Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Fingers crossed

There's an autumnal feel to the world this morning. Our Indian Summer seems to be ending and events in Washington don't exactly put Spring in the step. So here's a selection of Autumn colours in this Gatekeeper enjoying a late ragwort. I was in Buttermere last week, and much the same palette was wonderfully set out on a grander scale - the russet of dead bracken, the straw of dead grass and the vivid green of the meadows, with the giants of High Stile, High Crag and Red Pike caught in evening sunshine in the manner of this butterfly's wings.
Here too, is a symbolic moth for the day, which visited the trap earlier this summer. I don't know what it is. It doesn't seem to be in my moth book and I therefore suspect that it's a micro. But the distinct little symbol on its wings looks much like a Fingers Crossed. Stop Press: See Martin Harvey's expert comment.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Hide and seek

A brief report from London on the window-box caterpillars. Necessarily brief, because they have gone. Maybe a bird found them, but more likely, they've crawled off to pupate somewhere cosy and discreet, such as the gaps between the gutter and the top of my son's house's front wall. No chance of finding them, although I might ask Camden council for printouts of CCTV film. It would be a good test of digital enhancement. We Find Three Caterpillars On the Run would be an excellent advert for whoever makes the equipment. The Indian Summer continues, meanwhile, but not warmly enough for this Angle Shades which came into our kitchen yesterday and was spotted by Penny. Corners like this are perfect for pupating, which is an argument against dusting.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Vote Moth (and Moon)

Excitement reigns in the Wainwright household. Saturday's post brought this invitation: 'Would you like to join a moth and bat walk taking place through the Parliamentary estate on 14th October?' Indeed I would. Given the state of world affairs, it may sound like Drake playing bowls while the Armada batted along the Channel, but then look what happened to (a) Drake and (b) the Armada. Checking out the Houses of Lords and Commons for moths - plus what the invite calls 'the opportunity to be photographed close-up with a bat' - will induce the correct sense of calm to cope with crisis.
The main spirit behind the event is an excellent MP called Madeleine Moon. She runs a moth trap at Westminster and fights a sturdy battle in the chamber on behalf of moths. In one speech, she observed that "the statistic that 50 billion moths are required to feed the blue tit population of the UK is staggering", and indeed it is. Where does that figure come from? I shall ask her if I can make the walk. This blog will have come to a temporary, seasonal halt by then, but I shall revive it in her honour. Meanwhile here is a picture of the Indian Moon Moth, courtesy of Danne's Animals website. We'll only find one of these tucked up in the Commons if there's been a recent Parliamentary exchange visit with the Far East. But maybe Madeleine has a picture of one (or the Japanese Moon Moth, the Indonesian Moon Moth, the Spanish Moon Moth or even the Madagascar Moon Moth) on her office door. If you live in Bridgend, vote for her. I would if I did.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Admirable signs

Red Admirals and Speckled Woods rule our butterfly roost these last, sunny days of summer. So I was chuffed to spot a pub called the Red Admiral yesterday, far away from Leeds on the Cumbrian coast. It's better known to older people under its former name of the Boonwood, in Gosforth near Seascale, which in turn is near the big nuclear plant at Sellafield which, as you probably know, is near Barrow.

You need a lot of 'near's to define places in quiet country areas like this. The discovery got me Googling for other Red Admiral pubs and there are plenty. Is there some sort of crossover with naval heroes, who often decorate pub signs? One of the ranks in the old Royal Navy (we're talking Hornblower and Lord Nelson, now) was based on the red ensign, so your official title might be Rear Admiral of the Red. The best web page I found involved the Red Admiral in Runcorn, known locally as the Addy, where there's a vigorous online debate between critics and partisans of the current landlord. Is it a top pub, as some say, or a bad joke (the dissenting view). Click on www.bestpubs.co.uk/layout0.asp?pub=133595 and join in.
Moth pub signs? Well, there are several Gipsy Moths and one or two Tiger Moths. But they honour a yacht and a biplane. Genuine insect discoveries welcome.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Can they read?

My eggboxes are coming to the end of their unnatural lives. As Christine Alvin says in one of the comments below, they are starting to look as hairy as sweaters in need of de-pilling. Another week and they will be in the bin and the trap will be cleaned and stored away til next April.
Meanwhile, here's a trio of moths apparently absorbed by the boxes' labelling and instructions. There are many of the latter. I wouldn't want to be an egg producer or retailer, having to remember and fill in where everything comes from and how old it is.
I've not got time to identify these three just now, but I can tell you that I thought that the animal in the middle picture was supposed to be a crocodile, a creature - like us - which enjoys an egg or two for breakfast. On closer inspection (click button) it is a rather odd and fierce-looking hen.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

View from below

During the course of this journal, I've managed to get one or two odd angles on moths to vary the usual form of photographing them from above. There was the Elephant Hawk emerging from an eggbox hole with a startled look on its face, and a lacewing ditto. Here's an unusual (for me) study of a couple of trap visitors seen from below, thanks to their courtesy in perching on the transparent collar which surrounds the mercury vapour light bulb. I can't say they are specially enlightening, except that you can see the positioning of their agile feet. These are vulnerable, and it's not uncommon to find a moth with one or more missing. It doesn't appear to affect them unduly. On that score, have you ever examined the feet of London pigeons? On second thoughts, and especially if you have a sensitive nature, don't.
Here too is a 'transparent' view of a moth which preferred the relative freedom and luxury of one of our lampshades to the trap. The delicacy even of the most common and, in this case, rather dowdy, governessy, even Jane Eyreish types of moth, is always a delight.

Hiding its light

Google did one of their imaginative twists on the search engine's name yesterday, with autumn leaves wrapped round the six letters. It was officially the first day of the season, although in fact, at last, we have an Indian summer, clear and sunny, albeit cold at night for moths. Still, the leaves are turning and now is the time when you will start discovering oddly old-leaf-looking creatures like the one in my first photograph, usually tucked behind curtains or somewhere that the duster seldom finds. This is a hibernating Peacock butterfly. The decent thing to do is to leave it to sleep. But if you want to entertain children, or teach them a parable about dullness sometimes concealing great beauty or worth, you can tickle the insect awake and goad it into opening its wings. Pow! What a contrast. See below.
Peacocks and Small Tortoisehells, which are equally superb above but boring underneath, are the two butterflies associated with the theatre superstition - that if a butterfly appears on stage before the opening night, all will go well. It is a comforter, rather than a superstition, because in an enormous, curtain-filled arena such as a theatre, there will almost always be a hibernating butterfly. Still, I remember reporting on just such an event at the Theatre Royal in Bath just before Sir Ian McKellen launched a brilliantly successful season there. So perhaps there's something in it.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Munching away

Good news about the London caterpillars (see entries some way below). There are now three. This is good news for them at least, and for me, their long-distance monitor in Leeds. Less good, maybe, for my son's nasturtiums, although their flowering season is approaching its end. And, as you can see, he sowed them rather generously for a mini windowbox, resulting in a miniature version of the plant which I think is a bit of a breakthrough for small-scale London windowsill gardening. Especially with nasturtiums. The less food they get, the more they flower, as opposed to producing big greeny-blue leaves. The caterpillars are named Trig, Trak and Bristol, in honour of the world's new No 1 Fun Person. Superficially, they look boring and green but click on the central picture below and you'll see that they have quite subtle colouring and markings. Can you spot them all in the big picture? It shouldn't be too long before they pupate, unless some pigeon with eagle eyes happens by. But that too would be interesting, in terms of how busy London supports so much wildlife. One of Britain's most unusual moth captures was made just down the road at Buckingham Palace: the Spiny Bollworm, a species only usually found in sub-Saharan Africa, which visited the Palace light trap in 1964, a few days after the Queen had played host to a State delegation from Tanzania.

Saturday, 20 September 2008


I've frequently mentioned my Moth Bible in this journal, and as the trapping season nears its end, I shall start turning to the book more nostalgically than practically, in the way that fellwalkers and climbers browse over guides beside their wintertime fires. If you want to do the same, here's the book's spine, for easy recognition among the amazing riches of today's big bookshops. I think it will be shelved like this. There aren't enough moth enthusiasts (yet) for it to get a Harry Potter-style display, or even have its full cover shown. Mind you, authors are always creeping into bookshops and moving their own books surreptitiously from spine to full-cover display. So let's do that with the noble trio of Waring, Townsend & Lewington. Meanwhile, here is a real-life version of the moth given the signal honour of decorating their book's spine. It's the Herald, and very handsome it is too, both in colouring and wings which valence like the roof of a rural railway halt. This one is heading down one of my eggbox cones much in the way I imagine a particle whips into the Large Hadron Collider. That's gone quiet, hasn't it? The media, eh...

Friday, 19 September 2008

Not so bad

People have started talking about a 'bad butterfly summer.' It's certainly been a bad summer generally, but as for butterflies, I disagree. Since I failed physics-with-chemistry O level and didn't even take biology, you can ignore me, but here is my reasoning. It has been a bad year for seeing butterflies. That does not mean that they are not there. In my own laboratory - our garden in Leeds - I have noticed how sunshine unfailingly brings out a good number of the 15-odd butterfly species which regularly visit. Rain and cold leads to their complete disappearance, but when the sun returns, so do they. Are the purveyors of the 'bad butterfly summer' theory going around looking for butterflies on the dull days (when the insects creep into crevices or under high-up leaves and are all but impossible to find?) I don't think so. I am sure that we consistently under-estimate the number of such things, and by so-doing add unnecessarily to the world's supply of gloom. Today's picture is part of my evidence. Late yesterday, the sun was confined to the top part of the west-facing wall of our house. There, sure enough, were the butterflies, including this coy Red Admiral. Earlier on in the day, when sunshine bathed the buddleias, they flocked there. They are as heliotropic as sunflowers, which the French commendably call tournesols.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Shock Horror Cannibal Moth Drama

Sorry, I've been a bit busy this morning and it was too cold to trap last night. But Lo, my colleague Jeevan Vasagar has come to the rescue. He's one of the News Editors steering the mighty ship Guardian at Farringdon Road, where interest in moths is commendably intense. He's just emailed me the following, which I print verbatim, if only to give you a taste of exciting news agency style.
I'm extremely jealous of mum-of-three Amanda Chittock. The Death's Head Hawk Moth is very high on my wish list, and to breed one from a caterpillar would be excellent indeed. Observe the pixies of both, above, courtesy of flickr.com and community.livejournal.com. Btw observe also, that I have discovered at last how to do italic and bold. Respect! Anyway, here we go...
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Rare monster caterpillars made famous by horror film The Silence of the Lambs have been found in a country garden.The two giant 6 inch-long Death's Head Hawk moth caterpillars were spotted by mum-of-three Amanda Chittock on a jasmine bush by her front door.
The strange-looking caterpillars, which have been nicknamed Hannibal and Lecter, are one of Europe's rarest breeds and only one moth has been seen in England this year. "It's a very exciting find. They are infrequent immigrants to the UK and very impressive beasts,"said Mark Parsons, head of moth conservation at Butterfly Conservation. "They are immigrants to the UK and don't usually survive as they need warmer weather."
The bright yellow and blue caterpillars, which usually feeds on potato plants, deadly nightshade and honey, are normally found more than 1,000 miles away in southern Europe and northern Africa. Mum-of-three Amanda, who lives in Rayne, Essex, has now given the rare creatures to her brother Paul Dawson, 38, who hopes they will hatch.
"They are the biggest caterpillars I have ever seen and have some really amazing markings," said Paul, a vehicle technician in Great Dunmow, Essex. "My sister was worried they would get eaten by a bird if she left them outside so we phoned a moth specialist to get some advice. I couldn't believe it when he said they were rare hawk moth caterpillars and that he had never seen them before. He was very excited.
"One of the caterpillars has now started to bury itself in dirt and hopefully it will hatch next spring." Adult moths, which can develop a seven-inch wingspan, have been spotted in Britian before, but the larvae, which can be yellow or green, have rarely been seen here. They pupate by burying themselves in soil and hatch some moths later as a spectacular moth.
Mark Parsons added: "Historically they have been found in Britain in greater numbers than in recent years. "In this case an adult female must have travelled here earlier in the year and laid eggs. The pupae need to be kept warm and there is a pretty good chance of them hatching next spring. They are marvellous creatures and it's a very lucky find."
According to superstition, the death's head hawk moth, Acherontia atropos, which has skull and crossbones markings on the back of the adult moth~s head and a loud squeak, was a harbinger of death, war and disease. In Europe its appearance in a candlelit room was considered an omen of death.
In France, dust from its wings was thought to cause blindness and in Poland, its strange cry was thought to be the moaning of a grief-stricken child. It is best known for featuring in the Oscar-winning flim Silence of the Lambs, when serial killer Hannibal Lecter, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, leaves the pupae of death's head hawk moths in the mouths of his victims.
An image of the moths was on all the promotional pictures.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

On the qui-vive

Victorian gents used to talk about a fine pair of whiskers. Here's a fine pair of antennae, on a Dusky Thorn moth. Antennae are one of the glories of British moths - hugely varied, unlike our butterflies' versions which are always club-shaped. They act as a sort of radar, helping steer flight, and also detecting members of the opposite sex with admirable accuracy. I was reading the other day about a pheromone trap, a rather mean way of catching moths which involves imprisoning a female in a muslin bag at a time when she is 'calling', the moth version of going out clubbing in a miniskirt and full warpaint. Her pheromones, a bundle of chemicals intoxicating for male moths, drift downwind, and antennae such as these are so sensitive that they will pick up a single molecule of this 'scent'. The Thorn family, incidentally, provide us with the August Thorn (very rare) and the September Thorn. Later in the year we may encounter the November Moth and the December Moth. But there is nothing for October. If anyone discovers a new British species (which still happens occasionally, even in our crowded world), maybe they would like to fill this gap. Below is the rest of the moth plus, as ever, an interesting close-up of an eggbox.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

The gardener's friend

A welcome visitor to the trap last night. A lacewing. They are those delicate insects with long, transparent wings whose vein patterns look a little like lace and account for the name. They quite often come into the house to seek warmth at this time of year, changing their green colour to pink as the days get colder. This picture will have been one of the last things seen by countless aphids and other enemies of the diligent gardener. Lacewings are so fond of eating small pests that you can even buy them online, sometimes in mixed packs with ladybirds which do an equally good scavenging job. Lacewing larvae also eat aphids and have a nicely gruesome way of sneaking up on their prey. They disguise themselves with leftover bits of other aphids which they've just captured and eaten. Isn't Nature sweet? Click on the pic, btw, to see the lacewing's delightful face closer, plus the unexpected hairiness of ageing egg boxes. Maybe I should have a caption competition too, both for the lacewing and the other, smaller insect which is possibly being assessed as potential lunch.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Sweetly sleeping

In the last three months, I realise, we've discussed only two of the life stages of the moth, or butterfly. You've seen lots of adult insects and a few caterpillars. Here's the third stage: the chrysalis or pupa. I found them while cleaning out some flowerpots. Any crack or crevice at this time of the year may yield the same for you, specially in a shed or greenhouse or round the dustbins. My moth Bible even suggests that rural phone boxes and 'isolated lavatory blocks at campsites' are good places to look. I wouldn't go that far, but these apparently lifeless versions of the Egyptian mummy are amazing and fun to keep until they hatch. Inside those cases, two caterpillars are undergoing their extraordinary transformation into winged insects. With some chrysalises, the outer skin becomes partially transparent as the day of escape approaches, so that you can see the patterns and colouring inside, albeit squashed and vague in the way that things look through a frosted glass window. I've put them in a plastic box on our kitchen windowsill with some twigs inside for the moths to perch on as they dry and expand their wings - a process which takes half-an-hour or so and is wonderful to watch if your timing is lucky.
Here's another pic of one of the pupae, on the backdrop of the above-mentioned moth Bible's cover. I hope you are marvelling at the power of my Magnified Digital Photography. (No wobble...) If you click on either picture, you can see the wing cases of the pending moths and other details. Chrysalis, btw, comes from the Greek for gold, because many butterflies have strikingly spiky chrysalises ornamented with gold and silver dots. Pupa is from the Latin for a doll, which these do slightly resemble. They are not as inert as they look. If you squeeze them (very very gently), they flick their 'tails', the segmented horn in which the future insect's abdomen can be seen clearly. All we need now to complete the moth cycle, is to find some eggs. That's hard.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

How now, Lord Vader...

Back in Leeds, although I had to nip up to Kendal to give a talk, so the trap only started at 1am. But Lo! An interesting arrival. This is the Dark Lord of the Rustics, the Black Rustic. Isn't the patterning great? When you see it at first, your eye is caught by the golden toenail mark. I've magnified that in this first little pic.

But thanks to the power of digital cameras (may the Force be with them), you can see the hideous visage of Darth Vader lurking behind in the assorted shades of black and very dark grey. The shape is right too. Was this the inspiration for George Lucas great epic? Part of it, maybe.
Note also the three or four golden dots on the leading edge of the forewings. Ooooooooh! Shudder!

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Butterfly minds

One of the pleasures of London in the summer is the Serpentine pavilion, built anew every year by a leading architect. It's Frank Gehry's turn this year, he of the wonderful Fred & Ginger buildings in Prague which seem to be dancing together. As you can see from the smaller pic, Gehry's pavilion is partly inspired by butterflies' wings.
Hooray for that. I thought the roof was a bit chaotic myself (and, yes, one of the nice attendants confirmed that it had initially leaked). But the overall effect is very light and pleasant. There was even a butterfly in attendance, a Green-veined White sauntering beside the Serpentine, just as we were. Much the best butterfly building I know is Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at JFK airport in New York (how sad that they lost its lovely former name, Idlewild). My younger son, who is about to start his architecture diploma, once insisted that we see this during a rather tight flight changeover. I was a bit stressed at the time by dashing along ramps etc, but I'm very glad we did. I'm just goint to add small pics of that, and of the Fred & Ginger to complete this unusually architectural entry.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A capital catty

Well, this is a surprise. I've been in London and wasn't expecting to find anything moth-related. But here in the tiny window box of my son's flat is...a caterpillar. A marvellous tribute to Nature's powers of dispersal - and survival, in the way that grass pushes up through tarmac. The straggly nasturtiums are an island of greenery far (in moth terms) from the nearest park. But there are some good, big street trees, as you can see, and if you look carefully at the surrounding buildings, little sprouts of weeds are clinging on in various crevices behind drainpipes or in uncleaned gutters. Good luck to this caterpillar. Maybe I will bring you a picture of its chrysalis or cocoon in due course.
Stop press: I just had a closer inspection of the nasturtiums and there are TWO catties there. Here's the other one, having a nap on the soil. Actually they both seem to be asleep at the moment. The other one hasn't moved in the half-hour or so since I photographed it.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Morning all!

Excellent! We are all still here. Mind you, they haven't started colliding the particles underground in Switzerland yet.. Still, England beat Croatia 4-1 last night, so something has happened to the Earth's atomic structure. Meanwhile, here is a moth giving you the eye. Or two eyes. After a completely dismal night on Tuesday, things warmed up pleasantly yesterday. There were Red Admirals, Speckled Woods and a Holly Blue in the garden during the day, and the evening was almost sultry. Very mothy weather. It's drizzling now, but in the trap there were plenty of interesting things, prime among them this beautiful Pink-barred Sallow. It says in my book that it's 'common', but this is the first I've met since I was born in May 1950.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

The end is nigh

The end of this year's trapping is in sight now. Not because of this Big Bang which scientists are recreating in the Jura mountains tomorrow. Apparently that may end the world altogether, in which case please accept this as a Goodbye. No, in moth terms, the nights are getting colder and the numbers coming to the trap are diminishing. I shall call it a day by the end of September, and also close this journal down until next Spring. That said, small numbers of interesting moths are still arriving, and here are a few. I can't find my moth Bible just at the moment, so I shall update this later on with identifications. But note that the two carpetty moths, particularly the one I take to be a Green Carpet or Green Pug, both have the habit of resting with their tails up, which I commented on several entries below. More research needed, as ever...

Incidentally, the green moth is bathed in an eerie glow because it's getting a bit overcast in the morning now, and I thought a little illumination would help. So I wore a head-torch, a bit like a miner's helmet lamp, while simultaneously juggling eggboxes and the digital camera, perched on its becoming little tripod called Miranda. Given that I was in my dressing gown as well, this must have been an inspiring sight. Luckily there was no one else there to record it.
Now it's much later on and I've been to Kendal and back and have found my Waring, Townsend & Lewington. From this I deduce that the above are: squeezed in the table gap, a Brindled Green. Then, small, a Purple Bar, a Copper Underwing and a July Highflyer. As ever, nice names.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Green thoughts

I was pondering over this Green Arches this morning and wondering why more British moths, and butterflies, don't have the colour green. Even when they do, it often appears only in subtle flecks, as here. After all, the world they live in is overwhelmingly green. When I take a photo of what my eye sees as a flower bed full of colours, the result is green, green, green, with just sprinkling of blues, reds and yellows. I was picking runner beans yesterday, and they also show the effectiveness of green as camouflage. It's quite tricky detecting bean from leaf or stalk, and some grow enormous as a result. Yet moths are famously ace at camouflage. Through evolution, some have proved to be as clever as chameleons. The Amulet moth has three different forms in England alone - whitish in chalkland areas, russet in South Devon where the sandstone is a similar colour and much darker in Surrey, where the soil is black. Maybe soil and stone are the answer, for the adult insect. Perhaps they are at most danger when at rest in the daytime. Certainly, moths have a famous propensity for resembling old leaves. They have got green in their genes, though. It's the favourite colour of their caterpillars, which lends weight to the daytime theory. The Very Hungry Caterpillar is well-named. They spend all day munching green leaves and grass.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Here's to you, Mr and Mrs Robinson

After discussing the Setaceous Hebrew Character yesterday, I idly looked it up in Moths by Prof Edmund Ford, the Bible of Bibles, and discovered an amazing fact. He says that shortly after the Robinsons invented their wonder-trap at the end of the 1940s, no fewer than 50,000 Setaceous Hebrew Characters were caught in a single trap in Hampshire during the course of one night. Fifty thousand? It beggars belief. But Ford makes a point which should be noted by anyone nervous about eco-doom when he goes on to say that the then new practice of light-trapping had "shown that some species long thought to be rare are abundant, and others exist where they have never before been recorded." There still aren't that many of us looking. Anyway, if you follow the British weather, you will know that we are all building arks this weekend. Torrents. So here's a dip back to July and an Iron Prominent which I didn't show you at the time. It looks poised for some menacing action. Also, smaller pic, this is what it looks like for a flower as a Buff Tip approaches.

Friday, 5 September 2008

A distinguished character

There's an end-of-season feeling this morning. It's cold and wet again and I sense that trapping days are numbered, for this year. Only half-a-dozen moths were snoozing in the eggboxes this morning, but this is an interesting one. It's very common; I should have mentioned it before. It's the Setaceous Hebrew Character and it comes trailing clouds of glory. According to legend, this moth was present when Moses received the Ten Commandments from God but was not allowed to see the divine face. The moth, however, did. And because it confessed this dreadful fact to God at once, it was rewarded by having the Hebrew Character 'Nun' imprinted on its wings instead of being smitten as happens to so many people and things in the Bible. According to the excellent website www.flwildflowers.com, 'nun' is also shorthand for 'miracle' which is what this presumably was. The website adds charmingly that in Yiddish accounts the moth is described as 'fermisht', or 'all shook up', and says that the exchange on the mountain was possible because 'the language of moths is something that only the Divine knows.' So, now you know too. Setaceous, btw, means 'bristly' or unshaven. There is another moth in Britain called simply the Hebrew Character, which also has a 'nun' mark but less distinct. Why this one is considered unshaven, I have yet to discover.