Thursday, 31 August 2017


There are almost always a number of moths which hesitate to enter my light trap but content themselves with perching on its outer structure or nearby. At the moment, I will almost always find on of the various Thorn species in the former place and the bright little Brimstone moth in the latter. 

Neither type is in a getaway mood; the Canary-shouldered Thorn in my second picture spent all day clinging to the side of the trap bowl, unmolested by birds. So security does not appear to be their motive. They are sufficiently attracted to the lamp, or their direction-finding is sufficiently disorientated by it, sinply through being nearby. My next two pictures show, first, a couple of Brimstones in the bottom left and top right corners of a non award-winning shot and then another one on a magnolia leaf, closer-up. I am still debating whether to replace my game but limited iPad Mini with a proper camera but for the moment, as in Romeo and Juliet, t'will serve.

The third outsider, just above, is a Small Magpie, one of the largest of the UK micros and not unlike its grown-up brother the macro Magpie which came to see me the other week. Inside the eggboxes, meanwhile, there were the customary slum conditions for assorted yellow underwings.

Keeping to itself, however, was this solitary example of the attractive, coffee-coloured variant of the Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing, the only one of the tribe which avoids condemnation is 'drab' (until the moths panic and their vivid orangey-yellow hindwings are exposed).

Other visitors include, below,  a couple of pretty thumbnail micros, Acleris variegana aka the Garden Rose Tortrix and Pandemis corylana aka the Chequered Fruit-tree Tortrix, the darker form of the Shuttle-shape Dart with its neat little textile industry badge (behind a Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing in profile), and a Rosy Rustic (to the right of a Setaceous Hebrew Character).

I also had a fine example of that rakish, racing-car of a moth, the Angle Shades, and a Poplar Hawk, the first for a while. Perhaps he or she is a relative of my surviving caterpillar.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017


Tuesday afternoon and the skies are clouding over. Rain is forecast. But nothing is going to stop this Red Admiral butterfly from trying to soak up the last few spells of sun. Even when I crept in close with the camera, below, it wasn't inclined to budge.

So in some things, butterflies and people have habits in common. Certainly, Penny and I have been relishing every minute of the glorious Bank Holiday. That's over now, sadly and the rain has come back.
But rain has never deterred the British holidaymaker and although the Red Admiral will have run for shelter temporarily, you may be sure that she will be back. We are blessed indeed to have such a fine butterfly among our most common species.

If you would like to see them regularly, plant a Buddleia in your garden. The Admirals, along with equally lovely Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells, cannot keep away from the honey-scented violet tresses for long.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Further dramas in Nurseryland

After the dramas and tragedies recently in my caterpillar nursery, I was sorry to find this handsome and almost fully-grown Buff-tip caterpillar drowned in a pool of water by some flowerpots. Another of the countless daily victims in Nature, I thought, leaving it on a leaf on an outside table after taking the picture of its soggy remains, above.

I came back half-an-hour later and lo! It had moved. And as I watched, the whole scene taking place in the brilliant sunlit and blessed heat which has come our way at last (most un-Bank Holidayish, I know, but there we are), it feebly wiggled and tried to get going.

It was well dried-out as you can see in the second lot of pictures and it very slowly took an interest in a cocktail of leaves which I provided after ID-ing it from the Moth Bible as a Buff-tip. As it happens, this species is almost omnivorous, unlike my picky, willow-fixated Poplar Hawk cattie. So all seemed set fair.

But I fear that my hopes may have been premature and that it may have spent just too long in the water or have been poisoned by whatever else was in there. It seems completely comatose this morning; whether lifeless, I cannot yet say but I am not optimistic. I have placed it in full sunshine (above) after a long spell in the shade following a night when it would have been cool, as it seemed to be the sun which got it going yesterday. Let's hope for the best, everybody.

The Poplar Hawk has meanwhile been keeping me on my toes. This morning, when I got ready to replace the leaves, I couldn't find it. Escape seemed impossible but I was briefly downhearted until I found it exploring the muslin ceiling of its box.  Willow leaves dry up quickly, so I am sure that it was looking for a fresh supply which I instantly provided. I noticed yesterday that it had discarded a skin, which is encouraging, and another good sign is that the supply of poos is being kept up.

The discarded thing is the little white scrap, complete with tiny horn
And here's the reinvigorated cattie, going to work on my fresh leaves

Monday, 28 August 2017


Please forgive a self-indulgent morning but the warm weather - Summer returns, hurray! - has brought out a flock of daintily beautiful moths including one new for my garden this year, the delicately patterned Engrailed, above. The word means 'having semi-circular, indentations along the edge' which is indeed the case, as you can see above.

The Maiden's Blush has appeared here many times before, but it is such a lovely moth that I never fail to show it. I have regularly referred to these pretty and pastel types of species as 'Laura Ashley moths' because they remind me of their human counterparts back in my youth, similarly drawn out by the warm weather in light-hearted, peasanty frocks. The Maiden's Blush combines both the frock and its wearer. The way the blush suffuses the creamy wings is just a delight.

The Bordered Beauty runs it close, mind, even if the colours are becoming a little stronger and - mournful thought - Autumnal. And then the Common White Wave, below, is perhaps the most Ashleyesque of them all. The famous dress designer did amazing things with simple, white fabrics.

More self-indulgence, below, with some pictures of a Red Underwing, the fourth which has roosted in the trap in two days. The Upper Thames Moths blog currently features several sightings of the still more magnificent Clifden Nonpareil, that superbly-named relative whose underwings are blue-striped rather than red. This has yet to reach my lamp but I live in hope.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Colour splash

I put out the trap last night for the first time in over a week and initially thought that I had been rewarded only with an assembly of dullish brown and grey moths - worthy characters all of them but not very exciting. But the lower eggboxes contained some nice surprises.

You can see how big the Red Underwing is compared with the Orange Swift behind and the Snout (Pinocchio nose just discernible) below
The Red Underwing in my first three pictures was the most satisfying; an annual visitor but always a favourite, partly because of its greater size than most of my visitors and partly because of those very fine scarlet underwings. These are not usually shown at rest and thus the moth requires a little teasing to get a photograph of them. It will only take so much of this and, after a brief spell of wing-flexing and whirring, this one was off.  But watching it fly at a leisurely pace into the shelter of a plum tree was an enjoyable experience too, the scarlet clearly visible as it fluttered away, possibly serving as a warning signal to the awakening birds which duly left it alone.

The other particularly attractive arrivals were the two metallically-scaled moths below, a Burnished Brass of the form juncta - where the two main areas of reflective and refractive scales are joined by a narrow line across the brown - and a Lempke's Gold Spot. Taxonomists are still trying to decide whether to declare juncta and the alternative form aurea to be distinct species rather than varieties of the same moth, as happened when Lempke's Gold Spot was declared different from the original and extremely similar Gold Spot. Good luck to them in their deliberations; the rest of us can just enjoy the beauty of these little creatures of the night.

Other pleasures on the guest list, below, included the tiny, bird-dropping-like Chinese Character on the trap's cowl, the 'character' being the silvery-white squiggle on the grey patch in mid-wing, the Dusky Thorn on the bulbholder and two Willow Beauties showing the very slight variations in pattern which always get me in a tizzy over separating this kind of moth from other, very similar-looking species.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A troubled tale

I have been in a state of maternal - or I suppose paternal - angst for the last two weeks as the saga of my hawk moth caterpillars unsteadily unfolds. Regular readers may recall that a clutch of seven eggs was left on the bulbholder of the moth trap on the night of Saturday, 5th August, as shown in the picture to the left.

The following week they hatched, all seven of them, into the tiny caterpillars which I described here on Saturday, 12th August, expressing my delight that although extremely small and new to the world, they already sported miniature versions of the tail horn which distinguishes hawk moth larvae from almost all other moth and butterfly examples. Here is one of them to the right.
They had their translucent eggshells as initial fare - see left - and so it was a case of So far, so good. But then things turned extremely bad. One by one, the poor little mites fell foul of some unknown hazard and one by one, I found them dead. 

My difficulty was that I did not know what they were. Their parent had left no calling card. But since the only candidate which is still putting in an appearance in the trap at the moment, and for the past month, is the Poplar Hawk, I went for that and gave them willow leaves, the species' secondary food in the absence of actual poplars which we don't have nearby. I added buddleia as a back-up which might appeal to a variety of species.

After the first death, I increased the menu, with willow-herb for Elephant and Small Elephant hawks, apple for Eyed Hawks and lime for Lime Hawks, the last involving a cycle ride to the churchyard which has the nearest limes.

There were moments of encouragement; caterpillar poos appeared - see right with one of the brood. But my worries about both correct diet and the possibility of poisoning the poor little things by tempting them with the wrong food increased as the death toll steadily rose. By the middle of last week I was down to two. And then finally, one.  I thought lugubriously of Wordsworth's poem We Are Seven, which you can read in full here.

But now, some relief. The parallels to the verse (and he wrote worse, including the famous reference to the stuffed owl in While Anna's peers and playmates tread, or that great opening line of To the spade of a friend: 'Spade! With which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands...') became closer in that I had a SURVIVOR!  And I still have, although he or she had a very narrow escape when rain flooded the muslin-topped container while I was out. I found the caterpillar browsing unconcerned on almost the only dry patch among the waterlogged, and in some cases actually floating, leaves. Here he is, just after that amazing escape. And his current picture tops this post.

Meanwhile, I have at least had my conscience eased by the great expert and co-author of the Moth Bible, Martin Townsend, who so kindly invited me to see the Death's Head Hawk moths which hatched in Kirtlington, a mile or two from here, back in October 2014 - see account here. I contacted him in my despair and he agreed with my Poplar Hawk diagnosis, which seems to be confirmed as well by the way in which - touch wood firmly - the lone cattie is now getting on.

Martin also answered my query about the reason for the horns, which I aired here last week.  He suggests:  

The horn is simply an extension of the cuticle and l think it just serves to break up the outline of the caterpillar and increase the resemblance to a leaf, i.e. it looks like a leaf stalk. You will notice that in many cases a pale diagonal line continues from the horn across the side of the body which emphasises this. As they grow larger you will start to see the effect. Sometimes people think it resembles a sting but I tend to think that’s a fallacy.

His point about the leaf stalk camouflage is illustrated by these pictures which I took this morning:

Sorry to have banged on, but it's been quite a saga. Here's hoping for calmer times henceforth, though there are many hazards which a growing caterpillar may face.