Thursday, 21 March 2019

Birth pangs

   Lots of Spring things in the natural world are early this year, not by more than a fortnight but that can be enough to cause problems. Here are the battered remains of a male Emperor moth, a great grandchild of the magnificent empress which visited me in May 2014 and gave me a clutch of eggs which started an enormous dynasty.

   This chap emerged unexpectedly early from one of a batch of cocoons woven last year by caterpillars in the care of very nice neighbours. Alas, his promptness meant that he was confined and his emergence unexpected. RIP. A close watch is now being kept on the others.

   More happily, another neighbour who lives in a narrowboat on the Oxford Canal has enterprisingly reared Silk Moths from a batch of eggs supplied to her by a naturalist firm at Christmas. I have to admit that I was dubious about the chances of the tiny caterpillars which soon emerged, given that their foodstuff was a sort of concentrated leaf extract and their home in a boat which, though very snug, had all the high dependency on curious heaters common among those who live afloat.

   I am glad to say that she has triumphed and here are some of the moths, above and below. They are emerging at the rate of four or five a day and their guardian is hoping that they will breed in turn, just as my Emperor moths have done for three generations. In which case, she has promised to give some to me. This may involve the further experiment of freezing the eggs until the time is nearer when I can carry out regular harvests from Oxford's mulberry trees.

   What of the silk, meanwhile, which was the original incentive for my friend who is more of a textile enthusiast than an entomologist - though her interest in the latter study is increasing by the day? In spite of the number of cocoons, we are not talking (yet) of the sort of quantities which could make up silk pyjamas or even a hanky.  But one of our fellow members of the local Knit and Natter brightly suggested the other night: "What about floss?"  I will keep you informed.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Blown about

Cold, windy weather courtesy of Storm Gareth isn't deterring the hardy but unremarkable-looking moths which fly at this time of the year. There were over 50 in the light-trap this morning, mostly Common Quakers with a few Small Quakers, a couple of Hebrew Characters and a new arrival for me this year, the Clouded Drabs shown in my first and second pictures (the top moth in the first picture, with a Common Quaker below it).

Here are a couple more: a pair of Common Quakers and another Clouded Drab.  More excitingly, and I hope the subject of my next post: a neighbour who lives in a narrowboat here has successfully bred silkworm caterpillars, seen them chrysalise and just hatched her first moths. She's a renowned member of our Knit and Natter group so we may all be clad in silk before long, like Robert Herrick's Julia. Or, as one knitter and natterer said last night, given the small quantities of the material involved, we may alternatively be using home-made, silkworm-spun floss.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

M is for March - and, of course, Moths

I have been slow to start lighting the lamp this year for the moths, which rewarded my tardy session on Friday night by arriving in quite impressive numbers. There were 40 in the trap, including the little assembly of Common Quakers shown above, with three individuals below. This species is one of the first harbingers of Spring, emerging from its underground cocoon from early March and often, as with this year, in earlier mild spells during the late Autumn and Winter. It varies a lot in ground colour but is always modest and plain. Hence its name.

Also in the eggboxes - a much-reduced pile which Penny and I need to supplement by a diet of omelettes and boiled eggs with soldiers - was the Common Quaker's regular companion between March and May, a Small Quaker shown in the next picture, below. It is indeed a little smaller than its Common relative but not by much. It is a feeder, a habit not shared by all moths, and enjoys sallow catkins of which we have many locally. The Common Quaker shares this habit and extends it to blackthorn blossom which has just burst into bloom here this week, filling the hedges paradoxically with white.

Both these moths belong to the Orthosiini genus of the Hadenidae sub-family of the Noctuid family, the largest among UK moths with some 400 members - and a further 21,000 worldwide. The Noctuids are also a controversial family scientifically because species keep being both added and removed by taxonomists rather like one of those large households with extensive dealings with Social Services. As the Moth Bible notes, another of the Noctuids' sub-families, the Ophiderinae, is 'an uneasy ragbag collection of species which did not seem to fit elsewhere, now being disbanded.' Perhaps it has been disbanded as I write, but taxonomy has little appeal to me, although it is an understandable source of fascination to all who like lists.

My third moth is also an Orthosia, albeit of a different faith. Here is that old familiar to readers of my musings, the Hebrew Character, named for the reproduction of the Hebrew letter Nun on its forewings. This mark was allegedly given to it because it had the audacity to speak to God, although what they said to one another (assuming that God wasn't too started to reply) is not known.

Next we have a couple of more distinctive new moths for 2019, a Brindled Beauty - Update: Sorry, it's a Small Brindled Beauty. Thanks v much to Dave Wilton, chief organiser of the superb Upper Thames Moths blog, for correcting me on this in Comments - and a pair of fine Oak Beauties. The trap was placed close to a medium-sized oak tree which I suspect of being their home. The second one is on a grubby old sheet which I have brought into service because the eggboxes are so sparse. I shake the moths out in the morning, for all the world like an old Spring-cleaning housewife. 

These are both moths which we expect to find flying around at this time of the year even though overnight frosts persist and have been quite harsh. I would agree with others, though, that this year is a bit ahead of itself. I saw my first Brimstone butterfly last week, two weeks before my previous earliest record, two years ago, of 9th March.

Finally, I was not entirely idle in February and with the help of Penny the ace indoor moth spotter, I photographed these non-trap arrivals:

Three are Mottled Umbers, predictable visitors, but I was pleased to be able to identify the fourth - top right - as a Double-striped Pug, which was out early. It usually gets going towards the end of March.  Update: My smugness at ID-ing the D-s P has to be counterbalanced by Dave's kind correction of the three other moths. The one at top left is actually a Dotted Border and the bottom two are Pale Brindled Beauties rather than Mottled Umbers. Apologies as ever. At least it increases this year's meagre tally (so far). 

Saturday, 26 January 2019

One and a bit

This is the dead season for moths - in one case this morning, literally. Because it was mild last night and we had Burns Night visitors - delicious haggis, yum, see below - I put the trap out at a venture. This morning, it produced one live caller and one, well, bit.

The bit was the severed forewing, left, of a Pale Mottled Umber. The living visitor, top picture, was a PMU in good shape. He's a male, with the TV aerial antennae which are always a pleasure to see. Antennae, as I have remarked before, are the one attribute of moths which I envy.  Human beings would look even nicer if adorned with the incredible range of these organs found among moths. Perhaps one day the little bumps on our foreheads will sprout. Or maybe our eyebrows.

Don't expect many posts for the time being but I will put out the trap from time to time. The occasional micro is fluttering into the house, too, like the very badly photographed one on the right. In my defence, it was high up in a corner with dreadful light and I was using my iPad Mini. My best guess is Agonopterix heracliana or its relative A. arenella also known rather more delightfully as the Common and Brindled Flat-body.

Meanwhile, tomorrow the weather is going to turn cold again.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

The actual last of 2018

This is really my last post of 2018, rather belated because of the usual list of things to do over the New Year holiday. In the olden days, I would have made a resolution to try to be more prompt, but experience has taught me to accept my inevitable delays. So here we are at last.

I had thought that the Mottled Umber which I mentioned on Christmas Eve would be my final moth of the year. But when we got home from Yorkshire on December 27th, the weather was still very mild and I put out the trap. The grandchildren who were staying were rewarded with not only a couple of strikingly different Mottled Umbers but also a Spring Usher - bottom left in the picture above - the most optimistically-named moth in the UK.

Both these species are in the sad (to my mind) category of moths whose females are flightless and spend their short lives on tree trunks waiting for a male to come and do the business. I didn't pass this information on to my granddaughter who is growing into a tough-minded, inquisitive and very independent soul. Nor did I introduce her and her little brother to the fourth inhabitant of the trap, a zonked-out but quite plump wasp.

Talking of wasps, I was just sorting through pictures I'd overlooked for the blog last year and found these two of a Nature red in tooth and claw episode which I watched, fascinated, in October. The wasp, unusually in my experience, was not made docile by being in the trap but viciously pursued several moths, finally latching on to this Lunar Underwing and clearly intent on doing serious harm.  I was about to intervene when the moth somehow jinked away and escaped. But you can see the damage done to the scales on its right-hand wing in the picture below.

A moth's life is never easy. People often ask me how long they live and the answer, with some exceptions, is counted in days or weeks. Birds take a quite fantastic number of them and so do spiders. RIP one the latter's victims, below.

Monday, 24 December 2018

Merry Christmas!

Christmas is a good time for reflections on the natural world with talk of birth, renewal and wonder in the air. Also in the air, to my surprise as Penny and I drove back in drizzle from the usual, delightfully anarchic Crib Service, were moths. No fewer than three caught in the car headlights.

So, for the first time in a month, I lit the lamp, even though I have only one eggbox at the moment, the others having been ruined by November's rain. Instead, I substituted an old sheet and on it, this morning, was a solitary Mottled Umber, my last moth of 2018.

The pics are below, but since the little moth's coloration has none of the colour of Christmas, I thought that I would give precedence to this lovely Small Tortoiseshell which was fluttering about in the kitchen, enjoying our central heating, a few days ago.  I hope that your holiday is as lovely and enjoyable. Merry Christmas and all warmest wishes for the New Year!

Oh and here's the Mottled Umber in the grey of dawn; not colourful but a dainty little caller.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Sombre day

Ben Sale of the excellent Herts Moths Blog is always a very welcome visitor in Comments here and his last, on my most recent post, was an example. He took a look at the rather sad, dead and unidentified moth which I featured on 4th November - and repeat above - and wondered if it might be something a little rare.

To whit, the Sombre Brocade, a moth from southern France and the Iberian peninsular which isn't even mentioned in my first edition (2003) of the Moth Bible.  It does, however, make an appearance in the current, third edition (2017) after making landfall in Guernesey in 2006 and arriving on the UK mainland in Dorset two years later. Since then, it has been recorded in Cornwall, Devon, Kent and London and is clearly one of an encouraging number of immigrant moths which are making visits, and perhaps a home, amongst us. And will not be discouraged by Brexit.

But is this one?  When I put the photos above on the unfailing helpful Upper Thames Moths blog, the experts Marc Botham and Dave Wilton reckoned that it was a Brindled Green, which struck me as right. At that stage, I had still not heard of the Sombre Brocade and so I was interested, when Ben introduced me to it and I went a-Googling, to find how similar the two moths are.

If you look at this interesting post from the Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset towards the end of September, you will see what I mean. And here, above, is their helpful picture of two 'standard' pictures of the Brindled Green and Sombre Brocade, together with a moth which was causing them a certain amount of ID headache, and which turned out to be an SB.

So I have copied their style and append two photos incorporating the forewings of my moth alongside the standards kindly provided by Portland, so that you can ponder and - if so inclined - pass your verdict on to me. However academic the exercise, because the moth is gone and its state and my photos almost certainly unacceptable for definite records, it will at least give you some sympathy for detectives, spies and others who have to puzzle for hours over grainy snapshots of CCTV images.

That's my hand in the background; how beautiful.  My own opinion still tends towards the Brindled Green, but don't let that influence you either way (seeing how I am almost aways wrong). Good luck!

Update: the experts on UTM all reckon that it is, or was, a Brindled Green, but also a useful reminder of the two moths' similarities. We will all have to keep a careful eye in September 2019.

Sunday, 11 November 2018


After a complete washout last night - driving rain and a supper engagement which meant that I couldn't put the trap out until midnight - I thought that I would just catch up with my backlog. I have a file on the desktop called 'Current Moths' and the word 'current' is beginning to turn into  misdescription.

This top picture, for example, dates back a month when the 'phone went soon after I'd taken up the early morning tea and it was our granddaughter in a state of high excitement. "Grandpa! Grandpa!" she almost squeaked, "the White Ermine has hatched!" Sure enough, this being FaceTime, she was holding the delicate white insect in her hand; a very late emergence of what was a third generation for that particular White Ermine family whose history you can revise here. 

I was slightly worried because I was due to take a box of White Ermine chrysalises from the same batch to a friend in Salisbury who is thinking of taking up trapping.  Would they all hatch in the same way, before I had the chance to pack and head off? Luckily, there have been no further hatchings since and the rest of the brood now face a long winter's sleep before they emerge in Salisbury and east London.

Nothing else very exciting to report; a handsome Heart and Dart above (Update - sorry, it's a Turnip, a good basic name for a good basic moth. Many thanks to Ben Sale in Comments for putting me right), a slightly blurred (sorry) Vestal below and one of those annoying grey species which I'll have to examine the moth Bible to pin down, maybe in front of the fire this evening.

Oh, and it's nice to show the underneath of a Merveille du Jour, that glorious moth whose beautiful top wings normally get all the publicity.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Warm spell

The weather in the UK is bouncing around more erratically than ever with icy days and nights followed by pleasant, mild spells, one of them under way at the moment. Penny and I are feeling particularly warm just now, having come in from a Mischief Night bonfire with added sparklers. It is interesting how even after a really cold snap which is slain our cosmos and brought all the walnut tree leaves down en masse, the sunshine can tempt out a Peacock - fluttering outside our dining room window at lunchtime, above and below.

The moth trap has attracted some nice visitors, too, notably this Sprawler below, in its fur coat. The moth supposedly gets its name from its caterpillar's habit of rearing up and then flopping back when alarmed. But I like to think of it as a clubbable gent of a moth, settling back in one of those leather armchairs with a cigar and a glass of something.

The Sprawler is a very active, jittery moth and this one scuttled about over the eggboxes for ages before deigning to hold still long enough for me to take an relatively unblurred picture. It never tried to take off, however, possibly through sleepiness and not yet having summoned up enough energy to use its wings. The way that moths have to do that, taking up to half-an-hour in the case of the Winter Moth on cold December and January nights, is shown by the Silver Y below. It was disturbed as I fumbled about with the eggboxes and is whirring its wings in the run-up to take-off, just in the way that aircraft used to do before releasing their brakes and heading down the runway.

More fur-coated gents now. There were six December Moths in the trap - first two pictures below - while on the lid, resembling the Sprawler but with a narrower, more rakish shape and more sharply curved trailing edges to its hindwings, there dozed a Blair's Shoulder-knot, increasingly also known as a Stone Pinion. It will be interesting to see if the latter name takes hold, leaving the famous Dr Blair (an entomologist who recorded new immigrant species on the Isle of Wight in the 1940s) with only the Blair's Mocha and Blair's Wainscot.

Other arrivals on quite a busy night included the Red-green Carpet below on the bulbholder's cone, a nice Feathered Thorn and a Yellow-line Quaker.

There was also the mystery (to me) moth below, already dead and possibly badly worn. I will enquire of the kindly gurus on the Upper Thames Moths blog. Update: in a Comment on my next post, Ben Sale interestingly suggests that this may not be a Brindled Green but the very similar, though much rarer, Sombre Brocade which is showing signs of spreading in the UK after first arriving in Guernesey in 2006. See my next post but one for more on this.

 Finally, we have been doing some hedgework and in the process found a lovely collection of birds' nests. The moss and dried-mud one is especially sweet, possibly the work of a chaffinch according to friends who know more about birds than me. I've always been led to believe that nests are not often re-used, so P and I felt justified in detaching these ones to show the grandchildren.  I guess that it's good in any event for each generation of birds to do their own building, to make sure that the skills do not die out.