Saturday 30 September 2017

Light night

The moths in this part of the world had an exotic experience last night when some of Oxford's most venerable buildings were beautifully illuminated in an excellent event called the Night of Heritage Light. What they made of it, I am not sure as neither Penny nor I saw any about, but I laid on my own small show for them at home and managed to get a blurry picture of an unidentifiable species showing interest.

In the morning, the current army of Black Rustics, Lunar Underwings and the like was varied by the arrival of a couple of male Vapourers. This is a fascinating moth whose males fly mostly by day, when they are often mistaken from a distance for small brown butterflies such as the Brown Hairstreak, but whose females are non-flying, large-bodied breeding machines.

If you are a reasonably energetic sort of person, then I have no doubt that you would rather be a male Vapourer. But a couch-bound TV addict would probably find the life of the female preferable. She remains inert, emitting the occasional pheromone to attract a suitor (probably the reason for the species' name), and then lays a very large number of eggs in her immediate surroundings, which usually include the cocoon from which she hatched. You can read more about this curious lifestyle and see some excellent pictures of the moths on this website here.

Unusually, Vapourer eggs hatch in successive batches over a period of up to eight weeks, a very sensible way of avoiding too much competition for foodplants. The handsome caterpillars are brightly-coloured and multi-tufted. Occasionally they occur in such large numbers that they defoliate entire trees. Note in my last picture above, the exceptional antennae which are another advantage of being a male of the species.

For the rest, it was good to be visited by a tattered by the gallant Red Underwing shown above and the Rosy Rustic, Bright-line Brown-eye and Red-line Quaker below. My beach towel also takes a bow in today's pictures. I like having a colourful background.

Friday 29 September 2017

Rush hour

Towards the end of August, the UK's summer glut of moths begins to die away and there is a pause of several weeks when numbers and variety in the trap may both be scanty. Come mid to late September, however, things look up. We are in the middle of a second rush hour.

Some of the moths are dull and brown but the seasonal colourway is always cheered up by the yellows and oranges of the Sallow family.  Perched on the stem of one of our pumpkins, above, we have three different members: from left to right, the Barred Sallow, the Pink-barred Sallow and a straightforward Sallow. Then to the left on its own, a Centre-barred Sallow. And that still leaves the Orange, Dusky-lemon and Pale-lemon still to pay me a call.
The next character, seen here looking like a High Priest at his or her devotions with an acolyte of the same species prone below, is a relative of the Sallows - a Lunar Underwing, a moth which comes like paint or fabric in three different swatches, pale brown, tawny-brown and, as in this case, grey.

Next, behold that delightful and delicate creature, the Light Emerald, followed by a typical snap of an eggbox with two Black Rustics (far and away the most common overnighter just now with 35 in the trap last night), a Setaceous Hebrew Character, a Common Wainscot and two Willow Beauties (I think; my nerve fails me with this type of moth).

A small assembly of Black Rustics comes next and then a series of grey/brown moths which are easy to dismiss but actually have very delicate and subtle patterns on their wings, if you spare them a little time:  am immigrant Dark Swordgrass, a Brown-spot Pinion below something I cannot identify, a Beaded Chestnut (I think), a Lunar Underwing of the pale brown persuasion and an Autumnal Rustic.

We need to feature a micro and here is a tiny little Light Brown Apple moth, aka Epiphyas postvittana, followed by two of the smaller macros, both common but both delightful: the copper-blotched form of the Common Marbled Carpet and the Red-green Carpet to the left.

 Nearly there: I'd just like to show the two forms of the Burnished Brass yet again, one of my favourite moths and still the subject of taxonomists' debate as to whether the juncta variety with the shining bands joined by a horizontal strip should be classified as a different species from aurea, where the areas of sheen are divided by a solid brown band. Both these specimens obligingly gave me an illuminating view from above as they warmed up to fly away

What have we left? A rather lovely example of the pinkish form of the Common Wainscot with its delicate ribbing; and a trio of that excellent, rakishly streamlined moth, the Angle Shades.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Caterpillar classroom

I have decided to abandon my role as a caterpillar parent after a successful attempt at limited freedom while Penny and I were on holiday in Portugal. Albert, my Poplar Hawkmoth cattie (yes, our relationship had developed as far as giving him - or her - a name) survived contentedly in a muslin bag looped round a branch of a willow tree after a precarious adventure on our stepladder.

On our return, inspection of the bag first revealed an impressive number of droppings and then, tucked away among the living leaves - the ones cut for his previous box wilted virtually daily - there he or she was. 

Given our other commitments, I took this as a sign that the fledgling could leave the nest and so here is Albert (or Alberta) below, out in the big wild world at last.

I was promptly rewarded by Penny's discovery of the very fine Grey Dagger cattie shown at the top of this post and below. Munching away quite openly on a beech hedge sapling, it presumably benefits from its bright colouring as a scare mechanism. Don't eat me; I may be poisonous.  Its appetite was as voracious as the famous cattie in the children's modern classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Half-an-hour after we took these pics, the leaf being nibbled had disappeared entirely. Earlier, while I was out, it had eaten another one of similar size as its first course.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Familiar faces

Before bidding fond farewell to Portugal, where Penny and I have just had an excellent week, here are a couple of familiar and attractive mothy faces which we discovered there. The first, in my top three pictures, is that beautiful and beautifully-named moth the Peach Blossom. I might have missed it while checking out the swimming pool trap - see yesterday's post - because it was way out in the deep end, lying flat-out on the surface. Luckily my swim took me right past.

This is a common enough moth in the UK which I remember (on account of its striking appearance) from my schooldays and which visited us fairly regularly in Leeds. But I have had only one in the trap since moving to Oxfordshire in 2013, so the Portuguese encounter was a welcome one.

The second moth appeared to be familiar; I had it down as an Oak Eggar, a species which I also remember very well from schooldays when we found their caterpillars and hatched the adults from cocoons. Much the biggest of my swimming pool moths, it condescended to perch on my finger and so I took it into breakfast where it was a predictable hit with assorted children of various nationalities - exclamations of 'Papillon!' and 'Schmetterling!' joining those of 'Mariposa!' and 'Borboleta!'

When originally spotted - just above the pool's waterline
Rescued and posed with flower
Getting frisky and examining my flip-flops
Released on to a bush of similar flowers
Three days later, by chance, a large and lively moth was jinking about in front of the entrance of a local supermarket. On inspection, it turned out to be - I thought - a second male Oak Eggar; the female is larger and a fine caramel-y colour.

Our guys are the two second from bottom on the left-hand page - the male is on the right of the pair with the fine bushy antennae
Getting home and consulting the Moth Bible, however (above), I am sure that both moths were actually Grass Eggars, a different kettle of fish in the UK where they are classed as Nationally Scarce and pretty much confined to coastal sand dunes and cliffs. This habit has given their caterpillars an interestingly varied diet which includes Spiny Restharrow, False Oat-grass and Thrift. Think of them as the equivalents of human beings who like to dine out at Cambodian or Mongolian restaurants.

Finally from Portugal, this distinctive little scrap of a moth fell out of the rafters of a funky beach cafe at Vila Nova de Milfontes (pic left), while P and I were munching sardines. It is Eublemma candidana, a macro moth in spite of its midget size (those little squares are part of the tablecloth) which is unknown in the UK although it has relatives here. In France it goes under the magnificent name of L'Anthophile Superbe or The Superb Flower-lover.

Monday 25 September 2017

A mega moth trap

I have often fantasised about taking the moth trap on holidays abroad - an impossible dream because it is much to big and cumbersome to ferry around, even if we were to go by car. Likewise, I have sometimes gazed wistfully at advertisements in entomological or natural history magazines for cottages and villas to let on the Continent which come complete with a moth trap. Penny would draw the line at that.

However, on our week in Portugal from which we returned yesterday, I did indeed have a moth trap - and a very big one. Our hotel's swimming pool was set in lovely, rather wild gardens and its underwater lights were left on all night. You can see some of the results here. Come the morning, several dozen moths were suspended on the pool's surface, clamped like prisoners by the surface tension and moving slowly but surely towards the doom of the filter outlets.
Update: the expert and kindly guru of Upper Thames Moths, Dave Wilton, identifies this as a Dusky Carpet, a moth only once recorded in the UK, a specimen caught at Tenby in South Wales which is now in the Museum of Natural History in Kensington

I learned after a couple of early morning swims that it was handy to get to the pool before the gardener/handyman who dutifully netted debris from the pool first thing. I enjoyed chatting to him in a strange mixture of English and something vaguely like Portuguese although probably tending more towards Spanish. But although we got as far as 'mariposa' and 'borboletta' - words in both languages for 'butterfly' - I didn't try to complicate his life by appealing for a netting delay while I waded about with the iPad Mini, taking pictures.

A Yellow-tail - a species notoriously shy about showing its eponymous feature. This one had little choice.

The answer was to have my swim a little earlier. I managed to do this and even to build in time to rescue most of the apparent victims. The moths looked dead, apart from one or two which were struggling feebly, but once you scooped them out and decanted them on to the stone, decking or even nearby tree-trunks, they recovered speedily. Here are some examples:

I think that the bottom moth is a Portuguese example of the Yellow Belle, a moth which is only locally found in the UK - one of the locales being a regular stamping ground for me in my journalism days: Greenham Common near Newbury, scene of the famous women's protests against cruise missiles.

I have yet to discover the ID of most of the moths shown in this post, but this one is a Portuguese example of our familiar Scalloped Oak. I think, incidentally, that the moth in my top picture may be a Portuguese Straw Belle. Update: no, I have changed my mind and think that it is the yellowy form of the Vestal.

My most curious observations, however, were of a half-dozen or so moths which were perched at least an inch underwater, clinging to the side of the pool, thoroughly alive and apparently contented with their surroundings. When I eased them off and put them down in the sunshine, they too recovered. There is plenty on the web about moths and other insects' ability to spend time underwater, including a piece on a Hawaiian moth which seems happy in both elements. There is also the example of dragonflies, whose first three stages of life are spent in water. But I hope to read more, not only about the breathing issue but also about the waterproof-ness or otherwise of moths' wings - note the bubbles of air clinging to the ones below. In butterflies, which are generally larger and more delicately made, these would seem the main vulnerability of a dip, but there seems reason to believe that the complex structure of scales and membranes is water-resistant, provided that the insect does not panic and thrash around.