Night time

I fall asleep to “Just William “ books. Gentle escapism of the most perfectly dated nature allows me blot out the world and while I sleep, the moths reclaim the night.

The first wonderful specimen is an emperor moth. It is the only European member of a family which is much more wide spread in the tropics. The huge eyes are to scare away birds and other predators and when it flies in the day, it is often mistaken for a butterfly.

The second moth perched on my finger is a purple thorn . It’s Latin name is tetra luna which refers to the four half moon shapes that just catch the light from the window in this shot (at the top edge of the jagged wing.)

The third moth is a peach blossom. The improbable pink blotches on the wings look like the delicately coloured flowers of that fruit tree.

The last moth is most prized because it is new to me. It is called a pine beauty and I had great difficulty in identifying it as I was mistakenly convinced it was a type of swift moth ( due to the way it sits) . Unsurprisingly, it lives in pine trees and it’s gingered, pink appearance apparently allows it to hide in yellowing needles ( though I find that hard to believe!)

So while we sleep, some beautiful things fly free, even if it is just our dreams!

A long week.

Fasnact face to scare away evil spirits.

At the start of the week the madness of the invasion of the Ukraine became apparent and by the end of the week it has intensified in a way that is almost unbearable. And yet I am not Ukrainian and no one is shelling me, so the very, very least I can do, is to get on.

It has been glitteringly sunny here. Cold and cuttingly bright and at night it is unusually star filled and cloudless. The nighttime temperatures are very low and each morning I awake to a hard white frost.

March is the start of the mothing season for me and on the first night above freezing, I put out my moth trap. There were two Hebrew characters and an Early Grey in the trap . The Early Grey was a new species for the garden and I start 2022 with 315 recorded moth species in my garden since I started to keep records. This moth eats honey suckle and like the Hebrew character ( named for the distinctive marking on the wing that looks like a letter) has furry tummy to keep in warm in these cold early days of spring.

Hebrew character

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” Lenin.

Still flowers.

As a child I always considered the cold didn’t start until after Guy Fawks and this year the weather seems true to a long time ago in Cheshire.

Flowers are hanging on where they have been spared mower and strimmer and I have seen a handful of poppies, some hard heads and a spray of harebells still flowering on field edges. In the garden petunias and marigolds and a few geraniums are still bright. The dahlias have been touched by the frost but not yet slain and some very late gladiolus are a spear of colour against the falling leaves.

When I started gardening in a real garden ( as opposed to my previous tiny international balconies ) I thought I needed to be true to all the gardening manuals I had read and to cut down everything and to tidy and clean up, ready for the winter. Then I lived with my garden for a few years and realised that a “ tidy” garden was in fact a very boring and a virtually dead garden for far too many months of the year. There was no where for the caterpillars to pupate, no corners for the hedgehog to forage in and no where for the birds to perch and peck.

So I have learnt to ignore the outdated gardening manuals and to leave the clearing up the garden for as long as possible. Yes, I am encouraging slugs and snails and things that will eat my flowers and vegetables, but I am also encouraging life and trying to live with it. I don’t grow things that cannot withstand a few slugs and snails, white fly, black fly etc etc . I don’t use weed killer or insecticides not because I love all insects, but because why would you spray poisonous chemicals around your own home when you don’t have to? The world is full of enough noxious ness without adding to it just to conform to a very misguided and outdated concept of “tidy” .

So my garden continues to harbour the last flowers, the hedgehog poo that shows she is still feeding in the weedy corners and the caterpillars looking for a quiet spot to dream the winter safely away.

Blink.

This extraordinary scrap of life was slowly traversing the path.

It seemed to be a cross between a feather duster and a plastic cat toy: a pulsating gobbit of implausible life. The photo shows the pink tufts and psychedelic green body, but it does not show the strange black winking eye on its back. The eye appeared to open and close as the caterpillar squeezed along and no doubt this was evolved to frighten away a hungry bird. The bright hairs are to make the caterpillar inedible, if the winking eye was not enough to keep it safe through the winter.

Should this fearsome tiny fright makes it to spring time, it will be a pale tussock moth, grey and furry and quite unlike this wonderful punk adolescent caterpillar phase caught indignantly crossing the path this cold afternoon.

While I wasn’t looking.

Nearly a year ago, on a very hot day, a solitary wasp built a mud nest under my kitchen window sill. It filled the mud dome with food for it grubs and then it sealed the young in and flew away.

I have checked on it periodically, hoped it was still alive after a very cold winter and an icy spring. It was well sheltered from the hail by the overhang and while I was busy doing something else , the young bit their way out of the rock hard dome and literally flew the nest.

I wonder if a new wasp will be back to build again. It is cool and wet this year and these wasps are on the edge of their range, so maybe they will not venture north again this year.

The moths are about three weeks late this year. I have been mothing in this garden for so long now that I know when each species should appear. The yellow underwings are here: the large and the broad bordered: the first fan foots are here, the ubiquitous hearts and darts are here in proper numbers and the uncertains are definitely on the wing. Dark arches are appearing, common footmen and little magpie moths are in the moth trap and on the windows. Orache moths have turned up and today a lovely furry headed poplar hawk moth took a liking to my pencil and sat on it all rainy day. You can see my note book of species noted each day under his wings as he sheltered the endlessly rainy day away on the dry garden table.

Belted Beauty

In January there really is little to see except cold, hungry birds and so I return to my records of the moths that I have seen during the better part of the year.

One of my strangest photographs was of a very distinctive black and white moth which I could not identify from my moth books.

I had sent the record in to the LPO as an an unidentified specimen knowing that the moth recorder checks such a unnamed moths in the depths of the winter and may well provide an identification for me.

When the days were suitably dark and moths were suitably absent, a positive ID came back: it was a wonderful rare Lycia zonaria the Belted Beauty !

These moth are extinct in mainland Britain. The last records were from the sand dunes of costal Cheshire, but golf courses and the heavy tramp of healthy walkers have done for them and they are now only found in Orkney. The females are flightless home bodies, who cannot stray far from the right sandy grassland and they are not plentiful anywhere .

We live about as far from the sea as you can get in Europe and our ground is not at all sandy, but somewhere a female belted beauty must have found the right spot to hatch and to send out her perfume on the night air to this lucky male. His feathery antenna are designed to detect her subtle sent and I very much hope that they guided him safely to his mate the next night. I like to think that some new Belted Beauties were made last March and that that they just might return this spring to tantalise and gladden the heart with their very rare beauty.

The moths are back!

I’ve missed the moths. They don’t like very cold nights and they dont like full moons, but finally the conditions are right and the wonderful and wooly creatures of the night are back .

I’ve been putting my moth trap on for a fair few weeks previously,  but the visitors have been few: lots of faithful hebrew characters, a few powdered quakers, the odd dotted chestnut and not much more. Now the moon is waning and the nights have turned warm and opening the trap this morning was full of seasonal delights.

First the lobster moth with its pearly pink coat and odd paper dart extra flaps which is named for the strange caterpillar rather than the adult.

Then the pale tussock with its wonderfully furry claspers lying out in tactile supplication .

Then the brindled beauty, garden carpet, an engrailed and finally the lovely Swallow Prominent that crept into my battered panama hat and spent the day there sheltering out of the sun. Her name comes  from the ridge on her back, but her French name is Porcelain, which must be inspired by the lovely patterning on her wings.

I need something beautiful and absorbing at the moment. In my boredom I had started a jigsaw of an owl, which was so disturbing we had to break it up and put it back in the box.

Thank goodness for the moths!

 

 

The curse of tidy.

A warm week has sent me out into the garden . The place is wet and the mud weighs down my boots,  but the air smells almost like spring and tidying over takes me.

There is plenty of dead vegetation to trim and forgotten leaves to rake and my enthusiasm is intoxicating. However it is only January and there is along way to go until spring. Tidying, trimming and raking wont make the days longer or the earth turn faster,  so not only is my decimation of the garden pointless, it is also positively  harmful.

Last years growth is full of over wintering wildlife: butterfly caterpillars, lady birds and hedgehogs and tidying up is not the same as emptying a kitchen sink of washingup; this is habitat destruction in my own tiny bit of the planet.

So, I move away from the shears and the pruners, put down that rake and leave the garden in peace! There will be time in the spring to make way for the new growth and rushing the season will just make less space for the wildlife that badly  needs somewhere  quiet and safe to spend the winter.

Much better for the planet to have a cup of tea and do nothing!

Shall I be mother?

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Holiday reading

I love having time to reading, but only when the world is cold and wet, do I really get properly down to it.

At the moment I am reading “The Garden Jungle or Gardening to Save the Planet“ which was a Christmas present that was spot on. Dave Goulson is passionate about his garden and evangelical about how much wildlife we can all cram into our on private gardens, if only we eschew pesticides, herbicides  and all the other things we are encouraged to buy to make our potential slice of paradise, tidy and dead. I was horrified to read how many suburbs of the USA are regularly drenched in pesticides from the air to “control pests”  and that gardeners have no choice at all in this annual destruction of all the micro fauna on their own land.

I am also reading “Crime au Pressoir “ by Jean-Marie Stoerkel, where bodies are found lying  on the grapes about to be crushed in a wine press in nearby Ingersheim. Somehow it is all linked to the German annexation of the Alsace some 80 years and hopefully reading it will improve my French!

I have just finished “A Portrait of Elmbury “ by John Moore which is a memoir of Tewkesbury in England before the second World War. This is a part of the world I know well, but set in a time I didn’t know. Some of his observations seem crass in our more enlightened times, but some are timeless such as his admiration for the men who only work as much as they had to …”they were not conditioned to believe in the popular fallacy, that work itself is a virtue. They worked when they wanted to and their work was fun. They were in fact a sort of privileged class and their privilege was one which nowadays only a few great artists have.”  I also learnt that farm workers were given great slabs of apple pie to eat first, before the roast beef, to ensure that they didnt just fill up on meat and avoid the abundant produce of the local orchards.

The book  that I just unwrapped this morning, is however the  one I think I am about to enjoy most. “Emperors, Admirals and Chimney Sweepers” by Peter Marren is the book I have been waiting for to explain the wonderfully poetical names of moths, both English and Latin. My first dipping proved Marren knows his European languages too and he gives German and French derivations of the marvellous names that always seem so redolent of 18th century country vicarages.

The moth book definitely wins the best cover award. I normally take off dust jackets as they are fiddly and irksome, but this is staying on to remind me of the colourful wonder of the delights still to be found in my moth trap in 2020..

Oh, and I had to include a “Just William ” collection by the incomparable Richmal Compton as I read a story nearly every night to send me to sleep with chuckle!

Happy New Year to all!

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Other Eyes.

 

There is so much bad news , so much that scrapes the skin  from your flesh and leaves just flinching, flayed nerves alive to every sadness. And so we turn our eyes away, watch a moth bulging at our self indulgence with blissful alien incomprehension, listen to the hoot of an owl, calling between the roar of the jets, read haikus, allow a late flower to suprise us and to delight us and we hold on as the world turns and turns and we hold on, hold on.

 

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How to moth trap.

This post is for those who would like to trap moths and discover what is flying at night when they are safe in bed. If moths give you the heebie-jeebies then skip this post!

I am sure there are other ways of doing it, with other equipment, but I am just sharing my own experience for those who are curious.

I have been trapping for about 12 years on a regular basis.  I had been out with other naturalists many years ago in Wales, but it wasn’t until my husband bought me a trap for a present that I started in earnest.

 

First thing you need is a moth trap.   

https://www.watdon.co.uk/   Watkins and Doncaster provided Charles Darwin with his equipment.  They send across the world and they know what they are doing.  I recommend their basic plastic bucket trap to start with and two bulbs (in case you smash one!).

All a trap is, is a UV light bulb which attracts the moths, above a plastic funnel.  The moths then fall down into the bucket below, where they perch on cardboard egg boxes in safety for the night.

The next morning you switch off the light, open the trap gently and carefully remove each egg box one by one. You then photograph the moths (in case they fly off!) and then try to identify them using a good guide book.

I use British Moths by Chris Manley published by Bloomsbury.  I have not found a similar single volume guide for France.  I am certain there are excellent guides for where you live.  There are also some excellent free on line identification sites.  I use https://ukmoths.org.uk/systematic-list/ and also http://montgomeryshiremoths.org.uk/ which is very good for showing what is around at the right time of year.

You make a note of the weather and date and keep a list of what you find in English and or Latin.  I tick off all the species that I have confidently identified in my guide book, so that I can find them again more easily.  I later send my list and photos to my local naturalist organisation, https://faune-alsace.org  so that my records can be compared with others, but you can skip this bit!

That is the bare bones and I am aware that it sounds unutterably dull and nerdy.  The reason for doing it is because you get to see the most wonderful creatures with your own eyes, while drinking a cup of tea on the back step of your own home and that takes some beating as a wildlife experience.  I have been lucky enough to live in Zambia and to spend months on safari, I have lived in Costa Rica for four years and in Brazil for two and spent as much time as possible in the forests, rivers and oceans, seeing wildlife that most people only see on David Attenborough tv programmes and yet I have never enjoyed wildlife in such comfort, or been so amazed on a daily basis as I have been when moth trapping in my own back garden!

 

Tips.

  1.  It takes a long time to learn the common moths that you will encounter on your patch.  It has taken me 10 years to be confident with the common moths and even then I make mistakes.  There are a lots of moths and many of them look the same!!!

2. Start by identifying the ones with clear colours or markings.  Leave the dull ones until much later.  There is no shame in being confused.  If the guide book says the moth that you have spent hours identifying is very rare in your area, then you probably have made a mistake.

3. Keep your moths cool.  If it is warm and the trap has been left in the sun before you open it, then they will all fly away before you identify them.  Move your trap into the coolest shade you can and let them settle before taking out the boxes.  If you do this, you do not need to put them in collecting jars to look at.  They will sit happily on the egg box while you admire them.

4. Take a photo on your phone or camera, so you can look back at them and identify them when you have time.  This final phase often requires a glass of chilled wine and a sofa!

5. Let the moths fly off when they want to, or shake onto a bush.  My cats used to try to eat them, but now treat them with feline disdain.

 

Enjoy!!

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1. UV light and plastic funnel.

2. Box containing old egg boxes and electrical connection.

3. Lead to mains or to a big battery if you want to set up the trap in a remote place.

4. Identification guide.

 

Gifts of the night.

It has been painfully hot here. My garden has had to fend for itself, as going out in the sunshine has been impossible.  Luckily we are on holiday and can sleep the heat of the day away and get up before dawn, open up the house and let in a breath of cool air.

My moth trap has been on almost every night and a wonderful range of visitors has appeared to be sorted over in the pearly morning light before the sun races up over the hedge.

I have been trapping for more than 10 years now and I never cease to be amazed by the diversity and beauty of the moths that I find and how they vary with the seasons.   I have identified more than 160 species of moths just in my back garden over the years and 67 species this year so far. Every time I open the trap there is a possibility  that I will find a moth that is a  totally new record for me and that is a real thrill. I send all my records into my local wildlife society on line and it surprising how under recorded French papillon du nuit (butterflies of the night) are.

The photo at the top is a lovely large emerald that fluttered out of the  trap onto the lawn.

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And this beast is a privet hawk moth.

As they say in the film credits “no animal was hurt in the making of this blog” and all these gifts of the night fly away after identification.

Who knows who will arrive tonight?

Marvel of the Day.

I love the names of moths: heart and dart;   setaceous hebrew character; cloth of gold; delicate; uncertain; scalloped beauty; ruby tiger and so many more.

This year has been cooler and wetter than previous years, and though I infinitely prefer it, the moths have been late appearing and many nights have been too rainy to capture anything. However, last night was a wonderful night of mothing and I found twenty different species waiting amongst the egg boxes under the UV light.

My favourite name is a French one, used by English speakers the merveille du jour – the marvel of the day, coined by a French observer for the marvellous and unexpected new moth found that night. My merveille  du jour today was a beautiful lace border, which was luminously white and delicate and perfectly named.

I was particularly surprised to see it, as it is moth of limestone meadow and although we live on limestone, most of the moths I see are woodland species. Then I remembered that I have allowed my front drive to grow over and it is now covered in wild marjoram and scree flowers, and maybe after enough years of careful neglect, I have made just the right home for this beautiful and elusive moth in my own garden – a real  merveille  du jour!

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Starting Early.

The leaves are not yet out, but the sunshine is dazzling. So much extraordinary, unmitigated light is flooding me in a kind of shiney March madness. Everything is bare and beautiful, raw and stark and shadowless.

The bright early spring has tempted me to start mothing earlier than usual. The nights are still frosty, but some wonderful moths are flying already. Most early moths have over wintered as adults and tend to be restful shades of brown and grey to avoid  predation. I have found modest quakers, hebrew characters and brindled beauties. This speckled specimen reminds me of a garibaldi biscuit as it scuttles quickly under  the few emergent leaves to wait out the bright spring sunshine until peaceful night time.

Spring on the kitchen table.

TS Elliot said « April is the cruelest month » as it stirs dull desire, but I dont think he was a gardener. Shoring up the ruins of Western civilisation in his poetry must have left him little time  to appreciate that March is a far crueler month, as the anticipation of spring is so sharp it hurts.

I am impatient by nature. After the first snow drops and catkins prove winter is dead, then I want full leafed, green pulsing life back in my garden and in the fields and fast! I want long grass and swaying trees, butterflies, birds and moths, but must make do with worm casts and buds that seem clenched as tight shut as a fist.

To compensate I turn to the garden centre and buy spicey perfumed pinks and heady jasmine to speed things along. I know they will languish before long for lack of light, but for now I can bathe in thier perfume between the pepper pots and salt cellar, as I wait for the firsfists to unfurl.

In the eye of the beholder.

I know the photo will make some shudder, but to me this is beautiful.

Oak Egger moths are big and bold and so covered in fur they seem designed for the arctic . It has been too hot here for doing anything during the day, so I get up at dawn to enjoy what little cool there is . Gently opening the moth trap still makes me feel like a child on Christmas morning discovering the presents left by Santa. A flurry of tiny white moths always escape at once, but then I slow lift out the egg boxes one by one and see what the night has brought with enough time to photograph and to check names in the book.

Identifying is satisfying; sending  in records to the local wildlife trust is worthy, but often I don’t want to do either.

Who cares what they are called, when they are there on your own hand, regarding you with their unfathomable eyes?

Sometimes science can wait. I just want to stare back.

Eye, eye!

 

The odd creature in the large reading glasses is me, but the monster on the left is a large elephant hawk moth caterpillar. He was lying flat to the stem of the evening primrose plant, but when confronted by my alarming visage he retracted his elephant snout ( hence the name) swelled up his head prodigiously and waved his huge eye markings at me in an impressively menacing way.  He was quite harmless, but his display of monster mimicing should repel all but the most agressive predator!

We have had some welcome rain, which has brought out a banquet of slugs for the hedgehogs. Last night I found a youngster drinking deep from the water in the saucer of a just watered plant and later this afternoon , in broad daylight, a larger hedge hog was drinking unconcernedly from the saucer of water I always leave on the lawn.

This large, old plant saucer has provided water for generations of hedgehogs, for wasps and sparrows and black birds. It isn’t pretty, but it has been a life saver, so keep an eye on the wild visitors to your garden by keeping the water topped up. You never know what you might see!

 

 

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.