Saturday, 30 April 2011

Ermine robes

Who can resist an email headed 'i saw a moth last night!', complete with that exclamation mark? One such pinged into my inbox yesterday during the pomp and circumstance at Westminster Abbey. It was from William Smith, the bright schoolboy mentioned in the immediately previous post below.

I can't better his words, so here they are: 'Last night when i was drawing my curtains, something suddenly burst into life and flew out and landed on my bedroom wall, i instantly noticed that it was a moth, but it was right at the top of the wall, so i got mum to catch it, and it was a white ermine!!! (we let it go!) p.s the royal wedding is good!! ;)'

There's a coincidence. Three years ago Penny and I called on cousins at Low Bentham on the Lancashire border and their teenage son came downstairs - with a White Ermine which had just emerged from his bedroom curtains.

They are lovely moths; and when I turned on the trap light last night, I thought: wouldn't it be excellent if one came, so that I could add its picture to a post about Will's find. Lo and behold... This morning brought not just a White Ermine but its relative the Buff Ermine, both in these pictures. After a day of amazing uniforms and dresses down in London, their House of Lords-style finery is timely on those grounds too.

I took care to hide them from the birds, incidentally, just as William carefully let his go. But I probably need not have bothered. Both moths' flamboyant ignoring of camouflage colours is thought to be connected, through natural selection, to the fact that they are poisonous. The bright white and cream, plus striking black dots and odd bits of orange on their bodies (which I'm afraid I haven't caught in these pictures), flag this up to tits, blackbirds and the rest.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Shandy moths

I like just pottering along with my moths blog, but I'm aware that this makes me rather remiss in checking out, liaising with and commenting on the truly wonderful array of similar musings, professional and amateur, which are out here, free, on the internet in the amazing modern world.

I can make up for that a little today, in the absence of anything interesting in the trap last night, by flagging up a couple (in addition to the 'mothy websites' links to the right on this page, which are all well worth visiting).

The first is the new Shandy Hall moth blog, which opens our eyes not just to moths in the pretty North Yorkshire village of Coxwold, but also to the strange and irresistible world of Laurence Sterne and Tristram Shandy. Patrick Wildgust, the sprightly director of the Laurence Sterne Trust, is brilliant at finding ways of enticing people to Sterne's old home, Shandy Hall, at the Thirsk end of the village where the writer was the vicar, and running moth sessions to entice children towards an otherwise sometimes intimidating book.

They love it. You can hear one of them, 11-year-old William Smith, talk with impressive fluency about Wildgust's Death's Head Hawk moth project (see pic above, and the Shandy blog for more) on Requiem for a Moth, the programme on Radio 4 next Friday which I relentlessly keep promoting. Another excellent Wildgust wheeze is to designate the rambling old farm as the International Centre for Non-linear Narrative, a genre which Sterne pioneered.

This brings scholars from all over the world and accounts for the hall's extraordinary library of books written without using the letter 'e' or composed of 100 unbound pages which can be read in any order. It's also responsible for the handrail required by health and safety for disabled access which Wildgust has playfully based on one of Sterne's odd diagrams from Tristram Shandy, which trace the extremely non-linear nature of the plot (pic above left). It all helps to keep one of Yorkshire's most interesting old houses going, though I would recommend a visit just to enjoy the place, its lovely garden and the Wildgusts' lively company.

The other website I came across last night, while checking out support for the Guardian's threatened Leeds Local operation (please join efforts to save this) is Kirkstall Creatures Great and Small which has currently got some fabulous pictures of Green Hairstreaks on Otley Chevin. Like me, these butterflies are fond of bilberries. The continuing sunshine has brought them out, so I know where Penny and I will be walking this weekend. Thanks to Rampant Scotland for this pic.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Darling bugs of May

What on earth is this monster, apparently emerging from an egg box from behind a dozing Clouded Drab? Yes, it's Maybug time, or Billy Witches as some call them, although Cockchafer is the official title. That 'face' is actually its backside - and what strange creatures they are, with heavy armour but an apparently mild disposition, beautifully elaborate antennae and a black-and-white pattern along their flanks like the chevrons at a roundabout.

They live for well over the alleged single day; up to seven weeks or more, although the 12 of them in the trap the other night were passive enough to be dead - just the occasional leisurely flexing of a leg or antenna. Any which ended up their backs were completely stuck, as in the picture below. I couldn't bring myself to do it, but there were nearly enough to try a 19th century French recipe described on Wikipedia: "Roast one pound of cockchafers without wings and legs in sizzling butter, then cook them in a chicken soup, add some veal liver and serve with chives on a toast". German students in the 1920s were alleged to have eaten them with sugar, but maybe that was eine Rag Woche.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Heading towards a double century

Here's a new arrival at the trap, the Scalloped Hook-tip. I put the light in a patch of woodland which brings different results from the flowerbed even though both are close and moths can fly long distances. This rakish insect with its jagged and boldly-furled wings takes my total of different species since Penny gave me the trap in 2004 to 196. Actually, we'll be well over 200 because of my impatience with micros and other small brown arrivals. Not a bad tally for a garden in Leeds, where most of us normally see half-a-dozen different types if we're lucky at porchlights or dusk. The Scalloped Hook-tip is interesting incidentally, if not unique, in that it has already flown before becoming an adult insect. The reason for this curious distinction is that its caterpillars pupate by making a cocoon in a birch tree leaf before late autumn. When the leaf floats down, so do they.

The sun meanwhile brought out the butterflies again, including this Speckled Wood. It's enjoying the biggest living thing in our garden and indeed probably in the world: a Coastal Redwood which we bought in a test tube, less than two inches long, at Disneyworld in Florida when the boys were small. The tree is now heading for 30ft high and straight as a die (see this link for the origins of this interesting phrase).

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside...

Tidddly-pom! No moths today. we had a lovely Easter break at Scarborough instead, with piping hot sunny weather and all manner of fauna, human and otherwise, gambolling by the North Sea (or German Ocean as we used to call it; a more interesting and grander name in my view). I was specially pleased to catch this pair of Black-eared Kahlos, the little central American variant on the guinea pig which is becoming a fashionable pet in London. I had no idea they had reached Yorkshire, but here are two being given a careful outing by their owner on a window ledge.

Down at the sands - wonderful sands if you're not familiar with the Queen of the Yorkshire Coast - the activity was mostly human, but it was good to see the dear old Scarborough donkeys plying too and fro. I visited the castle (up there on the horizon) for the first time in my nearly 61 years. What a confession. I've been to Scarborough hundreds of times but always felt too lazy to tramp up the hill. It's well worth it.

My new penchant for aerial photography kept me busy, too, as our fish-and-chip lunch was carefully watched over by seagulls, vast birds at close quarters and producers of that wonderful keening cry. Its brief use in the theme tune to Desert Island Discs is to my mind a masterstroke of production or 'library' music.

There's another gull for you below; and here's one of the fantastically decorated scooters which parade up and down the front at holiday time, ridden by ancient Mods of my generation. Overweight Leeds solicitors now constitute today's equivalent of Rockers on their big black bikes. They're all much to old to fight one another as they did in the 1960s.

No moths, though. And actually, no Black-eared Kahlos either. If you look carefully, those are gulls' bottoms. I drew in the spooky eyes...

Saturday, 23 April 2011

The first in my 10km box

Here's a pretty moth which made a change from the pugs, drabs, quakers and Hebrew characters which are the staple inhabitants of the trap at this time of year. It's a Streamer, and a modestly distinguished one: the first to be recorded in my 10km square bit of the UK according to the national carve-up for moth recording.

I only recognised it straight away because we caught one during the Kilburn forest expedition last week, but it's pleasantly distinctive. The little streamers twisting away from the leading edge of the wings give it its name. Waring and Townsend observe that 'some examples have a violet tint when freshly emerged, and as you can see, this is indeed the case.

Not so easy to pin down is this little pug, even with the unusually tight focussing I somehow achieved in the picture above. Charlie Fletcher, our county recorder who told me about my Streamer's distinction, queries my suggestion that it is the simple Common Pug and suspects that it may be the rarer Golden-rod Pug. But the only way to be sure, he emails, is to check out its wedding tackle. this is a step too far for me, and I'm afraid the name Golden-rod, which clearly might help, has nothing to do with the subject but refers to the caterpillars' food plant.

Friday, 22 April 2011

A greyer shade of grey

How many times have I sighed about small and brown or boringly grey moths which I have such trouble sorting out? Oh well. Their colouring doesn't come without good reason. You would have to be a very keen-sighted bird to spot the Clouded Drab on the stone above. It's coincidence, but if you click on the pic to enlarge it, you'll see that parts of the wing pattern and the slightly pitted surface of the rock are almost exactly the same.

I thought initially that this was a Lead-coloured Drab, a slightly rarer relative of the Clouded. Catchy names, eh; a bit like the Grundies in The Archers. I sent my photo to Charlie Fletcher, the Yorkshire county moth recorder, and he opts for Clouded; not on wing pattern or colouring which can be more or less identical (the Clouded Drab is infuriatingly varied), but because the Lead-coloured Drab has more feathery antennae (or bipectinate if you are being posh, says Charlie). So in his excellent comparison picture below, it's the one on the right.

A much more handsome visitor arrived this morning, meanwhile: the Lunar Marbled Brown, same as the one I featured from my Kilburn expedition several posts below. The sunshine has already broken through our early morning mist and the moth got a bit frisky. But this had the advantage that I could photograph it, below, scurrying for shelter with its handsome (and also bipectinate) antennae helping find its still-drowsy way. It's called 'lunar', to distinguish it from the different, plain Marbled Brown, because of the little sickle moon shape on its beautifully patterned wings.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Musical moths

Here's a distinguished moth man talking to me (note my nice blue sweater): Sir Harrison Birtwistle, the composer who features in the mothy radio programme I've been banging on about recently, Requiem for a Moth. He doesn't just feature actually; he's the cause of it all, because his plans to compose a piece of music with this name caught the eye of my colleague Iain Chambers. Unlike me, Iain is musically knowledgeable and sophisticated, with ten years as a BBC Radio 3 producer under his belt including tours all over the place with Andy Kershaw in search of interesting music and musicians. He also took this picture.

I hope the programme's enjoyable, but you can be sure that in Iain's hands its sound quality will be up to the mark. And we had a great time with Sir H, who has always been interested in moths and still is. He's working on his requiem for lost British species in spite of a little moth-related incident involving a cashmere sweater. More on 6 May at 11am on Radio 4.

Talking of sound, many thanks to yesterday's commentors who identified yesterday's mystery insect as a Drone Fly. It doesn't drone or indeed make any noticeable noise, though as Phil Gates says in his comment, it has a very interesting larva and pupa, each with a tiny tail which makes them look like a small mouse. Thanks to Ohio state university for this pic. The 'drone' comes from its resemblance to a male honeybee (hence my confusion) and further back from the Old English word for bee. Droning as in a deep continuous hum comes from a different OE word. Goodness, there's material here for a Requiem for a Drone Fly.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

I-spy fly? Or I-see bee?

A little break from moths this morning to bring you the results of my aerial photography experiment with fly or bee-like insects which patrol our lawn. Needless to say, many blurred examples have been binned, but the one above is quite striking.

What are they? Does any kind reader know? I hope they may be bee-related because of all the fuss about bee health. But they don't look quite right.

Whatever they are, their future in Leeds looks healthy. See picture of a happy moment for two of them yesterday, below.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Deep in the wood

Here are some of the stars of our venture into the depths of Kilburn wood, recorded in the post below. Iain Chambers, my Guardian and BBC colleague, took the pictures, hence the excellent focus. He did some of them one-handed, which filled me and my trembling hands with awe.

The moth which most pleased Terry Box and his colleagues was the Scarce Prominent, above. In fact Terry was so determined to get one for Yorkshire’s county moth recorder Charlie Fletcher that he was going to set one of the eight traps higher up the steep slopes of the Hambledon Hills. Alas, its battery proved defunct; but in the end that didn't matter, as three Scarce Prominents were slumbering peacefully in three of the other traps come morning.

The moth has many interesting sides to it apart from its chunky, Eurofighter shape. One of them, in the words of Messrs Waring and Townsend in my moth Bible, is that it was thought to be very rare indeed "until the advent of portable ultra-violet light traps." Our outing proved that point.

We also found these two delicately-patterned species: the Pine Beauty (left) which I mention in the previous post too, here nestling on what looks like a slice of ham but is in fact my hand. Palmists, get to work... And the Lunar Marbled Brown (below), whose near namesake the Marbled Brown has come to my trap in Leeds, once. Both would be great pattern and colourway models for fashion or fabric designers.

Finally, for now, we found a couple of Brindled Beauties, a lovely moth and a Yorkshire success story; very rare in the county before 1974, it has increased its range and numbers dramatically since. It is notably furry (see head-on view below), like an Alaskan skin trapper setting out on a winter expedition. Maybe that’s some sort of genetic inheritance from its practice of surviving the winter – even one as harsh as 2010-11 – in its pupa or cocoon. That practice is followed by all the moths in this post.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Bacon butties in the forest

Sorry for the silence for a while; it's been busy. But this weekend made up for that when I had a wonderful time with Yorkshire mothman Terry Box and his merry band. We went trapping overnight in Forestry Commission woodland between the 'Mousey' Thompson village of Kilburn, near Thirsk, and the beetling precipices of Whitestone cliffs.

You don't get much more remote than this in England (Scotland is a different matter), although Terry had the gate key so that we could drive along the foresters' excellent tracks. If moths notice such things, they will have got their own back over all those rude remarks about them being 'small and brown.' All four cars were the same silver-grey. "Goodness, aren't those humans boring..."

We had to go for over a mile, maybe nearly two, into the pleasantly mixed woodland while the sun set spectacularly over the plain of York. Once there, we set up eight - eight! - traps, using generators and batteries. Thence to the pub. The redoubtable Terry stayed all night in the spooky woods. The rest of us were back by 7am.

We found treasures which I'll add here when I get copies of the pics - I only had my 'phone camera, but got these interesting studies of human fauna, including (appropriately in the director's chair) the legendary Charlie Fletcher, a GP who is Yorkshire's county moth recorder, and Diane Bowes, ace photographer and bacon butty provider when we went back to inspect the traps on Sunday morning (evidence, left). The moths were relatively few in number after a cold night, but included some excellent novelties for me. I have never seen a Scarce Prominent before, nor a Pine Beauty, a lovely moth although its voracious caterpillars are considered a pest by foresters. There was also a beautiful Lunar Marbled Brown.

The other, human, characters in the group picture are, from left, Jill Warwick, a tremendous moth expert, Diane's partner Ian who is another excellent moth photographer, Terry and my Guardian colleague Iain Chambers, on the right with headphones, who was responsible for the whole thing. He had this excellent idea for a Radio 4 programme about moths in which more about our forestry antics will emerge. It goes out at 11-11.30am on Friday 6 May and I'll tell you more about that shortly. Meanwhile click my link in the first para to Terry's highly enjoyable blog.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Friends Reunited

These three lovely butterflies have all emerged from a long winter sleep, tempted out by our sudden sunshine. The Peacock (above) looks a little battered by what is now a long life by butterfly standards, but the Small Tortiseshell (below) and Comma (bottom) are in pretty good trim. All three are beautifully-patterned but they are so familiar that you sometimes need to remind yourself of this, rather than take it for granted. The Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell have been familiar to me all my life, as have their black, spiky caterpillars which are one of the reasons for allowing clumps of their foodplant, stinging nettles, somewhere in your garden.

The Comma is different. It was a real rarity in Leeds once. Indeed, for most of my life. Not any more. It's numbers have expanded all over the UK and this is great because its patterning is lovely, its wing-shape intriguingly ragged (very good for camouflage) and the little white comma on its underwing a curious distinction. Its history is intriguing too, involving the discovery of a separate, lighter variety called Hutchinsoni after a vicar's wife and amateur entomologist called Emma Hutchinson who discovered its connection with day length (the lighter form flourishes as the days grow longer and the darker ones dominate after 21 June). So the Comma is doing its bit to breakthe glass ceiling too. Hooray!

Emma Hutchinson, incidentally, was a determined character who studied the Comma intensively around her vicarage at Kimbolton, Herefordshire, and ended up knowing more about the butterfly than anyone else during her long lifetime (1802-1906). She campaigned against the burning of hop plants after harvest which almost wiped out the Comma in Kent and robustly argued against the doom-mongers of the day who claimed (what's new?) that the species was in decline. In a letter to The Entomologist magazine in 1881, she wrote:

"I am an old entomologist and have lived in this county and noted the habits of the Comma
for fifty years; and I can safely say that I never remember this species so common in any autumn as the present one, except in the year 1875, when every blackberry bush was covered with specimens of this lovely and distinct species until late in the autumn.
"I have for many years bribed those over whom I have no control in this parish to collect for me every larvae and pupa they can find, and by this means I have preserved many thousands of this lovely butterfly.” She added that she “had sent hundreds of larvae to and pupae for liberation in Surrey and elsewhere, in an attempt to reintroduce the species”

What a lot of history! Many thanks for it to the online magazine of West Midlands Butterfly Conservation. What's it called? The Comma.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Creatures of the sun

This isn't a moth, no. It's a flower, a milkmaid, cuckoo flower or lady's smock. But it's the reason why that beautiful Spring butterfly the Orange Tip visits us at this time of the year. The insect's caterpillars are very fond of milkmaids.

Two Orange Tips were skittering around the garden all weekend, revelling like us in sunshine and temperatures worthy of July. They seldom settled for long which accounts for my rather hopeless photos, especially of the male with his brightly eponymous orange tips. Sorry. But I should have more and better chances because the number of Orange Tips has risen during our 25 years here, along with that of most other butterfly species. The Speckled Wood is by far the most dramatic in terms of increase, followed by Commas. And I am hoping that our blackthorns, bought from Kirkstall Bridge's wildlife centre and planted five years ago, will bring back the Brimstone which made its debut two years ago but didn't come last year.
At least, I didn't see one. They are lovely harbingers of Spring, like the Orange Tip, and according to some are the 'butter-coloured fly' which gave the whole tribe its strange English name. I saw a blue too, as mentioned yesterday, but not in time to identify or photo it. Tomorrow I'll bring you that familiar but lovely trio of sun-worshippers, the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma. There were around in good numbers too.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Early bird, on time

This is an eminent moth, given its Latin name by Johan Christian Fabricius, the pupil of Linnaeus who helped the great man classify the world's insects. It's called Selenia dentaria, which suggests a toothy - or toothsome? - version of the Greek moon goddess. One of its relatives, the Lunar Thorn, is Selenia lunularia which is the sort of combination of Greek and Latin which delights etymologists, pedants and curiosity-seekers such as myself. It effectively means the 'Moony moony', just as Pendle Hill not far from us uses three languages, Cumbric, Anglo Saxon and modern English, to call itself 'Hill hill hill.' Mind you, it does stick up very obviously from the surrounding plain. In the same way, the little moon-shaped mark on the Early Thorn's underwing stands out.

The Early Thorn is also unusual for a British moth in the way it always folds its wings over its back, like a butterfly. Other moths do this some of the time but the ET is the only absolutely consistent one. It overwinters as a pupae in a cocoon, which in this case, this year, has somehow withstood our recent vicious temperatures. I would like to be able to pupate, or at least hibernate, during the British winter. I like its feathery, TV-receiver antennae which are kept neatly folded backwards when at rest. You can study them in these two close-ups, provided you are the sort of person who doesn't mind the hairy bristliness of moths when close up and personal.

We British indirectly did for Fabricius, by the way. A Dane, he was so upset by news of the British bombardment of Copenhagen in 1807 that he rushed home from Paris, caught a fever and died. I haven't yet Googled to remind myself why we were bombarding Copenhagen but apologies anyway. I suspect it was something to do with Napoleon and, from memory, may have cost Lord Nelson his eye.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Salad days

Regular readers know my fondness for green moths, in the virtually complete absence of any blue ones in the UK. So I was pleased this morning to find among all the Quakers, Drabs, Hebrew Characters etc (and a couple of very fine Early Greys) this Red-green Carpet which the sunshine has tempted out of hibernation. I'm using two photos to show the difficulty of portraying moth colours accurately in photography, at least in my unskilled hands. This is the same moth, but above in shade and below in sunshine.

I have to admit that I also like the opalescent background colours almost as much and was sorry to crop some of them out. Amazing how lovely an eggbox can look through a plastic cowl mottled with condensation drops. The condensation, incidentally, was the result of a wonderfully warm day - real June/July temperatures in Leeds - followed by a much colder night. Now it is midday and boiling again. In the butterfly realm, I have seen Peacocks in abundance, a couple of Speckled Woods, two Commas an a blue, I think a Holly one. And all within 50 yards of the kitchen where Penny is making mouth-watering Watercress soup.