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Small Coppers

I don't think I've really gone out specifically searching for Small Coppers before, they are usually a butterfly encountered when looking for other species. Perhaps that's because their whereabouts tends to be unpredictable - everywhere and nowhere! They are not uncommon, but they are extremely fast. Of all the butterflies, they are perhaps the most adept at simply vanishing in front of your eyes, despite every effort to follow their zig-zag flight. I have discovered a great technique to addressing this - when they disappear, wait around 2 seconds, and turn 180 degrees - the sneak will more often than not be settling down right behind you.


With this current lockdown limiting movements, and the hot sunny weather making it rather futile to walk miles to watch Orange-tips and Green-veined Whites zooming around from dawn until dusk without landing for more than a second at a time, Small Coppers seemed like the obvious target.


I've been searching for six days now, and have seen...... two - both males I think, based on their behaviour. However, they are territorial, and I've been able to spend some time watching one of them over several days, finding him again quite quickly each time.


Even in suitable habitat, they never seem to be numerous butterflies. At St Cyrus in the Spring I have often seen a dozen or more along the length of the reserve, but never more than two or three in one place. Males fiercely defend their territory, and suitable habitat for such a territory is wide ranging, this is perhaps the obvious explanation for this.


Small Coppers love sunshine and warmth, so the sand dunes alongside the golf course seemed a logical place to start looking. In the relentless Easterly winds of the last few weeks, I had in mind the two or three large sheltered hollows in the dunes by the 1st fairway, which offer perfect terrain. Lots of rabbit holes provide warm sand, with gorse, dandelions, thistles and daisies in abundance.

Ideal habitat, now to find a butterfly the size of my thumbnail, that apparently flies as fast as the speed of light!

Sand excavated by rabbits on the leeward side of the dunes offer perfect sunbathing for Small Coppers, where they can blend in but maintain a constant lookout for a passing female.

This, I have established, is the principal lookout spot of one male.

Can you see him yet?


I've watched this one patrol this spot for four days straight now. It remains very very difficult to get a clean picture of him though.


Small Coppers, I have found, are notoriously difficult to photograph well. Other people, of course, seem to manage fine, but I have struggled. They are particularly beautiful with their wings open, but they rarely hold their wings flat, and also rarely stop moving, so to get a sharp open wing shot is a challenge.

I've added this photo to show the point. His wings are held half open. However, there will be opportunities later in the year with a wider range of plants for them to nectar on, so for now I was happy to try and get a good detailed shot of him with his wings closed. (F5 ISO100 1/320th +2/3rds stop)


The problem is, as always with such small subjects, trying to get a simple image without distractions.

Another benefit of the sandy perch is it is easy to remove some stray debris from the image in photoshop! (F8 ISO100 1/500th)

This image, however, was intended to show it exactly as it is, butterfly surrounded by small plants, debris etc. Tiny butterfly in his tiny world. (F4.5 ISO100 1/1600th)


Certainly a challenge, and when you are only working with two subjects in a huge area, only one of which I have pinned down the territory of, it soon passes the time, and daily exercise allowance is quickly used up. The weather has now turned, and it is unlikely that I'll see this little guy again.


The Summer and Autumn will bring more Small Coppers though, they typically have two broods in NE Scotland, although I do think there were three last year. I photographed this very fresh looking specimen in August last year.

This one features a row of blue spots on it's hindwings - an aberration called caeruleopunctata - you can see that the one from the golf course does not have this (in truth I think he has about three blue scales, but almost unnoticeable). Ragwort seems to be a favourite nectar source for them in this part of the world, and does make photographing them - and finding them - somewhat easier. (F6.3 ISO100 1/250th with flash)

Even later, this individual still looked fresh on the 1st September 2019 at Rossie Moor, and certainly had the energy to give me the runaround for a good while before I got a photo! It seemed happy to feed on heather flowers. (F7.1 ISO100 1/250th with flash)

I saw this individual on Carnoustie Golf Course while searching for Small Blues - you can see the (almost) complete absence of the blue scales on this one. (F7.1 ISO100 1/250th with flash - 2 image stack)

At St Cyrus they like to hide among the ground-ivy near the car park. (F9 ISO100 1/250th with flash)

And nectar on greater stitchwort. (F8 ISO100 1/250th with flash)

Also feeding on greater stitchwort at St Cyrus last summer. (F8 ISO100 1/250th with flash)


Later this year, and in future seasons, I think I will certainly make a more concerted effort to photograph them rather than just happening upon them. I may regret that, given the challenges involved, but that's why butterfly photography is so much fun - if it were easy it wouldn't be anything like as entertaining!!

Finishing up with a close-up shot, stacked from two photos, of my friend from this week at Montrose Golf Course. Maybe he'll survive the return to winter weather over the weekend, I hope so. (F8 ISO100 1/125th +1/3 stop and stacked from 2 images)

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© 2020 By Ben Freeman