I have seldom tired of my moths, even after nearly 15 years of attracting them to my mercury vapour light trap, photographing them in the morning when they are as comatose as students after a night out, and then releasing them back into the wild.
Many mornings see a familiar and predictable guest list in the egg boxes, in which the moths roost inside the trap's lobster-pot-type bowl, but there has always been a steady succession of novelties or curious variations or interesting behaviour. Even after all this time, I have had more than ten new arrivals so far this year.
And then there are the Red Letter Days, one of which took place today. Maybe I should call it a Blue Letter Day, hopefully a term without any sexual or otherwise dubious connotation; because today saw the long-awaited arrival of the Moth I Have Most Wanted to See for Years; a stunning, vast Clifden Nonpareil.
It was not wholly unexpected. As I've mentioned in recent posts, I have been on the lookout for it for the last month after a remarkable run of sightings on the ever-wonderful Upper Thames Moths blog
. These were mainly in Buckinghamshire originally but have crept closer in the last two years. When they reached Wolvercote, just half-an-hour's bike ride away from here, I had a gut feeling that it was only a matter of time.
I began to check the trap's surroundings with extra care, following several reports of the moth coming close to light but not actually venturing inside. I also stirred myself out of my usual evening torpor - the Ten o'Clock News always sends me to sleep - to see if any large and unusual moths were gathering near the lamp before I went to bed.
This dedication proved unnecessary. When I went out this morning, incidentally scaring away a large black dog which had galloped into our garden, I immediately saw something very promising just under the moth's transparent cowl where the rim of the lampholder fits.
My first assumption is that a very big, V-bomber of a moth will be a Red Underwing, as was the case last week, and on quite a few previous occasions. But this moth was VERY big INDEED; and as soon as I looked closely, I saw the beautiful smoky blue of the underwing. A magic moment in my long and generally very fortunate butterfly and moth career.
Persuading the moth to show me its amazing underwing with the lilac-y-blue stripe was quite a business. I was anxious that it might take off and leave me without a picture, so I equipped myself with various transparent plastic boxes and very gently managed to tickle the moth into giving me a glimpse of its lingerie.
I also remembered to nip inside a find a ruler to give some idea of the moth's size - my finger, above, performing a similar service. I am not very good at accurate measurement, especially of potentially lively and escape-minded moths, but this one looked to be about three inches from wingtip to wingtip. Apparently they can reach four.
But it was a nerve-wracking business. The process of goading the moth to show its underwings, which forma classic piece of 'surprise defence' to back up the brilliant subdued dazzle camouflage of its forewings, got it ever more interested in flying away.
This it managed to do. But I had taken the precaution of carrying out my experiments in our greenhouse and so it got no further than the ceiling where I deftly recaptured it. By good fortune, Penny is redecorating our bathroom and the stepladder was within easy reach.
Then I took the whole apparatus outside - moth, box and leaves - and managed to get these pictures, and the one which heads this post, before it whirred its huge wings into life and soared away into freedom like a bird or a bat.
The Clifden Nonpareil has a fascinating history. It appears to be a Continental immigrant which establishes itself in the UK during periods of warmer weather. Its name comes from Cliveden in Berkshire, the famous home of the Astors and scene of the John Profumo/Christine Keeler shenanigans in the 1960s, where it was first recorded in the UK. Benjamin Wilkes has the details in his English Moths and Butterflies published in 1749 - many thanks to an interesting blog, https://iveneverkilledapipit.wordpress.com, for this:
The information is convincing; the moth's caterpillars feed on Aspen or related poplars but the adults often rest by day on the bark of many different types of tree. And it has managed to establish toeholds in the UK during warmer periods since the mid-eighteenth century. One of the most famous was at Hamstreet in southern Kent where a colony flourished between the mid-1930s and mid-1960s and was described by the incomparable Professor E B Ford in his seminal volume on moths in the Collins' Naturalist Library, published in 1955.
That colony appears to have died out as a colder cycle of summers began; but since 2007, things have gone the Clifden Nonpareil's way as never before. As commentors on the Upper Thames Moths blog have observed this summer, a moth which for all my life was the equivalent of the exceptionally rare Camberwell Beauty among butterflies, has almost become common in England's southern counties. There is an element of sadness about that, but I am not complaining. Had it stayed as rare as it was for most of my life, I would never have ended up having one stay as guest overnight.