Sunday 29 April 2012

Tiny beauty

A dry night at last, yippee! But a very cold one, and to begin with I wondered if the trap was completely empty. If you check back to Expert Ben's comment on the previous post, you'll see his interesting observation that moths seem to be more abundant on wet nights rather than on windy ones, in the current period of glum weather.

I always check very carefully, however. On many previous occasions, it has been the last or penultimate egg box which has concealed something really interesting. So it was this morning. On just one of the boxes was a tiny speck. Expanded by the technical wonders of my digital camera (micro mode, appropriately), it becomes this ravishing micro moth.

A grand dame on her way to the opera in some sort of lustrous leopardskin-patterned outfit with a matching fur? You tell me (you can click on the pics to enlarge them and get the full glamour).

The world of micros is a joy which I am looking forward to indulging as work winds down. Hey presto! On 31 May the long-awaited British Wildlife Publishing Field guide to Micro Moths will be published. Andrew Branson of BWP has just emailed me with this excellent news and he is not exaggerating when he says in his press release that the book, by the experts Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons and illustrated by the incomparable Richard Lewington,
"for the first time, makes this fascinating and important group of insects accessible to the general naturalist. it is one of the most eagerly anticipated insect guides for years."

Bring it on!  My birthday is on 18 May.

Update: I despair of my ability to identify creatures this size but Ben Sale - see comments - has come to my rescue. This is Eriocrania subpurpurella. Something to do with heads and colour, I think. I must brush up my Latin.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Rain, rain, go away

Things looked encouraging last night, with a largely clear evening and temperatures average for the time of year. But this morning the garden is glistening from the effects of overnight rain and the cold is back. Trees have been blown down in south western England and the forecast is wet, wet, wet.

This is good for the drought-stricken areas which now form a large triangle from east Yorkshire (but not us) down to Cornwall, but it isn't conducive to large arrivals of moths in the trap. There were five there this morning, three Common Quakers and two Hebrew Characters, including this rather finely-marked one.

Observe the Hebrew letter 'nun' which gives the moth its name, along with the accompanying legend that one of its ancestors was given the hereditary mark by the Almighty after it dared to address him, or her, direct. What would a moth say to God? What would you? It's one of those questions which make for a good supper table discussion, like the six people from history you'd most want to invite round for tea.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Moths in Darwin's town

I've been in Shrewsbury at the annual cartoon festival in my undeserved role as a patron of the Professional Cartoonists' Organisation. It's an excellent event and the town is a lovely place in which to play truant. Thanks to Lindsey Besley, whose husband Rupert is an ancient pal and outstanding cartoonist, we visited Shrewsbury Museum and saw these wonderful bed-hangings.

They are modern reproductions and therefore glow with colour in a manner which would long have faded from the 1593 originals. The patterns are based on Tudor work and, my goodness, entomology was big for 16th century seamstresses.  In Hamlet, it was flights of angels which sang the sweet prince to his rest. In Shakespeare's real-life world, it was clearly butterflies and moths.

I could fill the blog with this sort of thing. The museum also has a heart-shaped Butterfly Dish, so-called because of its lepidopterous pattern, and in a modern clothes boutique on our walk, there was a lovely party dress covered with butterflies. I wonder if they deter clothes moths (of which there are VERY few species, I must add. I do not want to give moths a bad name).

But I won't go on. Instead, for those who wonder about the hold which moths have on me,  I'll end with a letter described at the museum. As you can see, it starts: "I am dying by inches from not having anyone to talk to about insects." The author, who commendably uses every inch of his paper by cross-writing, was Charles Darwin.  

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Sparkling water

There was a moth in the trap when I finally got round to investigating yesterday, and it was made more interesting by the rainfall. Although the shield is surprisingly effective (Kevin the electrician said: "They'd never be allowed to sell that" when he first saw it), a little bit of water usually gets inside after an hour or two.

Tucked under the one really damp eggbox was this Clouded Drab, whose dullness was banished by what looked like tiny diamonds on its dull-coloured wings. They were very small dots of moisture accumulated from its surroundings but held on the 'skin' of the scales in the same way that rain fails to penetrate the lanolin-protected fleece of sheep, such as those shown in yesterday's post.

The camera doesn't do the phenomenon justice and I'm afraid that my pictures get blurry in close-up. But here is a section of wing where I hope you can see the moisture it bit more obviously. I went down again an hour or so later and the moth had dried out. Shortly afterwards, it skittered off to a safer home inside a rhododendron bush.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Mint sauce, anyone?

There may be moths later today, after the recent shortage. I was woken by rain and so went out early to switch off the trap (Mr and Mrs Robinson's rain shield is simple in the extreme but extraordinarily effective). It was too dark to examine the eggboxes and take photos, so please be patient.

In the meanwhile, here are Martin's Lambs and Martin's Ducklings. Lovely what you find in Wharfedale on an April day. We did the circular walk between Burnsall and Thorpe, famed hamlet of maypole-stealers, passing the suspension bridge and stepping stones just after Postman's Steps.

The sheep with the yellow bucket on its head alarmed other townies out on the same walk and we promised to check with the chairman of Burnsall parish council who was manning Katie's tea cabin in Burnsall car park. Not to worry, he said, obviously used to such tender but unnecessary concern. "The farmers go out every hour so to check at lambing time."

Monday 16 April 2012

We are moths!

My younger son Olly has come to my aid on another mothless day. Frost rimes the lawn for the second morning running and I don't feel disposed to trap. But he has been to the exhibition at the Hayward gallery on London's South Bank of the work of the comic artist David Shrigley. Comic, that is, in the sense that many good artists have been, by using fun in the work to make serious or interesting points.

Olly spotted and 'phone-photoed this exhibit, which reminds me of the local slogan 'We are Leeds!' which impressively loyal followers of Leeds United FC chant through thick and thin. I haven't had time to think, or Google, about why Shrigley composed this mothfest (and bear in mind that he is a trained artist, perfectly able to draw and paint accurately rather than simply with the verve of a primary school child). But has led me to a very good blog called Moths by the Way, which seems to have lived out its brief life much like a moth but is full of good things.

It in turn led me to this other combination of moth and Shrigley which you can actually get as a T-shirt although it's a bit too grey for my own fashion tastes.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Cupboard bare

I put the trap out lateish last night and woke up to a heavy frost. At the time of writing, 7.20am, the temperature is struggling to get above 0C, 32F, although that hasn't deterred two cock robins from having an energetic face-off over breadcrumbs we scattered yesterday on the lawn. The trap is completely empty, something which has only happened once before in four years, and the other time was on a snowy night in December. So I shall mark this with a small first: a blog post without a photo.

Mind you, the sky is clear and the sun is up, so we look set for a lovely day and probably a circular walk from a pub in the Dales. I hope you have something equally enjoyable in mind.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Back in business

Sorry, it's been a while. Not for any particular reason; just the iffy weather and a certain amount of boredom setting in with Common Quakers et al. I would never make a scientist, as the Oxford & Cambridge O Level Examination Board discerned many years ago. I ought to be trapping nightly and keeping numerical records. But I'm not and never will.

This morning was handy, though. A cold night with a bit of drizzle meant that the eggboxes had few residents and those which were there proved interesting. Or at least photogenic. Above is a very nice Early Grey, a moth whose complex pattern must surely have inspired designers in times past. I have made all the jokes about the almost eponymous tea in previous posts, so please take them as read.

Below are a couple of Northern Drabs much resembling students after a late night out. Interesting to see their fluffy bodies and, in the little picture on the right, the curious ear-like structures behind the antennae of one of them. I shall delve further, and almost quite scientifically, into that.


Meanwhile the natural world has provided us with one of its many small, everyday tragedies. We have Goldcrests here which are a constant delight, but I fear that disaster has overtaken one of their nests. I was clearing away a fallen branch from a big cedar when I saw a nest with one egg in. Another lay on the floor below. I put both back and hid the nest as best I could, although it with little hope that its owners would return. But at breakfast this morning, Penny noticed a Goldcrest pecking away at the place where the nest was hidden and flying too and fro, to much higher branches of the cedar, with beakfuls of grass and moss. Later two larger Blue Tits arrived and started doing the same.


I don't know if the nest was the Goldcrests' or the tits' but someone more knowledgeable than me may be able to tell from this photo of the egg.  Meanwhile, here is a picture we took of one of the Goldcrests years ago, after our older son Tom - not at the time specially interested in Nature - shouted from his bedroom: "Come and see this weird bird!"

It was a cock Goldcrest angrily displaying at its own reflection in Tom's window.  We watched it for ages, fascinated, as it could only see the reflection unlike the true believer in George Herbert's famous lines:

 A man that looks on glass, 
On it may stay his eye; 
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, 
And then the heaven espy. 

Or the Wainwright family.

Sunday 8 April 2012

In the Easter pink

Happy Easter! I hope that you have a lovely day, lots of chocolate - and eggs. Here are some unusual ones; they come from a Rosy Maple moth courtesy of of North Carolina Pest News. Rosy Maple moths are very pretty but not everyone likes them. There's even a Ornamental and Turf Insect Note which provides recommendations for control of caterpillars, known more sinisterly to the pest people as Green-striped Mapleworms.

 I shall have to cross the Atlantic and visit Sarah and Greg, or Banished in his swamp, to see one of these lovely creatures. But the internet is full of them if you Google for 'Easter moth'. It's the colouring rather than flight season which earns them the nickname, although some are on the wing in the southern United States in April.

Here's an adult insect, courtesy of Afro's Front Porch Critters on Bigwig Fotopages here. Just the sort of thing to add to your Easter table decorations. The outstanding US website BugGuide notes: If it weren't so common, it would generate greater excitement. Don't worry. It excites me over here.

Saturday 7 April 2012

On the ration

After yesterday's exotica, a return to dear old England. This picture looks like something from the post-war austerity period - an elderly couple, maybe, coming to terms with the continuation of rationing (bananas weren't freely available until 1954). I've spoken often to people who remember that time, when for a while the world seemed to go grey.

So here are a couple of Common Pugs. They caught my eye because of the way one chose the flex to settle on, which very seldom happens. Their feet must have powerful muscles or little spurs to ensure a grip. Actually, I just Googled 'moth's feet' since writing that last sentence and discovered that many butterflies and moths have taste pads on their feet. So maybe electric flex tastes nice. Certainly mice think so. One died in our house after nibbling that bit too far (and fused our dishwasher in the process).

Friday 6 April 2012

Kevin's kaleidoscope from Spain

A few posts back, I featured Kevin Hill, the ace electrician who PAT-tested the moth trap for its excursion to London. Now I've heard from him again and he's sent these lovely butterfly photos.

He wasn't particularly interested in moths when he came to do the trap, but like everyone I've ever met, he was entranced by the beauty of these residents of a butterfly 'jungle' on Spain's Costa del Sol. I haven't had time to look them up although they are familiar from similar attractions in the UK, such as the excellent one at Bristol Zoo. I think the Monarch-like ones are a European version of America's grand butterfly, known as the Leopard; but I will check, or more learned readers may advise.

Kevin's pictures are timely because they add to my scepticism about a recent National Trust report which I covered for the Guardian, which claims that today's children have lost touch with nature, don't play out any more and so forth. The statistics seemed unconvincing to me, as such things often are when you examine them in detail.

A claim that x percent of the country believes/does something is often based on surprisingly small samples. Encountering a statistical interviewer at work can add to your scepticism. As children, we made a habit of getting free sweets from people testing samples on the street in Headingley, making repeat visits and giving fictional opinions and different marks out of ten about how yum they were.

Kevin's pictures trigger another cause for doubt. These surveys always refer to a happier past which I am sure is largely imaginary. I don't believe that my generation, still less my parents' and grandparents, took a more intense or knowledgeable interest in wildlife than today's. They certainly didn't have the chance to watch magnificent creatures like these butterflies within inches of, or indeed sometimes perched on, their noses.

By another coincidence, Penny is reading the novel The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins and just showed me this quote, from a regrettably pompous barrister:

"The village parents are complaining that the children seem to have lost the power of amusing themselves. On Saturday mornings they hang about whining for money to go to the cinema - at twelve o'clock on a fine morning."

That was in 1954.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

It's a moth's life

Who'd be a moth, especially a little one like this? It probably hasn't lived much more than a week or two, but already it's got a chunk out of its trailing edge like a Spitfire returning from a dogfight. It reminds me of that wartime RAF sketch from Beyond the Fringe where Peter Cook sends Jonathan Miller out on a suicide mission ("Another, sir?) and when Miller says: "Goodbye then, sir - or is it au revoir?", replies firmly: "No".

So many hazards beset a moth; even violent gusts of wind might disable a scrap like this. I think this is a Common Pug, although my record in identification may not give you huge confidence. Here's another one, below, with its wings up away from the usual flat, resting position. It's preparing to make its escape from yet another threat. Me.

Otherwise, the trap continues in its modest March way, with the Quakers, Drabs and Hebrew Characters returning for their nightly conclave. Cold weather has replaced the amazing sunshine of the last ten days and the Met Office talks of snow. When the north wind doth blow... Although actually these are north-easterlies, and they have the feel of Spitzbergen about them.