Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The present is orange

An interesting moth arrived today, in some numbers (the four shown here are all different). The Orange Swift is one of a small UK family of 'primitive' macro moths whose relatively unsophisticated make-up really has more in common with micro moths. We have five out of some 500 worldwide.

Their size is another matter; considering that one of them is the Ghost moth which is large even by macro standards, they would look bizarrely out of place among the tiny scraps and thumbnails collected in the Micro Moth Bible. I've just thoroughly enjoyed Penelope Fitzgerald's novel Innocence which has a relevance to giants among pygmies, but I'm not going to spoil her plot by saying more.

To me, the Swift moths are particularly interesting as another example (I've mentioned Emperor moths in the same context) of the power of the reproductive process even when this seems to have little point other than itself - breeding simply to breed, the species surviving just for its own sake. I know that this is an entirely human take on the whole glorious system of the natural world, but I can't help hoping that one day an Orange Swift may develop a proboscis - they don't even have those so the adult moth cannot feed and doesn't live long. Or that they find some way of accelerating the caterpillar and chrysalis stage of their life cycle which, most unusually among UK moths, takes two whole years.

Still, perhaps they have deep thoughts which we cannot fathom, and they certainly look handsome. These are all males which are brighter and more beautiful than the females of the species; again, an interesting contrast to our own way of carrying on. I'll conclude with a gender-neutral picture of our current congregation of Lords and Ladies, a plant which I particularly like. In its name at least, finery and bright colours are shared.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Wearing of the green

I daringly put the trap outside the garden last night, on a stretch of rough-mown grass with a footpath running on the far side. The overwhelmingly dominant colour in these new surroundings was green. So it proved to be among this morning's moths as well.

To my great delight, a Large Emerald was perched on the transparent trap cover when I arrived, bleary-eyed, at 5.30am, an early hour because I didn't want to alarm anyone out for a pre-breakfast dog walk. The lovely moth's slumbering presence raised the issue of whether any previous arrivals had adopted this vulnerable resting place only to be snatched by birds for their breakfast before my usual, rather later arrival.

One disadvantage of getting up this early, though, is that the light isn't yet good enough for unblurred photographs and the ones I took on the spot were sadly wobbly. Luckily, the Emerald - the largest and most vivid of its tribe in the UK - stayed put while I went through the eggboxes and allowed me a photo-session, including transfer to a 'Woodstock Hollyhock' as they are known round here.

Also in the trap, and in tune with today's fashionable colour, was this little Marbled Green above, modest in size but one of the most beautifully patterned of all our island's moths. It has stiff competition, mind, from its close relative the Marbled Beauty, one of which also graced the eggboxes this morning - picture below.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The virgin and her jaunty mates

That dainty little creature the Vestal has appeared for the first time this year. Here she is, in an appropriately priestess-like pose. When I discussed the moth last year, I hadn't come across various references to the pink-dyed braids worn by Rome's vestal virgins. This online piece from NBC, to whom thanks for Janet Stephens' picture, chimes nicely with the moth's chaste pink stripe.

Much more raffish are two other visitors to the trap: the Straw Underwing above and the Copper Underwing (or possibly Svensson's CU) below. I initially thought that the latter, with its slightly brownish hues, might be a female Straw Underwing. But I should have realised its true identity from the way it scampered around the eggboxes while I was trying to photograph it.

The Copper Underwings are the worst offenders in this regard among the whole population of UK moths. But I suppose it shows a doughty and independent spirit and therefore does them credit.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Fluttering by

I'm just diverting into butterflies this morning because there are so many about, and on a picnic yesterday I managed to get the picture above of two Common Blues doing what comes naturally. Others have been at it too, judging by the number of vivid blue fragments winging about in the fields around here. Alas, I have yet to persuade one to rest with its azure forewings open but I shall keep trying. You can at least see the fine powdering of blue on the underwing of the male above.

More ambitiously, I am battling against my wobbly camera hold and the constant watchfulness of butterflies (as opposed to sleepy moths in the trap), to try to get a picture of each of the species which visit our garden or its immediate surroundings. This is going to take me some time but the forecasters say that we have plenty more lovely, sunny weather to come. And that is what brings out the butterflies.

There were so many about on our short walk yesterday that it was like being abroad and here, in descending order after the two blues, are a Silver-spotted Skipper, a Small Copper, a Green-veined White and a Tortoiseshell. Watch this space because we also have Large, Small and Marbled Whites, Meadow and Hedge Browns, Ringlet, Speckled Wood, Peacock, Red Admiral, Brimstone and Large Skipper.

And maybe more - indeed I've just remembered one, which is why I'm ending with a picture of a Comma, rather than a full stop

Friday, 25 July 2014


The division of UK moths into macros and micros is surprisingly unscientific. As the Micro Bible puts it, the allocation of families into one category or the other is a matter of 'custom and practice rather than rooted in taxonomy.' Essentially, families whose members are overwhelmingly very small form the country's 1,627 micro-moth species and the other 950-odd are macros, whose families are composed of bigger members. Micros tend to be more primitive than macros but that borderline is hazy and some very large macros, notably the Leopard and Goat moths, would have to be be redefined as micros if it were to be the test.

Lecture over. It was by way of introduction for one of the largest micros I have ever found in the eggboxes (above), beaten only by the familiar likes of the Mother of Pearl and Small Magpie. It is named appropriately: Schoenobius gigantella. A little giant.

In the macro world, meanwhile, the title of My Most Frequent Visitor has been seized by a beautiful contender, the Ruby Tiger. Although handsome enough on top, this reserves its real flashes of vivid red for those lucky enough to see its petticoat underwings and the scarlet of its upper body which are almost always hidden by its folded forewings. It is prepared, however, to give you a glimpse of its very fine foreleg boot-tops.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014


Here's a burst of sunshine from the moth world in honour of the exceptional weather which is making life so particularly excellent just now.

It's a Canary-shouldered Thorn, an exceptionally well-named insect since its canary-coloured shoulders strike you as soon as you see them in the eggboxes - a moment of unalloyed joy.

The picture immediately above is of another of the Thorns - named for their caterpillars' eating plants - the Early Thorn. I could get into all sorts of linguistic twists about this as it is one of the late brood of the species which started hatching a week ago. A Late Early Thorn, in other words, in its characteristic and unusual resting pose with its wings held tightly together above its body more in the manner of a butterfly than a moth.

I'm also very pleased with this little creature, the first Least Carpet to pay a call on us. You can see how small it is, I hope, by looking at the texture of its eggbox perch.

Finally, I think that this unusual chap among the plentiful Common Footmen may be a male Four-spotted Footman (only the female has the spots) which would be another first here, if so. I will give it an outing on Upper Thames Moths whose experts will undoubtedly know.

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.