Wednesday, 30 April 2014


A stealthy presence on the lawn beside the moth trap - a slowworm which had been minding its own business in the long grass nearby when I came clumping along. It was either too startled, scared, tame or fearless of predators to slither off so I managed to get it to pose for some reasonable pictures.

Snakes' tongues are a source of fascination with their flickering V-shape which is one of the images of evil associated with them and less probable creatures like devils, along with fangs, a cobra-hood and the ability to coil and strike. The slowworm has none of the latter and is neither poisonous nor inclined to bite; but it does have a good tongue as you can see.

You sometimes read about people swallowing their tongue or having one so large or swollen that they cannot talk properly. Slowworms don't talk but if they did, such problems might affect them unduly.

With my keys, for scale. Not terrifyingly large

I find snakes interesting and used to collect them when I taught as a student in Zimbabwe. I even reached sufficient proficiency to skin puff adders to make interesting souvenirs for the folks back home. Do you know which country features a snake on its national flag?  Here it is, and you can read the snakey story behind it here.

Meanwhile, a quiet moth trap as the temperature falls, with a couple of Brimstones showing their hesitatnt habit of settling nearby, rather than entering the trap.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

This morning is orange

My species count for the year has reached 50 with the arrival of this attractive gentleman, the Orange Footman. He is one of a little tribe whose neat appearance reminded the 18th century English moth-namers of those servants who stand behind dining chairs in the likes of Downton Abbey, silent but lapping up the gentry's gossip and how they can make good use of it.

Orange footmen must have come over to the UK with King William III (of Orange) who was a famous victim of the natural world; he was killed when his horse either stumbled over a molehill or shied at the sight of an actual mole, giving rise to the toast among his Jacobean enemies - I take the fly in my photo to be symbolic of them - to 'The little gentleman in velvet'. The moth is also prepared to travel; English examples found on the East Coast are thought to be immigrants from the Continent.

My other newcomers for 2014 were a Red Twin-spot Carpet, a frequent visitor in the past unlike the Orange Footman which is wholly new to me, and this nice little micro below. I think it is Cochylis atricapitana but would appreciate expert views.

Meanwhile there were a couple of attractive Brimstone Moths resting in the nearby long grass and in the trap a Muslin moth sleeping (and it was sound asleep) with its antennae out - unusual in my experience. The one I showed yesterday was awake, disturbed by my photography.

Here below is the Muslin moth, followed by a tiny Twenty-plume micro obligingly showing its delicate little plumes, like arrows, which account for the name. The catch was completed by a Pale Prominent, Brindled Beauty, Powdered Quaker, Hebrew Character and Clouded Drab, plus one earwig, two Caddis flies and a couple of suspects for the hated Blandford Fly which is the one serpent in our Eden, due about now and with a really nasty bite.

Update: sorry I was so excited by my Extra-large Footman pic that I forgot
to put this one of the Muslin moth in yesterday

Monday, 28 April 2014

And now Four-eyes

After yesterday's ruminations on the 'eye' of a Swallow Prominent, here is a moth with specs. Guess what it's called. Yep, the Spectacle Moth. This is a prime piece of human interference; even if it had heard of spectacles, I doubt the moth would use that name itself. Its pair are made of differently patterned hair and help its actual vision not a jot.

Spectacle seen from above. Note crest like a bishop's mitre

It's been a regular visitor ever since I started this blog back in June 2008. It was the very first moth I featured. This one is interestingly early. The Moth Bible suggests that its normal flight season starts in late May. That seems to be a feature of 2014 after an almost non-winter in terms of low temperatures (rain having been a different matter). Over on his excellent Essex Moths blog, my friend and expert corrector Ben Sale is recording similar phenomena, including a Lime Hawk Moth which has visited him a remarkable 34 days earlier than in any previous year.

My other new moth for this year, last night, was this Waved Umber, above, which was tricky to photograph as it had chosen the gloomy recesses of the trap's bowl. In the case of a fat-bodied Noctuid moth, this is seldom a problem as they sleep as soundly as students after a night out and can easily be moved to lighter conditions. But the slender species such as the Waved Umber wake immediately and usually fly away, as this one did.


...and Pebble

Also among the eggboxes: two fine Prominents, above: a Pebble and a Pale, and below, two Flame Shoulders, a Brindled Pug - Update: thanks to Richard in Comments, I now know this to be an Oak-tree Pug. Much appreciated - a nicely glowing Brimstone, a Shuttle-shape Dart, four Hebrew Characters, one each of Clouded Drab, Common Quaker and Early Grey, and the Muslin Moth shown in a vaguely chiaroscura photograph - light and shade - like those stylised ones Lord Snowdon used to take of pop stars.

Flame Shoulders

Oak-tree Pug (thanks again Richard)



Finally, if any expert in the natural world's poo is reading, what climbed or landed on the rainshield and left this, below. To my eye, it looks more mammalian than bird-like. I fear for my sleeping moths and must try to get up earlier on these light mornings.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Eye, eye

Soggy eggboxes are no place to lay your weary head but new moths keep coming on these drizzly nights. Today saw my fifth member of the Prominent family, this battered Swallow Prominent which I think - from its larger body size shown in the grassy picture - is a female.

Because of its faded colouring, I didn't recognise it at first and took it to be a Pebble Prominent with the translucent area of lost wingscales at its forewing tips misleading me by looking like the 'pebble' (see several posts back for an actual PP). But then the little white flashes registered and I happily clocked up this year's 45th species.

Here's peeping at you, kid
One small thing: can you see the moth's fake 'eye'?  I'd not noticed this before on a Swallow Prominent. It looks like a miniature version of the eyes which the Greeks and Persians painted on their triremes at Salamis. It's nowhere near the moth's actual eye, and nothing like as striking as the 'eyes' of a Peacock butterfly or Emperor moth, but maybe it is yet another little example of the remarkable range of camouflage which these insects deploy in their constant battle against predators.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Weaving about

These are damp times for moth enthusiasts and there were only two visitors in the eggboxes last night. One was a Flame Shoulder hiding coyly in a cone but the other was a welcome newcomer for the year.

This is a Shuttle-shaped Dart whose encouraging spread northwards from its old southern strongholds was a welcome feature of my time in Leeds. I always like it because of the textile connection. We have an old weaving shuttle of the sort which used to crash too and fro in woollen mills, a process so deafening that most employees of the older generation could lip-read.

The patterning on the moth is wonderfully intricate and probably plays a confusing role in camouflage, like dazzle patterns with their unexpected shapes and angles. In spite of this, I took pains to hide it from an inquisitive robin which has clearly sussed the trap's possible role as a rather fine buffet breakfast.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Mixed blessings

Here is my first big black beetle of 2014, pretending convincingly to be dead. Along with the year's first earwig it brought variety to a trap whose contents were surprisingly sparse after a lovely warm evening which tempted us out to saunter along the canal, nattering to residents in snug narrowboats from all over the country whose woodsmoke scents this place.

At some stage in the night it turned a lot colder and now we have a dull morning. My camera's red light warning of wobble came on a few times as I photographed the eggboxes, which is always a sign of poor light. Still, the year's first Red-green Carpet brought me pleasure. It will have been tempted out of hibernation as we're a little early for the first 2014 brood.

I was also pleased to get this picture of a Chocolate-tip preparing to fly off and thus more like a dart than the usual crouching moth you see in pictures with its wings folded tightly in. Alas, judging by this wing fragment, it looks as though there was another one outside the trap which has been nabbed by a bird.

Finally, this micro was so tiny that I almost missed it. I've tried to add scale with my trusty Biro. I think it's Caloptilia semifascia (sounds like a half-hearted extreme right-winger) but would be grateful if any passing micro-expert knows. I will put out the same appeal on Upper Thames Moths.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Handsome is

Two new arrivals in the trap this morning, one of them this very handsome Iron Prominent with its lovely rust-coloured markings. It's timely because Penny and I spent part of yesterday sanding rusty gutters. I don't like rust any more than the next householder but it can come in pretty shades.

At the other end of the size scale was this Least Black Arches, smaller than some micr-moths but still officially a macro. Slumbering beside these were two types  of the other three Prominents which have come here so far - one Pale and three Pebble Ps - along with a Streamer, a Flame Shoulder, four Clouded Drabs, two Powdered Quakers, a Hebrew Character and three Brindled Beauties.

One of the last, although in excellent condition otherwise, had these curiously symmetrical bare-looking patches on its forewings. Is this the result of bird attack or other damage> Or a deformation or problem emerging from the pupa?  Any thoughts most welcome.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Hatching and catching

See how the empty and translucent pupa shows the sun's reflection from our lovely dishrack

After my Easter frivolities, the real moths have returned and in style. I spotted the first of them before leaving the house; back on 4 April I posted about finding a moth pupa while digging in the veg patch and how I had snuggled it into a bowl to await hatching.

Interestingly, the pupa wing cases to which I referred in my April 4 post,
did not show the uniquely raked shape of this moth

This morning as I searched for my pen and pad to record the moths outside, I noticed a stain spreading from the pupa. Initially I though: Oh no, what's gone wrong?  But then I saw this lovely Angle Shades perched on top of the bowl, its raked wings just expanded and dried.

After this promising beginning, the trap itself was well up to the mark following a dry and warmish night. My first Streamer of the year, above, was dozing in one eggbox with its distinctive wing mark like the tail of a kite. Some near neighbours who plan to borrow the trap one of these days reported a Streamer on their kitchen window about a fortnight ago and I have been jealously waiting for my own.

One of the strangest-looking of UK moths was in the next box - this Pale Prominent above which resembles either a large twig or a section of Cadbury's Flake chocolate (the ones which you finished off at school by folding the yellow wrapper into a gutter and pouring the bits into your mouth). Beside it was the Pebble Prominent below sideways and from above, showing the 'pebble'; so with last week's Coxcomb Prominent, I am doing well with this excellent family.

Other moths included this pug below - either Brindled or Oak Tree, I think. Update: it's a Brindled - many thanks to Ben, via excellent Upper Thames Moths blog. Help much appreciated. And there were also three Brindled Beauties in very fresh condition, two each of Clouded Drab, Common Quaker and Hebrew Character plus one Early Grey and one Powdered Quaker.

And finally this Flame Shoulder, left, a moth whose occasional habit of seeking out enthusiasts' ears as they check the trap - a rare example of legendary moth behaviour being true - is described in one of the Moth Bible's  rare departures from sober data.

Monday, 21 April 2014

You've never seen moths like this before

Lots of family have been here for Easter and they've coincided with a positive plague of unusual insects tucked in hiding places around the garden.

What they are is a mystery I have yet to unravel but I haven't been using the moth trap. The mercury vapour lamp is so powerful that I think they would melt.

They have come to a different end, equally sad for them. But not for us.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Curious creatures

We had a very enjoyable outing yesterday to Rousham, a mansion of great charm set between one of William Kent and Charles Bridgeman's Arcadias above the meandering river Cherwell and a jigsaw of wonderfully maintained walled gardens. The owners have a policy of making you wait until you are 15 before being allowed in, which loses them a vast slice of the usual stately home custom but means that the grounds are quiet and their invitation to 'bring a picnic and Rousham is yours for the day' is even more alluring. They're not remotely anti-children, having plenty of their own scattered about. And, as we told our tiny granddaughter who will not be admitted until 2028, the wait is worth it.

Orange Tip, Brimstone and Peacock butterflies were sailing about but my two insect photos are of humbler but interesting creatures. The first is a fly or bee which awaits identification from any passing expert; and the second, ditto, is a caddis fly unknown to me. Update with many thanks to Pete Smith who's commented at the foot of the previous post. The first insect is an Ashy Mining Bee, a Spring-flying solitary bee (I love that description) whose numbers are on the increase in the UK. It is harmless and useful to us. The second is not a caddis but an alder fly, whose carnivorous larvae live in the silt of ponds near which the adults tend to rest on vegetation. This one was following that pattern closely, sunning itself beside the round pound between assorted temples and nude male statues put in place by Kent. He might have liked the fly and the way its wings resemble a stained glass window before the colourists have set to work.