Tuesday 31 May 2016

What a welcome

The trap should be on again tonight after our time away in Rome, during which I've kept posting courtesy of blogspot.it. Grazie mille! But I doubt there'll be anything in it quite as handsome as the lovely Swallowtail, above, which greeted us on the terrace of our air bnb.

The pic is a photo of our camera's playback and I'll replace it with the original when we get home. I've seen this marvellous butterfly quite a few times on holidays in mainland Europe. In the UK, it's confined to parts of the East Anglian fens and is rare even there.

There may be a secret colony in Yorkshire, though, because some 20 years ago, I brought back some caterpillars which I found on fennel in the garden of one of the chateaux of the Loire. They chrysalised and a couple of them hatched in the playground of our boys' primary school, an amazing process - especially with this butterfly which is the UK's biggest - which was watched by the delighted children.

People were watching Swallowtails hundreds of years ago too, as shown by these details from the Renaissance frescoes in the Papal apartments at Castel Sant'Angelo. Given the fading which comes with time, I think that they may be an artist's shot at the species which nectared daintily on our roof terrace's flowers: Papilio machaon.

Monday 30 May 2016

More on Maybugs

We have been enjoying a few days' holiday in Rome where life came up with one of its many coincidences. I have written quite a lot recently about May Bugs or cockchafers and their rich history, including the fact that the electrical pioneer Nicola Tesla harnessed four of the poor little things to a model aeroplane as one of his youthful inventions.

Well, guess what? In the bathroom of the air bnb where we stayed in Rome, there was this sentimental print of two young women messing about with a butterfly net - and, amazingly, a May Bug on the end of a ribbon.  I don't know what you make of this kind of thing but I suppose that it does at least show an interest in natural history. Mind you, the lady in question looks a bit vacuous, like the oversized statues of Castor and Pollux on the steps up the Palatine.

Back to the moths (and doubtless this year's last May Bugs) soon.


Sunday 29 May 2016

Bird brain

I mentioned birdstrike into our clear glass windows the other day, in the context of a somewhat dazed goldfinch which Penny found wandering about on the lawn. Soon afterwards, sadly, we had a fatal example in the shape of this little fledgling. I think, doubly sadly, that it may be a thrush.

We try to stop them with bird silhouettes and other wheezes, but every summer sees at least half-a-dozen make the lethal error. Luckily, many more than that survive like the finch or escape after coming indoors through open windows or doors. And we've never had anything as dramatic as the sparrowhawk in Leeds which flew full-tilt into a window - link here - probably in pursuit of one of the small birds which they terrorise, and left an oily 'ghost' outline on the pane.

We also had a marevvlous experience when our older son shouted from his bedroom: "Mum! Dad! Come and see this weird bird!" We duly went and all of us had a marvellous time watching a male goldcrest furiously twittering and displaying his crest on a branch immediately outside one of the windows on which he could see his reflection.

Now we've just had another survivor in the form of a Tom Tit, which flew indoors and, as they tend to, panicked. It did at least have an ample supply of grapes to nibble to compensate for its obvious panic when P and I steered it towards the greenhouse door.  Once this process started, it kept its mouth open all the time, as in my pictures. It didn't eat or tweet, so I wonder if this is a sign of extreme bird-fear.

On which score, we had a friend staying over the weekend who has a bird phobia. Thank you, Tom Tit, for waiting to come inside until she had taken her leave.  Another day, I must tell you about the time we came back from a fortnight's holiday and found a rook in the house. It had come down the chimney and somehow survived - the loo for drink maybe, yuk - for quite a time, judging by the number of splats. But that's enough birds for now.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Corcrikeyo whatsthatii

Regular readers will know of the pleasure that I get from the names of moths, something I share with many others. We are suckers for the likes of the Dusky Sallow and the Maiden's Blush or those memorable half-brothers the Bright-line Brown-eye and the Brown-line Bright-eye.

Although they are harder and less accessible, I also enjoy the Linnaean or scientific name given to every insect (as to all other animals and plants) in a hugely important branch of science called Taxonomy. This is the creation of a combination of railway guide, 'phone directory and wiki-app which sorts everything into vast foundations on which scientists can build their work.

Order, sense and accuracy are essential for its success but it also has to be flexible and to admit novelties because of the enormous variety of life in the world and the way in which it both changes and is increased by the discovery of new species. This has led to an impressive combination of rules and an open-ness which encourages amaateurs, those vital asistants to the professionals, to play an enthusiastic part in the process.

This in turn has led to much fun and games of the kind which non-specialists such as myself enjoy, such as the naming of a series of insects with homophonic names such as Polychistme ('Polly kissed me') and Kitichystme ('Kitty kissed me') by 19th century gents who enjoyed a literary joke. But it has also opend the door to rogues and the deluded whose wildly imaginative and inaccurate contributions are the subject of a wonderful article in the American magazine Nautilus, by Ansel Payne, a writer and naturalist in Tuscaloosa, Alabama - a great American placename in itself.
    Poor Mr Walker. His colleagues mourned a 'gentle soul', but were withering about his work

 I hope that my link will get you to the piece; irresistably entitled 'Why taxonomists write the meanest obituaries', but in case not, it includes such withering put downs in RIP articles as: "More than twenty years too late for his scientific reputation, and after having done an amount of injury to entomology almost inconceivable in its immensity, Francis Walker has passed from among us.” And: "Peter Cameron is dead, as was announced by most of the halfpenny papers on December 4th. What can we say of his life? Nothing; for it concerns us in no way. What shall we say of his work? Much, for it is entirely ours, and will go down to posterity as probably the most prolific and chaotic output of any individual for many years past.” Some of Mr Cameron's spurious wasps are shown in my top pic.

I discovered Nautilus, whose website is wittily called nautil.us, in the great hall of Broughton Castle, above, one of the most enjoyable of all the UK's stately homes to visit because of the friendly presence of members of the Fiennes family who have lived there since 1377, nearly four centuries before Linnaeus. Martin Fiennes, his wife and their children now look after the house although Martin's delightful father Nat, the 21st Viscount Saye and Sele, is usually about on open days,  in his 90s now but wonderfully twinkly.

In his time, the magzines in the hall tended to be Country Life and the like, but his son noticed how often interesting stories from Nautilus came up on his iPhone, via one of those apps which pick pieces from publications on subjects of interest to the 'phone's owner.  A longer blog than usual - sorry - but if it introduces you to Ansel Payne's piece and Nautilus more generally, I think you will be glad of that.

Friday 27 May 2016

Bug fun

I have recently had a look at the 'Stats' section of the blog which the hosting service Blogger provides - extraordinary to someone of my generation that all this comes for free, though doubtless Google benefits in mysterious ways, especially data collection and advertising. I could host advertising myself but the algorithms would almost certainly pick clients selling mothballs and the like and that would seem at odds with my own, more musing.

Anyway, the figures show that in the last couple of weeks, the number of daily views has leaped up, to over 1000 on one day, just under that on another and 500+ on the rest. The slightly more detailed data Blogger provides suggests that most of the increase comes from the US. 

So if there is a school class over there studying moths, please say hello in Comments.

In your honour, meanwhile, I am both flying the flag (left) and running a few pictures of the European Cockroach or Maybug which infests the moth trap in large numbers at the moment. Its bizarre appearance always makes me grin.  America doesn't have it, although its transatlantic relatives the June beetles - a couple of different kinds  below, courtesy of Wikipedia - are pretty smart.

Actually, I suspect this sudden burst of apparent moth interest may be a statistical freak and due to access to other websites by hosts or whatever. I say that because Norway has also long been a surprisingly big source of page views of this blog; but when I sent a message to readers in Norwegian, the fjords and forests responded not a peep.

Here are some cockroaches again. A bit more info on them from earlier posts is here and here:

Thursday 26 May 2016

Incy and her little wincies

Here is the reason why there are so many spiders in our house, above. A single Harvester was spotted by Penny with her multifarious, newly-hatched brood.  As grandparents who find two little ones a full-on occupations, we can only imagine the work involved in Spiderland. But maybe they use some of the more drastic measures known in the animal kingdom, such as eating offspring.

Because of the well-known and touching book shown left, we have always tried to be nice to spiders. Instead of Hoovering them up (although I feel that the inside of a Hoover bag might be quite exciting for a spider), we use a special electric suction device which P found in a gadget catalogue years ago.

Here it is doing its work, below.  The mechanism is then reversed and the spiders and spiderlets blown out to start a new life in a bush, far, far away.  That's the idea, anyway. But the first time we used it on a big single spider, proudly demonstrating our pro-spiderness to our sons, they pointed out a while later that the spider had managed to leap from the bush un-noticed and was sitting happily on P's cardigan sleeve.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Dusky and Specky

A Dusky Scalloped Oak came to stay last night, another first for the year, although the moths are continuing to be a little meagre in terms of variety. They make up for it in fun, however, as with these two Spectacle moths below. I find them irresistible.

Here's another one, below, whose posture from this angle more resembles a watchful cat. And one with a curiously moustached and bearded face on its back. Finally, below that is the moth as seem from the side. A worthy creature in all respects.

Tuesday 24 May 2016


After yesterday's Big Boy, the Poplar Hawk moth, I thought I'd give some space to the littlies at the other end of the scale. The one above is our representative of the Pug family; I think a Common Pug but beautiful and complex-patterned for all that. I await confirmation from the experts on the Upper .Thames Moths blog. Update: it is.

Now for a couple of Carpets; a Red Twin-spot if I am not mistaken, above (Update: I'm not)  and a Green Carpet pretending to be a butterfly, below.  As you can read at more length in the tab 'Moths and Butterflies - the Difference,' the resting position is normally: butterfly wings are held vertically above the back, moth ones folded horizontally over the back.

And so to the third and much the largest category of small moths - the micros, which form a second tribe to the macro moths of the UK and outnumber them some four or five times. Above we have - I think - Epiphyas postvittana aka the Light Brown Apple Moth,  Cochylimorpha straminea and Nomophila noctuella, aka the Rush Veneer. Update: my Commentor below suggests that the last is a Cnephasia micro, probably the Light Grey Tortrix, and I agree - but shrink from the dissection needed to be certain. Anyway, the moth is long gone.   
Below are three different photographs of Tinea trinotella, a relative of the two devastating clothes moths which confines its destructive work to birds' nests of wool left out in the open air.

From above
From further away
From the side
And last of all, am I right in thinking that the little chap below is some sort of weevil? And another update: Trent kindly suggests that, yes, it's probably a Vine Weevil, Otiorhynchus sulcatus. He confirms that the Cnephasia would indeed require dissected to bring it to species level, adding that if the wing length was over 10mm it would be  Cnephasia stephensiana. I don't think mine was that big.  

Monday 23 May 2016


This Poplar Hawk caught my eye this morning; the commonest of the UK's hawk moths, it is nonetheless an interesting creature on account of its body and wing posture. Whatever would they make of it in deportment classes?

Like many of the Carpet moths and other small species, it curls its abdomen so that the tip of its tail is suggestively raised. Since this is where its sexual organs are and since mating is its chief aim (as the insects do not feed and are inevitably short-lived), I suggest that 'suggestive' is the right word.

It also holds its wings in a curious position with the hind ones pushed forward, like some US stealth aircraft. This has the effect of hiding its 'surprise camouflage', two patches of rusty red on the lower part of the hindwings which might startle a predator if flashed.

A dozy Poplar Hawk in a moth trap doesn't go in for much wing-flashing, but I persuaded this one to give us a peep. An intstructive side-effect of my goading - by gently brushing the forewings forward - was watching the moth slowly warm up and start to vibrate its wings in preparation for flight to safety.

Sunday 22 May 2016


Discussing the Muslin moth the other day, I referred to its grander relations, the Ermine family. Here is one of them which arrived this morning in pristine condition, with its House of Lords robe (update: see foot of post) looking very fine indeed. It is a common but lovely creature, all the better for being discovered a little more frequently than most moths. 

I remember a teenage cousin coming downstairs with one which he had found snoozing in the fold of a curtain, and how he was struck by its delicate appearance, at a slightly unlikely age for such things. (Nigel Fotherington-Thomas of 'Hello clouds! Hello sky!' fame in Ronald Searle's Molesworth books put a lot of boys off too much overt nature appreciation).

There have been some other welcome newcomers for the year over the last few nights, along with the veritable plague of Common Swifts. Here they are: first a Lychnis with its striking X pattern,

then a Treble Lines, a moth with a cautious caterpillar which feeds by night and hides in soil or undergrowth by day. Update: I overlooked a second Treble Lines, shown below, with a greyer ground colouring compared to the first, brownish one.

And here's that weird little fellow, the Flame, which resembles the stub of a cheap fag.

Its near namesake the Flame Shoulder is a finer fellow which prompts one of the rare quips (and exclamation marks) in the Moth Bible which says of it: 'Comes to light, when it flies wildly and has an unfortunate habit of entering the ears of moth recorders near the light!' Mine was well over such pranks when I finally got to it at 7am, and willingly co-operated with a short photo session to reveal its charms.

Further update. We took friends to the outstanding Broughton Castle today, a wonderful place lived in by a marvellously hospitable family, the Fiennes, who are almost always there and happy to chat and point out interesting 'extra' things. Among these were sets of the ermine-lined peers' robes which I referred to at the start of this post. Here's a pic, below, to show the similarity with the moth.  (Not that there was any sign of clothes moth damage on the robes).