Monday, 26 June 2017

Yet another Hawk

I've a few sets of pictures taken in the week before we sallied North to the Border lands, these ones of my seventh Hawk Moth of the year: a Small Elephant. Size apart, the species is subtly different from its Large Elephant relation; a more subdued combination of pink and greeny-yellow but just as satisfying.

The caterpillars are also very similar to the Large Elephant's and they often feed together.  My brother and I found at least one when we went as schoolboys to comb the willowherb for larvae of both species on Leeds' ring road, at the well-informed suggestion of kindly and knowledgeable John Armitage of the City Museum. 

I have only the Pine Hawk to go now, in terms of hawkmoths which have called here in the past (although I still live in hope and grow potatoes to tempt a visit from an immigrant Death's Head). Meanwhile the Eyed Hawk remains a frequent caller. A neighbour reports one in her bathroom while we were away, perhaps the chap below who was roosting in the trap last week.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Catch-up time

It's catch-up time, because I have been on holiday for the past week in the Scottish Borders, first for a cousin's lovely wedding, blessed by the sunshine and warm weather which most of the UK has enjoyed, and then for explorations of the valleys of the old Debatable Lands - so beautiful now, so terrifying in mediaeval and pre-Stuart days - and of glorious Northumberland.

We didn't have room for the moth trap but nonetheless managed to find a big, fat Drinker Moth on the drive to one of the places we stayed.  These lovely, big yellowy moths take me back to my schooldays when we found the caterpillars, handsome creatures with a touch of Little Lord Fauntleroy blue velvet, sipping the dew from grass - the habit which gives the species its name.

On the lovely walk between Gilsland and Birdoswald fort on the Roman Wall, we also found a thriving colony of Chimney Sweeper moths, a day-flying species which I last saw in very similar, path-verge conditions on the lowest slopes of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District, two years ago. The moth is entirely black except for the slender thread of contrasting white along the edge of its forewings. A beautiful creature. 

I hope that you will forgive me adding a couple of photos to show the wonderful, uncrowded nature of this part of the world. Here is Bamburgh Castle from Ross Back Sands:

Penny and I were the only people on THREE MILES of unspoilt sandy beach:

 Here also is a dragon or damselfly on P's tum:

A very large jellyfish on Rockcliffe beach, a pretty spot near to Sweetheart Abbey on the Galloway coast,

and a couple of pics of a Cinnabar back in Oxfordshire, taken just before we set sail for the North:

Friday, 16 June 2017

Oddly shaped

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes and so do moths. This morning's trap contained a couple of large and distinctive micromoths; so large and distinctive that I think that even I can identify them.

The streamlined character in my first two pictures, with the go-faster stripes shown on both sides in the top one, seems a fair bet to me to be a male Donacaula forficella. The females have a similar livery but are even longer with a more forked 'tail' to their wings when at rest. Both sexes have a fine pair of palps up front, those distinctive organs of insects which help them with touch and taste - sort of hand/tongues.

My second micro looks to me to be Calamotropha paludella, distinguishable from the rather similar macro, the Silky Wainscot, by the length of those self-same palps. Both these moths are classified as only locally common but with C. paludella expanding its range. Both are also fond of damp places, a description fitting our patch beside both a river and a canal, where a roving moth (or human) can find much in Nature to touch and taste.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Glories past and present

We are blessed in this part of the world with a wonderful quantity of wildflowers, many flourishing on the large field margins left by farmers (in return for EU booty) but others growing in apparently unpromising places. One of the latter is a fabulous Lizard Orchid, which is so in need of protection from casual parkers that the local council has provided it with a little mesh cage - pictured below.

My composite top picture shows the five species which I have encountered so far: clockwise from top right, Common Spotted, Green-winged, Pyramidal, Bee and Lizard. A learned colleague informs me that we also have the Common Twyblade. Six orchids on my doorstep. Bliss.

Nature's glories are short-lived, however, as shown by this picture kindly emailed to me by a friend who lives a little further up the canal. What a change life has made to this once glamorous Eyed Hawk. Nonetheless, it is still pegging along.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Oooh, such goings-on

A vivid splash of scarlet lit up our stroll along the canal at teatime yesterday. Actually, I was deep in contemplation of a narrowboat, so it was Penny, aka Eagle-eye Junior-spy the Ace Mothspotter, who noticed it and followed its erratic progress to a clump of comfrey in one of the canalside cottages' gardens.

It was a male Scarlet Tiger, behaving exactly as described in the Moth Bible: "The male patrols wildly in late afternoon and early evening."  Just so, and his intentions were manifest. He zoned in on two apparently dormant Tigers on a comfrey leaf (with a third nearby) and began paying them vigorous, amorous attention.  The first one flew off, slightly less erratically as you might expect of the gentler sex. The second submitted to his attentions without stirring.

He squirmed into position by a deft bit of manoeuvring under her wings and, hey presto, there he was clasped securely tail-to-tail. A new generation of Scarlet Tigers is in prospect. Not to dwell on these intimate subjects, but the claspers used by moths for mating are the main means by which otherwise almost identical species can be told apart. However, this involves killing/dissecting or freezing/magnification and I do not have the stomach for either. Add my lamentable ID skills into the bargain, and a fair number of the moths which come to trap will, I am afraid, never be firmly identified.

Left in peace; the snoozing Tiger on its own

The Scarlet Tiger is only locally common but when it does appear, it is often to be found in numbers, as was the case with us. This reminds me of our holiday in Turkey nine years ago when we found swarms, literally, of the closely-related Jersey Tiger by a waterfall (rather blurry pic, sorry, left). Jerseys are also the main stars of the misnamed 'Valley of the Butterflies' on the Greek island of Rhodes. Typical butterflies; always trying to snatch the limelight from moths.

Both species are also interesting as primarily day-fliers, a habit found in only 50 or so of the UK's 2,600-odd moth species. Their vivid warning colouration and a toxin in the bodies of both adult and caterpillar give them the protection which is afforded to most other moths by the dark.

Many thanks for the photographs to our friend and neighbour Richard Hancock, whose excellent children's book Quick and Vickers about a lively duo who move to live near a canal can (and should) be bought here. My camera is on the blink and Penny didn't have her iPhone so Richard came to the rescue. Very soon, we were joined by visiting narrowboaters so the amorous moths may end up on many a mantlepiece, digital screen or Facebook page.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Class of 2017

I have found myself with a new nursery of schoolroom of voracious caterpillars which hatched from the clutch of eggs laid by an unknown moth in the light-trap a fortnight ago. They hatched just before we left for three days in Suffolk and I crammed a variety of leaves and grasses into a box with them to munch on in my absence. It included cricket willow which is what they seem to prefer.

Above is one of them roaming round the box, a little close to some spidery fabric which suggests that other creatures may have infiltrated with my leaves. Not harmful ones, I hope. I am monitoring. I have no idea what the caterpillars are but hope to identify them as they get bigger. I have a record of most of the moths which overnighted at the time, so with luck that will narrow the field. Here are the eggs, below.

The moths meanwhile performed brilliantly yesterday, when we were due to join a work party at the local Community Allotments in the morning and then have lunch in the nearby village of Tackley with a group of friends. I had hoped to take a clutch of interesting moths on both occasions and the eggboxes obligingly served up two trios of hawk moths - Privet, Poplar and Elephant. There were children at both events and the moths went down very well. One small, budding entomologist solemnly told his Mum: "Martin is the best moth hunter in the world." One of the lunchtime Mums kindly took the two larger moths on her hand while I went to get Penny and myself drinks. She mused on the possibility of moths as 'living jewellery', not restrained but with the added attraction of being a temporary adornment, liable to vanish at any time, like sandcastles and pavement art.

One ace performer: Elephant Hawk

And another: Privet, the UK's largest native moth as discussed in my last pre-Suffolk post, Big Boy

The moths flew away unharmed from both occasions and, I think, left behind a number of potential converts to the hobby, plus the chance to explain how small the pernicious clothes moths are in proportion to the whole, wide and wonderful moth-y world.  Meanwhile here are some of the other visitors to Saturday night's trap. Last night, I gave them all a rest.

Puss moth, getting a bit frayed


A Flame Shoulder, showing its lovely maroon, in a huddle with a Spectacle and a Flame

I need to look these up

That pretty moth, the Coronet, nuzzling a Pale Tussock

A couple of Minors, the lower one a Least (I think) with another chap whose ID I'll hope to have shortly - familiar but not on the tip of my tongue

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Moustachio moth

If moths could comment on human beings, there would no doubt be many equivalents of myself who looked at us despairingly and threw in the towel when it came to telling people apart. I find many categories of UK moth with differences in patterning so subtle that I fail to distinguish them time and again, though I do try, honest. But, as Penny will tell you, I often have the same problem with human beings, even when I have met them previously.

Which is all a long way of celebrating and thanking distinctive moths such as the Buff Ermine shown above and especially the wonderfully strongly-marked, gloriously-moustachioed version of it shown in the first picture with a standard companion and in the second with a Beautiful Golden Y (I am fairly sure; the distinction between the Beautiful and Plain Golden Ys is a classic example of wobbly ground. Thy are seriously alike and to compound my anxiety, Dave Wilton, the retired flight traffic controller who is one of my most helpful experts on the Upper Thames Moths blog, says there that he has plenty of Plain Golden Ys in his garden in Buckinghamshire but only usually gets one visit a year from a Beautiful one. Ah me, but I think that I am right.

Elsewhere in the trap, I was very pleased to welcome my first Treble Brown Spot on home ground. You may recall that I found my first-ever only last week in Suffolk but this is the debut here in Oxfordshire. Not only that, but it perched on the trap's transparent cowl and so I was able to photograph it from below (below).

For the rest, the trap was very full of moths, mostly familiar and ranging from the little micro below, which I hope to ID over morning tea, to a slumbering Privet Hawk. 

Early dawn means that the moths are often more wakeful when I reach them and one bonus of this was the chance to get an unusual picture of a lively Flame, a species which almost always appears at rest like this:

This one's liveliness enabled me to get this bigger picture, below, which shows more of the pattern - and also, I think but I am having to rely on my iPad Mini for pictures at the moment so the quality is not the best, it looks as though the little 'eye' contains a scrap of that tiny piece of rare UK moth colour, blue. Much like the Straw Dot which I featured the other day.  Once equipped with my camera again, I will try to make this clearer, especially as blue is my favourite colour.  

Here are some of the other slumberers:

Clouded Border
A handsome Snout
Silver Y getting ready for take-off
My thumb and a Middle-barred Minor (I think)
A Marbled/Tawny/Rufous Minor, left, and (I think) a Least Minor
A Turnip Moth, I think, with its closely-wrapped wings