Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Familiar faces

Before bidding fond farewell to Portugal, where Penny and I have just had an excellent week, here are a couple of familiar and attractive mothy faces which we discovered there. The first, in my top three pictures, is that beautiful and beautifully-named moth the Peach Blossom. I might have missed it while checking out the swimming pool trap - see yesterday's post - because it was way out in the deep end, lying flat-out on the surface. Luckily my swim took me right past.

This is a common enough moth in the UK which I remember (on account of its striking appearance) from my schooldays and which visited us fairly regularly in Leeds. But I have had only one in the trap since moving to Oxfordshire in 2013, so the Portuguese encounter was a welcome one.

The second moth appeared to be familiar; I had it down as an Oak Eggar, a species which I also remember very well from schooldays when we found their caterpillars and hatched the adults from cocoons. Much the biggest of my swimming pool moths, it condescended to perch on my finger and so I took it into breakfast where it was a predictable hit with assorted children of various nationalities - exclamations of 'Papillon!' and 'Schmetterling!' joining those of 'Mariposa!' and 'Borboleta!'

When originally spotted - just above the pool's waterline
Rescued and posed with flower
Getting frisky and examining my flip-flops
Released on to a bush of similar flowers
Three days later, by chance, a large and lively moth was jinking about in front of the entrance of a local supermarket. On inspection, it turned out to be - I thought - a second male Oak Eggar; the female is larger and a fine caramel-y colour.

Our guys are the two second from bottom on the left-hand page - the male is on the right of the pair with the fine bushy antennae
Getting home and consulting the Moth Bible, however (above), I am sure that both moths were actually Grass Eggars, a different kettle of fish in the UK where they are classed as Nationally Scarce and pretty much confined to coastal sand dunes and cliffs. This habit has given their caterpillars an interestingly varied diet which includes Spiny Restharrow, False Oat-grass and Thrift. Think of them as the equivalents of human beings who like to dine out at Cambodian or Mongolian restaurants.

Finally from Portugal, this distinctive little scrap of a moth fell out of the rafters of a funky beach cafe at Vila Nova de Milfontes (pic left), while P and I were munching sardines. It is Eublemma candidana, a macro moth in spite of its midget size (those little squares are part of the tablecloth) which is unknown in the UK although it has relatives here. In France it goes under the magnificent name of L'Anthophile Superbe or The Superb Flower-lover.

Monday, 25 September 2017

A mega moth trap

I have often fantasised about taking the moth trap on holidays abroad - an impossible dream because it is much to big and cumbersome to ferry around, even if we were to go by car. Likewise, I have sometimes gazed wistfully at advertisements in entomological or natural history magazines for cottages and villas to let on the Continent which come complete with a moth trap. Penny would draw the line at that.

However, on our week in Portugal from which we returned yesterday, I did indeed have a moth trap - and a very big one. Our hotel's swimming pool was set in lovely, rather wild gardens and its underwater lights were left on all night. You can see some of the results here. Come the morning, several dozen moths were suspended on the pool's surface, clamped like prisoners by the surface tension and moving slowly but surely towards the doom of the filter outlets.

I learned after a couple of early morning swims that it was handy to get to the pool before the gardener/handyman who dutifully netted debris from the pool first thing. I enjoyed chatting to him in a strange mixture of English and something vaguely like Portuguese although probably tending more towards Spanish. But although we got as far as 'mariposa' and 'borboletta' - words in both languages for 'butterfly' - I didn't try to complicate his life by appealing for a netting delay while I waded about with the iPad Mini, taking pictures.

A Yellow-tail - a species notoriously shy about showing its eponymous feature. This one had little choice.

The answer was to have my swim a little earlier. I managed to do this and even to build in time to rescue most of the apparent victims. The moths looked dead, apart from one or two which were struggling feebly, but once you scooped them out and decanted them on to the stone, decking or even nearby tree-trunks, they recovered speedily. Here are some examples:

I think that the bottom moth is a Portuguese example of the Yellow Belle, a moth which is only locally found in the UK - one of the locales being a regular stamping ground for me in my journalism days: Greenham Common near Newbury, scene of the famous women's protests against cruise missiles.

I have yet to discover the ID of most of the moths shown in this post, but this one is a Portuguese example of our familiar Scalloped Oak. I think, incidentally, that the moth in my top picture may be a Portuguese Straw Belle. Update: no, I have changed my mind and think that it is the yellowy form of the Vestal.

My most curious observations, however, were of a half-dozen or so moths which were perched at least an inch underwater, clinging to the side of the pool, thoroughly alive and apparently contented with their surroundings. When I eased them off and put them down in the sunshine, they too recovered. There is plenty on the web about moths and other insects' ability to spend time underwater, including a piece on a Hawaiian moth which seems happy in both elements. There is also the example of dragonflies, whose first three stages of life are spent in water. But I hope to read more, not only about the breathing issue but also about the waterproof-ness or otherwise of moths' wings - note the bubbles of air clinging to the ones below. In butterflies, which are generally larger and more delicately made, these would seem the main vulnerability of a dip, but there seems reason to believe that the complex structure of scales and membranes is water-resistant, provided that the insect does not panic and thrash around.  

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bom dia!

You can tell from today's top picture that we're not going to be dealing with UK moths in this post; behold the glories of a Swallowtail, the UK's largest native butterfly but very seldom to be seen outside its few remaining sanctuaries in the East Anglian Fens.

That is the opposite of the case in Portugal where Penny and I have just had a marvellous week, staying in the countryside of the Lower Alentejo, close to the mighty Atlantic Ocean beaches from which Vasco da Gama & Co set sail.

This Swallowtail was roaming majestically around the ruins of the Roman town of Mirobriga on the edge of the mediaeval settlement of Santiago do Cacem where a bevy of other butterflies, notably a bright orange one resembling a fiery Brimstone, were swooping around the fine hilltop castle, sadly out of range of my iPad Mini's lens. The Swallowtail was more accommodating. It took me for a modest but sun-drenched stalk before posing perfectly on what appeared to be a dead flower. Dead or not, it occupied the butterfly's attention for a good five minutes.

Hence the top picture; otherwise I would have had to be content with the second or third where you may have to play 'Find the Butterfly' for quite a while - I've added a couple of enlarged details to give you a hand.  Back at our base, between the inland town of Cercal and the pretty estuary port of Vila Nova de Milfontes, I spent further drowsy spells pursuing the somewhat jumbo versions of Hedge and Meadow Browns shown below.

Saturday, 16 September 2017


A friend who stayed recently has been in touch with these pictures of his hop plants - and, of more interest to me, their current inhabitants. Fortunately he is not a brewer and does not depend on the hops for his living, for these are Comma butterfly caterpillars and chrysalises, a species which munches hops as if there was no tomorrow.  

By coincidence, I was admiring an adult Comma in the garden only on Wednesday as it flitted about in the sunshine, showing off its glorious, vivid russet colouring. This always sets my pulse racing in case the butterfly is one of the fritillaries, those aristocrats of the insect world which share the Comma's colours. Here are some examples of Commas from earlier blog posts:

 The other cheering thing about the Comma is that its recovery from meagre numbers in the 19th century is one of the great success stories of UK butterflies. You can read more on this previous post - http://martinsmoths.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/friends-reunited.html - as well as about the role in the story of a distinguished woman entomologist, Edith Hutchinson, pictured below. The magazine of Butterfly Conservation in her native county of Warwickshire is appropriately named - see right - and the best-known variant of the Comma, the paler form common in early Summer, is named after her - variety hutchinsonii.

In the US the Comma has a close relative called the Question Mark, but we will deal with moths and punctuation another time.