Thursday 30 September 2010

Labour's very own moth

A couple of weeks ago, on 14th September, Black Rustics came to the trap for the third year running on that precise date. Here's a couple of other punctual returnees: Blair's Shoulder Knots, which I also recorded on 30th September last year. That time around, I noted that Brown was on the TV news, rather than Blair. Now it's Ed Milliband, who is already making veterans such as Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett - both on the 9pm BBC news - seem ancient. They resembled the life-battered yellow underwing and Shuttle-shaped Dart which I feature a few posts below.

Blair's Shoulder Knot is a fine success story and counter to species-related gloom. It was first recorded in the UK only in 1951, by a Dr Blair whose home on the Isle of Wight was one of the first light traps encountered by migrants after flying over from the European mainland. That's why he has no fewer than three moths named after him, the others being Blair's Mocha and Blair's Wainscot. Since then, the moth has adapted so well to our island shores that it is common everywhere. Hooray! You can also enjoy a picture of its underside here, as one of the pair ended tummy-up when I gently decanted them from the eggboxes, and lay there like a cat waiting to be tickled. Not that I did.

A final connection with the Labour party is also evident in its 'eyebrow' markings, visible in this head-on view. Denis Healey or what? There were other good things in the trap after a dry night, albeit cold and with prolonged mist after all the earlier rain, but I will save them for tomorrow in case it's wet again this evening.

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Calling all tiemakers

The rain it raineth. The trap it sleepeth. The moths they snore. I hope I get another night's work before Saturday, but meanwhile here is an appeal to any tiemaker, or friend of a tiemaker, who may chance on this.

I don't like ties, after years of having to wear them at school, but on special occasions I use this one, which I bought at a very excellent tie shop in the main square in Tallinn, the capital of Esonia, back in the 1990s. What I would really like, because of my habit of spilling soup etc, is a back-up one, but this time featuring moths.

I did go back to Tallinn a couple of years after getting this tie, but although the shop (in the corner, near the famous old apothecary's), had similar ones of aeroplanes, pigs, flowers etc, there were no moths. Anyway, there we are. This is my prayer. The internet is so vast and serendipitous, you never know. I will pay. Tomorrow to Saturday meanwhile, fingers crossed, I will return to the hunt.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Spotting the spots

Things are really autumnal here. The weather has come down like a soggy lid and the first leaves are falling. This means, sadly, that my trapping season is almost done. I shall tuck everything away on Saturday. No moths at the moment either, because of the continual drizzle, but this small creature has spent a few days in our house. He, or she, first appeared last week when I was in France, joining Penny as she had her lonely supper. It was back again yesterday, hiding under my bowl of watercress soup. Sorry about the rather blurry pictures, but the beetle - assuming that's what it is - was extremely lively, although it seemed to get its legs stuck from time to time on our kitchen table. I wonder if they have some sort of secretion or little hairs/spikes which help them to grip in their usual habitat. Penny carefully put it outdoors, but maybe it will find a way of creeping back in. Does anyone know what it is? I have Googled assorted references to 'beetle, black,white and spots' but so far to no avail. I specially like the way the black-and-white livery applies to the antennae too.

Success! Dean has kindly identified this as an Ichneumon Wasp - a dreadful enemy of butterflies, moths and caterpillars. See comments, and here's a better pic of one, courtesy of Gary WK's website:

Friday 24 September 2010

The Leeds of France

This is cheating slightly, but there wasn't much time for moths yesterday as ma mere et moi skedaddled from Paris to near-Calais via this place (above). Leeds, is it? Or Darlington? Neither, although it is jumellee avec Darlington in the twin towns scheme. It's Amiens, a redbrick wonder which reminded me of home. It shared a sense of unexpected wonders and pleasures with Leeds too. Prime among them are Les Hortillonages, allotments accessible only by boat along small canals - a visit which I recommend absolument. I'll add a weblink when I have more time. 
Plenty of butterflies flitted about - Whites mostly, which was not surprising considering the vast amounts of home-grown salad and veg. Dragonflies also. But given that this is supposed to be about moths, I've delved into my unused photobag to bring you this tiny Tortrix micro which I didn't feature at the time (late July). Think in terms of half a jellybean. I'll track down its name but must now go and have petit dejeuner, et ensuite, Le Tunel.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Paris in the autumn time

Bonjour! Je suis en Paris pour les vacances et des visites familiales avec ma mere venerable. Nous avons le soleil, le chaud - OUI le chaud - et aussi cet Small Copper a la musee de Quai Branly, pres de la Tour Eiffel. OK, that's enough showing off (although I'm not sure of the genders etc, and I also messed up with my camera on a more interesting butterfly; a small Blue of some kind, although being a female it was brown). It was flitting about in my cousin's garden at Le Pecq, where there were also plenty of Whites enjoying the truly impressive municipal blooms - great swags of flowers on lamp-posts, railings, everywhere - and not just in the main streets. Mum and I also observed this very large bee on escallonia hedges at Quai Branly which were smothered in flowers. It was like walking through a honey jar. Oh, and there was a Red Admiral at the Tunnel's entrance near Folkestone, inspecting the big painted signs on the approach road saying France.

(No Red Admiral in the pic btw. It had flown away).

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Wear and tear

I imagine we all feel a bit old and worn at times. Do we show it as evidently as this pair of visitors to the trap seem to do? Moths and butterflies seldom live long - a few weeks - apart from the small number of hardy species in the UK which hibernate as adults. Those are exceptional in seeing a spring as well as autumn, whereas I am  about to clock up sixty of both. Penny and I watched a good TV 'drama-documentary' the other night, about a wartime Spitfire pilot. Today's moths remind me of his plane after one near-disastrous sortie. Riddled with bullet-holes and torn ragged at the edges of its wings, it still flew.  I've seen plenty of moths and butterflies with hardly a coloured scale left on their wings and great chunks cut out which can do the same. It sometimes affects their performance but they can still scramble as effectively as any fighter squadron did in 1940. These two have avoided the worst, in terms of losing bits, but their glory has gone. What are they? The bigger one is a Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing; its companion needs some homework or a kindly and more knowledgable helper. Worm..?
Later: check out Comments for all (including my mistake re the yellow underwing) to be revealed...

Monday 20 September 2010

Return tripper

A small entry for a small moth. Here is a little micro (tautology? not necessarily, as some micro-moths are surprising large) which flew in and settled on the plastic collar. Belying my usual vagueness - see post below and others ad infinitum - I suggest that it is Dipleurina lacustrata, a member of the family Pyralidae and subfamily Scopariinae. This burst of erudition is thanks to a learned Commentor, Martin Harvey, when the same (or a very similiar) moth came to the trap on 30 September 2008 (see left). Both were out a month later than the authoritative website UK Moths suggests they should have been. Make of that what you will.  I called the 2008 one the Crossed Fingers moth, but the marking on this year's is not so distinct, either through wear and tear or because perhaps it is a cousin rather than the grandchild I presume it to be. 

Sunday 19 September 2010

Lively night

Our moths had an exciting night. Neighbours had a superb firework display (I know some people dislike these, because of pet dogs, cats, lizards etc, but there can't be too many so far as I am concerned). Then it rained steadily. In the interests of science, I kept the trap on and the results were an amazing testimonial to the trap's rain shield - like the best gadgets, a very simple plastic disc whose position above the trap entrance round the bulb has been precisely calculated.

In spite of all the goings-on, there were 25 moths asleep this morning: yellow underwings, a Setaceous Hebrew Character (see earlier posts) and two Autumnal Rustics (see post directly below). And this. It looked initially like the absolutely bog standard small, brown, boring moth and I was almost hesitant to photograph it. I did, though, using a torch to try to shed some light (my failing eyesight and old specs don't help).

Then I remembered that, courtesy of the Guardian, we have a small camera with digital micro. Look at the result below. Suddenly, the 'small brown boring moth' puts on a coat of great subtlety and beauty. I'm not exactly sure what it is, because I can't do the same digital micro trick on Richard Lewington's lovely pictures in my moth Bible. Maybe, a Rustic pure and simple? Or a Clay? I'd be over the moon if it were a German Cousin (v. rare) but I'm pretty sure it isn't. I will consult Jax of Yorkshire Butterfly Conservation (or would much appreciate other expert observer's views).

Disgracefully late PS (cos have been in France): thanks to Ben, I now know that this is a variety of the Chestnut, a highly variable moth. The ones shown in Richard Lewington's illustrations in my indispensable field guide are much more orangey, From the guide's text, I note that 'less frequent forms are heavily dusted and/or streaked with brown or grey'. I think that this is one of those. Less frequent, huzza! The Chestnut is a doughty moth. It goes on the wing in September and can survive as an adult all the way through to May. Well done it.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Simple but smart

Cold nights have properly set in. The concomitant is that the days are wonderful, crisp initially but sunny and by the afternoon, warm. I hereby declare May and September the new June and July. Something has happened to the latter months, and it isn't good.

Cold means fewer moths; 40 or so last night and mostly boring. But among them was this Autumnal Rustic, another member of what I consider to be the Breughel Class of moths, on account of their name. Here's an interesting thing about it: when I first started trapping in June 2008, I soon realised that for all their diversity, a very large number of moths share a basic pattern. This consists of a couple of distinct features, often kidney-shaped, on the forewing. If you scroll back to the sinister Black Rustic, you can even see them there if you look closely.

The Autumnal is notable for paring this pattern down to the essentials. I like that. Possibly through the influence of my younger architectural son, who is writing excellent stuff in Building Design these days (, I have learned to value the simple essentials of things, rather than all the encrustations and post-modern tittifying added afterwards. I also like the Autumnal Rustic because its colour reminds me of my mother's best coat which she wore the other day to the funeral of Sir Cyril Smith. That was a wonderful Northern occasion in Rochdale's fabulous town hall. Contradicting my love of simplicity, just described, I revelled in the carvings, paintings and decorations of every kind, interweaving the textile industry with the history of England. No moths, sadly. Their reputation for destroying the fine products of our cotton and woollen mills is vastly exaggerated. And think about silk.

Friday 17 September 2010

Powerful women

The namers of moths couldn't make up their minds with this little chap: the Red-green Carpet. He looks much more green than red to me, but it is the red marbling which distinguishes him from several other small, greenish, autumnal moths. I should say 'she', because this species survives the winter via the females hibernating. Males seldom make it through the cold. One of the incidental benefits of studying moths, or indeed wildlife in general, is discovering facts like this and considering whether they can be applied to Homo sapiens, either seriously or to make a debating or literary point. I very much recommend The Guinness Book of Animal Records in this respect.

I've taken three pictures of the same Carpet snoozing on the trap's plastic cowl, even though it's a very small moth, little bigger than my thumbnail. Moth wings are extremely slender and fragile, yet look how entirely different the colouring is on the top and underwings. It reminds me of painting Airfix planes - Spitfires with their green and brown mottling on top and sky-blue beneath and Lancaster bombers with the same mottling, but the underside black like the darkness through which they flew. The comparison is apt, because camouflage is the reason in both cases. A propos of very little, I have always been grateful to Airfix's Walrus aircraft kit and Humbrol enamel paint for introducing me to that lovely colour, and name: Duck-egg blue.

The last picture shows the Carpet from the side, characteristically resting with its tail pointed up. This habit is common in a number of small moths but I have yet to find an explanation for it. Without being smutty, sexual attraction seems an obvious contender. On the other hand, exposing that sensitive part of the body to the autumn cold - and it must have been very close to freezing last night - may explain why males fail to make it through the winter.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Treasures of the pool, and of Google

I'm easily distracted. But who wouldn't be, by sights such as this cenote, or jungle sinkhole, from T &A? It's called Ik Kil and allegedly 'contains the secrets of the baths of the Maya kings and their courtesans', according to its website which I've just visited. What shampoo did they use? How did you work the shower? And what on earth would I find if I set my moth trap there?

Humbler things here in Leeds. It was cold last night; even a glimmer of frost. There were about 50 moths slumbering away, though, mostly assorted yellow underwings still, several Dun-bars and a couple of  Silver Ys. I photographed this one because I think it shows why some people dislike moths. It looks very like a spider.

Marathon attempts to check yesterday's insect crop from Mexico continue. The pink dragonfly may be called, disappointingly, the Pink Dragonfly, but I haven't got much beyond identifying the butterfly as the Julia Helicon. Mexican butterflies have fabulous names: Montezuma's Cattleheart, Dainty Sulphur, Rusty Sister, Starry Cracker, Gold-stained Satyr, Many-banded Daggerwing...  Along the way, I also discovered this strange picture called A Mexican Boy Holding a Wallet and Being Surrounded by a Swarm of Moths. It's by Denis Holmes Design and comes from There must be a story here. I will probe.

Wednesday 15 September 2010

Stout Cortez

Www stands for warm, wet and windy in this neck of the woods. Http therefore stands for halt to the proceedings. No trapping possible, but my older son and daughter-in-law Tom and Abi have come to the rescue with a bag of insect treasures from the Yucatan. We're planning to go out and see them both in Mexico some time before the Spring and the pictures are an extra incentive, specially on a day such as it is in Leeds today. How stout Cortez ever persuaded his men to leave the beaches (above) and march west is a puzzle, specially as there is no record of them having a moth trap. Mind you, T & A haven't got one either. Mexican wildlife seems happy to pose. Our visit may coincide with the famed migration of the Monarch butterfly, the only one to make the vast journeys normally associated with birds, but it's Tom and Abi we're really going to see. Honest.

I've had a brief but so far unsuccessful stab at identifying these and will persist. But any help from experts, Mexican or otherwise, would be welcome. Later: I'm pretty sure the orange butterfly is Dryas iulia, the Julia Helicon. It 'flies rapidly in forest clearing' according to Google, so well snapped Tom!

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Three in a row

Autumn is arriving. If we didn't know that from the uneasy weather and first loose leaves drifting down, then the trap is a reminder. On cue, the moths of early autumn are arriving, among them three of these handsome but furtive Black Rustics. The moth is welcomely distinctive; the bulk of each night's catch at the moment is still largely brown, increasingly frayed and battered and more often than not with a yellow underwing. The Black Rustic is dark but glossy and, if you look carefully, subtly patterned. The second one has had an encounter with a bird or bramble, I think, rather than a slight variation in its creamy-gold 'eyelid' marking.
It is also the season of the lazy wasps. I am tempted to squash them all underfoot when I empty the trap because they are so helpless and I share most people's instinctive association of wasps with stings. But it is years and years since I was stung by a wasp, and Penny has found an oil which stops them licking our garden furniture to construct their nests. So I think virtuously: what have they done to me? And let them go, along with the moths.

Stop Press: Thanks to Worm's Comment, I've checked back down the posts and, lo and behold, I reported the Black Rustic on 14 September last year and 14 September the year before (see Comments by clicking below). Yo, this is real science. What a reliable insect. I've changed the title of this post from Small Dark Stranger as a result.

Monday 13 September 2010

Ermine spikes

Just when I was resigned to this being a caterpillar-free year, along came this White Ermine larva. At a surprising lick too. It was shimmying along some paving stones, proving in the process that movement is what always gives away the presence of wild animals. I learned that as a reluctant member of a school cadet force before I escaped into the drums and bugles, which none of the officious teachers were interested in - not even the bandmaster, who didn't regard the rattle of a side-drum as music. I was once used as an example of How Not to Hide in a Hedge. But it did all teach me how to creep about the countryside un-noticed. The other great rule is never to light fires during daylight. You can spot the thinnest thread of smoke from miles away. Here's a close-up of the catty's spikes - click on it to enlarge - and I've also posted 16 seconds of my new enthusiasm, film, just so's you can see how fast they go.

Caterpillars seem to coincide with Guardian readers' walks. Last year, Penny and I found legions of Peacock ones migrating across the path when we recce-ed the circular route from Richmond to Easby abbey. Yesterday, we had a brilliant time with 30 readers marching from Howtown to Patterdale (where we met Richard Theobald and Pat Johnson in the lovely St Patrick's churchyard, featured in previous posts. Richard explained that what P and I thought was a special way of improving wildflower meadows, by selective digging, was actually the unwanted contribution of badgers). The weather was lovely. A miracle, because Today has just announced with London-based relish that 'heavy rain is moving into Cumbria".

PS I should have posted a picture of what this caterpillar is going to turn into, and here it is. A classic ugly duckling into swan, unless you happen to like spikes. This is an adult White Ermine which came to the trap in June 2008, just two weeks after I first began this blog. A dapper little peer of the realm.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Closing a loophole

This will be of interest only to moth enthusiasts, probably, but I've had a puzzling experience with Svensson's Copper Underwings. There were three in the trap the night before last and all of them lacked the loophole, or eyelet mark which in my experience this moth usually has. Here's one of mine, above, and left, the more usual type (whose colouring is a bit misleading, incidentally. They are more grey than brown.)
Rain has limited trapping lately, along with a distinguished guest - Sir Simon Jenkins of the Guardian and the National Trust, whom I didn't want to blind or keep awake. The lamp tends to floodlight our spare room, and also to activate a set of luminous stick-on features of the solar system on the ceiling, which date from previous occupation by one of our sons. So here's a picture of a lacewing which called by last week; beautifully delicate among the pole-axed, snoozing grey and brown moths.

Friday 10 September 2010

Leeds butterfly, London moth

The Red Admirals are back and that makes me very happy. I can never decide which is the most beautiful of the three 'Vanessids', the Red Admiral, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell, which light up gardens from late June or July. I know how Paris must have felt. But the Red Admiral was the one which my Mum and grandparents enthused about in particular and I must have inherited that. They are very late this year, especially here in Leeds, but they seem to have arrived at last, and in good numbers. Why Vanessa? I could go on for ever about butterfly nomenclature, but suffice to say that the 19th century vicars, Oxbridge dons and other superficially dry old sticks had a thing about naming pretty insects after young women. There was one extra-waggish chap who gave a string of moths names such as pollykistmi, pennikistme, aliskistmi. Say them aloud.

I've been in London, working, and as I entered my younger son's flat, a moth flew in through the window. Spooky. It was, inevitably, a yellow underwing, and we made a film of it cannoning around. I was going to post this, following the critical success of Radha's Small Tortoiseshell drama (see a couple of weeks back), but the film is so boring that I might sully my reputation. A small blurred thing makes occasional appearances, but mostly it's a wobbly study of a lampshade. However, I managed to pull off this mini-series of stills, after achieving computer miracles (for me) with a range of programmes. Enjoy.

Finally, thanks to my commentor Worm, I was asked to post a piece on the excellent Dabbler, a website of limitless subject-matter and interest. If you click on the link in the list above left, you can have a peep.  Thanks very much, Dabblers and Worm.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Guest gallery

The sun is out this morning and shining brightly, but it poured during the night. So, no light trap; and although a Lesser Yellow Underwing crept indoors and spent the night on the stairs, I think we had enough of them yesterday. Luckily my reporting colleague on the Guardian, James Sturcke, who now runs a photography agency in Spain, has dropped me an email with the irresistible header: 'I saw this moth and thought of you.'

Here it is: a magnificent, newly-hatched Atlas moth which James and his family saw on holiday at a butterfly (and moth) park in Normandy. I really like those places. Last year I went with young cousins to the one in Bristol Zoo and the children in particular get a real sense of the wonderful colour and grace of insects on the wing.  Nearby, close-up and personal too. In Normandy, they also add insect transfers or face-paintings to the children themselves - here is a detail of the one on Nick Sturcke, James's eldest, who was there with his brother Tobias. I wonder if they speculated, as I do, on the faces in profile on the moth's forewing points. These lead some people to call the Atlas the Snake's Head moth in its native South East Asia.  They look to me more like rather unhappy birds. You can see more of James' excellent work btw  on

I've also had this nice follow-up picture from Richard Theobald, one of the team responsible for the beautiful churchyard there which you can read about a few posts below. According to the church treasurer Pat Johnson, Mary Theobald's tray-bake is also crucial to the gardeners' morale and success. Bees are clearly enjoying the scabius as much as the butterflies. I keep reading and hearing about the supposed crisis affecting bees, but in my experience they are everywhere (although Richard says that this photo was taken a bit since).

Monday 6 September 2010

Zebra legs

I am always being rude about 'yellow underwing' moths, so today I shall make amends. They are very trying, because they come to the trap in such large numbers. I would never be a good scientist, because such a mass of data overwhelms and, I'm afraid, bores me. A Darwin or Wallace would work patiently through them, delighted to have so much evidence. And without a lot of evidence, scientific theories can unravel. It is interesting how many concepts, especially those seized upon by journalists, turn out to be based on very small samples.

Anyway, after that portentous introduction, here at the top is one of the most handsome of the tribe (which has at least eight members): the Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing. Apart from its bold patterning, which comes replete with a mop of head hair on specimens less life-worn than this one, look at those fine zebra-crossing legs. Legs decorated in the manner of woollen stockings are quite common in moths and it's easy to overlook them in the initial disappointment that the wings are dull and brown.

Also visiting: this Red-green Carpet (I think and hope; I've had problems before in distinguishing it from the July Highflyer).  Regular readers know about my weakness for green moths, in the almost complete absence of blue ones, a mysterious gap about which I've speculated in the past. It must be something to do with the role of light in insect wing colouring, but I still remain in the dark, like a moth.