Thursday 30 December 2021

Happy New Year!


Seasons greetings one and all and I'm sorry that I've been so lazy since, eek, November. The moths have been predictably few and predictably predictable, if that's not overusing a word: Decembers in their furry coats and Winters, dull to look at but wonderfully equipped with a sort of antifreeze instead of blood which allows them to fly on icy nights.

Here's one in an appropriate spot, above and below, and another indoors near the boughs with which our hall is bedecked.

They come every night and to every sort of light, from our wobbly, illuminated Santa to the headlights of the car as we come home. What they must make of the Blenheim Palace lightshow, below, I can only imagine. For us humans, though, it's definitely a great evening out.

Ditto the lights in London below, but my actual moth trap is enjoying a seasonal rest.  The last time I put it out was in mid-December when it attracted more than 20 December moths including this scattering, two pictures below, on the nearby wall of our house.

Here are some of the others, cosier in the eggboxes:

There have been one or two other arrivals since November and here they are: Silver Y, Common Plume, Red-green Carpet, Mottled Umber and Feathered Thorn.

Lastly on moths, an excellent Christmas card, though they could have pillaged the UK micro moth list for a few actual Zs.

Lastly altogether, here is our amazing Christmas Mushroom - not there one day, very there the next.  Happy New Year!

Sunday 7 November 2021

Getting very quiet. But not over yet

I put the trap out very seldom now because the nights are colder and often wetter and, more mundanely, I don't like going out to sort things out when it isn't properly light and Penny and I haven't had our morning tea.

But that said, there are still a few moths flitting about, and the beautiful December moth with its handsome fur coat has yet to pay me a call on a trapping night. When it does, I will probably shut up shop until the New Year.

My most interesting discovery has been the little looping caterpillar in my first picture, which shows it creeping along the edge of the NHS instructions on the Covid booster vaccine. We had this last week, along with a couple our own age who boldly rolled up on a tandem, and neither of us has suffered any after-effects.

I used the leaflet to scoop up the cattie after discovering it in a corner of the bedroom we use at our grandchildren's house when it's our turn to be keeping an eye on them while their Mum and Dad work. Its circumstances qualified it for the famous category invented by our granddaughter in her home-made science book 'Moths where they shouldn't be' (eg on Grandpa's trousers, in his hair etc).

As for actual moths, my last outing for the trap produced just this solitary Red-line Quaker, above, though a little T-shaped plume micro brushed round me when I opened the front door the other night when the porch light was on.  My other recent wildlife pleasure was coming across this member of the Tiggywinkle family while riding into Oxford on the canal towpath.  

I think he or she will have been a juvenile foraging for enough food for hibernation, busily and with a sense of purpose and showing no signs of distress. There is a school of thought which holds that any hedgehog seen by daylight must be in trouble and should be taken home, made comfortable, fed and reported. I'm afraid that I do not go along with this, unless the animal is clearly distressed.  Likewise, the frequent suggestion that the country's hedgehogs are in danger seems to me to require a lot more evidence.  We do not see them very often, but they are nocturnal. Like moths, whose numbers suddenly become a lot more reassuring when you have a light trap.

Finally, we celebrated Diwali this week with the in-laws and I thought you might like to see their wondrous entomological tableware.  I particularly like the owl with the moth, above.

Thursday 21 October 2021

Kitchen sink science

I have unintentionally carried out a scientific experiment after bringing the moth trap indoors six days ago to show a friend who joined us for a day's dinghy and canoe exploration up the river Cherwell. In the excitement of the voyage, I forgot that I had left the trap open in the kitchen all day. When we got home, about a dozen moths were skimming around.

I managed to catch and liberate most of them, but this morning a Common Wainscot was still exploring, apparently in good health. There isn't a lot for them to do in our kitchen but they had access to a bowl of fruit and some roses in a vase on the dinner table which gradually wilted while we were down in London trying to keep one jump ahead of the grandchildren.

This apart, the trap has been predictable but still enjoyable as the nights get colder and the moth season comes towards its least-populated point. Here for example is a very fresh-looking Red-green Carpet from below (above) and above (below), followed by my first November Moths, one of three species which are frustratingly alike. The Pale November and the Autumnal are the other two but I cannot safely tell them apart, so since the November is the most widespread, I am opting for that.

Finally, so far as moths are concerned, here is a handsome male Feathered Thorn - male because he has the impressive antennae. And lastly, a pair of sleepy wasps, a hazard at this time of year except that I don't seem to be bothered by wasp stings. I actually find nettle ones quite stimulating, but we all have our peculiar side.

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.