31 December, 2015

Happy New Year

Wishing you all a fantastic new year from both myself and this Tortricodes alternella that turned up at a lit kitchen window last night.

Be sure to make 2016 the year you express yourself.


30 December, 2015

A trivial quest

It's late June. The height of summer. Flowers are appearing everywhere and the weather has been kind to us on the west coast of Mull for the past week. There are 20 hours of daylight in a 24 hour period, and it seemed like the ideal time to find my way seventy odd miles to the other side of the island in search of one of the rarest moths in Britain; the Slender Scotch Burnet.

Chimney Sweeper

Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary

Starting at the croft late in the morning, I walked for a feet-busting 16 miles along the A849 - the main road connecting each corner of the island - spurred on every few metres by the appearance of Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Chimney Sweeper and Marsh Fritillary feeding amongst the abundant roadside vegetation.

Clouds over Ben More

I reached Tobermory late in the evening, having hitch-hiked half way across Mull with a young couple driving their camper van back to Yorkshire - they'd spent the last few days at a music festival on Iona. I checked into the youth hostel, stumbled towards the harbour for fish & chips (and a drop of the town's esteemed whisky), and devoured it all on a golf course while watching dusk fall over the island.

Looking south from Tobermory golf course - mainland Scotland is on the left and Ben More (Mull's highest mountain) can be seen peeking over the headland on the right.

The next morning I was up and out by first light; the destination a sheltered patch of coastal grassland tucked away behind a small private castle called Glengorm, where Slender Scotch Burnet has one of its only strongholds in the UK.

The castle itself stands alone in a remote & windswept landscape, well away from the nearest crofts. Getting to it requires a six mile drive along a thin, curvy road - up and down steep hills, through lush grassland pastures and alongside thick pine forests. Without a car it was a tiring four hour stroll, but one of the most tranquil I've ever experienced. I was 70 odd miles from the croft I was working on and hundreds more away from home, relying only on my limited ability to hitchhike to get back for the night. I was in the middle of nowhere and no one was expecting me anywhere. There were no deadlines to fulfil. It's hard to explain but I felt completely disconnected from any obligations other than my trivial quest to see a rare moth, and it felt really nice.

By 10am the wind had subsided and the sun - already high in the sky - was parching the coastal grassland behind the castle. Conditions were perfect and the shoreline resembled classic Zygaena habitat; short grassy turf intertwined with numerous Bird's-foot Trefoil and the strong, aromatic smell of flowering Thyme. It didn't take long to find a Slender Scotch Burnet resting on a grass stem, followed by another, and another. They were easier to identify than I'd initially imagined; noticeably smaller than the Six-spot Burnets also present and almost always with the two spots closest to the end of the wing fused together. I stuck around for a couple of hours - watching a White-tailed Eagle soar on thermals overhead and a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins out at sea - before starting on the long journey back to the croft.

Slender Scotch Burnet

Pyrausta cingulata

This post is part of a wholly inconsistent, seldom updated series on my time spent working on organic farms in the Hebrides this summer. You can find the previous posts here:

28 December, 2015

Migrant of the Year

One of the highlights of this year has been the influx of migrant moths into much of the UK. The likes of Dark Sword-grass, Small Mottled Willow and, just recently, Syncopacma polychromella have all reached the garden from their continental breeding grounds for the first time. However, the prestigious Bill's Birding Migrant of the Year award has to go to the Bordered Straw which went from no garden records to six in the space of a few months.

The above two moths represent the 1st and 3rd records for the garden (the 2nd didn't stick around for a photo), and turned up towards the end of May at the same time as a wave of Striped Hawk-moths and Bordered Straws hit the south coast. All three had sustained varying degrees of wear and tear on their travels from southern Europe, and were easy to distinguish as individuals because they each had separate little chunks missing from their forewings.

August came, and with it a second wave of Bordered Straws. Whilst the May individuals had been pale and sparsely marked - characteristics associated with moths of desert origin - these new moths were noticeably darker in colouration and turned up without any signs of travel-induced damage to their forewing, indicating that they'd emerged locally - the home bred second generation from eggs laid by the pale individuals back in May.

The question of whether an individual is a 'true' migrant or the home-grown offspring of an egg laying migrant is a hard one to answer. As recorders we all like to hope that our moths have made the impressive crossing from across the channel, and luckily Bordered Straws are one of those species that give us some clues as to their origin through their forewing patterns! 

27 December, 2015

Christmas presents

Syncopacma polychromella - a minuscule long-distance traveller 

If you put a moth trap out in our garden in any month outside the period April-September, you're asking to be let down. The bright glow of overlooking street lights draws away the few moths likely to be flying, and even trapping in mild weather is unlikely to catch the most abundant of the late-flying species; Winter Moth itself has appeared in the garden on only two occasions in the past seven years!

This winter looks set to be different. Winds pushed straight up from sub-saharan Africa have blown with them warm temperatures and plenty of migrant moths, so I put the trap out in the garden on Christmas night on the off chance that Father Mothmas had a present or two in-store.

Morning came and presents there were. One each of Syncopacma polychromella & Crocidosema plebejana were tucked away amongst the egg boxes at the bottom of the trap. The Crocidosema is a late-flying species of tortrix only added to the Surrey moth list as recently as 1996 when one was caught in Chessington by ex-county recorder Jim Porter. The Syncopacma is just one of many to have been blown over from the continent recently, with over 40 individuals having turned up along the south coast in the past couple of weeks. This is quite an impressive turn-up considering that the 6th record of the species for Britain was only just caught in July by Steve Nash.

Both of these were unsurprisingly new to the garden, and another moth session in the garden last night produced this Oak Beauty - a whole two months earlier than my previous earliest record! Looks like it could be a very interesting winter...

Oak Beauty - normally a spring flying species, but enticed into early emergence by the warm weather.