Thursday, 29 August 2019

Nice Shades

The moths continue to be fairly routine and dominated by the brown and somewhat dull - although the various yellow underwings do not really deserve that dismissal. When at rest, they are mostly a little ordinary but as soon as they go whirring off, you get a brief but vivid glimpse of the brightly-coloured underwings which are their secret treasure and give them their name.

They are very reluctant to show this to the photographer, at least to this one. One of the advantages of the old days of keeping and 'setting' moths in cases was that you could examine underwings in all their glory and appreciate the range of oranges and yellows in this particular tribe. But those times have gone.

There have been exceptions to the general run, too, such as the lovely Angle Shades shown in my top photograph with a rather satisfactory background of one of our towels. And the little Marbled Beauty, above, with its beautiful and complex patterning.

The Elephant and Poplar Hawks continue to decorate the eggboxes, though the pair below were actually outside the trap. I took the Poplar to show some of Penny's tennis friends before releasing it and it flew off initially to incpect the court boundary line, like the Hawkeye replay device at Wimbledon. A friend has just been in touch about seeing a hummingbird Hawk, a regular immigrant from the continent at this time of year, and I am on the lookout for one to complete my list of annual hawk moth regulars.

Two slightly different 'Bronte governess' moths follow, the first a male with its impressive antennae. I  get confused between the various, somewhat similar candidates in this field but I think that he is a Willow Beauty and the second moth a Mottled Beauty. They appeared to recognise one another as cousins as they were roosting close together in the same eggbox.

Things are meanwhile very busy in the silkworm nursery where my eggs have hatched and their tiny occupants are munching greedily away. It is surprising that there are any mulberry trees left in China!  Luckily, I have discovered that a friend in the next village has one, so the food supply chain is secure.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Hawks more

My courteous farewells to those great stars of the annual moth parade, the Hawks, have proved even more premature than I thought. After the persistence of the first generation of these mighty creatures, the last of which came on 13th August in the form of a Poplar Hawk, a vigorous second brood is now out and about. It first showed itself in the form of this pristine Poplar which was in the trap yesterday morning, sound asleep as is always the case with the hawks, except the Pine which seems to have a more nervous disposition than the others. I reported it on the excellent Upper Thames Moths blog whose expert Dave Wilton commented that second generation Poplars were not specially unusual but the only other types he'd had as a visitor were the Elephant Hawk, back in August 2015, and a couple of Small Elephants, in 2010 and 2017. He concluded: "So there's a very slim chance that your Poplar may not be the last."

He was right!  look at my visitors this morning.  There was one Poplar on the outside of the trap bowl, a second inside and two Elephant Hawks in the eggboxes, one of them already quite worn for a second generation moth.

This has been altogether a cheerful experience, and there was a good haul of moths last night when the weather was so delicious that P and I had supper outside and lingered over it until late, serenaded by music from a pub down the road. Plenty of the nocturnal visitors were on a wall and foliage nearby, rather than in the eggboxes, as with this Thorn and Rustic below and the other chap on the spuds; sorry not to have full IDs for these at this relatively early hour. I will update later.

Inside the trap, there were abundant Rustics, Hebrew Chyaracters and Yellow Underwings of various sorts, but also a welcome contingent of delicate and lighter moths including this Wave which I'm not quite sure about - Riband I think, though it seems rather heavily smudged. Then a couple of nice Green Carpets and a Double-striped Pug.

Among the larger and browner/greyer brethren, we have this  Square-spot Rustic, a Silver Y and - in a slightly higher league of both size and patterning - a Pebble Prominent.

And to end with, on the alert on our young beech hedge, a nicely-spotted spider, I think maybe a Garden Orb. The females of this species do most of the trapping and eating while the smaller males lurk nearby and finish off the scraps.

Saturday, 24 August 2019


I am still on a butterfly high after my morning among the Adonis Blues of Yoesden Bank, about as perfect an expedition as I have experienced. But my life in the insect world continues to be varied and it's excellent having the iPhone camera with me wherever I go.

I always try to capture the iridescence of Mother-of-Pearl micros, which are very frequent in the trap in July and August, and my fumbling attempts are not very successful. But this morning's maybe conveys some of the pearly effect which always takes the eye, an organ which sees things differently  from a camera, and more cleverly.

In the world of outings, Penny and I paid an enjoyable visit to my old Oxford college, Merton, to harvest some mulberry leaves for my silk worm eggs - which, I'm quite relieved to say, have not yet hatched. Although the friend who gave them to me successfully bred moths on her cosy narrowboat, I am not sure that I can keep up the required temperature. Let's see. At least I keep finding mulberry trees which are more common than some suppose. I have a friend who travels annually to harvest ones in London - they are easily findable by the purple splodges of fallen fruit on the pavement below - and only last weekend, we found this magnificently recumbent example on an Open Garden day at beautiful Radcot Manor.

Then the other evening we hooked up for an evening swim in the Thames at Dorchester, south of Oxford, and witnessed the interestingly sudden arrival of a swarm of flying ants which settled on the nice warm roof of the boat but were away by the time we'd sploshed ashore and dried. I couldn't work out whether the animated scenes which took place when one bumped into another were fighting or just conversation.

The moth trap meanwhile continues to be fairly subdued but I am hoping that the deliciously warm weather forecast for the Bank Holiday may bring some surprises. Here for the time being is an Orange Swift demonstrating the family's distinctive resting position - legs out like a spider, wings furled like a brolly - and a neat, governessy Willow Beauty (I think; I am a little unreliable on this type of delicate, salt-and-peppery moth).

Butterflies also continue to be irresistible. On our weekly grandchildren duty, my  granddaughter spotted this Painted Lady in their little garden, followed shortly by a Red Admiral which kept its distance.

And finally, the weather was so nice that I decided to walk into Oxford and back yesterday instead of taking the bus. I was surprised not to see more butterflies along the canal and in Port Meadow and the fields around Kidlington, but there were certainly plenty of Speckled Woods and lots of dragon and damselflies.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Britain's most beautiful butterfly?

You know those lists of Things to do before you Die? Well, I've just done another one. I have always wanted to see an Adonis Blue and this morning I was lying back in the sunshine on a wildflower slope in the Chilterns surrounded by them. It was like discovering a hoard of jewels.

The depth and richness of their blue is matchless, so that you have no difficulty spotting them even when they are sitting still. Here's the first I came across, less than a minute after going through the kiss-gate into Yoesden Bank nature reserve in the picture-perfect Radnage Valley. Tiny, bigger, biggest:

Actually, there was an interlude between 'bigger' and 'biggest' because the sun went behind a cloud and the insect closed its wings, suddenly becoming the little speckled triangle of capuccino, below:

I had approached it initially with bated breath and extremely cautiously, expecting it to suss my presence and skitter off like the Common Blues in our local field. But no, it was calmness itself. I settled down beside it and after three minutes during which neither of us stirred, out came the sun and - flash, wham! - there was the wonderful blue again.

I spent a while finding the reserve after misunderstanding the directions - my fault not theirs - but time is never wasted in such Arcadian surroundings. I had a lovely time driving very slowly along single-track roads like jungly tunnels. 

And when I lit on the right path after wandering around Bedlow Ridge for a while, I found first of all a good omen dangling from a tree by another kiss-gate, and then a pair of courting Brown Arguses in the only field you cross before the reserve.

On the reserve's sloping meadow, I was rewarded with another sight: massed butterfly enthusiasts; a common phenomenon in the birding world but one I have only seen for butterflies at Bernwood Forest during the Purple Emperor season in early July. As always, they were generous with their expertise and confirmed by photos of a Chalkhill Blue, below, another lovely creature which flies alongside the Adonis.

Then I dawdled over another luscious Adonis before heading off for my second port-of-call, Aston Rowant nature reserve, which is home to another somewhat uncommon butterfly, the Silver-spotted Skipper.

But before we leave Adonis-land, let me note that the Chiltern escarpment is so far the most Northerly point in the UK reached by the species. It's only 25-odd miles to here, so please keep trucking, guys. 
And secondly, who was Adonis? He was the super-handsome son of a Greek princess who had been changed by the Olympian gods into a myrrh tree, from which he was born. He then became the mortal lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love, but was unfortunately gored to death by a wild bull (see Rubens' take on this, right). His blood and Aphrodite's tears mingled as they fell into the ground and the mixture raised the world's very first crop of anemones. 

I think the little butterfly is worthy of all this - and of the gender of the story's hero, because not surprisingly for anyone who knows anything about butterflies and moths, the amazing blue is the monopoly of the male. His partner is still lovely, but as in all UK 'Blues', much browner..

At Aston Rowant, which has a fine view of the M40 which got me from Oxford so speedily, there were more enthusiasts, above. And there were also Silver-spotted Skippers.  Not remotely as stunning as the Adonis Blue, but a very satisfying end to a memorable morning.

Oh, and here's one of those irresistible butterflies, a male Brimstone, which saw me off as I headed back to the car.

The good old moth trap can't compare at the moment with all this glorious drama. But here a couple of nice, chaste Common Wainscots which relieved Monday night's otherwise somewhat brown and grey population:

Their colours were slightly different, as shown, and the top one was much smaller than the norm - perhaps a second generation insect which has spent less time in its chrysalis.