Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Holiday peep

A few posts ago, I mentioned my son Olly's kind despatch of special butterfly stamps from his holiday in Spain. Now here are two more, on a card waiting for Penny and me when we got back last night from our own holiday, near Bergerac in France. The handsome one on the left is a British butterfly too - the High Brown Fritillary. There's narry a hope of finding one of those in Leeds, But I still remember gasping with excitement when I first saw one as a small schoolboy on the brackeny skirts of the British Camp on the Malvern Hills.

It wasn't such good news for the fritillary because in those days I had a net. In France. it's all been camerawork, and there was plenty to photograph (quite apart from scenes of chateaux, les plus belles villages de France and les plus belles diners et dejeuners de nos vies). Here are a couple of tempters, above and below. It's going to be a bit of a butterfly week on the blog, because who can resist those colours? But there will be some good moths as well - and one or two other, mostly creeping, things...

Friday, 19 August 2011

Admirals ahoy!

More good news, after the re-appearance of a Southern Hawker here: the Red Admirals have arrived in force at last. It's only a few days since I was worrying that this year's unusual weather might have done something nasty to their life cycle; but we had four swooping over the buddleia in the sunshine, with as many Peacocks and a fluttery couple of Large Whites vying for the honey-scented swags of purple flowers.

The Red Admiral is the earliest butterfly I can remember, because my mother was very fond of it - I think, again, because it was the first to which she was introduced as a child. The Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell are lovely too, and I am now sure that we will see all three regularly between now and the onset of autumn. I'm not so sure that I can pick between them, but we are lucky to have such colourful common wild creatures on an island whose fauna and flora tends to the sober-looking side. Like the pleasant but pastel Large White.

Red Admirals - a distortion of 'admirable' which has nothing to do with the sea - sip nectar voraciously. They were really going at the florets yesterday, plunging in their long probosces and so intent on the process that I could creep quite close. I even took a film; and although I'm not (yet) a master of close focus in movie-making, it gives the idea. I'm hoping to add it but I've just spent ages trying to upload it without success and must go now. Maybe another attempt later...

Yay! I think it's worked...

Yes it has. It isn't terribly action-packed, but I'm excited.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Slimes of the times

Spare a thought this morning for all those young people opening their A level results. I can't come up with any original insights on the subject, but I do feel for them and their Mums and Dads. Good luck to them all and perseverance to those who are disappointed. Many great or happy people have overcome such stumbles.

Now to a blog first... Pictures of slime. Actually that's maybe a crude word for fungus, but we initially went 'Yuck' when we saw a splash of yellow gunge while out on a walk the other week with our nice Australian visitors Helen Versey and David Brown. Overcoming this to take a closer look, we all reckoned the stuff was a fungus and David's close-up photo (he's very good at these; veteran readers may remember last year's one he took of a grub in one of our home-grown peas) bears this out. Here it is:

It's lovely in its way. David emails with it: You may recall that we came upon something slimy on Otley Chevin. In the fading light we couldn't tell if it was dropped or propagated. It's now Saturday and after a frantic week at work I have time to go through my photos of the trip. For a while I thought a child had wandered into the forest after a consuming a large quantity of confectionery. However, close observation will reveal that it's a fungus hard at work on a dead tree. You can see the fibres and the floral heads clearly.

Indeed you can.

Meanwhile, on our Harrogate walk at the weekend, Penny and I found something similar. Our photography is nothing like as expert, but here are a couple of pics, above and below. If anyone knows the identity of these strange forms of 'life', I'd be interested to learn more. Meanwhile I will Google away, as ever. I should add that it isn't cauliflower cheese.

And Hooray! Phil Gates comes to the rescue - see Comments, and even more, see his wonderful blog and its post on this very slime. Thanks again Phil.

Update on 19 August: Woo! Even more expertise. See further comment from Katie.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Up from the grave?

"She is not dead. but sleepeth." That was the case with Jairus' daughter. I can't say for sure whether it also applied to our ditched Southern Hawker (see yesterday's post), but we certainly have one back. It was zipping around yesterday afternoon in the sunshine, in that purposeful way that dragonflies have. Then it settled on some wild strawberries and munched the remains of fly whose wing can be seen on its head.

Carnivorous indeed. Its jaws were working away so busily, above the little basket formed by its legs in which it holds its prey, that it took no notice of my ever-closer camera. Penny had reverently laid what we thought was the corpse of the one in the pond on a nearby stone, and it isn't there any more. Has it revived, or is this one a pal?

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Icarus flew too near the sun. Alas, one of our Southern Hawker dragonflies has flown too near the water. I found it, crashlanded in our pond, presumably unable to take off again because its wings were soggy or caught by lying flat on the surface tension.

Here it is; a rather extraordinary image head-on - the last view in life, I guess, for anything on which Southern Hawkers predate. Actually, I haven't had time to check on dragonfly diet and won't for a while; but will update when I have done. (And here I am, much earlier than I expected - after all, it's only a couple of Google clicks. They are skilled hunters of other insects including...aaagh...moths. Interestingly, their aquatic nymphs sometimes venture out of the water in search of prey. Sad that water should end this one's remarkable, partly-amphibious career).

Some people kindly drop into this blog from overseas. If any such are reading, you might be interested in this non-mothy picture taken on a weekend walk which Penny and I took along a section of the path which circles Harrogate. It's marvellous that a seaside set of binoculars can be provided without fear of vandalism, even down to the set of wooden stands which passers-by can arrange to suit their children's height.

Ever the bold experimenter, I took this picture through the lens, like a spy. It shows the atmospheric ruined church on How Hill above Fountain's Abbey, another lovely spot. I include these because the street troubles may have given rather a lurid view of life in the UK. Fear not, all is mostly well and we have a long history of such outbreaks when parts of society blow their pressure valve. Beneficial change usually follows once everyone has calmed down which, touch wood, they now have.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Butterfly ponderings

Continuing the Spanish theme, I'm unexpectedly collecting the current series of Spanish butterfly stamps, thanks to my younger son who's been holidaying there with a friend. These two have arrived so far and he promises another three to come. Hooray for England's youth!

Butterflies are a popular choice for stamps but, as always, moths follow somewhat in their wake. Not in Spain, though. Maybe inspired by personal experiences such as J-P Stacey's (see two posts below), the postal authorities there did a great moth series last year and they featured a spectacular Moon Moth and its foodplant the geranium in 2009.

Actually, I've been thinking about butterflies more than moths myself, after a sunny day which brought out plenty of them including this Small Copper perching close to an early windfall which looks like a demented smiley ball. The butterfly was one of a dozen or more frisking about and taking an encouraging interest in one another. We should have plenty more next year.

There were also plenty of Speckled Woods, Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and Holly Blues, plus the occasional Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. I wonder, however, if others are experiencing a shortage of the usual, beautifully-coloured Vanessids this year. Our buddleias are at their best now, but I have seen only one Red Admiral and the others are sparse compared with recent years. The weather has been a bit odd which may have affected their cycle. But there are plenty of nettles about - their food plant - so perhaps it's just a matter of being patient.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

No it was a mariposa nocturna LEOPARDO...

Sorry, or disculparse as i believe they say in Spain. As Nick Tanner kindly pointed out yesterday in the Comments, my exciting featured foreign moth was a Leopard, not a Puss. It's another fine species that I've yet to see, although it's found in Yorkshire according to my faithful trinity of advisers, Messrs Waring, Townsend and Lewington.

It also has an excellent caterpillar; not as extraordinary as the Puss Moth's, but one of the best of the 'wooly bears'. Here's a picture, courtesy of Dave's Garden. Btw my moth Bible makes me feel slightly better about yet another identification bungle, because in its invaluable 'Similar Species' category, it brackets the Leopard with the Puss. On the other hand, I have admit that it doesn't take a genius to tell them apart.

Here's the adult Puss Moth, just to show you the difference with yesterday's Leopard. Thanks to Wikipedia. I wonder if battleship 'dazzle' camouflage artists used it as a reference. Or Bridget Riley, the op/pop-artist. In all three cases, the swirls and zigzags of black and white have a disorientating effect on the human eye. I'd guess the same goes for Puss Moth-hunting birds.

It will probably play havoc with my attempts at blog design, but here are a couple of examples of dazzle and Riley - the Aircraft-carrier HMS Argus in 1918 and Riley in front of one of her works in the swinging Sixties (ahhh...I remember them well).

Anyway, I lit the trap again last night for the first time in over a week, and was rewarded by this fine pair of visitors. Both pose legitimate identification problems as the Gold Spot, which I think this is, is so similar to the Lempke's Gold Spot that W,T & L use the dread phrase 'genitalia should be examined for confirmation.' The Swallow and Lesser Swallow Prominents are also evilly alike. I think this one is a Lesser.

Lempke's Gold Spot? Barend J Lempke is or was a Dutch entomolgist of some distinction. I suspect 'was' as most of his identifications seem to have been in the 1950s. More when my mastery of Google and Dutch improve. Het splijt mij, as they say in Holland.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Mariposa nocturna gato?

Riots and rain have rather disrupted moth activities this last week, so many thanks to J-P Stacey for sending this very fine picture and account of a Puss Moth which visited his parents' balcony in Spain. I've always wanted to see a Puss Moth and still more one of their caterpillars which are stars of the UK natural world. (Update: Eek! See Comments - and tomorrow's post; but read on anyway, cos it's interesting).

Quite apart from looking astonishing, even in the strange and wonderful company of moth caterpillars generally (which, interestingly, are much more colourful than butterflies' although the latter get their own back as adult insects), they have whips on their tail to deter predators such as ichneumon wasps. These have a nasty habit of laying eggs inside caterpillars which hatch and then eat their hosts alive. Swish, flick. You're not getting away with that on a Puss Moth larva.

Anyway, over to J-P and his wife Kate who sorted the pic together:

I thought you might like two (slightly blurry) photos of what I believe was a Spanish puss moth, taken on my parents' balcony in Spain (unsurprisingly). It was a little shorter than my little finger, maybe an inch and a half, and seemed to be wearing an ermine stole (more like a White Ermine, in fact, than the White Ermine itself.)

We were near Valencia, right by the coast. There's woodland nearby but not what you'd call forest: it can get quite dry and scrubby round there. It landed in the late afternoon and was quite groggy and sleepy; I picked it up on a piece of paper and put it into a damp pot plant where it would be hidden from any predators; by the morning it was gone, so I can only hope for the best.

Do feel free to share these photos and the story on your blog, if the quality of either is good enough!

It certainly is. Thanks very much again and to Kate. And here's a Puss Moth caterpillar to end with, courtesy of the Natural History Museum. I hope I come across one myself, one day.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Interesting fact about Birmingham

A hasty welcome if you've come here via my shameless plug on Twitter as I wander central Birmingham on Trouble Patrol. All is well tonight and will stay that way, I hope. I also hope you'll visit Birmingham if you've not been lately, and also the Black Country to the west.

The city is very fine, with the nobility of Chamberlain Square and a lovely restored area of canals around Gas Street basin where President Clinton had a pint at All Bar One. Sitting here also reminds me of the fascinating work of Bunny Teagle in founding the familiar modern concept of urban wildlife trusts with his 1978 study of Black Country wildlife, The Endless Village. Thanks for info to the country's second most famous BBC - the Birmingham and Black Country wildlife people.

I have just Googled 'Birmingham Moth' and here is the first entry on Google Image. It is of Mr J.Moth, author of The City of Birmingham Baths Department 1851-1951 published in the latter year. Much further down is an actual moth, one of my favourites - the Merveille du Jour. Many thanks to Opal West Midlands - Wildlife on your patch. Here it is:

Monday, 8 August 2011

Comfortable (and uncomfortable) billets

While on the subject of yellow underwings, here's one which knows a nice berth when it sees one. Penny had just finished getting our spare room ready for a cousin's stay, when it flew in and settled down. Here it is again, largely to show the amazing difference in colouring when you suppress flash.

The uncomfortable billet of this post's title is occupied by the world's hardiest Willow Herb, seen here clinging to the top of one of the extraordinary Norber Erratics above Austwick (lovely, lovely village and home of the truly excellent Game Cock pub). Rather deplorably, I have lived 61 years before visiting these geological wonders - enormous boulders left over from the glacial melt and perched on little plinths of underlying limestone which they have protected from the surrounding erosion (limestone being very soft, as W.H.Auden memorably described - goodness this post is full of links).

Here is an erratic, above, with my helpful hand (and boot) pointing at the plinth. The surrounding grassland is truly lovely, with wildflowers dotted about such as these harebells, this time with Penny's finger for scale. Down Crummackdale there are three fine clapper bridges, one of them just above an old sheepwash. Then a narrow, walled lane to the hamlet of Wharfe and back to the Game Cock for Sunday roast.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

In an eggbox, far, far away

Here goes Luke Skywalker into hyperspace...

Or is it merely a Common or Lesser Common Rustic questing into the heart of a Morrison's eggbox?

The latter I am afraid; it is a humdrum time for moths at the moment, dominated by these two pals: the Yellow Underwing (of many sorts) and the wasp. They seem to get along, being comparably whoozy from the mercury vapour lamp and a good night's sleep. This would be as stupefying as a good day's sleep for us, moths being nocturnal.

For all that the yellow underwings are as common as muck, their beauty should not be ignored. Look at this fine, sturdy Lesser Broad-bordered one (I think, but you know me). They also deserve doffed caps for their vigour in the UK, even if it is comparable to the similar success of, say, brambles. I got the latest edition of the totally fab magazine Atropos yesterday (a birthday present from my younger son), and its table of the country's commonest garden moths in 2010 is headed by the Large Yellow Underwing with the Lesser Broad-bordered in 9th place and the Lesser at 18th.

Plenty of other things are arriving as well. Here to end with is what I believe to be a Common Carpet. But as as I just said, you know me...

Friday, 5 August 2011

One down...

Penny and I are big fans of the Guardian's Quick Crossword, but although it's reckoned a doddle by experts, it usually takes both of us to complete it. Guess who got Two Down yesterday..?

Actually, it was Penny. I then managed to fill in 'rooftop' for the clue across, which was about the lowest possible way to fly. I guess that also applies to moths. In my musings on the Peacock yesterday, I forgot to say that its careful navigation only went haywire when it got near to the room's central lights, which were on. As often mentioned on this blog before, the reason for insects' 'attraction' to light is still a puzzle, but from my (very amateur) observations, I'm sure it more of a disorientation than an attraction. The Peacock started jinking all over the place, before dropping well below the lights and the resuming its normal calm progress. Mind you, human attraction can have a similar effect, in my experience, so I guess the jury stays out.

It is the same with the moth trap. The next picture isn't very illuminating - ha! - but that spun sugar pattern just above the light is about a thousand small flies. Occasionally a larger speck of light, ie a moth, hurtles through them into the trap, or sometimes back off into the darkness. The movements are never smooth or deliberate but have all the look of an aeroplane out of control.

We'd better have a picture of a moth. Here are two. A Riband Wave and a Mother of Pearl micro trying to communicate on either side of the trap's plastic shield. There were about 150 other moths dozing in the eggboxes, overwhelmingly types of Yellow Underwing, Dark Arches and other worthy but unexciting souls.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Tooth, claw and sting

This looks like a clip from Spartacus, and certainly the life of insects in our tranquil-looking garden is anything but peaceful. Something has gone amiss with the wasp in the foreground and its relative clearly sees it as one thing only. Food. The pair were oblivious to the possibility of a greater doom: mutually assured destruction from my large shoes. On this occasion, I forbore. After all, they had provided me with an interesting picture and experience.

It's a bad day, I'm afraid, for those who shudder at creepy-crawlies. We had some small cousins here, running riot, and they directed me to this prettily-patterned spider. Actually it was interesting that none of them had the slightest fear or worry about spiders. With luck, Charlie's Web has triumphed over Arachnophobia. Mind you, our Australian visitors had some interesting things to say about their spiders. Arachnophobia is a bit more understandable there.

Finally, this Peacock fluttered into the house from the warm weather outside and flew very daintily around. At one point, I crawled under a desk and between two boxes of stuff to try to get a picture. I was very impressed at how slowly and carefully the butterfly navigated around narrow spaces, like that episode in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker flies right into the Death Star, except at a fraction of the speed. I wonder if it recognises that great scientist Dorothy Hodgkin who spent much of her retirement at York university.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Down under

We've had our Australian friends Helen Versey and David Brown staying, which always means a brief but massive improvement in the quality of pictures on this blog. Last year David photographed an interesting grub in one of our meagre harvest of peas; this year it's the mystery object above.

What can it be? If I knew how to make this type go upside down, I would do that to delay the answer. So shut your eyes to the next bit if you want a little longer to decide.

It's the tail end - and, I believe, mating apparatus or what Charlie Fletcher the West Yorkshire county moth recorder calls 'wedding tackle' - of a very fine dragonfly which visited our pond. I was out working, so didn't see it, but H and D said that it was very helpful and obliging, holding its pose long enough for a series of pics. Here's another, with a third at the foot of the post.

I've noticed this about dragonflies; they appear to patrol a particular patch, so there is no need to chase after them. It's the same with hare-coursing, where the beagles and their quarry tend to run round in a circle, as opposed to the mad dash across the countryside of foxhounds. As for the dragonfly, it looks to me like one of the Hawkers, but I haven't Google-nailed it yet.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Sign of high summer

Alright, it's a common little butterfly, the Green-veined white in the picture above. But I'm celebrating the flower, the Buddleia or 'Butterfly bush' named after the largely mysterious Rev Adam Buddle. It is bursting into bloom all over Leeds and with it have come the grandees of the butterfly world, the gaudy relations of our modest moths.

Red Admirals seem to be the earliest, with a few Small Tortoiseshells about. I've yet to see a new generation Peacock, though we've had plenty of over-wintering oldies earlier in the year, so their children won't be long. Commas have also stayed with us faithfully since late Spring, and here's another one.

Rev Buddle would surely have been delighted with all this although he never saw a buddleia and died well before Linnaeus named the genus after him. It came from China, like this rhododendron which flowered for the first time, extending our 'rhodo season' from late April to early August. On that score, white rabbits!