Monday, 27 May 2019

maximum cupido minimus

The Small Blue Cupido Minimus is the UK's smallest butterfly. They are recently emerged and worth seeking out as they are a charming and relatively friendly type. Although very small; so take your reading specs. One of the best places to see them is on the Berwickshire coastal path, just this side of the Scottish border. I caught the train down to Berwick on Thursday. The sun was shining and I had a specified train ticket from so I wasn't as nervous as last trip. It did mean I would only have 7.5 hrs from 8.50 before I had to be back at the station. My plan was to cover about 18miles on foot to St. Abb's then catch a bus back to the station.

sign has fallen off

Just beyond the butterfly sign things started to warm up. There were Small Heaths and Small Coppers and lots of Walls who weren't hanging around to have their photos taken. I knew there would be lots along the way so pressed on to a spot known as Lamberton, just the other side of the A1 and train line from Lamberton Shields. I first saw Small Blues there exactly a year ago (blog here) and it is a place I have returned to a couple of times when running the Dunbar / Berwick Coastal Paths. It does not look any different from a lot of the coastal trails but obviously has the right mix of foodplant (kidney vetch) rocky, thin soil and warm sunny slopes preferred by these tiny insects. 

In a way it's misleading to show these butterflies in perfect detail. You don't get a feeling for just how small they can be. (They vary in size.) Not much bigger than a thumb nail really. And they do not pose much on the tops of grass stems or flowers. Which means a lot of chasing them around hoping they will land on something prominent to get a photo without blades of grass obscuring their wings or face. I spent quite a bit of time lying in the grass or squatting down trying to angle the camera view without stuff getting between the subjects and my lens. Not easy to get decent images but on the upside they don't fly off very far. There were far more this year than last; and in various degrees of aging. The freshest males are really dark and have a dusting of blue shimmery scales about them. They lose this as they age and then the white fringe round their wings becomes thinner. My eyes being what they are, I wouldn't always see what condition they were in while taking pics. And the sun was so bright I couldn't clearly make out the images on the screen of the camera. So a lot of deletes when I got home. Like Green Hairstreaks they have very charming eyes and antennae.

Drinker Moth caterpillar

they are white/silver on the underside with dots

small blue and small copper

most annoying blade of grass of the day


I couldn't spend all day here, much as it was tempting. I had been in touch with Iain who lives down this way and loosely arranged to meet him at Burnmouth another mile and a half beyond Lamberton. I warned him I might be distracted along the way but allowed an hour for the 6 miles and 30mins for the blues. I was still a little late so galloped up the road ignoring all the whites and walls along the way. I phoned as I got into Burnmouth but his phone was not receiving calls. I texted I was heading north from Burnmouth and 3 mins later got a text back saying he was down the brae. I doubled back and found him and friend Ian scrutinising the edge of the Brae that goes down to the houses on the North side of Burnmouth. They were looking for the Northern Brown Argus.

best street name of the day

Pyrausta Cingulata

Being sunny there was lots of insect activity, including small moths. I am not a big fan of the micro moths or anything small and buff coloured. I am an artist and love butterflies for their designs and colours, like miniature paintings. However when Iain pointed out a Pyrausta Cingulata, a Silver-barred Sable I could see it was worth taking a photo of. 

As the three of us ascended the Brae I saw a medium sized moth flying just ahead. The other 2 got quite excited and as it perched and opened its wings I saw why. It was a Northern Brown Argus. Not a moth at all. I think it was an earliest record for the area and Iain and I took photos, until Iain in his keeness chased it up the hill. It was very recently emerged and had a real oily sheen to the dark brown wings. A great beauty!

the master at work

the other Ian

After all that excitement I realised I had to get going if I was to make it all the way to St Abb's and have a look around before catching the 3.15 bus. After having a brief look around the village hall beech hedge for the Holly Blue Iain saw there a while back (no joy) I ran up the coast to another place Iain had recommended. Blaikies Heugh. You get to it through a gap in the cliff top wall which leads to a shelf of grass sheltered from the prevailing wind. Lots of butterflies are to be found there especially on a sunny day. I was hoping to see more small blues but also potentially looking out for large skippers and NBAs.

Blaikies Heugh on the horizon at the top of the hill

lots of St Mark's Flies

Small Heath

Dew Moth - another rarity

There were small blues. Quite a few, not perhaps as many as at Lamberton and generally more recently emerged so slightly fresher. But no signs of skippers or NBAs. I was here sometime flushing out flying things. Quite a few walls but they were sitting with their wings closed and so less photogenic. A mother and young teen came past and said hello, curious as to what I was up to. I mentioned butterflies, and the mum said Iain Cowe is the man for that and that he puts out the newsletter. I said I had just watched him get very excited about the first NBA of the year. 

Small Copper

Small Heath

Blaikie Heugh looking south

I moved on conscious of the day slipping away. Usually I would stop at Eyemouth for a pint and sandwich, but I wanted to get a move on. Also I was abstaining from booze for 4 weeks before the marathon. Just over the top of the hill at Blaikies Heugh you get a view down to Eyemouth and St Abb's in the distance. I was keen to get to St. Abb's as the sea pinks are out and I had a notion to get a photo of a Small Copper on a sea pink. Approaching Eyemouth I took a direct line missing the meandering route along the coastline to cut across the golf course then run some road into Eyemouth and cut across the back of the town and out at the top to pick up the coastal path again. 

no bridge

I got caught a bit short at the usual bridge across the estuary. Until the end of July you have to go 300m upstream and cross there. As I was doing this I saw a cyclist just going on to the other side of the bridge and saw an opportunity for a comedy photo. Timing of the essence...

second best street name of the day

In what felt like next to no time I was approaching Coldingham Bay which was looking glorious in the sun. I checked out where Iain's brother had seen a Holly Blue last year but there were only Orange Tips and Whites on the bluebells. Onwards and upwards round to St. Abb's and it was about 1.45pm when I double checked the bus times at the bus stop. I had until 3.15 to explore the nature reserve, not really enough, but I should get once round the loch if I hurry (and don't bother with the lighthouse.) 

someone had left a starfish next to the (freshwater) loch

second most annoying blade of grass of the day

sea pinks

Just before I got to the loch I saw a guy looking closely into the field that is fenced off and left for the benefit of the NBAs. I asked was he hunting for butterflies. He said he was doing a transect and hadn't spotted any NBAs as yet. I was just about to leave when he said there had been Common Blues spotted there recently. WOW! I stupidly forgot to ask where but assumed it was lochside as we had been talking about there. I dashed off knowing I had only about 40mins to find a copper on a sea pink and some Common Blues! I was starting to panic and expected to find the small coppers really quickly on the East side of the loch where I had seen them on previous trips. However there were next to none about. 

There was a strong cold wind coming from the west so I checked all the sheltered spots where both species might be. Just the occasional copper, but even then, very few about. I did a circuit of the loch quickly at a jog while my eyes feverishly scanned anything in flower. I was anticipating a reveal of some sort and a bunch of flowering whatnots round the back or topside but there was less blooming there than the more exposed east side. No signs of any insects at all round the back and so I started a second circuit higher up where there were more pinks and some yellow flowers. And a couple of small hills which formed sheltered spots. I kept saying to myself and this is the spot.... but to no avail. There was an occasional copper which I took hurried photos of while my eyes scanned the whole area for anything blue. Nada. What time is it? 2.27. I will turn homewards at 2.30. I had to make the bus at 3.15 to get my specified train at 4.20. Otherwise I still might be there now looking for Common Blues. 2 more minutes and all the time climbing higher and searching the flowers.

a wooden jaw bone?


I think it might have been this copper that I knelt down to photograph. And when I stood up realised I had knelt heavily into a large patch of nettles. It felt like I had knelt on a rack of kitchen knives. (I was wearing shorts.) I rubbed my knees as they started to jangle and sting. I was wishing I hadn't spoken to that guy. I would have been oblivious of the blues and delighted to have got pics of coppers on pinks. I'd feel I'd had a splendid day getting 3 new species for the year and having a great time meeting Iain and Ian and seeing all the lovely things above. Now my greed and the rumours of blues were spoiling the whole day. Curses! And I was likely to miss my bus unless I turned and legged it right now. Well I'll just check that sheltered scoop over there, then I'll definitely be off. Maybe.

As it was I gave myself such large margins I had time to go into what passes for a cafe on the corner before the bus stop. I would buy a can of San Pelligrino to get change. Actually there wasn't that much change out a £20 as it was over £2 a can. They are £3.76 in Asda. For a 6 pack. So that's some mark up. Also the service was as bad as I remembered it from a trip there with the Porties a year or 2 ago. And there was only 2 other customers in the place. For future reference the bus fare to Berwick is £4 single. I ate my own sandwiches on the bus, then spent the hour on the train looking through the 700 photos I'd taken. The new camera has a better quality screen than the previous one and it can make some photos look better quality than when you get them home and on to a monitor. 

But apart from those pesky blues (others have struggled to find them as well which I find reassuring!) it was largely mission accomplished. And more. I hadn't expected to see an NBA today so that was a bonus treat. And I'll know what to look for round Holyrood in the near future: something like a mid sized buff coloured moth. (The dark upper and light underside blend in flight to give the impression of mid-buff colour.) So really an excellent day out and good to bump into an ebullient Iain. 

And if I was to say the following day he found several Common Blues on the stretch of shoreline above Eyemouth, the bit I'd cannily missed out by taking a direct line to St Abb's. Well I'd have to be really pleased for him and not jealous one bit. No sir. Nor about the large skippers he saw along the way too. They almost certainly weren't there when I went passed. Were they? Ha! I should save my competitive nature for running. Iain knows the area and its secrets so well I can only watch and learn. 

18+ miles and 2 at the station
Highly recommended for scenery and butterflies.