Monday, 16 July 2018

Sleepy time

A curious insect flew directly over our house last week - the sinister-looking Trumpocopter carrying its bizarre occupant to supper at Blenheim Palace. A neighbour got the excellent snap of it, above. Much more welcome was the successful chrysalisation of our granddaughter's White Ermine caterpillars, hatched from the eggs laid by an adult female which she carefully took home with her after staying here two months ago.

So ends an epic of domestic care, a tribute to my son and daughter-in-law's entire family, neighbours and other relatives who scoured Walthamstow in east London for dandelions. Many lessons were learned by the experience, especially how much small caterpillars (a) eat and (b) poo. I hope that the timing of the next stage is such that the children see an emergence, although the granddaughter has already had the good fortune to watch a hatching at the Natural History Museum. "And do you know the first thing it did, Grandpa?" she said. "A huge poo!" Thus does one of the wonders of Nature appear to the eyes of a small, eager and very realistic child!

When we got back from London, we were greeted by this lovely Brimstone on our doormat, one of the newly-emerged brood who are flying here in great numbers. For various reasons, it has been extremely busy here but I must find time for a butterfly walk as there are hundreds of them around in the glorious and continuing sunshine.

The moth trap continues busy with a nice Coxcomb Prominent calling a couple of nights ago along with these visitors, below: from the top left, clockwise: a freshly-emerged Campiopn I think - the pinky-purple distinguishing it from the very similar Lychnis; a Brimstone (moth as opposed to butterfly), an Early Thorn and a lovely, metalically-jewelled Gold Spot.

Last night brought, inter many alia, a Pale Prominent, Nut-tree Tussock, Dusky Thorn (I think) and the delicately pretty Marbled Beauty.

Less happily, a hedgehog came to grief in the garden, below. A sad sight and one we have seen before when another got snared in our badminton net. But they are pretty abundant here so we  expect to hear their scurrying and snuffling on another of these warm evenings soon.

Sunday, 15 July 2018


This wonderful Summer has settled down into an agreeable mixture of torpor, with aged gents like me happily flattened by the heat, and frenzy, as the usual round of picnics, weekend visitors, general social mayhem, reaches new heights. At least the country seems to have shaken off that panicky feeling in a normal English summer - that if you don't make the most of a sunny day, you'll miss summer altogether. We now expect tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow to be blissfully warm.

long may it continue! In between times, I have been operating the moth trap but have only now dragged myself to the computer to show you some of the results. The moth in the top two pictures accounts for my title. It's the Oak Hook-tip, an attractive and relatively infrequent visitor. With it in the second picture is that very big micro-moth the Mother of Pearl. There are dozens of those in the trap every morning but each is beautiful with its opalescent sheen, like the lining of a mussel shell.

Some other visitors, clockwise from top left in the composite pic above: Light Emerald, Ruby Tiger, Frosted Orange, Marbled Coronet. And in the same order below: two July Highflyers with their different patterns, and a Silver Y from above and aside. I have a great expert on the Silver Y and whether or not it is an immigrant species, David Duthie, coming to inspect the catch this Friday, so I hope to have some expert information for you shortly thereafter.

Next, we have a Bordered Beauty, a truly lovely moth though most of them have a darker, purplish tone at the lower edge of the wings. And below it, left a Small Fan-footed Wave (I think) and (I also think, a Dun-bar, though I have awful difficulty in sporting out this type of moth).

More soon on the progress of my granddaughter's White Ermin caterpillars.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Hawkish haul

The hawk moths are proving wonderfully long-lived this blissful summer, as indeed are moths of all sorts (not to mention the caterpillars both at our central nursery and at its franchise outlets. The little Emperors kindly fostered into plump little fellows by a kind neighbour and her excellently naturalist children have all formed cocoons and should now sleep peacefully until March when they will emerge to start their brief lives as adult insects.

My first picture shows last night's hawk moth party - Pine, Privet, Poplar and Elephant. I was specially pleased to see the Pine Hawk, a favourite because of its sleek and purposeful look, and this one was a notable exception to the species' usual tendency to get very jittery soon after being disturbed of a morning. It clung tenaciously to me after the photo session and took quite some decanting into the depths of a protective hedge.

Here are more individual pics of the hawks, the Poplar with a nice Miller moth and the Pine beside a type of beetle which was in the trap in vast numbers, scrambling chaotically all over the place, regardless of whether moths were in their path. This set the whole place into a spin but there were too many moths for me to manage anyway, so goodness knows what I have missed. I know that a Blackneck got away without being photographed the other morning and I think also a Purple Bar.

Lovely, however, to see that strange insect the Leopard Moth with its partly translucent wings, a fresh Common or Lesser Common Rustic and what I think is a rather battered Nut-tree Tussock but am not sure about that (and in too much of a rush to complete checks now; help appreciated, as always).

Here's a Poplar Grey, that lovely moth the Coronet, a Least Carpet, a Single-dotted Wave (how mis-named, as I have often remarked!) and a Clay with its mean-looking Eye. Finally, here are those pesky beetles again, making a beetle-line for my mystery moth.

Monday, 2 July 2018


There are SO many moths about in this wonderfully warm weather which coincides with the annual high noon for the insects very satisfactorily. The only downside is that the hordes are beyond my feeble powers of concentration and patience; it would take a sounder entomologist than me to tell you with absolute accuracy how many Mother of Pearls, Small Magpies, Muslin Footman etc there were in the eggboxes this morning. Fifty of each? Sixty MoPs? I regret that I cannot say for certain. But there were certainly LOTS.

My favourite was the Scarlet Tiger in my top picture, a familiar day-flying moth around here in high Summer. You think that a Small Tortoiseshell or even some kind of fritillary has paid you a call, then realise from its jinking flight that the bright splash of flying colour is a Scarlet Tiger. In my naive enthusiasm for its size and brightness, I resemble my granddaughter whose weekend visited coincided happily with some good example of the hawk moths which she specially - and fearlessly - loves.

I was pleased, too, to show her the reason for the Yellowtail moth's name. We found this apparently white moth crouched on the trap's transparent cowl and photographed it from both above and below. Then I got her to tickle its forelegs and, hey presto! - see below -  That's why it got its name.

Usefully, in my role as natural history encourager, I found a White Satin moth in the trap as well, a species which is similar to the Yellowtip but a little larger and with no yellow. What it is does have, which the Yellowtip does not, is magpie legs - as in the picture left - a fact which the granddaughter brightly spotted straight away. 

Here below is a quartet of pictures showing, I hope, how busy the trap was; and, below it, four of the more interesting of the many, many overnighters.

They are, clockwise from top left: a Herald, a Lappet, a Small Elephant Hawk (this year's first for me) and the cheerfully distinctive micro Acleris holmiana.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Caterpillar crazy

Caterpillar breeding has reached unprecedented levels of care and volume here, and in the various foster-families who are kindly rearing infants from eggs laid by moths which visited my trap earlier in the year. After four seasons of Emperor Moth breeding, which I much enjoyed, I managed to find homes for all the brood hatched this Summer, and they are causing much interest and excitement. 

The plump ones in my first two pictures, shown with their foster-Mum's finger for a handy size comparison, are the subject of much youthful inquiry, both at home and in the local primary school. The family reported earlier this week: 

The caterpillars have been fine and are enormous! They are scoffing piles of hawthorn and seem equally happy with brambles. They had a trip out on Tuesday to see the class I am volunteering with. By a stroke of luck they were doing insect life cycles and they were really interested. Some good questions came up, such as: do the different thicknesses of stripe denote male and female? And: why don’t they get prickled on the thorns because they have soft bodies? Do they shed their skins as well? I thought I had killed them the day after you left when there was this shrivelled skin but there were still six alive and well so I imagine that’s what it was.

Excellent questions and ones to which I am not certain of the answer, apart from the skin-shedding which is another fascinating fact for children. Imagine if we burst out of our skins every so often, emerging in brand-new shiny and sometimes differently-coloured shape (as with the Emperor larvae which start off black and end up green). If anyone reading this can help, my friends and the school would be delighted. Meanwhile, a further bulletin arrived last night:

It’s all been happening today! First thing I thought one of them was poorly as it seemed to have a bit of an upset tummy. So I isolated it with just hawthorn, in case it had overdone it on the brambles. Now it looks perkier and seems to have sorted itself out digestive-wise. Plus! A different one seems to be pupating! I put some dry grass and leaves in and moved them all to a larger container and one has fine webby stuff round it as though it is the beginnings of a cocoon. I assume that I clean the rest out as normal but leave that corner alone. I am probably more excited than I ought to be and was quite upset this morning. I do hope this isn’t addictive...

I am afraid that it is. Meanwhile, the grandchildren's White Ermines have been astonishing their keepers by the enormous amounts of dandelion they are eating and by the results at the other end - if not having breakfast, see picture above. They have looked after them so successfully that over 50 are thriving and we have re-adopted two-thirds of them to help out. You probably thought like me that the dandelion was a common plant, too common indeed. But they are getting scarce in part of Walthamstow. See why, below:

Finally, the Bedford family in Oxford, who have another branch of the Emperor family, are kindly offering me eggs of an Eyed Hawk which was found mating with its partner by a colleague of Tom B. I'm hoping to sort out a pick-up this weekend; and so the saga will go on. It brings back memories of my own excitement when my brother and I bred Elephant Hawks successfully as children (and had the same heart-stopping moment when I first saw their shed, shrivelled skins). And if any of this year's keepers can be present when the moths eventually emerge from their pupae, that is an unforgettable sight. Partly for its strangeness and beauty and partly, as my granddaughter observes with great emphasis after seeing a hatch at the Natural History Museum in Kensington: "Grandpa, do you know? The FIRST thing it did was a huge WEE!"

Back in the garden, I have lit the trap for the first time since we got home from holiday. Showing signs of my age, I went outside an hour or so later when the grandchildren and their Mum and Dad arrived for the weekend, and was startled by the fact that our climbing roses seemed to be glowing. I actually got as far as getting the iPad and taking a photo before realising that the eerie and rather lovely effect was caused by my sighting of the trap right behind the wall. There it is, above.

There were some nice moths inside, including the Swallowtail above - in good condition for a large and fragile moth which often gets a battering and tattering early in its short life, judging by the condition of many of those which come to my light.  Below we have a Buff Ermine and a handsome example of the darkest version of that very variable moth, the Common Rustic.

Finally, another favourite: the small (observe my ubiquitous thumb comparator) but very attractive micro Anania coronata.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

What I saw on my holidays

Penny and I have just had a lovely week in southern Greece, re-aquainting ourselves with the Swallowtails and Scarce Swallowtails whose abundance on Continental Europe thrilled me on my first visits there as a teenager. I suppose that I am a bit blasé half a century later, so that they no longer turn my head. But I love to see them floating around above scented bushes or occasionally speeding away at top speed.

Even after many visits, there is also much to stalk and hunt, and this time I was delighted to persuade a male Cleopatra, like a Brimstone but with striking orange blotches on its forewings, to settle for a while. They are almost as powerful flyers as the Swallowtails and much less prepared, at least in my experience, to stay still. They remind me, too, of a famous butterfly hoax which you can read about here. It involved the curious looking creatures top and bottom in the trio on the left (with a standard Brimstone in the middle). As my link describes, the painted fakes were declared to be a new species by Linnaeus but later unmasked by Fabricius - and you don't get more eminent among classifiers than those two. They were stamped on in a fury when they were exposed, but luckily a painstaking entomologist re-assembled them and they are now in the British Museum of Natural History in London.

I was creeping about in search of Cleopatras when something even more orange caught my eye, at rest on a strongly-scented mauve shrub which grew in large bushes by the beach, a sort-of mixture between buddleia and spiraea. As I cautiously drew nearer, it upped and went, giving me time only to register it as some sort of Tiger moth. We have recently had Scarlet Tigers in Oxfordshire in their usual Summer abundance, but this was different. Ever-hopeful, I edged quietly to the other side of the bush and there it was, happily nectaring and happy to take part in a prolonged photo session which allowed me to take it from almost every angle.  As I was doing so, another British couple came up and were extremely pleased to join in the photoshoot. In my little insect-hunting excursions from the beach, which was as colourful as the butterflies and moths in a different way, as you can see from the small photo left), I met half-a-dozen other enthusiasts for photographing butterflies and moths. Update: Many thanks for the Comment below - I completely forgot to add the vital fact that this is a Jersey Tiger, a moth which is notably disloyal to its name. I even had one in Leeds. Abroad it has different titles, for example L'Ecaille chinée in France, or the Chinese Tortoiseshell. The moth is famous in Greece for swarming at the 'Valley of the Butterflies' on Rhodes which is one of the island's most heavily-promoted attractions.

Not to mention other insects. The village and its surrounding countryside were full of curious creatures. The ghostly-green grasshopper above was bestriding a small shrub which the custodian of an old castle had planted amid the dusty ruins, one of a number of plants which he was carefully watering when we arrived. He had missed this one out and when we asked why, he said: "I do not like bugs."  Thus we discovered the beautiful - and harmless - creature. He still preferred to keep away, so Penny watered the plant for him, so skilfully that (admittedly rather to his dismay), the grasshopper stayed put.

Here are some composite photos of other finds, with a couple of Scarce Swallowtails above, each missing a different tail, plus a glorious version of the Comma butterfly. It seemed brighter and quite a lot larger and I must check if there is a Continental species different from our own.

More of the same, above and below, including our own Swallowtail - not that many of us are likely to see it here in the UK - and a sinister-looking spider, top left below, balanced by a tiny wooden ladybird which we found in the village street.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Scented spot

I put the trap under a large and fragrant mock orange last night, a shady spot where I seldom try to trap. The results were little different from recent catches in other parts of the garden: three Elephant Hawks which are very common at the moment, and a large assortment of Buff Ermines, Hearts and Darts, Small Magpies and other visitors.

One very small arrival caught my eye: the Lime-speck Pug, above. There were also two contrasting examples of the micro Udea olivalis. Looking at them, I think that the pair which I identified yesterday as L. utealis may be olivalis as well, so I am updating that. Both moths are common.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Bye fly

We've been busy today entertaining friends for an afternoon themed on the Blandford Fly, one of the few serpents in our paradise (if I may mix my species and metaphors). The nasty little pest has pretty much shot its bolt for this year, but we were happy nonetheless to plunge a breadknife into its image on one of my famed superlight Victoria Sponge cakes.

Our guests enjoyed the moth trap and took home three Elephant Hawk moths for local distribution. One of them asked me to identify a moth in a photo on his iPhone, a task which usually makes me quail because of my well-known inability to get challenging species right. This however was easy: a Lime Hawk, or actually two, happily mating on the garage doors of our friend's home in Oxford. Lime Hawks seem to be happy resting on walls during the day. When our older son was a student here, I remember him spotting one sunning itself on a wall in Jericho.

So to the moths and I reckon these two be: top row, Udea lutealis micro (Update: actually I think they are more likely L.olivalis - see next post), bottom left Large Nutmeg (I think), right, Turnip moth (I also think).  And below from top left clockwise: Shoulder-stripe Wainscot, Common Wainscot, Muslin Footman (always looks blurry, even allowing for my camera ineptness) and Grass Rivulet, a nice delicate little moth.

Then in the same order, we have: Coronet, Clouded Silver, Willow Beauty (I think) and a micro, perhaps an Acleris, about which I feel unsure. Update: see helpful comment for suggestions about this.

Finally, another micro which I have nailed: Celypha striana. Help with my ums and ers is always greatly appreciated.

Friday, 15 June 2018

lobster pot

The moth trap works on the same principal as a lobster pot or crayfish trap, with a funnel tapering inwards to its narrower end to admit the insects whose sense of direction has been disorientated by the powerful light. (Or so we think; the question of attraction and distraction is not yet fully resolved in spite of the great age of the saying 'like a moth to a flame').

Appropriately therefore, I caught a lobster yesterday morning - the fine moths shown below with its distinctive way of resting with its underwing petticoats peeping out on either side. 

Its grey is a little like an uncooked lobster's with that added flush of pink which might hint at the joys of a seafood dinner. But there the resemblance ends. Not so when it comes to the caterpillar, shown right. What an amazing feat of 'Keep Off!' camouflage - or whatever the opposite of camouflage is called, when the protection lies in the obvious but dangerous-looking and  and unappetising appearance.

A little greenery now: first a Green Oak Tortrix turning its tiny back on a Straw Dot, both pygmies but the first a micro and the second a macro, thanks to the arcane joys of moth classification.

And next what I am pretty sure is a Green Pug because of the delicate greenish shade, though pugs are notoriously alike and difficult to distinguish, for me at least. You may be amused to see what came up when I put 'green pug' into Goggle Images. Something to do with St Patrick's Day in the world of small dogs, apparently.

I also have the chance, courtesy of Wednesday's visitors, to show you the effects of age on moths - probably a difference only of a week or two but the top picture, below, shows a pretty freshly-hatched Marbled Minor. The second is of an older and somewhat careworn relative.

Finally, two favourites: the Buff Arches with its triangular resting habit very similar to that used by the Burnished Brass, plus the Arabic-looking squiggles on its wings - doubtless an example of confusion camouflage like the dazzle used on wartime ships. And the final picture shows a delicate Riband Wave, a moth which comes in two equally attractive forms; this one and a version where the space between the double lines is smoky beige.