Sunday, 31 May 2020


My Biggest Moth of the Year has arrived on cue, and actually with a particularly good sense of timing as we have a moth-interested friend calling today for a socially-distanced cuppa. The Privet Hawk is common, albeit seldom seen by anyone without a moth trap, and it IS big - I hope you can see that via my lazy Eggbox Scale.  Although plainish on top, it has a very fine, fat pink-striped body which it can flash as a warning to predators by opening its usually tightly-folded wings.

I didn't want to disturb mine, so that it will carry on sleeping on its eggbox until this afternoon. But you can see Technicolour pictures on previous year's blog posts if you have the time and interest, for example here and also here, the second one rather exciting including a ruler. My second picture today meanwhile shows quite an assembly of hawk moths this morning,   which I hope isn't too confusing. If you look closely, you should be able to find three Poplars, an Eyed and an Elephant, along with the Privet. The only further one which I can reasonably expect now is the Hummingbird, nectaring on strongly-scented garden flowers during the daytime in August.  But there are other, much rarer ones, such as the Silver-striped.  So, as with last Autumn's Clifden Nonpareil, you never know.

Another newcomer for the year is that bright little button the Green Oak Tortrix, a favourite among micro-moths because of its shining exception to their usual muddle of hard-to-decipher patterns in browns, oranges and blacks. I've shown it with a couple of other green arrivals this morning, a Green Carpet and a Light Emerald.

  I'm a bit uncertain about the visitor above, in spite of his or her prominent, staring 'eye' and streaked shoulders. It has a bit of the look, from the Moth Bible, of a White-line Dart but would be extremely early for that. I shall seek help. Update: silly me - see Edward in Comments. It's just a Large Yellow Underwing. My only excuse is the ridiculous amount of variation in this common moth eg see the other completely different one immediately below. Meanwhile, below we have a composite, clockwise from top left: Marbled Minor spp, Large Yellow Underwing, Poplar Kitten and Bright-line Brown-eye.

My final picture is of a different form of aerial excitement: a neighbour came and banged on the door while we were having a rest from non-stop sunny gardening, and said "Come and see! There's a smiling face in the sky!"  And so there was; indeed while we watched, the little plane involved painted a second one in smoke. It looks easy from the ground but the skill involved in this kind of thing is of the order of the scale-fixing needed by Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel. In my opinion, anyway.

Friday, 29 May 2020

Spirit of the thing

A neighbour has had the marvellous experience of witnessing a moth hatch from a buried pupa and slowly dry and expand its wings in the sunshine. She watched fascinated and took these pictures, which she has kindly allowed me to use, as what she initially thought was some kind of grub shook itself slowly free from the soil and crept up a tree trunk, wings still little more than crumpled stubs.

She was also surprised at how quickly the wings reached their full extent and at the whole transformation of a creature on a par with Lowly Worm in Richard Scarry's children's books became something altogether more splendid.  The moth is a Large Yellow Underwing, which gives you an idea of how many millions of times this amazing process takes place in the course of 24 hour Summer hours.

Small wonder that the Ancients saw a parallel with humanity and what they hoped and believed happened to the human soul or spirit, soaring away into the sky when the body had worn out. The word psyche in Ancient Greek came to mean both 'spirit' and 'butterfly', giving us the legion of psychologists, psychiatrists and psychotherapist who are kept so busy today.

Curious to think that entomologists could have got there first, if they hadn't chosen a so much more cumbersome term for their profession. For a while, the 18th century equivalents of moth bloggers were known by the much nicer name of 'Aurelians' because of the insects' lovely colours, aurelia being a Latin term for 'golden'. I think that beats 'cut into sections', the translation of entomon, don't you?

Meanwhile the trap has gone a little quieter but is still attracting maybugs, much to my pleasure (although they give some others the creeps). Welcome too to another first for the year, the Brown Rustic below:

After the recent Campion with its lovely mauve, I think that today we have the very similarly patterned Lychnis - next photo - but I will test this on the Upper Thames Moths blog as I find them very hard to tell apart. Then I think we have Small Square-spot and Sloe and Oak-tree Pugs (but as you know, pugs have me all at sea).

Lastly, I am always interested in the effects on moths of their hazardous lives, and here is a White Ermine which has clearly had some adventures. Colour and pattern variation is fascinating too, hence my final pic of a curiously blotchy Common Wainscot.

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Black and white

I mentioned the cruelty - to human eyes - of nest-raiding magpies yesterday. With the coincidence which marks human affairs and which fascinated the writer Arthur Koestler, along comes one of the moth world's equivalents, in name but not in behaviour. The Small Magpie micro is no bully, just a pretty little example of dazzle camouflage, the black and white lent extra interest by the mustardy yellow at top and bottom.

When I was a schoolboy, I remember finding lots of its macro moth namesake, the Magpie, but I have only seen one of those here in seven years. They were studied intensively for genetic variations by the entomologist Sir Geoffrey Keynes, more famous as a surgeon and the brother of the great economist Lord Keynes.

There was more bold colour and patterning just outside the trap in the person of the roosting Cinnabar above, but a notably faded Green Carpet in the eggboxes showed what age tends to do to beauty. This applies particular to anything green in the insect world; the colour fades particularly quickly and permanently. It is rare to find in one of the old collections a vivid green Emerald moth - a lovely family when fresh. Even when hidden from light in closed drawers, their beauty fades.

All three of these were together in the trap. I hope the fresh ones didn't notice the state of their older relative (even though its washed-out colouring has its own charm)

Here is an example, meanwhile, of the moth world's inequitable distribution of glamour in some species, a feature shared by the human race. Both the moths above are male Common Swifts, but one has definitely got the better deal in looks. In the human world, that advantage can often come with a downside such as vanity or unwanted attention; but the number of smart Common Swifts which come to the trap suggests that they are no more noticeable to birds than their dull relatives.

Two new moths for the year next, the Brown Silver-lines and Snout above, the latter named for its Pinocchio 'nose'. There is actually a Beautiful Snout, so I could dwell further on the looks of moths and humans, but I won't.

The trap continues very busy with the nights so lovely and warm. Couldn't we do with some rain though? Here are some of the other residents last night and on Monday/Tuesday:

Silver-ground and Garden Carpets
Clouded Silver - such a delicate, Laura Ashley moth 
Hawks are pouring in - Eyed, Elephant, Poplar and Small Elephant
Straw Dot - also new for the year. My pictures are not good but it has a speck of blue in its 'eyes'
A couple of male Pale Tussocks
Square-spot Rustic
Oh dear, I wrestle with these. Might it be a Small Square-spot? Or the ever-varied Ingrailed Clay? Update: I go for Ingrailed Clay after Edward's comment and further book and internet consultations.
At least I know this one: the lovely Brimstone lighting up the gloom of the trap's dark bowl

Monday, 25 May 2020

Danger, Keep Off

I introduced you reluctantly to my robin the other day, pretty and cheeky but the bane of my life when it comes to keeping the moths safe in the morning. Mind you, Nature is very unsentimental about such things. His partners in crime are various blackbirds and on Saturday one of these was the victim rather than the aggressor. I went to investigate a tremendous racket of alarm calls from the hedge which usually means the presence of a cat. On this occasion, sadly, it was a magpie which had got at one of the blackbirds' nests.

I raised anti-bird measures on the Upper Thames Moths blog but my indispensable helpers there are made of tougher stuff than I am. The webmaster Dave Wilton, who has an amazing tally of species at his trap across the county border in Buckinghamshire, gets up at dawn - while the birds are occupied in chorussing, he explains - and brings the trap indoors to safety before going back to bed.  I may try this but on the whole, once I am awake, I stay that way.

Not that it mattered entirely this morning because the moth at the top was unmolested in its very obvious perch on the table right by the trap. It's a Cinnabar as you probably know; the species is one of the most widely-recognised of UK moths, as are its yellow-and-black-banded caterpillars.  Both are poisonous to birds and tend to get left alone. Interestingly, the caterpillars' warning colours are the same as those we use for nuclear radiation danger. I guess that the adult insect's greeny-black and red has the same effect, especially when the hindwings are flaunted, as in my second picture which show the moth taking its leave.

There were another three Cinnabars in the trap itself and I watched two of them take flight and head off to the shelter of a big walnut tree more than 100 yards away. They were clearly visible in the early morning sunshine and there were plenty of birds about. But they knew better than to get involved.

Elsewhere in the eggboxes, I especially like this beautiful little micro, which I think is Cochylis molliculana, a relatively recent colonist in the UK and new for me if I am correct. It's extremely tiny but lovely to look at via the wonders of the iPhone.

Also on the small side, for a macro moth (see scale pic with eggbox remnants), is this Middle-barred Minor form pallida (I think; hopefully Edward will put me right if I'm wrong): 

And then we have a freshly-hatched Garden Carpet, a well-marked Common Swift, a Willow Beauty and a Figure-of-80.  And that's it. A nice and varied guest list.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Shadow Line

The Treble Lines is one of the commonest moths in the trap at the moment and has been for a couple of weeks. But the top one above is the first I have seen with the shading on the central line, a type which is mentioned in the Moth Bible.

The description there says: "Some example have dark shading outside the central line, less often extending to the outer edge." It certainly caught my eye even in a species which comes in all sorts of colour tones, as you can see in this sample from Saturday's trap, below.

Otherwise things were a little quieter on a cooler and windier night but it was nice to welcome the year's first Buff Ermine with its yellowy colouring and handlebar moustache. Then we have a Clouded Brindle (Update: whoops, here I go again.  It's a Light Brocade, which I got wrong only a week or so ago. Ah well...  Many thanks to Edward in Comments) and, well-camouflaged on the neighbouring house wall, a Common Marbled Carpet and (I am pretty sure) a Brindled Pug.

And finally a beetle to bring up the rear. Another one for iRecord.