Autumn Catch-up

It’s been a long time since I updated this blog. This is partly becuase at this time of year I’m always busy at work, but also reflective of the slowing down of nature as the weather cools, the rain returns and days shorten. Everything seems to be winding down and drawing in.

Whilst it’s generally been quiet, one night from the last month stands out however – 15th September, when I joined Paul Butter to set three traps on the cliff tops just West of Lyme Regis. A really warm evening brought plenty of moths, but most remarkably two Clifden Nonpareil.

These are stunning moths, which I’ve been lucky enough to trap twice before. They are so large that they sit covering, fairly completely, one’s palm; and the flat wings make them look almost like cardboard cut-outs on the side of a trap. The stunning blue hindwing stripes look magnificent; a superb moth.

Other than that, numbers have been fairly low, though not unusual for the time of year, with the usual collection of Autumn moths, reflecting the changing garden colours.

As well as these common, if colourful, regulars, there have been one or two nice additions to the year list. This Ypsolopha parenthesella was a new moth for me and a nice little micro.

Ypsolopha parenthesella

Meanwhile a moth new to the garden was this Heath Rustic, one that I’ve caught before on Woodbury Common, but which has never previously made it to the garden:

Heath Rustic

This morning I trapped this Mecyna asinalis which was also a visitor last year, but good to see again as it’s a fairly local, coastal specialist.

Mecyna asinalis

With the Heath Rustic, above, it’s a good example of how well placed I am here in Budleigh with coastal, riparian, suburban and heathland habitat around me.

Beyond this, the moths have been regulars with nothing really unusual. Elsewhere in the garden though, there have been signs of Autumn’s onset. One of my favourites is the annual arrival of the Ivy bees – Colletes hederae. I look out for these every year as the plant comes into flower. On September 14th there was no sign, but on the 15th there they were, dashing about over the ivy that covers several swathes of our walls, and in the hedge up the drive.

Ivy Bee

They are super little bees, busy as anything feeding away, clearly aware of the lateness of their arrival to the garden and perfectly adapted to make use of the ivy flowers – a real specialist. Each year I’m ready to trim back ivy, but I always make a point of delaying it until these little buzzers have had their fill.

Bedstraw Hawkmoth … AGAIN! (… and more)

When you trap one of the rarest moths in the county, with just a handful of records over the last few years, you consider yourself lucky. When you do it again 10 days later, well …!

With the threat of rain overnight, I put the trap under the sun umbrella on our garden table and the underside of the canopy was plastered in moths come the morning. Having spent 20 mins recording these, and then opening up one side of the trap and dealing with the plethora of moths inside, I had already been at it for 45 mins before I even saw this moth …

Bedstraw Hawkmoth

There, for the second time in 10 days, was a Bedstraw Hawkmoth, an insect that many moth-ers may never seen … and I’d found two in as many weeks. What a cracking moth!

So, just how lucky am I?

Well, the answer to that depends on what the most likely scenario is. One obvious possibility is that I’m only as lucky as the first time because this was the same moth, re-trapped having lingered near my garden. With this in mind I looked back carefully at the photos from the 3rd August and they suggest that this is not the case.

As you can see, the extent of the black markings on the hindwings is different, with a distinct bulge on the new moth not present on the old one. Whilst moths might lose colouring over ten days as the scales wear away, it couldn’t have gained this extra black marking. These look like two different specimens therefore.

So, the second possibility is that I’ve simply managed to trap two immigrants … but with just a very few records for the UK every year, and very few of these in Devon, the odds that these were two immigrant moths and had both stumbled on my garden are surely negligible.

But there is a third possibility which is that far from coming from miles away, these moths are the progeny of a local breeding pair, or pairs, and have therefore emerged nearby. This seems the likeliest – and most exciting – probability … still immensely lucky that reproduction happened locally but, given that it did, then statistically fairly likely that I then caught two of them. It would also explain why they look so pristine …

Perhaps what we are seeing here is the product of our increasingly mild winters. As I understand it, Bedstraw Hawkmoths spend the winter underground as a pupa and the caterpillars then are active from July to September. However, the pupal stage ‘does not usually survive’ our wet winters (Waring, Townsend and Lewington, 2012, p. 167); though over the last 50 years or more there have been temporary resident sites in different parts of the UK, especially in the SE. It looks like at least one pair of pupae have managed to do so here, even though last winter was a wet one. Either way, a fabulous moth to have nearby and coming to the trap. Let’s hope that the population lingers and, perhaps, even manages to take hold permanently.

As if that wasn’t enough, Matt then called me to say he had trapped Dark Crimson Underwing in his Exmouth garden just a few miles away!

Dark Crimson Underwing

DCU is pretty much as rare as the Hawkmoth, with just 38 British records in the Atlas (Randle et al, 2020) since 2000 and only one site showing in Devon. To see this, as well as the Hawkmoth, made for a fabulous day, with the promise of more to come given the hot and humid weather forecast.

Migrants

A still, muggy night brought a host of moths to the trap, with over 65 species. Among them were a few really nice migrants, though their exact status is hard to define given the changing distribution of many moths over the last couple of decades as climate and habitat both change.

Two lifers were the pick of the bunch for me. First, Tree-lichen Beauty, a moth from Southern Europe, though with the possibility that it now breeds in parts of Southern England.

Tree-lichen Beauty

However, records in the SW are very scarce and so I’m assuming this one came in from overseas.

Next was Lesser-spotted Pinion:

Lesser-spotted Pinion

Distribution is similar to the Tree-lichen Beauty, with resident populations in the SE, but very few records this far West, making this another likely immigrant. It wasn’t until I’d let it go as I tried to get a better photo that I actually realised how uncommon it is in this part of the world and that some people are yet to see it – sorry Matt!

Also immigrant was this Vestal, one of two this morning and having been trapped the day before yesterday too.

The Vestal

Trends for this moth, according to Randle et al (2020), involve a recent increase after a long-term decline. It’s a moth of Southern Europe again, but now being seen as far north as Shetland! For me it’s annual, but always a lovely one to get.

Lastly, White-point, which has an immigrant population but now breeds across much of Southern England and is a regular, if not frequent visitor to my garden.

White-point

This one looks worn enough to think it might have traveled some way.

Other than that, the moths of interest included two Portland Ribbon Waves.

Portland Ribbon Wave

We do well for this round here in the Budleigh and Exmouth area and assume that there are resident breeding colonies nearby. However, today’s moths are second generation – I trapped several from the first generation in late May, the latest on May 25th – and though Townsend et al’s field guide from 2012 suggests that English populations don’t breed twice they surely now do given the regularity in late summer and early Autumn. Last year I also had a good number of these in August and into September; and this one looks incredibly fresh as if just emerged.

Finally, Crescent Dart – I think, though happy to be corrected – and Mullein Wave were both nice moths …

… and accompanied by the, now almost regulation, Hornet (Vespa crabro) which I seem to find in every trap at the moment.

European Hornet

Not a moth, but perhaps the most beautiful of the insects in the trap and, early in the morning, very placid and happy to pose for photos.

Reed Bed trip #2

I spent another lovely evening last night down at the Otter reed beds with Matt. Compared to the visit last week it was much stiller and warmer and this was reflected in the greater abundance of insects.

Despite having several Fen Wainscot just 10 days ago that particular species was nowhere to be seen this time. However, in its place we found good numbers of another Wainscot new to us both: Brown-veined Wainscot, Archanara dissoluta.

Brown-veined Wainscot
Brown-veined Wainscot

The one I’ve shown here is described as the more common form, f. arundineta, in Townsend et al, but in practice we found more of the darker form, below:

Brown-veined Wainscot is described as a localised reed bed specialist with larvae that feed inside the stems of Common Reed. Like the Fen Wainscot last week, this moth is largely distributed in the South and East of the country so forms a good record here.

Another good record, hiding in amongst the more regular Smoky and Common Wainscots, and a lifer for me, was this Southern Wainscot. It’s distinguishing feature is a dark band across its forehead and, though faded, it is just visible here.

Otherwise, for me there was one other new moth, though common enough nationally; this Agonopterix alstromeriana.

Agonopterix alstromeriana

In all, 40 species made the notebook and there were undoubtedly others we missed. Amongst them were two huge hornets that decided to come and investigate the trap at one point.

Intimidatingly big – Vespa crabro (European Hornet)

Matt braved them and potted them up for later release. Bar these, the best of the rest on a really enjoyable night were:

Bedstraw Hawkmoth

An admission … I’ve been moaning to myself that I’ve not had a ‘good’ moth for ages, despite all my attempts of late and so surely I deserved one. Nonsense, of course. As if nature somehow owed anything! And mothing is largely luck, of geography and habitat and what happens by. Nonetheless, as the golfer Lee Travino famously said, ‘the more I practise the luckier I get’. And so how glad I was that I set the trap again last night.

I can see the box in the garden from our kitchen window and as I let the dogs out around 5am (quietly, don’t wake the family!) I noticed a large hawkmoth clinging to the inside. My first reaction was Privet – large size and a striped appearance – but I immediately realised that this was something else. Something much better. Bedstraw Hawkmoth!

Bedstraw Hawkmoth

What an incredible beauty. Just a stunning combination of size, colour and pattern. And pristine too, with not a scale out of place … of which more below. First, some detail shots:

Like many of the larger moths, and the hawkmoths in particular, when disturbed it flashes a bright red warning using its hind wings. I also love the stripe above the eye, almost like a ‘browed’ warbler of some sort as much as a moth. Indeed, these beasties need to be handled to really appreciate their scale and as they warm their wings before take off they emit a humming noise with a real sense of power behind it.

So where is it from? In the field guides it’s noted as an immigrant, from warmer climes, but apparently there were three larvae found locally, in Exmouth, last year. They need warm and dry winters for the larvae to survive and our last one was warm, but very wet. Nevertheless, given just how perfect the scales look, this really could be a local moth, just emerged and flying for the first time. What a privilege that it choose my garden to drop into last night.

Beyond the hawkmoth there were a few other nice moths new for the year – below:

In addition, though not new for the year, some others that stood out in terms of colour and pattern.

A great morning, and with the prospect of more to come as the weather looks like it is set to warm up at night times. As ever, I wonder what will drop by …

River Otter trip

I took the trap down to the River Otter last night, using a generator for power. Great to have the company of Matt and we set up in a quiet corner by the reed bed at White Bridge on a still, but rather cool, clear night. The temperature was probably just a bit low for a real influx and moths drifted in slowly, mainly Common and Dingy Footmen.

Our main target species were the Wainscots and despite the poor numbers we had some luck. Even before the likely candidates, Common and Smoky, a Fen Wainscot appeared.

Fen Wainscot

The photo is obviously taken this morning in good light, but under torch light in the dark it showed a beautiful silky texture with a subtle sheen to it. Wing shape – relatively wide compared to the length and quite pointed – was also noticeable. In good light the chocolate edging is also very clear:

Fen Wainscot wing detail

After that we trapped a second, along with Smoky and what I think is just Common (R) below:

Otherwise, we were kept nicely busy, though not rushed off our feet with moths including Drinker, Ruby Tiger, Red Twin-Spot Carpet and a few others. But the real surprise was awaiting us!

Packing away, we emptied the trap only to find a moth that, in the dark, seemed black with two white spots that we couldn’t immediately recognise. In the light at home though it turned out to be The Crescent.

The Crescent
Wing detail

Though distributed all along the South coast, this is a nice find for our part of the world, with just a scattering of them in the Devon records over the last few years. Particularly good since we didn’t see it going into the trap!

We plan to try the same spot on a warmer evening in the near future, but for now I’m happy with these two excellent lifers.

Footman moths

Despite a warm clear day, the overnight conditions didn’t quite produce the catch I expected last night, though still a decent haul of 89 moths of 44 species.

What I did get was Footman moths, a group from the genus Erebidae – which also includes the Ermines (Buff, White), Muslin Moth and the Tigers – the name presumably coming from the smart, yellow-trimmed uniform that might be worn by a footman.

Today I caught five of the commoner species plus one that I’m undecided on – Hoary or Scarce Footman. On a cool morning they were fairly docile and managed to organise themselves for a group shot – below.

Rosy (top) and then L – R Common, Dingy, Hoary/Scarce, Buff and Four-spotted Footman

Common Footman (far left and below) is indeed common at this time of year with 20+ regularly in and around the trap.

Common Footman

As well as being fairly docile in the cool conditions, their defense mechanism is to flip over and play dead. They can lie like this for ages hoping, I guess, that a bird might consider a dead moth less appetising – or perhaps less nutritious – than a live one; though it always seems like a last-ditch effort to me.

Common Footman in defense position, playing dead.

The others are less common, though I do well for all of them here on the SW coast. As a group though they seem to be benefiting from our changing climatic conditions with a number of them doing particularly well.

Dingy, Buff and Common
Dingy (L) and Buff (R) Footman

Dingy and Buff Footmen (above) have, since 2000, both extended their range considerably and have had an incredible change in abundance. According to Randle et al (2020) this has increased by 5500% and 84500% respectively – that is 55 and 845 times as many of each species between 2000 and 2016! It’s no wonder I’m catching them.

Also in the trap was a male Four-spotted Footman, one I’ve been getting regularly in the last week or so.

Male Four-spotted Footman

It’s the female that has the spots, three being visible, with the last under the fold of the wings. There were none today, but this pair was trapped last year.

Female and male Four-spotted Footman

Again, it’s expanding it’s range fairly rapidly and is now resident across much of southern England. It’s certainly common in my trap at this time of year.

Next up, Rosy Footman, a stunning little moth which, when freshly emerged, is a bright orangey, pink with smart black markings.

Rosy Footman

Finally, this (below) is either Scarce or Hoary Footman.

Scarce / Hoary Footman

I think it’s the former – certainly pale enough (easier to see in comparison to the other moths in the very first photo above), though the thing that I’m hesitating on is the trim round the wing which in my experience of Hoary doesn’t usually extend quite so prominently round the apex. I wonder if this one is just a bit worn though, making it appear more ‘trimmed’ than it is. Scarce Footman (below, from 2018) is a very similar shape, wings rolled tightly round the abdomen, but is darker and has yellow piping more prominently round the whole wing.

Scarce Footman from 2018

Until recently Hoary was only likely to be found on the rocky coasts of SW England but has colonized the SE and is also expanding. I do well for it here, being pretty much annual and at least as regular as Scarce.

So a good morning for Footman moths. Also nice was this Blue-bordered Carpet, a moth I’ve seen before, but never trapped myself.

Blue-bordered Carpet

And finally, three very smart Prominents: Pale, Lesser Swallow and Swallow, the last two, at least, presumably from second broods since I had them earlier in the year.

(More) Lunar Hornet Moths

If you go down to the woods today, you’re sure of a big surprise …

… and the surprise would be in the form of a small plastic vial with a chemical in it that has changed, overnight, our appreciation of the Lunar Hornet moth, Sesia bembeciformis. This is one of the Clearwing moths (family Sesiidae), day-flying species which look more like flies and wasps than the classic ‘moth’. A week ago, relatively few people had seen the Lunar Hornet Moth because it spends most of its adult life in the canopy of trees, willows and sallows in the main. Crucially, it doesn’t come to light, so the most common approach to seeing moths, trapping (and then releasing) them with a bright light, has no effect. Even if you did see one, you would be hard pressed to know that it was a moth, not a real wasp (or hornet, which is a species of wasp, genus Vespa). Here’s what I mean …

For those of you not so familiar with them, yes, it’s a moth, really. Note the lack of a pinched waist and the ‘fur’ of elongated scales. Note too, the ‘clear-wings’ which give it its family name. For comparison, here’s a photo of the real thing, Vespa crabro, (European) Hornet, that I took on the River Otter, just about 1/2 mile from where the moth above was caught.

Now, if you follow moth blogs and social media sites you will know that there has been an explosion of photos this week of the Lunar Hornet Moth and the reason is that a pheromone lure, artificially manufactured as a chemical in a laboratory and sold in a small plastic vial, has become available on the market. This is the laboratory version of what the female moth emits to attract males. And it works! Matt got his hands on one at the start of the week and on Wednesday he rang me to say he had three males around it within a few minutes of hanging it up on a willow tree down by the river. The photo above is one of them, kindly brought over for me to see. Indeed, all over the web, photos of this amazing moth have popped up this week.

Matt kindly lent me his lure and I had the chance today to go back to the site where he caught his moths. Within 30s of setting it in the tree, a Lunar Hornet was round it.

Next, I walked 300m up the river, to be away from that moth and set it again in another tree, choosing an old one where the wood round the base, where the moths bore their holes, would be relatively soft. Within 3 minutes a moth had emerged, or rather dropped, since it was probably in the canopy, and buzzed around the lure.

Moments later, a second arrived to join it and a competition ensued to attempt to ‘mate’ with the net bag!

Easing them gentle off the lure, I then headed upstream another 400m and set it at a third mature willow. Again, within 3 minutes, two more moths appeared, actively competing for breeding rights.

So, here’s a moth that until Wednesday I was only aware of from books and photos, but which now appears to be living in pretty much every mature willow, at least on that stretch of the river. Repeat this across the recorded range, which Randle et al (2020) state is ‘throughout Britain’ and you get a very sudden change in our understanding of its abundance and distribution. Indeed, to put this in context, Randle et al, have just 306 records of LHM since 2000 (until 2016); probably about the same as the number since Monday! As they say (prior, of course, to the release of the lure):

Our most widespread clearwing … Its distribution is patchy even though the foodplants, willows, are widespread. This species may be under-recorded as there is currently no pheromone lure available for it.’

Say no more. And it will be fascinating to see how its recorded distribution and abundance changes as more are found. For now, though, it’s enough just to enjoy this amazing mimic which, like other species, uses its stripes to pretend it is dangerous. Indeed, it’s not the only insect to use the hornet’s fearsome, though undeserved, reputation – since hornets are very passive unless one approaches the nest too near. Another example is this hoverfly, Volucella zonaria, which also does an excellent mimicry job:

Clearly, it pays to pretend you’re tough.

Magic on the Otter

I live only 10 minutes walk from the River Otter yet I don’t regularly walk it in the evening … which, yesterday, showed what I’m missing after a fabulous evening down there.

I cheated by taking the car to Otterton with the intention of trying to see Beavers. Having parked I walked back to the road bridge and there, right in front on me, was a large adult moving gently up river!

With three other people – and a dog – we followed it briefly before the dog’s inquisitiveness caused it to backtrack. Whilst the ‘pack’ headed back downstream, I took a hunch that it would turn again and carry on upstream, having slipped its quarry. I was proven right and as I turned the next bend and stepped between some trees to the river bank, there it was, right in front of me. To my amazement it simply slipped into the water and swam right across and under the fallen tree trunk that I was standing on. An incredible moment.

After that it slipped away and the last glimpse I got in that area was as it turned the corner and slid up river.

Over the next two hours I walked a mile or so upstream and, not seeing it there, finally came across it again about half-way back. This time it was very much on the move, though not in a hurry, and simply glided on by.

We are so lucky to have these animals living on our doorstep, as part of a trial that has now published its report, most of which indicates significant benefits to the river and the surrounding environment; reduced silt-loss, slower flow reducing erosion and capture of impurities through the settling effect in the pools created by the dams. However, they are far from the only animals of interest on the river. Last night, in addition to the Beaver, I saw Kingfisher, Dipper, Yellow Wagtail and Grey Heron, all quietly feeding in the late evening light. As the light was lost my bat meter picked up Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, Serotine and Noctule bats … with Daubentons no doubt nearby too, though not registered this time.

To cap it all, I arrived home at 1015 to find both dogs in the garden going mad at something on the lawn. A Hedgehog, curled up and impervious to their inquisitive nose-poking! As I took the dogs in it grew legs and scuttled off across the grass to feast on the slugs, I hope.

Skimmers and Damselflies

I took the dogs up onto Bicton Common this morning and stumbled over this unknown ‘dragonfly’ which, on checking the field-guide, turned out to be a female Keeled Skimmer.

Described as ‘local’, this is a species of wetland heaths, which describes well the area I found it in, at the top of a slope above a boggy stream. It’s certainly a beautiful creature and prompted me to make a visit to Bicton Pools nature reserve this afternoon. I hadn’t walked far, into the valley above the main pool, when I came across this, which turned out to be the male Keeled Skimmer! From none to both in a matter of hours!

On the same patch of water were these two Small Red Damselflies, locked together in their mating embrace, the male clasping the female behind her head.

After that, a mooch round the main pool brought two more species: males of Large Red Damselfly and, I think, Common Blue – though the blues are tricky, so happy to be corrected on it. [Ed. – thanks to Matt Knott for pointing out that this looks like Azure Damselfly, rather than Common Blue.]

All in all, a nice few hours looking at these wonderful species, which certainly dazzle – though as one of the first forms of insect to inhabit the earth, and around 300 million years of evolution behind them, you’d imagine they’d got is sussed by now!