Saturday, 14 January 2017

Encounters with Hawkmoths

Hawkmoths are members of the Sphingidae group and they are amongst our most impressive moths, being large and fast flying. They are regularly attracted to light and I have recorded most of our resident species in my wealden garden over the years as well as two regular migrant species. Hawkmoth larvae of the larger species are easily recognised by their large size and tail horns.
All photographs have been taken in my garden unless otherwise stated.

Convolvulus Hawkmoth (Agrius convolvuli) (female)
This is a scarce migrant from the European mainland but can be quite numerous in good migration years.
Privet Hawkmoth (Sphinx ligustri)

Privet Hawkmoth (S.ligustri) (larva on ash)
This specimen was found on the South Downs in East Sussex.

Pine Hawkmoth (Hyloicus pinastri)

Lime Hawkmoth (Mimas tiliae)

Lime Hawkmoth (M.tiliae) (larva found wandering)

Eyed Hawkmoth (Smerinthus ocellata)

Eyed Hawkmoth (S.ocellata) (larva found wandering)

Poplar Hawkmoth (Laothoe populi)

Poplar Hawkmoth (L.populi) (larva on sallow)
This specimen was found on the South Downs in East Sussex.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (Macroglossum stellatarum)
This is a day-flying migrant from the European mainland and can be common in good migration years.

Hummingbird Hawkmoth (M.stellatarum)
In flight.
Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor)

Elephant Hawkmoth (D.elpenor) (larva on greater willowherb)
This specimen was found near Arlington in East Sussex but I regularly find them in my garden.

Small Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila porcellus)
In Sussex, this species is predominantly found in downland habitats. I have recorded it only once in my garden. These two specimens were attracted to light in a Seaford garden.

Small Elephant Hawkmoth (D.porcellus)

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Winter Pursuits

Winter is a quiet time for the amateur entomologist but it is a good time of year to search for eggs of the Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae). The adult butterfly can be rather elusive during its flight season but if you know where to look, its eggs can be much easier to find. This species is a late season emergent and it is the eggs that see out the winter months on blackthorn, its foodplant. The eggs are usually laid singly (but sometimes two or three in a group), generally in the fork of a branch, near where the current and previous year's growth meet.
Brown Hairstreak (Thecla betulae) (ova on blackthorn)

When the winter sun is shining, then for me, there is no better place to go for a walk than on Ashdown Forest. I met up with Bob on Wednesday for a walk around one of our regular routes. I had never seen a Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor) before, a scarce but regular winter visitor to UK shores. Whilst I could have seen one long before now, I just don't possess the "twitcher" gene and I have always been happy to wait for the moment when I would come across one when out for a walk. Well, that thrill happened for me yesterday when Bob spotted one sitting on top of a gorse bush. I managed to record the moment with this rather long distance shot.
Great Grey Shrike (Lanius excubitor)  


Thursday, 29 December 2016

Bird's-nest Orchid and Variation in Bee Orchid

I take many photographs during the course of a season. Trying to see different species of butterfly and dragonfly in their prime during their respective flight seasons can lead to a busy time for the amateur naturalist. Inevitably, some events are quickly overtaken by others and photographs get overlooked. Looking back at this time of year allows me to fill in some gaps.
Visiting Ashdown Forest back in May, I managed to observe a freshly emerging Bird's-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) over the course of three weeks. This strange orchid contains no chlorophyll and obtains its nutrients from fungi. It is generally found in the shade of long established beech trees.
Bird's-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis)
On 17th May, the flower spike is just starting to emerge.
On 23rd May, one flower is starting to open.
On 2nd June, the plant is nearly in full flower.

The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) has several named varieties, some of which can be quite numerous in some colonies. Var. chlorantha has whitish sepals and a greenish-yellow lip and in some small colonies they can outnumber the typical form. Var. flavescens, which has a pale brown lip, is thought to be a less extreme version of chlorantha.
On the East Sussex Downs back in June, I photographed a Bee Orchid with one flower that I would describe as var. flavescens. I returned to the same plant a week later to find that the original flower was looking more like var. chlorantha. From my own observations, these two varieties appear to be subject to change with age and perhaps all flavescens change to chlorantha over time.
Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) (var.flavescens) photographed on 8th June.

The same plant photographed on 15th June. The original (lower) flower is starting to look more like var. chlorantha.

(Reference; "The Orchids of Britain and Ireland" by Anne & Simon Harrap)

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Common Frog

Whilst at work in the wood at the weekend, I came across a Common Frog (Rana temporaria) moving about in the damp leaf litter. Although they hibernate over winter (either in water or on land), land based hibernators can become active during mild weather. This particular individual was very rotund and had either been feasting on slugs or it could be a female with ready developed spawn. 
Common Frog (Rana temporaria)

The weekend also offered the last chance to put the moth trap out, before stormy weather is expected to move in from the Atlantic for Christmas. Three Mottled Umbers (Erannis defoliaria) continued their variation on a theme and a Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) was the first one recorded in our wealden garden this winter.
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) (3 males)

Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) (male)

Looking out of the window early on Tuesday morning I spotted this Grey Heron on my neighbour's roof, surveying the local garden ponds before dropping in for breakfast.
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea)

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Winter Fair

On 26th November, I disturbed a Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) from the woodland floor, as I was coppicing. As its name suggests, it is on the wing from November until January. The female is flightless and relies on being found by the male as she sits and waits on a tree trunk.
Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) (male)

As I have said before on this site, the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) is increasingly able to overwinter in southern England as a result of our changing climate. It does not enter true hibernation but will roost during inclement weather and come out to feed on mild and sunny days. Ashdown Forest offers plenty of insulating layers of dead bracken for roosting and gorse is always in flower as a source of nectar. The photograph is of one that I saw on the forest on 30th November.
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Following a few frosty nights at the start of December, this last week has been mild and has provided a good opportunity to put the moth trap out on a couple of occasions. The appropriately named December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) is on the wing from November until January. Along with other members of the Lasiocampidae family, this species does not have any feeding mouthparts and their bodies contain enough stored energy for breeding. I suppose the main advantage to breeding at this time of year is probably a reduced risk of predation. Bats are a major predator of moths and they hibernate over winter.
December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) (male)  (7th December)
Male (photographed in 2011)

Female (photographed in 2013)

Sprawler (Asteroscopus sphinx) (7th December)

The Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) is another species that is on the wing from October to January. Like the Winter Moth (O.brumata), Mottled Umber females are flightless.
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) (male) (10th December)

All of the following photographs are of Mottled Umber males that I have taken over the last few years. They show just how variable the markings of this species can be.

Monday, 21 November 2016

A Walk in the Wood

Saturday morning was cold and bright and my intention was to spend a few hours coppicing and thinning in the wood. After an hour, the spark plug on the chainsaw failed and with no spare, I decided to pack the tools away for another day and enjoy a slow walkabout through the trees.
Although I can recognise the obvious and showy species of fungi, I am a complete novice when it comes to trying to identify the other 99%. I find them a difficult group to identify, even to family level. When you come across a fresh specimen on the woodland floor they really demand close inspection.
This is a species of Puffball or Earthball; possibly a Scaly Earthball (Scleroderma verrucosum). A suture line is just visible to the right of centre where the fruiting body will eventually burst open to disperse its spores.

When at work during the winter months, the occasional micro-moth is inevitably disturbed from the undergrowth. The woodland habitat often provides species that I don't generally get in the garden at home.
Agonopterix arenella

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

A Dragonfly Oddity

Last week, I managed to enjoy a couple of sunny mild days on Rye Levels before temperatures started to tumble. Although there were still two or three butterflies about, my attention was drawn to a very different looking Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) that was flying in a sunny corner with several others. When it landed, I could see that it was an over-mature female whose wings differed from the norm.
The wings of freshly emerged dragonflies are generally cloudy in appearance before they have fully hardened and the wings of mature specimens can also take on a slightly cloudy appearance as part of the ageing process.
The wings of this individual were translucent rather than transparent, with a cloudiness covering the wings in their entirety. They were also symmetrically patterned in two or three different shades of beige. I don't know whether this specimen is an aberration or whether it is just normal ageing but I have not seen it's like before. I've no doubt that I shall be paying close attention to Common Darter wings for evermore!
Common Darter (Sympetrum striolatum) (over-mature female)   
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)