tell the difference but the spots are often merged in such a way that it is less obvious.

Then there's the Narrow Bordered Five spot. As the butterfly Conservation webpage helpfully points out, “Very similar to and sometimes difficult to distinguish from the Five-spot Burnet.”

Then there's the Scotch Burnet, the Slender Scotch Burnet, and the New Forest Burnet. There is only one place in the UK to see the New Forest Burnet – a small hillside in Argyll. It hasn't been seen in the New Forest since 1927.

A few years ago I was happy to record whatever butterflies I happened to bump into while out running trails. My species count for 2017 was 17, around half of the available 30 odd Scottish species. In 2018 I made more of an effort to see some of the others. There are several that you won't see in passing – and you have to know where to look and what time of the year to be there in order to see them. This begins to take on a slightly mythical nature when hunting down rarities, and you can find yourself going to remote, exotic or bizarre locations on sunny days not knowing whether you will strike gold or return empty handed. A bit like geocaching, but exciting.

Fox Moth caterpillar

In 2018 I pushed my species total from 17 to 26. The main reason was spending time in the company of experts. I had noticed online there were ranger led trips into the Pentlands in search of a couple of species I had not seen. I have run in the Pentlands for nearly 20 years and apart from 1 Emperor Moth, a handful of Red Admirals and plenty Fox Moth caterpillars, for me the Pentlands are not a rich stomping ground for lepidoptera. I was curious as to how the ranger Victor Partridge (no really) was going to produce Green Hairstreaks, the UK's only bright green butterfly.

I tentatively signed up for his survey. It was on a Monday afternoon, which probably kept numbers down. About 8 turned up. A mixed bunch of hillwalkers, photo enthusiasts, insect nerds and butterfly watchers. We were told by Victor that he hadn't seen any for a couple of years and we might not see any that day either. It was a sunny day at the beginning of May and the worst case scenario was a 2 hr stroll around Bonaly in the sun with no Hairstreaks. Beats a Monday at work.

Despite the Pentlands being covered in Blaeberries, the foodplant of the butterfly, there are only a handful of sites where they have been found. The rangers have tried to protect these sites from grazing sheep with somewhat erratic results. Sometimes the butterflies will adopt fenced off areas set aside for them, but only after several years of non-appearance. Elsewhere a colony will appear on grazed land.

After 15 minutes of gently kicking through blaeberries I noticed a fluttering which I followed (with difficulty) until it landed. The first Green Hairstreak of the day. I was delighted, although the photos were pretty rubbish as the surroundings made for very little clarity. Also they are tiny. With wings folded (and their wings are always folded when they land) they are not much bigger than a thumbnail. It is hard to see them even when someone is pointing directly at them saying “just 3 inches from my fingertip”. I realised why I had never seen them before. It was a lovely walk and we saw Green Hairstreaks at a couple of sites around Bonaly. (They are much easier to see when photographed on gorse.)

This was the first of my 9 new species for 2018.

Similarly when I heard Butterfly Conservation announce Small Blues were up for grabs on the Berwickshire coastal path I contacted them to ask where I might see them. I had run the coastal trails from Dunbar past St Abbs to Berwick-upon-Tweed a few times. It is great countryside but I had failed to spot much of interest, running there in previous years. It was my first contact with Iain Cowe, who has since become my butterfly guru, and who gave me a list of potential goodies to tick off on this occasion. He gave me the co-ordinates of 2 sites he reckoned would have Small Blues.

first site of Small Blue

I jumped on a train and got off at Berwick. Running north into Scotland I followed the excellent grassy trails that skirt the undulating coastline. Within 6 miles I had found the first site and after a bit of mooching around the kidney vetch (foodplant of the Small Blue) on South facing partially rocky slopes, sure enough out flies a Small Blue, cupido minimus. They are the UK's smallest butterfly which makes them tricky to keep an eye on and very difficult to get a decent photo of. Also you want to catch them soon after emergence as they have a blue shimmer on their upper wings which they lose as they age.

There followed an excellent day's butterflying, as if Iain had placed all the species mentioned, in my path: drinker moth caterpillars, Speckled woods, Walls, Green Veined whites, Large whites, and a battered Painted Lady, a bit faded and tattered after migrating from France or maybe even Africa.

Small Blue

drinker moth caterpillar

Small Blue on kidney vetch

Large White

Speckled Wood



Heading North 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. There was just time to see the Small Coppers at Mire Loch before catching the bus from St Abbs back to Berwick and then a train back to Edinburgh.

well travelled Painted Lady

fresher version for comparison

Small Copper

Mire Loch, St Abbs

A quick tour of some favourite places:
first is Saltoun Big Wood

2018 was a great year for dragonflies and damselflies. Like butterflies they appear more in the sunny weather. You often see them (males) sunbathing near water, until sufficiently warm to buzz and skim across ponds hunting out females in a mild frenzy. The smaller damselflies are often more delicate and elegant in their look and manner, and so small they are a challenge to photograph. But also delightful colours. There were so many about this year, I even started to learn their names. The blue and black coloured ones are almost as confusing as the Burnet Moths with about half a dozen looking close to identical. 


man-made pond 

Palmate Newt

This was the first year I'd photographed Four-Spotted chasers at Marl Loch, Aberlady. I've never seen them there before although they must have been there previously to lay eggs that become larvae and swim around the pond for a year until hatching out into these rather splendid golden creatures. 

Four-Spotted Chaser

Derek saw the photos and suggested I check out Saltoun Big Wood. I'd never heard of this place, which lies between East and West Saltoun. About a square mile of mature trees and a couple of man made ponds, full of tadpoles and newts and buzzing with dragonflies from about July. It fast became one of my favourite haunts. The first time Mary and I visited, parking our bikes in the car park (it's about a 17 mile cycle from town) then running round the perimeter, the weather wasn't great and there wasn't much in the way of butterflies or dragonflies. It was still superb though and we watched woodpeckers and buzzards overhead while enjoying the paths, some wide, some single-track that go through the trees. 

newt eating froglet

Black Darter

Emerald Damselfly

Azure Damselfly

Common Hawker

I spent several blissful afternoons there taking hundreds of photos of dragonflies, butterflies, newts and tadpoles. Finding several types of large dragonflies I hadn't seen before. Cracking place for cycling or running or just walking out with a camera.

Number 2 favourite place:
Tentsmuir National Nature Reserve

inside hide at Morton Lochs

Directly North of St Andrews, you get off the train at Leuchars and run a mile or 2 of tarmac before disappearing into this large forest crisscrossed with paths, sitting on the coast. Replicating a lot of the East Lothian coastal terrain of beach / dune / sandy woodland with a couple of lochs further inland this is a paradise of beautiful running and wildlife spotting. It's a great venue for butterflies and dragonflies as well as having a couple of birdwatching hides, one of them beside a loch one beside tree-stumps where woodland birds and red squirrels feed 5 to 10 feet away from your camera. 

Common Blue (f)

Common Blue (m)

drainage ditch for dragonflies and damselflies

Large Red Damselfly

Less well known is a drainage ditch to the North where lots of dragonflies and damselflies hover and perch. Also, near the ice house a large meadow of wildflowers where Common Blues fly along with Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Small Coppers, Dark Green Fritillary and Painted Ladies. Along the coast you can see the very well camouflaged Grayling. Signs suggest Green Hairstreak live there but I've never searched for them or seen them.

Ice House


Common Blue (f)


Red Admiral


Dark Green Fritillary

Third favourite place is Bluestone Ford near Chirnside.

On July 4th I caught the train down to Berwick once again, because running pal and wildlife enthusiast George had spotted Banded Demoiselles on Whiteadder Water. A spectacular and almost science-fiction-like creature they are among the largest of the UK damselflies and I could hardly believe we have them in Scotland, they look so alien. It was glorious weather again and the best vantage point was from the river itself as they perch on the reeds at the waterside. My camera is not waterproof so I was very careful when negotiating the river, with a stick in my left hand for extra support and the camera in my right. I spent about 3hrs walking up and down this very picturesque river taking photos of these splendid creatures.

male Banded Demoiselle



At some point you have to decide whether you are a vegan Buddhist and all living things are of equal value. Or, like me, that there is a sliding scale and some creatures are just better than others. I am more thrilled to see a kingfisher than a pigeon. Rarity and exotic appearance trumps commonplace. To those who cry out unfair and unbalanced, I would point them towards some pigeon photos I took and blogged recently, showing the beauty of their funny eyes and iridescent neck feathers which were really very blah blah blah.

Purple Emperor
(image nicked off the internet - apologies)

Often the Purple Emperor is sited as being the most sought after and exotic butterfly in the UK. I am neither convinced, nor travelling 400 miles to see one. I have a real love of the Fritillaries and do consider them worth seeking out. For a few years now I have chased across Aberlady reserve after these superb orange and black patterned insects. They are dazzling, always a thrill to see, and locally, appear at the end of June staying throughout July. There are 8 species of UK Fritillary and not one is boring or commonplace, with one or 2 on the endangered list or just about impossible to track down. 

Back in that amazing Summer we had last year
I had a notion to hunt down a Pearl Bordered Fritillary. They fly around late May early June. A spectacular medium-sized Fritillary and quite rare. I checked the Butterfly Field and Site Guide (Michael Easterbrook) and it suggested various venues including  Linn of Tummel, a phrase of exotic and enchanting promise. Linn of Tummel! Look under the pylons! Of course a book is out of date as soon as published (2010) and so I was venturing into unverified territory. But it looked like a nice place to run a few miles and the weather was, once again, unseasonably glorious for Scotland in the Summertime!

under the pylons

I read up much about where, and when, and what food plant, and what habits. Bought a return train ticket to Pitlochry and set off into unknown territory in search of an unknown quantity. I had heard they were very skittish and reluctant to settle long for photos. It seemed like it could be a fools errand but I planned a 25 mile route past a couple of potential sites, so at worst it would be an interesting adventure somewhere new.

Brown Silver-line Moth

Pearl Bordered

Speckled Wood

Green Tiger Beetle

I found them 5 miles out of Pitlochry, as described, under the pylons, and sure enough they proved nearly impossible to get a decent photo of. Man they were jumpy. Or just didn't land. Possibly the trickiest butterflies I have come across. Feeling frustrated I continued the journey coming across many other delights, a Green Tiger Beetle, Speckled Woods, various Moths, and Orange Tips, on a long day out under the blazing sun drinking from streams, climbing over fences. Eventually I returned, slightly sunstroked, to the Pylons where, at 4.30 in the afternoon they were less skittish, settling down for the evening. I got the best photos of the day all within that 5 minutes, before at the stroke of 4.35, when, as if a bell had rung, they all disappeared. I was 5 miles away from the station and had 40minutes till the next train. Was 8 minute miling possible for miles 20~25?

I bombed back to the station on trails and tarmac even having time to buy a cold litre of water on the way into town and getting back to the station in plenty time to see the train had been delayed an hour. Since I was now in something of a lather I went to a pub and used the toilets to change into dry clothes and drink one of the finest beers of 2018. It was the perfect day out, running and butterflying in amazing weather, in beautiful countryside. Taking photos of a rare butterfly not many get to see, in dazzling sunshine that leaves you slightly dizzy and sun-stroked, joyous and exhausted. I can't imagine a better way to pass a day.

Thank you.
I am happy to answer any questions...