Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Moon shoulder

Today's moths are a tribute to the power of pink, a colour I have rather sidelined in my many moans about the UK having so few green moths and hardly any blue ones.

Pink only really gets a field day when my knees or fingers appear in photos or in the Elephant and Small Elephant Hawks which have often featured here and are glories of our night-time world. But this time it has come in subtler form, but form nonetheless which turns the authors of my Moth Bible almost lyrical.

My first two pictures are of a Lunar-spotted Pinion, a newcomer here (although I am only in my second year of Oxfordshire trapping), of which the Bible's authors write: "A half-moon-shaped marking near forewing tip gives this moth its common name, but the marking is more like a rose petal, frequently marked with pink and mauve as well as much white."

The Rose Petal would be a pretty name for a moth but the 'lunar' tag is also a good one and noteworthy as a common simile in the naming of UK moths. This is primarily because of the crescent shape frequently encountered in wing patterning and doubtless also due to the connection between moths and the night. But I wonder, also, if there is a link to the 'Lunar men', the Enlightenment scientists of the 18th century such as Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley who held monthly meetings in cities such as Birmingham on the night of the full moon. They were not astrologers or witches, simply concerned to have as much light as possible to see them safely home without a tumble or falling victim to footpads. Jenny Uglow's book The Lunar Men is an absorbing account of their lives and work which took place at a time when much of the naming of our moths was carried out.

Isn't the colouring on my second moth marvellous too? It is only a 'yellow underwing' - Lesser Broad-bordered I think - but what a glow!  I went and had my morning cup of tea with great satisfaction. Almost, you might say, in the pink.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Touch of the vapours

Excellent newcomers continue to arrive here daily, or rather nightly, in spite of some interesting weather conditions. Massive claps of thunder woke us at 3am on Friday to find the surrounding area blazing white at regular and brief intervals as lightning played all around. Saturday night featured a roof-drumming torrential downpour.

In such circumstances, the Vapourer moth is an appropriate visitor with the somewhat sulphurous ring to its name. It looks potentially like one of Old Nick's crew, don't you think, with that pair of gleaming, closely-set 'eyes'. Try as I might, however, I have yet to track down online a reason for the name 'Vapourer'. My best guess is that it stems from the exceptionally powerful pheromones emitted by the female to attract suitors.

Her need to do this becomes clear if you look at my picture, left, lifted from the Moth Bible, my constant rod and staff. While the male zooms around on his handsome foxy-coloured wings - a good alternative name for the species is Rusty Tussock - his partner is wingless and resembles nothing so much as a fat woodlouse.

And yet she has actually evolved into this state, dispensing with the wings her forebears once had so that she can save her energy for producing eggs. From the human point of view (and the impossible thing I would most like to do is fly under my own power), this seems a definite step back. But evolution is concerned only with reproducing the species, so Miss Vapourer sits comfortably on her tree trunk, turns on the scent glands and whoopee, males come from near and far.

The Vapourer is also interesting for its fantastic caterpillar, which is one of the best-armed against predators and further proof of evolution's power to protect. I've borrowed a picture from Wikipedia to show you its various spines, tussocks and warning colouration. And it's poisonous into the bargain.

The Dusky Sallow, by contrast, sports a beautifully gentle pattern whose tones have all the skilful matching of the flowers on one of William Morris's wallpaper designs. But it's also effective camouflage. Compare, for example, with the Army desert uniforms on the left.

Two other regulars, both here and in Leeds, have also put in their first appearances of 2014: the Copper Underwing (or Svensson's Copper Underwing; hard to tell apart without excessive intrusion) and a Dun-bar, an extremely variable moth. Both chose to snuggle up to udiies; the Copper Underwing choosing a Double Square-spot and the Dun-bar (like the Dusky Sallow) one of those curious tablet-like creatures, Common Footmen.

Friday, 18 July 2014

The tale of a tail

I promised the other day to show you how the Yellow-tail moth got its name, and here I am doing. But you might have laughed at the antics I went through to come good on my pledge. For about five minutes this morning, there was a mighty duel between man and moth.

To my joy, I found a Yellow-tail sleeping under the transparent screen, a good position to spy the blob of orangey-yellow on its tail which is one of the most blatant advertisements for mating in the mothy world. The relief was all the greater because yesterday there were three Yellow-tails in the eggboxes, all of which flew away before I could sort out my camera.

The trouble is, unless you are a handsome male or beautiful femaleYellow-tail yourself, the moth has to be provoked into showing its full glory, which also acts as a 'surprise' form of deterrence, similar to the hidden wings of the Yellow Underwing or the 'eyes' of the Eyed Hawkmoth. Provoking a Yellowtail is very likely to lead to its scarpering; but not this morning.

By repeatedly nudging it with a finger, I got it to scamper round a table under the plastic canopy. Alas, as the results above show, the transparency of my nine-year-old Robinson apparatus is sadly scarred and scratched. Reluctantly, after that third, murky shot which shows the colour but only in a rather French Impressionist manner, I lifted the lid and did a final prod. Bingo! Showing its deterrent purpose in textbook fashion, the moth shot up its tail - wonderfully rapidly so that even I, who knew what to expect, got a bit of a shock. But I also got the photo at the top of this post.

Why yellow? The moth
as normally seen
The moth then flew off, no doubt muttering furiously. But as is the way in this world, after all this effort, my penultimate eggbox produced a second Yellow-tail which obligingly did the business, and stayed docilely put, at my very first tentative provocation. I needn't have gone through all that faff with the first one. But anyway, the idea was to explain why what normally appears to a demure white creature like a Vestal Virgin has this unexpected name. Quod erat demonstrandum (with a final picture taken immediately after the one at the top and showing how quickly the tail starts returning to base).

Thursday, 17 July 2014


Meandering back from Penny's birthday outing at Waddesdon Manor, sumptuous treasure chest of the Rothschilds, we drove through Brill on its hill and admired the lovingly preserved peg- or post-mill there.

True to coincidental form, the top moth on the ensuing night here was this Miller, a beautifully clad species with its demure gown in several shades of grey. It set me thinking along several rather inconsequential lines, one of them being the way that nicknames were invariably accorded to people in the generation before mine.

If your surname was Miller, you were 'Dusty'. If Warren, 'Bunny'. It was an agreeable habit and, in the way things do, I wonder if it will return.

Also in the trap and new for this year were a couple of Nut-tree Tussocks, an interesting moth in terms of its profile, shown above, after the two pics of the Miller, from three different angles. Then there was this agreeably-patterned Lychnis and finally - for now - two delightful little micros which looks to me to be Catoptria pinella and Hypsopygia glaucinalis or the Gold Triangle.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Happy Birthday Penny, from the moths

It's Penny's birthday today and the moths of England usually rise to these family occasions - producing a glorious Green Emerald, for instance, on our son Olly's birthday in Leeds several years ago.

This year is no exception; look at the lovely pair at the top: a Ruby Tiger and a Yellowtail, the first in our garden in 2014. The latter is not showing the reason for its name. I hope that will become clear in future posts (or, if you have time, by checking back to previous Julys). And top things off in the macro world, a debut by that lovely moth the Black Arches, left in the second picture, molesting one of the trap's many, many Mother of Pearls.

Penny is of course a mother of pearl too. And there was another small insect tribute to her yesterday when we were down in London doting on our granddaughter. A baby ladybird paid us a tiny call.

Finally, the Birthday Girl is also paid a delicate bow by this pretty pair of micros, below. But I am going to be too busy with celebrations to sort out exactly who they are until long after the cake candles (quite a few now...) have been blown out.

Update: The goodly Ray (see Comments) has saved me the trouble with the ladybird - almost certainly a 14-Spot - and the second micro, which is Catoptria falsella. The first, I am 99 percent sure, is Ypsolopha dentella, aka the Honeysuckle Moth. We have plenty of honeysuckle so it should be happy here.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Cue the Jaws theme

The Shark is a distinctive moth with its narrow grey wings and sleek appearance, streamlined like the fish from which it takes its name. Here, like a shark attended by a  pilot fish or remora but in this case a micro whose ID I have yet to solve, is one which visited the trap last Thursday (sorry that summer busy-ness has left me rather behind).

I say 'distinctive' for the Shark but needless to say, there is a serpent in the ID system in the form of the Chamomile Shark which is so similar that the Moth Bible has extra paintings by Richard Lewington of their slightly dissimilar wingtips.

Here below is the actual wingtip of my moth and from comparison with the paintings, I am happy that it is a Shark, a conclusion also helped by the fact that the Chamomile flies earlier in the year and is rarer. Its name comes from its caterpillars' penchant for the various Chamomile plants which include Stinking Chamomile and the related Scentless Mayweed. There is something of the Harry Potter nomenclature of bad wizards about the Cuculliinae family of moths to which the sharks belong. The others include the Wormwood, the Sprawler and the Toadflax Brocade, the last a moth which has been unusually frequent in Oxfordshire this year.

Meanwhile, the trap also attracted many other moths including this pretty Phoenix - I think; its kind are another regular source of Wainwrightian confusion.

Also a Chinese Character, seen first with a Spindle Ermine and something very micro indeed, and then from above, showing that its shape looks odd from all angles. This little button shares the Most Like A Bird-poo camouflage award with the Lime-spotted Pug.

And lastly, a nice Early Thorn, albeit actually a late one. This marks the emergence of the moth's second generation. Its parents visited back in the Spring and gave the species its name.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Timothy T

My cousin Tim has been to stay and, presumably in his honour, so has this Timothy Tortrix, one of the most pleasantly-named of UK micro-moths. Its full and grander title is Aphelia paleana, taken from the name of the Greek goddess of plainness and simplicity, Apheleia, and the Latin word palea which means 'chaff'.

How nice to have such a goddess, honouring the unshowy and making the point that an ordinary appearance does not mean that someone or something is uninteresting. The chaff refers to the wheaty colouring around the moth's 'shoulders' and 'neck'. Not a striking little creature but lucky in its name, which probably comes from one of its foodplants, timothy grass.

It also puts me in mind of Timothy the Tortoise which makes famous appearances in Gilbert White's Natural History of Selborne. Somewhere, I have a very enjoyable compilation of all the extracts which concludes with the revelation, unknown to the great naturalist and writer, that Timothy was actually Timothea.

Just to be perverse, here are some showy moths which have also spent a night in the eggboxes: a pair of Elephant Hawks and a beautiful Small Elephant. And to conclude, two of my 19 Emperor Moth caterpillars have formed their pupae, wrapped in a strong cocoon with small spikes at one end to deter predators. Human Tim and his wife have taken them home to Devon, to increase the population there when they hatch in April.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Purple page

A year ago, Penny and I were Purple Emperor-hunting in Bernwood Forest when a fellow-enthusiast from the Black Country showed us pictures on his digital camera of a very colourful moth. Deceived by the lack of scale, we spent a futile though enjoyable time criss-crossing Bernwood Meadows in the sunshine, looking in vain for other examples.

Then, earlier this year, Dave Wilton who is one of the Wise Men of the Upper Thames Moths blog, posted pictures of a striking variety of the bright little micro Pyrausta purpuralis he'd found at the Meadows which I'm sure were the mystery moth. I say 'mystery' because much Googling had failed to establish any clues.

You can get an idea of how lovely these thumbnail-sized insects are from this Purpuralis above which was the first moth I found among the eggboxes (largely of classy Burford Brown eggs at the moment) this morning. You can also see how colour plays a constant dance with light. The second photo is remarkably different for being taken in the shade. A purple page at the court of the Purple Emperor.

Another beautiful newcomer for the year was a Marbled Beauty, a small and delightfully delicate moth with markings reminiscent of either ladies' fashionwear or a finely-designed window. Or both.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Cunning little micro

Here's a very small moth in very grand surroundings. We went for Penny's birthday treat to see Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen at Garsington Opera at Wormsley, the Getty family estate in a delectable, hidden valley in the Chilterns. It was a marvelllous evening, topped off by discovering this bright little micro Agapeta hamana on a blade of grass near the island in the lake which has a good contemporary pavilion, just finished, and Jeff Koons' sculpture of a broken blue egg.

I have to admit that P rather marched on towards the delicious picnic I had prepared (by the cunning means of reading in advance the menus for the fancy Jamie Oliver picnics on sale in a marquee and then copying them with the help of Kidlington Co-Op).  I had to interview the cheeky chappie at Ilkley Literature Festival once and did my own version of a school lunchbox meal in his latest book which he was promoting. I remember that it included Parma ham, figs and other ingredients which only the toughest-minded child would be likely to eat in front of their peers. But times change and his recipes are very yum. Our picnic is somewhere in the fairytale scene below. Or rather the remains of it are.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Moody whites

I thought initially that the Scarce Silver Lines was back when I went to the trap and saw a shapely moth clinging to the lower side of the transparent collar. Instead it was another lovely new arrival for the year, a White Satin.

Readers of a certain age will remember the Moody Blues' song Nights in white satin which was, well, moody and extremely catching. Maybe they were influenced by this beautiful creature with its immaculate gown and striking fluffy mop, all pure white. If moths had Persil adverts, this would be their star.

The outfit might not work completely, though, if it was entirely monochrome but look, what about those handsome zebra crossing leggings? After taking initial photographs, I went back indoors and read in the Moth Bible that this striping extends to the antennae in the male. As the book says, these are 'strongly feathered and black in the centre with white edges.'

You can see them in the top two pictures which I took later after revisiting the trap and finding the White Satin still in the Land of Nod. I had to wake it to persuade it to brandish its feathers for me. It calmed down after inspecting my wedding ring and I carefully laid it under a shrub afterwards and hummed a bit of the Moody Blues to help it back to sleep.