Saturday, 19 May 2018

Births and Birthdays

The moths have a fine record of being good to me on my birthday, so I wasn't concerned when yesterday morning's haul was modest. The birthday had many hours to go, I reasoned, at least three of them in darkness. When we got home from assorted treats laid on by Penny, my hopes rose higher still: the late evening was full of scent from Spring blossom and the air was reasonably warm.

Sure enough, this morning produced these beautiful visitors: two Eyed Hawks, a Poplar Hawk and a Puss Moth neatly positioned on one of the cross-bars of the trap's bulbholder. The moths were extremely sleepy and I had no trouble persuading them on to my fingers for a bit of fashion photography. They are now back in the eggboxes and will, I hope, stay sleepy long enough to be enjoyed by a family on a sponsored walk up the canal who are calling here for breakfast at 9am.

Things are lively here in another respect: my Emperor Moth eggs have hatched and we now have another nursery of aristocratic caterpillars. I am hoping that this time round, things will be less hectic as I am feeding them on hawthorn which lasts a little bit longer than the slender willow leaves on which I raised previous broods.

Also in the trap: the Cinnabar shown above with the Poplar Hawk, a couple of pretty White Ermines, a Powdered Quaker, a Bright-line Brown-eye, a lovely with its subtle hint of violet - and another, so far unidentified cattie which is sharing the hawthorn with the Emperorlets.

Thank you, moths!

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Finger moth

The trap has been modestly populated since I last posted, perhaps because of temperatures falling quite sharply at night after the lovely warm days which we are enjoying. Nonetheless, there has been variety among the arrivals with a little colour in contrast to the demure grey Muslin moths which form the majority of guests.

The Brimstone and Cinnabars shown above were specially welcome in that regard. More in keeping with the Muslins was my third moth pictured, a Scalloped Hazel. Its low-key colouring is made up for by the unusual, serrated shape of its wings. And as with so many superficially drab moths, its patterning is delicate and subtle on close inspection.

The next moth led me a merry dance and my iPad Mini - my only means of photography at the moment - had problems getting it into focus.  But technology triumphed in the end and the moth - initially trapped upside-down on the dewy rim of the trap which may have accounted for its friskiness when freed - finally settled down enough for me to decide that it is an Ochreous Pug.

Finally, people examining my catches often ask about the difference between a moth and a caddis fly and the pair below conveniently provide a study in contrast. The micro-moth which I think is Agapeta hamana has found a comfy perch on a caddis, whose extra-long antennae are the distinction I use to separate the one tribe from the other.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The Flying Prawn

"It's a prawn!" said Penny, when I took her this moth as part of our wedding anniversary celebrations (goodness, is it really Ruby next year? Yes). She was accurate in her description. Although the colour and pattern of the Pine Beauty are delightful, they and the resting position are definitely prawn-like. Mind you, I love prawns, so the description is entirely in the moth's favour.

I had to wait for our move from Yorkshire to Oxfordshire to see this moth in my own trap, although they are widespread in the North of England and Scotland and I came across one when making a radio programme about moths in pine-rich Forestry Commission woodland beneath the Whietstonecliff escarpment in North Yorkshire. Pine enthusiasts are ambivalent about the insect, however pretty, as its caterpillars have a healthy appetite. But with the exception of major pest damage when a tree called the North American Lodgepole Pine was introduced on poor soils in Scotland, it has been pretty well-behaved.

My second moth today has also led me a geographical dance. I first saw the Small Dusty Wave for definite on a wall in Bloomsbury, London. Yesterday morning, I found one slumbering on one of our windows here. It is tiny and often mistaken for a pug moth initially, an assumption which I made. But it has a lovely, gentle appearance which deserves the word 'dusty'. I hope that it feels at home here and starts a family.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Belles of St Clement's

This morning's moths brought a welcome change in the colour spectrum which chimes nicely with the livery of my sculling boat, Clementine, which is due to carry me down the Thames to London in September.   The Orange Footman is one of the UK's many moth-y success stories, a suspected immigrants species (sorry for any chilling echoes of current Home Office language) which has expanded from its south-western landfall as far north as Yorkshire. The Brimstone is an old and common favourite, a lovely moth whose equally delightful butterfly namesakes are numerous and active in the current sunny spell. I hope that you have them too, with their pretty companions, Orange-tips.

Pugs always have me foxed and I have applied for help with today's, as usual, to the unfailingly helpful Upper Thames Moths blog. My guess is Brindled.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Nothing wrong with being common

Here's a quartet of last night's arrivals and lovely moths they are too. The White Ermine, bottom left with my wedding ring and somewhat pudgy fingers, is an instant favourite with everyone who encounters it; ditto the Cinnabar alongside, whose striking red streaks and dots go superbly with its background colour of a very slightly green and rather oily black.

The two moths at the top are the delicate Green Carpet, named in the 18th century when wonderfully-patterned carpets from the East were arriving in commercial quantities in England, and the Iron Prominent whose colours have a touch of those paint suppliers to the gentry, Messrs Farrow & Ball.

All these moths, and the year's first Flame Shoulder shown above, are common albeit seldom seen by those who are not lucky or wise enough to own a moth trap (the Cinnabar is the likeliest to have wider recognition, both because it flies by day as well as night and because its striking yellow-and-black-banded caterpillars are familiar on ragwort).  News of these hidden riches seems to be spreading, I am glad to say, and the number of moth observers and enthusiasts is increasing. Welcome all, and here are a couple more White Ermines from this morning's eggboxes to enjoy.

Monday, 7 May 2018

Hawk's worth

It's always a good moment when the year's first hawk moth arrives, specially for superficial moth enthusiasts such as myself for whom size and colour cause more excitement than scientific peculiarities or small aberrations in otherwise humdrum-looking insects.

Not that colour is the strong point of last night's arrival, the Poplar Hawk, whose colouring is overwhelmingly made up of different greys. It does, however, have a startling blotch of pinky-red on each underwing, which the moth may flash as a warning to predators when disturbed and alarmed. I wasn't feeling specially interventionist when I examined the trap this morning, so I left the moth in peace.

Its distinction, which lifts its otherwise humble status as the UK's commonest hawk, lies in the way that it holds its wings, with the under-ones projecting further forward than the topwings. This can give it a slightly sinister bat-like appearance and it is not a moth which appeals to everyone. For that, we need the pretty pink Elephant hawks.

Last night also brought the well-named Spectacle moth, above, which always brings a grin to my face, and I've added another Malvolio study of a Muslin, this time also showing his distinctive antennae - always a feature of the male and resembling Denis Healey's eyebrows. Perhaps he received extra knowledge through these which made him such a formidable politician. If we were allowed one extra feature from the animal world, I would be much tempted by antennae, although in the end, I suspect that like most people, I would opt for wings.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Small but beautiful

Another crop of interesting moths came last night as the lovely spell of weather continued. The one at the top is new to me - at least, new in the sense that I have not recorded it before. It is classified as 'common' and so I am sure that it must have paid me a visit, but passed un-noticed.

It is the micro-moth Acleris literana, not to be confused with its relative and near namesake Acleris laterana. I like the delicate indication of green, all the fainter on this specimen which looks as though he or she has been a round a bit.  The species is on the wing in the UK from July round to May, so we are also at the end of the 2017-18 cycle.

My second picture shows, clockwise from top left, a Pug moth which I have yet to ID exactly, a Muslin showing the Malvolio leggings which are such a contrast to its soft, dark grey cloak, a Pale Prominent with its characteristic snout and a very pretty Scorched Carpet.

Finally, this equally pretty little moth baffled me initially as it was scurrying about - though fortunately not interested in fluttering off - and made itself very difficult to photograph. I didn't recognise it until it finally found a spot which set its nerves at ease and assumed the unmistakable resting pose of a Chinese-character moth (the character being the silvery mark in the middle of the wing, rather than a Confucian state of mind).

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Royal family

News today of an unexpected and - for me - exciting consequence of Thursday night's visit by a female Emperor moth.  By happy chance, Penny and I were invited by friends to voyage down the Thames yesterday from Windsor to Maidenhead. In appreciation, we took them a bottle of wine, some home-grown purple-sprouting - and the Empress.

That's Windsor Castle in the background
On the way, I emailed about something else from the train to Dave Wilton, the wonderfully knowledgable and helpful organiser of the Upper Thames Moths blog, and I mentioned in passing that I was carrying out this minor piece of species redistribution. He replied: 'If she is travelling in the dark, she may have company by the time you get to Windsor.'

He was absolutely right. Look at the lovely clutch of eggs which she laid as the various trains conducted us between Oxford Parkway, Oxford, Slough and Eton and Windsor. I rewarded her by leaving her contentedly on a willow tree by the Thames at Runnymede (she was still in exactly the same spot when we wandered past an hour later after exploring the historic site). But I've brought the eggs back here for a little caterpillar breeding.

This is a very enjoyable occupation. I think that if you are interested and Google skilfully, you will be able to follow the long and fertile family saga of the beautiful Empress shown at the top of this blog's web page. I am also offering free eggs to anyone else who would like a go, so let me know if you are interested.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Niece's birthday bonus

I had a nice reminder this morning of why moth-trapping is infectious. After my extremely dawdly start to this year's trapping, the eggboxes came up trumps in the way they do, arousing all the hunter's instincts and hope of rewarding arrivals to come.

The female Emperor - Empress, I guess - in the top two pictures is the star of the show and she is now snoozing in our shed with the doors and windows open in the hope that her super-powerful pheromones will attract a mate or mates.  This well-known phenomenon of 'assembling', which can lure males from over a mile away, has worked brilliantly in the past. One Empress became a great-grandmother (posthumously) after breeding in our second year in Oxfordshire.

It was great to find a Streamer on the moth cowl, left below the Empress, and the Swallow Prominents on the lamp wire in my second composite picture - two standard SPs at either end and a Lesser SP in the middle. Also shown here are: bottom right in the first composite, a Muslin Moth; bottom row in the second composite: Brindled Beauty, Pebble Prominent and V-Pug; and below, clockwise from top left: Chocolate-tip, yet-to-be-IDed micro (help always appreciated), Least Black Arches and Early Grey.

This is a great collection to arrive on the birthday of one of my three talented and lovely nieces. Happy Birthday Annie! And love to all the bouncing family

Thursday, 3 May 2018

Processing on

My last post about processionary moths has brought me another startling photo, left, this time from  a cousin and his partner who encountered hundreds of Pine Processionary caterpillars in Spain. This picture shows a two metre-long crocodile but they measured others stretching up to five metres.

They add: "We saw two lines trying to merge together, and they would butt each other out of the way to stop the others pushing in. It was like a rush-hour traffic jam." They gathered that if the lead caterpillar dies or encounters some other misfortune, the followers pile up in chaos. It would be interesting to test this, perhaps by gently removing the leader (and carefully; a lot of people are allergic to the caterpillar hairs).

There's room here for allegories about what happens to people who follow a leader in blind faith. The fact that processionary moths are doing so well is rather discouraging. But let us hope that the practice suits them rather better than it does human beings and nations.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Follow my Leader

There are lots of reports in the moth world at the moment of a pest species, the Oak Processionary moth, which foresters greatly dislike for understandable, defoliating reasons.

It has an endearing habit, however, which is shared by these Pine Processionary moth caterpillars spotted in Cyprus in early March by a friend of ours, Derek Ivens.

You could read about the dark side of the PPM here but while acknowledging its harmful eating habits, I think that we are allowed to find its brotherly and sisterly travelling arrangements as quite touching.

I haven't lit the lamp for a second time this year yet but it's been a tonic, after the prolonged dreary weather, to see Brimstone, Orange Tip and Common Blue butterflies here when the sun does come out and has time to warm things up.

You can read plenty of interesting material about the Pine Processionary online, starting with good old Wikipedia. Processions may reach 300-strong and are very determined. The naturalist Fabre organised PP caterpillars into a circle with food just outside it and they marched round and round for a whole week. They also build nests, which is another appealing side to their character, at least for me.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Back in action

Hooray! I have finally summoned up the energy and found the time to set out the lamp for the first time since early December. My lethargy has been partly owing to family commitments of one sort or another and partly to the time taken up by my bold decision to scull from Godstow to Eel Pie Island - 100-plus miles down the Thames - to raise money for a very good cause. If you have time, you can read about it here:

I'll divert ever so briefly from moths to show the composite picture above, and to encourage you, whatever your age, in my belief that rowing is every bit as enjoyable and interesting as is the study of moths. In wildlife terms, you get a wonderful vantage point for watching the world when afloat.

Top left, clockwise: Nut-tree Tussock, Powdered Quaker, strange beast, Hebrew Character. The moths are respectively 1st, 24th and 3rd in frequency in the excellent Hants Moths Flying Tonight list online

Back to moths. It was a chilly night and I was not expecting anything too exciting, but it was good to have the three agreeable visitors shown above, plus a strange beastie from the fly-type of insect, shown above. Talking of flies, we have the hideous Blandford Fly back here for its annual six-week rampage. A truly nasty little black fly with a horrible bite, it is one of the few serpents in our Paradise.

I am very pleased with my lovely clean eggboxes, mostly kindly donated by neighbours. Alas, because of moths' habit of creeping into the cones and crevices, they will all be bent and battered soon by my struggles to get good photos.

Update:  the inestimable Dave Wilton of the invaluable Upper Thames Moths blog, tells me that the strange beastie "appears to be a midge of the non-biting variety (hooray for that) from the family Chironomidae, of which there are a lot around at the moment." He adds: "It would need a fly expert to get any further than that, if indeed it is possible at all, just from a photo. I see there are 600+ species to choose from."

And that's 599 too many for me.