Lonesome George

At the end of June I caught an Eyed Hawk-moth in the trap as part of my regular Garden Moth Scheme trapping.  She (as it turns out) was a beautiful specimen with the characteristic eyes on the underwings and raised position of the upper wings. As it was about 4:30am, I put her in a pot for a couple of hours until I could photograph her at a more reasonable time of day.

When I came to photograph and release her I found she’d laid two perfect green eggs in the pot.

It seemed such a shame to just get rid of the eggs without giving them a chance, so I thought I’d have a go at rearing them. The eggs were transferred still in their pot into a larger container and I read up on how to rear hawk-moths. I checked on them every day and was starting to think they weren’t going to do anything when they both hatched about 2 weeks after they were laid. The two tiny green caterpillars of course needed food and apparently apple leaves are a favourite, which fortunately we could supply in plenty. Sadly one tiny caterpillar didn’t make it past the second day, but the remaining one, hereafter named Lonesome George (or possibly Georgina), is pictured below. So this blog post records George’s transformation. The photo below shows him at about 2 weeks old not long after hatching. The red dorsal spike is at the rear end.

George had a prodigious appetite, munching through as many apple leaves as he could get. By three weeks old he had started to develop striped markings.

By 4 weeks old the red rimmed spiracles were visible along his side and his dorsal spike had turned white.

By 5 and a half weeks, the dorsal spike at the end had started to turn blue. He had prolegs (not true legs) at the back and true legs at the front.

In this close up of  his head, you can see his true feet, used for gripping the leaves. His black jaws are just about visible in his mouth.

Caterpillars really are just eating machines.

Eyed Hawk-moth Caterpillar eating

By 6 weeks George was over 5cm long – a very handsome chunky caterpillar.

George wasn’t the only thing getting bigger – his poops were now over 5mm long, perfectly formed little packages of waste apple leaf!

At 7 weeks old George’s colour started to change, a sign apparently that he was getting ready to pupate.

So he was transferred to a larger container with compost in the bottom and a layer of leaf matter. Almost immediately he started burrowing into the compost until he was completely submerged.

Eyed Hawk-moth getting ready to pupate

Ten days later and George the caterpillar had turned into a chrysalis or pupa. Already you can see the outlines of wings forming and it bears no resemblance to the original caterpillar.

So that’s it for George for now. I just need to keep his chrysalis safe and dry until the early summer when he (or she) will hopefully emerge in all his glory as an adult Eyed Hawk-moth.

 

So this was going to be the end of this post on rearing moths, but then I caught a female Antler Moth.

As Antler Moths are such striking moths, I’d put her in a pot for an hour until I could take a photo. She surprised me in that short time by laying at least a dozen tiny eggs; I could see her abdomen still pulsating when I released her so hopefully she managed to lay more in the garden too.

So once again it seemed a shame for these eggs to have no chance at life, so I now have a pot of Antler Moth eggs as well as Lonesome George’s chrysalis. Antler Moths it seems overwinter as eggs, so I can do little for this clutch until the spring, other than to try not to let them get too dry or too damp. Come the spring I will have to find suitable food plants (grasses) for the caterpillars that will hopefully emerge. So watch this space…..

In the meantime here’s another Eyed Hawk-moth, just because they are so magnificent.

 

Incoming Insects

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for migrants (of the insect type) in our garden and around Malvern, so I thought I’d collate what we’ve been seeing.

First up an insect that is really only a migrant by name – the Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta). A beautiful dragonfly that used to be fairly uncommon in the UK – hence the name Migrant, but is now well established. This particular one was buzzing for insect prey on some rough ground at Chris’ workplace.

We’ve been blessed with at least one Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) in the garden most days for the last month or so, but apparently we are not alone. Every few years the country gets a “Painted Lady Summer” when they come over in huge numbers from abroad – and this is one of those summers. Some people have reported seeing them in their hundreds (a friend of mine in Edinburgh got driven inside by having so many of them on her patio it freaked her out!). Sadly we’ve not had that many, probably because we’re the wrong side of the country, so the most we managed to count on the buddleia was 5 at one time. But that’s a record for us, so we’re happy to see them even in low numbers.

We tend to be more lucky with the moths. First a very small migrant moth, but one which some years can come over in huge numbers. The Diamond-back Moth (Plutella xylostella) is only a few mm long, but somehow manages to survive the journey over from the continent and into our Malvern garden. Most years we only get 1 or 2 at a time; the most we’ve ever had in the moth trap in one night is 20, but they can apparently arrive in their thousands. Not the greatest photo of this one below, but you can at least make out the joined up diamond pattern on its back.

A larger macro moth – the Silver Y (Autographa gamma) is another one we see regularly in low numbers. They have a characteristic Y shaped mark on the wings (although admittedly it is upside down) and are often active during the day. The first one I ever saw, was nectaring on some lavender during the day – I thought initially it was a Hummingbird Hawkmoth from the way it moved, but  know better now!

We have seen genuine Hummingbird Hawkmoths this summer, but I’ve not managed to get any photos – they’re just too fast and I’m just too slow most of the time. But here’s one we did manage to catch a couple of years ago.

 

Undoubtedly though the highlight of my moth-ing career so far, and probably the best catch I’ll ever get, was one from a fortnight ago. I’d been enviously enjoying photos of Bedstraw Hawk-moths (Hyles gallii) on various social media for a couple of weeks, but never dreamt I’d be lucky enough to catch one in our garden. But at the beginning of August I got up to empty the trap and nearly fainted at the sight of a Bedstraw Hawk-moth sitting there. I was so nervous opening the trap in case it flew off – no-one would ever believe me unless I could get a photo of it! Fortunately it was a docile beauty that didn’t object too much to being potted up and photographed.

I posted some photos on Facebook and a few fellow moth enthusiasts came round to see it before I released it unharmed. When I put it out on some Rose Bay Willow-Herb, it vibrated its wings for a few seconds to warm up:

Then it shot off like a rocket. We have a large buddleia bush nearby and it circled that a few times. I watched in horror as 3 sparrows flew out from the bush trying to catch it, but thankfully the moth was quicker than the birds and it got away. Don’t think I could have lived with myself if I’d seen it get eaten by the sparrows!

I am told this was only the 5th record of a Bedstraw for Worcestershire and probably the first record for Malvern. I doubt I’ll ever see another one and unless a Death’s Head Hawkmoth lands in the garden, I doubt I’ll ever have a more exciting moth find. But each weekend from now on I will open the moth trap in hope because you just never know what is going to be in there!

 

 

 

A Pootle Round Poolbrook

This weekend we had a couple of lovely walks around nearby Poolbrook Common in search of butterflies. I say walks, they were really more of a pootle – a gentle meander through the grass. Poolbrook Common is so close to us there was none of the usual “pressure” to see things, as we could always go back the next day, or even later the same day. The butterflies were also so abundant that getting photos was a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. So we pootled happily for an hour or so just enjoying being surrounded by so many butterflies.

The butterflies in question were mainly Marbled Whites, although there were also Meadow Browns, Ringlets, Small Skippers and one Gatekeeper. Poolbrook Common seems to be well managed in that the grass & meadow flowers have been left to grow, then cut later in the year and the butterflies have benefited. We met a walker who told us one of the reasons the Common is managed this way is due to the presence of Skylarks. And sure enough we saw several of these rising high above the grass or flying past with beaks full of large insects.

We didn’t really care whether the Common was managed for butterflies or birds, the end result was lovely. We’d seen on the Malvern Butterfly Facebook Group that the Common was well worth a visit right now and they weren’t wrong! There must have been literally hundreds of Marbled Whites – neither of us have ever seen so many. We both tried getting photos to convey the abundance, but none of them really did it justice.

So I did make this little video, just panning around to try and show how many there were in just a small area. Not sure it was really any more successful than the photo – I think you just have to go and see them for yourself.

Marbled Whites are beautifully photogenic butterflies (not that there are really any butterflies that aren’t photogenic), both from above and from below.

Males and females look similar on the upperside of the wings, but can be differentiated by the undersides. The males have completely black and white patterning.

Whereas the females have a more sepia tone going on.

Mr and Mrs Marbled White.

We saw a few bits of flirtatious butterfly behaviour, but only found one properly mating pair.

None of the ringlets would pose for photos, but fortunately the sole Gatekeeper sat still long enough for one.

The Meadow Browns were quite flighty on Saturday, but on Sunday we’d got up really early and were down on the Common before the butterflies had really woken up. The Meadow Browns were still roosting in the grass and much easier to photograph.

There were plenty of Small Skippers about too; I always think they look cheery little butterflies, I don’t know if it’s their colour or their buzzing flight.

And of course I can never resist a moth, particularly one as dashing as this Five Spot Burnet (possibly Narrow-bordered Five Spot Burnet?) moth.

One final photo, just because we don’t often get the chance to be so face to face with a butterfly!

 

 

Bees, Bats, Butterflies and Birds at Bridge Cottage

We’re just back from a holiday in Exmoor and as usual have returned with hundreds of wildlife photos, having spent the week in our usual glamorous manner. Most people probably take swimming costumes, flip flops and suncream on holiday; we took a moth traps, bat detector,  underwater camera and trail cameras! We stayed at a lovely cottage by the River Barle in Withypool, Somerset – an absolutely idyllic location, with plenty of wildlife potential.

Our holiday coincided with the start of 30 Days Wild, so the perfect excuse for wildlife watching, not that we ever need an excuse. The cottage had loads of bird life including sparrows nesting around the guttering. A pair of blue tits were nesting in the apex of the shed. They were really devoted parents bringing food constantly despite the rain (hence dishevelled photo below) and removing the faecal sacs to keep the nest clean.

There were plenty of mayflies hatching while we were there and the swifts made good use of them flying low over the water and snatching them out of the air. Best of all we could hear a cuckoo calling every morning around dawn. The sound of a cuckoo combined with the sound of the river is a great way to wake up in the morning.

Not surprisingly the abundant insect life attracted bats too. We got the bat detector going and were rewarded with clicks and chirp noises that sounded different to our usual Pipistrelle bats at home. The clicks were closer to the 47-48kHz frequency than the 45kHz we get at home, so perhaps these bats were either Daubenton’s or Natterers? Unfortunately we didn’t manage to record the noises to be sure and it was too dark to actually see the bats.

The first day we arrived at the cottage we had glorious sunshine and a warm night – perfect conditions for an evening glass of wine in the garden and to put the moth trap out! We couldn’t believe the abundance of moths we got in the morning. Many of the moths we caught were species we’d seen before but never in such numbers – buff tips, white ermines, brown silver lines – all species which we see occasionally in Malvern, but rarely more than single individuals. There were 2 species though that we’ve never seen before – Nut Tree Tussock and Campion – nice to add to our life lists of species.

As usual an Elephant Hawkmoth stole the show, but it did have competition from this stunning Puss Moth!

The River Barle which ran past the garden had sparkling clear water (every day except the last day when heavy rain had clouded it).  One of the first things we noticed were several dead Signal Crayfish both in the water and on the river bank.

These are an introduced species and are causing serious problems by outcompeting the native crayfish and by tunnelling into river banks leading to erosion. There are projects to actively remove them from rivers like the Barle, so it could be the dead crayfish we saw were part of this.

On a cheerier note, there were lots of presumably native minnows swimming in shoals near the river bank. So armed with our waterproof GoPro camera, I heroically waded in with my wellies. A slight miscalculation between height of wellies and depth of water, led to some wet feet, but at least I managed to video the minnows!

The river also had numerous tadpoles, who remained hidden in the plants near the bank during the day, but emerged into a sheltered inlet in the evenings. They were much darker than the tadpoles we get back home in the pond, so they may be toad tadpoles rather than frogs.

 

The cottage garden was well planted with plenty of shrubs and flowers for wildlife, including some gorgeous lupins that the bees absolutely loved.



One even got so carried away it forgot where it was and landed on my hand.

We saw a few butterflies in the garden, including our first Painted Lady of the year, but the highlight had to be this – a Green Hairstreak. To see these little beauties previously we’ve had to travel to nature reserves, so to have one virtually fly up to us in the garden was amazing. So amazing that I fumbled with the camera and only managed one rubbish photo – but it is just about recognisable as a green butterfly!

So we can highly recommend a stay at Bridge Cottage in Withypool for anyone interested in wildlife – there’s certainly plenty of it. The village itself was charming with a pub, shop and café – what more could you want from a holiday?

We did of course venture out while we were in the Exmoor area in search of more butterflies, but I’ll cover those in subsequent blog posts – watch this space!

 

 

 

 

 

Spring Insects

This last week the insects seem to have been coming out in force in the garden. After the relative quiet of the winter, it’s great to hear the buzz of insects in the air again. Moths may not buzz, but it’s still really nice to have them appearing again too. March brought the start of the Garden Moth Scheme for the summer. After a few weeks of fairly plain looking moths (sorry Common Quakers, but you aren’t the most showy of moths), it was nice last weekend to get a few of the more beautiful ones – in fact the Pine Beauty and Oak Beauty.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before the really spectacular hawk-moths start turning up in the trap too.  Butterflies have been proving a bit more elusive than the moths; so far I’ve just seen a few Small Tortoiseshells in the garden, but not managed to nab any photos.

Wasps may not be popular with everyone, but when you study them close up, they really are stunning insects and they are already making themselves known around the garden this year.

In the last 2 weeks, we’ve already recorded 12 species of bee in the garden – a promising start to the bee season. First up was my perennial favourite – the Hairy Footed Flower Bee. The males appeared first, patrolling frenetically around the garden, seeing off anything remotely bee-shaped that got in their way.

The last few days, I’ve been seeing more of the females – distinguishable by their all black bodies with orangey pollen brushes on the back legs. Our garden has naturalised primroses all over the place and the bees love them.

Another favourite is the Tawny Mining Bee, in particular the females who have this bright red foxy looking hair all over them. I spend (some may say waste) an awful lot of time chasing these round the garden, trying to get the perfect photo to do them justice.

Not quite so showy and much smaller is the Red Mason Bee. We get these little bees every year, finding nooks and crannies in the brickwork to nest in.

The much larger Red-tailed Bumblebee is also on the wing now, although so far I’ve only seen Queen bees like this one (I think).


The strikingly coloured Mourning Bees have already been busy on the rosemary flowers. These are also a favourite, not least because of the obvious white “kneecaps” which make them a cinch to identify.

Buzzing like a bee, but actually a fly, Bee-Flies seem particularly abundant this spring. I’ve previously only ever seen the one below – the Dark-edged Bee-Fly. They seem to torment the male Hairy Footed Flower Bees by hovering around “their” primroses. They also seem curious about us and often hover in front of me as if they’re trying to work out what this huge being is?

But there is a second species of Bee-Fly – the Dotted Bee-Fly. I’ve been hoping to see one of these for years and have chased a lot of the Dark-bordered ones around fruitlessly trying to find one with dots on. Then I read on Twitter this week to look out for the white stripe on the abdomen – easier to spot when they are flying than the dots on wings whirring like mad. And so I was thrilled when using this marker, I finally spotted one – complete with dotty wings and white striped bum (white stripe is more apparent in the second photo below).

As for other groups of insects, well they’re all starting to appear too. Hoverflies are always fairly abundant, although tricky to get a decent photo of. This male (male because its eyes meet in the middle, so I’m told) Eupeodes was more obliging than most.

A single Cinnamon Bug so far, but easily visible against the primrose leaves.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Shield Bug family of insects. We’ve recorded 7 species in the garden in total, although so far this year we’ve only seen the green one and this Dock Bug.

Not had the time yet to go rooting about in the undergrowth looking for beetles, but did at least spot the first ladybird of the year. Slightly disappointingly I think it is a Harlequin, so not an ideal spot, but hopefully some of the native species will appear soon too.

Final photo for the blog, this crab spider lying in wait for a bee. I know they’re not actually insects, but having spotted him today posing so nicely on the red valerian, it seemed rude not to include him. I thought these spiders were supposed to be able to camouflage themselves, but this one doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job.

So that’s a round up of the spring invertebrates currently buzzing/flying/crawling around the garden. It feels like everything is springing into life at last and we can look forward to an insect (and arachnid) filled summer.

 

 

A Day-Flying Moth Hunt

We’ve had some glorious weather here in Malvern this week; it really felt as if spring or perhaps even summer had arrived early it was so warm. Not only was the warm weather tempting softies like me outside, it was also apparently tempting some of the early day-flying moths to get out and about too. I’d seen reports of a particularly attractive moth – the Orange Underwing – being seen locally at Gullet Quarry, so this seemed the perfect excuse for a walk.

The not-too-attractively named Gullet Quarry is much prettier than its name suggests. With the sun shining and clear blue skies, the rocks were reflecting nicely in the water. Sadly due to some terrible accidents at the quarry, it is now fenced off and you can no longer get down to the water’s edge, so I had to view most of it from a distance.

I could just about make out a flash of yellow on the far side of the quarry – a Grey Wagtail flitting up and down catching insects. I tried zooming in on him (not very effectively) and only realised there was a pair of ducks sitting next to him when I downloaded the photos later! The wagtail is just about visible as a yellow smudge on the rock to the right of the ducks.

As I arrived it seemed like looking for a moth around the quarry was a bit of a needle in a haystack type mission, so I was amazed when one flew right passed me almost immediately. I set off in pursuit (incurring unfortunate contact between my boot and a large sheep deposit as I wasn’t looking where I was treading!) and tracked him to a high up twig.

He then sped off again and settled amongst the grass. Despite repeated attempts I couldn’t get a clear shot of him without a blade of grass in the way. But at least his lovely orange underwings are clearly visible. Mission accomplished.

Since it was such lovely weather I spent another lovely half hour pottering around enjoying the first signs of spring. A male Brimstone butterfly shot passed me, as usual way too fast to get a photo. Catkins were dangling all around and the gorse bushes were in full flower.

I wasn’t the only one watching the wildlife. High up on the rocks above the quarry, several crows were looking down, presumably on the look out for the next meal.

All in all it was a lovely short walk in the early spring sunshine,  whetting my appetite for the summer to come!

 

The Large Heath – Butterfly No. 46!

We headed off again on Saturday in search of our next butterfly species – the Large Heath. Whixall Moss is a peat bog on the English/Welsh border and the only place anywhere near us where we might see this increasingly rare butterfly. The bog has the beautiful Llangollen canal running along one side of it. We had to stop and wait for the bridge over the canal to be hand-winched back down as a narrow boat passed through.

We’d seen reports a mere 4 days before of sightings of upwards of 30 Large Heaths at Whixall Moss, so we’d set off with high hopes of nailing this one easily. These hopes were slightly dampened almost as soon as we left the carpark when we met an exhausted looking lady (carrying her even more exhausted little dog) who’d been searching in the scorching heat for 5 hours and not seen a single one. Undeterred (while slightly deterred to be honest) we carried on, following the walk described in the Butterflies of the West Midlands book.

We’d been walking for about an hour and a half and it was starting to look as if we’d draw a blank, although we had seen lots of other lovely wildlife. But then finally, just as we were about to head back, I spotted a butterfly dancing about the path. Initially I wasn’t sure what it was as it didn’t look like I’d expected. Turns out the Large Heath would struggle to pass the trade description law – it is actually really small! It was a raggedy little specimen and it insisted on hiding behind bits of grass, but at least we’d found one. It proved to be the only one we saw that day, but after a 2 hour drive and an hour and a half walk, we were grateful just to have found one. So here it is – our one and only Large Heath.

It looks a bit like a Meadow Brown but smaller and with spots like a Ringlet.

Whixall Moss is also well known for its population of White-faced dragonflies. Despite taking lots of dragonfly photos, none of them turned out to be white-faced. But we did get a new one for us – the Black Darter. Here is a male (top) and female (bottom).

There were blue and red damselflies everywhere and love seemed to be in the air for many of them, including this mating pair of Azure ones.

Aside from the whirring of insect wings in the air, there was the chirping of grasshoppers in the undergrowth. This one hopped obligingly onto the path in front of me.

The final insect of the day was a day flying moth and a new one for me – the Common Heath. As the Large Heath wasn’t particularly large, so the Common Heath didn’t seem to be particularly common, but I did manage to chase one down to get a photo.

As we’d walked along the path, something had scared up a pair of ground nesting birds. They took to the air for a few minutes until the danger had passed. We didn’t know what they were at first, but working on our usual principle of snapping anything that moves, we took some photos. Turned out they were lapwings.

A bit further on and we found more of them – this time looking a bit more relaxed, nesting by a pooled area. Lapwings have suffered major declines in the UK in recent years, so it’s always nice to go somewhere that has them.

So it was a long hot day at Whixall Moss, but the success of seeing the Large Heath and the bonus of the lapwings, made it all worthwhile. Butterfly species no. 46 ticked off the list – only another dozen or so to go!

Moth Breakfast & Butterfly Brunch

Yesterday we had the perfect start to a Sunday – a Moth Breakfast, followed by a brunchtime stroll for butterflies. Thankfully the Moth Breakfast was not as insectivorous as it sounds – we simply looked at moths while actually eating bacon butties!  The event was organised by the West Midlands Branch of Butterfly Conservation and took place as one of our favourite places – Monkwood. The moth traps had been put out the night before and all we had to do was turn up to see what had been caught. The great thing about an event like this is that we got to see moth species that we just don’t get in our garden. So amongst many others we saw woodland moths such as – Blotched Emerald, Large Emerald, Peach Blossom and Rosy Footman – all species that I have been dying to see for ages. So here they are:

Blotched Emerald.

Large Emerald.

Peach Blossom

Rosy Footman

Another bonus of going to this kind of event, is getting to meet a load of like minded people. It’s not often I get the chance to discuss with enthusiasm the differences between a blotched and a large emerald, or a Fan Foot versus a Small Fan Foot. I’m more used to amused tolerance rather than eager enthusiasm when waxing lyrical about the beauty of moths! So it was lovely to chat to some new people.

After we’d had our fill of moths (and bacon butties) we headed off for a mid morning walk around the wood. Monkwood is run by Butterfly Conservation and as such is brimming with butterflies. The very first time we went to Monkwood we were amazed to see White Admirals flitting around as we got out of the car. This time it was Purple Hairstreaks – there were at least 3 or 4 (and possibly many more) fluttering around the tops of the trees around the carpark. Sadly none came down low enough to get a decent photo, so this was the best distant shot I managed.

The White Admirals though were much more obliging and appeared along the path almost as soon as we left the carpark. The uppersides of their wings might not be as showy as their Red Admiral cousins, but the undersides more than make up for it. They are fast flying butterflies, but thankfully a few settled long enough to get some pics.

We also saw our first Meadow Browns and Ringlets – common enough butterflies, but still always nice to see your first ones for the year.

A couple of Silver Washed Fritillaries bombed passed us but didn’t hang around long enough to get their photos taken. Same story with a Comma and a White of some description which didn’t even slow down enough for me to tell if it was Large or Green-Veined.

By far the most common butterfly we saw was the Large Skipper. As always I love these cheery little orange butterflies, not least because they pose so nicely for photos.

Butterfly highlight of the morning though has to be the Wood White. We have seen Wood Whites once before (at Haugh Wood in Herefordshire), but it was nice to see these delightful little butterflies again. Their renewed presence in Monkwood is a relatively new thing and is all down to the hard work that Butterfly Conservation have put in. We were at the tail-end of the Wood White season, so there were only a couple around, but there had apparently been plenty of them earlier in the month. A good news story!

The Wood Whites are such ethereal little butterflies. This last photo in particular reminds me of how I imagined fairies to be when I was little – long before I’d even heard of Wood Whites.

Monkwood has plenty of other insect life to offer too. There are a few small ponds, so dragonflies and damselflies were abundant in those areas. We are used to seeing the red and various blue damselflies, but this Emerald one was a new one for us I think.

We saw quite a few beetles, including several of this splendid Black & Yellow Longhorn Beetle.

Chris managed to find our first Speckled Bush Cricket of the year,

whilst I got a male Scorpion Fly showing off his strange scorpion-like rear end and his even stranger proboscis.

Final interest for the day was this pair of mating Dock Bugs, who for some reason had chosen a spot of bird poo for the site of their nuptials, all watched it seems by a curious fly.

So many thanks to Butterfly Conservation West Midlands for getting us out of bed on a Sunday for a most enjoyable morning.