Friday, 30 June 2017

An old favourite

Please forgive a little more self-indulgence this morning but, like the Scorched Wing, the Burnished Brass is a moth which I cannot resist photographing, so various and so striking are the ways in which its metallic scales reflect and refract the light.

It looks particularly good in equally fine company, such as the Elephant Hawk in my top picture (so many of those arriving at the moment; 11 of them in the eggboxes last night. We must have masses of willowherb nearby, as you probably have too). I'm very fond of the micro Catoptria pinella too. Here it is, rather larger:

The next picture shows yet another BB, this time in the company of its near relative the Buff Arches. Although lacking metallic wing scales, this is another very beautiful moth with its combination of tawny brown and cream. Yet another inspiration for similes involving frappe coffee or capuccino; and it has what appears to Arabic writing like an Ottoman Sultan's tugra, or signature, on its forewing.

Two delicate additions: a Spiondle Ermine micromoth, very small but sometimes responsible for vast larval cocoon webs which can engulf whole trees. And a Muslin Footman, a speck of a macro which always looks blurred, as the Scorched Wing so often does, even when I have finally got it into focus. Although entirely different in appearance, it is a relative of the various forms of narrow-looking, grey and yellow Footmen, of which more anon.

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Mellow yellow and Mr Whiskers

The 'longhorn' family of micromoths always raise a smile from me or even a chortle which may occasionally have perplexed early morning dogwalkers on the path beside our house. There are a dozen or more species in which the males are given the benefit of these vast antennae, which are three or more times as long as the moth's body. Invaluable for detecting females and leading to mating - the over-riding purpose of all moths' lives - they must be a burden, especially in flight. Yet the males of several longhorn species are known for their 'dancing' manouevres which can involve a whole group, often in sunlight. The moths' equivalent of Strictly and suchlike TV contests.

It can be hard to distinguish between species, especially with my lack of photographic skill, but I think from the little mark on the folded forewing that this is Nematapogon metaxella. Other curiosities of the tribe include the way that some of their caterpillars eat on decaying leaf matter from which they then construct their chrysalises.

The yellow part of the colour spectrum often provides relief from the browns and greys of many moths, though I always try to leaven such criticism with approving comments about the intricate patterns and very subtle differences in shade which distinguish all but the plainest species. No such efforts are required with the Barred Yellow, my second moth, a cheerful enthusiast for dog roses of which we have many locally in bloom.

Yet again, with my mind on yellow, I bring you the Scorched Wing whose camouflage famously delights me. It has been more abundant this year than ever before, and Hooray for that. 

This is one of the less apparently-blurred pics I've taken of a Scorched Wing, maybe because the black and white pattern of the accompanying Small Magpie micro (dozens of these about at the moment) helps the eyes to adjust.

White is another lightener of the greys and browns and June, July and August bring plenty of such relief. Here is a lovely, if slightly worn, Miller which was perching on the bulb-holder, undisturbed by our predatory robins and blackbirds. It has the brown, moth equivalent of a 'Prince Charles' bald patch but that is a minor defect. Like the famous Peppered Moth, Millers can vary from very white, like this one, to assorted greys which in some parts of the North verge almost on dark. The 'dusty' appearance gave rise to the species' name.

A moth which combines yellow and white is around at the moment, the Yellow-tail. On initial inspection, you might be puzzled at the name but if you goad a male sufficiently, up will pop his tail between the wings with its striking - and no doubt to predators, alarming, blob of golden-yellow at the end. I am sorry that the lurid colours of my pyjamas coupled with the difficulty of getting my iPad Mini into position to take a picture, have caused blurring. But if you look carefully, you can just see a bit of the said yellow peeping out to the right of the smudge on the white wings. I will keep trying for a better shot.

Finally, here is a very attractive and very small macro moth, the Small Fan-footed Wave, which you may occasionally set up from foliage on a field walk, when it flutters away like a wind-blown flower petal. Like the longhorn mentioned above, its caterpillars prefer withered foliage to fresh. There's no accounting for taste.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

White Satin night

 Most UK moths take quite a time to warm up for flight, a drawback for them but a bonus for the amateur photographer inspecting the dozy ranks in the moth trap of a morning. Smaller and more fragile species, including many micros, can be skittery and many make their escape as soon as I lift out the bulbholder and the transparent cowl. But this morning, with lovely warm weather at the peak of the moth season, that still left hundreds of deeper sleepers.

The White Satin pictured today was one of them, except that it was dozing on a nearby wall rather than inside the trap itself. My efforts to entice it into a better place for photographs finally snapped its patience and its wings started whirring. This allowed me to time the process - one minute seven seconds from first whirr (followed rapidly afterwards by first blurr in photo terms. Luckily the iPad, which is standing in for our jammed digital camera, had time to focus.

The White Satin is only locally common but has been here before, flaunting its zebra crossing legs and reminding me of the evocative Moody Blues' single of 1967. I was 17 then and that was the last time I sculled - until Monday this week, when I had my first refresher lesson on Hinksey Park boating lake because I'm taking the highly enjoyable occupation up again - half a century later.  I'm glad to say that although sculling boats are much narrower and I am a tad wider than in 1967, I stayed dry.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Yet another Hawk

I've a few sets of pictures taken in the week before we sallied North to the Border lands, these ones of my seventh Hawk Moth of the year: a Small Elephant. Size apart, the species is subtly different from its Large Elephant relation; a more subdued combination of pink and greeny-yellow but just as satisfying.

The caterpillars are also very similar to the Large Elephant's and they often feed together.  My brother and I found at least one when we went as schoolboys to comb the willowherb for larvae of both species on Leeds' ring road, at the well-informed suggestion of kindly and knowledgeable John Armitage of the City Museum. 

I have only the Pine Hawk to go now, in terms of hawkmoths which have called here in the past (although I still live in hope and grow potatoes to tempt a visit from an immigrant Death's Head). Meanwhile the Eyed Hawk remains a frequent caller. A neighbour reports one in her bathroom while we were away, perhaps the chap below who was roosting in the trap last week.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Catch-up time

It's catch-up time, because I have been on holiday for the past week in the Scottish Borders, first for a cousin's lovely wedding, blessed by the sunshine and warm weather which most of the UK has enjoyed, and then for explorations of the valleys of the old Debatable Lands - so beautiful now, so terrifying in mediaeval and pre-Stuart days - and of glorious Northumberland.

We didn't have room for the moth trap but nonetheless managed to find a big, fat Drinker Moth on the drive to one of the places we stayed.  These lovely, big yellowy moths take me back to my schooldays when we found the caterpillars, handsome creatures with a touch of Little Lord Fauntleroy blue velvet, sipping the dew from grass - the habit which gives the species its name.

On the lovely walk between Gilsland and Birdoswald fort on the Roman Wall, we also found a thriving colony of Chimney Sweeper moths, a day-flying species which I last saw in very similar, path-verge conditions on the lowest slopes of the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District, two years ago. The moth is entirely black except for the slender thread of contrasting white along the edge of its forewings. A beautiful creature. 

I hope that you will forgive me adding a couple of photos to show the wonderful, uncrowded nature of this part of the world. Here is Bamburgh Castle from Ross Back Sands:

Penny and I were the only people on THREE MILES of unspoilt sandy beach:

 Here also is a dragon or damselfly on P's tum:

A very large jellyfish on Rockcliffe beach, a pretty spot near to Sweetheart Abbey on the Galloway coast,

and a couple of pics of a Cinnabar back in Oxfordshire, taken just before we set sail for the North:

Friday, 16 June 2017

Oddly shaped

Human beings come in all shapes and sizes and so do moths. This morning's trap contained a couple of large and distinctive micromoths; so large and distinctive that I think that even I can identify them.

The streamlined character in my first two pictures, with the go-faster stripes shown on both sides in the top one, seems a fair bet to me to be a male Donacaula forficella. The females have a similar livery but are even longer with a more forked 'tail' to their wings when at rest. Both sexes have a fine pair of palps up front, those distinctive organs of insects which help them with touch and taste - sort of hand/tongues.

My second micro looks to me to be Calamotropha paludella, distinguishable from the rather similar macro, the Silky Wainscot, by the length of those self-same palps. Both these moths are classified as only locally common but with C. paludella expanding its range. Both are also fond of damp places, a description fitting our patch beside both a river and a canal, where a roving moth (or human) can find much in Nature to touch and taste.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Glories past and present

We are blessed in this part of the world with a wonderful quantity of wildflowers, many flourishing on the large field margins left by farmers (in return for EU booty) but others growing in apparently unpromising places. One of the latter is a fabulous Lizard Orchid, which is so in need of protection from casual parkers that the local council has provided it with a little mesh cage - pictured below.

My composite top picture shows the five species which I have encountered so far: clockwise from top right, Common Spotted, Green-winged, Pyramidal, Bee and Lizard. A learned colleague informs me that we also have the Common Twyblade. Six orchids on my doorstep. Bliss.

Nature's glories are short-lived, however, as shown by this picture kindly emailed to me by a friend who lives a little further up the canal. What a change life has made to this once glamorous Eyed Hawk. Nonetheless, it is still pegging along.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Oooh, such goings-on

A vivid splash of scarlet lit up our stroll along the canal at teatime yesterday. Actually, I was deep in contemplation of a narrowboat, so it was Penny, aka Eagle-eye Junior-spy the Ace Mothspotter, who noticed it and followed its erratic progress to a clump of comfrey in one of the canalside cottages' gardens.

It was a male Scarlet Tiger, behaving exactly as described in the Moth Bible: "The male patrols wildly in late afternoon and early evening."  Just so, and his intentions were manifest. He zoned in on two apparently dormant Tigers on a comfrey leaf (with a third nearby) and began paying them vigorous, amorous attention.  The first one flew off, slightly less erratically as you might expect of the gentler sex. The second submitted to his attentions without stirring.

He squirmed into position by a deft bit of manoeuvring under her wings and, hey presto, there he was clasped securely tail-to-tail. A new generation of Scarlet Tigers is in prospect. Not to dwell on these intimate subjects, but the claspers used by moths for mating are the main means by which otherwise almost identical species can be told apart. However, this involves killing/dissecting or freezing/magnification and I do not have the stomach for either. Add my lamentable ID skills into the bargain, and a fair number of the moths which come to trap will, I am afraid, never be firmly identified.

Left in peace; the snoozing Tiger on its own

The Scarlet Tiger is only locally common but when it does appear, it is often to be found in numbers, as was the case with us. This reminds me of our holiday in Turkey nine years ago when we found swarms, literally, of the closely-related Jersey Tiger by a waterfall (rather blurry pic, sorry, left). Jerseys are also the main stars of the misnamed 'Valley of the Butterflies' on the Greek island of Rhodes. Typical butterflies; always trying to snatch the limelight from moths.

Both species are also interesting as primarily day-fliers, a habit found in only 50 or so of the UK's 2,600-odd moth species. Their vivid warning colouration and a toxin in the bodies of both adult and caterpillar give them the protection which is afforded to most other moths by the dark.

Many thanks for the photographs to our friend and neighbour Richard Hancock, whose excellent children's book Quick and Vickers about a lively duo who move to live near a canal can (and should) be bought here. My camera is on the blink and Penny didn't have her iPhone so Richard came to the rescue. Very soon, we were joined by visiting narrowboaters so the amorous moths may end up on many a mantlepiece, digital screen or Facebook page.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Class of 2017

I have found myself with a new nursery of schoolroom of voracious caterpillars which hatched from the clutch of eggs laid by an unknown moth in the light-trap a fortnight ago. They hatched just before we left for three days in Suffolk and I crammed a variety of leaves and grasses into a box with them to munch on in my absence. It included cricket willow which is what they seem to prefer.

Above is one of them roaming round the box, a little close to some spidery fabric which suggests that other creatures may have infiltrated with my leaves. Not harmful ones, I hope. I am monitoring. I have no idea what the caterpillars are but hope to identify them as they get bigger. I have a record of most of the moths which overnighted at the time, so with luck that will narrow the field. Here are the eggs, below.

The moths meanwhile performed brilliantly yesterday, when we were due to join a work party at the local Community Allotments in the morning and then have lunch in the nearby village of Tackley with a group of friends. I had hoped to take a clutch of interesting moths on both occasions and the eggboxes obligingly served up two trios of hawk moths - Privet, Poplar and Elephant. There were children at both events and the moths went down very well. One small, budding entomologist solemnly told his Mum: "Martin is the best moth hunter in the world." One of the lunchtime Mums kindly took the two larger moths on her hand while I went to get Penny and myself drinks. She mused on the possibility of moths as 'living jewellery', not restrained but with the added attraction of being a temporary adornment, liable to vanish at any time, like sandcastles and pavement art.

One ace performer: Elephant Hawk

And another: Privet, the UK's largest native moth as discussed in my last pre-Suffolk post, Big Boy

The moths flew away unharmed from both occasions and, I think, left behind a number of potential converts to the hobby, plus the chance to explain how small the pernicious clothes moths are in proportion to the whole, wide and wonderful moth-y world.  Meanwhile here are some of the other visitors to Saturday night's trap. Last night, I gave them all a rest.

Puss moth, getting a bit frayed


A Flame Shoulder, showing its lovely maroon, in a huddle with a Spectacle and a Flame

I need to look these up

That pretty moth, the Coronet, nuzzling a Pale Tussock

A couple of Minors, the lower one a Least (I think) with another chap whose ID I'll hope to have shortly - familiar but not on the tip of my tongue