Saturday 13 April 2024

Jewel Box

Blenheim Palace's butterfly garden is a couple of miles' bike ride from here and a perfect place to go to bring back memories of butterfly-hunting in Zimbabwe and Sulawesi long ago. The butterflies are vividly beautiful beyond imagining and very accessible. Delighted children find them perching on their clothes; I led this lovely iridescent blue one a merry dance with my matching blue, and apparently intoxicating socks.


Here are some of the many species; I am sorry not to have squirrelled out their names but the long and delightfully warm greenhouse has an excellent identification chart. You can also watch them emerging from chrysalises in a cabinet at the far end. The experience has little of the thrill of encountering even just one such specimen in the wild, but everything else about it is five-star.

Visitors' closeness to the insects also allows an unhurried examination of their flying and feeding techniques such the way that a determined male will hover for ages over an unresponsive female as was the case with the red-and-black pair in my first composite picture. The opportunities for photography are endless and help an understanding of the butterflies' structure, such as the modest size of each of the scales which, in their thousands, make up the glorious wings.

Back at home, the moth trap is becoming more varied in its quieter way and here are some of its recent visitors: a shy Early Grey (the Tea Moth to me, as I am about to make some to wake P and we mix English Breakfast and Earl Grey half-and-half), then a more upfront one;

Next, a Swallow Prominent with the slender multiple chevrons which mark it out from its Lesser cousin which has one, large white triangle. And then a Herald, shield-shaped, metallic and bronzy as though forged by Hephaestus, altogether a lovely Spring arrival.

The Frosted Green makes a change as well even if its colouring is very often hard to discern. Home in, however, and it is there. Its kitten ears also give it a distinctive profile amid the eggboxes.

Finally, a glimpse of the underwing of a Common Quaker and the chubby body which makes such an attractive target for my resident robins and blackbirds. And another Common Quaker, worn but lovely in the modest way which gives it and the various other Quaker moths their name.

Thursday 11 April 2024

Grandchildren, take two

The grandchildren are back again and the moths are getting used to clambering on to fingers much more delicate than mine. I sometimes get a little impatient with this hobby but wrongly; as the granddaughter points out, the exercise often makes the males show their antennae, their most interesting organ for me, if only because we humans don't have them.

The insatiable curiosity of young visitors also sharpens my ID skills or at least encourages me to make greater efforts, as with the very lightly-marked - worn perhaps? - moth in the picture above whose veining is not immediately familiar to me. This is not a new problem as regular readers well know and it is specially bad at the start of each year's trapping when grey and brown middle-sized arrivals abound. Moire soon, I hopoe, after an internet and Moth Bible browse over morning tea.

I can, however, recognise the beautiful Powdered Quaker above and the Satellite below, although the grandchildren are too young to see the similarity between its tiny flying saucer marks and the aliens we used to shoot down in that early computer game Space Invaders.

Talking of worn moths, here is a very battered Early Grey compared with the scarcely touched Streamer below it, a lovely little moth with an attractive name prompted by the little banners caught in mid-flutter in the middle of its forewings.

Back to the little fingers, this time with their Cambridge Blue nail varnish and hosting a very nice new moth for the year, a Lunar Marbled Brown - the 'lunar' is accounted for by the tiny fingernail-clipping like a sickle moon just discernible on the lefthand side of the broader light band in the wing pattern.

Back to the familiar with this Common Quaker above and a Nut-tree Tussock plus waving antennae - the same as the first-ever visitor to the granddaughter's trap a few posts ago, a satisfyingly pretty debut moth.

Finally two snaps of a frisky Orange-tip butterfly, my second of the year and bringing my year's tally to four after a Brimstone, the Speckled Wood shown in the last post and a fast-flying Comma. 

Friday 5 April 2024

Slow progress


The weather continues to be haphazard and Aprilish, lovely sunny spells followed by showers and downpours and resulting floods, plus some chilly nights. Not a lot of joy from the moth trap therefore, but one highlight was the male Brindled Beauty above with its magnificent antennae.  It was also good to have some rich variety in the abundant Hebrew Character moths which are the most populous of the trap's visitors at the moment. They vary from quite dull, like the one on the left below, to a beautiful mixture of russets as in the moth on the right which I suspect was fairly recently hatched.

Here it is again below with a contrasting Clouded Drab (I hope; as per recent posts, I am very dodgy in my ID efforts with moths such as this one).

Better than all the above, however, was this fine little Ashy Mining Bee, so called on account of its colour and habit of digging holes in patches of open soil.

One of my many great-nieces has also been an observant insect hunter on a visit to her Granny and Grandpa up in Bradford. They spotted a bumble bee leaving this trail - as my sister said, like drops squeezed from a tube of mustard - on the children's swing. Connie's Dad did some Googling and found that 'bees save up their poo all Winter and then go on a cleansing flight and blob it out.'  Well I never.

My butterfly list for 2024 reached three with this Speckled Wood three days ago, coming after an Orange Tip last weekend - too brief a visit to photograph - and the Brimstone two weeks earlier. Penny and I also saw theses different kinds of butterfly on the walls of one of those pricey art galleries in London's Fitzrovia round Charlotte Street. As often previously mentioned, the colours and patterns of moth and butterfly wings have been hugely influential in textile design.

And so to birds and the fun I've been having with our garden's many robins who all want a share of my moths. I ought to oblige them perhaps, since feeding birds is widely considered the main role of moths in the great cosmic round, but it is too callous in human terms not to try to smuggle them away into the depths of bushes. 

Undeterred, another robin mocked us on the day we finished a massive and impressively argument-free DIY of our new fruit cage by treating it as an aviary. He was terrified, however, and I don't think he'll go back in.

Less happily, we saw an horrendous fight to the death between two male Blue Tits, presumably over a mate or nesting site.  Never be under any illusion about the tooth and claw side of the animal world.

Sunday 24 March 2024

Spring Forward


As I mentioned at Christmas, my entomological granddaughter was brought her very own mothtrap by Santa Claus. Since then, she has waited with saintly patience for the rain and freezing weather to turn nicer. At last this week it did.

Her first visitors were this very handsome Double-striped Pug, above, still with the russety colouring visible which gives it the scientific name of Gymnoscalis rufifasciata in which 'rufi' is the Latin for 'red.' More predictably, a Common Quaker woke up when she disturbed the eggboxes and crawled inquisitively on to her pyjamas after inspecting her fingertip.  

A second Common Quaker provided a useful lesson in making sure to search the whole trap, as it was hiding sleepily - first picture below -under a rim which overlaps the bowl. My granddaughter was notably delicate compared to her clumsy Grandpa, however, at persuading even a fragile and usually very jittery Common Plume on to her finger. Having moths on her fingers has been an enthusiasm for most of her ten years, the record being five hawk moths on one hand.

The star of the show, though, was a Nut-tree Tussock, a very attractive, medium-sized moth which has yet to pay a call to my own trap this year. It had no hesitation about obliging its captor with a wander round her hand and arm.

After she had gone to school, her younger brother and I discovered a second Double-striped Pug up on the ceiling, almost certainly an un-noticed escapee from the trap. Their parents, Penny and I had brought this in at about 10.30pm the night before when it began to rain and the species is so small that I think it could have found a way under the towel which we draped over the bowl for the night.

There was also a badly-worn moth in the eggboxes, I'm pretty sure a third Common Quaker. And her Mum, who is not a fan of small, fluttery or creepy things but nobly encourages the family to be interested in them, spotted the caddis-fly in my last picture up on the kitchen ceiling and quite possibly attracted in by the house lights, which can often serve as a weaker form of light trap.

An interesting aspect of this debut was my granddaughter's sincere concern for her small, temporary prisoners. Whereas my generation when young had few if any second thoughts about pinning butterflies and moths to form collections of dead insects, her priority is to ensure that they all escape safely back in to the wild after photographs have been taken. It will be interesting to see how she copes with blackbirds and robins once they start to take an interest in what she is doing.

I also pondered, as I sat beneath two lovely cherry trees at school collection time later in the day, how this attitude - pretty general among the young and encouraged by teaching and modern environmental concern, will affect scientific study. Will we miss things through the absence of close examination of dead creatures, or will we form new insights by a more sympathetic approach to their ways? 

Friday 22 March 2024

Livening Up

The warmer weather has brought more moths both in numbers and variety including the milky Powdered Quaker above and a nice bright Herald below. The latter follows the Spring Usher in raising spirits at the prospect of sunnier times. Hooray!

A third distinctive arrival is this Pale Pinion, next, followed by a tabby-cat of a Brindled Beauty. Just four moths but they nicely illustrate the range of possible arrivals even at this early stage of the year.

Beyond the world of moths, plenty more is going on among the insects, beetles and other small inhabitants of our garden. Ladybirds are beginning to explore outside their hibernation nooks and crannies and I chased the caddis fly, second picture below, for several minutes before it rested long enough for me to see that it wasn't a moth.

Finally, I upended a flowerpot the other day and found this healthy-looking cocoon inside. It has joined three Pale Tussock ones on loan from the granddaughter who craftily gets us to check for emergence every day, rather than doing it herself.