Monday, 20 January 2020

Record player

Penny and I have spent the weekend with the grandchildren who at one stage went into a frenzy of mathematics - multiplying 12 until their brains were exhausted and reciting numbers up to stratospheric levels. On the way home, we called in on some small grand-nieces who told us that they had 'millions and billions' of fluffy toy owls, many of which they produced as proof.

Where all this expertise comes from, I have no idea, but it certainly isn't me. I scraped through Maths O Level in 1966 with Grade 6, the minimum required for a pass, and never really got a handle on the subject (though aspects of it, such as the curious habits of the number 9) have always intrigued me.

This is leading up to the admission that I am a very poor record-keeper, which is a lamentable characteristic in a recorder of moths. Some would say that running a trap, as I do, is largely pointless if you do not provide the UK - and world's - very impressive data banks with records of what you have found.

Did you know that every county in the country has a moth recorder, indeed usually more than one, and the largely amateur circle of people who run lights has a magnificent history of keeping them supplied. I was only just reading a note on the ever-excellent Upper Thames Moths blog by one counterpart to myself who counted 16,961 little visitors last year. His best night saw 1077 moths of 125 different species. I would have lost count long before reaching 16,000 and if Penny had to wait for morning tea while I counted 1077 moths, there might be trouble.

Anyway, two years ago (Oh the shame), I contacted our local moth recorder to say that I was at last intending to organise myself. Nothing happened, but after the Christmas just gone by, I made a New Year resolution and I have carried it out. My tallies for Oxfordshire going back to April 2013 when we moved from Leeds are now on this blog's What Moth Is That? records page. Hooray! 

Don't get too excited, however. My inability to spend time doing exhaustive counts means that the list is primarily a record of highlights - for example, on one of the very rare occasions where I give an approximation of the total - 10 June 2014 - I selected only a dozen or so of an estimated 300 moths in the trap for specific attention. I must have been going through a conscientious period at the time because there was a short spell in the Spring of that year when I listed totals of arrivals - eg on April Fool's Day:

1 Apr Dotted Chestnut  Diurnea fagella  Agonopterix alstromeriana   Common Quaker (32)  Small Quaker (14)  Clouded Drab ((13)  Hebrew character (12)  Early Thorn (4)  March  Pine  Beauty, Twin-spotted Quaker  Satellite  Red Chestnut (2) Clouded Drab (9) Common Quaker (26) Emmelina monodactyla (2) Oak Beauty

So 'tis done. But there is also much more to do. After a good rest and no doubt turning my attention to life's other demands - eg the above-mentioned grandchildren - I must buckle down and do the same for the still-undetailed years from 2008 to 2013 when I paid host to moths in Leeds.

I also suspect that the moth recorder may want me to reclassify my list into species rather than dates; and some of the favoured reporting forms are both online, which I don't find a doddle, and have intimidating numbers of queries about moths' gender, weather conditions and so forth.  I applaud the motives for this thoroughness while at the same time quailing at the prospect of trying to satisfy it. But I will try. In due course.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Early bird

I was going to say that my second night with the moth trap this year saw the guest-list increase by 100 percent, but some warning bell sounded from 1966 when I scraped through maths O level with grade 6, the lowest which still constituted a pass. A hundred percent of nil is nil, it reminded me. So the fact that I got one moth last night was an increase of a different order.

The moth is a Pale Brindled Beauty, a traditionally early flyer with a reassuring amount of fur coat to help to keep it warm. It wasn't actually in the eggboxes but perched on a section of the bulbholder which was gently warmed by the nearby light. In the hope of photographing its underwings, I gave it a little tickle with a twig and it obligingly fluttered down to the grass and revealed all. That includes - picture below - the slightly pinkish tone of its body colouring, the sign of a freshly-hatched specimen.

Here it is again, below, on a scrap of eggbox, showing the fine antennae which almost always mark a moth out as male, because of their role in detecting the pheremones given off by females. Actually, you don't need to see these to know the gender of the moth. Take a look at my final picture of the Pale Brindled Beauty's poor old flightless female, who is in fact an example of evolutionary success. She sits contentedly on a tree trunk, safe from the dramas of night flight, and waits for a male to arrive and do the business, before laying her eggs and starting the cycle off again.

I have been catching up at last with my records going back to our move here from Leeds in the Spring of 2013. So I can tell you that previous debuts by the PBB have been: 3 Feb in 2014, 1 March in 2016, 17 Feb in 2017 and 2 Jan last year. I only trapped for a couple of nights before April in 2015 and had no bulb until April in 2018.  It has been the first moth to arrive every year except 2016 and now 2020 when it has had to be content with the silver medal.

Sunday, 12 January 2020


The weather has been very capricious but mild enough, on and off, for me to be tempted to turn on the lamp. The lawn is growing - eek! - and as you can see here, cyclamen and Honesty or Silver Dollar are in early flower.

Over on the excellent Upper Thames Moths blog, the moth supremo Dave Wilton has made a beeline for sheltered woodland - "The place to be for moths at this time of year" in his words - and filled his trap with more than 200 visitors.

How many did I get last night? None. Until around teatime today, I was resigned to writing a short post about the merit of proving a negative and suchlike.

But I reckoned without eagle-eyed P. "There's a moth," she said, as we planted out some refugee perennials from pots which had got a bit straggly and unhappy. Sure enough, a little Common Plume had helicoptered out of the leaves of one of them. The moths seem to have excellent vision, because whenever I got near enough to take a picture, he whirred into life and was off on another jinking attempt to find a safe haven..

The Common Plume's Linnaean name is a nice combination - Emmelina monodactyla, or Emmeline the Monoplane. It sounds like a character from a children's book, and indeed an imaginative author might make that a reality. The moths have reasonably-sized wings, on their Lilliputian scale, but furl them up as tightly as a City gent's umbrellas when at rest.

Here you can see the wider part of the wing, exposed because the moth is about to take off. Encouraged by this find, I have put the trap out again tonight in the nearest equivalent our garden offers to sheltered woodland.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year - both generally and specifically for all involved in the world of moths. 2019 was pretty dire in the wider sense, but in Mothland it's hard to see how I am going to surpass the Clifden Nonpareil's arrival in the next 12 months. Or indeed beyond.

I was surprised to click on this page for the first time in a while, just now, to see how long it is since I last posted. Life's been busy, with Christmas and the death at the mighty age of 101 of my mother-in-law a couple of weeks before. She always took a kindly if rather puzzled interest in my hobby and gave me many, much-appreciated, moth-related cards and other items over all the 40-plus years since P and I met.

I have put the trap out a couple of times, with little more than a few December and Winter Moths and - last night as shown in my top picture - small and usually uninteresting (to me) flies. On a regular morning's inspection, these escape my notice altogether. But with nothing else in the trap apart from the sad remains of a handful of previous visitors attacked by spiders (third picture), I thought you might like to see them.  The helpful arrow below shows how tiddly one is in the context of its eggbox home.

There were of course other distractions last night, in the usually dark world inhabited by moths.  Here's a small selection, below, of what they missed.  Once again meanwhile, a very happy New Year to you and yours.