Sunday, 8 November 2009

Goodbye to all that (til April)

Sorry - I've been rightly chided by one or two people for failing to make clear whether the blog has shut up shop for 2009 or not. It has. The trouble is, I so much like the picture of my fly (see next post down), that I wanted it to stay as the 'homepage'. Well, it's superseded now by this entry, which is just to confirm that with the trap bulb broken, dark mornings, scant moths and general busy-ness, everything is tucked away until the end of April.
I've been waiting for a final titbit to sugar the pill and my mother-in-law has now given me one: this cutting from the Daily Express. My son Tom used to work for this paper which, whatever its faults, has a sense of innocent fun missing from some other, more reputable but knowing rivals. It's got some good journalists too, including John Ingham who wrote this (and whose Dad is the fearsome Sir Bernard). Hooray, too, for Katie Dobbins whose moth is indeed a rarity. It's actually the first to be found here which doesn't figure in my Bible, Waring, Townsend and Lewington. It isn't even in their section on 'Doubtful records and suspected imports' which features such excitements as the False Water Betony and the Isabelline Tiger.
If you'd like to know more about it - tremble, if you have a Euonymus hedge - check out the American website which put it in lights earlier this year as 'Bug of the Week':

I hope that Katie grows up to share my enthusiasm, which was helped by the wise and good John Armitage who praised my own rare capture of a fritillary variety when I took it him many years ago at Leeds City Museum. Check back for details about that to last year's closing entry; meanwhile thanks for reading and see you next year. Oh, and ever the relentless plugger, please spend as much of your Christmas money as possible on (a) True North from Guardian Books, and (b) A Mini Adventure from Aurum Press. See:

(although actually it's cheaper at W H Smith's)


or find your nearest independent bookseller and get them there.

Happy Christmas!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

I spy my little fly

I forgot to mention, the other day, that one of my last captures before the great bulb disaster was this fly. Like most people, I'm rather vague about flies which all seem similar, apart from the various blue and greenbottles whose brilliant colour compensates for that annoying buzz. I also kill horseflies without compunction. Once bitten... Finally, I remember an absolutely lethal sort of fly in the grassy uplands of Guyana. I'm pretty sure that Evelyn Waugh describes it, too, in his travel book 92 Days. So I had to look up this strikingly-coloured visitor to the trap, which looks in the top pic as though it's on a diving board at one of those 1930s lidos, wondering whether to jump. I like the way that its yellow livery extends to its toes. It's a Noon Fly according to my best researches, although I will not be surprised if some Dipterist puts me and anyone reading this right on that. Actually, I'd be grateful if one of them would tell me what a Noon fly was doing out at night. A propos of nothing, I must just plug my new book True North, which has just come out - published by Guardian Books/Random House. It should be in 'good bookshops', as they say, or available from net order services. It's my take on the North of England after 22 years of reporting from here. The messages are (a) it's great - the subtitle is In Praise of England's Better Half and (b) to Northerners: be cheerful.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Still they come

I keep trying to stop this blog, for work reasons, but the moths won't let me. That's even despite the drastic result of last week's winds - a gust caught the bulbholder while I was absorbed in photographing some tiny creature. It rolled off the rockery and Phut! A mercury vapour bulb exploding is quite interesting, but that's the trap finished now, until April when I'll send up to Watkins & Doncaster for a replacement. By following my mother-in-law's practice of looking down at pavements for 'street gold', I hope to have saved up enough. I found a £2 coin the other day...
Anyway, more today, because last night our porch light was on to welcome both Grannies for supper and it proved a veritable moth trap of its own. Here are some of at least 15 temporary residents: November moths and carpets, I think, but luckily the distance was too great for macro mode and I can say complacently that accurate identification was impracticable.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Caterpillar glut

It's not quite all over yet. Penny and I spent part of the weekend making the lovely crossing from Ennerdale to Buttermere along the Floutern pass (pronounced Floo-turn). It's little-frequented at this time of year and my illustrious namesake Alfred W has put off potential explorers by dismissing the section at the head of Mosedale as a quagmire. So it is, but a quagmire with ways through it. It's also rich in this particular variety of 'woolly bear' caterpillar which I shall research when I have time. Some sort of Tiger? Or Eggar? We will see. I've included the end of my sturdy walking pole for scale, and to demonstrate the quality of Mosedale Head mud. The valley is also notable for a large holly which is the only tree in the Lake District to be marked individually by the Ordnance Survey. The reason is simple and understandable when you sit at the head of the valley munching your pie. There are no others to be seen anywhere in the huge view.
PS I've done my research now, and I think it's a Fox Moth cattie. It looks right and Arthur Ransome, my illustrious predecessor on The Guardian wrote in Swallows and Amazons about episodes based on his own youthful visits to the Lakes, including tickling trout, meeting charcoal burners - and collecting Fox Moth caterpillars on the fells.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Currant fun

Two posts in one day, goodness! Unprecedented but also valedictory, nearly. I'm shutting up shop for the year any minute now but just wanted to squeeze in a contribution from an excellent Guardian colleague, Sally Burtt-Jones. She flawlessly organised a readers' walk which we did in Richmond (Yorks) earlier this year. In fact, if you have time on your hands you can read a little more about it, and about suicidal Peacock butterfly caterpillars, in the posts below. She emailed me in response to a question I had for her earlier this week, saying that she wouldn't reply until I identified this moth, which she had photographed (very well; young people have no problem with camera tremble...), in her parents' bathroom in Wales. No doubt she then ushered it safely out of the house, as in Which? magazine's instructions (see next post, below).
Well, it's a Magpie Moth, Sally, not uncommon but very interesting. It's poisonous to birds, immune to spider venom and plays dead when caught. It has also played a part in genetics experiments, described at length in his autobiography by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, the surgeon and brother of Lord Keynes, who was a great butterfly and moth expert. He and friends helped to provide black and redcurrant bushes for mass breeding of Magpie Moths to get as many variations as possible. If I can, I shall pillage the internet in a mo for some examples. The standard pattern can turn into all sorts of things, many looking like a Damien Hirst left out in the rain. The point was to relate butterfly gene transitions to human ones, a practice which has scored some notable medical triumphs, especially in the case of swallowtail butterflies bred by another famous doc, Sir Cyril Clarke, who therby cracked the rhesus negative blood problem of 'blue babies.'

Here we are. Not from the Internet but from good old Waring, Townsend and Lewington. There are plenty more variations within the range.

Friday, 2 October 2009


My Mum's just bought a new carpet and, aptly enough, my trap is being visited by carpet moths. They are named after their intricate patterns rather than the old and erroneous notion that they eat carpets. That's the job of carpet beetles and a very limited number of 'clothes moths', the Common and the Case-bearing in particular. As the Which? magazine guide to such matters says: "Be careful not to confuse clothes moths with other species which are harmless and should be carefully ushered out if found in the home."
These two carpets are the Common Marbled and the Red Green. The former appears in many variations, including the one with the orangey blotches as well as the standard type, pictured on the left. Quite a few of them have a habit of resting with their tails pointing up in the air for reasons unknown. The Common Marbled's caterpillars are unusually indiscriminate, feasting on pretty much anything. The Red Green's are more fastidious. They dine on rowan and oak, both of which flourish hereabouts.

Corn Flakes drama

Penny keeps finding moths in the house, most recently a yellow underwing taking a laudable interest in our print of Hobbema's The Avenue at Middelharnis. I think they must come in on my dressing grown. Yesterday, though, she was a realy David Attenborough. We were having breakfast when she spotted this wasp twisting and turning in the top corner of a window. Window corners are where our many spiders weave their webs, and this one had snared a potentially juicy prey. Don't underestimate wasps, however. We watched, as coldly neutral as the Swiss, while the two creatures grappled. The spider kept trying to tie more twists of silk round the wasp. The wasp twisted and jerked, and was gradually helped by gravity to the bottom of the web, tearing strands as it went. It seemed to be trying to sting the spider but the latter was either too agile or immune. But it was also the loser. Although trailing little ropes of web and silk, the wasp broke free and plunged out of sight.It didn't look as though it would be able to fly though, and we watched to see if the spider would do one of those amazing plunges, spinning out enough silk to make its own bungee jump and carry on the attack. Lady Attenborough went outside to see if it was lying on the ground, but it had gone. The beautiful little prisms which you can see in the middle picture, specially if you click on them, are formed by Yorkshire sunshine catching imperfection in our window glass. At least I think so.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The cappuccino moth

I consume vast quantities of McDonald's cappuccino these days (small size only) because I need the wifi as I roam around the North, and McD's is a place with guaranteed free access. Only right, therefore, that I should be visited last night by the Cappuccino moth, aka the Green Brindled Crescent, variety capucina, which isn't terribly striking but has the distinction of being found only in the UK. The standard GBC is more attractive, as it has streaks of bright, metallic green which are completely missing from this variety (see v nice pic below right, courtesy of a really good online gallery of moth pics Named like the coffee after the brown-hooded Capucin monks of the Franciscan order, mine seems to be a melanistic form, judging by the fact that historical records are mostly from industrial areas. Anyway, here it is, another harbinger of Autumn, along with one of my favourite, smart Black Rustics. Tomorrow: the battle of the wasp and the spider... Can you wait?

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Late arrivals

Brown was on the telly last night but Blair was in my moth trap: Blair's Shoulder Knot, one of a number of moths which signal the arrival of autumn. It's also one of a trio of moths named for an assiduous doctor on the Isle of Wight (rather than the former PM). Blair's Wainscot and Blair's Mocha are the others which he discovered in the 1940s. Why so late in the history of entomology? Well, Blair's Shoulder Knot certainly wouldn't have been found in Leeds in those days, nor in many other parts of the UK. It is a modern success story (how I like such counters to the currently fashionable eco-gloom!) Arriving on Dr Blair's southerly doorstep back then, it has spread North vigorously and is now common here. Mind you, it may be because its caterpillars like that curse of the British garden landscape, the leyland cypress. Blair's Shoulder Knot is also a classic example of a 'small grey moth' which proves much more interesting, and beautifully patterned, on closer inspection. Double click twice on the picture to see if you agree. Two other autumnal visitors were in the trap too: a Rosy Rustic and (bottom picture) a silvery-grey November Moth. It has got its dates wrong but is very welcome, as a species which I haven't recorded here before in five years of trapping.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

What a nice surprise

I nearly didn't bother with the trap last night. Of course, that's always when things happen. I went through the eggboxes this morning almost in automatic mode, clucking at the absence of anything bar a Silver Y, two Black Rustics and the last of the tattered army of yellow underwings. Then I discovered this: a very fine Red Underwing, a moth I last saw here in Leeds more than ten years ago. It was during the day on that occasion; the beautiful creature astonished us by zooming into the garden when we were having tea outside. It's also the same species as the lovely moth Penny and I found at Radstock Bridge earlier this summer, also during the day (see entry for 8 August, below). This one is in such excellent condition that it must have hatched a lot later, perhaps due to the marginally cooler climate here, compared with the upper Thames valley. For scale, I've pictured it with two models from the opposite ends of the Russian political spectrum in 1917, brought back by P and her Mum from a visit to St Petersburg. The moth ignored them but sleepily allowed me to push a forewing gently forward with a teaspoon, to show the vivid, hidden colour which gives it its name.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Excuse me, your slip's showing

The end is almost nigh; I think I will close things down for this year at the end of the week. Even the yellow underwings are dwindling; the catch at the moment consists of assorted small carpets, tortrix micro-moths and Silver or Plain/Beautiful Golden Ys. And Black Rustics, such as this one which was in the trap last night with half-a-dozen relatives. It really is a handsome moth, but you don't normally get to see its underwear - sorry, underwings - as in this case. I tried to get it to show more, as the bishop said of the actress, but it wasn't having any. After a while it recovered from the soporific effects of the lamp and hurtled away. I shouldn't be making these dodgy remarks about knickers, however, since the white underwing is only found in males. The female Black Rustic's are more dusky.

Friday, 25 September 2009

round and round

One more holiday despatch and then we'll be back to trapping in Leeds. Mind you, I don't envisage more than a week or so before the season ends, because it's getting cold and also dark in the morning when I sally forth, camera in hand. This picture is of Lyme Regis; a very small part of the path through the pleasant linear park above the harbour, beach and Cobb. My Mum and I were pottering along enjoying the flowers when we saw this caterpillar. Unusually, it was going round and round in circles, not at all like the purposeful Peacock catties I mentioned on 6 July (all heading across a cycleway in Richmond, North Yorks, in the same direction and at exactly the same angle). I knelt down to take the photos, attracting a certain amount of interest and thus spreading the moth word. Mum was more concerned to shepherd it to safety, which is what we then did. It's what we used to call a 'woolly bear' when kids, but that's very unscientific. My best guess is a Buff Ermine but please put me right if I'm wrong, gang.
Being in Dorset reminds me that I promised I'd give my final verdict on The Behaviour of Moths by Poppy Adams, the novel which I mentioned here on 2 September. Dorset is where the action takes place. Well, I'd still recommend it but don't expect moth enthusiasts to come out smelling of roses. I mustn't spoil the ending but I prefer happy ones. Enough said...

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Out of bounds

More signs of the prevalence of butterflies and moths as symbols or decoration: further south on our holiday probe, another of my small cousins, Anna, came dashing back into the bar at the King's Head in Ruan Lanihorne ( a lovely hamlet in Cornwall) and said; "there's a butterfly in the ladies." This was one place I could not venture, in spite of the fact that I have stalked butterflies in the Victoria Falls gorge and at the top of Mount Poniki in Sulawesi, Indonesia. I handed over the camera, and back she and her Mum came with this fine picture-of-a-picture of a Red Admiral (above). The nearest thing we had in the Gents was this stylised bee; one of a collection of regimental badges on old cigarettes cards. A very fine pub; and back home afterwards, Anna found this Speckled Wood, seen here both displaying (below) and in hiding mode (above left). Note how the hiding one has positioned itself so that its shadow is minimal.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Tropical types

I've been away in the West Country, terrorising relatives with my Mum on her late summer holiday. A highlight was Bristol Zoo where my two young cousins Robbie and Alfie took these excellent pics in the Butterfly House while Mum and I admired the Davidia or Pocket Handkerchief Tree (which has an offspring in Leeds, grown from a nut collected in Bristol Zoo about 15 years ago). The first butterfly is a 'glasswing' whose camouflage involves being transparent. The CD-like thing on which it is perchd is a nectar dispenser; disgracefully spoilt, these captive butterflies. Robbie and Alfie's family and I had deep discussions about whether it would be possible for an entire moth to become transparent like this; or indeed an entire human being, as in H G Wells' The Invisible Man. We couldn't see why not, although 'glass humans' might look rather offputting after meals.
Needless to say, there is some interesting science about this online, for example on From this, I also gleaned the fact that Glasswings are from South America and have the unusual and satisfactory scientific name of Greta oto and the even better Spanish one of espejitos, or 'little mirrors'. The middle pic shows a butterfly which seems to have latched on to op art or dazzle camouflage as a way of changing its outline. I'm rather proud of my detective powers; I guessed at its name, put 'zebra butterfly' into Google and bingo! It has another defence mechanism: the ability to make a sinister creaking sound with its body when disturbed. The last example, below, is an Owl Butterfly, like the other two a native of the Americas. I know it's blurred, but to me that suggests rather well the way its deterrent camouflage (rather than hiding camouflage) might appear in action to a predatory bird. Off-putting.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Bad timing

Here are two carpet moths discussing National Moth Night, which falls tonight and tomorrow. I think they are as baffled as I am. They may, of course, actually be talking about Understanding Egg Codes which, as you can see, is among the subjects raised in the impressive amount of text you get printed on eggboxes. One of these days, someone will start serialising a novel on them. Or should that be done on cereal boxes? ho, ho. Anyway, it's a puzzle as to why the excellent group Butterfly Conservation chooses mid-September for this laudable exercise because round here, at any rate, moths are getting a bit sparse. Maybe it's because they've released a few thousand marked moths, painted with a dot of harmless colour, and we are all being asked to look out for these in our traps. With fewer moths around generally, they may be easier to spot, and at least the inundations of yellow underwings, which sap my enthusiasm for picking carefully through the catch, are easing off. So if you see a moth with a coloured dot in the next few months, let Butterfly Conservation know - Your record will help build up migration patterns which ringing has made so comprehensive and interesting for birds.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Product placement

We brought a small, butterfly-souvenir back with us from Edinburgh, a wonderful city but one where I didn't encounter any real butterflies or moths. Product placement is about to be allowed on ITV, so I've decided to permit it here: this is part of a really nice range of women's clothes available at a Scottish store called Ness. They do a modern take on the traditional tartans and tweeds, and very successfully. The butterfly button is on a bright blue cardigan Penny bought, along with an even nicer, softer blue jacket which was in the sales (Yorkshire meets Scotland, a warm and thrifty alliance.

Check them out on if you can't get to the Royal Mile (two outlets), Leith or St Andrews. You can look just as bright as a butterfly. Sorry one photo's rather dark and the other over-flashed. We had a rather late-night modelling session which I may try to repeat today, although truth to tell, I rather like the contrast. As for product placement, I remember when I was on the London Evening Standard, the guileful cartoonist Jak, ised to do it all the time.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Pinocchio Moth

The second generation of Snout moths is arriving in the trap at the moment, particularly when I put it in long grass as I did last night. They make me smile, with their curiously long, upturned palps, which give them their name. These are used for feeding and perhaps more importantly sensing a range of things, which may help the moth to 'steer'. Why one species has such distinctively long ones is one of the many things I have yet to find out about moths. My teetering pile labelled 'Retirement Projects' grows ever larger... The Snout is also distinctively shaped when at rest, with its wings sweeping back like a Vulcan bomber. I was driving down the A1 years ago, when a Vulcan swept low across the road to land at one of the Lincolnshire airfields - Scampton, I think, home of the Red Arrows. So now I know what a whitefly or something similarly-sized must feel like when a Snout moth zooms overhead.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Micro morning

It was pretty chilly last night and the number of moths in the trap was the lowest since May. A Black Rustic and a Beautiful Golden Y, a score of increasingly tatty yellow underwings and a few dozy wasps.The micro wasps kept their little flag flying, however, including these three. I shall drink my early morning tea in the company of one of the excellent online micro sites, and return with whatever findings my notoriously limited powers of observation can manage. Note that the one above has decided to roost by the L for Large sign on the eggbox, which also conveniently gives you an idea of scale. It's very interesting to click on the pics and thus make them much vaster. The micro at the top, magnified in this way, looks like an elderly member of the House of Lords; the similar but much more battered one at the bottom right, shows how moths gradually lose their scales as their short and precarious life goes on.
I noticed yesterday, for the first time, one of the adverts which Google adds on to these blogs. Ironically, it was for moth killer - the sort which disposes of the ones which nibble holes in clothes. The search engine needs refining, maybe...

Monday, 14 September 2009

Fun and games

We've been at a wedding in Edinburgh - all go in the marriage world just now, with our own elder son's lovely festivities the Friday before. The moths seem to have caught the social habit. They don't cosy up much in the trap usually, apart from the yellow underwing huddles in the eggbox cones. But this yellow underwing and the Black Rustic seem to have something going. The Black Rustics are extremely handsome and they have started coming in numbers. My moth Bible says that they like ivy and ripe blackberries and we have loads of both.
Meanwhile this Beautiful Golden Y (or is it a Plain one? I can never tell) looks as though it had a thoroughly dissolute night. They are usually neatly perched well away from the other moths with their wings tightly-folded like lawyers' umbrellas. Party time in the Leeds trap...

Friday, 11 September 2009

Rear Admiral of the Red

Here's another Red Admiral, seen less than a week after the tattered old veteran I showed on 3 September. What a difference. The contrast makes the point about the different generations of some butterflies. Like us, Red Admirals keep breeding in the summer, so that a pensioner such as the one at Addingham can be flying at the same time as a beautiful youngster in her equivalent of the twenties, like this one. There are plenty on the buddleia still and quite a few have the lovely white fringe which marks a recently-hatched butterfly (or one which has been lucky enough to lead a quiet life), as in this case.
More evidence that butterflies and moths can read, meanwhile. Veteran readers will know of my fascination with the way moths go for the barcode on the eggboxes in the trap. Here, Andrew Turner from Northampton has kindly sent me these pics of a Speckled Wood examining details of the excellent Ryton Organic Gardens in Warwickshire ( Our son's wedding was in Warwickshire, between Leamington Spa and Warwick, and I was most impressed by the gentle countryside (and also the Red Lion at Hunningham ( and the Hilltop Farm shop in the same village ( Goodness, this is like a tourist brochure, but why not? As for my title, fellow readers of Hornblower long ago may recognise it. I was always fascinated by the gradations of Royal Navy admirals, based on the red, white and blue of the national flag. The butterfly's name, however, is an elision of the original 'Admirable', like 'Elephant and Castle' which supposedly comes from Henry VIII's campaign to blacken the name of his first wife Catherine of Aragon, aka the Infanta of Castille.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009


I had a puncture yesterday for the first time in four years. I discovered, as a result, that my Guardian car doesn't have a spare tyre - just a bottle of latex and an electric pump which was of no avail against the tear in the tyre wall. My frustration was relieved by discovering this caterpillar on the roof of the car while I waited for the AA (who came very quickly, I might add, and ATS in Bradford did a great, speedy tyre replacement too). The car in the picture isn't mine. Morris Travellers sensibly did have spare tyres. I added it for scale. It's Matchbox rather than Dinky, I should add.
Does anyone know what the caterpillar is? I am checking in my usual rather purblind ways through my various books and online, but there seem to be an awful lot of green caterpillars like this. I wondered about the Speckled Wood, which has featured much in this blog, but I don't think it's quite right. I kept it overnight but it clearly wasn't happy in captivity, in spite of lush helpings of privet, grasses and willow. It crept as close as it could to the lid of the plastic raspberry box and was gripping on firmly by its fork-shaped tail (see detail). So this morning I liberated it into the wider world again.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Sting in the tale

Wasps are abroad at this time of year. The social structure of their nests is breaking down and many are on the loose. Their disorientation after a life of fascist-like order must be made worse by my powerful light. Dozens are dopily stuck in the trap in the morning. Sometimes they attack the equally sleepy moths but mostly they ignore them. Look how they try to maintain group solidarity. The first picture shows a little band somewhat dispersed after I lifted the trap lid. The second, a minute or so later, has them huddling together. For reassurance? Defence? It would be interesting to know and I will Google 'wasps' later today. I didn't get stung, incidentally, although one wasp came into the kitchen on my dressing gown and watched me making early morning tea. Meanwhile, I was interested in this dead Large Yellow Underwing. Ooh what big legs you've got, as Little Red Riding Hood might have said. You seldom see moths' legs unfolded to their full extent.