Unmistakable!

This beauty is a privet hawk moth and is the most spectacular catch of the moth trap this summer. She was peacefully happy to be photographed in the morning, showing off her spectacular underwings before folding them tidily away and resting for a while in the shade of the table leg.

She seemed oddly familiar even though I know I have never seen this wonderful creature before. It wasn’t until I was sending my records in to our local wildlife site

( faune-alsace) that I realised the privet hawk moth is the cover illustration on my Chris Manley Guide to British Moths.

She was even bigger and better in real life!

 

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I am watching you!

Summer is so full of life. It is difficult to know where to look.

Huge oaks thrash in a thunder storm; the ears of a hiding fawn flick above tall flowers; a wet butterfly waits for the sun under a rain soaked flower.

Cameras give us the chance to see somethings we missed the first time. This angle shades moth is a tribal mask watching us more intently than we think!

(Thanks to Bruce Piercy for this photo).

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Putting your finger on it!

Sometimes the garden grows so fast there isn’t time to breath. Our weather has been very hot and very wet. The air is saturated in moisture and the garden feels like a hot house. The weeds are growing, the trees are growing,  the flowers are growing and the slugs are multiplying.

The air is perfumed. Lime trees are in full bloom and the perfume somehow reminds me of my mother’s washing powder and all seems clean and safe. The sweet chestnut is also in flower and the feathery blossoms are heavy, exotic and unfamiliar and they make make me sneeze.

The moth trap is full of the usual suspects. The light emerald wouldn’t leave my finger and the little emerald with its raggy wing seemed determined to make a point, but what it was, is as elusive as perfume and the racing days.

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Look!

BCE90CB6-0731-4540-99A3-A6BBAD0A4DC5Its real spring now and swallows are scissoring across the sky catching insects. Old meadows underneath the cherry trees are loaded with flowers before the mowers slice them down to make hay for the pampered ponies of the rich girls from Basel.

Amongst the grass there are ox eye daisies, buttercups and tall goats beards, meadow clary, eggs and bacon, hoary plantains, hay rattle and clustered bell flowers.

The moth trap has caught a few equally beautifully named specimens to admire in the early morning quiet; great oak beauties, muslin moths, pine sphinxes and this pale tussock who came to rest on my cap over night. Evocative names, unfathomable eyes and in the case of the pale tussock moth: disturbingly hairy claspers!

 

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Putting your money where your mouth is!

 

On Earth day  I declared my garden pesticide free. Sounds good doesnt it? I think youngsters call it virtue signaling, or boasting in real speak.

That means no slug pellets and no chemi death to save my box hedge from the terrible china moth that has killed so many lovely box hedges across Europe. The slug pellets I am weaning myself off. I have found lettuces that they  don’t eat and  I try not to grow flowers that they like. However last night I found my irises being quietly shreded by little slugs working in tiny teams to saw through the stems of the unopened flowers and I felt my resolve slipping . Overhead a bat was stiching the night air and his clicks and whirs were ticking through my bat detector box, as he caught his night flying bugs. I turned back to the house and there in the dusk was a fat hedgehog snuffling.

They are the reason I made my rash pledge. I want my little patch of heaven to be free of the chemicals that are killing our wildlife. The world outside of my garden may well be going to hell in a handbasket, but I have control of this tiny space and I have to keep it clean.

Today  I spent another couple of hours picking revolting fat china moth caterpillars by hand off my box hedge. It was hardwork and the wretches kepts trying to wriggle out of the bucket before I could drown them. They are recent alien invaders and they have no natural predators in Europe. If  I ignore them, they will eat the whole hedge .  Then we both pressure hosed the hedge to try to blast away the ones  I had missed . Neighbours stopped to ask what we were doing washing the hedge.

Green gardening is proving to be a lot of hard work, but the hedgehog says it is worth it!

New season resolutions for Earth Day.

 

 

 

Life and Death (in the garden!)

A rushed spring produced record amounts of pollen. The birch and beech and oak all showered down together with dandelion, leaving a bright yellow slick of dust on everything for weeks. There has been a little rain and some has washed away leaving golden runnels on the pavements, visible proof of the pulsing life of spring.

The wild strawberries are out and the slugs are carefully sawing their way through the stalks of each iris flower. The box tree hedge is alive with China moth caterpillars and I have filled a bucket with the wriggling horrors. I rashly vowed never to use pesticides in my garden again, so now each fat black and yellow wretch must be picked off by hand. It feels loathsomely virtuous and tomorrow I am going to turn the high pressure hose on them and see how they like that blast of clean bio warfare!

New season resolutions for Earth Day.

 

Three quarters of the flying insects are gone.

This article from the Guardian newspaper explains the terrifying decline in insects that is happening in Europe. I heard about it on a radio programme as I was rushing out to work and like so much bad news, I jus hoped it wasn’t true.

Unfortunately it is true and I know it . 

When I would drive home in dusk twenty years ago, the windscreen of my car would be covered in dead insects. Driving down a country lane in the summer was to push through all manner of bugs and butterflies, but now the glass is hardly dirty.

The air is empty. We have trimmed all the hedges and the field edges, we have patioed our gardens and insecticided every crop and plant that we grow. We have tidied up everywhere and now there is virtually no where left for a bug to feed, which means no bugs for the birds to feed on, no birds for the mammals to catch and so on up the food chain.

I don’t want to know this. It is too depressing, but that won’t stop it being true.

So in the spirit of the saying that it is better to light a candle in the night, that to curse the darkness, I will not be tidying my garden this weekend. I shall leave every over grown plant and tatty seedhead; every untrimmed corner of rank grass and every heap of uncollected leaves in the hope that a few hard pressed insects will find a home there and survive for just a little longer.

Here’s to not gardening in the dark!

https://amp-theguardian-com.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/amp.theguardian.com/environment/2017/oct/21/insects-giant-ecosystem-collapsing-human-activity-catastrophe

Keeping it real!

 

I am now firmly back in the toad land of work, the long  day stretches ahead and the sky can just be glimpsed through the bars of the firmly shut blinds.

My garden is another five days away and only a few pot plants on the desk remind me of the green I am missing.

A few unexpected specks of spherical black, dot my desk and I realize they are insect frass.  On close inspection of my rose scented geranium, I spot eaten leaves and more frass.  There can only be one explanation.  A caterpillar has hitched a ride from the garden and is slowly devouring my plant, utterly safe from all predators on my desk.

I think it is a garden tiger moth caterpillar and as I write, its hairy body is swelling as it ingests the perfumed leaves.  It doesn’t mind being here.  This is safe and profitable for a caterpillar.

Time to take another lesson from nature, I suppose: but when it turns into an extravagantly patterned moth, I will need to find a way to set it free!

Caught in time.

This tiny blue butterfly took a fancy to my hat and spent much of the day photogenically attached to me, as we wandered around an upland meadow earlier this week. It sat on my hair, when I took off the hat and it rested on my water bottle when it tired of riding on the hat. I don’t know what the butterfly got out of our interaction, but when I looked closely at his wonderful compound eye, I knew I was looking into something immensely old and extraordinary.
This photo was taken using a microscope of a fly caught in a chip of amber bought recently. The eye is concave from the pressure of the ancient resin, but still very recognisably and unchanged: an insect.

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Some other insect eyes from recent moth trapping, watching me across the ages, include lesser elephant hawk moth and oak eggar moth.

 

I wonder which one of us understands more of life on this planet?

Fruit and Fancy.

After the heat came the rain and everything sighed, expanded, fluffed out a feather and a flower and grew exponentially!

The sun had turned everything to sugar and we picked masses of raspberries, sticky red currents and black currents as perfect as jewels.

I was drying a tray of rain washed berries before freezing them for the winter, when I opened my moth trap and found another new species for the life list. This extravagant creature is a scarlet tiger and she sat momentarily on my hand above the fruit.

There are so many new creatures to be found in every patch and scrap of world. I listened to a wonderful radio show on the almost indestructible tardigrade , that lives in moss and volcanoes and between the plates of barnacle shells.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vy0yb

I  had never heard of them, but now I regard the rain plumped moss of my path with renewed respect, knowing that it is home to such an extraordinary expression of life.

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Moths and bats.

I like the things of the night. For me moths and bats have a mystery and a glamour unsurpassed by butterflies and birds. As their world takes place where I can not see, my fascination grows.

To humour me, my husband bought me a moth trap and a bat detector box for my last birthday. I have shared a few finds from the moth trap in previous posts and this weekend I was intrigued by this broken twig of a creature called a buff tip. The mimicry is perfect from the blunt face of the twig end to the exposed heart wood of the white wing. During the day they rest safe from the gaze of hungry birds in trees, but at night when they fly out they are prey to the hunters of the night .

I have always wanted a bat detector, since I saw them being used by experts from my local wildlife trust. The high pitched echo locationtion used by bats is inaudible to human ears, but each species of bat echo locates at a different frequency and by noting which frequency the bat calls at, you can work out which type of bat is swooping over head.  I am just learning to use my bat detector and if there are any experts out there I would love some advice!

So far I think I have identified noctuel bats, but were they ordinary noctuels or lesser noctuels? Their call is loud ” chip chop” over the earphones. I have also heard pipistrelles, but again, where they standard ones or Pygmy pipistrelles? At the very top of the range I caught a tantalising burst of the burbling sound of horseshoe bats, but which type?

I have a lot to learn and a lot of sleep to loose in the back garden peering into the darkness, but it beats worrying about the darkness of the human soul and reminds me of how little I know and how many mysteries there are still to explore!

For those of you interested in bats this wonderful you tube clip by Daniel Hargreaves shows lesser horseshoe bats calling from a roost and I swear two of them are dancing!

 

Warhammer 40k – Emperor of the Tau!

This is the real Tau Emperor!

This magnificent specimen was the first find in my brand new moth trap. I don’t normally bother trying to attract moths so early in the year, but I could not resist lighting up my new Watkinson and Doncaster birthday present and this stunner was the first to be found on the egg boxes under the lamp in the morning.

She is like a very large oak eggar, but with brillant blue mirrors and  white arrows dotting her soft cinnamon coloured wings. When disturbed, she raised all her feet like a real pugilist and brandished them with admirable defensive aggression.

I think she would make it, in the on-line world of Warhammer with no problem at all!

The Big Birds are Back.

Storks are the regional emblem of the Alsace and tourist stalls are loaded with stork hats, stork plates, stork stuffed toys and stork snow domes, but these magnificently huge birds were almost completely wiped out in the twentieth century and numbers went as low as 9 pairs in the 1970s.
Birds were shot at, electrocuted on overhead wires and poisoned. Many starved in their African wintering grounds due to droughts.
They were completely extinct in Switzerland by 1950, but a determined school teacher from Solothurn went to Africa to find chicks, which he reintroduced to his country and here in the Alsace and Southern Germany programmes of captive breeding slowly pulled the White Stork back from the brink.
By feeding birds here to encourage them to avoid the hazardous migration south, numbers have increased to the point where breeding and feeding stations in local villages like Rodersdorf have recently been closed, as the population is thought finally to be stable enough not to need intervention.
The sight of storks returning to their nests on the rooves of local churches, on random telegraph posts and the even mobile phone towers is a sight to gladden the heart at this time of year.
The birds can live for thirty years and nests can weigh from 60-250Kg. Nests can be used year after year and many other birds can nest in the lower reaches of the bigger nests including sparrows and starlings.
Courtship and pair bonding is accompanied by wonderful clacking as they throw back their heads and point their huge beaks upwards. An average of four eggs are laid and chicks that hatch later in the season often do better than those who hatch earlier, as they avoid the perils of a cold wet spring. Successfully reared juveniles may opt to stay in Europe during the winter, especially where food many be plentiful as for instance around the zoos in Mulhouse, Basel and Zurich, but others will attempt the long migration into Africa to feed for insects, small mammals and amphibians in warmer surroundings .
So whether they have crossed continents, just hoped the border in our tri region area, or spent the whole year in the same spot; their nesting brings another generation of these magnificent birds back to my part of France, where they were so nearly lost forever.

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“A Providence in the fall of sparrow”

Shakespeare thought sparrows were so ubiquitous that he used them as an example of something so common that only God could find their death significant . In Europe they have been so common that we often over look them, but in fact there are many less of them than they used to be. Populations have crashed due to intensive farming, sowing winter crops that leave no stubble in the fields and our obsessively,  over-tidy gardens .

Like all wildlife the humble sparrow needs untidy patches with wild flower seeds and the split grain of sloppy harvesting that leaves something over for the birds.

It was in just such a rare scattering of maize seed on a country lane that I encountered a huge flock of mixed common sparrows and tree sparrows busily feeding on the ground. As they fed they kept up a incessant chatter that makes one of the most cheerful of bird sounds I know. It is the background noise of childhood and the sound of quiet gardens made rorcous, alive and safe .

As we approached they fell utterly silent and then wheeled away in an indignant cloud. They wheeled over our heads, so numerous that they looked like smoke for a moment before descending on a couple of old apples trees .  Their descent into the trees was so sudden and complete that they seemed to fall into the branches as if dragged down by a powerful magnet. No squabbling for places or hesitancy; they knew exactly where they were going and were silent and hidden within seconds.  Humans have grown up with sparrows, even evolved with them: we know that when the birds are singing there are no predators near and we are all safe.

When the singing stops we are still afraid.

To keep some closer to home I put out bread crumbs every morning on a bird table away from my cats. My reward is the sound of a dozen sparrows chirruping each day and their simple song make me feel a little safer.

Mysterious moths

When I tell people I like moths I usually get a pitying look of amused incomprehension or sometimes a suppressed shudder of dislike. Everyone likes butterflies and moths are simply their nocturnal counterparts. The French don’t even have a separate word for moth, they are simply papillon du nuit.

Admiring a butterfly is relatively easy, but seeing a moth that isn’t frying in a lamp shade is more difficult.

I have a simple uv light that attracts them at night. The moths then tumble down into a covered trap where they hide amongst egg boxes provided for their comfort until the morning when I turn out and remove the light. I then carefully remove the egg boxes one by one and the moths allow me to admire and identify them one by one . The identified moths are then gently tapped out into the garden where they hide until night time.

To date I have identified 126 species of moth in my garden from flamboyant hawk moths to tiny delicate plume moths and all the stunningly beautiful creatures in between.
August is underwing time. Many types of apparently dull brown moth have bright flashes of yellow, copper or red only visible when they fly and they are especially common in the late summer. Last night I found Copper Underwing, Broad bordered Yellow underwing, as well as a Mottled beauty, a Jersey Tiger, a lesser Elephant Hawk moth, a Flame Shoulder and my faithful friend the setaceous Hebrew character. One of the great pleasures of identifying moths is the wonderful rich variety of their names, which to me seem redolent of peaceful English Victorian parsonages. I can see vicars taking great pains to differentiate each species for the first time in a tradition that brought us the genius of Charles Darwin.

I wish I had their time to devote this quiet hobby, but I don’t and so it remains a weekend pleasure for starry nights and cool Sunday mornings before the heat of the day takes over.