Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Spectacular Toads

Although I am always on the lookout for early season butterflies and moths, the occasion that I look forward to most of all in early spring, is the spectacle of toads returning to their breeding pools during March. 

They are one of my favourite creatures and I enjoy watching their antics as males battle with each other for females. Whilst these tussles can be entertaining to the human observer, they can be violent and occasionally fatal.

The males are highly charged during the breeding season and you can often see a writhing ball of male toads fighting for one female. During these tussles, females can sometimes be accidentally drowned.

Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

A male interloper is attempting to supplant another male from his prime position but eventually gives up.

Established pairs can eventually find a quiet place to get away from the melee.

A lone male basking in the sunshine.

Pairs often gather together in prime spawning areas

Friday, 10 March 2023

Scarlet Elf-cup

 When you come across this attractive cup fungus during the colder months of the year, you might think that it will be easy to identify but you would be wrong. It could be one of two virtually indistinguishable species.

Whichever species you have found, scattered light inside the cup can look like there is a tiny furnace deep within.

Sarcoscypha austriaca (Scarlet Elf-cup) and Sarcoscypha coccinea (Ruby Elf-cup) can only be separated with any certainty by microscopic examination of spores and hairs.

As a man who does not possess a microscope, I suspect that I will continue to lump both species under one heading. 

Scarlet Elf-cup.

Friday, 17 February 2023

My 2023 Butterfly Season Gets Underway

 A few sunny days in February always brings an expectation of butterfly sightings for the enthusiast and I saw my first butterfly of the year earlier this week. More often than not in the last decade or so, that butterfly has been a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta).

Unlike the four common hibernators in Britain (Brimstone, Comma, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell) the Red Admiral does not enter true hibernation. It has evolved as a continually breeding species (together with the Clouded Yellow and Painted Lady). It is predominantly a migrant to the UK but in recent decades it has been able to over-winter in southern England in varying numbers as a result of our warming climate.

The Red Admiral can pass the winter in any of its life cycle stages but as an adult butterfly, as long as it has access to nectar and a safe roost, it can survive very well. Places like Ashdown Forest in East Sussex provide plenty of insulating layers of dead bracken for roosting and there is always plenty of gorse in flower throughout the year to provide nectar.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) (female)

Hairy Curtain Crust (Stereum hirsutum)

This species of fungus is very variable in colour and form. Their fruiting bodies either lay flat on the wood substrate or they form a bracket. I came across this small group in a rather upright form.

Sunday, 5 February 2023

Back in the Woods

The last couple of weeks have been fairly dry which has allowed me to get some jobs done in the wood.

 The main task is to get some bonfires lit before the birds start to use them for nesting. I stack plenty of brash piles for Blackbirds, Robins and Wrens to use but the heaps of rhododendron waste must go.

I haven't seen any butterflies yet but I have seen my first moth of the year. Judging by its colouring and size, I think it was probably a Dotted Border (Agriopis marginaria) that I disturbed from the undergrowth a couple of days ago but I lost sight of it before I could see where it settled.

During the last week I have spotted a Common Toad and also an interesting fungus.

Common Toad (Bufo bufo)

Green Elf-cup (Chlorociboria aeruginascens)

A recent sunset over the distant South Downs

Saturday, 21 January 2023

Moth Detective

 I first noticed the magic of butterflies when I was about 10 years old. My neighbour's garden, back then, was full of Michaelmas Daisy borders and in late summer I was mesmerised by the sight of dozens of Red Admirals, Small Tortoiseshells, Peacocks and the occasional Comma, feasting on the flower heads.

My interest in moths started at the same time. My mother would regularly wake me up from bed in the late evening to see if I could identify the moths flying around the garage light.

Ever since then, my interest in both groups has run side-by-side.

Nowadays, I occasionally come across something that I can't pin down to species level. It is most often the early stage of a moth species, particularly ovum or pupa, that requires a bit of research and detective work.

Here are a couple of examples.

Gold Spot (Plusia festucae)

Back in August 2017, I came across a moth pupa hanging by its cremaster from a ruptured cocoon in a ditch side reed bed on Pevensey Levels. The pupa was black and green and had probably been disturbed by cattle that regularly walk through the reeds to drink from the ditch. I had seen these cocoons before but had rather assumed that they were some sort spider egg cocoon. 

Black and green may have been its normal colour but it may also have only recently pupated and not yet attained a more usual all black livery. I don't generally like to bring things home from the wild but there seemed little chance of it surviving the winter and there was a chance I could see what emerged in the spring. Sadly the pupa did not survive. The plan now was to find a larva during the following season.

In September 2019, I came across a mature larva feeding in the same reed bed. I took photographs and when I got home, managed to identify it as a Gold Spot (P. festucae). Note just two pairs of prolegs.

On checking my books, it was clear that Gold Spot fitted the bill but I wanted to see the larva through to pupation to be sure. I returned the very next day to find that the larva had constructed its cocoon. The larva is clearly visible inside the cocoon.

A few days later and a black pupa is just visible in the cocoon.

An adult moth.
 Although I occasionally get them to my moth-trap in my garden, I didn't realise quite how at home festucae is in damp habitats.

Scarce Umber (Agriopis aurantiaria)

In December 2018, I was in a local Wealden wood, searching through oak branches for Purple Hairstreak (Favonius quercus) ova. I had found a couple but then came across an odd looking ovum which rather stumped me. I got it stuck in my head that it might be a deformed quercus ovum. It had been laid at the base of an oak bud, exactly where a Purple Hairstreak would have laid her egg.

After a day or two, I steered myself away from the deformed egg theory and decided to research what moths overwinter in the egg stage and lay on oak. Starting with the Geometrids, I eventually homed in on a prime candidate. The Scarce Umber (A.aurantiaria) is on the wing during late autumn and early winter and the flightless females indeed lay their eggs on oak (and other broadleaf trees). 

In April 2019, I returned to inspect the same oak branch that I found the egg on and saw this early instar aurantiaria larva on the opening oak buds.

Another larva on honeysuckle, shedding its skin, in April 2017.

An adult male Scarce Umber.

Friday, 30 December 2022

Favourite Encounters during 2022

 As we approach the end of 2022 and look forward to the start of a new season, I have been looking back at some of my favourite insect encounters during the year. It has reminded me of some lovely moments.

Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) (female)

This species of butterfly is one that I really look forward to seeing in the Spring. My first sighting is usually of a male patrolling low over a woodland glade looking for a female but in 2022, my first sighting was of this female happily resting on a bluebell.

Downy Emerald (Cordulia aenea) (male)

This species of dragonfly is a stunning creature and rarely allows close approach but as I wandered through the bracken of a wealden wood, I saw this male at rest. The sun had gone behind a cloud for several minutes and I had enough time to plan my approach before the sun reappeared. Just before it took off, it looked up to reveal its sparkling green eyes.

White Admiral (Limenitis camilla)

This understated beauty had a very good year in my local wealden woods and I regularly saw up to half a dozen on the wing within the same view. I have enjoyed observing camilla for some years but had never before seen courtship that led to mating. I was thrilled to see such an event in 2022.




Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia)

As with the previous species, paphia also had a good year and in recent years it has become more common and widespread in East Sussex woodlands. Consequently, the occurrence of the female form valezina has become more frequent. I had some good moments with this species.



(mating) (valezina female)

(female) (form valezina)

I came across this female resting with her wings open in light rain. I managed to get my camera out just in time to get this one shot before heavier rain sent her to the canopy.


I have taken a much closer interest in sawflies in recent years and I managed to have some good moments with these very fidgety insects.

Abia sericea (Scabious Sawfly) (male and female)

Tenthredo mesomela (female)

Tenthredo scrophulariae (Figwort Sawfly) (male)

Willow Emerald Damselfly (Chalcolestes viridis) (female)

Whilst focusing on this willow stem bearing ovipositing scars left by a previous female, this female landed, rather fortuitously, in just the right place.