Saturday, 24 August 2019


I am still on a butterfly high after my morning among the Adonis Blues of Yoesden Bank, about as perfect an expedition as I have experienced. But my life in the insect world continues to be varied and it's excellent having the iPhone camera with me wherever I go.

I always try to capture the iridescence of Mother-of-Pearl micros, which are very frequent in the trap in July and August, and my fumbling attempts are not very successful. But this morning's maybe conveys some of the pearly effect which always takes the eye, an organ which sees things differently  from a camera, and more cleverly.

In the world of outings, Penny and I paid an enjoyable visit to my old Oxford college, Merton, to harvest some mulberry leaves for my silk worm eggs - which, I'm quite relieved to say, have not yet hatched. Although the friend who gave them to me successfully bred moths on her cosy narrowboat, I am not sure that I can keep up the required temperature. Let's see. At least I keep finding mulberry trees which are more common than some suppose. I have a friend who travels annually to harvest ones in London - they are easily findable by the purple splodges of fallen fruit on the pavement below - and only last weekend, we found this magnificently recumbent example on an Open Garden day at beautiful Radcot Manor.

Then the other evening we hooked up for an evening swim in the Thames at Dorchester, south of Oxford, and witnessed the interestingly sudden arrival of a swarm of flying ants which settled on the nice warm roof of the boat but were away by the time we'd sploshed ashore and dried. I couldn't work out whether the animated scenes which took place when one bumped into another were fighting or just conversation.

The moth trap meanwhile continues to be fairly subdued but I am hoping that the deliciously warm weather forecast for the Bank Holiday may bring some surprises. Here for the time being is an Orange Swift demonstrating the family's distinctive resting position - legs out like a spider, wings furled like a brolly - and a neat, governessy Willow Beauty (I think; I am a little unreliable on this type of delicate, salt-and-peppery moth).

Butterflies also continue to be irresistible. On our weekly grandchildren duty, my  granddaughter spotted this Painted Lady in their little garden, followed shortly by a Red Admiral which kept its distance.

And finally, the weather was so nice that I decided to walk into Oxford and back yesterday instead of taking the bus. I was surprised not to see more butterflies along the canal and in Port Meadow and the fields around Kidlington, but there were certainly plenty of Speckled Woods and lots of dragon and damselflies.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Britain's most beautiful butterfly?

You know those lists of Things to do before you Die? Well, I've just done another one. I have always wanted to see an Adonis Blue and this morning I was lying back in the sunshine on a wildflower slope in the Chilterns surrounded by them. It was like discovering a hoard of jewels.

The depth and richness of their blue is matchless, so that you have no difficulty spotting them even when they are sitting still. Here's the first I came across, less than a minute after going through the kiss-gate into Yoesden Bank nature reserve in the picture-perfect Radnage Valley. Tiny, bigger, biggest:

Actually, there was an interlude between 'bigger' and 'biggest' because the sun went behind a cloud and the insect closed its wings, suddenly becoming the little speckled triangle of capuccino, below:

I had approached it initially with bated breath and extremely cautiously, expecting it to suss my presence and skitter off like the Common Blues in our local field. But no, it was calmness itself. I settled down beside it and after three minutes during which neither of us stirred, out came the sun and - flash, wham! - there was the wonderful blue again.

I spent a while finding the reserve after misunderstanding the directions - my fault not theirs - but time is never wasted in such Arcadian surroundings. I had a lovely time driving very slowly along single-track roads like jungly tunnels. 

And when I lit on the right path after wandering around Bedlow Ridge for a while, I found first of all a good omen dangling from a tree by another kiss-gate, and then a pair of courting Brown Arguses in the only field you cross before the reserve.

On the reserve's sloping meadow, I was rewarded with another sight: massed butterfly enthusiasts; a common phenomenon in the birding world but one I have only seen for butterflies at Bernwood Forest during the Purple Emperor season in early July. As always, they were generous with their expertise and confirmed by photos of a Chalkhill Blue, below, another lovely creature which flies alongside the Adonis.

Then I dawdled over another luscious Adonis before heading off for my second port-of-call, Aston Rowant nature reserve, which is home to another somewhat uncommon butterfly, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

But before we leave Adonis-land, let me note that the Chiltern escarpment is so far the most Northerly point in the UK reached by the species. It's only 25-odd miles to here, so please keep trucking, guys. 
And secondly, who was Adonis? He was the super-handsome son of a Greek princess who had been changed by the Olympian gods into a myrrh tree, from which he was born. He then became the mortal lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but was unfortunately gored to death by a wild bull (see Rubens' take on this, right). His blood and Aphrodite's tears mingled as they fell into the ground and the mixture raised the world's very first crop of anemones. 

I think the little butterfly is worthy of all this - and of the gender of the story's hero, because not surprisingly for anyone who knows anything about butterflies and moths, the amazing blue is the monopoly of the male. His partner is still lovely, but as in all UK 'Blues', much browner..

At Aston Rowant, which has a fine view of the M40 which got me from Oxford so speedily, there were more enthusiasts, above. And there were also Silver-spotted Skippers.  Not remotely as stunning as the Adonis Blue, but a very satisfying end to a memorable morning.

Oh, and here's one of those irresistible butterflies, a male Brimstone, which saw me off as I headed back to the car.

The good old moth trap can't compare at the moment with all this glorious drama. But here a couple of nice, chaste Common Wainscots which relieved Monday night's otherwise somewhat brown and grey population:

Their colours were slightly different, as shown, and the top one was much smaller than the norm - perhaps a second generation insect which has spent less time in its chrysalis.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Tough cookie

I was pottering round the veg patch a couple of days ago, harvesting and clearing space for some new planting and sowing, when a movement at my feet caught my eye. Movement, along with smoke from a fire and worn paths, were dinned into us as children as sure ways to betray your presence should you find yourself being a partisan in enemy territory (unlikely in late 1950s England, but there we are).

It turned out to be this Small White butterfly, inveterate enemies of mine at least at the caterpillar stage, but I took sympathy on it because its right forewing was not properly formed, probably due to some mishap when emerging from its chrysalis.

I thought no more of it until the following day, when the same movement drew my attention again, in exactly the same spot. And there was the little butterfly, haplessly scrambling around because my bulk or movement had alarmed it.

It seemed a lesson in the toughness of these little creatures and, perhaps, the myopia of birds when insects are on the ground and - normally - staying still. I left the insect alone again, although it will probably mate and thus contribute to the devastation of my Purple-sprouting.

On my way back inside, my eye was caught again, this time not by movement, smoke or an over-used trail, but by a speck of warm colour on the paving flags - can you just see it, above? It proved to be a beautiful Painted Lady, one of loads around this year. They come from the continent in waves and are very attached to particular warm spots where they enjoy sun-bathing on heat-retaining surfaces.

Meanwhile, I finally found time to bike down the canal towpath to check if the aestivating Old Lady moths, which I described in this post a fortnight ago, were still there. No, like their counterparts in the charabanc, right, they have upped and gone. Much remains to be discovered about this fascinating episode including their apparent invulnerability from spiders whose webs were copious in the gloom, and - as Mark Griffiths points out on the Upper Thames Moths blog, bats.

The stonework fissures which earlier in the month were clogged with up to 200 Old Lady moths

Monday, 19 August 2019

Mixed company

The distinctive shape of Thorn moths is a feature of the trap at the moment; they perch with their wings angled up behind them in the style we were told to use when preparing to dive in swimming races at school. I was greeted immediately by these three when I lifted the lid yesterday morning - one Dusky to the bottom left and two Canary-shouldered, one of them startled by appearance into jumping on to the lightbulb which luckily had cooled down. Here they are closer up, Dusky, left, followed by its lovely, bright yellow-chested cousin below.

Also on the cowl was this little Yellow Shell, a moth which pays only occasional visits:

Equally pretty and in the same midget league, was one of the few pugs at whose identity I am prepared to hazard a guess.  I am pretty sure that it is a Double-striped, though I am standing by to be corrected.

Next we have a rather flightworn Copper Underwing whose condition has the advantage of allowing us a glimpse of the finely-coloured underwing which gives the species its name. These are extremely active moths when disturbed in the eggboxes, though they seldom fly away. They simply rush around trying to find a nook or cranny to escape from either daylight or my prying eyes.

I was talking about butterflies trespassing into the trap the other day. Yesterday morning I found a different intruder: this fine grasshopper. Update: many thanks to my Commentor - see below. This is a female Oak-bush Cricket. Like the moths, he or she was rendered dozy by the light and willingly agreed to be photographed. Normally this is a frustrating business when you try to follow one as it high-jumps around.

Finally from the trap, I can never resist including photos of Brimstone moths because their colour - appropriate in this post because of the Canary-shouldered Thorns - lifts the spirits. There was one in the trap, shown right, and one on rough grass nearby where it was instantly clear to my eyes though not, apparently, to the birds'.

Oh, and that wasn't actually finally. I'd forgotten that I also took this relatively close-up of a Burnished Brass's metallic wings, another must for inclusion whenever possible, ideally with my pyjamas for colour contrast.

Away from the trap, I am equally unable to resist butterfly walks in the current weather and I hope to get down to one of the local sites for the Adonis Blue, a ravishing-looking insect which I have never seen. Meanwhile, here are some more everyday but lovely neighbours, starting with a small, day-flying moth which I have yet to ID and then a Painted Lady - loads about this year - then three 'Smalls' - Small Heath, Small Copper and Small Tortoiseshell - and ending up with a glittery dragonfly. Update: again thanks to Conehead in Comments, this is a Common Darter.