Updated: Jul 14, 2020
I post a lot of photographs of butterflies taken at St Cyrus on this website. I thought it might be worthwhile writing a stand alone blog about what can be seen on the site.
St Cyrus National Nature Reserve encompasses 92 hectares of coastline, and includes the dunes and meadows, as well as steep volcanic cliffs, atop of which the village of St Cyrus perches. At their highest, the cliffs are 80m high. The dunes and the cliffs offer protection to the meadows in-between, and as a result the area supports a massive range of insect and plant species.
The southern end of the cliffs, towering over the Nether Kirkyard
The cliffs are home to Fulmars, Ravens, Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons
The view south from 'The Big Rock' shows the strip of meadow between the beach and the base of the cliffs.
To the best of my knowledge, there are 18 recorded species of butterfly at St Cyrus, and it is likely that you can see 15 of these most, if not every year.
Lets get the additional three species out of the way first - they are Clouded Yellow, a migrant that reaches the UK in varying numbers each year, but rarely reaches as far north as Scotland, the Orange-tip, which is relatively common just a short distance from the reserve boundary (around 1km upstream on the River North Esk), but only noted as being seen on the reserve in 2019, and the Small Blue, once resident on the site but not for around 15 years (with a single sightings in 2011 and again in 2012 giving hope to a lot of locals that they might still be lurking).
A large freestanding rock covered with Kidney Vetch. Much of the slopes at the northern end of St Cyrus are rich with Kidney Vetch, and it is a real shame that Small Blue butterflies do not appear to be present among it. The habitat appears to be close to perfect.
Perhaps the best way to consider the 15 species that make St Cyrus so good for butterfly spotting is to move from month to month through the season. Butterfly species are all unique in their life cycles, and thus can be seen at different stages in the year.
March (or even earlier)
There are a handful of species of butterfly that overwinter in the UK. At St Cyrus this is limited to Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells. Adults emerge in late summer, and find a dry, sheltered place to spend the cold months, emerging on warm days to feed, if nectar sources are available. It isn't quite the same as hibernating, as they will emerge during a warm spell and then seek shelter again through cold weather. Early season Peacocks tend to look pretty weathered, but Small Tortoiseshells, especially females, can still look very fresh and vibrant after overwintering. While it is exciting to see the first butterflies of the year, however, for photographing these species, the fresh arrivals in the late summer are worth waiting for.
It is typically April before the first brand new butterflies appear, and it will almost certainly be the Green-veined White. These can be seen almost anywhere on the reserve, and will feed on just about any nectar source they can find. They have more than one brood during the year, so will be commonly sighted during April and May, then quiet for a time, before a second wave of them appears in July and August. However, the Spring brood tends to be more vividly coloured for some reason, perhaps as camouflage against the lush greens of Springtime.
This male was fast asleep atop the bluebell, great for taking photos!
The pattern on the underwings is made up of black and yellow scales, but appears green, giving the butterfly it's name.
Females have heavier markings on the upper wings, with a smokey appearance. This female had a beautiful overall yellow tone to her wings too, something seen more often in the Spring brood.
As the calendar turns to May, the first of the smaller butterflies start to emerge. The next target is typically the Small Copper. Another butterfly that has more than one brood during the year, it is possible to see them at almost any time between May and September, although never typically in very great numbers. Fiercely territorial, it is often two spiralling males that draw attention. They can be found along the whole of the reserve at St Cyrus, but the best place to see them is often around the car park, or the path below the ice house, where they nectar on small flowers like stitchwort or daisies.
They tend to stay close to the ground. They fly fast, and are masters of just disappearing in front of your eyes! They often bask in the sun on bare ground though, so pause and try to watch them, and see where they land, rather than giving chase.
Small Copper nectaring on greater stitchwort
Patches of small flowers like stitchwort alongside the main path through the reserve are an ideal place to hunt for Small Coppers.
Later in the year they like to feed on ragwort
This Small Copper was resting among the ground-ivy by the car park.
Towards the end of April, Small Heaths start to emerge, at first at the Northern end of the reserve, but as the weeks progress, they are widespread across the whole area. Notoriously difficult to photograph, Small Heaths always rest with their wings closed, and remain quite active even in cooler and damp weather. Even if you find one roosting on a dull day, it will quite likely fly off rather than pose for a photo if you get too close. They also tend to rest low down among the marram grass, making it very difficult to get a clean shot.
Small Heaths are often seen sunning themselves on the grassy paths through the dunes.
Perfect butterfly habitat, especially for Small Heaths. Plants such as this Wild Thyme and Ladies Bedstraw provide a rich nectar source for a wide range of insects, and it is always worth looking carefully.
Much of the meadow is kept short by the grazing of rabbits, as well as good management from the staff on the reserve, which provides the perfect habitat for wildflowers and species like Small Heath - as well as numerous species of moth.
Only in really miserable weather will Small Heaths happily stay still for photographs.
Sometimes it pays to back off a bit and try to photograph them in context - if you can avoid grass between the butterfly and the lens!
The Green-veined Whites will, by May, have been joined by Small Whites and Large Whites. Small Whites can often be difficult to identify, as they tend to be very flighty, and thus easy to assume they are Green-veined Whites in flight, which are similar in size. Only when they stop can you be completely sure which is which, and since Green-veined Whites tend to stop more often, the Small Whites are often overlooked. They are not particularly common on the reserve, and it is a treat to catch up with one.
Small White roosting on Dames Violet at the Northern end of the reserve. As with other white butterflies, the green colouration is made up from only black, yellow and white scales.
Large White butterflies, often known as Cabbage Whites, are arguably something of a rarity these days. In years gone by they were very common, but sadly considered a pest as the caterpillars are notorious for eating cabbages. I think it is reasonable to say that this is one butterfly that has been persecuted by humans to the point where seeing one in Scotland has become too rare a treat. However, they are hard to miss, as they can be very large in comparison to the other white butterflies, floating around like white flags in the breeze.
Large White photographed slightly further North on the coast at Kinneff
Large White nectaring on Red Campion at the Northern extent of the St Cyrus reserve near Kaim of Mathers.
When June rolls around, the landscape is changing dramatically, with lush greens giving way to a sea of colour, with wildflower meadows providing a food source for more species of butterfly. It is during June that things start to get really exciting at St Cyrus, with the emergence of Northern Brown Argus, Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Dark Green Fritillary, Grayling and perhaps the first fresh Small Tortoiseshells of the year.
The Northern Brown Argus is a species found only in Scotland and the most Northerly parts of England. There are two subspecies, with Scottish butterflies ssp artaxerxes featuring white spots on the upper forewings, as opposed to brown spots of those found in Northern England. They are a member of the same family as Common Blues, but feature no blue colouration.
Northern Brown Argus are a relatively uncommon butterfly, and form small discreet colonies, of which there are a couple within the reserve at St Cyrus. It is obviously very hard to give an accurate count, but these butterflies have very variable markings, and it becomes easy to identify individuals by sight. I don't think I've ever seen more than six or seven individuals on the reserve in any one season, so they are far from numerous.
While the upper wings are brown with orange chevrons around the edges, a really fresh individual will have a beautiful iridescent sheen when seen in the sunlight. The underwings look similar to that of a Common Blue, but lacking a lot of the black spots. They are also slightly smaller than a Common Blue.
Like Common Blues, Northern Brown Argus can often be found roosting at the top of tall grasses, facing downwards. Although tiny, this is often the easiest way to find them.
They like to bask in the sunshine with their wings open. This specimen features white spots on all four wings, and is an aberration known as ab. quadripuncta.
Like many butterflies (and bees), they love to nectar on Wild Thyme, so patches of this pretty pink flower are often a good place to look.
As the Ragwort starts to flower, you may find Norther Brown Argus nectaring there into July.
Northern Brown Argus are typically found on the reserve around the foot of the cliffs. They rarely venture far from their colonies, and once you find one, you will often find them again and again in the same place.
Where there are Northern Brown Argus, there will almost certainly be Common Blue. The excitement of seeing the first one of the year in June quickly gives way to chasing dozens of them around the wildflower meadows throughout the reserve. Although they are a widespread butterfly, I don't think I've been anywhere where they are quite so numerous as they are at St Cyrus. On a warm sunny day you can easily see dozens or more as you walk through the dunes. Males are aggressive, and will scrap with any other butterfly that comes near them, and are often a good way to find other species, like Northern Brown Argus, as they spiral each other in a fight for supremacy.
The vivid lilac/blue colouration of the males make them a real stand-out species, always worth chasing for a photograph.
Nothing else quite compares to a Common Blue in North East Scotland.
This unusual specimen is ab. nigromaculata - featuring a row of black spots around the hind wings.
As with the Northern Brown Argus, they can often be found in mornings and evenings at roost on grass or flowers, head down with wings closed, revealing their fabulous underwing pattern, like this male on Bird's Foot Trefoil.
Females range from almost all brown upperwings, to almost all blue, with a row of orange chevrons around the edge of the wings. There is a subspecies of Common Blue known as Mariscolore, native to Ireland and North West Scotland in which the females are larger and extensively blue, and it seems these are becoming more widespread. Some have speculated that the difference is climate related, which might go some way to explaining the large proportion of large and extensively blue females at St Cyrus. This summer I have noted both small sized females with almost no blue, and one particular stunning blue female, so evidence does suggest that the two subspecies are co-existing on the reserve. This is just my opinion and observation of course, and I do not profess to be an expert in any way.
Female Common Blue - possibly the Mariscolore subspecies - but regardless, absolutely stunning.
A mating pair of Common Blues is always an exciting find for a photographer. This image features the same beautiful blue female on the left.
Common Blues can be seen throughout the reserve, but the best places to look are sheltered meadows between the dunes, where wildlfowers thrive.
As the month continues, larger butterflies begin to emerge. Meadow Browns and Ringlets tend to appear around the same time. Meadow Browns continue to elude me for a decent photograph. They are notoriously evasive when chased.
The nemesis - Meadow Brown - one day I'll return to this blog and replace this with a better photo.
The look in his eye says it all - they understand photography, they understand exactly how to avoid being photographed!
Update 4th July - I tamed a Meadow Brown at last!
Meadow Brown on clover flower.
Meadow Brown sheltering from the rain - I do love the shape of the hindwings.
A beautifully fresh specimen at rest on an overcast evening.
Ringlets offer an altogether different challenge, as they bob and weave among the grasses, seemingly continuously regardless of the weather. However, they never move very fast, and are easy enough to watch until they do finally stop.
The velvety upperwings often have an iridescent sheen, especially along the front edge of the forewings. The spots (rings) are variable, and often not visible at all on the upper wings.
In hot weather, Ringlets will typically sit with their wings closed, showing off the distinctive ringlets on the underwings.
Meadow Browns can be seen throughout the reserve from late June, with Ringlets more commonly seen bobbing along in the longer grasses and bracken along the foot of the cliffs.
Graylings are another more specialist butterfly. A member of the same wider family as the Ringlets and Meadow Browns, they have a very different character, and are masters of camouflage. Graylings love hot weather, but always sit with their wings closed, tilted towards the sun. this is often done on rocky outcrops or clefts in the cliff faces, particularly around 'The Big Rock' at the Northern end of the reserve. Unfortunately, when they tuck their forewings in, they become almost impossible to see.
Even close up, it can be very hard to see a Grayling on the cliffs at St Cyrus. They have a habit of alighting in the least accessible places imaginable too!
However, when they flash the eye of their forewing, they are unmistakable.
The intricate patterns on their wings are quite beautiful.
To regulate their temperature they will flatten their wings towards to sun, twisting their body, which makes them extremely difficult to photograph without part of the butterfly always being out of focus.
They do, however, like to nectar from Wild Thyme, and I have also seen them nectaring from thistles and knapweed. The one above stopped briefly on this thistle by 'The Big Rock'.
I have only seen Grayling around 'The Big Rock' at St Cyrus, but I have heard reports of them in other spots on the reserve too - so they are worth looking out for along the bottom of the cliffs, and also among the driftwood of the foreshore, although I am yet to find one here.
The sandy cliffs alongside 'The Big Rock' are the perfect place to find Grayling - just be careful of your footing (yes, I have fallen down there before!)
Mobile phone shot of 'The Big Rock' where many hours are spent searching for near invisible Graylings.
I said that Meadow Browns were my arch nemesis - the other butterfly under June is a close contender! The Dark Green Fritillary is a butterfly regularly seen on the reserve, but typically fleetingly. They are a large butterfly, and very strong in flight. The cover huge areas of ground very quickly, often seeming to never stop. I typically see a handful each summer at St Cyrus, and almost always watch them sail into the distance without getting near a photograph. It is always worth watching thistle flowers though, sometimes they do stop for a quick feed.
A chance evening encounter at the car park at the top of the Donkey Path with this male.
However, they can be seen almost anywhere on the reserve at any time. Normally doing 100mph.
I found this mating pair among the bracken by the main path through the reserve, and they were still mostly zooming about at 100mph, locked together!
The individual photographed above and below was nectaring on Common Yarrow in the small wildflower meadow immediately behind the visitors centre, literally 100 yards from the car park. This is also a great spot for Ringlet, Meadow Brown and occasionally Common Blue, as well as hundreds of Northern Marsh Orchids.
Below is an example of the female - a larger butterfly with darker and more contrasting markings, they are pretty easy to identify from the males.
Around the end of June is also the time when migrants begin to show up in greater numbers. In particular, Red Admirals are often seen on the reserve as they arrive from mainland Europe, and Painted Ladies might also turn up. The strength of migrations varies dramatically from year to year, and as a result the number of new emerging butterflies of these species in the late summer varies too. 2020 is promising to be a relatively strong year for Red Admiral in this area, with good numbers appearing along the coast. Time will tell how many Painted Ladies arrive, after the massive numbers of 2019.
However, of the Vanessid family of butterflies, the Small Tortoiseshell is the first to produce new adult butterflies, and these might just appear before the end of June.
Small Tortoiseshells can be numerous in some habitats, but typically not that common a sight at St Cyrus. The best place to see them is around the Visitors Centre and alongside the track to the Kirkyard.
Mobile phone shot of the Kirkyard, around which wildflowers are abundant all summer long.
July and August and onwards
late July and August sees the smaller butterflies begin to fade, although a second brood of Small Coppers, and the suggestion that there might be a limited second brood of Common Blues in some years make a walk through the dunes more than worthwhile. However, the later summer brings with it the emergence of brand new Vanessids. Joining the Small Tortoiseshells from late June is the unmistakable Peacock.
Peacocks are another butterfly that overwinters in Scotland, breeding and laying eggs in early Spring, for a fresh emergence of vivid scarlet adults, normally in August.
Peacocks might be the most recognisable butterfly on the reserve.
Peacocks can be seen nectaring on large plants such as knapweed and ragwort, and can be seen along the whole reserve. The best place to see them is between the Visitors Centre and the Kirkyard.
More variable in terms of their numbers, Red Admirals will also join the Peacocks. Red Admirals cannot survive the cold Scottish winters, and it is therefore the migrant butterflies arriving earlier in the summer from the continent that breed here. However, it is apparent that more and more Red Admirals are successfully overwintering in England, and that there is an ongoing trend Northwards. Many butterfly species seem to be 'benefiting' from our changing climate, at least from the point of view of Scotland.
2019 was a pretty good year for Red Admirals, but 2020 already looks promising too, with good numbers of migrant butterflies arriving through June.
Mobile phone shot of the field to the South of the Kirkyard - the bottom of the cliffs here can be teeming with Vanessids in August and into September.
The 15th and final butterfly on the St Cyrus list is therefore the Painted Lady. Another migrant, these fascinating butterflies are always on the move, making the journey from Northern Africa each year, a journey spanning several generations. The number of butterflies that reach the UK each year is dependent on a massive number of variables over several months and 2,000 miles. Some years, known as irruptive years, can see massive numbers of butterflies arrive, almost overnight. 2019 was such a year. As the butterflies arrive, they lay eggs on thistles, and in August an emergence of brand new Painted Ladies adds a final surge to the butterfly numbers.
This homegrown Painted Lady was photographed near the Kirkyard on the 8th September 2019. It is understood that many of the UK born Painted Ladies will use high altitude winds and their strong flight to make a return trip to Africa in the Autumn, to start the whole cycle over again!! Next time you see a fresh Painted Lady nectaring on your Buddlia bush, remember what a remarkable journey it has made, and may still have to make.
That is the fifteen butterflies that can be seen at St Cyrus each year. Such a list alone would make it a worthwhile place to visit, but add into the mix the abundance of wildflowers, the stunning scenery, and array of other wildlife, and it becomes pretty obvious why I spend so much of my time here each year.
St Cyrus viewed from Kaim of Mathers. To have Small Blues fluttering around these cliffs again would be the icing on an already spectacular cake.