• Ben

Holiday Time

Updated: Jul 2, 2019

It's that time of year when people pack up and part with inordinate bundles of cash to go somewhere exotic for a holiday. It's a long long time since I've been abroad, and it really doesn't appeal. There's loads of Scotland that I want to explore properly, and I couldn't do it justice in 100 lifetimes. People often tell me I'm daft and that I'd be amazed by the wildlife in places like Spain. Frankly I'm amazed by the wildlife at home, and I'm quite happy here.

Most people know I suffer from crippling anxiety and depression. The thought of tackling an airport, let alone the rest of a foreign holiday, gives me the absolute fear. I feel like I've avoided it for so long that I genuinely couldn't cope with it now. Pretty pathetic I guess, it's stuff that normal people do every day, but I'm not really normal.

One benefit of not planning an exotic excursion is the ability to plan on the hoof. The weather forecast last Monday looked good, so I booked Thursday and Friday off, with the thought that I might be able to take Hayley somewhere nice for a day, or maybe two days. However, by the time Thursday rolled round, she was immersed in an epic painting mission, and still suffering from unfortunate sunburn from the weekend before, so I was set free to do what I pleased (as long as I was home for dinner, ha ha!)

What unfolded was a little holiday of my own. I was able to base myself at home, and tackle the arduous 3.77 mile drive to St Cyrus National Nature Reserve on a daily basis. Even the unfortunate engine management light of doom and reduced power was no hindrance, as I barely got out of 3rd gear anyway!

The great journey...

All joking aside, I think almost everyone in Scotland takes for granted what they are blessed with on their doorstep. There are few places better for seeing a variety of butterflies, moths and other insects, as well as birds.


Thursday didn't start off very pleasantly. The previous week, searching for Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries in Banchory had led to three very unwelcome tick bites, two of which were fine, but one which wasn't. I managed to see a doctor late on Wednesday and was prescribed antibiotics as a precaution against Lyme Disease - probably the insect hunter's worst nightmare! I took the opportunity to ask about a troublesome toe (something I'd been putting off getting seen to for far too long), so Thursday started with a visit to the pharmacist and a trip to the hospital for x-rays.

As soon as I got these tasks out the way, I was off to St Cyrus, camera, macro lens and flash in hand. Target for the day was Northern Brown Argus. I'd seen one the previous weekend, but failed to get a photo after falling down the hill in a cloud of yellow shell moths while the NBA scarpered. A tiny colony of NBAs in Stonehaven yielded some decent photos a few weeks ago, but I really wanted to photograph them closer to home. I wasn't disappointed, and found at least three, probably four different butterflies. The first find of the day was a mating pair of common blues though. In fact - the first thing I found was a pair of mating common blues on a tall piece of grass, with a Northern Brown Argus sunning itself at the top. Do you think I got my camera focused in time? Of course not!

Mating Common Blue Butterflies

I suppose this was the first marker for me this week. I was really delighted to see a Common Blue for the first time last summer, and to get what I thought were a few good photos. The idea of a mating pair was the impossible stuff that you only see in books - but perseverance and careful research and learning where and how to look leads to more and more results. I think both of these butterflies are more perfect specimens than any I found last summer too.

The Northern Brown Argus are another highlight altogether. I don't know how many there are at St Cyrus, the terrain probably makes any kind of accurate assessment nigh on impossible, but I 'think' I've seen about six or seven different butterflies. Over the four days of my holiday I might have seen 150-200 Common Blues - so that puts the exclusivity of the NBA into perspective.

So Thursday was a success, and capped off by seeing a female Common Blue that is easily the bluest specimen I'd ever seen - but that was before Saturday.


Friday was a slow starter. On reflection, the NBA shots from Thursday were not as good as the ones I have from Stonehaven, primarily because it was so hot and sunny that the butterflies were incredibly active. I set out early on Friday, as the overcast start was forecast to burn off around 10am. I thought if I could be in the right place when the sun first appeared, I'd have a greater chance of getting some more considered photo compositions.

I arrived at the spot at 10ish, and it was gloomy. The walk in was pleasant, with the unmistakable call of a grasshopper warbler greeting me at the start. I must have been 4 feet away from it at one stage, but still never saw it. Why does a bird that is SO good at staying completely hidden make SO MUCH NOISE?!?

I listened to the cricket for a bit, and the weather got gloomier. I had a wander around in the vain hope of finding a roosting NBA, but found only a roosting Common Blue Male. This butterfly had been a big help to me the day before - recognisable by an unfortunate tear in a forewing - as he kept fighting with the NBAs (who notoriously win, despite their size disadvantage) and alerting me to their whereabouts. I've used this tactic before - I'd never have found Green Hairstreaks were it not for chasing a male Orange Tip inadvertently into a combat zone. The little butterflies tend to be pretty keen to defend their territory against bigger passers by.

Getting rather bored of the lack of sunshine, I carefully plucked the grass stem on which my friendly Common Blue was sleeping, and took him on a wee walk. He sleepily agreed to pose on a beautiful Common Spotted Orchid, before obligingly returning to his blade of grass for the return journey. I wonder if he woke 20 minutes later recalling dreams of pink orchids and flashing lights - far out man!!

Common Blue, Common Spotted Orchid

The day didn't get a lot better. The sun finally showed up at around 12:45pm, and within five minutes the NBAs were zooming around like they were the day before. I guess they were as fed up waiting for the sun as I was. It was a fine afternoon to be out though, and I saw a fleeting glimpse of a Dark Green Fritillary (doing the usual 40mph fly by) and on the way back ton the car park, my first Ringlet of 2019. These velvety butterflies are notoriously active in almost any weather, but in the now searing sunshine this one bobbed and weaved endlessly, and barely gave me a record shot to prove his existence.

Beautiful Ringlet pausing for little more than a second before bobbing off on his endless search for the perfect perch

Other highlights of day two were few and far between, but swallow fledglings were lining up on the bridge to be fed by mum and dad, which I watched last summer also.

Swallow Fledgling

There was also several lizards making the most of the afternoon sun - always check the fence posts on the walk back to the car park!

Common Lizard

Sadly I was feeling pretty rough by this time. Antidepressant medication can increase sensitivity to sunlight - but apparently so can the antibiotics prescribed for Lyme Disease, and I had, in quite a short time, been burnt to a crisp. I didn't realise how bad until I got home. I was like the ready brek kid by the evening.

A very fine Small Heath - I've almost given up trying to photograph these in the sunshine, they are too fast by far.

Yellow Shell Moth - there are hundreds of these at St Cyrus, but close up they are quite beautiful


Saturday promised to be another scorcher. I wondered at this point whether I should go somewhere else for the day, but I read a post on the facebook butterfly group from a fellow enthusiast that they were popping in to St Cyrus en-route to home from holiday, with the aim of seeing Northern Brown Argus. I almost felt that it was my duty to at least try to point them in the right direction, as although the reserve is small, the NBAs are very very small and few in number! I rolled into the car park, and immediately spotted Ally in the 'car park patch' - an area of wildflowers beside the car park that can be brilliant for insects. I introduced myself to him, who in turn introduced me to Laura, and we set off in search of the NBAs.

Soon after setting off I spotted a resting Ringlet. After chasing one for miles the previous day, it was sod's law that I'd find one willing to be photographed for about 10 minutes this morning. I even managed a stacked shot of the underwing getting everything pin sharp - making up for the hundreds of nearly Ringlet shots I had from last summer!

Tame Ringlet

Ally and Laura had been on a trip to find Orange Tips, Comma and NBAs, and had ticked the first two boxes already, so I now felt no pressure whatsoever to deliver the third, as it started to rain just as we arrived at the best spot.

I needn't have worried. Laura had explained that Ally is something of a 'mountain goat' and in no time he had located a roosting NBA higher up the slope than I had ever ventured before. Between the three of us we managed to lose that butterfly, and another, very quickly - as usual distracted by yellow shell and silver ground carpet moths fluttering everywhere. 10 minutes later and a distant cry indicated another find - I looked up to see Ally approaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, grinning from ear to ear and pointing at the ground. I have genuinely never seen a human so high up the slope before. Sure enough he had located a third NBA, which I soon startled and lost. However, the descent brought an unexpected surprise - a Common Blue male and an NBA roosting together on a blade of grass. It turns out it is the same Common Blue that I'd taken for a walk the day before! Not only that, but the NBA in question was a pristine four spot specimen, and definitely one I had not seen before. We all photographed them together on the grass, and then the sun emerged, and both butterflies spread their wings to bask in the warmth. Impossible to get a sharp photo of them together like this, but a terrific thing to see. He is quite a small Common Blue, so perhaps the size comparison is a little misleading in the pictures

Usually aggressively defending their territory, they seemed quite content to share this single blade of grass!

They sat for long enough to stack some images together to get a sharp shot of both butterflies

I might have repaired the aforementioned Common Blue's wing tear in photoshop ;)

Northern Brown Argus ab. Quadripuncta - four spotted aberration

I mentioned earlier the very blue female Common Blue - well I saw four on Saturday, and each one seemed to be bluer than the last. Photographs were tricky, but one posed for long enough to get three shots to stack from to get most of her in sharp focus and show off the amazing colouration.

Common Blue Female

I bid farewell to a smiling Ally and Laura, and went for a final wander to the North of the reserve. A glimmer of hope of seeing a Grayling or a Meadow Brown perhaps? No such luck, and as I wandered back I was beginning to feel the sun doing me damage again, despite being caked in factor 50! I walked back via the middle path between the main path and the beach, in the hope of seeing a Meadow Brown, but despite numerous Common Blues and Small Heaths, there was little to halt my progress home for some much needed food. Instead of crossing the bridge, i decided to head for the orchid meadow in the hope of maybe seeing a Dark Green Fritillary, but instead quickly spotted my first Six Spot Burnet Moth of the year! Only 30 yards from the main path to the beach, dog walkers and beach visitors were giving me some strange looks as I crawled along the ground desperately trying to get a clear photo of an incredibly active moth!

Six-spot Burnet Moth

But that was it for day three, home for dinner, burnt and exhausted, but with some even better photos than days one and two in the bag! News that both Grayling and Meadow Brown had been spotted later in the day led me to want to try again on Sunday!


The plan for Sunday wasn't too difficult - I may as well complete my mini-holiday in the same place, and find a Grayling! This time the weather was less predictable, so I aimed to take some non-macro photos too. It didn't last long - by the time I got past the graveyard I had my macro lens out again!

St Cyrus in all its summer glory

Big skies over the graveyard

The wind was really blowing this morning, and the sun came and went. A few Common Blues flew about, one NBA posed for a couple of photos before slinking off again.

This guy must have superglue feet to hang onto this grass in a 40mph wind - 95% of the photos were a blur!

Ian and Alan Hastie popped down for a bit, but it got progressively windier, and the chance of more butterflies was waning. We found a mint looking Common Footman Moth as a brief moment of interest though.

Common Footman clinging on!

One final go at seeing Grayling - we headed for the very North of the reserve, to North facing cliffs that might provide shelter. I'm not sure how sensible it was to try and climb up the steep sandy slopes under the overhanging cliffs, but near the top I spotted the holy grail for the day, my first Grayling! Immediately he scarpered another 20 feet up the cliff, and I hared after him. Then another 10 feet up. I could see EXACTLY where he landed, but I couldn't see him. The camouflage is quite remarkable. I gave up, and gently brushed the grass at the foot of the rock, and up he went - appearing right in front of my eyes, and gently fluttering down to where I'd first seen him - 10 feet from Ian! This time he posed for both of us, wonderfully camouflaged against the rocks. He didn't flash the eye of his forewing unfortunately, but hopefully there will be more chances to see these fabulous butterflies in the weeks to come. Finding the first one is ALWAYS the hardest.

The Holy Grayl(ing)

Grayling on Gorse

Shortly after that the heavens opened, the rain came down, the wind blew the sand up, and they met in the middle where my layers of factor 50 became a sort of cement on my face, neck, and eyes, and the draw of food and a shower was too strong.

A great four days away on an exotic holiday, with all the comforts of home at no extra cost. Going back to work today was hard - I wanted to go back to St Cyrus again and find a Meadow Brown!

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