Sunday, 30 August 2015

Wedding belle

I was going to tell you about an interesting if familiar migrant moth this morning, the Dark Swordgrass, but something much more amazing has come up.

Confirming her reputation as the Top Spotter of moths outside the trap, Penny nudged me at a lovely family wedding in Cornwall yesterday and said: "Is that a moth over there?"

What she had spotted was an isoceles triangular shape as big as a bird - pic above - quietly resting on a piece of bunting strung along a hedge.  Her discovery turned an already idyllic occasion into something unforgettable, because this was a Convolvulus Hawk moth.

Second in size in the UK only to the Death's Head Hawk (famously seen in these parts at Kirtlington last year), the moth is also a migrant and one which - like its human equivalents who are so much in the news and our thoughts at the moment - overcomes many obstacles to travel vast distances. It is a native of Africa and mostly stays there, but some fly to southern Europe earlier in the year and manage to breed. In turn, some of their offspring venture further north but that is the end of their story. Their caterpillars cannot survive our winters, even mild ones. We have plenty of convolvulus, the familiar gardener-taxing bindweed which the larvae love, but it is too cold.

The adult moth is rarely found here but coastal counties such as Cornwall come up with a few sightings every year, and Penny's now joins them. I have never seen one in the UK before but did enjoy trying to catch them in the Italian Adriatic village of Numana when I was a teenager on holiday. They were flying round the streetlights and a local bar lent me a stepladder. I got a good look but they were too cunning for me to net. It was great, incidentally, that a cousin with whom I used to hunt butterflies when we were boys was also at the wedding. It's his hand in the third picture, above, which shows the moth at its best.

The moth's dominant grey camouflage is a lovely mixture of greys and its pink-banded body, revealed when scared of a predator, has two deep crimson 'eyes' high up near the thorax. We did a bit of gentle tickling to persuade it to show these which retain their 'eye' effect even when the wings are only slightly open, as in the second (and sorry, slightly blurry) picture of the two above. Luckily the moth was extremely sleepy and almost everyone at the sunny garden reception got to have a good look and the chance of a photograph, including the official recorder of the happy day, below.

The only sight we missed was the insect nectaring. It has the longest proboscis of any moth found in the UK and so can refresh itself inside deep-throated flowers such as tobacco plants which few others can reach.

I can be confident of my unoriginally punning headline, btw, because this moth has the 'quieter', less marbled grey topwings of a female Convolvulus Hawk and smaller antennae than the male.  As I hastily explained to the bride and groom, what I was really excited about was their lovely day and obvious, great happiness. But the moth came a close second.


Bennyboymothman said...

Fan-tastic spot! You've beat me to it, or dare say Penny did! Still yet to see one here in blighty.
Happy mothing Martin and sorry I have been mega busy to comment much lately but still reading your great posts :)

All the best

Martin Wainwright said...

Hi Ben - great to see your name pop up. I know how busy life is - and you put so much energy into proper recording, unlike my dabbling. I'm very glad that you had a great time in Turkey. I'm sometimes tempted by those ads in specialist magazines for holiday cottages complete with moth trap, but I dont think P would be quite as keen...

Mind you, she takes the credit for spotting the Convolvulus Hawk which filled me with exactly the same excitement at a rarity that I used to get as a boy. So we don't age completely

all warmest