Tuesday, 28 July 2015

My the moth be with you

I was very pleased to see a melanic, dark form of the Peppered moth in the trap this morning - the celebrated form carbonaria which plays such a part in online discussions about evolution. I don't know whether I should advise you to pursue these as they can be addictive, both because of the interest of the topic and also the passion shown by some participants, especially on the non-Darwinian side of the debate.

I'll say no more, having discussed the issue many times here. The only novelty I can claim this time, apart from the fabulous appearance of both my thumb and my pyjamas in the pictures, is that I made a deliberate effort to target the very few sprinklings of white 'pepper' on the moth. They are on its 'face' and forelegs. Everything else is sooty as our old chimneys used to be in Leeds.

I'm also re-posting a picture I took two years ago showing carbonaria alongside the standard form - that night they flew in together. The difference is striking, but both are the same moth.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Hooray for Cinnabars, and Ragwort

A blitz on the veg patch today was rewarded by the discovery of several Cinnabar caterpillars, one of the reliable highlights of the moth enthusiast's year. I love this moth - red and greeny-black when an adult - here are a couple of pics, below - and yellow and black in tigerish stripes when a caterpillar.

The warning colouration is striking and, as you can see in the closer-up of the pics, it comes with an additional arsenal of spiky hairs. The caterpillar is also poisonous to birds. Interesting that we humans have chosen yellow and black as our warning sign for anything hazardous in the nuclear field.

These caterpillars were on groundsel, which we spared. Their favourite plant is ragwort which is, most unfairly, the target of ill-informed alarmists. A beautiful plant whose vivid yellow cheers up waste ground and neglected fields, it needs as many advocates and friends as possible.

The original cinnabar is a red gemstone which, when crushed, provides the pigment for vermillion paint. We have nice friends and neighbours here who have a narrowboat called Cinnabar on the Oxford Canal.  Here she is.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

After the ball is over

After last year's excitements over the Death's Head Hawk moth, I keep placing the trap optimistically on our potato patch, which is the biggest we've ever planted (for both culinary and entomological reasons). No luck so far, but a very fine Privet Hawk paid a call last night in between Friday's downpours and the further heavy rain which is forecast today.

The chief feature of the eggboxes, and the surrounding potato plants, was an army of Footman moths, as if our humble veg patch was the aftermath of an 18th century ball with carriages lining up outside to collect dozy revellers in the early morning. They were so omnipresent that I didn't even notice the one in the background to this photo, below, of a Brimstone, a moth whose cheerful colouring I can never resist.

For the rest, it was a busy night with over 350 moths in the eggboxes but nothing new so far as my limited skills could discern. Goodness knows what this pug is, immediately below; I was kindly given a guide to British pug moths in return for a talk to Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society but it has left me none the wiser, I am afraid). I have captioned the others, I hope correctly.

A notably long and spindly micro - I will guess Eudonia angustea

A female Ghost Moth in a cosy nook
Anania coronata - always catches my eye
Small Emerald, another stunner
Snout - the Pinocchio of moths

Friday, 24 July 2015

Small but perfectly formed

After the showy delights of Blenheim butterfly house, UK moths inevitably seem a little low-key. But if you have time to examine them closely and unhurriedly, their modest virtues soon reappear.

The delicate creature topping the post was something I almost overlooked in the crowded eggboxes. Quite small - little more than an inch between wingtips, it has the classic Laura Ashley look of the 'Wave' family of moths, enhanced by that scalloped shape and the demure and simple colouring. The Single-dotted Wave shown left is another of this type. So too is the Yellow Shell below.

I got confused last year between two small moths which have rather similar wings, the Small Bloodvein and the Small Scallop. From advice given m then on the Upper Thames Moths blog, relating to the way the wings are held and the position of the four dots, I think that this is a rather pallidly coloured Small Bloodvein, but I will check it out again on UTM because I am so often wrong. Update: And I am. Peter Hall on UTM confirms that it's a Small Scallop.  Oh well, nearly...

A second new arrival for the year was this Gothic Moth, whose tracery of different greys must have reminded me the 18th century British moth-namers of the church architecture which surrounded them, as it does us today. A good comparison, don't you think?

The immigrant species, the Small Dotted Buff, is quite common this year, as other enthusiasts are reporting in this part of the UK. Here's my latest, below, followed by a handsome Marbled Minor or Small Marbled Minor and the micro Udea olivalis.

Lastly, I was ruminating about scale the other day, and my hope that readers would eventually become as familiar with the dimension of eggboxes as I have. To help, here is a Leopard moth palling up with a Grey or Dark Dagger on one of the box cones, whose standard size is an invaluable guide to the dimensions of my moths.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Home and abroad

As predicted in the last post, we went back to the Blenheim butterfly house yesterday with our Sri Lankan friends, so here's another dab of exotica to make a change from the moths. The picture above is one of several striking examples of camouflage; the slightly open wings of an Owl Butterfly - Caligo memnon -  have an astonishingly exact colour match with the trunk of a small banana tree. Here's a picture from a little further away, below.

As shown in the last post, the Owl has a further defence against predators on its underwings - a large and intimidating eye. Contrarywise, the remarkable Leaf Butterfly, Kalima inachus, has its concealment camouflage on the undwerwing and the surprise - Boo! Go away, hungry bird! - on its topside.

This is much less often seen than the underwing because the insect prefers to fold its wings tightly closed when at rest. Congratulations and thanks, therefore, to my older son's Mum-in-law, Radha Dharmaratnam, for this great little filmet showing the unexpected azure blue and gold.  I hope that it works on your browser.


Radha also spotted this mating pair of what I'm pretty sure are Blue Diadem butterflies, Hypolimnas misippus - a species which led to this interesting sighting a couple of years ago by Mark Griffiths who submits moth reports to the Upper Thames Moths blog. He told the related Butterfly Sightings page: 

Visiting Woodstock, Oxon on Saturday (31st August) we were having lunch when a black and white butterfly, vaguely like a White Admiral, appeared flying around the flower baskets. We saw it a few times, flying up and down the street, including when it was flying around the roof of the Town Hall. Clearly an exotic it must be an escapee from the Blenheim Palace butterfly house. Although I didn't get a close view, when we were about 10 feet away I was able to make a tentative identification. I've been in contact with Blenheim and they have supplied me with a list of species they have. After consultation with my wife (who has better eyesight!) we believe it was a male Blue Diadem butterfly, Hypolimnas misippus.

Back home, the trap has welcomed the first of the Thorn family for 2015, this jagged edged example of an August Thorn, below. Update: Sorry, although an August Thorn would have been a month early in terms of its name, this is an even more anachronistic moth: a September Thorn. Many thanks to Steve Trigg, eminent commentor on the Upper Thames Moths blog, for drawing my attention to a very good comparison there. The distinguishing marks of the September Thorn are that it holds its wings higher than the August when at rest, as in my picture, and the two bands are closer at th lower edge of the forewing. Much appreciated. It was joined by the classic grey-brown, much dotted and dashed, middling-sized chap in the next photograph. Could this be that well-named species mentioned by my Commentor two days ago - the Uncertain. I am not certain, but inclined to say Yes.

Here's a very nice orangey Dun-bar, too, quite different from the dun form shown the other day

And finally two old familiars. I can never resist a Buff Ermine, especially when posed on my lovely pyjamas. And this Dark Arches found a nice spot to illustrate a modest British version of the tropical camouflages shown above.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Tropical Oxford

I thought it was time for an exotic interlude amid the daily moths. So if you are mildly startled by my main picture, above, that is the reason.

But surely such glorious creatures do not roam the Oxfordshire countryside? Aah, I wish. But they do roam the excellent, if quite pricey, realm of Blenheim Place. Or at least, the butterfly and ornamental finch house.

I normally have mixed feelings about such places as the price to pay for close examination of their occupants, which is terrific, especially for young people, is too often the sad sight of captive insects fluttering vainly at the windows or muslin screens. But Blenheim seems to have sorted out this problem.

We went with some Estonian friends and their children and I was kept too busy to ask the staff how they managed the butterflies so well. But we're off there again today, this time with some friends from Sri Lanka, so I'll see if I can find out. I'm also hoping that the Sri Lankans may identify some of the butterflies.

I suspect that part of the answer is a carefully-chosen selection of nectaring plants, supplemented by chunks of fruit as shown below.  Isn't the Leaf butterfly in the second picture a wonderful example of mimicry. Small wonder that Alfred Russel Wallace's study of such creatures on his travels in Malaysia and Indonesia led him independently to the same conclusions about natural selection as Charles Darwin.

I was lucky enough to see butterflies like this in their natural habitat when I followed Wallace's footsteps on an expedition to Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) some 30 years ago. It is captivating o see such magnificent creatures soaring on the fringe of the rain forests, or 'mud-puddling' in their hundreds, maybe thousands, as they draw up salt and other minerals from damp sandbanks along the jungle rivers.

The butterfly above - underside in the top picture and topside in the second one - reminded me of those days and was my favourite at Blenheim.  To finish up with, here is one of the Tropical House's finches - presumably a species which doesn't eat butterflies.

Monday, 20 July 2015


Second only to my bungled IDs, the main (and fully justified) criticism I get from readers here is about the lack of scale. Are the moths I feature large or small, tiny or vast? I take the point but I don't want (and admittedly partly can't be bothered) to stick a ruler in every photograph. Instead, I hope that my fascination with eggboxes will gradually become general. Once you know how big they are, and the details of their various features of recesses and cones, the size of the moths should no longer be an issue.

I also try to include helpful features in the background, such as other dozing insects, my pyjamas or, fairly frequently, my fingers and thumbs. Today's top picture, for example, shows that tiny dagger of a moth, Catoptria pinella (if I am not mistaken) with my thumb lurking behind. A little distant, I know, but it gives you a notion.

Feeling specially helpful, I've then combined the picture above of lovely Acleris forsskaleana in a typical eggbox folding-groove (typical to us eggbox savants, that is), with one below taken from a distance and showing the whole box. Isn't he or she minute? 

And so to some other visitors - ID-ed like yesterday's by captions which one and all are invited to check, confirm or put right.


Dusky Sallow - pretty moth

Lesser Cream Wave

Pyrausta aurata - slightly different from Penny's birthday Pyrausta purpuralis

Small Emerald - large thumb

Now for one or two curious recent sights in the trap. First, a wasp briefly paid court to a lovely Marbled Green but a love match was not to be.

Then a socking great micro - one of the Crambyds? - appeared to have similar ambitions towards an Elephant Hawk:

A Poplar Hawk - one of many which visit me at the moment - looped the bulb flex loop

Picnic mugs left over from the day before provided a cheery background for a Coronet:

And finally, here's an unexpected guest: a Meadow Brown butterfly which got muddled up between day and night. Note, for those who often ask the differences between moths and butterflies, here is one: butterflies always hold their wings like this, folded vertically above their bodies. A few moths do the same, but most prefer the flat-n-folded-back look. Update: check out the very interesting points made on some of the above in Comments.