Monday, 20 September 2021

Still unequalled

My greatest source of pleasure and wonder in 16 years of recording moths has been the recent , storming advance of the Clifden Nonpareil, once an extreme rarity which I dreamed of seeing without any realistic hope of doing so.

In the last three years I have been visited by more than a score of these huge and beautiful creatures and on Saturday night they lived up to their reputation again. Reports of local sightings have featured on the Upper Thames Moths blog for some weeks and I was beginning to wonder if the moths had tired of Thrupp and, like an army invading much faster than it expected to, moved on.  Not so. There were three in the trap, another record.

I was alerted to the year's first Nonpareil Night when I went out earlier than usual, at about 6.15am when it is only just getting life. Something was very restless beneath the trap's transparent cowl and I soon saw the unmistakable stripes of the underwing. I popped a towel over the top of the cowl and went back inside to await better light and make our morning tea.

When I returned an hour later, the moth was happier but still not at ease, so I gently manoeuvred my Bug Bottle under the towel and popped it inside - first pic below. It settled down and I started to look at the eggboxes and immediately came across a second one. 

It was showing its beautifully blue-banded hindwings which is a sign of nervousness, above, so I popped it in the Bug Bottle too and continued examining other, less dramatic arrivals. When I turned over the second  last eggbox, there was Clifden Nonpareil number three and this one, on the left in my top picture and the trio below, was fast asleep.

Since they seemed happy and we had a neighbour and her young daughter visiting in the afternoon, I kept them in a large Tupperware box with the towel on top to keep out most of the light. We duly had a happy moth-on-finger sesh, something which would have been inconceivable here until 2019.

You can read more about the Nonpareil, truly a moth without equal, on previous posts such as this one, or this one.  Meanwhile I had another first this morning: a Comma butterfly slumbering happily on the rim of the trap's black plastic bowl. If you wanted to know why the species is called the Comma, look no further.

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Fives moth

One of my other hobbies is playing Fives as a born-again incompetent and I was very pleased when it crossed paths with my interest in moths a couple of weeks ago. I have never been good at sports of any kind but I always enjoyed this game at school - basically hitting a ball against an oddly-shaped wall with a padded glove - and took it up again the year before the pandemic.

It's described as 'the fastest ball game on Earth' which could not be more misleading in the case of our veterans' group; none of us have felt remotely close to a heart attack during play. We spend roughly half the time holding learned conversations, a practice known in the 18th century as 'coffee-housing' which is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'talking while playing a sport'.

Much of our chatter relates to the fiendishly complicated laws and fascinating history of Fives, the latter accounting for the curious architecture of the court. The game was often played against a church wall and was codified by boys and teachers at Eton who used a buttress on the side of their school chapel. This became the model for today's courts used in the standard version. Needless to say, there are many variants including Rugby, Winchester and even Warminster Fives.
The moth remnant, just visible in the picture below on the sloping edge of the buttress - one of the many surfaces which send the ball flying all over the place - was a hindwing from a Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing. Its nemesis will have been one of the spiders whose many cobwebs form an unintended additional challenge at Oxford University sports centre in Iffley Road. The two Eton Fives courts there are a great boon for us, because they are not all the common in the UK, but it would be lovely if they were better-used.

Here's a glimpse of me playing too, just after a successful return of the ball from behind the buttress where I had been examining the sad little bit of moth. Back home, it was a pleasure to find a Tawny-barred Angle in the eggboxes, a common UK moth but one which I have seen very seldom both here and in Leeds pre-2013.

Rather similar colouring marks the Iron Prominent below, a photo which unusually captures it with its wings outstretched. My tastefully vivid pyjamas make an appearance as well. Then we have it again in its usual resting position, alongside a big Old Lady moth which later perched on one of my granddaughter's fingers, as shown in my final photo, while a Gold Spot occupied another.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Exotica in the butterfly house - and at home



I am still playing catch-up so these moths are a bit since, mostly from the last week of August when the grandchildren were here for a week. I was very pleased that this little jewel of a regular came to see them: the Gold Spot (or possibly the imperceptibly different Lempke's Gold Spot). It likes 'damp places including canals and rivers' according to the Moth Bible and we have the Oxford Canal and River Cherwell within quarter of a mile of us. So it must feel at home.

Another shapely and interesting arrival was the Dusky Thorn below whose caterpillars like ash but are prepared to fall back on privet, a useful insurance policy in the event of problems such as ash die-back. I have often wondered why some moth larvae are so faddy when being omnivorous has so much to recommend it (as I constantly tell the sceptical grandchildren).

It was good to have some local examples of colourful and interesting moths because we decided to pay a visit to Blenheim Palace's excellent butterfly house which keeps an excellent number and range of species. Here are some of them.  When I have a bit more time, I will see if I can sort them out from one of my intimidatingly large global reference books - or perhaps the internet where searches such as 'black and white swallowtailed butterfly' often produce very rapid answers.

Actually, I just tried that but without immediate success. I do know the next one, however, the Owl Butterfly with its enormous 'eye' which I take to be an effective deterrent against jungle predators. A lot of experiments have been done on this, many suggesting that the eyes resemble those of lizards and other hunters while some suggest that they may divert a bird's attention and subsequent attack away from the insect's body to less crucial places such as the edges of the wings.

Back at home, we found an interesting example of way that the colour green fades in moths, as I mentioned in my last post with reference to the Light Emerald. Here are two Yellow-barred Brindles, the first an older one whose colour has faded (albeit making the moth more in tune with its name). The second is fresh and still delightfully green

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Misty times approaching

It is too early to be thinking much about Autumn with the belated Summer sunshine we've enjoyed in the last week, but the moths are beginning to indicate the coming change of season. Red Underwings have been calling for a while now, flashing the warning colouration on their hindwings in the same way as Poplar Hawks - I had both species giving a performance (above) after a little tickling last week.

The Sallow moths are another example, with their range of yellows and pinks, as in the Centre-barred Sallow shown left, brightening up the eggboxes in the same way as the August, September, Dusky and Canary-coloured Thorns which currently visit every night - here's one of the Canary-coloureds below, showing off the reason for its name. As the leaves begin to turn from all their different greens to brown, russet and gold, such colourings make successful camouflage.

Other visitors coming in large numbers include the Light Emerald whose delicate pale green fades very rapidly into a creamy and then almost pure white - the four examples below came on the same night. There are often more in the foliage around the trap, like so many petals, than actually inside. The Burnished Brass with its glinting metallic wing scales and the Common Carpet are also here in force. 

Lastly for today, here are some representatives of the main colourways in the trap at the moment, grey and brown but nonetheless beautifully-patterned moths. The distinctive black marks of the first pair show them to be Flounced Rustics, the 'stained glass window tracery' moth is a female Feathered Gothic (the males have feathery antennae) and the final visitor with its wide Italian moustache is a Willow Beauty, a species which abounds this month.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Nelly the Elephant. Or Norman

I'm sorry that I have got very behind with posting news on the blog. Post-lockdown, life has got a lot busier and we're also eking out every moment of outdoor life before the Summer comes to an end.

So it was actually two weeks ago that we were walking home from a river swim with the grandchildren when we saw this chubby chap zooming across the road, luckily before he was squashed by one of the regularly passing cars.

He's an Elephant Hawk moth caterpillar in his final instar, or stage between sloughing off skins, when the green colouring which he - or maybe eventually she - has enjoyed since hatching from an egg, turns into the same grey as an elephant. We scooped him up and popped him in a box with a bit of soil and plenty of leaves and scrub.  My granddaughter was touchingly keen to find some willowherb leaves in case he was hungry but I sternly resisted, explaining that he (or she again) was looking for somewhere to form a cocoon and pupate and needed to be left alone.

He duly spun his coccon after a certain amount of rather alarming twisting too and from like a person in pain, a phenomenon I've seen before in caterpillars on the verge of this extraordinary change. Next morning, we found a tightly woven bundle of material with the cocoon deep inside. And that's where he'll stay until Spring, dissolving into a sort of soup before emerging as a glorious pink, olive and yellow moth - a species often shown here in the past, ever since the earliest days of the blog - the rather shady pic on the left is the first Elephant to visit me after Penny gave me the trap for my birthday in May 2008 - more here:

Below are a couple of pictures of the cocoon with its highly effective outer defence of spiky hawthorn twigs, the first taken a fortnight ago and the second just now. More news in the Spring, I hope

Meanwhile the trap has continued to attract a good range of late Summer moths with Poplar Hawks keeping up a good tally - a relief when the grandchildren are here and want interesting and unflappable moths on their fingers.

Other arrivals at the time of the cattie were welcomed by me in my pyjamas, including the lesser Treble-bar below, followed by a pug of some kind - but which? I will seek enlightenment either from a kindly reader or the Upper Thames Moths blog   Then, pyjama-less, we have a delicate Common Wave, a Bloodvein, a very dark example of the micro Pyrausta aurata (I think) and a Snout seen from underneath.

Finally, here are two Brimstones: first the moth and then the butterfly - the latter always the first to appear every year and still going strong. I saw several in the garden this afternoon.