TRIP REPORT, NORTH MACEDONIA, JULY 2015
This was another trip organised by Mike Williams partly to raise funds for Safi's conservation project in the Orseg (Hungary) and also further protection for the endangered Danube Clouded Yellow (Colias myrmidone) in Romania. A group of 18, including Safi and our two lepidopterally-inclined and excellent minibus drivers, both named Martin, assembled at Skopje airport around midnight on 11 July with chilled beers at the ready. Mike's itinerary would include several outstanding locations offering the chance to see a number of rare butterflies, or peperutka as they're known locally - in fact, by the end of 6 full days in the field a grand total of 133 species had been identified with the 100th occurring at noon on the third day, not to mention many moths, birds, and other wildlife. (Lists are available should any reader wish to request them).
Starting at Skopje in the north, our journey would take us in a broad clockwise sweep of the country taking in/passing the towns of Veles, Prilep, Bitola and Ohrid in the south-west before the final day's transit back north.
But rather than produce a travelogue, this report traces our sightings of a few selected species. So, in no particular order let's start with:
Eastern Greenish Black-tip (Euchloe penia)
Seen on our first full day in the field around 20km south-west of Skopje, this lovely little butterfly was being wind-assisted up largely west-facing precipitous limestone cliffs at c1,300m overlooking the dramatic landscape towards Kozjak Lake way down in the valley below. Several butterflies could be seen on the wing simultaneously and on reaching the ridge where we were standing would stop momentarily to nectar on a small yellow crucifer shown in the attached photograph sequence, possibly a member of the genus Rapistrum, or similar. The wind would then instantly whisk them away making decent photography difficult.
The second sightings occurred the following day some 50km further south near Prilep on a rocky, though by no means 'precipitous', limestone hillside facing south at a lower altitude of just under 1,000m and it is likely, therefore, that this delightful species is reasonably well distributed throughout the country.
Balkan Fritillary (Boloria graeca)
Pelister National Park, established in 1948 and notable for the rare five-needle Molika pine (Pinus peuce) is also unusual in North Macedonia in being an acidic mountain consisting of granite, dolerite, gabbro and quartz-schist geology. Accessing the higher elevations above the tree-line required the hiring of 4x4 vehicles and our first butterflying stop was taken at nearly 2,000m after some two hours on the rough track. The vegetation here was lush and varied with thyme and heathers prominent. Balkan Fritillary was seen along with Blue Argus (Ultraaricia anteros), Eastern Large Heath (Coenonympha rhodopensis), Ottoman Brassy Ringlet (Erebia ottomana) and a very late, and unexpected, maybe second brood?, male Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines), amongst others.
At the end of the track near the glacial Golem Lake (2,226m) another very worn Boloria graeca specimen was netted by Safi who was initially content to ignore the frantic warning shouts from a local shepherd until a massive sheepdog raised its head above the vegetation. Safi continued to be blasé about such things having encountered sheep dogs many times before but I was certainly relieved when he nevertheless nonchalantly made his way in the opposite direction!
On completely different surface geology, namely the deep limestone (albeit lying on metamorphic rocks) capping the Galicica National Park in the south of the country and supporting a great richness and diversity of plants, we also came across graeca here at the slightly lower altitude of 1,600m. In both locations, however, this butterfly was uncommon. This location also produced our sole sighting of Freyer's Fritillary (Melitaea arduinna), a pristine female, difficult to separate from the near-identical Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) which has an overlapping distribution but was not seen on this trip and, as is always the case, it was great to see Apollos (Parnassius apollo) drifting down the hillsides occasionally stopping to take nectar on white scabious and thistles.
Three Marbled White species occurred on this trip, the most widespread being Marbled White (Melanargia galathea) including many examples of the dark form procida with Balkan Marbled White (Melanargia larissa) occurring on the rocky limestone sites at Kozjak, Pletvar and Galicica. Esper's Marbled White (Melanargia russiae) put in an appearance at two sites, the wonderful monastery meadow at Krusevo and at Galicica. Whilst not uncommon species, they are nevertheless very beautiful in their simplicity and relatively easy to tell apart. Esper's tends to be larger than galathea and readily distinguished by the jagged black line through the middle of the forewing cell whilst the cell line in the Balkan is further away from the body around ⅔ of the way across the cell and the wings are also quite heavily dusted.
Macedonian Grayling (Pseudochazara cingovskii)
This Critically Endangered species was nevertheless found in good numbers on the south-facing rocky hillside of the Pletvar Massif just to the east of Prilep. Quite why a 'critically endangered' species is so well signposted locally baffles me! The roadside sign is superbly illustrated and detailed in North Macedonian and English, which from one point-of-view is great, but as an invitation to collectors seems perverse. Anyway, once we'd made our way through the dry grasses below the rocky slope it didn't take long to spot our first specimen, although a Hermit (Chazara briseis) and more particularly Great Sooty Satyrs (Satyrus ferula) caused some initial identification confusion. The butterfly merges perfectly with the grey limestone and pale soils and I didn't manage to catch even a glimpse of the upperside. The scarp continues along the north side of the road all the way to Kavadarci, and beyond, appearing from a distance to be the same habitat on which the butterfly had been seen. The threat to this habitat from marble quarrying appeared overstated based on the current level of activity but future prospects are less certain.
Grecian Anomalous Blue (Polyommatus aroaniensis)
A total of four 'anomalous Polyommatus species' were seen on the trip, namely Ripart's (Polyommatus ripartii), Anomalous (Polyommatus admetus), and Grecian to which I'll also add female Damon Blue (Polyommatus damon) for good measure. However, it was not until our penultimate afternoon on Galicica that aroaniensis was discovered being one of 13 Lycaenid species attracted to 'a wet patch' at the trackside. Identification took some time due to the similarity of aroaniensis with admetus (see pages 723 and 727 in Pamperis, L, 2009, The Butterflies of Greece: Editions Pamperis, for a very detailed comparison) and upon release the butterfly darted away but I was fortunate to relocate it taking a quick breather, firing off three rapid upperside shots before it sped out of sight.
I think it is fair to say that all members of the trip were pleasantly surprised by the overall experience of our visit to North Macedonia: the hotels we used were generally comfortable with varied menus and good English was spoken widely, the road infrastructure was very good, and the weather perfect every day. Although still outside the EU, North Macedonia conveniently uses the Euro as a parallel currency to its own Denar. It was also very heartening to experience the positive support for their national parks and to pass through extensive areas of naturally forested hillsides. The richness of many flowers meadows has already been alluded to. In short, North Macedonia is a country which deserves to rank highly on any naturalists list of places to visit.
This article was previously published in the Newsletter of the European Butterfly Group