Last week’s column was a little heavy, I’ll admit it, so I thought it was high time to return to the honest-to-goodness substance of this feature and have a close look at some wildlife. And what a treat I have for you this week.
Arguably the golden age for natural history was the Victorian era. While the mindset of the time saw engineers raising sooty chimneys into the sky and burrowing through mountains, just because they were there, an army of eccentric naturalists scoured the country in the study of our fauna and flora. These tweed and flannel suited gentlemen would make meticulous (and not so meticulous) notes on all they saw, buzzing, flying, blooming and burgeoning in the countryside and our current knowledge has a great deal to thank of them.
I have to admit, it is often the aesthetic beauty of a creature, especially an invertebrate, which keeps my enthusiasm for natural history enthralled, so I am not surprised that the delicate gorgeousness of butterflies is a widely appreciated phenomenon. They share the same daylight habits as ourselves, often finding their way into our gardens to sip nectar or decimate cabbage plants, they are ubiquitous. However there is a lesser appreciated group within the order Lepidoptera, which seldom share the limelight, but have a besotted following amongst naturalists.
Fifty, at a push is as many butterflies as you might be able to see in the UK and certainly all you will need to commit to memory to be an all-knowing expert. Moths on the other hand number upwards of 3,500 species in this country and have a number of species which put their butterfly cousins in the shade when it comes to gaudiness. The trouble is, as humans we like to pigeon-hole things and moths get the label “drab” and although there are a number of moths such as the Lead-coloured Drab, or the Clouded Drab, they also have their fair share of stunners!
I’ve been running a moth trap in my garden over the past few nights, making the most of a short time when I won’t be disturbing the neighbours by shining a high-powered bulb all night. I’m now up and out of bed well before baby Ellie wakes up, prancing round my moth trap like I once jumped about around my Christmas stocking. The morning after the moth-trap night before is a very special, almost magical time.
Jars strew the grass as specimens of each species (I don’t attempt to log every individual caught and sum total numbers, I don’t have the application) are retained from the trap or surrounding white sheet to be examined at length over a cup of much needed coffee. Many of the familiar favourites trip off the tongue as they are temporarily trapped: Heart & Dart; Wainscot; Angle Shades; Setaceous Hebrew Character – seriously the names are as interesting as the moths!
Then there are the “what?” moths, which will require chilling and comparison with Richard Lewington’s magnificent illustrations in the Field Guide to Moths, but that in itself is all part of the fun. Within an hour the quarry has been ‘bagged’ and we’re back in the kitchen with books all over the table, hearty cooked plate of bacon and eggs on the go and jars and pots containing sleepy moths all over the place. It doesn’t get better than the comfort of a home moth trap!
I’ve included two photos this week, both from my recent trapping session, to hopefully give you some idea of just what you are missing out on – if you are a seasoned moth-er then none of this will be new to you. The first moth, the big pink and yellow monster which looks like it should wear swathes of bling and drive a massive SUV, is an Elephant Hawk moth, named after its caterpillar. It is a real beauty, and seldom gets ruffled feathers when trapped. Its almost as if its size gives it the confidence to take things in its stride – “Put me back in the herbaceous boarder pal, or suffer the consequences!” A gem to find and photograph.
The second moth, yes that bit of broken stick it a moth, is another common chap called the Buff Tip. Looking like the most perfectly broken piece of silver birch twig, the Buff Tip is another favourite of mine to find. Again, its not a small moth and easy to photograph so perhaps there is a common thread developing here, but its also a staggering example of camouflage. Others moths have developed arguably superior cryptic colouration to hide their fanned-out wings on the bark of a tree, but only a few moths have rolled up their wings to mimic the structure of the tree too and only the Buff Tip does it this well!
To watch a short film about moth traps and some of the moths I caught, visit my new online wildlife channel “WildDiary” on YouTube. http://www.youtube.com/user/wilddiary