Tuesday, 28 April 2020

More varied guests

Moth trapping is on hold because the rain has come, which is welcome in every other respect as our vegetables are mostly young and tender, apart from the venerable rhubarb and broccoli which have come into their own during the lockdown.  Even before the damp, the nights were pretty cold and the moth trap relatively quiet; a couple of mornings ago its moth inhabitants were a Swallow Prominent and a Pebble Prominent, both crouching in their feline, ready-to-pounce position, and the very pretty Powdered Quaker, shown left. Outside on the heavily-dewed grass, this Brimstone was easy to spot - for me, but apparently not for our ever-inquisitive robin.

Yesterday's sunshine, before the first raindrops in early evening, brought the usual crop of Spring butterflies, along with this delicate Large Red Damselfly, the first of its kind that I've seen this year - and my first damselfly sighting sent to iRecord, which has emboldened me to find out more about flying creatures which are not butterflies or moths. There are plenty of these in the trap over the year and here are some recent ones, whose IDs I'm trying to sort out, at least in terms of family, before asking iRecord. It's heartening that the prospect of actually finding out their species has become a genuine possibility; and if I can get the iPhone to focus sufficiently, some of them are rather amazing.  Take the fly - if that is what it is - in my first picture, with its featherlike antennae.

Caddis flies next, and I think that the first is Limnephilus affinis, previously sent to iRecord and identified there. I dare not be so bold with the second one and I am uncertain about whether the third and fourth are affinis again.  We'll see what iRecord's expert says in due course. Their generosity with time and knowledge is terrific and much-appreciated.

Ignorance likewise reigns here over this fly, but simply focussing on these small and often irritating creatures brings the reward of seeing their little differences. The pair in the second picture look particularly intimidating. I wonder if they are in the family known as 'Soldier Flies'.

The two caddis flies are further candidates for ID but I think I recognise the Dor, or Dung, Beetle below. Some kind of ichneumon fly brings up the rear, differing from the first one I despatched to iRecord  (where it was identified as Ophion scutellaris) because it has black legs.

Sunday, 26 April 2020

Big boys

I was going to fill this instalment with caddis flies and other non-mothy callers at what has been a rather sparsely-inhabited trap during the last few frosty nights. But this morning revealed some nice surprises, although the overall population of the eggboxes didn't quite reach ten.

Much the biggest was my first hawk moth of 2020, a Poplar Hawk which looks as though it has already had an eventful life, like the rather worn Brindled Beauty sharing its eggbox. Its arrival is a clear two weeks earlier than my first hawk last year, also a Poplar, which flew in on 10 May, and well before the 2018 hawk debut, 7 May and the 2017 one on 6 May.  They were Poplars too, the 2017 one rather battered like this morning's.

I've just trawled further back and the debuts, all Poplars, are: 2016: 12 May; 2015: 1 May; 2014: 2 May and 2013: 22 May. Given the incredible spell of warm, no actually hot, days, it is perhaps not surprising that this year sets a new record for me, though the nights have often been cold - see the effect of my teamug on this morning's frost:

My second jumbo-sized visitor is well-equipped to deal with the chill - this lovely, fur-coated male Pale Tussock, below. In a nearby eggbox was a smaller moth with similar winter wear, the Lunar Marbled Brown below.

Meanwhile, the Emperor saga goes on and on.  I have centralised the three egg clusters in a box with daily fresh hawthorn deliveries, but this chapter is not about that. It involves my spotting a large moth flying slowly and rather clumsily round our Romneya poppy in the warm and sunny tail-end of yesterday afternoon.

It was a male Emperor and I duly photographed it when it came to rest. I did the same an hour later when it hadn't moved, again at 8.30pm when I lit the trap (rather hoping that the Emperor wouldn't be disturbed by it) and finally again, at 6.30 this morning.  What sedentary moths they can be!

Friday, 24 April 2020

Butterfly sun

I won't be feeling so well-disposed to them when their caterpillars feast on our vegetable garden, but these 'cabbage whites' are a welcome addition to the string of butterflies brought by the wonderful run  of sunny weather.  The Brimstones, Orange-tips and Green-veined Whites still abound after more than a month,  and they've now been joined by the Large and Small Whites below, one of the latter seen flying a reconnaissance mission over our excellently productive Purple Sprouting.

A Speckled Wood, below, also came visiting and I keep seeing Holly Blues which obstinately refuse to land and pose.  It won't be long before we have Common Blues, Brown Arguses and Marbled Whites on the field edge over the hedge.

The moth trap, meanwhile, has spent a whiffy night beside our compost heap where it looked picturesque enough for me to take the photo below before I crept off to bed.  

Here's the view from the trap this morning; a delicate Scotch mist lying low above the neighbours' field.

Overnight guests included a bit of welcome, bright colour in the shape of the Brimstone moth and the Red-green Carpet below:

It was also good to find a couple of Red Twin-spot Carpets, one pretending to be a butterfly, and my fourth member of the Prominent family to arrive this year,  a couple of the strangely-shaped and brilliantly camoulaged Pale Prominents one of them attended by an inquisitive fly:

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Palely loitering

Apart from all the Emperor excitement - and more of that in a moment - the moth trap is relatively quiet at the moment; a steady but small supply of regular visitors such as the two Swallow Prominents, the long-seasoned Brindled Beauty ans Muslin moths. But the last of these has furnished interest, with an unusually large number of much paler versions than usual.

Yesterday saw the arrival of the palest of all; you can see the contrast between them in my top photograph and the one above.  I know that the related Ermine moths can vary quite a lot in the white, buff and grey end of the colour spectrum, so I did some checking for variations of them. But these are definitely both Muslins.

You can see from the frontal views that the pallor extends to the famous yellow knee breeches which enliven this otherwise slightly austere moth. Like male Muslins in general, they both have their fine antennae out and they also share the sort of shaggy hairstyle which many of us humans are developing in the absence of hairdressers - yay! back to the Sixties!

Note my morning tea in the background
I did some Googling online and came up with a range of pictures of paler Muslins, for example on Wildlife Insight here, and there is some speculation that a version of what has hitherto been known as the 'Irish form' may be spreading. That is almost pure white, but then so is the fur of my little visitor. I will send my pictures to iRecord to add to the database.

The Emperors, meanwhile: my Empress is still here, entirely passive and apparently content to stay put. She has been in the shed, apart from occasional spells when I took her eggbox out into the sunlight for a change - and, I must admit, to see if any more assembling might take place.  At least three males visited the garden during the delightfully warm and sunny day yesterday and on Tuesday, but none paid her any court. So I have tucked her into a hawthorn hedge where she was sitting quietly this morning.

As Penny sympathetically observes, she has had a tiring time in the egg production department. Indeed, this turns out to be, almost certainly, even more impressive than I had thought.  When I went to inspect the trap yesterday morning, it had been frosty and there were no moths on the nearby house wall. But an unusual shape caught my eye, and it was this: yet another cluster of eggs, and they look very much like the Empress's.

Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Emperors are go

I have often described my six years of adventures with Emperor moths here as a saga, which you might think a bit of an exaggeration. But the now-huge family established by the lone Empress which came to my light trap in May 2014, our first full Summer on the edge of Oxford, has been pretty good at story lines.

The latest generation is no exception. I decided to have a go at 'assembling' with the newly-hatched female I described in my last post, although I realised that she might already have done the business with her male companion. So she stayed the night and on Friday morning, I popped her under one of those wire butter cloches, like an upturned sieve with some sprigs of hawthorn for company.

In my experience, female Emperors are reluctant to move at all in the daytime, but I wanted to protect her from birds, in particular the highly inquisitive robin, left, whose territory seems to include both our shed and the garden table where I usually mull over the morning's catch. As the day moved on, chilly, a bit damp and uninviting, there was no sign of any suitors, so I took off the 'lid' and she perched on the side of the plastic box, very much in what we humans might see as a 'Come and get me' pose.

No luck; but Saturday was sunny and as the afternoon went on, with Penny and myself beavering away at lockdown vegetable growing, it began to get quite warm. Amid the fluttering Orange-tip and Brimstone butterflies, I suddenly saw something bigger, brownish and more muscular jink past.  Ah-ha, I thought. We are in business. And we were.

Like John Donne's lovers in The Ecstasy, the pair spent a long time quietly together before separating,  still companionably, below, and the male took his leave at about 6pm. I left the Empress in the shed and lit the trap for the night, planning to see next morning whether she had laid any eggs.

Come the morning, curiosity had me looking at the moth trap's contents first; and what caught my eye straight away but the tip of an Emperor moth wing. There in the eggboxes was a large Empress and beside her, a clutch of large eggs.

And that wasn't the end of this Downton Abbeyish episode.  I went on to the shed and found my original Empress gone. But on the mesh of the cloche were two clutches of much smaller eggs, below. 

Interestingly, as Penny pointed out when I showed her these photos, they seem to have a sort of glue which has stopped them slipping through the gaps in the mesh.

Was the Empress in the trap the same one as my original? I don't know, although she is still in the shed where her presence alerted another male in the sunshine yesterday afternoon, although he merely whizzed round the garden a couple of times and did not visit her. Is she the mother of all three clutches?  Again I don't know.  And what will she do next? She is sleeping now exactly where she was yesterday evening and did not visit the trap during the night. Whatever next?

Friday, 17 April 2020

Imperial Nursery - Year Six?

I thought that my days as a nanny to Emperor Moth caterpillars were over, after the spectacular run which followed the arrival of a magnificent female Emperor moth in the light trap on 7 May 2014, a year after we moved here. She is the one who heads the composite picture at the top of the blog, clinging to my then camera strap.

 But no.  I was putting the mattock away in our shed yesterday when I heard and then saw a tremendous fluttering of something considerably more weighty than a butterfly.

Penny and I were just off out to deliver emergency rhubarb to a neighbour but this mercy mission had to be postponed. I realised to my surprise and delight that the intruder was a male Emperor. After a brief chase, much cupping of hands and sliding into Tupperware boxes and the like, he sat still long enough for the photographs above.

If I had a real Imperial Nursery, they might make rather a good logo, suggesting an atmosphere of care and protection for my little charges.  But even with the time afforded by the lockdown, I am not sure that I want to have the responsibility for a big box of hawthorn gobblers again, so I carefully put the moth on some honeysuckle where he permitted me this third picture

There's a bit of an air of clinging-on for dear life about that one, and the poor insect probably was feeling rather shaken. I meanwhile returned to the abandoned rhubarb, pondering why a male Emperor moth should have come to our shed. Discussing it with P,  I hazarded that thanks to the building's extensive use as an Imperial Nursery in the last six years - see for example blog entries here and again here and yet again (with further links) here - there might still be female pheremones hanging about.  Emperor moth females famously emit these during their short lives and males  equally famously pick them up expertly, sometimes from more than a mile away.  Here's a couple of pictures from a post I did in April 2017 when we experimented with this so-called 'assembling' - monitoring a drowsy female on a sunny afternoon. Three males arrived out of nowhere and there were high jinks.

Recollecting this episode made me wonder about another option: my last season of breeding left me with quite a large box of cocoons. I distributed these to various people but I had a feeling that there had been some left. The moths can sometimes go without hatching for four years, even though they generally live for only a couple of weeks, partly because they cannot eat. What a life! (Though handy for us humans, if we didn't have to find food in the current lockdown).

Anyway, I went back to the shed to see if I could find any boxes with bits of old plant debris and - Lo and behold! On top of our stack of garden games, there was a big clear plastic one, and perching on it was this splendid Empress.

Although I am dubious about breeding Emperors and Empresses again, I cannot resist another go at 'assembling' later today, although this moth may have already mated with her brother. In that case, I gather, her allure may be reduced, but we shall see.  Meanwhile, they have each left me with neatly-holed cocoons from which they emerged yesterday.

A footnote to this is that iRecord, which I admire so much and which is giving me great pleasure, has a problem with moths due to database interfaces. I submitted the Emperors yesterday but got an automatic reply that they were 10km outside the moth's known area...