Sunday 19 November 2023

Autumn colours

Two Feathered Thorns came last night and you could be forgiven for thinking on first glance that they might be different species of moth. The yellowy, softly-shadowed one above is unlike any other I have had in the trap before. The one below is the usual form.

Both are males with their excellent antennae. Their solitary companion in the trap was a dozy Sprawler - like the Feathered Thorns, the possessor of a nice warm, furry collar on its thorax.

As is my habit if we're asked out, I took these moths to some friends who had kindly invited us for lunch. The moths behaved well after a little initial panic and settled down on a window to admire the view. We had such a nice time that I completely forgot about them and it was left to our host to chase us down the street with the moths in our granddaughter's collecting box.  Thank goodness. I didn't need the moths but would have got into trouble if I'd lost the box.

We liberated the moths on the spot and they flew vigorously away in the dusk. Barring interception by bats or birds, they have started a new life - and perhaps new families - seven miles south of here.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Whiskery gents

As happened last year, I find myself making the mistake of thinking that the season is over and then being surprised new arrivals. I put the trap out rather absent-mindedly on Monday night, not expecting anything much, but the morning brought this very welcome bunch of Sprawlers. The species is named after a curious reflex of its caterpillar when threatened but it always puts me in mind of a John Buchan style gathering of gents in a club, as below.

It's partly the name, which conjures up Harry Enfield's incoherent old buffer in his armchair, and partly the tweedy outfit of the moth. Mind you, the beads of dew on the lower left one in my first photograph obscured the pattern so much at first sight, that I thought that I was dealing with something else altogether. Here is how it looked, below.  It must have been deathly cold.

Two of the other three Sprawlers were in the eggboxes while the third had a perch on the bulbholder, below. Another new species for this year was the Winter Moth or rather two of them and the guest list was completed by a Feathered Thorn.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Previous Pasha


As an epilogue to my last post, I thought that I should show you a photo of the only other time that I have seen a Two-tailed Pasha, on the serpentine island of Meneghello near Hvar in Croatia some 20 years ago. Unlike the hill-topper in Provence, it was swooping about on a beach and took cover in a fissure in the rocks - there is scarcely any sand in that part of the world. I managed to get the photo above but then it was off, and it did not come back.

I overlooked a discovery in France as well, a very familiar caterpillar which Penny saw scuttling across a forest path on our way back from inspecting an ancient 'rucher' or apiary, surrounded by warnings that bees can sting. I've already featured quite a few of these larva thanks to my granddaughter's excellence at spotting and breeding them - the Pale Tussock, or 'hop dog' known and often cursed by Kentish hop-pickers who reacted to the mild toxins on its hairs.

The beehives in hollowed out cork oak were fascinating. Known about for years in documents, they date back to the 17th century but were only rediscovered and restored in 2006. New hives were installed and now house more than 5000 Provence black bees. The forests of sweet chestnut, cork oak and arbutus - the last the larval foodplant of the Two-tailed Pasha as I mentioned in my last post - suit them well and their honey is most flavoursome.

Back here, I put out the trap last night in spite of the chilly weather - maybe warmed as well as illuminated by Guy Fawkes displays. I'm glad I did. My first December Moth of the year arrived in its smart fur coat, along with two Feathered Thorns.  Here's the December Moth:

I moved it to our beech hedge for the Autumn colours, to remind me how early it has come - in terms of its name.  Last year I did not record one until December had begun, although I was trapping very intermittently,  And now here are the Feathered Thorns, one on the cowl and the other in an eggbox.

Finally, one a wall beside the light, I found this, below, which I think is a Satellite but I am studying further.

Oh, and a little non-moth too:

Monday 30 October 2023

This year's treat

For almost all of the 20 years that I have run a moth trap, and indeed going back very much further to my schooldays' butterfly collecting, I have been blessed by a regular series of surprises and delights.  My teenage capture of the rare Charlotta variety of the Dark Green Fritillary butterfly was perhaps the first although I had been rewarded by First Hawkmoth, First Fritillary and other highlights well before then. Later I chased down a magnificent iridescent blue and green Peacock Swallowtail in Indonesia and explored the little rainforest, rich in insects, created by the unending spray from the Victoria Falls.

This year's treat - because they have become almost annual events - is late in the day but certainly worth the wait: a gloriously prolonged encounter with a Two-tailed Pasha, Europe's largest butterfly species, on a mountain-top in Provence. Checking the European Butterfly Bible, I found it described as a confirmed 'hill-topper' and this exactly chimed with the rocky peak above Roches Blanches in the Massif des Maures where Penny and I found ours.

I thought at first that the best picture I would be bringing you would be the third one, above - the sun-drenched edge of rock where the big, and that stage unidentified butterfly perched after a prolonged and dizzy dance when we first disturbed it. It soon took off again but luckily, by my age, you know from experience that most butterflies are territorial. It disappeared over large stands of Arbutus unedo, the Strawberry Tree which is its caterpillar's food plant. But within a minute it was back. On its third circuit it settled more conveniently for me and - snap! - I got my pictures. 

Is it exclusively a 'hill-topper' though? Or could it be that butterflies are harder to spot when you are clambering up mountains or slithering down them, rather than the open space of the summit where you have time to rest and look thoroughly around. There were other nice butterflies there including the Wall Brown immediately above and several very restless Clouded Yellows flashing around. We also set up a Large Mountain Grasshopper - well-named and perhaps the inspiration for La Fontaine's reworking of Aesop's famous tale of fecklessness and prudence.

La Fontaine would also have been very familiar with the Blue-winged Cricket which zipped about on hot days - I filmed this one below at our local bus stop and then isolated the stills - not exactly a triumph of photography but I hope that it gives the idea.

Other discoveries during our five days in the lovely village of La Garde Freinet included the Large White and Small Copper below, plus the millipede and beetle whose exact ID I leave to passing experts, if any.

A final pleasure of the holiday was the little Musée des Papillons in St Tropez whose incredibly good-value admission charge of only two Euros admitted you to a lovely little townhouse whose former owner collected butterflies from all over the world and then used them to supplement paintings of his native Provence.  Reached by following butterflies inlaid in the pavement of an alley, it also had some terrific pictures of butterfly collectors in the old days.  Merci beaucoup!

Wednesday 11 October 2023

Big time

I am a sucker for larger moths and it was a treat to find one in the trap this morning, a battered but still energetic Red Underwing. This moth has a history with Penny and myself going back years; on one memorable occasion she spotted one snoozing by the Thames under a pub umbrella whose colouring exactly matched the moth’s. 

Today’s had a modestly exciting future in store as we were due to visit friends near Maidenhead and I wanted to take them an interesting moth. I therefore handled this one with extra caution, only waking it - partly to check in case it was a Clifden Nonpareil - when it was in the granddaughter’s specimen jar. 

On arrival at our friends, it posed contentedly for a while and then headed off powerfully towards their roof, its flying unaffected by the battering which life has given its wings. Perhaps it will start a local family but I fear that it may be a little on the elderly side. Anyway, let’s hope that it enjoys Oxfordshire.


The trap has not been short of interest so far as more ordinarily-sized moths are concerned; last night’s guests included this nice Large Wainscot, above. The stylish Angle Shades below is enjoying a boom with six in the egg boxes and two variants of the Common Marbled Carpet obligingly posed so that you can see the difference. 

Other pleasures include the strongly marked Willow Beauty, a Cypress Carpet with its sharply defined lines, a Satellite whose wing marks so closely resemble one of the sets of invading aliens in Space Invaders and a little Acleris kochiella micro. 

Both forms of the Green-brindled Crescent, the standard metallic green and the brownish f. cappuccino, are still calling in numbers and every day this week has brought the delight of a Merveille du Jour.

Finally Penny noticed this unusual concentration of slug or snail slime on the patio and found two small mushrooms, apparently nibbled. But no slugs or snails. Perhaps they were poisoned and slithered off to expire. 

Sunday 8 October 2023

Hoovering up


Things have been busier in recent weeks than they will have seemed from my inefficiency at updating this blog. Although Autumn is quieter in terms of numbers and has a predominance of darker and relatively small moths, there are also bright or interestingly-patterned visitors in the mix. I was glad for instance to have a Pine Carpet call - on the right in the top row above, after an Autumnal Rustic in its Confederate grey uniform and a Willow Beauty which was tucked into the rim of the black plastic bowl.

It was also good to have a Blair's Shoulder-knot, left in the middle row followed by a Garden Rose Tortrix micro and a Deep-brown Dart. In the bottom row we have a faded Carpet, perhaps another Pine one, a handsome Large Ranunculus and a Green-brindled Crescent, a lovely moth with striking patches of iridescent green wing scales.

My second composite has a Beaded Chestnut with a browny Lunar Underwing, a Common Marbled Carpet, a Centre-barred Sallow, a Burnished Brass, Silver Y, Angle Shades, Black Rustic, Snout and a second Lunar Underwing, this time dark and light grey. 

Meanwhile, on a morning in the park with our youngest grandchild we found that he and the Comma Butterfly have something in common - blackberries. Both were also entirely distracted by this wonderful, free contribution to the national diet so it was easy to get a good photo of the butterfly and to persuade the grandchild to have something healthy to eat.

I occasionally include pictures here of 'Moths Where They Shouldn't Be', a category invented by my granddaughter in herb entomological notebook which records moths on people's heads or perched on a slice of toast and the like. Here is an example from the Oxford Arboretum at Nuneham Courteney, always an interesting place to visit: an intrepid but unwise explorer of the noticeboard about the old field trip caravan belonging to General Pitt Rivers, he of the famed museum in the city. Alas, it got stuck and has remained there mummified since, like one of the museum's many curious items. 

Saturday 7 October 2023

Tussocks and Admirals

My granddaughter is continuing her relationship with the Pale Tussock moth after breeding a couple successfully last year. She came home from school last week with a couple of the species' striking caterpillars and then some of her friends found four more. To general relief, because she is tremendously concerned for caterpillar welfare, the catties all set about making cocoons almost as soon as she got them into a plastic storage box converted into a moth haven. Here is one which has almost finished, below.

Before their plans became obvious, my granddaughter had organised a big variety of broad-leaved tree leaves for them,  having carefully read the guides which recommend this in the absence of hops. She asked if we had any hops and by chance a kind friend had brought us a bunch that very day, ornamenting a jar of her delicious home-made quince jelly. But sadly, they were dried. Perhaps the catties glimpsed them and were further encouraged to pupate.

I meanwhile am continuing my relationship with the Red Admiral butterfly which is enjoying a tremendous late brood at the moment. The handsome creatures are everywhere, especially if there is flowering ivy in the vicinity. The one below actually invaded the moth trap and was snoozing in an eggbox the following morning. This is a rare occurrence for me but not unknown. My most unexpected and very destructive - guest has been an angry robin.

The coincidence of finding a narrowboat called Butterfly on the same morning was followed by a second nautical encounter. Not for nothing are these insects called admirals. I took my sculling boat Clementine out on the Thames and had just watched the first of two kingfishers when I saw a small but tremendous commotion on the water. It was a crash-landed Red Admiral which I managed to scoop up and dry out, first on Clemmie's hull and then on the cosy woollen shoulder of my sweater.

Here in conclusion are a few more trespassers in the moth trap - just a few of a host of ladybirds, along with yet another Box moth.

Oh and finally, finally, a couple of Merveille du Jours arrived last night and I couldn't resist photographing them on lichen, as per my observations yesterday.