Saturday, 31 December 2022

Just in time

Phew!  I'm just sneaking this in on the very last afternoon of the very last day of 2022. I've been spurred out of a sluggish, long interval by the exuberant presence of my granddaughter whose irrepressible enthusiasm was rewarded this morning by three moths in the trap - three more than her aged Grandpa was expecting after mizzling drizzle and a spell of harder rain.

The arrivals all look different but are in fact the same, three Mottled Umbers obligingly in the three common forms illustrated in the Moth Bible. My granddaughter was rather disgusted at the plight of the poor female who cannot even fly. I tried to console her with the thought that the females probably live longer as they crouch in obscurity on tree trunks in the dark. But at nine years old, you would rather fly.

Although I last posted on November 6, mea maxima culpa, the moth-ing life has been reasonably busy since then, at least for this time of the year. I was turning out the bedside light to go to sleep some weeks ago when I saw this micro, above, on the ceiling above me. Sleep was banished as I took my usual epic amount of time identifying it as Agonopterix heracliana.

Winter Moths have been frequent visitors here, eg above, and one also perched on the window of the cottage in Yorkshire where we joined a womderful, vast family Christmas at my sister's in Baildon, near Bradford. The moth joined the abundant local animal life, which included sheep the size of small horses or very large pigs and rabbits playing on the lawn outside.

Both my sister's house and our own have also been well-supplied with hibernating Small Tortoiseshell butterflies though sadly some woke prematurely during a warm spell and keeled over before going back to sleep. 

Visiting the grandchildren in late November brought me a nice encounter with a Feathered Thorn which came to their lighted window one evening and stayed there for the next two days.

Back at home, there was another one slumbering in the moth trap the first morning we were back. With it were the first two of a steady stream of handsome December moths, those fur-wrapped reminders that the coldest months are not the exclusive property of Winter Moths.

Other visitors since early November include the selection below: the Rush Veneer micro Nomophila noctuella, a Silver Y, that hardy immigrant-turned-settler which flies in every month of the year, a pretty Gold Triangle, Hypsopygia costalis, a handsome Sprawler, a Turnip Moth, a fading Red-Green Carpet and the Light Brown Apple micro, Epiphyas postvittana

I've also played host to the distinctive micro below which I have yet to nail in ID terms, plus a tortrix which I need to sort out and a delicate Common Plume micro, Emmelina monodactyla.

And to round off the year, here's my best photo yet of one of the kingfishers which put on a show-stopping performance on the river Avon at Bradford-on-Avon every time we go down to see the family there.  Happy New Year! More in 2023, possibly tomorrow as the granddaughter wants to trap to shine again tonight.

Sunday, 6 November 2022

Throwing them into confusion

I spied the word 'moth' in a letter the other week to the Economist, the means by which Penny and I keep in touch with the world, along with Private Eye and the BBC website. It was in response to an article about bat radar, and described the clever counter-measures taken by a small number of moths.

I've come across this with our common-as-muck yellow underwings which have the remarkable ability to deflect and mislead the signals cleverly pinged out by eternally hungry bats. In 2006 for instance, research at Bristol University suggested that yellow underwings can tune their ears - extremely simple organs in moths - to hear the calls of an approaching bat more precisely. Scales on their wings were also found to absorb echo-location signals from the predators. The Bristolians see all manner of exciting developments potentially coming from this, including ultra lightweight sound-absorbing wallpaper.

I hadn't however heard of Druce's Moth, Melese laodamia, which mimics the bats' pulses and thus confuses the hunter long enough to dodge away. That's maybe because it flies only in Central and South America where it was discovered by one Herbert Druce in 1884. Less excusably, I had no idea until I read the letter in the Economist that the moth was the symbol of the Royal Air Force's electronic counter-measures squadron, No 306. A knowledgable airman must have suggested it along with the excellent Latin motto Confundemus, which translates as 'We will throw them into confusion'. RAF squadron pennants are a rich source of natural history- the RAF regiment 58 squadron, for example, has a spider and the motto 'Come who dares'. 

The importance of electronic warfare is sadly obvious in the current tragedy taking place in Ukraine, and it is encouraging to be reminded how much practical and useful knowledge can come from our humble hobby, apart from endless delight in the colour, patterns and behaviour of moths. Undoubtedly fresh discoveries lie in store and scientists like the ones in Bristol are busy looking for them.

Closer to home, my use of the trap is intermittent now because of the weather. Temperatures remain high and we even have a third generation delphinium about to flower, as well as plentiful Morning Glories and nasturtiums, but it is blessedly wet after the dry Summer. We still have a hosepipe ban in force, mind you. It takes an age for the exhausted aquifers to refill. 

A steady supply of moths keeps coming when the light is on, including some very fine Winter and November ones - I get hopelessly muddled by their slight differences. Here is a lovely example, followed by some more ordinary brethren.

And finally, a selection of other residents in the eggboxes: Meal moth micro, Pyralis farinalis (keep an eye on your packets of Corn Flakes), Common Plume micro, Emmelina monodactyla, Vestal, Blair's Shoulder-knot, Large Marbled Carpet and Red-green Carpet.

Saturday, 5 November 2022

A long season


The Clifden Nonpareil, whose regular appearance here in the last four years has been the most exciting event of my moth trapping, is enjoying another excellent season. This one was tucked away in the eggboxes on Monday 17 October, much the latest date in my experience. I had a look at my records to compare notes with other enthusiasts on the Upper Thames Moths blog and here they are: 

2019 One on 19 September (my first ever)

2020 Three on 3 September followed by seven more, the last on 2 October. Annus mirabilis - the year March Botham entertained six in one evening.

2021 Three on 20 September

2022 One on 5 September and now this one.

My post prompted others to comment with Dave Wilton, the vastly-experienced blogmeister, saying that the whole CN season in Oxfordshire appeared to be later this year. To back him up, another trapper recorded one on October 26.

I took a short film of the marvellous visitor warming up before it took off to the safety of an oak tree. I haven't put the lamp out much since then, but who knows, another may still be around,.

The Nonpareil came with an interesting set of companions, yet another Box Tree moth - shudder if you have box hedges - and a fine Feathered Thorn, the first of this Autumn. Meanwhile in the world of the grandchildren, a Pale Tussock caterpillar has been captured and obligingly formed a nice cocoon inside an insect collecting box borrowed from a schoolfriend. 

The Pale Tussock has an interesting history, especially in the hop-growing world which by chance we visited last week. The excellent Hop Trail at Scotney Castle took us through the only hop farm owned by the National Trust, with the usual excellent info about the poles, the former owners' initials on the oast house vanes and the crude little corrugated iron hamlet in the woods where the pickers from London's East End used to spend the season. It was a sort of holiday, albeit back-breaking work for the grown-ups who included stiltwalkers to cut the top of the hop binds which curl 20 feet up the poles.

The place of the Pale Tussock in this was its role as a hazard. The caterpillar's fuzzy spines can give people a nasty rash and hops are its favourite food plant. The species were nick-named 'Hop Dogs' and they were as unpopular as the local farming children who ambushed the pickers at night in the woods as  they came back from the pub, pretending to be ghosts.  This tradition was ably upheld by the National Trust for Hallowe'en at Scotney, whose visiting little witches, ghosts and pumpkins were met with skeletons, spiders and a fountain dyed red to resemble blood into which they could (and did with relish) throw 'eyeballs' the size of tennis balls.

Here's a Pale Tussock which Penny and I found in an Open Garden back in March 2018 when I mused on the hop connection, including a link to an excellent hoppy website.

Visiting the grandchildren also gave Penny and me - and them - the chance of some excellent sightings of a Jay and a Cormorant holding its wings in that characteristic posture which is almost certainly a way of drying its wings:

Friday, 14 October 2022

Points and specks

Five years ago at this time of the year I caused a very modest stir among Upper Thames moths enthusiasts by attracting a White Speck to my lamp. Today's arrival is a White Spot, somewhat similar but more common. They share a provenance as Autumn migrants blown here from the Continent. The White Speck made landfall in my garden rather than the Isles of Scilly or Cornwall, its usual landfalls on the rare occasions when it visits the UK, because of the force of Hurricane Ophelia.

Neither Speck nor Spot is a terribly exciting moth so far as size, colour or patterning goes - how superficial am I? - but the trap continues to provide colour as the season nears its end. In my last post, I showed a richly green female Red Green Carpet as an example. Now here is its male counterpart, above, distinguishable by the white markings.

My greatest pleasure this week, however, was the arrival of the teeny tiny scrap of colour above. Micro moths normally leave me unmoved but the sheer Lilliputianism of this one was beguiling. Its larger companion with its House of Lords ermine robe, is also a micro and very small - a Light Brown Apple moth or Epiphyas postvittana. They come in between seven and 12mm long and this one was about halfway on that scale. So you can see how titchy the smaller one is. Its name is grandiose for such a scrap: Caloptilia stigmatella, and its patterning is a miniature delight.

A sure sign of the end of the season is the appearance of the plain grey Autumnal, November and Winter moths and the next picture shows my first of those for 2022. They are too similar for me to tell apart. And finally we have an interesting example of moth behaviour - and waterproofing.

Here below is a Green-brindled Crescent form capuccino, a delicious moth whose camouflage worked well on the lichen of an old wall. The first picture was taken after a dry night at about 8.30am.  The rain morning brought rain, not heavy but lasting at least two hours. We were out for lunch but when we got back the moth was still there - below - rain shrugged off and the moth none the worse for it.

Sunday, 9 October 2022

Indian Summer


Let's start with a blaze of late Autumn colour - a somewhat battered but impressively hardy Small Copper was feasting on this marigold at the allotments yesterday, enjoying the sun of our Indian Summer. Nearby, the old well provided evidence for why we still have a hosepipe ban here in spite of recent rain. Th groundwater has a long way to go to catch up.

One of my top moths has meanwhile made its debut for 2022, the beautiful Merveille du Jour which despite its name flies only by night. It is usually the last real excitement of the moth enthusiast's year in the UK although its seasonal companions are worthy enough too.

Here are some of them: a Red-green Carpet (named for its lovely colouring and pattern; its larvae are not interested in carpets or Cashmere sweaters); the capuccino form of the Green-brindled Crescent; a Sallow in the sweetcorn; a vivid Barred Sallow and two pictures of a Large Ranculus, so-named because its caterpillars munch buttercups. We have an ample supply of those and their runners spread them like fun.

These have all been of great interest to the grandchildren who are now combining their enjoyment of moths with malacology or the study of snails.

As well as these smaller creatures, we are currently enjoying the presence in the garden of a young stag which is almost tame. In the long run we will have to keep him out but at the moment there's nothing much for him to devour - touch wood. And like us, he sensibly supports membership of the EU which our home and garden maintains.