Dragons and Damsels

Published: 12th August 2016

The summer weather has been fairly typical for July here in the West Highlands, with a fair smattering of wet, dreich days, enlivened with the odd burst of sunshine, and even a little warmth. We played hunt the sun during a recent butterfly break, with mixed success. Our main target was the mountain ringlet, an elusive species that only flies at altitude, when the sun is out. Taking the BBC weather forecasts as a guide we made the most of a dull day and headed to Creag Meagaidh, our most accessible local site, in the hope that there would be sufficient gap in the clouds to tempt out the butterflies.  We were lulled into a false sense of security by a large patch of blue sky as we arrived, which brought out the ringlets (common variety) in the meadow by the car park. By the time we had ascended up to mountain ringlet level the sun had gone in and we did not see a single butterfly of any description until we returned to the car park!  There was an indication that the weather was better back at home so we decided to look for another target species, the large heath, back in Glen Loy.  The omens, were good as we spotted a pair of golden eagles drifting over Druim Fada straight after we parked the van. Little else was flying, however, but we were fortunate enough to disturb a single large heath from the grass, and it was lethargic enough to pose for photographs.

The next day we headed down into Morvern to catch another forecasted bout of sunshine, and this time we were rewarded with a lovely sunny walk. One of the key species groups this time was odonata, and here we did well. The expected beautiful demoiselles were on the wing, and we were also treated to other northern / western specialities such as common hawker, golden-ringed dragonfly and best of all, a northern emerald. Shame to say as we watched the latter, concentration was disturbed by the sight of a juvenile white-tailed eagle, which soared into view directly above the dragonfly that was hawking amongst the tree tops. By the time the eagle had departed (having come close enough to photograph) the emerald had vanished. The main butterfly interest was provided by speckled woods, out in good numbers. The Scottish race is paler than southern speckled woods, and the spotting appears almost white. Apart from a fleeting fritillary, we only managed a couple of whites and a meadow brown.  The most prominent moth was the colourful cinnabar, which is uncommon in Lochaber. Several adults were flying and the ragwort was covered with its stripey caterpillars. Other notable species of the day included black-throated diver, twite and greenshank.

The third day promised to be slightly sunnier in the mountains, so we returned to Creag Meagaidh, only to be thwarted by clouds again. The highlight was a family of peregrine, hunting below the corrie. An adult stooped on a merlin, both birds tumbling to the ground with claws locked together. The merlin was not seen again, but a juvenile fed before perching on a higher rock, with an obviously full crop. Later we saw two adults and two youngsters soaring over the ridge. A brief flash of sun brought out a small pearl-bordered fritillary and a couple of small heaths, but these again had to be flushed from the grass. No mountain ringlets were forthcoming.  To try and manage another target species we headed further east for more promised sun, and reached a site for northern brown argus whilst we could still see blue sky. The rock-rose was in full flower, and when the sun was out the butterflies were flying. We did not see a great deal else other than NBAs, the odd meadow brown and whites, but exploring the site a bit further we were delighted to see bee beetles nestled in the heads of stately melancholy thistles. This rare chafer has a peculiar distribution in the UK, occurring in the Central Highlands of Scotland and Wales. A handsome striped beast it is obligingly docile. Mixed success for the break, then, but together with a good haul of moth species over the three days we had a wealth of good sightings over a period of indifferent weather.

The next week, typically, it was much warmer.  On the warmest day of the year we went looking for dragonflies near Salen. Surprisingly the dragons were mostly hiding, and there was nothing much to report. We did see a number of dark green fritillary, however, together with the first of the year’s Scotch Argus. The latter were spotted whilst enjoying tea and cake at the Acharacle Tea Room (highly recommended), where we were further distracted by a large tabby cat, with quite good wildcat-like markings, hunting lizards in the grass. It turns out that this was a feral cat that had been neutered and then adopted by the café.  We saw further Scotch Argus on our local butterfly transect, along with lots of speckled woods. A local bog produced the highest number of emerald and common blue damselflies that we have seen locally, but only four-spot chasers and common darters in terms of dragons. We have also been busy releasing a Newsletter and finalising dates for next year’s Glenloy Wildlife holidays. After some deliberation we have decided to extend our July butterfly break to a week, to maximise the chance of finding enough sun to bring out the butterflies and other insects!