Newsletter 13: Spring 2008
Chairman's Introduction | Highland Branch News | Pale Brindled Beauty
Notes from the East
Travelling eastward along the Moray coast, the shingle ridges of Spey Bay give way to a rockier coastline at Portgordon. Further east, between the villages of Findochty and Portknockie, the sea braes and cliffs increase in height and are interspersed with sheltered coves, well worth exploring for butterflies and moths. On clear days one can enjoy views of the Moray coastline as far as Lossiemouth, beyond which the hills of Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness stretch northward. Morven, the highest hill in Caithness, appears as a perfect cone rising from the firth, although it lies some 11 miles inland from Dunbeath, and is less symmetrical when seen at close quarters. It seems that every town and village along this bit of coast has a house named “Morven View”.
The cliffs continue on the east side of Portknockie, gradually transforming into grassy slopes which overlook Cullen golf course. On the north eastern outskirts of Portknockie lies the Bow Fiddle rock, and beyond that another arch called the Whale’s Mouth. Between these features the cliffs drop almost straight into the sea, and provide ledges for seabirds such as kittiwakes, razorbills and shags. On this section of coast, the views extend east to Troup Head, near Fraserburgh.
To reach Cullen, one can either walk along the sandy beach beside the Golf Course, or follow the disused railway as far as the Cullen viaducts which overlook the Cullen Burn and Seatown of Cullen.
The boundary between the administrative regions of Moray and Aberdeenshire lies about half a mile to the east of Cullen, aligning with the boundary between Highland and East Scotland Branches. However, Watsonian Vice-county 94, Banffshire, overlaps Moray and Aberdeenshire, with the result that part of Vice-county 94 falls within Highland Branch‘s area.
I was fortunate enough to arrange a visit to this area with Roy Leverton on 14th June 2007, one of the few sunny days in a dismal summer. We parked near the shore at Findochty (grid ref NJ 465 681), and walked eastward along the lower braes almost as far as Tronach Head (grid ref NJ 477 686). The first butterfly we saw was a Painted Lady, and before long we counted about 70 specimens, some of which appeared worn. We also came across a few male Common Blues and Small Coppers at the base of the cliffs. Roy examined a clump of thrift (Armeria maritima) and found an adult Thrift Clearwing moth. Even when wearing reading glasses it took me several seconds to see this moth, and my camera’s auto-focus failed to function, such was its camouflage.
On reaching Tronach Head, we visited the west-facing cove in which colonies of Dingy Skipper and Small Blue were found in the 1960s. On this occasion we found a few Small Blue adults and ova, and disturbed two Wood Tiger moths. However, repeated visits to this site in recent years have failed to reveal Dingy Skipper sightings. Roy attributes the loss of this species to the disappearance of patches of bare ground which the butterfly likes, and the replacement of short, flower-rich turf with more rank vegetation. Until the practice died out in the 1960s, shepherds overwintered their flocks on the sea braes, and coarse, invasive vegetation was controlled by burning. There are now places quite near the shore where there is so much bramble, gorse and bracken that it is not unusual to disturb roe deer. This was unheard of a decade or two ago.
Nevertheless remnants of the old flowery turf still exist, and after leaving Tronach Head we visited one such location (grid ref NJ 491 687) not far from the Bow Fiddle rock. Here there are extensive patches of kidney vetch, and we found good numbers of Small Blue in the vicinity. In 2004 or 2005, a colony of Ringlets became established nearby, but it was too early on this occasion to see any on the wing.
Although our visit to the coast ended here, there are still coves worth exploring further east, between the Whale’s Mouth arch (grid ref NJ 495 685) and the Preacher’s Cave (grid ref NJ 496 680). The Dingy Skipper was previously found on the steep slopes between the Whale’s Mouth and the footpath leading down to the shore, but this area has become overgrown and unsuitable for this butterfly. At the base of the cliffs between Jenny’s Well (grid ref NJ 495 682) and the Preacher’s Cave there was a colony of Northern Brown Argus which has also disappeared in recent years. The same appears to have happened to the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, which inhabited a section of brae between Jenny’s Well and the Preacher’s Cave.
But despite these disappearances, this area is still worth a visit. The commoner native and migrant species can occur in abundance in good summers, and there is always the chance of seeing something more unusual.
Moray Coastal Trail allows freedom of access to the braes, shoreline and headlands. Cars may be parked near the shore at Findochty, or just off the A942 east of Hillhead Cemetery. There is also signposted parking near the Bow Fiddle rock.
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