Sunday, 31 August 2008

What have you got up your sleeve?

Here's a moth which sounds like a supporting character in a Thomas Hardy novel. The Rosy Rustic. I imagine my ancestors were like this, given the meaning of my surname. Rustics can get a lot rosier than this one, but isn't the patterning fine, even if the palette is like something from Laura Ashley's autumn collection in a year favouring beige? I think I'll add a picture of the other sort of rosy rustic just for comparison.
The other thing that happened yesterday was that I came in from the garden with a friend on the arm of my jumper - see below. I think it may be one of the pesky 'cabbage white' caterpillars I mentioned yesterday, but please put me right if I'm wrong.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Drying out

I didn't know moths could swim, until yesterday. I don't suppose they can do it for long, but there was one in the bath zooming around like Rebecca Adlington, only not in such straight lines. I fished it out and was interested to see that it then adopted this butterfly pose - wings high above the back which moths very seldom do - presumably to make it easier to dry out. The second, smaller picture, shows a sideways view.
I think it's a Rustic of some kind. Your dead average brown, boring moth. Penny and I were on a marvellous excursion, launching A Good Year for Blossom, a collection of Guardian Country Diaries by women (ideal Christmas present etc, see link to books...thanks). We stayed at the former home of one of the diarists Gwen McBryde, Dippersmoor Manor, near Hereford. It is now an outstanding B&B with marvellous hosts Hexie and Amanda Millais (H is the great-grandosn of the celebrated artist). Go there! The third pic is of a pretty litte Magpie moth which also lives at Dippersmoor.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

A cheerful end to August

Hooray - an interesting end to August. A Phoenix moth appeared in the trap this morning. I'm still researching the reason for the name, but it's a step bigger than the Carpet moths which have similar wing patterns, and altogether grander. In the course of Googling just now, I came across an American poet who has hymned the moth - see These insects get everywhere. My Phoenix lit off pretty quickly once the trap was open, but if you click on my pic, you can detect its odd habit of resting with the back of its body arched up.

Only the male does this - a good example (of which the animal world furnishes countless others) for writers on gender studies. I've filched these two smaller pics from Wikipedia because they show the practice much more strikingly than I have managed to do. Isn't the little blue hole in the bottom one excellent? Many thanks Wiki-world, as ever.
PS The little creature examining the Phoenix is one of a horde of micro moths which currently infest the trap. They actually outnumber the various yellow underwings.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Why bother with moths?

It was a very drab catch last night, so let's truant. The buddleia has been swarming these last few bright days with some of the loveliest of Britain's butterflies. Here's a Comma enjoying the overwhelming scent of honey with a Peacock. Down below, perhaps the finest of them all, a Red Admiral. The word has changed, slightly, from the original Red Admirable.
There's a White Admiral, too, a wonderfully delicate looking butterfly which I've only seen overseas. But these other ones are common and a daily delight in August - when the sun shines. So why bother with moths? I guess that it's because there are so many more of them than butterflies and they are mysterious and confusing and challenging. We have fewer than 60 kinds of butterfly and it doesn't take long to get to know them. Moths take a lifetime, and (if there is a Beyond) beyond.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Tiger, tiger

My sister Tessa is today's moth recorder, snatching this action pic with her mobile phone after an exciting chase. She's been on a flying visit to Lyme Regis from Bradford, where you don't get moths like this. Even if one smuggled itself in with a wool batch, they'd intercept it in today's equivalent of the old Conditioning House. I went past that the other day, recalling a tour I was given there years ago for a piece about anthrax in the Bradford Telegraph & Argus. It looks as though it's being handsomely converted, like Lister's Mill and so many other fine stone buildings in the city. Anyway, if you've been paying attention, you'll know that this is a Jersey Tiger, previously encountered by Martin's Moths in Turkey in June. It was flying in the sun and Tess naturally thought it was a butterfly, russet like a fritillary in flight, then magically cream and dark chocolate at rest (albeit with a scrap of the vivid underwing just showing). It's an immigrant from France or the Channel Islands and a very welcome one. I like the background and must check with Tess what it is.
I've added a couple of Turkish Jersey Tigers, below, for contrast. Interesting, the oily effect of their dark scales reflecting my camera flash. Click on the pic for even more awesome viewing...

Monday, 25 August 2008

Oranges and a lemon

More colour than usual in the trap this morning. Meet the Sallows. The lemon moth is an ordinary Sallow, the one with a purpley bit, a Centre-Barred Sallow and the other three are their relative, the Dun Bar, albeit one has slightly different patterning from the other two. It was a warmish, dry night which perhaps brought them out.
There was also a nice Lesser Swallow Prominent, as featured previously, and this smaller, beautifully marked moth. Needless to say, I am now deep in Waring, Townsend and Lewington trying to work out which it is. (Update: answer, thanks to Jax, is a Marble Beauty. Appropriate name.)

Sunday, 24 August 2008

A very hungry caterpillar

It's taken me a long time to show a caterpillar here. That's because they're hard to find. Moths are bad enough, unless you have a light trap like mine, but caterpillars are experts in the art of hiding. I only saw this one because the geraniums needed watering. Mind you, the great big chunks it had eaten out of the leaves were a clue, and if you really want to find caterpillars, look for similar damage on cabbage-type plants. You will almost certainly discover the cream, green and blue caterpillars of the Large, Small and Green-veined White butterflies. Similarly, earlier in the year - say June or early July - inspecting nettles should turn up colonies of the spiky black caterpillars of the Small Tortoiseshell. A few of these are well worth keeping, if you have children, as they hatch into lovely butterflies. Take care with the nettles (although they, too, are worth gathering for a sort of tastier-than-spinach soup. What does caterpillar mean? Here's the dictionary definition:

"catyrpel" of 1440, derived from French "chatepelose" (?), meaning "hairy cat" (cf. "pile", "pilose", from Latin "pilus" = "hair"; "pill", as in either medicine lozenge or fuzzball, like the hairballs cats regurgitate up, from Latin "pila" = "ball, originally knot of hair"). See also pussy willows and catkins, similar shapes and fuzzinesses associated with the feline. Or from "piller", meaning "pillager/ravager", and "cate", meaning "food" (root of today's "caterer"), as caterpillars devour leaves.

They're in the Bible too, in the famous quote which gave us the phrase 'locust years.' (The Bible is very strong on insects, especially the Book of Deuteronomy): "I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm, my great army which I send among you." Joel 2:25

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Oh what a beautiful morning... last! Sunshine, warmth, all the things they need at the Leeds Festival just up the road. That would be a good place to run a trap. Not many moths here, meanwhile, but some nice ones. I specially like these T-shaped plume moths, although nailing down exactly which one is which is currently beyond me. I just checked out a US website - Joe Biden's the Obama running mate btw - and there are 154 which look like this in the States alone. There are plenty in Leeds too. Also here: an aptly-named Beautiful Golden Y which settled within inches of the dazzling mercury vapour light, a Straw Dot and something very distinctive which nonetheless I cannot (yet) name. Where is Jax?

Friday, 22 August 2008

Two carpets, miles apart

Obama is going to text out the name of his running mate today apparently, so here's an American moth in his honour (and McCain's, to be even-handed). Sarah Meredith - see artist link on my list - emailed it to me. With her artist's eye, she spotted its decision to find a background similar to its own colouring. Is it a decision? Or is that the Lamarckian Heresy? How can we tell? Camouflage has become one of the themes of this journal but up to now, I'm unconvinced that simply tabulating data about the number of moths which choose appropriate backgrounds, and corresponding figures for those which don't, will actually prove the point. I had to write about adders the other day, following my encounter with one (see several entries below), and I was very pleased when the leading expert said honestly: "There's a lot we don't know about adders." Ditto moths. Anyway, Sarah's is some sort of carpet moth, even if it has chosen a blanket or a throw to rest on. Maybe they're called Throw Moths in the States. Sarah can tell us.
By coincidence the only interesting moth in a very sparse trap last night (it was cold and clear; autumn coming; woe) was also a carpet. Here it is. I am immersed in the baffling task of trying to sort out which of the infuriatingly similiar types it is. There was also a lovely micro called the Mother of Pearl moth but it was wide awake and jittery. I approached it with my camera like a stealthy paparazzo but it spotted me and fluttered away.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Son of Bob

Waterspouts and hurricanoes. If the moth trap had been out last night it would have floated away. I can't really complain, compared with businesses in York, where the entire Ebor racing festival has been washed out. The Yorkshire economy has been clobbered by the rain for the second year running - last 'summer' it was the Game Fair at Harewood which was cancelled in a sea of mud. Before the rain came, this delicate little Clouded Border paid a call, not into the trap but on to heather nearby. Otherwise, our most exciting visitor was Son of Bob, seen here watching the self-important Huw Edwards boring on in Beijing.
Bob was an enormous spider who boldly came out to join us regularly a few years back. This one is more likely to be great-great-great-grandson of Bob, if Wikipedia is correct in saying that spiders live only a year or two (other than female tarantulas which can apparently reach 20, although Wiki honestly adds 'citation needed' for that alarming fact). Talking of accuracy, Jax suggests that the moths in the entry below are a Rivulet (left) and a Flame Carpet. She's always right, though simply from the illustrations in my book, my diagnosis looks correct. The trouble is, moth patterns vary. It's like that bit in 1066 And All That on the Irish Question where it says that whenever Gladstone got close to the correct answer, the Irish changed the question. Bob's descendant scuttled off gloomily after the TV weather forecast. Please may we have some sun.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Population explosion

Why are there so many Large Yellow Underwings in Leeds? The trap was packed with them last night. As we know, the blackbird eats them, and we have plenty of blackbirds. But still there are hordes. Here's one eggbox, typical of many, and there just as many LYUs on its other side. A couple of interesting smaller moths too.

Here's a relative (right) of Michael Meadowcroft's Garden Carpet, featured yesterday. This is the Dark-barred Twin-spot Carpet, a long name for a little moth. The other pic (left) is of one of the few types of moth which imitate butterflies when at rest by folding their wings above their backs, rather than on them. I'm still trying to work out what it is. And I think (some hours later, with the day's work done) that it's a Small Argent & Sable. Please correct me in the Comment slot if I'm wrong. Update: It's the following morning now - see entry above for latest Jax-Info on this fascinating debate.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

House and Garden

I wasn't going to do an entry this morning, partly because it continues to rain and partly because I'm in mourning for one of the Sparrowhawks I mentioned the other day. It flew straight into our sitting room window and broke its neck. This has happened previously with a fine thrush and a greenfinch and it's always upsetting. You get the chance to look at a beautiful bird closely, but that's all. On the cheerful side, several others including a hen blackbird have hit the windows and recovered after a rest and some water. Anyway, I just opened the email and Michael Meadowcroft has sent me this third moth, adding that he never knew that Bramley was so full of them. Indeed it is, as is everywhere in the country. This one's a Garden Carpet, as in the Flanders & Swann song about the garden being full of furniture and the house full of plants.

Monday, 18 August 2008

An Olympic fan

After the menacing patterns on yesterday adder, here's some innocuous marking. But equally striking. This delicate visitor to the trap is a Twenty Plume moth. Its name is a delight to a journalist prone to error; it actually has 24 plume-like segments to its wings. Its Linnaean name, Alucita hexadactyla, compounds the confusion by meaning 'six-plumed', although to be fair, the scientists were thinking in terms of each wing. The plume moths have an interesting ability to fold their wings along each plume. increasing their resemblance to an Oriental fan. An appropriate image, maybe, to honour our success in the Olympics (and, glory be, almost all done by cheerful athletes who don't sulk).
The Twenty Plume is very common but largely overlooked by the busy world. But not by John Curtis, the early English mothman, who painted it in this picture in his 'British Entomology', a 16 volume marathon which took him from 1824 to 1839.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Multiple butterflies, one adder

My digits continue to dominate events. Here's my thumb with a Buff Footman - good to find that they are more widespread in the North than was the case eight years ago when the moth guide I use was published. This was one of two day-flying moths we found on a warm walk at Norwood Edge above the Washburn valley before the rains came back. The other was a Silver Y which I partially photoed - sorry I've chopped its head off.
The sun - yes, really - brought out plenty of butterflies - Peacock, Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell, Large Skipper, Small Heath, Green-veined White and Meadow Brown. The Small Heaths seemed to be playing, up to three of them dancing about in loops and zigzags on the meadow by the forestry plantation. It wasn't just the butterflies tempted out, either. I was just photographing a Peacock on heather when something much bigger slid past, very nearby. It was the adder in this photograph. The camera shake was due to fear.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Copper bottomed

It's been the night of the Copper Underwings. Fine moths they are, a whole league bigger and grander than the Large Yellow Underwings which were waking up and staggering around in the trap's bowl this morning, while their copper friend slept grandly on. I'm sorry the wings are a bit blurred but the moth - one of a pair in the trap - was a bit fed up with my activities and was getting ready to fly off into the safety of a hedge. The Copper Underwing's markings are very distinctive - the little circles on the forewings, and the fine stripes on the legs and body. A very sleepy wasp came and sat on my sleeve to admire as I gently prodded the Copper Underwing to show the reason for its name (see second photograph). Once again, my finger makes a distinguished appearance in these pictures; and observe the debut of my thumb.

Friday, 15 August 2008

A tough life

This moth interests me. It looks like the standard, shabby brown package, but those marks across its wings are not part of the original pattern. Life is tough for moths and this one has been in some sort of trouble - birdstrike possibly, or getting messed up in a spiky bush? I'm pretty sure that it's a Dusky Brocade, with the distinctive zigzags on its lower wing. There was another, unmarked, one in the trap overnight which I've posted in the smaller photo. The evil but friendly blackbird was an additional threat this cold morning, but it was a little deterred by an owl in a nearby tree and a pair of sparrowhawks which nest near us and are always making their weedy little squeaks. I was a deterrent too of course.
Here's the other one - good camouflage on the lichen. But my various theories about Peppered moths making for the eggbox barcodes (see far below) or the recent Common Footman enjoying the yellow and grey of another eggbox, had a setback this morning. An Angle Shades was perched in its crashland position right on top of a blue area of a third eggbox. It was as prominent as the Lesser Swallow Prominent dozing away nearby.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

At your service

People talk about crime and the fear of crime. In my experience the latter is much more common than the former. So it is with rain and the threat of rain. It is the latter which is keeping my light trap out of action at the moment. While the weather settles down, I've been checking back through recent records and found this Common Footman, checking out the sell-by date on its egg carton (does it like the combo of grey and yellow which reflects its own, I wonder quasi-scientifically?). It's a quaint moth, because of its habit of standing to attention, pencil thin, when at rest. It looks a lot bigger when you disturb it and it flutters off. The name comes from the moth's resemblance to those poor flunkeys in neat uniforms who stand behind the table in TV versions of Jane Austen listening to the likes of Keira Knightley gabbing away about their friends and relations. I can see it. Can you?
There's also a Buff Footman which looks more washed out, like my smaller (and more blurred) photograph. I suspect, however, that this is another Common Footman as the Buff variety tends to fly further south, following the instructions of the lunatic Policy Exchange report, just published. Jax will tell us in due course...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Upstairs, downstairs

The weather continues treacherous, so no trapping. But the moths have done the sensible thing and come indoors. Here's a Copper Underwing (or possibly a Svensson's Copper Underwing, sorry) which chose a very dodgy place to perch: the cord on one of our bedroom sash windows. Luckily, the rain was such that the window stayed shut. My political collaborator in the moth world, Michael Meadowcroft, is also playing host to visitors. Here's a Large Yellow Underwing which appeared on his back door. As I mentioned last time he sent me a moth, Michael swapped the Housev of Commons, where he was Liberal MP for West Leeds, for a job running elections in new democracies. I am working on him to promote the moth as a symbol for parties on the ballot paper. They could each have a different one - yellow, blue and red and green.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Beesel and rags

Here are bees on one of our teasels. A beesel. They love the plant (which we grow out of nostalgic West Riding associations with wool-combing. Click and look at its daggers and hooks - or try brushing past a blooming teasel in a wool sweater). It got me thinking about garden plants which attract butterflies (or moths). This is a topic endlessly discussed in newspaper and magazine columns, but not in my view to much effect. Buddleia is the one great reliable, in my experience. Otherwise for butterflies you need sunshine and for moths warmth (What are these? Consult wikipedia) plus a good range of blooms covering the whole season, and if possible some wildflowers and weeds. On the last score, I am a ragwort fan so here's a picture of that. Horse and cattle owners can get terribly cross about this plant. There was a foaming-at-the-mouth letter on the subject in the Yorkshire Post last week. Mind you, foamers have always dominated the letters column of the YP, except when my brother and I pulled off a coup by getting eight letters published in favour of proportional representation on the same day. Seven of our friends and relations were startled to see their names in print. Anyway, heed what the Countryside Alliance had to say on ragwort in a press release I got, also last week: "Ragwort has its place in the countryside; it supports a wide variety of invertebrates and is a major nectar source for many insects." It needs controlling, yes, but not exterminating. It isn't just a pleasant sight on the side of roads, but a nectar and foodplant corridor around the country.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Pottering about

Let's have a Beatrix Potter moment. It's easy and enjoyable to ascribe human characteristics to other animals, presumably completely wrongly. These two Early Thorns could easily be Patsy and Edina tottering off in Absolutely Fabulous. Or maybe a couple of Leeds ancients heading for Matthias Robinson's department store in the 1950s. In fact, I'm not at all sure they're even aware of one another, though click on the pic to look at those eyes. Here's a second picture which I've captioned Togetherness. But I don't suppose the Silver Y and the Dun-bar are really sharing a quality moment at all.

Beatrix Potter wasn't greatly interested in insects, apart from in The Tale of Mrs Tittlemouse, which features not only a Red Admiral butterfly but also woodlice. They seldom get a part in fiction or art. She also did a fine water beetle in The Tale of Jeremy Fisher.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

A moth on the moon?

No, it's not the moon. It's a greenhouse lampshade. This Large Yellow Underwing is luckier than yesterday's, provided it doesn't drop down the hole in the top of the shade and end up at the bottom of the inside, with all the ungettable-at dust. Seeing it reminded me how regularly moths come to any light at this time of year. You can make your own moth trap just by putting a dustsheet outside and then setting a table lamp on it (though be careful with electricity outdoors and don't do it if there's any danger of rain). Even an hour or two of this on a summer night should bring you something worth looking at or photographing. Housekeeping: my oracle Jax from Yorkshire Butterfly Conservation (see top link) thinks the severe-looking, peeking moth five entries below is an August Thorn.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Not for the faint-hearted

Here is Nature red in tooth and claw. Or at least beak. A wren and this blackbird in particular have sussed that I and the moth trap mean potential breakfast. Without being too hard-hearted, I don't grudge it the occasional Large Yellow Underwing - the victim in the picture - because there are so many of them. But I don't want my trapping to reduce the number of moths in my part of Leeds. I go on ever more complicated expeditions round the garden, and gradually, neighbourhood, surreptitiously shaking my eggboxes over dense plants.The blackbird meanwhile thinks I am her friend and this morning even hopped into the kitchen.
Mind you, scientists tell me that part of the global value of moths is their place in the food chain, and I long ago learned that it's pointless trying to intervene. My brother and I used to follow our cat round on her hunting expeditions, with the aim of keeping her diet confined to Whiskas. But we soon got bored because she never changed her ways. Also here, a picture of a different visitor to the trap. I take it this must be a Red Spot Beetle.

Friday, 8 August 2008

The ear thing

Dodgy weather again, but I was fed up with not being able to trap. So I put the lamp carefully in the shade of a buddleia, which is drenching the garden with that amazing honey scent at dusk at the moment. There were plenty of moths this morning, even though it had clearly rained overnight - again. Nothing striking, but this is a Flame Shoulder, standing to attention with its epaulette stripes. To my alarm, I read in my moth Bible, Waring & Townsend, a rare jokey comment about the Flame Shoulder flying particularly wildly (most moths zig-zag and do acrobatrics) and "occasionally entering the ears of moth-recorders near the light!" I'm not alarmed about my ears, but because I've just asserted in the Guardian Diary that this ear thing (which is quite frequently told me by moth-dislikers, but always anecdotally) is a myth. So I shall add that to my long list of subjects which I need properly to research. I've added a couple of small pics, of a Common Wainscot and a Beautiful Golden Y, just to show the range of moths flying at the moment (and also cos they're a bit less blurred. It's rather overcast these mornings and I am 58...)