• Ben

Cupido Minimus - Small Blue

I think the butterfly photography "addiction" is very difficult to explain. I don't think I've ever heard anyone say that they don't like butterflies - I mean how could you - but I think there are a lot of people who think I am more than a little bit crazy when it comes to photographing them. I take solace in the fact that I know I am not alone. In fact I know several people who share my 'crazy' in this regard.

What I can't quite fathom though is the elation of that first photo each season. I was hunting for Common Blues and Northern Brown Argus at St Cyrus this morning, and while I'm 99% sure they haven't emerged there yet, that doesn't stop me looking. I'll be tripping over Common Blues in three weeks' time, but that first one, the one that poses for the photo, that one is special. I saw four Common Blues on a different site earlier this week, but they never stopped zooming about, and I had more pressing photography missions to complete. This did make me realise that they are just days away on the coast, along with the aforementioned Northern Brown Argus - two of my favourite species to photograph.

Common Blues

Northern Brown Argus

But this story is about an altogether rarer butterfly - the Small Blue. There has been a massive decline in butterfly populations among a number of species over recent decades, and the Small Blue is no exception to this. They are a bit of a specialist in terms of their habitat requirement, and generally not very mobile, so the odds are stacked against them.

The sole larval food plant, kidney vetch, requires quite specific conditions to flourish, and human's management of the land does not really lend itself to it. Our landscape tends to be either overly manicured, grazed, developed or left to become totally overgrown - whereas the Small Blue needs something very much inbetween. I suppose kidney vetch is seen as a weed to be destroyed by most too. Human beings do love to destroy.

In Angus there are five sites that are known and monitored. Beyond these sites, the nearest places that the butterfly can be found is on the Moray coast, or on the coast of the Scottish Borders. Three of the Angus sites are coastal, relatively well trodden paths, one is an MOD site where the land is managed in a way that is coincidentally ideal for the growth of kidney vetch (although they MOD do actively maintain the areas of Small Blue habitat). The final site is an abandoned sand quarry and adjacent former railway line - perfect for kidney vetch to thrive, and also providing adjacent taller vegetation for roosts. It's funny how the remnants of an industrial use can provide a perfect habitat for such a delicate species that has been left struggling by man's use of the rest of the land.

It makes me wonder how widespread this species, and other species besides, were in the distant past, before we managed so much of the land for the intensive production of food and wealth.

I first saw Small Blues on a guided walk with Butterfly Conservation, where we went to four of the five sites (albeit the MOD site was viewed from the boundary fence through binoculars on that day). We saw no sign of them on the first three sites, before seeing six at the final site near Arbroath. I returned to that site later in the year and saw two roosting males (on a miserable rainy day). Both were memorable experiences. These butterflies are so incredibly small, and yet tough and quarrelsome, with proper attitude. They are also stunningly beautiful creatures, with their silver undersides and dusky uppers, with the males sprinkled with glittering blue scales.

An Arbroath male from 2019

An Arbroath male from 2019

I visited the Arbroath site very briefly a week or so ago, and saw four males. However the site is difficult to get good photos at, because it is small, there are very few butterflies, it's adjacent to a busy path and to get close to them it feels too easy to to damage the habitat.

Fortunately I had an opportunity to visit the quarry/railway line site this week, and it is tremendous. In 90 minutes I saw probably 30 Small Blues - mostly females - and four Common Blues - all males. The site is covered in kidney vetch plants and Northern Marsh Orchids, and the surrounding area is a mix of taller vegetation and grasses ideal for roosting.

It was hard to settle on one butterfly to photograph, as there were often three or four in my field of view at one time. There were some tatty specimens and some fresh new ones too, so chasing the right subjects became a challenge!

Within 20 yards of the entrance to the quarry, I found this female on a kidney vetch flower. (f3.5, ISO100, 1/1600th) This is a three image stack, the aperture had to be that wide to soften the background, because the kidney vetch is so close to the ground.

I followed her around for a while, chuffed that my visit had been a success. I had no idea that she was the first of so many specimens that I would find! (f5.6, ISO100, 1/1000th)

The weather, as forecast, was sunny and hot, but clouds were looming. As the weather began to change, the temperature dropped, and the butterflies around me began to slow down and settle down to roost. This was really perfect for a photographer, as the subjects become much easier to photograph.

This female settled on a blade of grass, and when I offered a finger she happily hopped on for a photo. I always think that butterflies are often photographed on flowers, filling the frame, and it is very hard to establish a proper scale. This photo shows just how tiny and delicate these butterflies really are. (f7.1, ISO100, 1/320th)

Not only did she happily settle down for a snooze on my finger, when I offered her a new seat on a Northern Marsh Orchid, she again immediately hopped off my finger and assumed the head-down roosting position at the top of the flower. Sensible as ever, I had picked the nicest looking orchid I could see, without checking if it was surrounded by brambles, but once she had assumed her pose, there was no way I wasn't lying in the brambles to photograph her!

I was able to take some time over this and try to create some stacks of images to get a pleasing background and as much of the flower in focus as possible. These images are stacked from several photos - but only two or three of those make up the butterfly, the rest are flower.

16 image stack taken from the brambles side of the orchid - painful! (f5.6, ISO100, 1/250th)

18 image stack (f4.5, ISO100, 1/200th)

I always feel that I can do better, there are always flaws in macro photographs, but I'm pretty pleased with these images. I'm trying to convince myself that the parameters here - a rare butterfly on an orchid in excellent light posing for as many images as I wanted to take - these opportunities don't happen often.

I made a few laps of the quarry, and looked in the deeper vegetation around the periphery of the site, and saw many many butterflies, but strangely no males that were happy to be photographed. Having only seen males at Arbroath, however, it was females I wanted to see today, and I certainly went home happy with what I had seen.

Perfect specimen? Just about. (f3.5, ISO100, 1/800th, five image stack)

Another indication of just how tiny they are - nectaring from a forget-me-not flower makes her look greedy! (f4, ISO100, 1/500th)

I watched this female egg laying for some time, tasting the flower with her feet, before selecting just the right place to put an egg. They then spread scent on the flower to deter other females from laying on the same flower, as the caterpillars are typically cannibalistic to protect their chances of survival. With thousands of kidney vetch plants to choose from, the females were constantly busy. (f4.5, ISO100, 1/800th)

Another beautiful female (f4.5, ISO100, 1/200th)

As the rain rolled in, and the temperature dropped, I made my way home, elated to have finally experienced this brilliant location and seen so many of these really special butterflies. I look forward to returning next year without the constraints that 2020 has imposed on us. I hope the projects being carried out along the Angus coastline to encourage the spread of this species can succeed, and see them repopulating sites from Carnoustie to St Cyrus. One benefit of this unprecedented hot and dry spring is that kidney vetch has flourished along the coast, with big areas of it at St Cyrus and Seaton that I have never seen before. It only takes one adventurous female to make a brave flight to a new patch to make a big change, so fingers crossed for the future of the Small Blues in Angus and beyond.

I shouldn't say it, because I've probably said it about half a dozen other species, but - Small Blues might just be my favourite...

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