Sunday 25 October 2020

Not so fast

My many errors on this blog are usually to do with ID but every year I also underestimate the number of late delights in the trap. I have been very tempted to stash the big bowl, lamp and its coils of flex during recent damp and dour weather, but that would certainly be premature. And the change in the clocks this morning brings a welcome hour of extra light.

Look at this nice surprise, for example: a big and fresh, male Feathered Thorn, a moth which I had shamefully forgotten and which will be around until late in November. It was sitting yesterday morning on the bowl side, whose very dark background sends my iPhone mad, but I think that the small photo on the left shows its antennae well enough. They are reason for its name.

Here it is again from the front, and below on the edge of an eggbox where I coaxed it in the hope of getting a more focussed picture. I left it on a windowsill - the background of my top picture - where it was still resting safely in mid-afternoon.

Another late-flying  moth which I had forgotten and which paid me a call is the Red-line Quaker below and I had my first visit of the year from a Large Wainscot. Large is right. And talking of large, I found an unusually jumbo November or Pale November moth asleep on an eggbox. I hope that the cone gives the scale. I don't know why some specimens of the same type of moth can be so much bigger than others, regardless of gender, but suspect it will be related to their dietary succees, or otherwise, as a caterpillar.

Among slightly unusual late arrivals, too, have been this Angle Shades below, a Shuttle-shape Dart and the T-shaped Common Plume micro, Emmelina monodactyla (one of the Linnaean names which I actually like, perhaps because I have an Emily granddaughter and had an Emily Granny. I've just discovered from Wikipedia that in the States it is sometimes known as the Morning Glory Plume which is a terrific name too for such a little scrap.

Among my more predictable visitors at the moment have been these contrasting forms of the lovely Green-brindled Crescent, a moth of which I never tire. Left, the standard version and right the form capucino which lacks the green scales or has them only in very small quantity.

Staying with green, Merveille du Jours are still visiting daily, along with the delicate little Red-green Carpet. Both species often prefer to overnight on a nearby wall rather than inside the trap.

Finally, two examples of the variation we encounter in moths: a very pale Sallow, which can often look much more like scrambled egg, and an unusually ornate Beaded Chestnut (unless it's a Lunar Underwing but I think and hope that I am right this time).

Oh, and I almost forgot: Penny found a 'Woolly Bear' caterpillar in our home-grown lettuce, after shed had washed it. The cattie thus got washed too and we released it into the rain, but life isn't easy for caterpillars and they are tough.

Monday 19 October 2020

Winter's coming


I don't want to be previous but these delicate arrivals are probably the penultimate species of the year. Barring surprises, I reckon that I can only be sure of the cuddly-looking December moth to come, wrapped in its seasonal coat of fur.

The trio above (the top pair are the same moth from above and below on the transparent trap cowl) are either November, Pale November or Autumnal moths, all very tricky to tell apart, for me at least. Actually, I think that even experts have to resort to dissection to be sure of deciding between a November and a Pale November. But although I managed to cut a couple of tiles very deftly this afternoon, while tiling a wondowsill with Penny, I am not much of a cutter of things.

The next moth is that distinctive character the Dark Swordgrass, an immigrant species which is gradually coming to the end of its flying period. Along with the Turnip, it has this distinctive habit of folding its wings very tightly like an umbrella. Its colouring is variable and this is a very dark one. Update: Except it's a Turnip! Bah, as per Comments, I thought a lot about this as both species share the resting pose. Then I chose. But I also submitted my choice to the Upper Thames Moths blog where Dave Wilton ruled me wrong. Ah well. I would say that you live and learn, but I'm afraid that I don't.

By contrast, the delicious Merveille du Jour is still with us, I am glad to say. These two came last night, along with half-a-dozen Green-brindled Crescents. There was also this russety chap in a hurry to get off. I sometimes try to ID this type of moth but am almost always wrong. Update: Cue Edward in Comments who suggests Beaded Chestnut, rightly I think.

Other arrivals: a rather appealing little spider, I think, and a honeybee. Update - three today! Many thanks to my commentors again. The spider is a harvestman and the 'bee' a drone fly. Hurray for the wide world of Nature!

Saturday 17 October 2020


Sorry not to have posted for a while but things have been dull both in terms of the weather and the moths. I keep meaning to go over to a once-a-week regime but the prospect of something unexpected has kept me lighting the lamp more frequently than that. Nothing unexpected has however arrived.

Which is not to say that my visitors have been uninteresting. It was a pleasure, for example, to welcome what I think is a late newcomer for the year, the sleek grey Blair's Shoulder-knot, one of no fewer than three moths named after a single entomologist, Kenneth Blair (1882-1952) who was deputy keeper at the Natural History Museum and had the good fortune to live on the Isle of Wight. This is a famous landing ground for immigrant species and Blair was the first to discover, in succession, Blair's Mocha, Blair's Wainscot and Blair's Shoulder-knot. 

My moth is the last of the three, I think, the only one to have become common. Indeed it has forayed as far north as Scotland where its arrival in Gordon Brown's constituency, during his time of intense rivalry with Tony Blair, caused mirth and a brief outing for the moth in the media. It has been a regular caller both here and in Leeds before we moved in 2013

I have written 'I think' twice, however, because I noticed earlier this morning that Dave Wilton, the great and helpful expert on the Upper Thames Moths blog, has recorded the rather similar but rarer Grey Shoulder-knot. So I must double check with UTM before coming down definitely on ID. Update: and the good news is, that this is a Grey Shoulder-knot, rather than a Blair's; so another species new for the year. I don't think I've recorded it since 2013. our first year down here; but that may be because I've previously made the mistake which I almost made this time.

We have a very good potato crop this year and I have been digging them up regularly, disturbing in the process what I think are 'leatherjackets', the larvae of the Dady Long-legs crane flies which have been extremely numerous in the trap this month. They do fearful damage to immaculate lawns but we don't have one of those. My great hope, when spud-harvesting, is of course to find a pupating Death's Head Hawk moth. That has yet to happen here, but I will never forget the excitement of seeing the awesome moths hatched by a friend in Tackley whose young nephew made such a discovery.

In terms of simple numbers, about 25 species continue to call on the trap and here are some of them - clockwise from the top left: Beaded Chestnut and Lunar Underwing (the two most common arrivals still; Green-brindled Crescent, such a fine moth; Rosy Rustic, Sallow and Silver Y, the last one of the few species which flies in the UK all the year round.

My next pictures show a couple of Large Yellow Underwings, extremely dozy latecomers of a tribe which was very numerous in August and September, and two Red-green carpets on the wall by the trap, one pronouncedly more russet than the other.

It was also interesting to find a Black Rustic with its wings partially spread, getting ready for take-off, instead of resting in the normal isosceles triangle pose which I find gives it such a resemblance to Darth Vader. The underwings, usually hidden discreetly, are a delightfully contrasting, almost shiny white.

It still repays me to check the lawn within a couple of yards of the trap where recently I've found plenty of Sallows, as shown, and a smart Autumnal Rustic:

Almost finally, the Snout moth always tickles me with its Pinocchio-like appendage (actually its palps rather than a nose):

and to conclude, I must just mention an unusual way of finding a moth. Like me, you may occasionally get caught short in the garden and feel that the plants would not be harmed, indeed might benefit, from a little discreet watering. (Moths and butterflies too; recall the rather disgusting tastes of the Purple Emperors in Bernwood Forest where dog poo is not only tolerated but actually encouraged, to lure the great butterflies down from the tops of oaks).

Well, my activities unwittingly zeroed in on a Beaded Chestnut, which scuttled out of its hiding place just in time:

Update: many thanks as ever to Edward in Comments who corrects me - this is a Brick not a Beaded Chestnut. So far as distinguishing between moths like these goes, I can say with some confidence that I will never learn. Sorry!

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Rival lights

My recent musings on the subject of moths and the effect on them of light finally prompted me to do a little research. It came up with this excellently pithy account from the National Geographic magazine, written as is their won't in language which the layman or woman can understand. Its conclusion, that moths' delicate nocturnal guidance systems based on the moon - waxing happily at the moment here as you can see in the picture above - are thrown into confusion by a powerful alternative like my light - shown below on the same night - very much chimes with my own experience in the field.

I like the sentence:  

The day that Thomas Edison patented the lightbulb—January 27, 1880, which paved the way for global distribution of electric illumination—was a dark day in moth history 
and the article also raises mild concerns about using a moth lamp. I have always felt that the method does no harm to moths, but it would be hard to sustain that view if it were the case that the mercury vapour bulb's intense light was causing them confusion and therefore, presumably, distress. I certainly got that impression from the behaviour of the Clifden Nonpareil which was the subject of my last post. And it cannot be natural that this Centre-barred Sallow which I photographed at the same time as the trap and the moon - around 10pm - spent all night and the whole of the next day in the same place without moving, instead of going about its usual mothy business in the dark.

However, the distress is not fatal and the rewards of light-trapping for science, wildlife conservation and personal interest are very great. So I shall carry on for the time being, although this year's sessions will be fewer from now on because of the dark mornings and the gradual reduction in the number of species which still fly on these colder Autumn nights.

That said, the visitors are still interesting. As well as the last of the Lunar Underwings, Silver Ys and Hebrew Characters, the trap is currently rich in bright little Beaded Chestnuts such as the two below which show how variable this species can be. 

It was joined on the wall nearby, not far below the Centre-barred Sallow, by this Red-green Carpet while in the trap there were several Brown-spot Pinions (following picture).

A second night of trapping after all the rain produced a newcomer for the year whose arrival I have been expecting, the Brindled Green. This one isn't especially green which is often the case with this species although perhaps you get a hint of it in the photo perched on my dressing gown cord (It was a lively soul and ran round and round my specs case for ages, always clockwise).

Rather greener in a subtle way, in spite of being form capucina or the 'coffee-coloured' variety of the species, are the Green-brindled Crescents which continue to cheer up my checking of the eggboxes in the morning.

Friday 2 October 2020

Distraction Nonpareil

What a fascinating evening I had yesterday! There is a discussion going on over at the Upper Thames Moths blog about the first Clifden Nonpareil to be recorded in the UK - in the 1740s at Cliveden whence comes its name - and whether the specimen still exists. In the course of this, I found myself reading a curious note in The Moths and Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol 10 (yes, it's a monster work) published in 1983 and written by John Heath and A Maitland Emmet.

This says that the species is 'strongly attracted to sugar' - the mothing term for painting a mixture of rum and treacle on to tree trunks - and adds: 'By day it rests on oak trunks where it is well-concealed; on one occasion, a collector, while applying his sugar at sunset, painted one by mistake.'

Goodness!  Well, inspired by this, I overcame my usual aversion to rum-and-treacling which I have seldom found effective, and mixed up a tasty and very powerfully-smelling mixture which I dabbed on to our oak. I then sallied forth at various times after dark to inspect the scene, which remained disappointingly free of moths of any kind.

My last foray was at 10pm when it had started to rain lightly. As I wandered towards the tree, I passed near the moth trap whose lamp at that moment gave two pronounced flickers. I first suspected interference from the rain; I had planned to turn the trap off anyway after my final treacle inspection, because of a very damp forecast. But then it suddenly occurred to me that it might have been caused by a large moth fluttering by the lamp.  And it was!

To my delight and in spite of the difficulties posed by looking at the trap when the light is on, I saw a Clifden Nonpareil crawling over the eggboxes. Very interestingly for me, because I have often speculated whether moths are distracted rather than attracted by light, it clearly wasn't comfortable. Indeed it was looking for the way out.

And it found it.  Clicking away with the iPhone, again with some difficulty because of the MV lamp, I recorded its successful escape through the narrow entrance of the bulb's funnel-holder which works on the principle of a lobster pot. I thought that was it. But flicking on the 'phone's torch, I saw the moth resting on the grass, its magnificent wings outstretched, apparently in a dazed state.

It was easy to scoop it up carefully in my hands but less so to find somewhere to take a 'static' photo. Eventually I discovered our change box for the local Farmer's Market stall which is why my picture shows the Nonpareil on a pile of money.

Trying to release it was another story. I took some more pictures under our porchlight and thought the lovely visitor had flown off. But back in the kitchen, I found it on my jumper sleeve. The kitchen lights are very bright and it took off and made two very lazy, circular flights before settling on top of a high storage cupboard. I retrieved it again, via a wonky clamber on a chair and the sideboard, and decided to give it a treat by releasing it on my treacled tree.  

This time, after a short stay, it fluttered away again, not in the swooping style of its similarly-sized relatives, the hawk moths, but with more of the grace of a large butterfly, though I had the strong impression that it was still in a bit of a daze.

An exciting episode. And more evidence in my mind to suggest that bright lights distract and upset moths' navigation, rather than having any sort of lure for them, like the pheromone scents which attract males from long distances to a female.  If I am right, the very old adage of 'moths to a flame' is not nullified but needs to be read more subtly. Like the lamp, beauty or sex appeal really can turn its observer's head (or in moths' case, antennae) upside down.