2021 – The Year of the Slug

Well we all started out with high hopes that 2021 was going to be better than 2020. I’m not sure it achieved that, but best to dwell on the positives rather than the (many) negatives of the year. So here’s a round-up of some of my wildlife highlights from 2021, including a catch-up on my clearly over-ambitious New Year’s Resolutions.

The main highlight was probably going to Norfolk. We had originally planned to go in 2020, but covid put paid to that, but we finally made it there in June 2021. We had a rental right by the river in Wroxham, so were surrounded by wildlife from the start – birds, dragonflies and even a resident pike.  We ticked off number 53 on our list of British butterflies with the gorgeous Swallowtail and saw loads of dragonflies and birds. As I write, this I’ve realised I never actually got round to blogging about the birds, so will have to do a bit of a summary of those in a separate post. We visited lots of nature reserves and it was great to see a completely different set of wildlife to that which we get back home in Worcestershire.

Back at home, there’s been plenty of interest in the garden. The moth trap has been running throughout the year, bringing 34 new species to the garden. This takes the total up to an amazing 438 species recorded since I started in 2013. I’d never have dreamed back then that we could get such a huge variety of moths visiting our modest suburban garden. Highlights from this year include whoppers like the Pine Hawkmoth and this Privet Hawkmoth:

At the other end of the size spectrum, there were some lovely micro moths, including this Pearl Grass-veneer – a species I’d been hoping to see for a while.

Another mothy highlight was finally getting to see the flightless female vapourer moth and not only that, but getting to watch her laying eggs on our garage wall.

We put up more bee hotels last year and were rewarded with plenty of solitary bee activity. No new species recorded in the garden, but thrilled to finally catch a leaf-cutter bee actually cutting leaves.

 

The pond continued to delight and I spent many a happy hour there last year watching the wildlife. We got frog spawn in it for the first time and the newts were busy too. I would love to get toad spawn, but I gather they tend to be faithful to the ponds they were born in, so we will be lucky to get those – but I live in hope. We had plenty of dragonfly and damselfly activity, including home-grown damselflies hatching from the pond. Only one new species was spotted – this Blue-tailed Damselfly, bringing our total Odonata species list for the garden to 10.

We’ve had happy and sad news with our hedgehogs in the garden. The good news is that through the warmer months we were visited nightly by at least one, and sometimes as many as three hedgehogs. Lots of courtship behaviour witnessed on the cameras and a few heated hoggy debates over food or ladies. Some of the courtship was quite late in the year though and the inevitable result was at least one late litter of hoglets. While a second litter may seem like a good idea, the resulting hoglets often don’t have time to fatten up before the winter. The result was that in a 2 week period between the end of October and early November, I had to rescue 6 very underweight hoglets, 2 of whom were out during the day as well. None of these would have survived hibernation without intervention as they just didn’t have the fat reserves. The 6 were all taken to local rescues. Sadly despite the best efforts of the rehabilitators, 3 of them still didn’t make it.

Thankfully the remaining 3 have survived. One has even grown enough that he was released back in our garden during a mild spell. Hopefully the remaining 2 can be released back home in the spring too.

Despite all the enjoyment I’ve had from all of the above, the animals of the year have to be slugs! Not everyone’s favourite I know, but over the last year I’ve grown quite fond of them. For most of this year I participated in a nationwide slug survey and am now a slug fan. Some of the slugs are still being analysed back at slug HQ (a RHS lab), so I’ll have to wait a bit for the final conclusions. But slugs really reached the dizzy heights for me when one of the actual slugs from our garden featured on Gardener’s World – it doesn’t get more exciting than that!

As to last year’s New Year’s Resolutions, I think I’ve failed pretty dismally on most of them (as with most things, I blame this on Covid). Here’s what I set out to do and what I did or did not achieve:

  • Video a dragonfly emerging from our pond. I did see some damselfly larvae and found several exuviae on rocks and plants, but didn’t manage to see them actually emerge in our pond. But we did see some emerging while we were in Norfolk, so can I count that???
  • Expand the moon garden – nope – the moon garden is stuck at the same size it was last year. I still had a good year for moths, but there’s always hope for more.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. Only managed to see 1 more, but it was the fabulous Swallowtail, so more than happy with that.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves. I think we did do that if I include the ones we went to in Norfolk.
  • Rockpooling. Nope – only managed to see sandy beaches in Norfolk, so no chance for rockpooling.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys. Nope and again I blame Covid for travel restrictions during Osprey season.
  • The moth tattoo! Maybe I should give up on this!

So what about resolutions for 2022?

  • Continue the quest to see all the British species of butterfly. So far we’ve seen 53 out of the 58. We’re hoping to holiday in the Lake District this year, so with luck might be able to tick 2 more species off the list.
  • I had planned on starting a nature journal, recording the daily goings on in the garden. But as I write this, we are already on the 9th of January and I haven’t made a single journal entry – maybe I can start it in the spring?
  • Rockpooling. I would still really love to be able to film some wildlife in a rockpool with the GoPro. Hopefully there will be some rocky coasts round Cumbria to try this out.
  • Try a night-time safari in the garden. While doing the slug surveys, I was amazed how much invertebrate life was active after dark. So it would be nice to spend a night seeing the other side of our garden life.
  • Do a wildlife audit of the garden – hopefully this will be a lot more fun than that makes it sound. I already know how many moths and bee and dragonfly species we get, but I thought it would be interesting to tally up ALL the species we get. Since we’ve got over 400 moths alone, the total species count should easily make it over 500.
  • The moth tattoo – one of these days.

So despite a pandemic’s efforts to put a dampener on 2021, there was still much to enjoy in terms of wildlife. Being blessed with an interest in wildlife can be a real life-saver when so much of the rest of the world is doom and gloom. There is always something in nature to lift your spirits, whether it’s spotting some exotic bird or getting a slug on Gardener’s World! xx

Flightless but Fabulous

This week I finally got to see a moth I’ve been wanting to see for a very long time – a female Vapourer. We often see Vapourer caterpillars in the garden and sometimes the male adult moths, but the female is something else. The female Vapourer has the, perhaps unenviable, trait of being flightless! Her life as a caterpillar proceeds the same as the male, but when she pupates, instead of emerging with beautiful wings, she appears as short dumpy lump who can hardly move (perhaps this is why I empathise with her!). A female Vapourer’s lot is not a glamorous one.

Back at the beginning of July I spotted this large Vapourer caterpillar on the garage wall. They are spectacular looking caterpillars with tufts protruding here, there and everywhere. 

This caterpillar very purposefully headed up the garage wall until it reached the overhang at the top – and there it settled. I saw it there an hour or so later and at first thought it had been snared by a spider’s web, but it was in fact pupating.

The caterpillars spin themselves a fairly thin whispy cocoon and can emerge as an adult within 2 weeks. The good people on a local Facebook group suggested this could be a female, so I checked the cocoon every day for weeks hoping to catch it emerge. Sadly just as the time should have been up, it looked like the garden sparrows or blue tits had pecked her out of her cocoon. We often see them pecking at small spiders and insects on the walls and it seemed this was her fate.

Fortunately that same week, I spotted another 2 caterpillars – also on the garden wall, but this time choosing a slightly safer place to pupate – beneath the garage windowsills. Tucked away there, they were less visible to the birds and perhaps stood a better chance. These ones also had the advantage (for me) of being much lower down the wall, so I could watch them more closely. The caterpillars (at this stage I didn’t know whether I’d got males or females) use some of their hairs and tufts to “decorate”  the cocoon. Since these hairs are irritants, this may serve to provide additional protection to the developing moth inside. You can see various hairs and tufts on the picture below, photographed under the windowsill.

On Sunday, exactly 14 days after I’d seen her crawl under the windowsill, a female Vapourer emerged. When they emerge the females emit pheromones to attract the males. Since the females can’t really move, the males have to come to them and the pheromones draw them in very quickly. So quickly in fact that I missed this stage of the process. I’d checked the cocoons at about 8am – no sign of any activity. I was out for the morning and by the time I checked again at noon, the female was in full egg-laying mode. The males had been and gone. Disappointing as that was, it was still fantastic to see the female laying eggs. Here are a selection of photos taken somewhat awkwardly beneath the windowsill.

On the photo below you can see what I think are the vestigial remains of wings – looking like fluffy ears, either side of her head.

Her body is really a furry sac, stuffed fill of eggs. She has legs at the front to hold on to the cocoon.

The eggs are laid directly onto the cocoon. They looked wet and a sort of olive colour as they emerged but soon turned white with a darker centre spot.

I did try to video the process, not easy as the light wasn’t great underneath the windowsill. She works determinedly laying egg after egg, all neatly arranged on the remains of the cocoon.

In all she laid 401 eggs – I read online that they can lay between 200 and 400, so she excelled herself!

I suppose I should show a photo of a male Vapourer, although their contribution to the whole process is fleeting to say the least. He is, it has to be said, a very attractive moth, with large feathery antennae for detecting the females’ pheromones.

Sadly once the female finishes laying her eggs, she dies. Her body by then has shrunk and shrivelled once it is empty of eggs. I found this one the next day lying on the ground beneath the windowsill, her eggs still safely sitting on the cocoon. I actually felt quite sad to see her like that, but her work was done and with 401 eggs she had hopefully ensured her genes would live on. Her adult life may have been brief, but she packed a lot into it. Flightless she may have been, but to me a fabulous moth. 

 

Spring Has Sprung

It was the Spring Equinox at the weekend – 20th March according to Google or 21st March according to my Dad whose birthday it was yesterday and he always said he was born on the first day of spring! Whichever day it was, the garden seems to be responding and there are signs of life everywhere after the long winter (and lockdown). 

Spring was ushered in a bit early back in February with the appearance of a new moth for the garden – the Spring Usher; an attractive moth and one that I’d been hoping to see for some years.

Spring Usher 1

Other insects have started to appear too. The garden has been graced with visits from both a Comma and a Brimstone butterfly – sadly both too fast and fleeting to get a decent photo of, but joys to see nonetheless. Pond skaters have popped up on the pond again. They were the first insects to move into the new pond last year so it’s nice to see them back again.

The first bees have emerged too. My perennial favourites the Hairy Footed Flower Bees are back buzzing round the garden. I’ve only seen males so far, but I think they do tend to appear before the females.

Hairy footed flower bee

I’ve not seen any active Red Mason Bees yet, but they can’t be far off. I collected the cocoons from some of the tubes in the bee houses last year and they are now safely back out waiting for them to hatch. Again I think the males may hatch first.

red mason cocoons

Another favourite – the Dark-edged Beefly appeared just at the weekend. I don’t know why, but I’ve always found them to be cheery little insects and for me they really signal that spring is on its way.

beefly

The spring flowers are out in force now – good news for the bees hopefully. We’ve got lots of self-seeded primroses all over the place and the occasion violet too.

primroses

Violet

A surprise this year was to find that we have a Hazel tree. The little sapling has just appeared amongst the bushes – we can only guess that perhaps the squirrel buried a nut and then forgot about it. Having never known anything about catkins, I discovered that the trailing flowers I was familiar with were just the males and that there were much smaller red flowers that were the females. I had to go back out and search over our tiny tree, but sure enough there were female flowers too – you learn something new every day! The red female flowers are tiny in comparison and barely noticeable. 

Hazel male catkins (1)

 

Hazel female flower

The pond has been attracting a fair amount of non-insect life too. The birds as always using it for drinking and bathing – I was particularly pleased that our resident wren got caught on camera even if it was for just a second.

A couple of our hedgehogs have emerged early from hibernation and have been seen drinking from the pond most nights. It’s always a relief to know they have survived the winter.

But the BIG news is that we have frog spawn! The first spawn appeared on 20th February, followed by another clump the next day, then 2 more clumps three weeks later. Here’s the first beautiful batch. Frog spawn day 1

I’ll do a full froggy post soon, as I’ve taken too many photos and videos to include in this one. So despite what Google and my Dad said, for me spring began on 20th February with the glistening sight of our first frog spawn.

2020 – The Year of the Pond

Well there are probably lots of ways to describe 2020, but most of those aren’t repeatable on what tries to be an upbeat blog. So I will gloss over the obvious and instead try and focus on the many good things that happened in the last year.

First and foremost was that we finally managed to put in a new pond. The timing for this couldn’t have been better – the pond went in during February and of course in March we went into lockdown. Having the pond to sit by and watch develop through those long months was a real sanity-saver. It was amazing how quickly the wildlife moved in and as it matures I’m sure it will only get better.

A real highlight and sense of achievement came at the end of May when George, the Eyed Hawkmoth I’d reared from an egg, finally emerged. I’d been nurturing him for 10 months since I’d found the egg in the moth trap and so I felt like a proud mum when he emerged and flew off into the night. Hopefully there will be sons and daughters of George in flight this summer too.

Another moth related achievement was the creation of our Moon Garden – an area planted specifically to attract moths. And it worked. 39 new moth species were recorded, bringing the running total for the garden to 405. Best of all it attracted a Dark Crimson Underwing – believed to be the first record for this species for the whole of the West Midlands.

2020 turned out to be a good year for butterflies too. Between lockdowns, we managed to add 2 more species (Silver-spotted Skipper and Black Hairstreak) in our mission to see all the British butterflies. We also noted 2 new species for the garden (Silver-washed Fritillary & Brown Argus), although this was more by luck than good management.

The new bee hotels provided lots of interest and again we added 2 species to our garden count (Willughby’s Leafcutter and a Sharp-tailed Bee). Being able to watch both Red Mason & Leafcutter bees build their nests in the tubes was really fascinating.

Despite lockdowns, we still managed to take part in various citizen science projects – including Big Butterfly Count & Garden Moth Scheme. A new project this year is the Slugs Count project.  This is a monthly survey of the garden for slugs and it’s been great (trying) to get to grips with a whole new group.

As I do every year, I’d made various wildlife resolutions at the start of 2020. Of course back in January none of us had any idea of how the year was going to turn out! Not surprisingly the Covid imposed restrictions had an impact on some of my resolutions, but at least this year I’ve got a really good excuse for not completing them all! So here were last year’s targets:

  • New pond – well at least we smashed this one. Many thanks to Gwyndaf the Cycling Gardener who was the one who did all the hard work digging, while we sat back and reaped the rewards.
  • Create a Moon Garden. I think we pretty much nailed this one too. The Moon garden was a big success both aesthetically and for the moths.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. For a while it seemed touch and go whether we would achieve this one. Our planned trip to Norfolk to see the Swallowtails was of course cancelled, but in the end we did manage 2 other species (always good to have a plan B). So we’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves. I think we only managed 2 new ones (Glapthorne Meadows and Aston Rowant NR), but then many of the nature reserves were closed to the public during the lockdowns, so I figure we have an excuse.
  • Go rockpooling. Had hoped to do this one in Norfolk, but of course that went out the window. Not much scope for rockpooling in Worcestershire, so this one will have to get bumped to next year.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys. Again we were thwarted by Covid. I had hoped to go up to see the Dyfi Ospreys, but for a large part of the year we’ve not been allowed into Wales!
  • The moth tattoo! I genuinely thought this would be the year I’d get a moth tattoo – I’ve even decided it should be of George the Eyed Hawkmoth. But of course tattoo parlours were one of the first things to get closed down – so that’s my excuse at least.

So to New Year’s Resolutions for 2021. Covid may continue to thwart our efforts, but we can at least hope to enjoy as much wildlife as possible.

  • Try and video a dragonfly emerging from the pond. We had lots of dragonfly/damselfly egg laying activity in the new pond last year, so hopefully I can catch some of them emerging in the summer.
  • Expand the moon garden – it’s been great so far, but I’m hoping to double the area.
  • See 2 more species of British Butterfly. We’ve now seen 52 of the 58 species, but we’re having to go further and further afield to see the remaining ones. Fingers crossed we can see the Swallowtail in Norfolk at least this year.
  • Visit 5 new nature reserves.
  • Rockpooling. Again fingers crossed we make it to Norfolk for this.
  • Go and see some wild Ospreys – if we’re allowed back in Wales!
  • The moth tattoo!

If 2020 has taught me anything it is that I am very grateful to have a wildlife filled garden and that I am lucky it brings me so much pleasure. It must be awful for those who didn’t get the chance to enjoy wildlife this year, but then I think it would be awful in any year not find joy in the nature that is all around us if we take the time to look.

Miscellaneous Delights

Despite being stuck at home like many people, for much of this year, I don’t seem to have blogged as much as I would have liked. It certainly wasn’t for lack of interest in the garden – having spent an inordinate amount of time sitting out, there was plenty to see. Perhaps there was too much, or perhaps I just couldn’t face being cooped up inside to write. Whatever the reason, I’ve ended up with a lot of interesting (to me at least) snippets, that never saw the light of day. So here’s a miscellany of wildlife moments from the garden this year – they all cheered me up and they deserve their moment!

Most of this will be insects, but there are a trio of mammals making the cut.  Hedgehogs of course featured regularly in the garden. Freda our 3-legged hedgehog from the previous year not only made it through the winter, but produced at least one hoglet. Here she is looking like many mums – slightly harassed by her offspring.

 

Bats (most likely Common Pipistrelles) have always used our garden as a hunting ground in the summer months. A weed-filled garden tends also to be an insect-filled garden, so there are plenty of moths and other food for them. It may be wishful thinking on my part, but the bats do seem to be coming more frequently now we have the new pond. The pond is surely generating extra insect activity, which hopefully means more bats. I’ve tried with very limited success to film them – this was the best of a shoddy selection of shaky videos. I reckon there are at least 3 bats visible towards the end of the clip.

Third mammal is this mouse at the bird feeder, for no other reason than it was so cute.

So on to the insects. I was really chuffed to spot a Dotted Bee-fly again this year, amongst all the regular bee-flies. Both species seemed to favour warm stones around the pond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hoverflies were abundant in the garden and as usual I failed completely to get to grips with identifying them all. There were lots of different shapes and colours though, including some of the delightful bee mimic ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One I did manage to identify though was the Hornet Mimic Hoverfly (Volucella zonaria) – one of the biggest British species. They really were huge compared to the other hoverflies.

A new species to me and in fact a new group was this Potter Wasp – so called because some species construct little mud pots for nests.

Continuing on the waspy theme, here’s one of the gorgeous ruby-tailed wasp species. I tend to have mixed feelings towards these – they are of course stunningly beautiful, but they do parasitize mason bee nests and I feel very protective of my little mason bees. But live and let live and it’s nice to have diversity in the garden.

The wasps aren’t the only parasitic insects in the garden. I discovered this new addition to our garden bee fauna this year – a Sharp-tailed bee Coelioxys sp.  These ones make use of leaf-cutter bee nests.

Talking of leafcutter bees, I had meant to do a whole blog post on them. I’ve got a lot of photos and a lot of videos – so many in fact I think it became too daunting to sort through. So a full leafcutter post will have to wait until next year. In the meantime here’s a snippet.

 

We’ve had a few interesting beetles this year too. This one I spotted on the garage wall, while out checking the moth trap one night. For a split second I thought I’d got a Stag Beetle, then reality set in and I realised it was a Lesser Stag Beetle. Still a first for the garden, so very pleased to add it to our list.

The pond of course attracted lots of water beetles. This huge Great Diving Beetle misjudged his landing though and ended up in the hedgehog’s water bowl.

Also misjudging his landing was this Dung Beetle (Onthophagus coenobita) which ended up on a bit of frogbit in the pond.

Moths I’ve covered fairly extensively in other blog posts, but possibly my favourite odd moment this year was watching a male Black Arches moth flare it’s genitalia at me! It was perched on the edge of a pot and while I tried to photograph it, it started this weird behaviour. Don’t know whether it was trying to warn me off, or perhaps entice me (should I be flattered?), but it was certainly very odd. I sent the video clip to some moth experts and they weren’t sure why it was doing it either.

So that’s it really – a quick round-up of some of the wonderful wildlife I was lucky enough to see in our garden, but didn’t manage to blog about before. I feel very lucky to have had a garden to enjoy in 2020; it really has made things a lot easier to deal with when you’re surrounded by so much wildlife.

I’ll do a summary of everything else we’ve seen this year in the next blog post, with hopes and dreams for next year too. Happy New Year everyone. xx

 

 

 

Moon Garden

One of the things on my New Year’s Resolution list, way back before 2020 went crazy, was to create a Moon Garden. I’d got the idea originally from one of Butterfly Conservation’s e-newsletters; amongst the tips for things to do to encourage wildlife was to make a Moon Garden. This is specifically planted to encourage night time wildlife, in particular moths. Most of the plants are white/cream or pale yellow, so they almost glow in the moonlight. Many of them are also more fragrant at night and so should attract plenty of moths. Although at the beginning of 2020 we had already recorded 367 species of moth in the garden, there was always more to hope for!

A patch of garden had been roughly cleared in late autumn, so just needed digging over and any remaining weeds removed.  Here’s the obligatory “before” photo of the soon-to-be Moon Garden area.

Using the list from Butterfly Conservation’s website I ordered some of the plants as ready grown specimens and, to cut down costs a bit, some of the plants as seeds. One of the plants I was particularly keen to grow was the Tobacco Plant (Nicotiana alata) – known to attract the Convolvulus Hawk-moth, a large migrant moth. These grow quite large and tall and have long tubular flowers perfect for the moth’s long proboscis.

Other pale flowers included white alyssums and lavenders, evening primroses, night-scented stocks and phlox, hebe, jasmine and honeysuckle. There were a few, such as white campion, that I simply couldn’t get this year – thanks to covid closures of local garden centres and online sources being swamped with orders. But all in all I was very lucky to get a nice mix of flowers for the moon garden.

A final addition to the garden was Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina)- grown not only for the silvery-ness but also the hairiness of its foliage. This had two-fold appeal – the plant is not only attractive to moths, but the hairs on the leaves are collected by Wool Carder Bees. I’ve only ever seen one Wool Carder Bee in the garden, so had hoped to attract more. Sadly if they did come they did so while my back was turned. But the Lamb’s Ears have grown well, so hopefully next year I can split the plants to get greater coverage.

So this is what I ended up with – or at least this is the stage mid-summer before the Nicotiana and evening primroses took over. For some reason I forgot to take a photo later on before they all died off again! This part of the garden really did smell lovely in the evenings, with the mix of the honeysuckle and other night scented flowers.

So I’d built it, but would they come? Well I may not have got a Convolvulus Hawk-moth yet, but plenty of other species have been more obliging. We started the year on 367 moth species recorded for the garden and to date we now have 405 – an increase of 38.  Of course I can’t prove that all these 38 are a direct result of planting the moon garden, but I’m sure some of them at least must be. And since the garden looks and smells lovely anyway, it’s certainly a win-win thing to do.

Although I was primarily expecting to see the moths in the moon garden at night, it was nice to find the occasional one resting there during the day – like this Garden Carpet on the evening primroses. A slightly more impressive find though was this Poplar Hawk-moth roosting during the day on the Nicotiana.

At night the evening primrose flowers were particularly well used by Silver Y moths.

I run my moth trap most weeks close to where the moon garden now is. It may be co-incidence but some species certainly seemed to increase in numbers this year compared to previous years. The Elephant Hawk-moths for instance were arriving in veritable herds compared to the usual singletons.

The new species were a mix of macro and micro moths. Some I’d been longing to see for ages like this Peach Blossom.

But others were completely new to me. Here are a few favourites – Triple Barred Argent (Argyresthia trifasciata for the purists – a stunning golden striped micro), Lesser Spotted Pinion and Least Black Arches.

The undoubted highlight has to be the moment I discovered a Dark Crimson Underwing in the trap. I nearly put it down as being one of the regular Red Underwings (in my defence, it did after all appear to have red underwings) which I have occasionally found in the garden before. But it looked a bit different, so I double-checked with those much wiser than me and was thrilled to find it was a Dark Crimson instead. Not only did this turn out to be a new species for Worcestershire, it is probably new for the whole of the West Midlands region – result!

So all in all I’ve been very pleased with the results from my moon garden experiment. So much so in fact that I intend to extend it next year and hopefully double the area. Some of the perennials may take years to grow to their full potential, so hopefully it will get better as time goes on. Again it may be coincidence but we noticed more bat activity over the garden this year (hope they didn’t snaffle my longed-for convolvulous hawk-moth, although I suspect it would be too big!), which is great too. Perhaps next year I might plant an area specifically for caterpillar food plants too – it’s all got to be beneficial after all.

Our local branch of Butterfly Conservation had asked earlier this year for moth related articles for the magazine. I was delighted that they included an article on our Malvern Moon Garden. It was Butterfly Conservation’s article that inspired me to plant it in the first place, so it would be lovely if our garden could then inspire someone else to have a go and encourage more moths into their own garden.

I’m not normally one given to poetic quotes, but there’s a line from William Blake – “The Moon, like a flower in heaven’s high bower, with silent delight, sits and smiles on the night” which makes me think of our moon garden – a silent delight giving both me and hopefully the moths great pleasure.

 

 

 

 

Butterfly Number 52!

Last weekend we decided to venture out in search of a new butterfly species – the Silver-spotted Skipper. Our original plans for butterfly spotting this year had of course been stifled by the lockdown, so the skipper was a bit of a plan B. At this point we had seen 51 of the 58 species of butterfly on the UK mainland, but most of the remaining 7 were too far away to contemplate for a day trip. The Silver-spotted Skipper though was just about in reach, down in South Oxfordshire at the Aston Rowant Nature Reserve.

Butterfly watching and bad weather don’t go well together, so for days beforehand I’d been checking the weather forecast for Aston Rowant. While not ideal, Sunday was going to be the best day with sunny intervals throughout the morning – no mention of rain! So we set off early and got there before 9am to be greeted by very overcast skies. After our usual faffing about trying to find the entrance to the reserve, we got into the first fairly ordinary looking field and spent about 20 minutes fruitlessly searching for butterflies, before it started chucking it down. We took shelter under some trees for a while before deciding to head back to the car to wait it out. While trudging back through the rain we looked over a fence to spot another field on a sloping bank absolutely covered in flowers – a much more promising place to look for butterflies, although not while it was still raining.

Once the rain had stopped, we hurried back to the flowery slope, pursued by another couple with the same idea (there’s always a bit of friendly rivalry when you’re both looking for the same butterfly, who will spot it first? I hate to gloat but….). This chalk slope (with lumps of flint dotted around) was really beautiful, covered in wild flowers – wild thyme & marjoram, thistles, scabious and all sorts of other things I can’t name.

The area is also known for having a population of red kites. We saw two circling around while we were there. Because we were fairly high up on the hill, they were virtually at eye level with us sometimes, although that didn’t make it any easier to photograph them.

With the sun finally out, the slope was alive with butterflies and also 6-spot burnet moths catching the eye as they flashed their red underwings.

We saw lots of butterfly species – Marbled Whites, Small Heath, Red Admirals, a fritillary, Meadow Browns and lots of Chalkhill Blues. In one area there must have been 50 to 100 of them – the air above the grass and flowers was almost shimmering with blue butterflies. We’ve never seen so many.

Eventually though amongst all these blues we found a couple of our target species – the Silver-spotted Skipper. They’re really quite small and are almost impossible to spot unless you see one in flight. Then, as soon as they land, they disappear, perfectly camouflages in the undergrowth. But they are lovely little butterflies – very dainty and beautifully marked.

I did try a brief video of one, although the wind was blowing quite strong by then so I’m wobbling about a bit.

 

We had about an hour chasing butterflies before the rain came again and as if by magic all the butterflies disappeared back into the undergrowth. So we gave up and headed back to the car and the long drive home. But butterfly number 52 had been ticked off, so despite the weather we were more than happy with the outcome. The remaining 6 will have to wait until next year when hopefully we will be able to travel further afield.

 

 

 

Lonesome George – Born Free!

Way back at the end of last August I blogged about Lonesome George, the Eyed Hawk-moth caterpillar I had been raising. You can read the original blog post here:  https://toolazytoweed.uk/2019/08/29/lonesome-george/

Now, finally, George’s story is complete!

On 30th June 2019 I caught a female Eyed Hawk-moth in my moth trap. I put her briefly in a pot so I could take some photographs of her. Here she is in all her splendour.

While in captivity she laid 2 eggs. Hopefully she laid many more eggs too, once she was released, as she looked full to bursting.

I decided to try and rear the caterpillars if I could. They both hatched into tiny caterpillars, but sadly only one lasted beyond the first day – Lonesome George was the survivor. George was lovingly tended and fed fresh apple leaves every day and soon grew into a handsome fellow about 5cm long with a voracious appetite.

Towards the end of August 2019 he pupated and he’s been safely kept in a large tub with soil and leaves ever since. I checked on him every couple of days to make sure nothing untoward had happened to him.

At the  beginning of May I started seeing reports on social media of Eyed Hawk-moths being out and about, so I stepped up my surveillance of George. For the last few days I had been checking him almost hourly for any signs of activity. What I’d hoped to see was him (or her) emerging from the chrysalis and to watch the wings expand into full blown moth! Of course George had other ideas and chose to emerge during the night.  I got up yesterday morning and checked on him about 7am to find the chrysalis cracked open – I had a split second panic that something had somehow got into the tub and got him.

I love that in the bit of the chrysalis shell that has broken off, you can see the imprint of his antennae – it’s almost like a death mask! Anyway I checked the rest of the tub and there was George sitting proud and fully formed. Here’s the first hasty photo I took of him in case he flew off.

Fortunately he was fairly dopey, perhaps after the exertions of emerging and of course it was daylight. I say he, I can’t be totally sure but I think George is probably a George not a Georgina. I read that the males tend to be slightly smaller than the females and that they sit with their abdomens curled up a bit – both of which seemed to apply to George.

Having reared him for a year, I was loathe to just release him during the day and have him snaffled by a hungry sparrow. So I kept him in his tub in the shade for the day until it started to get dark and I gave him a stick to perch on to make him feel more comfortable. I did of course take the opportunity to take lots (and I mean lots) of photos of him. Here are just a few.

He had been raised on apple leaves as a caterpillar, so when the time came, the apple tree seemed the most sensible place to release him. I waited until it was almost dark and most of the birds had turned in for the night, then gently transferred him from his stick to some apple leaves.

He fidgeted a bit then settled down.

By this time it was getting pretty dark and I spent the next hour juggling camera, torches and tripod, trying to film George’s departure. About 21:45 he started fidgeting a bit more and even started having a good clean of his antennae, perhaps getting them in tip top condition to detect any nearby females.

He then started revving up his wings, presumably warming up the muscles which would never have been used before. I just had time to click record again on the camera.

Just before he took off, he squirted out a creamy white liquid, which I believe is the remains of the meconium (I’d had to google this) which was used to pump up the wings. Obviously there was some waste left over, so he expelled this before flight. But then he was off, free at last, circling the apple tree before I lost sight of him in the dark,

I had hoped to get a photo of the eye spots which give the Eyed Hawkmoth its name and which it flashes when threatened, but he refused to show them. I suppose I should feel good that George didn’t feel threatened by me! The best I managed to do in the end was take this still from the video.

Adult Eyed Hawkmoths don’t feed, they have no working mouth parts with which to do so. So sadly George will probably only live for a couple of weeks at the most. It may sound daft, but I felt quite emotional releasing him and watching him fly away. I had spent the best part of a year rearing him and checking on him almost daily and I did feel genuinely sad to see him go although very proud that he had made it. I just hope he finds a female (or finds a male if I got it wrong and he is a Georgina) and that our garden will be home to future generations of Georges. Good Luck George.