Monday, 14 August 2017

Same difference

I have a couple more 'top-and-bottom' pictures this morning, but first, here is a little composite of four Lime-speck Pugs, the slender little scrap whose resemblance to a bird dropping is thought to give it extra protection, birds not being given to eating their own poo.

This theory has flaws, I suspect, in that birds' vision is different from our own, and the Lime-speck's similarity to a dropping is very much a conclusion reached via human eyesight. I mentioned only yesterday how moths resting inertly on the trap top are clearly visible to us but go apparently unseen by the usually voracious and inquisitive robins, blackbirds and magpies which are well aware of the trap as a high class restaurant.

I put the pictures together to illustrate the slight variations common to almost all species of UK moths, just as we have countless little differences between us in the human race. The second Lime-speck is much less clearly patterned than the others, while the top one has a more jagged white line at the wing edge than the two at the bottom. In less distinctive species, this accounts for my hopelessness in giving accurate IDs. I am sorry that the photos are not better but I am still relying on my limited - albeit faithful - iPad Mini. 

Here are the top-and-bottoms: another Willow Beauty which thoughtfully chose a clearer section of the cowl than yesterday's; and a Blood-vein. In both cases you can see that the patterning is essentially the top wings' showing through to below (only sketchily, too, in the case of the Willow Beauty), rather than a whole separate coat of scales in a different formation or colourway. The underneath of a moth is seldom seen at rest which would account for the  drabness common to most species; but since it appears in flight, albeit only very fleetingly as moths jink violently about, it is perhaps surprising that none - to my knowledge - have more vivid colours to deter birds zooming from below.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Downside up

When I was mystified the other day by what turned out to be the common and regular visitor at this time of the year, a Straw Underwing, one of the extremely helpful experts on the Upper Thames Moths blog, Martin Albertini, described the species as 'a major banana skin', because the key to its ID lay in its hindwing, so often hidden when a moth is at rest.

I am not sure what I can do about this, because getting a moth to reveal its pants, as it were, usually involves annoying it so much that it flies away. But occasionally even skittish moths, such as the Willow Beauty in my first two pictures today, allows a longer look, especially when they choose to perch on the light trap's transparent cowl, thus revealing their underwings. 

That is the view in the first picture; not an ideal study because my cowl is so old and bashed about, but it gives a pretty clear impression. The second picture shows the species' familiar topside which is what I normally see.

The hindwing problem is less easily solved; an issue which did not arise in my younger days when cameras were so hopeless for close-up work - at least the ones which I could afford such as the Brownie 127 - that killing specimens was the general rule. You then 'set' them by spread-eagling them on cork boards with a slot down the middle to take the insect's body. Here are some examples from a visit I paid to Sulawesi in Indonesia where the butterflies are among the most striking in the world:

I am adding a close-up of the wonderful blumei Swallowtail in the top left-hand corner which I caught after a dramatic and prolonged hunt along a jungle river. Killing is out of order now except for serious scientific researchers but I am happy that this butterfly and its colleagues in the display case have done a lot of posthumous good, through enthralling visitors and interesting quite a few of them in a subject which they had disregarded previously.

Back at home and up to date, my musings on the trap cowl prompt me to show a couple of visitors this morning: a Poplar Hawk using the decaying remains of Sellotape on a crack repair to cling upside-down, and a Swallow Prominent whose presence on the outside of the cowl - unmolested by birds which seem unable to detect a completely passive moth -had dried up the surrounding dew.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Nursery world

Last week I featured a clutch of bright green eggs which had been laid on the metal collar of the moth trap by an unknown visitor. I had no idea whether they would hatch but they caused great fascination to my visiting grand-daughter whose excitement at having moths on her fingers was exceeded by this novel concept of carrying moth eggs around in a little box and showing them to everyone she met.

Now they have hatched - and into something which should add more interest and enjoyment to the grand-daughter's young life. They have produced the caterpillars of one of the hawk moths; I suspect a Poplar Hawk whose second generation is the only one around in the eggboxes at the moment (see bottom picture of one which called this morning). I am trying them with a mixture of willow and buddleia (not having any poplars nearby, although that has never stopped Poplar Hawks from being a very frequent visitor. Willows are their larvae's secondary foodplant.

The feature that most fascinates me about these tiny new arrivals in my home is that the familiar horn at the end of the caterpillar's tail is already one of its most distinctive features. In the US it has led to their alternative title of 'hornworms'. I am Googling desultorily to see if I can find any information about the purpose of the horn and will pass it on if I do. My main discovery is how easy it is to buy moth eggs commercially for rearing the insects, but I do not have time to go into caterpillar kindergarten work on a major scale.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Wibble wobble

I balanced the trap a little precariously on a wall last night and paid for my bravado by waking at 4.30am in a state of alarm that it might have fallen off and caused some electrical or other drama. I have always shared the fascination shown by children - and cats and other animals - in balancing on walls. Indeed, the practice has a precious place in our family lore because my older sister was once ticked off by a wall-owner who asked her: 'Little girl, what would you say if I came and walked along your wall?' We couldn't think of a reply at the age of six or seven, but the prospect of this portly gent teetering past our windows was enthralling.

It never happened, sadly, but last night I thought that I would heave up the trap on our wall so that it might be spotted by moths in a neighbouring patch of un-mown field where a couple of years ago, a Large Emerald came to the lamp. There was nothing so magnificent last night but at least my early morning worries proved groundless. Here's a nice Dusky Thorn, above, and below are some more of the modest guest-list:

A Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing on my specs case

A delicate Common Wave, clearly getting on a bit but in pretty good nick
A Flounced Rustic
A Garden Carpet, maybe tempted by the meadow

I'm not sure about this chap (or chapess) though suspect he or she is something everyday which I ought to know. So I will check. Update: Dave Wilton of Upper Thames Moths nails it as a Straw Underwing which I should have known. Many thanks D!
And a somewhat indeterminate micro on which I will also have to spend research time. Update: thanks to my kindly Commentor, I am sure that this is Blastobasis adustella, an adventurous little chip from Madeira which arrived in the UK in horticultural produce and has thrived here.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Welly weather

The weather is most un-Summery in Oxfordshire at the moment, dripping wet and disappointingly cool when the showers do relent. Moth numbers are consequently well down and the luminous presence of an almost full moon also reduces the appeal of my artificial lamp. So no great surprises today.

My first two pictures show a couple of nice micros, though: the snouty Cochylimorpha straminea, above, and the very prettily-patterned Pandemis corylana, or Chequered Fruit-tree Tortrix, to the left. These tiny moths are easy to overlook or sideline during the morning inspection of the eggboxes but they repay examination through the camera lens, even with my sub-standard equipment and skills.

What the next moth is, I cannot say and I doubt that the experts will be certain either. It's taken a battering during its brief life and the remaining fragments of pattern do not really seem to add up. But I will add it to my list for submission to the ever-helpful identifiers on the Upper Thames Moths blog. Update: Dave Wilton on UTM confirms my doubts but suggests that it could have been a Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing.

Three dainties to conclude with: a tiny little Least Carpet, a Dark-barred Twin-spot Carpet and a Lime-speck Pug.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Simple pleasures

It is a handy rule in life to find pleasure in small things, and here is an example. Ever since I started light-trapping in 2005, I have wanted to see a Magpie Moth in the eggboxes. This is a humble ambition since the moth is not uncommon; indeed, in some areas, including my schoolboy haunts, it reaches almost pest proportions, especially for those who grow currants. I have also read about it at length in the works of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, a famous surgeon and brother of Lord Keynes the economist, who was also an expert on moths.

It hasn't eluded me entirely. On just one occasion in Leeds, there was a Magpie in the trap but it fluttered away before I could heave myself and my camera into action. This proved to be an ill-advised move on the part of the moth; as it zig-zagged across the lawn, the robin which always watched me in the morning as I inspected the moths, streaked in like a Spitfire and...bye-bye, Magpie. Update: I mentioned this incident on the Upper Thames Moths blog and fellow-member Andy King made the interesting point that the Magpie's striking colouring is in part a warning to birds that it is at best distasteful to them and at worst, poisonous. Perhaps the robin learned a lesson, though if so, it wasn't a lasting one as the bird continued to try to snatch my catches when it could.
Now, at last, I have found one which consented to stay docilely and be photographed, so I can add another species to my record list. The Magpie is an extremely attractive creature with its op-art speckling enhanced by the yellow blotches. I have often thought of it when looking at the Small Magpie micro-moths which are very common here. How pleasant to be able to rest happily now, knowing that I can return whenever I like to these pictures of the real thing.

I've just had an encounter, too, with another favourite. We took our Estonian friends to Stonor Park, an ancient Catholic stronghold in an exquisitely beautiful Chiltern valley - above with classically English/Arcadian deer and cricket - and the sunshine which blessed us also attracted two Hummingbird Hawk moths to one of the garden's buddleias (which was all aflutter with butterflies - Red Admirals, Tortoiseshells and various Whites and Browns). The Hummingbird Hawks tended to keep to the high fronds and never rested for a moment, but I managed to get this one half-decent picture, below.

I was also delighted to get a close-up picture of that butterfly aristocrat the Silver-washed Fritillary. Two of these were swooping about in their magnificent, powerful style along the flower borders and one of them occasionally stopped for a rest. I was astonished to find how battered it was, like a wartime aircraft peppered with enemy fire and flak. Amazingly, this seemed to have no effect on its flying prowess.

Back at home, the eggboxes also yielded the visitors below: 

A Flounced Rustic, very elegantly patterned
Marbled Beauty
Yellow-barred Brindle (though in truth, at least in freshly emerged examples such as this one, the 'yellow' is green, a rare and very appealing colour in UK moths).
One of those weirdly-shaped characters, the Pale Prominent, looking slightly less weird as it prepares to taxi down the garden table runway
A Common Plume with its rolled-up wings
The pretty micro Anania coronata, a welcome change from the innumerable Mother of Pearls amid whom it was snoozing
An Oblique Carpet, a comparatively rare visitor here
A pretty Brimstone Moth which met our young Estonian visitor's demands for something to yellow to go with her Canary-shouldered Thorn, Leonie.
And a delicate little Single-dotted Wave, that misnamed moth of many dots, looking as though it has just chewed a Big Smile-shaped hole in the eggbox before drifting off to sleep

Sunday, 6 August 2017


Only yesterday, Alex in Comments suggested that I bridge the potentially quiet gap between late Summer and early Autumn moths by hatching and breeding caterpillars from eggs. On cue, look what one of my visitors left on the rim of the bulb-holder last night.

Who the mother is remains to be seen, provided that the eggs bring forth tiny caterpillars which I can successfully nurture. But I wonder if she might be the very attractive Orange Swift, below, which was sleeping on one of the eggboxes inside the trap.

There was very little orange about her but plenty of soft maroon and purple, so much so that I thought initially that she might be something new and unusual. Like the doughty women in Bamforth's seaside postcards, she is very much larger than her male counterpart and altogether more impressive.

Elsewhere, I found the year's first Copper or Svensson's Copper Underwing, above, a moth famed for his habit of scuttling around when disturbed but refusing to show its eponymous underwings and seldom inclined to fly off rather than try to hide. This was not the case with a Red Underwing which was resting near the trap and panicked as soon as I padded up in my dressing gown and slippers. I just managed to snap it in the grass, with a glimpse of its flashy nightie included.

On the wall nearby was one of that lovely species, the Canary-shouldered Thorn, whose vivid yellow back attracted great enthusiasm from a young guest staying with us, over from Talinn in Estonia with hyer Mum and younger brother. Noting the moth's resemblance to a lion in both furriness and colouring, she christened it Leonie and has kept it overnight in a large, leaf-filled box, along with the eggs.

She and her brother were interested in the largest arrival, the Poplar Hawk in the picture above, but not as fond of it as its smaller, brighter relative. Meanwhile, the eggboxes furnished a modest but varied range of other moths to show the kids, some of them shown below:

A Lime-speck Pug
A very sleepy Coronet
A Red Twin-spot Carpet
and a Common one
A Common or Lesser Common Rustic
And that familiar half-and-half micro which I will identify when I take the tea up to Penny and have access to the Micro-moth Bible which is currently at my bedside. Update: Alex in Comments kindly beat me to it, nailing this as the Garden Rose Tortrix, Acleris variegana. Many thanks.