Monday, 30 March 2020


The moth trap light bulb has died, so activities will cease for a while - not that they have been exactly strenuous with the run of very cold nights. Impressively, the various moth trap-supplying firms are continuing business online, but in the long-term, the issue of mercury vapour bulbs is problematic.

As the website of Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies, one of the main specialists, explains:

Most of the remaining bulbs also seem to have screw threads, whereas my ancient Robinson trap has a three-pin bayonet fitting. I think I've sourced a new bulb but, as it happens, I have two unused screw bulbs in storage, one of them shown left with the newly defunct bayonet one. So if anyone handy in these matters is passing by and reading this, I'd be grateful for any tips on converting my system. I guess I need to find a new bulbholder with a screw thread to link up to the wire shown right.

Meanwhile, you may like to see how much rubbish - quite a lot of it insect-based by the look of it, -accumulates in the base of a bulbholder whose owner has not cleaned it out for 12 years:

Now that I have cleaned it, I will give the bulb one last try but I doubt, sadly, that the fluff and bits of wing and leg will have stopped the power getting through.  As a consolation, and a relief from the virus misery, the Spring countryside is fantastic at the moment. Here are blackthorn, violets and cowslips which Penny and I saw on a very ordinary footpath near us yesterday. 

Back home, we are very much enjoying the spate of witty internet posts on what to do at home during the lockdown. There is a brilliant one in which people create their own twist on Old Master paintings, while this is a guide to mountain-climbing using your stairs - apologies if you live in a bungalow:

With our holiday plans completely wrecked, like so many other people's, one of our sons also kindly emailed these suggestions for tourism at home:

And finally, here is a little brain gym for you, to keep the grey cells alert:

Warmly wishing everyone the best in keeping safe and well during  these difficult times.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Cheering sight

Nothing terribly exciting or unusual here but at last my skittish butterfly visitors paused long enough for me to get these half-decent pictures.  The week of brilliantly sunny and warm days has been a tonic, especially in the context of the virus restrictions; and a reminder of how lovely our common butterflies, like the Small Tortoiseshell, Brimstone and Peacock shown here, are.

Moths are another matter so long as the clear skies bring such frosty nights, but we can hope for better before long.  I hope that you and yours are meanwhile keeping safe, snug and well.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020


In Spring, a young Brimstone's fancy...  For the last two days, I've enjoyed the sight of the lemon and custardy butterflies darting rapidly about. Yesterday, they got down to business. With Spring bursting out all over, this pair were whirling about together over our burgeoning rhubarb in the sunshine before disappearing into the discreeter dappled shade of our neighbour's black walnut grove. A cheering sight!

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Butterfly sun

It was as warm as summertime yesterday afternoon, which is a major consolation for the troubled times we're living through. The butterflies duly responded; after Sunday's first sighting of a couple of Brimstones in the Chilterns, we had our debut of that lovely species here. Powerful flyers, Brimstones seldom settle for long and so my pictures are blurry and snatched. But a lovely sight nonetheless.

A peacock was also swooping about, exercising its wings after hibernation. My series of pictures was taken as I crept up on it in the vegetable garden, which is being weeded and tilled as seldom before. But I couldn't get close enough for a big, crisp shot. I think the insect's eyes sense movement and shadow with great sensitivity.

Nights are contrasting chilly with the largely clear skies and we have had quite heavy frosts since Friday. The moth trap therefore remains indoors, as we now have to rather too much of the time.

Monday, 23 March 2020

The butter-coloured fly

I put the trap out on Friday night and woke up to find the garden rhimed with frost. Not a soul had slept in the eggboxes. It is interesting how cold stops flying at this time of year.

Yesterday in the daytime was another matter on in beautifully warm sunlight on the Chiltern hills, Penny and I saw our first butterflies of 2020, apart from the occasional hibernator such as the Peacock which enlivened morning service at church three weeks ago.

Both were Brimstones, the first in the churchyard at Nettlebed and the second amid the trees of the Warburg nature reserve, a woody dry valley which boasts no fewer than 15 species of wild orchid. The familiar yellow species with its smart, slightly-hooked wings, is a favourite suspect for the etymology of the word 'butterfly' - first in the season and therefore a matter of note, and butter-coloured (although the male is actually more lemony).

Let's hope that they were a good omen. But in any event, we had a lovely walk - pic above - and were pleased to see the countryside fuller of ramblers than usual, no doubt because of all the other current virus restrictions on daily life.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

First big party

It's cheering this morning, amid all the gloomy virus news, to report the year's first large gathering of moths in the light trap. Just as the Government moves to ban big gatherings of people, the moths are gaily getting together. Here are the four species which came last night.

Heading this post are Hebrew Characters, all of the three which flew in on a warm night but one with brief but, by the look of it, quite heavy rain which turned the top moth's oak leaf into a little boat. Then below we have one of six Clouded Drabs which were in the eggboxes above a couple of Small Quakers, of which there were seven.

Next, another Clouded Drab which has been in some sort of scrap with either a bird, a bat or a thornbush, and below that a third Clouded Drab on the right and a Common Quaker - one of 15 in the trap - on the left.

Finally, the most interesting new arrival, for me at least: three Twin-spotted Quakers in three different colourways, the ones at the bottom with a Small Quaker (left) and Common Quaker (right). I can't say that this is my favourite time of the year for moths, seeing as how I really go for the bright and colourful ones, but it's nonetheless encouraging to see things picking up.  Let's hear it yet again for the Robinson trap's simple but very effective rain shield. Hooray!

Monday, 9 March 2020

Settled down

No drama last night, I'm glad to say, following the toppling of the trap by wind on Saturday/Sunday night. No drama inside either, but a Clouded Drab - bottom right, above - joined three Common Quakers in the modest morning assembly. So with January's solitary Pale Brindled Beauty and my little February Agonopterix, that's four macros and one micro at this very early stage in the year.

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The wind blew...

Well, this is something that's never happened before - and that's quite a claim after 12 years of running a light trap. I came out this morning, early, after a night of mixed weather and was startled to see that the top of my familiar black, cowled tub was no longer in place. The lamp, its bulbholder and rainshield had all gone.

I was more startled still, and very relieved, to see when I got a little nearer that the light was indeed still shining, albeit in a different place. This is a tremendous tribute to the sturdiness of mercury vapour moth trap bulbs, as well as to the soft landing place provided by young cow parsley.

I had hear gusts of wind in the night and one such had clearly found its way under the rainshield, normally such a trusty ally in bad weather, and hoicked it off. Luckily, the night was much less wet than windy and the eggboxes under the large help left where the bulb should have been were onoy a little damp.

My trap is a bit of a contraption after so much use and I may invest in a new cowl this year, as more and more Sellotape is pressed into use to seal gaps and cracked sections, as shown to the left.  For all its wonkiness, however, it was able to provide shelter to my first macro moths of 2020, the  couple of Common Quakers shown below.  Much as I admire Quakers, partly after spending five happy years at a highly independent and unorthodox Quaker school from the age of seven to 13, I have to tell you that they gave their name to this species, and several of its relations such as the Small and Yellow-bordered Quaker moths, because they are plain and drab..

I thought that was it but this evening, when I decided to put the trap out again in a more sheltered spot, I noticed a slimmer, angular-looking moth actually on top of the bulb's rainshield. Here it is: a male March Moth, below, one of the few species named after a month which stays pretty loyal to that designation (unlike, for example, the August Thorn). It's one of the winter and early Spring moths whose female companions get a raw deal, as shown in the picture from the Moth Bible, right. They are basically designed to reproduce, crawling up a tree trunk and waiting for a male to come and do the business.

Meanwhile the Spring is springing into life with a beauty which helps to counter all the gloom about Coronavirus.  Here's a cherry tree in our garden and some of the clouds of mis-named blackthorn along the Oxford Canal and all round our neighbouring fields.

I've been a bit tardy with the next moth, the only one I found in February when I didn't light the moth trap at all.  This little guy was in our shed and fluttered off when I banged the door. He or she is probably Agonopterix heracliana but could have been the very closely related but rarer A. ciliella.  You can only really tell by genital examination and I'm not up to that. Plus the moth is long gone.

Finally, we had an extra member of the congregation in church this morning: this Peacock butterfly which was swooping around and getting into a bit of a tizz at the windows. If you look at the third photo, you can see one reason why.  Peacocks and their relatives Small Tortoiseshells often hibernate in houses and other buildings and can emerge prematurely in sunny or warm spells. This accounts, inter alia, for their regular appearance in theatres where they had been snoozing in the stage curtains and their emergence is accounted a good omen for the box office. There's no scientific link, but it's nice to think that you never know.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Record player

Penny and I have spent the weekend with the grandchildren who at one stage went into a frenzy of mathematics - multiplying 12 until their brains were exhausted and reciting numbers up to stratospheric levels. On the way home, we called in on some small grand-nieces who told us that they had 'millions and billions' of fluffy toy owls, many of which they produced as proof.

Where all this expertise comes from, I have no idea, but it certainly isn't me. I scraped through Maths O Level in 1966 with Grade 6, the minimum required for a pass, and never really got a handle on the subject (though aspects of it, such as the curious habits of the number 9) have always intrigued me.

This is leading up to the admission that I am a very poor record-keeper, which is a lamentable characteristic in a recorder of moths. Some would say that running a trap, as I do, is largely pointless if you do not provide the UK - and world's - very impressive data banks with records of what you have found.

Did you know that every county in the country has a moth recorder, indeed usually more than one, and the largely amateur circle of people who run lights has a magnificent history of keeping them supplied. I was only just reading a note on the ever-excellent Upper Thames Moths blog by one counterpart to myself who counted 16,961 little visitors last year. His best night saw 1077 moths of 125 different species. I would have lost count long before reaching 16,000 and if Penny had to wait for morning tea while I counted 1077 moths, there might be trouble.

Anyway, two years ago (Oh the shame), I contacted our local moth recorder to say that I was at last intending to organise myself. Nothing happened, but after the Christmas just gone by, I made a New Year resolution and I have carried it out. My tallies for Oxfordshire going back to April 2013 when we moved from Leeds are now on this blog's What Moth Is That? records page. Hooray! 

Don't get too excited, however. My inability to spend time doing exhaustive counts means that the list is primarily a record of highlights - for example, on one of the very rare occasions where I give an approximation of the total - 10 June 2014 - I selected only a dozen or so of an estimated 300 moths in the trap for specific attention. I must have been going through a conscientious period at the time because there was a short spell in the Spring of that year when I listed totals of arrivals - eg on April Fool's Day:

1 Apr Dotted Chestnut  Diurnea fagella  Agonopterix alstromeriana   Common Quaker (32)  Small Quaker (14)  Clouded Drab ((13)  Hebrew character (12)  Early Thorn (4)  March  Pine  Beauty, Twin-spotted Quaker  Satellite  Red Chestnut (2) Clouded Drab (9) Common Quaker (26) Emmelina monodactyla (2) Oak Beauty

So 'tis done. But there is also much more to do. After a good rest and no doubt turning my attention to life's other demands - eg the above-mentioned grandchildren - I must buckle down and do the same for the still-undetailed years from 2008 to 2013 when I paid host to moths in Leeds.

I also suspect that the moth recorder may want me to reclassify my list into species rather than dates; and some of the favoured reporting forms are both online, which I don't find a doddle, and have intimidating numbers of queries about moths' gender, weather conditions and so forth.  I applaud the motives for this thoroughness while at the same time quailing at the prospect of trying to satisfy it. But I will try. In due course.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Early bird

I was going to say that my second night with the moth trap this year saw the guest-list increase by 100 percent, but some warning bell sounded from 1966 when I scraped through maths O level with grade 6, the lowest which still constituted a pass. A hundred percent of nil is nil, it reminded me. So the fact that I got one moth last night was an increase of a different order.

The moth is a Pale Brindled Beauty, a traditionally early flyer with a reassuring amount of fur coat to help to keep it warm. It wasn't actually in the eggboxes but perched on a section of the bulbholder which was gently warmed by the nearby light. In the hope of photographing its underwings, I gave it a little tickle with a twig and it obligingly fluttered down to the grass and revealed all. That includes - picture below - the slightly pinkish tone of its body colouring, the sign of a freshly-hatched specimen.

Here it is again, below, on a scrap of eggbox, showing the fine antennae which almost always mark a moth out as male, because of their role in detecting the pheremones given off by females. Actually, you don't need to see these to know the gender of the moth. Take a look at my final picture of the Pale Brindled Beauty's poor old flightless female, who is in fact an example of evolutionary success. She sits contentedly on a tree trunk, safe from the dramas of night flight, and waits for a male to arrive and do the business, before laying her eggs and starting the cycle off again.

I have been catching up at last with my records going back to our move here from Leeds in the Spring of 2013. So I can tell you that previous debuts by the PBB have been: 3 Feb in 2014, 1 March in 2016, 17 Feb in 2017 and 2 Jan last year. I only trapped for a couple of nights before April in 2015 and had no bulb until April in 2018.  It has been the first moth to arrive every year except 2016 and now 2020 when it has had to be content with the silver medal.

Sunday, 12 January 2020


The weather has been very capricious but mild enough, on and off, for me to be tempted to turn on the lamp. The lawn is growing - eek! - and as you can see here, cyclamen and Honesty or Silver Dollar are in early flower.

Over on the excellent Upper Thames Moths blog, the moth supremo Dave Wilton has made a beeline for sheltered woodland - "The place to be for moths at this time of year" in his words - and filled his trap with more than 200 visitors.

How many did I get last night? None. Until around teatime today, I was resigned to writing a short post about the merit of proving a negative and suchlike.

But I reckoned without eagle-eyed P. "There's a moth," she said, as we planted out some refugee perennials from pots which had got a bit straggly and unhappy. Sure enough, a little Common Plume had helicoptered out of the leaves of one of them. The moths seem to have excellent vision, because whenever I got near enough to take a picture, he whirred into life and was off on another jinking attempt to find a safe haven..

The Common Plume's Linnaean name is a nice combination - Emmelina monodactyla, or Emmeline the Monoplane. It sounds like a character from a children's book, and indeed an imaginative author might make that a reality. The moths have reasonably-sized wings, on their Lilliputian scale, but furl them up as tightly as a City gent's umbrellas when at rest.

Here you can see the wider part of the wing, exposed because the moth is about to take off. Encouraged by this find, I have put the trap out again tonight in the nearest equivalent our garden offers to sheltered woodland.