The Moths of Brixham 2021

The seeming value or dignity of an object doesn’t matter; it is the dignity of your relationship to the thing that matters. For a true contemplative, a gratuitously falling leaf will awaken awe and wonder just as much as a golden tabernacle in a cathedral.” Richard Rohr.

I’m very grateful to be able to affirm genuinely that I have this kind of relationship with Nature – always. I never tire of her wonders, which help to re-connect me to their Source.

To my Source.

And to myself.

I often like to photograph moths (like this Elephant Hawk-moth) from the light trap, on my hand – to have that direct contact – before releasing them.

Spending the last ten days in Brixham, Devon, enjoying seeing dolphins, seals, a plethora of birds, moths and butterflies, and incredible coastal landscapes, has been tonic for this soul that had been worn down by the wearisome stresses of work.

Coronet moth

Nature (as well as rest and family time) is a true healer of mind and spirit – a conduit of balm from the Creator of life.

We stayed here last year as well, near the wildlife haven that is Berry Head, and delighted in the moths that came to the light trap I set up in the garden – which I wrote about in The Moths of Brixham.

I also love to photograph moths head-on, for an alternative view. This Elephant Hawk-moth’s eyes and furry head appear almost rodent-like.

This year (2021), during a very similar period – 31st July to 4th Aug (actually about a week earlier than last year), the trap turned up some of the same species as in 2020.

Like this Jersey Tiger…

…this Swallow Prominent:

…and this Ruby Tiger:

But also many new ones, like these:

Herald Moth
Small Emerald
Four-spotted Footman (male)
Bird-cherry Ermine
Elderberry Pearl
Riband Wave
Yellow-tail

Of equal delight to the nocturnal visitors have been the moths we found out and about in the daytime, around Berry Head, including Jersey Tigers (again),

these gorgeous Magpie moths…

loads of Six-spot Burnets….

Six-spot Burnet moth

and this exquisite Carrot Seed moth:

The Carrot Seed moth (Sitochroa palealis) is one of the larger micro-moths, but still pretty tiny, as you can probably see from its relative size to the umbellifer in this picture. It’s been quite a rare species in the UK but, from what I’ve gathered, seems to have become fairly well established in the south-west in recent years.

Always so encouraging to hear of any insect species on the rise.

Six-spot Burnet at Berry Head

The following are most of the species attracted to the trap this time round (there were others unidentified):

  1. Bird-cherry Ermine
  2. Blood-vein
  3. Bright-line Brown-eye
  4. Brimstone
  5. Buff Ermine
  6. Common Footman
  7. Common Rustic
  8. Coronet
  9. Elephant Hawk-moth
  10. Four-spotted Footman
  11. Heart and Dart
  12. Herald
  13. Jersey Tiger
  14. July Highflyer
  15. Large Yellow Underwing
  16. Lunar Yellow Underwing
  17. Poplar Hawk-moth
  18. Riband Wave
  19. Ruby Tiger
  20. Shuttle-shaped dart
  21. Silver Y
  22. Small Emerald
  23. Swallow Prominent
  24. Yellow-tail

I leave you with a final pic of a Poplar Hawk….

….and a final quote, this time from the naturalist and conservationist John Muir, by way of a reminder of our therapeutic need to engage our senses with Nature:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”


(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

Wonder of the Day

After all the summer throngs and thrills of Hawks and Tigers (see, for example, Mystic Moths), the first venture of the light trap this autumn, on 10th October, yielded just… one moth!

Quality, however, more than made up for quantity. The insect in question was a Merveille du Jour, a stunning moth, clothed handsomely in its dapper green and black ‘jacket’.

Merveille du Jour, 10th October 2020

I love the fitting name as well as the moth itself. Merveille du Jour is French for ‘Wonder of the Day’.

For me, it was one of the lepidopteral wonders of my year.

Merveille du Jour, 10th October 2020

Wonder is central to my faith, to my being.

Like a lot of 21st Century Christians, my faith has undergone a necessary transition of de- / re-construction. It’s not that I no longer believe in God, or Jesus – I just believe in a wider, wilder, more expansive way than would fit into the theological constraints of churches I’ve belonged to over the years.

This second Merveille du Jour graced the light trap on 29th October 2020

It sounds pretentious or pompous to call the process a ‘second awakening’, but it seems a good description.

My love of nature, a tendency to marvel at the Universe, is more important to my sense of God than ever before.

Merveille du Jour, 10th October 2020

When all the difficult questions and debatable beliefs are stripped away, a childlike wonder remains at the heart of my faith: an anchor for my soul reflecting the beauty that surrounds me.

Or as Rumi said, in a way that applies at least as much to religion as to anything:

“Sell your cleverness, and buy bewilderment.”

I may not see a Merveille du Jour or “Wonder of the Day” every day, but every day is a day of wonder.

Watchet Harbour, 26th October 2020


(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

The Moths of Brixham

Many spiritual writers from past and present encourage us to see the holy in everyday moments, to be “alert to the sacred in our midst” (to quote Fr Gregory Boyle), as I was reading and thinking about on holiday this summer.

Swallowtailed 1
The celestial Swallow-tailed moth

We enjoyed 10 early-August days in a little bungalow in Brixham, Devon. On our arrival, a Jersey Tiger moth flew up from the hedgerow along the pathway to the house and landed on the front door, as if to welcome us in.

Jersey tiger 8
Jersey Tiger moth

Jersey Tigers are a bit of a speciality in this part of the world: my moths book describes these extraordinarily exotic looking insects as “quite numerous” in this area but generally quite scarce elsewhere in the country.

I’ve spotted one near here before, on a previous visit to Brixham, and also one on the Isle of Wight, and possibly somewhere else, which may have been France. So probably just the twice in the UK.

Jersey tiger 7
Jersey Tiger, head-on view

This was our first summer visit to Brixham with a light trap, so it was with quite a thrill of anticipation that I set it up on the shed roof on several nights during our stay.

Jersey Tiger 2

Jersey Tigers fly at night as well as on warm days (we saw quite a few while out and about during the day), and are attracted to light. Each night, between 2 and 6 of these utterly butterfly-like moths graced the trap with their bright orange hind wings and zebra-striped forewings.

Jersey tiger 1
Jersey Tiger in flight

As well as being some of the wildlife highlights of the holiday, encounters with Jersey Tigers were also sacred moments – divine expressions breaking out amongst the mundane, pointing to a brighter world.

…the Tiger moth at the front door serving as an angelic welcome party hinting at Joy that beckons us enter.

Jersey Tiger 4
Jersey Tiger, through the glass

Although the Jersey Tigers were a stunning and magical centrepiece of the holiday’s butterfly-and-moth-ing, there were numerous other lepidopteral species that fluttered and flapped their flightsome way into the trap (to be photographed and released unharmed the next day), such as these:

Canary Shouldered Thorn 1
Canary-shouldered Thorn, with its distinctive bright yellow thorax

Canary Shouldered Thorn
The brilliantly coloured Canary-shouldered Thorn

Devonshire Wainscot
Devonshire Wainscot (as the name suggests, a local species)

Iron Prominent
The intricately patterned Iron Prominent

Lackey
Lackey moth

Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing
Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing

Marbled Green
The handsome Marbled Green

Pebble prominent 2
Pebble Prominent (a beautiful, new species to me)

 

Peppered
Peppered Moth

Ruby tiger
Ruby Tiger

Swallow prominent
Swallow Prominent

 

Willow Beauty
Willow Beauty

White-point
White-point

Like all winged beasts, messengers from heaven offering glimpses of eternity to us earthly creatures.

The total list of those identified were:

  1. Bright-line Brown-eye
  2. Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing
  3. Canary-shouldered Thorn
  4. Common Footman
  5. Common Rustic
  6. Common Wainscot
  7. Dark Arches
  8. Devonshire Wainscot
  9. Garden Carpet
  10. Heart and Dart
  11. Iron Prominent
  12. Jersey Tiger (of which there were 6 on the last night: 10/8/20)
  13. Knot Grass
  14. Lackey
  15. Large Yellow Underwing (many)
  16. Lesser Yellow Underwing
  17. Lunar Yellow Underwing
  18. Marbled Green
  19. Pebble Prominent
  20. Peppered Moth
  21. Ruby Tiger
  22. Silver Y
  23. Square-spot Rustic?
  24. Swallow Prominent
  25. Swallow-tailed moth
  26. White-point
  27. Willow Beauty

(and several other species not identified)

Swallowtailed 2
The cherubic Swallow-tailed moth


[PS: The title’s designed to be sung to the tune of the Clash classic The Guns of Brixton. As an old ex-punk, just my sense of humour reflecting the contrast between the quaint Devon fishing port and the South London Borough infamous for its riots in the ‘80s!]


(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

Metamorphosis Meditation

It was quite a serious conversation I’d just embarked on with a friend at a socially-distanced gathering in Alexandra Park (Hastings) on Thursday 2nd July, when my attention was grabbed by a HUMONGOUS, hairy, brown caterpillar stretched out across the trunk of a gorgeous copper beech tree.

Gypsy larva
Just a poor phone pic (unusually, I didn’t have my camera with me!)

“Excuse me,” I blurted in a rush of excitement as I abandoned my friend, to take a closer look. I apologised later on.

I’m only slightly obsessed with moths and butterflies (ask my wife if you want an honest opinion).

I was going to leave the caterpillar in situ but there was a little boy present at the gathering who seemed intent on poking it with a stick – and also I fancied the idea of bringing the caterpillar home to watch it pupate and then hatch into…some kind of moth.

Which I discovered, when I got home and looked it up, was a Gypsy moth. And, from the size of it, not just any old Gypsy moth caterpillar but a female.

IMG_8509

Although winged, female Gypsy moths are flightless and attract males from long distances through the emission of a potent pheromone. This meant that, when hatched, we could put the moth outside and watch male Gypsy moths congregate from miles around to our female. A fantastic nature-watching opportunity.

On the other hand…Gypsy moths are considered a pest, responsible for entire defoliation of some areas in the world, and many would say breeding of this species is not to be encouraged!

So a dilemma formed as we waited for our caterpillar to pupate.

She sat for several days in her cage, doing absolutely nothing. We thought she had died. Then, all of a sudden, on Tues 7th July, she finally pupated – into a crazily big chrysalis attached by a flimsy web to the side of the cage.

IMG_8594

On Sunday 12th July, while the miracle of metamorphosis was slowly taking place in the inner darkness of the pupa, our vicar, Simon, spoke in an online service about this verse in 2 Corinthians 3:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

He pointed out that the original (Greek) word for “transformed” is μεταμορφούμεθα. In other words, metamorphosed.

Contemplation on the divine, through worship, prayer, or meditation on the nature that’s all around us, catalyses our own transformation, or metamorphosis, step by step, instar by instar, into the people we were always destined to be. Reflecting the Spirit, who is Love.

Like the inner sanctum of the chrysalis where caterpillar cells miraculously rearrange into moth or butterfly, time spent in quiet contemplation, away from life’s bustle, is the secret place we desperately need for our own inner revolution and spiritual emergence.

On Weds 22nd July my daughter excitedly told me that the chrysalis had hatched. A fat-bodied, egg-laden female Gypsy moth, just as expected.

IMG_8778
All scrunched-up like a newborn babe

We enjoyed watching her wings gradually unfurl.

IMG_8781

Our answer to the dilemma, in the end, was to place the moth outside for the first two nights, but still inside her cage, so we could watch the males swarm to her female fragrance, while not actually allowing mating to take place.

IMG_8786

However, there was no swarm. In fact, not a single male Gypsy moth appeared, as far as we saw.

So, on the third night, when the pheromones are supposed to be starting to wear off, we placed our female Gypsy on a fence in the garden (which she promptly crawled underneath), taking the risk that she might mate and give rise to the defoliation of Hastings.

IMG_8796

But, after a further two nights, now taking us into 27th July, still no male Gypsies to be seen.

Then….on the evening of 27th July, my daughter noticed something strange: a small brown mass just below the abdomen of our female Gypsy. An egg sac.

Now, at this point, I don’t know whether she’s had a male visitor in the night while we’ve all been sleeping. Or whether female Gypsy moths, who emerge already egg-laden, simply discharge their eggs anyway, fertilised or not.

So now we have a new dilemma – what to do with this mass of eggs, which carry the potential to perpetuate a beautiful species of moth, yet also to strip acres of trees…? Destroy them, just in case?

What would you do? Please feel free to reply in the Comments….

 

 

 

Mystic moths

Having recently purchased a moth trap (a kind of box with an ultra-violet light sitting atop, that’s left outside overnight), I’ve been rediscovering the delights of moth trapping that I enjoyed as a child.

Even more wonderful is seeing my 8-year-old daughter share my enthusiasm as we open the trap in the morning (usually at the weekend) and photograph the moths, before releasing them into the garden.

A few days ago, we had our best catch yet: two Elephant Hawks, our first Poplar Hawk, our first two Buff-tips, a Large Yellow Underwing, and a number of others.

Poplar and elephant hawk
L-R: Elephant Hawk; Poplar Hawk

My excitement at discovering these incredible, colourful creatures in our urban back garden is matched only by my joy at seeing Hannah share that excitement.

Elephant hawk and buff tip
Elephant Hawk and Buff-tip (which disguises well as a stick)

It’s funny – we might think of wonder as something that’s experienced more acutely as children, when everything in the world is new. And that’s true. To an extent.

But wonder is also something that can grow in us, even as adults, through contemplation, meditation, prayer, gratitude, reading, and mindfulness, especially through spending time with nature.

Hawks and buff tip
Three of the most exciting moths of that night were found all bunched together

My relationship with, and wonder at, nature grows and deepens as I go on observing, photographing, and learning about the world around me. Nature informs my faith; my faith informs my love of nature. The two are inextricably entwined in my mind and soul.

What a privilege to share that sense of wonder with the next generation.


(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

 

 

Peppered Leopard

Many years ago I sold the moth light trap I had as a child, as I gave up all possessions to pursue an itinerary life free from the trappings of a society I wanted no part of. You can read more about this in my book, Coming Home for Good.

Now in my 50s, with my love of nature growing ever deeper and even more integral to the faith I discovered during that time on the road in my youth, it’s been wonderful not only to enjoy having a moth trap again but also to share the anticipation and thrill of opening it up in the morning with my 8-year-old daughter, who seems to be even more excited and fascinated than I am!

This morning, amongst quite a number of moths, we shared the wonder of two black-and-white beauties with rhyming names:

Leopard 1
Leopard

This Leopard moth, with its striking 6-spotted thorax.

And the equally attractive Peppered moth:

Peppered
Peppered moth

One other especially photo-worthy catch (but which unfortunately doesn’t rhyme with the other two) was this Buff Ermine:

Buff Ermine
Antenna reflections: Buff Ermine

One of the great things about the moth trap is discovering all these nocturnal marvels that we would never otherwise realise were all around our urban home.

 


(All photos taken by me today, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

May bugs and June moths

My birthday’s in October, so having purchased a moth light trap with birthday money last year, the trap is only now beginning to come into its own.

After a few dull brown moths and the occasional slightly more interesting specimen during the earlier months of the year, it was with some excitement that we finally had our first hawk moth this week, in mid-June.

Elephant hawk 4
Elephant Hawk Moth

So I promptly enjoyed taking these pics before releasing it on to the honeysuckle at the bottom of our garden, where I hoped it might feed when dusk fell that evening.

Elephant hawk 3
Face to face with Nature

Such incredible colours Nature has given to these creatures.

Elephant hawk 2

 

Elephant hawk

Keeping the Elephant Hawk and a few other moths company in the trap that morning was a Cockchafer.

Not unusual for a Maybug, as it’s also known, to be attracted to light, but it’s a handsome hunk of a beetle, with these striking, fan-like antennae…

Cockchafer
Eye-to-eye

and I have to admit I’m rather proud of these two head-on pics in particular.

Cockchafer 1
Give us a wave!

(All photos taken by me, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)

Hawks and Hummingbirds

The Hummingbird Hawkmoth (HH) has for centuries been an object of fascination, myth and wonder.

In my garden, Hastings, August 2018

So closely do they resemble the birds they’re named after, that it’s not uncommon for them to be mistaken for actual hummingbirds.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

Back in 2006 there were reports in our local paper of hummingbird sightings in Hastings gardens, to which I responded with the letter below:

The historical associations with the HH are quite wonderful too. The book I use as my authoritative moth identification guide even has an extra ‘Folklore’ section for the HH, which reads:

Apparently long considered a messenger of good tidings in Italy and Malta. A small swarm was reported flying over the water in the English Channel, headed to England from France on D-Day, 1944. One seen by the senior author on the day his daughter was born!”[1]

In Barmouth, Wales (where we holidayed this year), August 2019

Although superstition’s not my thing, I have to confess that, whenever I catch a sighting of one of these almost mythical beasts (which is only 2-3 times a year most years), not only am I enthralled (and quickly grab my camera), but it does feel like my “lucky day”! There’s a lasting, healthy buzz – like God’s smile.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

But why am I posting these thoughts on this summer visitor in November, as a kind of Throwback Thursday (on a damp Tuesday)?

Well, I was inspired by a delightful article on the Hummingbird Hawkmoth in this month’s Butterfly Conversation magazine, ‘Butterfly’, and thought I’d take the opportunity to post some photos of my own from this year and previous summers, with these brief comments.

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

The article informs us that in the early 20th Century the HH was also wonderfully known as the ‘Merrylee-dance-a-pole’, and references a letter sent to WH Hudson, quoted in his The Book of a Naturalist:

We regarded it with mingled awe and joy, and followed its erratic and rapid flight with ecstasy….We thought it a being from another world….and I longed to be a Merrylee-dance-a-pole myself, to fly to unheard-of, undreamed-of beautiful flowery lands.”

In my garden, Hastings, July 2014

The Butterfly article ends perfectly with these words, which resonate profoundly with my own experience:

Ecstasy – that word again. To stand outside oneself for a moment, to glimpse the sublime and feel at one with nature. Some beings have that effect on our thoughts. The Hummingbird Hawk-moth is one of them.”

You rarely see Hummingbird Hawkmoths being still, but this one in my garden in 2014 settled on clothes on the washing line for some time!

(All photos mine, but not copyright – i.e. feel free to use them, with my blessing!)


[1] The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Paul Waring and Martin Townsend (2003)

Battle of Elephants

In my book, Coming Home for Good, I reminisced about some of the wildlife highlights of my childhood, as a budding young naturalist growing up in rural Sussex – including my excited discovery of Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars one day, on willowherb next to a secluded lake that I’d often visit. I delightedly took those 3 or 4 elephantine larvae home and reared them through to the gaudy pink and green adult moths before releasing them into the wild.

Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillar – photo taken today

For my young mind, it was such an incredible and unique find, that ever since that day, whenever I see willowherb (which, as it’s very common, is a lot of the time!) I look out for these caterpillars, just in case I might find them again.

So, when I came across two Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars in Battle Great Wood today, for the first time in 40 years, with a chance to photograph them, I was filled with excitement.

I’d understand if, to you, these creatures simply look fascinating, strange, scary, ugly, beautiful, or whatever. To me, they’re certainly beautiful and fascinating, but they also provide a link to the happier elements of an often-unhappy childhood. And I was thrilled.

As mentioned in my last post, The Leaves of the Trees, there are many – and mounting – reasons to (re)connect with nature. Coming Home for Good is an autobiography about my reconnecting with God, myself, my father and my future – a homecoming of many kinds – and my ongoing and increasing love of nature is an important part of that continued homecoming, or self-discovery. Or reconnection with self.

But as explained further in About, aside from all those spiritual and psychological facets, I simply love nature for nature’s sake. So this blog is sometimes simply my nature journal and photo gallery. Hence the following notes and pics…

According to my moths book, Elephant Hawk Moth caterpillars are usually found late-June to September, so these specimens in Great Wood are somewhat late, and no doubt close to pupation.

More timely was this female Brimstone – a species often found in Autumn.

However, I’ve hardly ever found a chance to photograph one, so this occasion was a rare and valued treat, as the butterfly soaked in the sun and shimmered brilliantly on the bracken.  

Purple Heather, growing through a fungus

I’ve never really explored this woodland before, but I’ll definitely be back to explore some more, as today Battle Great Wood was truly ‘Great’.

[All photos taken by me today (10/10/19) in Battle Great Wood, near Battle, East Sussex, UK, while Gorka, my ‘Heinz 57’ dog, waited for the most part patiently and sometimes sullenly…]

Neighbour Nature

Last week, on 16th July, I came across this rather wonderful, large, hairy caterpillar under the lip of our next door neighbour’s gatepost.

The few strands of thread it had woven across itself were the first scant (but obvious) signs that it was starting to pupate.

16th July

Aha, I thought – a blog opportunity! I’ll monitor the caterpillar’s progress and post photos of its pupation at different stages and, if possible, its eventual emergence as an adult moth.

After a bit of research in my moth book (and of course Google!), I thought it might be a Buff Ermine caterpillar, but I’m still not that sure.* It seems too big for such a small moth, and Buff Ermine are meant to pupate in leaf debris, not on walls or…gateposts.

17th July

Anyway, after the first two days (as per photos above), the caterpillar just lay there – motionless – a slightly shrivelled version of its previous self.

For nearly 3 whole days.

During that period, as time went on, I became increasingly convinced it was dead. That metamorphosis just hadn’t worked out for this unlucky larva.

So I stopped taking photos.

This isn’t going to make much of a blog after all, I concluded.

Each day I checked on the apparently deceased caterpillar.

Then, on 20th July, lo and behold, in place of the caterpillar lay this perfectly formed chrysalis, with the discarded larval skin to the side.

20th July: pupa and discarded skin

How did that happen? I mean, literally, how and when did that happen?

Clearly when I wasn’t looking.

What looked like death, or dying, was simply masking an incredible, internal transformation. Beneath its skin, the caterpillar’s cells had been miraculously rearranging themselves before finally shaking off its mantle to reveal the pupa’s hard shell.

What looks or feels like death, or dying, may simply be shrouding a process of internal transformation. Or reformation.

Have you ever experienced some heart-wrenching or dis-heartening episode in your life that feels like death, only to realise afterwards that this was the thing that ultimately brought you into a new kind of life? That actually awakened your heart.

Or consciously thrown off a habit – a deliberate act of loss that feels like grieving for an old friend – only to find that you gained so much more than you lost?

Death is seldom, if ever, the end.

Nature teaches this time after time, as I reflected in my attempt at poetry, Twist of Fate, inspired by a fallen tree trunk that had burst into life.

As an aspiring contemplative with an ambivalent relationship with my evangelical past, my understanding of death is, like the nature that I record in word and picture, still evolving.

Is death really an enemy that’s been destroyed by a Saviour?

Or did Jesus come to transform our understanding of and relationship with death, so we can accept and even embrace it as an integral part of creation’s design?

To awaken us to the reality of hope and life beyond dying, which nature had been teaching us all along, if only we had eyes to see.

Perhaps, as one spiritual writer has said, we shouldn’t really have been surprised at Jesus’ resurrection.

Just as I shouldn’t have been surprised at the sudden appearance of the chrysalis after 3 days.

After all, it’s not the first time that life has re-emerged after 3 days!

———

(*If I manage to catch sight of the moth hatching in a few months’ time, I’ll update this post, and should then have more definite identification.)