Sunday, 30 June 2013

Big plumes, small elephant

Here's a beautiful moth which you can meet without spending money on a light trap: the White Plume, which may flutter from banks of nettles, docks and willowherb on a warm summer's day as you brush past.

It is hearteningly easy to identify and different from the baffling army of other micros, and its wings are quite something. Are there two? Six? or eight? When all four pairs of plumes are unfolded, the last answer is correct.

Or is it only six wings?

Mine was extremely skittish, dodging from place to place as I tried to photograph its upper wing and it kept hiding underneath leaves. It never flew far, luckily, but seemed to go for nettles in particular in order to annoy me. Hah! By good chance, my able lieutenant Penny was to hand and nobly held a nettle leaf to persuade the creature to sit for me, while aptly comparing its plumes to Edwardian ladies' ostrich feathers. Is this, I wonder, a birthday hint for 16 July? In a minute, I will be taking her a well-deserved cup of morning tea.

The bejewelled hand of Pen, plus Plume pretending to have only four wings

One last thing about this engaging moth. Do you think the designer of the Liberal Democrats' bird logo is a secret plume enthusiast?

Meanwhile in the trap...evidence of how the moth enthusiast can grow blase. Only a couple of weeks ago, I was exulting about the presence of no fewer than seven Elephant Hawks among the eggboxes. This morning, there were seven again, and I was having to stifle a yawn.  But then I turned one of the last boxes over - and what was this, on the right in the picture above?

Yes, a Small Elephant Hawk, immediate relative of the standard EH but smaller, subtly different in wing-patterning and found less frequently. I didn't dally and took its pic straight away which was just as well, because the daylight got it worried and in no time it was whirring its wings for take-off and then zooming away. Can you see a third standard Elephant Hawk watching admiringly in the background?

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Mopping up

High Priests? Or Edmund Hilary, Sherpa Tensing Norgay and the ghost of Mallory or Irvine?

I was too tired to trap last night after driving back from the North and have woken agreeably late this morning, so much so that Penny made the tea. Time to feature a few also-rans from earlier in the week, therefore; and also to mull over a series of micro-moths which are still on the run from my Identity Police.

In the prayer meeting above for example, which puts me in mind of Caiaphas, Ananais and High Priests in general, the Middle-barred Minor on the left is joined by - I think - a Pyralid micro on the right. The upside-down one in the middle - a religious dissenter? - is going to take a lot of tracking down. Then in the next photo, we have a distinctive beastie with a corporal's stripe. I wonder if he chose my only brown eggbox for camouflage reasons.

This Udea olivalis (I hope I'm right) had a different defence strategy; creeping as far as possible into a cone. He or she was one of four in the trap, however, and the one in the second picture was less of a shrinking violet.

Some bigger moths next: a delicate Willow Beauty on a rhubarb leaf and a Brown Rustic having a cuddle with a White Ermine. It is probably coincidence, but I've noticed that on the relatively rare occasions when two moths snuggle together like this, a White Ermine is often one of them. Mind you, they are particularly attractive.

Finally, two examples of the effects of a hard life in moths through the loss of the scales which hang in overlapping rows on their wings, like roof tiles. I thought initially that the Willow Beauty's neighbour on the rhubarb leaf was an unusual green moth, but the effect is translucence. Apologies for vexing your eyes with the blurring.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Stab in the dark

If you were to hire an assassin in the moth world, here's your man (or woman): the Grey Dagger. How many blades can you count on its appropriately grey and furtive cloak? I make it four large ones and four poignards.

It was a regular visitor in Leeds but this is the first at our new home in Oxfordshire, It didn't enter the trap but lurked nearby on some wooden planking, well disguised, waiting to strike... Update on 2 July: I've been reading a bit about the various Daggers and this moth could be a Dark Dagger. The only way you can distinguish the species is by examination of their genitalia which is a step too far for someone who failed physics-with-chemistry O level and never really got off the ground in biology at all. Sorry.

Inside the trap there was a growing population; summer's warmer nights - at last - are bringing in the moths, including, in order of photographs, this Small Magpie micro, Pinnochio-style Snout moth and a beautiful little micro about half the length of the top of one of my thumbnails. I've added a close-up because it's so lovely (as our my pyjamas which you can see in the background. Isn't the eggbox fabric fascinating too?)

Finally - eek! - the year's first yellow underwing; a Large one. I apologise to these blameless moths but they used to infest the trap in Leeds in such numbers that I all but despaired (it takes quite a while, finding the moths safe havens from birds after inspecting the catch). Much as I love moths, I'm hoping there'll be fewer of these here.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Scene of the crime?

The trap was full of moths last night, well over 100, and there were plenty snoozing on leaves nearby. Those in the eggboxes included a second Privet Hawk - the UK's second largest moth about which I exulted earlier this week - and another of the series of Elephant Hawks which have come calling. Also Peppered Moths, Bright-line Brown-eyes, Ermines both White and Buff and a clutch of others which I'll examine in due course.

But the greatest interest was among the nearby nettles and willowherb where my eye was caught by a speck of red as I started reeling up the electric cable. It proved to be this: a torn hindwing of the gaudy and vivid Scarlet Tiger, a moth which I would love to have shown you in toto.  As it is, I will have to fall back on the picture in my Moth Bible.

Presumably it came to the light but was intercepted en route by one of our many bats. Or maybe it was resting nearby as daylight came and was spotted by a bird. I suspect the first scenario, as birds have so far shown little interest when I go and inspect the eggboxes in the morning. Waring and Townsend note that it is a day flyer but also comes to light at night, adding with an unusual touch of drama: 'The male patrols wildly in the late afternoon and early evening'. It's classified as 'local' nationally but with a stronghold which includes Oxfordshire and extends to the south west. Plus an outpost in Kent.

On the way back to make tea, I spotted a similar phenomenon to the lonely scrap of wing with the wild poppies which we have left to add colour to our lettuce and radish patch. Beauty can be fleeting.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Razzle dazzle

Two of my favourite moths came last night, a pair of Elephant Hawks and five Burnished Brasses, two of them above. Both species have featured in recent posts so what follows is pure self-indulgence. They are so lovely, that I just like taking photographs of them.

Why is the Elephant Hawk pink? I intend to find out, but suspect that it may have something to do with the colour's ability to soften harsh shapes, such as the moth's steeply angled 'jet-plane' wings. I am repeating myself again, but even their staid Lordships of the British Admiralty accepted pink paint on some of their warships in the First World War on exactly this camouflage principle.  (Update: check out Phil Gates' fascinating comment below and also follow his truly wonderful link. All Phil's blogs are outstanding and make me want to visit Durham and around at every possible opportunity).

The other thing to say about the Elephant Hawk, and its close relative the Small Elephant Hawk which has not yet visited us in Oxfordshire though it did in Leeds, is that both are a fine introduction to newcomers to the world of moths. In the UK in late August, it is always worth checking out the lower leaves of Rosebay Willow Herb in late afternoon, for the distinctive caterpillars of both species.

Disguised earlier on in the season by green colouring, very much the same as the leaves, they become much easier to spot as they near pupation because they change to elephant grey, hence the name. Good hunting!

M for Martin?

Or W for Wainwright?

And here's a reminder of what the whole moth looks like, after all those bitty pics.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Light and shade

Here's an interesting pair from the trap last night: two Peppered Moths, one the standard salt-and-pepper version and the other melanic, or black. The story of the different varieties is famous outside the world of entomology; you can spend hours reading arguments and counter-arguments from creationists and mainstream scientists on the net.

The reasons is the moth's role in the story of change and survive which Charles Darwin (and his less well-known contemporaries especially Alfred Russel Wallace) standardised as the Theory of Evolution. Normally the process of adaption to circumstances is long drawn-out as the less fit are eliminated by predation or disease; but the Peppered Moth's population in the UK has changed in my lifetime, in terms of the balance between the ordinary and melanic types.

In particular, the melanics have declined in remarkably similar proportion to the disappearance of the filthy conditions created by industrial pollution in which their colouring was perfect camouflage. In a famous study, the eminent doctor Sir Cyril Clarke who was also a great enthusiast for butterflies and moths, showed that the decline also paralleled the rise of centenarians in the UK - another indicator of our improving environment. He used the traditional telegrams to 100-year-olds from Buckingham Palace in his data.

It is increasingly unusual to find a melanic version; they were rare in Leeds in my time, even though the pollution had been pretty considerable there into my boyhood in the 1950s.  While we're on the subject of black, here's a pretty red and black Cinnabar to finish up with. It interrupted my efforts yesterday to keep the lawn under control.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Colour film

Technicolour - why butterflies will always have the edge over moths

I promised a butterfly today and here, below, is one dear to my heart, a Speckled Wood, a species often seen flitting in and out of dappled sunlight on the fringe of woodland. Its colouring reflects this habitat, a pattern of dark and light brown very similar to the flickering of light and shade as tree leaves move about in the wind. 

I suffered the experience of being disbelieved when I first recorded one in Leeds in the late 1990s but the 21st century brought a specimen close enough to photograph; and by then it was clear that the Speckled Wood was on the march in the north, one of the UK butterflies - and it is not alone - which are on the increase rather than fodder for the media's inevitable preference for bad news.

This one came inside here, a day after I had watched two dancing about above our lawn but didn't have the camera handy. Its excursion was a day for butterfly adventuring; a Small White flew indoors as well while a Brimstone and a male Orange Tip - the gender with the actual orange - circled more cautiously outside. On a walk to Kidlington yesterday, we also discovered that the eggs of the rare Brown Hairstreak have been found in St Mary's Fields, by the church with its slender pencil of a spire. So there's something to look for.

Why do people love butterflies so much more than moths? In-your-face colour is the main reason, I think, as in this picture I took yesterday of another field on our walk. Who isn't fond of bright poppies? The Speckled Wood isn't the most vivid of the UK's 60-odd species, but it out-colours the average moth, especially in flight when most of the latter look like large bees.

Today's serendipitous post also includes our Interesting Bird, actually only a Tom Tit but one which has chosen to ignore our predecessors' bird box in favour of a hole in the tree right beside it, like someone rejecting purpose-built new flats for a thatched cottage. The parents fly too and fro all day with offerings for their brood and we should see fledging soon. Next door's bird nuts are currently host to three fledgling spotted woodpeckers whose efforts to master the feeding system cause much fun. 

Here are the neighbouring homes, with one of the adult birds in its doorway. Sorry about the blurring but I don't want to get too close and risk them deserting

Next I managed to get one of the birds in flight, but so blurredly that I've added the large caption

Finally, a little film seemed the best bet. I hope it works on your computer.

To end with,  some moths at last: two more of the many which puzzle me. I keep trying to identify them and feel very hopeless not even to be able to decide whether these are different or the same species in different states of dilapidation. Common Marbled Carpet? Dark Marbled Carpet? Ben? Dave? Are you out there? Help!

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Shining brightly

I am giving the moths a night off after yesterday's excitements, and also in an attempt to catch up. We are now in the insects' high season and Oxfordshire is proving high indeed, even though the weather continues to be a bit middling.

Where was I, before yesterday's magnificent Privet Hawk diverted me? Ah, yes. The night before, the first Burnished Brass of the year flew in, or rather three of them did. They are the finest illustration in UK moths of the effects of light refraction in wing scales.

Here's one of the other ones, nestling up to an equally sleepy White Ermine
A thorough understanding of this will not be obtained from me, but from web pages such as this one. But essentially, the moth plays that trick you often see on badges in novelty shops where the picture changes depending on your angle of viewing; or a sign saying 'Stop' on a red background magically becomes 'Go' on a green one.

The effect is created by layers of filmy scales on the insect's wing, placed like tiles on a roof, whose different levels of light penetration create the 'magic'. The phenomenon is most beautifully seen in the iridescent blue Morpho butterflies of South America. Local children used to catch them to sell as souvenirs by fly-casting silver sweetpaper on fishing lines. The picture above is an example, a plate brought back from Brazil by my older sister who is frequently over there, fomenting radicalism (currently with some effect by the look of things). Such knick-knacks are falling into disrepute as the educative role which they played in the past is superseded by the glorious pictures available on the web.

Much else was snoozing beside the Burnished Brass; at the littlies' end for example, this tiny but curiously tufted micro-moth Phtheocroa rugosana, above, and a flight of Straw Dots which rest like so many triangular darts. Superficially these look plain in their colouring, but closer inspection reveals the two little dots within misty corneas of blue.

Observe the observer: what big eyes you have, Mr Straw Dot

And here are the false ones on the forewing

Here's a lovely Mottled Beauty too, which has come out quite well in the tricky photographic conditions of the black bowl which does funny things - possibly even refraction? - to the camera's ability to cope with different light.

Update: sorry, I should have got this one, as its quite a rare moth which I featured earlier in the month - an Oblique Carpet. Many thanks to Ben and Dave (see Comments). The four dots look like a clincher but they are almost to small to see (for my eyes) in my Moth Bible

Update: and this one is the micro Aphelia palanea from the Tortrix family - take a bow, Ben Sale (see Comments again)
And now the usual Bafflers, above. I temporarily reckon them to be a Silver Ground Carpet and a Dingy Footman - alas for the latter's dreary name even if it is deserved. In my temporary caption to the photo, I called it 'boring moth'. (Update: See Comments meanwhile, for the truth; or the pic captions added above)

And lastly, a Clouded Silver pretending to be a butterfly on the lawn a few feet from the trap. Quite a few of the smaller moths do this occasionally instead of folding their wings on their backs like a sheath which is one of the ways of identifying them from butterflies. Talking of the latter, tomorrow I will feature one, while the moths enjoy their weekend off.