Friday, 15 October 2021

Knotted shoulders

Two related Shoulder-knot moths called here the other night and coincidentally showed the limitations of a Google search. I wanted to find out and pass on to you the meaning of the name, shared by Blair's Shoulder-knot (above) and the Grey Shoulder-knot (below). If you Google the term, however, you will find page after page of advice about muscle knots and inflamed shoulders; very useful but not what I was after.

Luckily we have a copy of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, a monster work in multiple, vast volumes which I retain because of occasional moments such as this. Bingo! The huge work may be deficient on muscle-knotting (although it probably isn't; I didn't look that up) but it has this definitive account of the original Shoulder-knot with the usual lovely examples of its use:

Blair's Shoulder-knot is one of no fewer than four species discovered since the Second World War by a distinguished entomologist from the Natural History Museum in London who had the good fortune to live on the Isle of Wight, a famous arrival point for immigrant moths which then decided to settle. It has spread with remarkable speed and had a moment of fame in 2007, the year when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister and Blair's Shoulder-knot was discovered for the first time in his Scottish constituency. Cue many quips about his colleague but rival, Tony Blair.

Whether you think the modest black shoulder markings on these two moths bear much resemblance to a fashionable 18th century shoulder knot, as shown left, is up to you.

Good news from the Elephant Hawk moth nursery meanwhile, where I carefully unpicked the cocoon to reveal the chrysalis, above. Its subtly delightful colouring brought back so many memories from breeding these beautiful creatures when I was at school. Here is the original caterpillar, below, followed by an earlier picture of the cocoon, complete with a scrap of pea netting, and the chrysalis on its own. When very gently handled, this twitches in the same way that the caterpillar did shortly before it started to pupate. There is an extraordinary change going on beneath that armoured shell.

The following series of moths look different but are actually all the same: the Common Marbled Carpet. It is very common at the moment but remarkably varied. As you know, I have little patience with small, brown moths and I secrety wish that all CMCs were the ones with the lovely coppery wing splodges.

Finally, we have been privileged to have a close look at two interesting animals due to unfortunate circumstances, firstly an otter which I found by the side of our local main road. The beautiful creature had been hit by traffic but was undamaged on top and although its life was over, it had - has - an important and useful posthumous role. The excellent Otter Project at Cardiff University carries out extensive post mortems on otters found dead which provide important data on water purity, toxicity and the like.  The very nice and enthusiastic collector of dead otters for the Environment Agency was round the next morning to organise delivery.

He turned out to run a herd of goats at his little cheesemaking business and we exchanged the otter for a delicious herb and garlic roulade which he happened to have in the car. This was consumed with a glass of wine to toast the otter by our local Otter Watch WhatsApp group at a small cheese-and-wine party by the canal and river Cherwell (where we reckon there are plenty of otters). Such is rural life.

Our other discovery, drowned in our garden, was this beautiful baby grass snake which both our school age grandchildren took in to show-and-tell - interestingly, rigor mortis did not set in for at least five days.  These experiences reminded me of Charles Darwin's boyhood resolution to collect only insects which he found dead. The infrequency of such discoveries soon persuaded him to change his mind.


Monday, 11 October 2021

October stars


Although we are approaching the year's end for new arrivals, these mid-October weeks are offering some real stars. I always await the arrival of the Merveille du Jour with pleasure. Its beautiful colouring matches its lovely name. It should of course be called the Marvel of the Night but it is a delight to see it, merging as above with the lichen which it much resembles.

We had cousins staying for the weekend, one of them an old butterfly-hunting companion when we were boys, and I was specially hoping that the Merveille would make its debut. In the event, I almost missed it; it was my cousin who spotted it clinging to a grass stem about a foot from the trap, and about an inch from my boot.

The Dotted Chestnut is a second top-of-the-range guest at the moment, a moth which is still rated very local and has Nationally Scarce (B) status. It seems to have made itself at home here, part of a steady expansion since the 1990s from further south and west.  It formed an attractive colour pair with the bright Pink-barred Sallow and the Canary-shouldered Thorn shown below.

The other striking colourway among the eggboxes at the moment is green and here are some examples, headed by the brilliantly glinting Green-brindled Crescent. Following that, we have a slightly more subdued Brindled Green and the common but always delightful Red-green Carpet.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Keep trucking on

We've reached the time of the year when nights are longer, the weather colder, and Christmas being talked of as only so-many-weeks away. The moths are dwindling in number and variety too, so I have a sense of the 2021 season gradually drawing to an end.

There are still unexpected pleasure however, such as the chunky Bulrush Wainscot above with its dusty colouring, as opposed to the cream predominant in most Wainscots, and its tail peeping cheekily out below the wings. More familiar Autumn moths are a pleasure as well, like the Sallow below with its scrambled egg/omelette colouring.

The Large Ranculus (or buttercup) is also a beautiful moth with the little flecks of orange interspersed with the grey and white of its camouflage. My picture illustrates the problem, however, of dull weather in the early morning and the low levels of light when I creep out around 7am to inspect the trap. If I wait too much longer, some of the overnight guests can become restive and do themselves damage, although many are happy to dose on.

How nice too that big moths are still calling by, for example these Red Underwings which cosied up together three nights ago:

And finally a couple of small but colourful visitors: the 'copper-splodge' form of the Common Marbled Carpet, substantially bigger than most carpet moths, and the Red Green Carpet, a fresh specimen with its wing-edge chequers intact.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Sound asleep


The artful cocoon of twigs, leaves and even a bit of pea netting which my Elephant Hawk caterpillar span a month or so ago - as described here - has now dried out to the extent where I can safely make a small 'window' for the grandchildren - and you - to peek inside. Here is the pupa, the armoured shell within which the astonishing change from a fat caterpillar to a trim moth will take place between now and next May.

The transformation seems slightly less dramatic when you look at this picture of a Large Yellow Underwing which I found upside-down near the light trap at the weekend. The stripes of the plump body have an undoubted resemblance to the patterned chrysalis of the Elephant Hawk.

Meanwhile a neighbour kindly sent me this picture of a Dark Dagger moth's caterpillar, probably on its way to find its own secret site for spinning a cocoon.  It's very much that time of the year and the end of the long, calm spell - lovely weather but bad for the UK's increasing investment in wind-powered electricity generation - has just signalled the onset of Autumn.

Another sign of the changing seasons is the appearance of Autumnal moths such as the bright Barred Sallow above, beyond a Beautiful Hook-tip, and below, on its own and closer-to. The Sallow family have taken over from the Brimstone moth the task of adding a cheerful gleam to the ranks of the duller moths in the eggboxes.

The Bordered Beauty and Oak Hook-tip below is both another such and the funny little Spectacle in the third picture is also bringer of variety and pleasure. Actually the 'specs' are perched above the moth's actual eyes, but the effect is very endearing (and perhaps a deterrent to predators). 

Now for some of the afore-mentioned drabber or less showy bretheren - thoough, as I have often mentioned, their colours and especially patterns have great appeal. I have captioned them for ease of putting two and two together, rather than listing them in advance:

Willow Beauty - the second generation are smaller

I think that this is a lightly-marked Lunar Underwing but am checking with Upper Thames Moths

Black Rustic with its slanted golden 'eyes'

Here is one of the two other colourways of Lunar Underwing

And lastly an Autumnal Rustic - the name says it all

In the butterfly world, by contrast, Autumn is a time of vivid colour as Red Admirals take over from the Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells which brought such delight in the Summer. They love buddleia, the one plant among the many on garden centres' optimistic lists, which really will attract butterflies to your garden. Here are two in the grandchildren's garden and a third basking on a sunny wall of our house, a practice which they alternate with sessions sipping nectar from the purple-flowered and honey-scented bushes.

And now for a change: behold the vast family of a single spider, followed by a Henley Regatta Blazer Beetle - actually a Rosemary Beetle, a species which only arrived in the UK from South America in the 1990s but has since spread rapidly. It eats rosemary, lavender and other herbs but is well worth it, in my view, for its beauty.

To conclude: a nice little micro and, praise the Lord, an easily identifiable one. It's Ypsolopha sequella, the very last moth in my alphabetical records on the headings bar above.

Monday, 20 September 2021

Still unequalled

My greatest source of pleasure and wonder in 16 years of recording moths has been the recent , storming advance of the Clifden Nonpareil, once an extreme rarity which I dreamed of seeing without any realistic hope of doing so.

In the last three years I have been visited by more than a score of these huge and beautiful creatures and on Saturday night they lived up to their reputation again. Reports of local sightings have featured on the Upper Thames Moths blog for some weeks and I was beginning to wonder if the moths had tired of Thrupp and, like an army invading much faster than it expected to, moved on.  Not so. There were three in the trap, another record.

I was alerted to the year's first Nonpareil Night when I went out earlier than usual, at about 6.15am when it is only just getting life. Something was very restless beneath the trap's transparent cowl and I soon saw the unmistakable stripes of the underwing. I popped a towel over the top of the cowl and went back inside to await better light and make our morning tea.

When I returned an hour later, the moth was happier but still not at ease, so I gently manoeuvred my Bug Bottle under the towel and popped it inside - first pic below. It settled down and I started to look at the eggboxes and immediately came across a second one. 

It was showing its beautifully blue-banded hindwings which is a sign of nervousness, above, so I popped it in the Bug Bottle too and continued examining other, less dramatic arrivals. When I turned over the second  last eggbox, there was Clifden Nonpareil number three and this one, on the left in my top picture and the trio below, was fast asleep.

Since they seemed happy and we had a neighbour and her young daughter visiting in the afternoon, I kept them in a large Tupperware box with the towel on top to keep out most of the light. We duly had a happy moth-on-finger sesh, something which would have been inconceivable here until 2019.

You can read more about the Nonpareil, truly a moth without equal, on previous posts such as this one, or this one.  Meanwhile I had another first this morning: a Comma butterfly slumbering happily on the rim of the trap's black plastic bowl. If you wanted to know why the species is called the Comma, look no further.