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!

Scarlet Tiger

With rain forecast I almost resisted putting out the trap last night, but glad I did with this Scarlet Tiger, Callimorpha dominula, being the star of the show.

I’ve banged on before about moths not being brown and boring, but this one needs no advert in that respect – simply a stunning moth and really freshly emerged. Randle et al (2020) note that though Scarlet Tiger is largely a moth of the SW of England, its distribution is increasing, extending its range. For me though, it’s still a lifer, and a much-appreciated one.

Also of note today were Scoparia basistrigalis (Base-lined Grey), one of the less frequent, and larger, of the ‘greys’, a set of moths that I really like; and Box-tree Moth (Cydalima perspectalis), an Asian immigrant from as recent as 2007 when the first one was trapped, now well-established in the UK. This was one of two around the trap this morning.

Not of note in terms of rarity or distribution, but interesting if only for how well they are named were Dark/Grey Dagger, Beautiful Yellow Underwing and Scalloped Oak – the first and last this morning, with the middle one trapped a few days ago.

Finally, away from moths, I’ve put a small pond into the garden recently and the first thing of real note – other than the crows that squabble over drinking rights early in the morning – was the male Broad-bodied Chaser that spent an hour or so checking it out last week.

Fascinatingly, within 24 hours of filling the pond it was being checked out by water beetles, though I think they’ve subsequently upped and left as it was devoid of other life. Since then I’ve added a few plants purchased from a local supplier of native aquatics and already the insect life is picking up – and with it, of course, other animals eager to make use of a food supply. Other than these few things to get it going I’m keen to see what comes naturally to it and I’ll keep you posted. For now, it’s enough simply to watch and wait.

Moths galore …

A warmish night, followed by a slightly damp morning that grounded lots of flying moths, meant that it was the best night of the year so far in terms of numbers with 165 moths of 52 species. Nothing super rare, but some nice moths in amongst them all.

First up were the macros, with the star of the show being this mint fresh Phoenix:


Then, four that I don’t see too often: Dwarf Cream Wave; Flame Carpet; Pale Mottled Willow; and a super-smart Lackey.

Just for show, a beautiful Poplar Hawk-moth was clinging on to a chair beside the trap, lucky not to succumb to one of the local blackbirds …

Poplar Hawk-moth

Whilst it’s always tempting to highlight these more attractive moths from the 40 species of macro, it’s also worth noting that the bulk of the catch was made up of Heart and Dart. Sixty-six of these had invaded the trap this morning, causing their usual havoc as things warmed up and they began to stir. They are like the junk mail of mothing – promising plenty at a glance, but in the end just irritatingly cluttering up the inbox! More seriously, though, they play an important part in the local food chain as meals for our resident Serotine bats and the local bird population who are happy to swoop in whenever they can and clean up round the trap.

Whilst these macros make up most of the biomass, and put on the gaudy show, it’s the micros that I really like. My morning routine involves a cup of tea to take out the trap, drunk while I whizz through the macros, with the micros being potted up – mainly as my ID is poor and I need time and a book. Once that’s done, it’s coffee – black from the espresso maker – and time to sit down and take in the little’ns.

This morning, two lifers among 12 species I could ID. The first is a recent immigrant from North America, Argyresthia cupressella, (I think … as ever, all micro IDs are tentative on my part) from where it was brought in, probably via its larval food plants of cypress and juniper. We have the former nearby, but it’s an impressive example of how quickly moths will spread given the right conditions with the first record being from Suffolk in 1997 (Waring et al, 2009).

Argyresthia cupressella

Then, a relatively common moth but one I’d not trapped, Eucosma cana (Hoary Bell):

Eucosma cana (Hoary Bell)

I often miss the micros, which tend to leave the trap before I can get there in the morning, so it was nice to also see an array of tortricidae: Epinotia bilunana (Crescent Bell); Notocelia uddmanniana (Bramble Shoot); Notocelia trimaculana (Triple-blotched Bell – I think, rather than N. rosaecolana because the marks on the costa are relatively thick); and Lobesia littoralis (Shore Marble).

Epinotia bilunana (Crescent Bell)
Notocelia uddmanniana (Bramble Shoot)
Notocelia trimaculana (Triple-blotched Bell)
Lobesia littoralis (Shore Marble)

Finally, to a different family, the Crambidae, with my first for the year of two favourites. This is Eudonia mercurella (Small Grey):

And this one is a really smart Crambus pascuella (Inlaid Grass-veneer):

Crambus pascuella

For some reason this reminds me of Kenneth Williams … beady eyes and a long beak … but maybe that’s just the early mornings getting to me.

Moths and bats: update …

There has been nothing remarkable happening around the house and garden of late and I’ve given the moth trap a rest of a week while I’ve been busy at work. I need time to recover from early mornings, and I also worry about bringing moths in to the trap too regularly when there are numerous patrolling blackbirds, robins and great tits about. Nonetheless, I ran the moth trap last night and have been regularly checking the Serotine roost in my roof to see how many breeding females are making use of it.

First, the moths. This morning’s haul was nice, even if dominated once again by Heart and Darts – 65 in and around the trap. Stand out moths were these: Lunar Thorn (similar to Purple Thorn, but more local); Small Yellow Wave – a beautiful little moth; and the magnificent Shark.

Also in the trap were some others new for the year, including Heart and Club – a welcome distraction from all the Heart and Darts – and my first Uncertain/Rustic, which you can’t split by sight so recorded as aggregated. These will be plentiful in a moth or so but it’s always nice to see the first one.

The one other macro of note was a Flame, not because it’s uncommon – it’s not, I get it in almost every trap-run at this time of year – but because it happened to be sat by a small twig that looked incredibly like it. I’ve laid them side-by-side here and I’ll let you decide which is the moth!

Lastly, several pugs. I’ve invested some time in trying to do better with these so was delighted that I managed to ID them all accurately, according to the help I got from the Twitter-sphere. These are (L – R): Freyer’s Pug; Common Pug; and Grey Pug.

Whilst I’ve had a break from mothing for a week, I’ve been counting bats every night. I’m really lucky to have a roost of Serotines in my house and they emerge every night at 2145, on the dot, to feed up

These are females, fertilized the previous season having mated in the Autumn and now triggering their own pregnancy and coming together in this maternity roost where they will give birth, possibly with the odd male in attendance too. Last year the colony built up to 18 bats so I was delighted when I first saw signs of them returning this year, the characteristic droppings, like a rodent but shiny with insect wing casings, on the ground under the roost entrance. The first count, on 27th May, was just 6 individuals. On the 28th it was eight; then nine on the 30th and 13 on the 31st where it has stayed since.

About 10 minutes before they leave the roost they start to stretch their wings and can be heard ‘knocking’ on the wooden box structure under the eaves. Then, as the picture below shows (over a 14 s period, compressed, so the horizontal scale does not show all the space between calls evenly) it’s possible to pick up some ‘chatter’ – calls, evenly, but widely, spread on the read-out (above the pale blue line) before three bats launch out of the roost (green lines). There is also a Common Pipistrelle bat in there too, the higher pitched call above the orange line.

It’s a great way to end each day, watching them all appear … though I’m curious about their return. I posted a static bat meter just outside the roost (3m way, on a drainpipe) and though the leaving calls were clearly there, there was no sign of bats returning in the morning, or during the night. A bit of a mystery, leaving me wondering if, though they echo-located to leave, they use their eye-sight on return to land at the roost, and simply crawl back in. I’ll investigate some more!