Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Merry Christmas all!

Hi everyone and I hope that you have a great Christmas and all warmest wishes for the New Year.

I'm giving the moths a seasonal bit of excitement by converting the trap into a Christmas illumination. No neighbours have yet complained; in fact those I've spoken to about it have been touchingly complimentary. And the moths are still taking an interest as well.  I'd pretty much given up on them for the year, but in the first two nights of the amazing new Star Trap, I've had firts a solitary Winter Moth and then last night a Mottled Umber and another Winter Moth - although the latter could be a Northern Winter as it's showing rather more petticoat than usual, which is one way to distinguish the NW from the plain W. Its pic is next, followed by the Mottled Umber.

It's interesting to see how much dew collected on the first Winter Moth, apparently without affecting its health or happiness (pic below). Moths' wings must have a similar effect to bird feathers and sheep wool, shrugging moisture off rather than absorbing it.

Finally, here is a Christmas message from my moths:

Sorry, I used did this
drawing for another
poetic effort on the
blog three Christmases
ago but I haven't time
to do a new one

Hello humans! Your Christmas is here
But you won't see many of us
It's not that we mind this time of the year
Or get fed up with the fuss.

No. The Creator with infinite skill
Has designed our lives this way:
We're eggs or pupae now and we will
Remain asleep 'til the day

When the morning sun brings warmth once more
And birdsong fills the skies
Then like the babe in the manger poor
We'll return, take wing and arise!

(William Shakespeare)

Have a great time!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Birthday girl

Yesterday saw the birthday not only of the granddaughter - a famous friend of moths - but her Mum, who isn't over-keen on insects of any kind. Bound for their party, I faced a dilemma: whether to take a moth for the little one (assuming that anything had arrived in the trap), or not.

In the event, I did, as grandchild's enthusiasm is greater than Mum's polite preference for avoiding moths where possible. Thus a small piece of insect distribution was carried out in the form of a neat and helpfully sleepy December Moth which travelled down the M40 in a plastic butter carton, joined a very noisy party for about five minutes and then winged it into the London dusk.

"Grandpa, are you a little bit sad that the moth has flown away," asked the tot, who was very pleased with the brief encounter after a hectic and excellent session of games with her friends and an entertainer in the guise of the famous Princess Elsa from Frozen. Mum played gamely along too, when the tiny visitor was shown to her before it scarpered - top pic.

Otherwise, it was nice to see this pretty micro below in the eggboxes. I need confirmation but it looks to me like Epiphyas postvittana or the Light Brown Apple Moth.  First identified in 1863, this minute species made it to the UK from Australia via marine cargo in the 1930s and is now thoroughly at home.

I should be annoyed up to a point, as it is a major pest of apple trees and we have one. But it's so nice to have mothy company in mid-December that I forgive it. I'm also pleased that my current moth visitor book exactly tallies with that superb guide to moth ID, Hants Moths' 'Flying Tonight' web page. Its top four at the moment are Winter, December, Mottled Umber and Light Brown Apple. Ditto here.

Finally, here is the other eggbox occupant, a Winter Moth, from below.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Up and away

Christmas is only two weeks away but we still have Morning Glories flowering in the greenhouse and yesterday morning, after a very mild night, the trap boasted a new moth for the year. The reason I have illustrated it with my photo of the heroic window-cleaner at the top of Portsmouth's Spinnaker Tower, which P and I much enjoyed visiting two weeks ago, is that it has an equally daring caterpillar.

The moth is the Mottled Umber, by no means rare - indeed the excellent Garden Safari website notes dryly: 'Where there are trees, there will be Mottled Umbers' - but interesting, not only for the carefree variation of its markings, which would make it hard to identify (certainly for me!) were its flight period not limited to the Winter months when not a lot else is on the wing. Mine (above) is a very standard version. Some have virtually no lines or speckles at all.

So why is the caterpillar daring? Because when alarmed while feeding on a leaf - basically all that caterpillars ever do normally - it jumps over the side and dangles from a long, spider-like spool of thread. When it perceives the danger to be over, it swarms back up again and gets on with its breakfast, lunch or tea.

The other curiosity about the Mottled Umber is the sadly flightless state of its females - thanks to www.alamy.com for the picture, left. Just as a caterpillar's life is concerned entirely with food, so is that of a female moth with producing young. In her severest mood, Nature has decided that this need not involve the power to fly. Breeding in Mottled Umbers is not a romantic affair. The only compensation is that the female is a little more attractive than some of her flightless compadres among UK moths. But not much.

Otherwise, the moths marked my granddaughter's birthday with one Winter Moth, above, and two December Moths in their fur coats. Not bad, so late in the year. Many thanks, moths.

Today's pics have a warmish tone because we had to make an early start and it was too dark outside to take photographs. As I pottered off, there was a cry from P: "Aren't you going to clear away your flies?"  Puzzled, I pottered back and found this scene of devastation on the kitchen sideboard where I had upended an eggbox. Moths may be scarce at this time of year, but there are loads of smaller flying creatures about.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Back to my books

It's the time of the year when the moth trapper retires to his or her books in front of a blazing fire and tries to work out how many moths have coming visiting this year, and how many of them are new.

I give up on the first calculation, but I can answer the second. As my species total climbs towards 400, the number of novelties naturally falls, but I'm happy with six notched up this year. That does not include micro-moths which have never fitted happily with my amateurish census methods. One day, I hope to include them in the calculations as well.

So, a big hand for the 2016 newcomers: 

Smoky Wainscot
Varied Coronet
Peacock or Sharp-angled Peacock
Bulrush Wainscot

Lesser Treble-bar f. fimbriata

And I recorded my first Small Dusty Wave down in London.

The trap will have a rest for most of the winter but I will fish it out every so often just in case there's something around. And December has a habit of producing mothy stories in other parts of the universe. See you again soon!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Dominus illuminatio mea

After the rehearsal mentioned the other week, the moth trap had its hour of glory - several hours, actually - last night at the launch of the exciting new Friends of Holy Cross, Shipton-on-Cherwell (please email me on martinswainwright@gmail.com if you have a bob or two to spare).

Thanks to mulled wine, candles and a fantastic turnout of over 80 people, we had a great evening and lots of plans have been hatched - for example, a showing of the canal murder episode of Inspector Morse which was filmed nearby, a book exchange/shelf in the church and summertime cream teas for walkers, who abound.

As for moths; well, there were none. It was freezing cold and the trap was turned off shortly before 10pm. Maybe they were all inside with the church's massive, resident population of ladybirds, enjoying the heady fumes of mulled wine.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Shades of blue

Moth-trapping in current conditions and at this time of year consists of enjoyable but everyday - or everynight - encounters with a handful of December moths. The one pictured today did at least do me the service of demonstrating how its fur-coat is actually an almost see-through garment, at least towards the edge of the wings. But otherwise, I have little to say about them.

Hence the top pictures, first of our wonderfully surviving Morning Glory whose greenhouse home this morning would freeze the whatsits off a brass monkey. (Penny is very interested in the etymology of that phrase and apparently inaccurate attributions to naval warfare - see here).

Blue being my favourite colour, I also can't resist posting these pictures of one of our many jays. Returning to the world of myth and allegory, the contrast in this bird between physical beauty and an awful, jarring voice, or call, is indeed striking. Alas, I have known human counterparts.

Sorry for the dodgy focus, but these were taken from quite a distance and through our kitchen window.  And so to the moth. Here he is:

Friday, 25 November 2016

All alone

For the umpteenth time, I am very grateful to a Commentor on the blog - in this case Richard, who pointed out that the 'November/Autumnal Moths' which featured in my last post were in fact Winter Moths. They made a change from the solitary predictable regular in the trap at this time of the year, the December Moth, which appears in the first two pictures here.

Because it's a very dark moth which often photographs poorly, I took this one inside this morning and snapped it under our most powerful table lamp. The sudden fierce light and warmth had no effect whatever on its deep sleep at 7am. I know how it feels.

On the Winter Moths, here they are in the Moth Bible, on the same page as the ones with which I muddled them. I have long ago given up hope of getting differences such as this right. I tend to go on colours and patterns and these are too similar for my limited detection powers. The easier difference is the size - Winter Moths being smaller - and to some extent the wing shape. November Moths are a little more pointy.

It's good to have the Winter Moth recorded for 2016 - the ones in the post below are my first of the year - and it's also a most interesting moth. Its equivalent of blood has an element of anti-freeze and it takes half-an-hour to warm up enough to take wing. Read more, if so inclined, from one of my earlier posts on the subject here.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Kitchen moths - and a political starlet

Prime Minister right, butterfly left
This has been a good year for 'celebrity moths' which take it upon themselves to intervene in major human events. We had another example yesterday when an insect took an interest in Theresa May's speech to the Confederation of British Industry. "A moth!" I cried to Penny as we dozed in front of the evening TV news. Actually, although it jinked about in the fierce lighting like a moth, I am sure that it was a butterfly, either a Small Tortoiseshell or a Peacock.

As I've mentioned here in the past, these butterflies enjoy a superstitious value in the theatre world, where their appearance at a premiere is supposed to portend good luck. I hope that this is the case but the explanation is more prosaic. These two species are great hibernators in the UK and the cracks and crannies of old theatres, and especially those vast and usually folded stage curtains, make a perfect place for a winter sleep.

In the kitchen, meanwhile, Penny had earlier let out her own cry of "Moths!" when no fewer than six Autumnal or November moths (Update: or were they? See end of post) settled on the outside of the windows to watch her making spaghetti. Her are some reflective shots of my attempt to record them all:

I hadn't been going to light the trap because of heavy rain forecast overnight, but this little invasion prompted me to do so. I prudently switched it off at 11pm when it was still dry and - relatively - warm. I was wise to do as the rain duly came in the wee, small hours.

The only other thing that came, in trapping terms, was a nice December moth, shown at the foot of the post. Interestingly, although the trap was within 50 yards of the kitchen window, none of the Autumn/November moths flew over to investigate. Mind you, no one was making spaghetti in the trap, so there was less for them to see.

Update:  many thanks to Richard in Comments for pointing out that the visitors were not Autumnal/November Moths but Winter Moths, my first this year. More on this in the next post, but many thanks, Richard.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Let there be light!

The primary purpose of a moth trap is...well, obviously, to catch moths. But they can come in handy for other tasks. On Saturday, 3rd December, for example, we're helping launch a group called the Friends of Holy Cross at Shipton-on-Cherwell.  The lovely little church, well known to walkers along the Oxford canal or the circular path via the romantic, ruined manor house of Hampton Gay, will be floodlit at 7.30pm.

Floodlit? Mothtrap-lit, to be more precise, probably with a bit of help from the narrowboats which moor nearby. My top picture is of a successful experiment tonight. On the evening, when it will be later and darker, the effect should be better still (and maybe a little less green. I think that was the camera).

In its workaday role, meanwhile, the trap played host to the two Sprawlers above, one December moth and the fellow at the bottom which I think is a rather battered and careworn Lesser Yellow Underwing. Or is it a Square-spot Rustic? I don't really mind either way.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Supermoon moths

The great big Supermoon was obscured by cloud last night in true British fashion, but this may have brought a small bonus in the form of these two moths. One of the theories of the attraction (or distraction) of bright light for the insects is that they are all trying to get to the moon. In its absence, a mercury vapour moth trap is the next best thing.

The gentleman with the beautiful antennae is a Feathered Thorn, one of the late-in-the-year regulars here. His companion is one of the four Autumnal or November moths whose indistinguishability without dissecting genitals - not my cup of tea - has often been lamented here. For all that, it is a moth whose modest patterning and shy colours can lead to its being unjustifiably overlooked.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Gentleman in furs

One of my favourite moths, and almost certainly the last newcomer for this year, was sleeping in the eggboxes this morning. It had been a foul night and even the simple but highly effective rain shield devised by Mr and Mrs Robinson, inventors of my moth trap, had not been able to keep the rain out. The bottom of the big black bowl was awash and several boxes resembled small ponds. Luckily my moth was high and dry above the flood.

It is a December Moth, a handsome flyer very late in the year which appropriately wears the moth equivalent of a fur coat. My grandparents' generation was probably the last in England to wear furs as a matter of course, animal welfare counting for rather less in those days. Now that synthetic versions are pretty much indistinguishable, I'd like to see them being worn again. In wintertime, they look cuddly as well as good.

Ready for take-off; please forgive blurring of moving wings

The December moth is a relative of the Eggars, rich-brown coloured insects familiar to most schoolboys who bred their caterpillars and those of their cousin, the Drinker. The latter were easy to find as come early evening they crept up grass stalks to sip at the early dew, hence their name.

The moth was extremely welcome as my granddaughter also came to stay last night and she has a touching faith in my ability to serve up some interesting moths for her inspection in the morning. I was prepared for my reputation to be sullied after a couple of completely barren nights on the trap's most recent excursions. But as well as the December moth, there was also a pretty Green-brindled Crescent (below). She approved of them both. Observe her approving eye in my second picture.

Friday, 11 November 2016

A moth! A moth!

I was pretty much convinced this morning that the trap would be empty again. Although last night was a little warmer, the frost returned during the small hours and the lawn was rimed with white when I tip-toed out at 7am to turn off the lamp.

Sure enough, the first 20-odd eggboxes were barren. But then - hooray! - I found a handsome Feathered Thorn sound asleep in the 21st, its russet, foxy colouring going well with the fading lemon yellow of the box.

You can see from the top picture why it is called 'Feathered' - those delicate antennae are one of the glories of the insect world which are denied to us mere humans. The nearest we get, I suppose, are eyebrows. The late Denis Healey's Darwinian ancestors must have included a moth.

The antennae are exclusive to the male (I don't recall Edna Healey's eyebrows, similarly) and he is much more likely to come to light than his mate.

The discovery put me in the cheery mood of shipwrecked mariners whose cry "A sail! A sail!" filled my childhood imagination with exciting notions of Robinson Crusoe and the Spanish Main.  A Feathered Thorn is not quite in that league, but at this time of the year it is a pleasure to play host to any moth.