Thursday 26 September 2019

Autumn nights

One of the pleasures of moth-trapping is spreading the word about an interest which opens our eyes to such a rich but little-known world. It is usually children with their boundless curiosity who get most excited, but I've just had an example at the other end of life.

Every now and then, we have a group of elderly people here for tea and if possible, I organise an interesting moth for them to examine. This year, the tables were turned. One of them whose interest was triggered last year, brought along excellent pictures on her 'phone n- left - of a Poplar Hawk moth which has taken up residence in her block of flats. 
The trap is meanwhile producing appropriately autumnal moths - this year's first Black Rustics, for example, a species which I have often compared in the past to the Star Wars villain, Darth Vader.

They can be so dark that their distinctive creamy-golden eyebrow marks don't always show up in photographs. I've tricked the digital light monitor in the one below to get over that:

Next, below, is a Sallow moth, one of a family of mustardy Autumn regulars, followed by a White-point, until fairly recently a very scarce immigrant moth but one which has become a successful colonist and is now not unusual in Oxfordshire. It was in a bit of a state when I first found it while going through the eggboxes but, with a little help, sorted itself out and looked smart for the second picture.

Next we have a Lunar Underwing, another September/October species which will become a feature of the trap in the next few weeks. And finally a rather bedraggled Snout with its Pinocchio proboscis. The rain got into part of the trap overnight and the poor creature was stuck to the bottom of the bowl. Like the White-point, it recovered with a little help and, once dried-out, sped successfully off on its way.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

Moth rescue

Walking down the canal towpath yesterday, my eye was caught by a flurry at my feet. Movement is the great betrayer of life in the wild, followed by bright or unexpected colour. The latter was present too - flashes of orange meant a Yellow Underwing of some sort and I recognised the reason for its panicky distress from previous experience.

A wasp had got it by a hind leg and, however furious the moth's attempts to shake it off, there was no way that the attacker's jaws were going to relax their grip. With the help of a twig, I intervened. The wasp shot off into the sky and the moth crept into the safety of some longer grass, below.

The trap has meanwhile being playing host to a succession of seasonal moths including, in order below, a rather delicately-marked Autumnal Rustic, a Lesser Yellow Underwing, two August Thorns on opposite sides of the transparent cowl and a Frosted Orange.

Next we have a couple of belated pictures from the Great Night of the Clifden Nonpareil - in my state of advanced checking, which I described prior to the Nonpareil's eventual arrival, I went out before bed to check the trap and its surroundings. The Magnificent Arrival hadn't yet happened but this nice, rakish Angle Shades was perched on the wall. The second picture shows the looming shadow of its photographer and his iPhone.

Finally, here are a Pale Oak Beauty and a Brimstone on the bulb-holder, a Large Marbled Carpet looking very dainty, two more Brimstones on our parsnips next to the trap that night, and a pleasantly-named Rosy Rustic.

It is now tipping with rain and the forecast is soggy, so things may be quiet for a while.

Sunday 22 September 2019

Red light

If dramatic appearance were the first criterion, rather than rarity, this morning's arrival might well outrank the wondrous Clifden Nonpareil in many people's minds. Admittedly, the Nonpareil is also larger than the Red Underwing, today's first moth pictured above and below, but there is something special about the latter's vivid colour.

'Trifle with me at your peril,' it probably warns predatory birds; and as I write this around midday, the moth is still safely perched where I left it, albeit shuffled slightly under cover because of the recent onset of rain. It is a regular Autumn visitor but I mustn't get blasé about it. It's a very fine moth.

This one has clearly led a busy life but in spite of its frayed wings, it was in good form. When they take off, they resemble bats or small birds and that sheer size must also help to keep them safe. The upside-down moth alongside the Red Underwing in the second picture is one of the 'standard-sized/ brethren, so it gives you an idea of the scale, I hope. The little moth wasn't dead but sound asleep, even when I tapped it and its bigger neighbour out of their eggbox. Here's the Red Underwing as I found it, below - their usual resting posture which is perfect camouflage on a wall or tree.

We are apparently in for a wet week now but the sunny spell brought out tremendous numbers of butterflies. It's been a very good Painted Lady year and here are some of our other regulars: two Speckled Woods, a Brimstone (second generation) and a pair of Commas, showing the punctuation-based reason for their name:

Assorted yellow underwing moths have been plentiful for ages and here is an example of how snugly four fit together in an eggbox cone. Then we have a quartet of pictures of one of my favourites, a Burnished Brass whose wings get blurrier as it warms them up ready for take-off:

Thursday 19 September 2019

Trebles all round

A nice, distinctively-patterned moth came here the night before the Great Clifden Nonpareil Excitement, which naturally took priority in my blogging timetable. Apologies therefore that this post hops backwards to last Sunday night.  Anyway, above is a second-generation Treble Bar. I have mild difficulties with its name; Double-bar would seem a more likely candidate, but there we are. It is one of a quartet, alongside the Lesser Treble-bar, which is extremely similar and requires a close look at the male genitalia to tell the difference, the Purple Treble-bar and the Manchester Treble-bar.

The last, pictured left courtesy of Butterfly Conservation's excellent website, has a place in my affections because of the modest role of moths in defending the good name of Manchester as a centre of culture and not just factories and toil. It shouldn't be necessary to make this case but the prejudice expressed by, for example, Lord Tennyson in his sneer 'We are not cotton-spinners all/ But some love England and her honour yet' is tenacious.

As you can see, the Manchester Treble-bar is something of a colourful star, with its flashes of purply maroon, just as the great city has many beautiful buildings, parks and nearby countryside. It was a second eponymous moth, Schiffermulleria woodiella, an almost equally bright little micro shown right, which prompted my former paper the Manchester Guardian to rebuke Tennyson. There are only three specimens of this moth in the world, one of them in the Manchester Museum, one in London's Natural History Museum and one in Melbourne, Australia, and it was the subject of a symposium by the Royal Entomological Society in 1951. 
If you'll forgive the plug, I described the episode in my book True North as follows:

Back at the trap, this pleasant Light Emerald was perched under the cowl and the eggbox residents included the Autumnal Rustic shown below. Also on the cowl was the large, dart-shaped micro Udea lutealis.

The moth-in-the-hand which follows is one of those Dart-y types whose ID causes me endless grief. I will try to find time to track it down. Update: I hereby pronounce it to be a Flounced Rustic, a moth which I have overlooked before at this time of the year. Please correct me if I am wrong.

And finally, the sad remains of an Oak Hook-tip, a moth which came to the UK as an immigrant until the 1920s when it established itself and has subsequently spread ever further north in the way that the much more spectacular Nonpareil now seems ready to do.

Tuesday 17 September 2019

Nunc dimittis

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,, 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.