Monday, 6 October 2014

Unholy Grail

Every enthusiast has their Holy Grail and I have at last encountered mine: a meeting with a real, live Death's Head Hawk moth.

From the appearance of the insect, the largest moth you can find in the UK, and its sinister reputation in folklore, literature and art, you might prefer the designation used in my title. But I have always hoped to find one of these remarkable creatures, ever since I was a schoolboy in shorts and an Aertex shirt with a net and 'killing bottle'. (Our local chemist in Leeds supplied me with a potent little bottle of 'killing fluid' without any questions asked).

The circumstances of our momentous get-together yesterday made the occasion even richer. The co-author of the incomparable Moth Bible, whose virtues I have sung here many, many times, is Martin Townsend who lives in Oxford and is one of the many experts on that other rod and staff for the moth ID-challeged, the Upper Thames Moths blog. He very kindly emailed me yesterday to say that he was taking a freshly-hatched Death's Head Hawk back to a village near us to show to the finders of its caterpillar. Would I like to come?

Would I!! Penny and I duly turned up at the home of a very hospitable couple who laid on tea and flapjacks as well as the moth - and revealed the extraordinary fact that they had found not just the one caterpillar back in August, but FOUR. If I found a Death's Head Hawk caterpillar, I wouldn't let it out of my sight (once I had recovered from swooning), but with remarkable coolness this chap went indoors to 'phone the local wildlife expert and ask him round, then returned to his lawn across which the huge (for a caterpillar) beast had been trudging.

Bright yellow and green, it was some eight feet further on its journey which ended when he placed a rhubarb forcing pot over it, both to confine it and keep it safe from predatory birds. These would have been brave, given the lurid warning colours and the caterpillar's habit of trying to bite attackers - an extremely rare thing in UK species - but the threat was real.

The original caterpillar and the grub-like state of the second one, pre-successful pupation
Fascinatingly, on later inspection by which time the moth telegraph had brought Martin T on to the scene, the caterpillar started digging down into the soil - not to escape like an RAF prisoner in Stalag Luft III, but to pupate. This it did successfully and Martin took it into expert custody pending hatching later in the year..

Meanwhile, advised by the local wildlife man and Martin, the caterpillar finder and his niece and nephew then carefully dug his potato patch and found two further Death's Head pupae and one caterpillar in the process of metamorphising, which is complex in this species. As the photos taken at the time show, the caterpillar turns first into a vulnerable grub-like thing before encasing itself in a hard protective shell. Exposure at this stage can be fatal and sadly that proved the case; but one of the other pupae was the one which hatched into yesterday's grand moth.

The pupa of the original caterpillar which hatched into yesterday moth and (right) the 'grub-stage'  which didn't make it
Devout readers may remember that last year I reported another local enthusiast's experience of having a Death's Head Hawk fly into his home in Witney late at night, not stopping long enough to be photographed but evidence that Oxfordshire is a county on their wishlist. Maybe we'll be next. When it stops raining, I will go out and very carefully comb our potato patch.

The moth on the Bible-writer's hand
A final point: the appearance of the moth surprised me. After years of seeing pictures of 'set' specimens with their wings artificially pegged out, I had always thought of its blue and yellow body and yellow underwings as the thing that would strike me, should I ever come across one in the wild. Far from it. At rest, the moth is as dark and Darth Vaderish as its reputation suggests. And when it revealed its hidden parts by scrambling about yesterday, the black and yellow bands - the same combination as used in nuclear and other hazard warning signs - reminded me of nothing so much as a vast hornet.


I made a film of this which I'll try to run in a separate post. It's not terribly good and you have to listen very closely to hear the moth's alarmed squeaking - another unique ability in UK terms, made by a reed like a saxophone's at the base of the short, thick proboscis. As always happens when I film, some hidden electrical gadget (or it maybe the camera) produces a regular and louder squeak of its own.

One little postscript to this saga. I took along my Bible for Martin to sign which he kindly did, and he also pointed out one of those tiny errors which make books extra-interesting. Removed from the second edition, it's slap in the middle of Richard Lewington's characteristically brilliant illustration of the Death's Head Hawk. I've looked at this picture plate (left) many, many times without noticing it. Can you see it, below?


worm said...

all I can say is - woah!!!

Martin Wainwright said...

I couldn't even speak...

all v best


Countryside Tales said...

What a fantastic experience! I've yet to see one. Is there a reason why the caterpillars were collected instead of left to pupate in the wild? I know they are rare visitors, so wondered if it was conservation-related? Hope all's well (I imagine it is after that), CT :o)

MartinWainwright said...

Hi there! Yes, I'm still on a high - the chance of attracting such a beast here is one of the few things keeping my trap light shining during these colder nights and duller mornings.

I think Martin is hoping that a couple of the moths will mate but then they'll be released. There is going to be an illustrated talk on the whole episode at Kirtlington church (eight or so miles north of Oxford) at 7.45pm which I'm hoping to go to.

Hope all continues well with you - I shall hop across to Countryside Tales to catch up. Life never seems to get less busy, specially with a granddaughter

all v best


Countryside Tales said...

PS, meant to say, yes, it's definitely not a common swift! I'm off to check my copy now! :o)

Katie (Nature ID) said...

It's HUGE! I had no idea. I'm excited for your experience.

Martin Wainwright said...

Hi Katie, very nice to hear from you. Yes it's massive, specially by UK standards. I was interested in how subdued the blue and yellow was compared to pictures though individuals probably vary. It was also extraordinarily and alarmingly like a really vast hornet when it started scrambling about.

All warm wishes