Miracle movements

This summer’s nature sightings in the UK have been marked by a myriad of marvellous migrants, swept across our shores by successive heatwaves.

One of the most obvious has been the Hummingbird Hawkmoth. A friend who doesn’t follow butterfly & moth groups tells me that even her Facebook feed was awash with photos of these myth-like moths.

I imagine this has been a record year for them here. I’d never seen more than one at a time in the UK until this year, but this summer we regularly had 2 or 3 on the buddleia that invitingly overhangs our garden from next door.

Hummingbird hawkmoth in our garden

I’ve seen more photos of Clouded Yellows this summer than ever before. Their bright, warm colouring seems to reflect the sunshine of their homelands in Southern Europe and North Africa. My own attempts at photographing them have been, as usual, not that successful – they never seem to stop for long. This is my best effort this year…

Clouded Yellow, on the Seven Sisters

But my butterfly – and migrant – highlight of the summer (and a first for me) was the Long-tailed Blue I had the pleasure of discovering at Birling Gap on 29th August.

Long-tailed Blue on Russian Vine, Birling Gap

Again, if the sightings I’ve read about are anything to go by, I suspect this has been a record year for this tiny butterfly that somehow journeys all the way from the Mediterranean to Southern Britain. Females, after mating, make the epic flight back to the Med to lay their eggs there.

A more familiar sight to most people is that of swallows….

Swallows (mostly young ones, evidenced by the less ‘pronged’ tail than adult birds), in Combe Valley

I had the privilege of watching this large flock swooping over a waterway in Combe Valley near us in East Sussex, on 12th September, presumably feeding up on insects before their return flight South.

Likewise, terns are a staple part of the British seaside scene and yet always such a joy to watch, set apart from the more ubiquitous gulls by their angular wings plummeting in descent after small fish.

Young Sandwich terns successfully fishing at Bulverhythe
Pair of young Sandwich terns amongst the gulls and Oystercatchers (Hastings in the background)

Like the swallows, these juvenile Sandwich terns, photographed on 20th Sept, were no doubt filling up before returning southwards.

Migration is, to me, a mystery and a miracle. There are no doubt scientists for whom it is less of a mystery but, I hope and suspect, still a wonder. After all, our understanding of the miracle of migration is still in its infancy, and these birds and butterflies use ‘superpowers’ way outside of the five senses we’re familiar with.

Birds, it is thought, navigate by ‘seeing’ the earth’s magnetic field. A chemical in the eye called cryptochrome, that is sensitive to magnetism, could be key to this theory, according to a recent study.

Other recent research suggests that one of the creatures most famous for its mammoth journeys – the Painted Lady butterfly – might be using a solar compass in the club-ends of its antennae to steer its way.

Painted Ladies on lavender, Guestling churchyard

Like the Long-tailed Blue, Painted Ladies also return to the Continent (often at a height of 500 metres above ground) – a phenomenon only discovered during their bonanza summer of 2009.

There is so much yet to discover about the magic of migration.

How birds, butterflies and other animals, some tiny, succeed in covering such phenomenal distances.

How they find their way to suitable destinations.

And, in many cases, successfully navigate back to where they hatched (a process known as philopatry).

Chiffchaff, a popular summer visitor, although many also stay all year round

And we – when we’ve been moving and shaking and doing our thing in the world – do we also instinctively know how to return to our centre?

To our place of stillness, where our identity needs no proving or defending?

To Presence, where we can drink of the river of wisdom and resilience, before again facing a manic world?

“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.”

From Wild Geese by Mary Oliver


(Photos all mine, but no copyright. Feel free to use / share, with my blessing!)


In Celebration of Spring

English weather rarely follows any sort of predictable pattern. It’s all jumbly, bumbling around all over the place like a drunken bee in winter.

This year, though, a period of spring-like weather has coincided neatly with the official start to Spring. How very un-British.

Just in these last couple of weeks I’ve already seen 7 species of butterfly – a very good start to the year:

Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Comma, Small White, Brimstone, and Holly Blue.

In sheer celebration of this colourful and rapid emergence of Spring butterflies, here are a few photos taken over the last few days, all on the sun-kissed edges of Summerfields Woods, Hastings:

Peacocks: two for the price of one
Holly Blue, on rhododendron leaves
Small Tortoiseshell:
a butterfly that’s been making a remarkable and very welcome comeback in recent years after suffering major decline for many years

A Winged Messenger

I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

These were some of the reassuring words read out at the funeral I attended of a young man today. A service at which I was filled with sadness.

On the way there I stopped at the Old St Helen’s Church ruins for a few minutes’ contemplative prayer.

As I entered the grounds I saw my first butterfly of the year – a Red Admiral brought out of hibernation by the Spring-like weather. What a wonderful divine reminder of the resurrection hope and eternal life that so many of us believe in. 🦋

(Just a phone pic on this occasion)

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 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 Moth

Ruby tiger
Ruby Tiger

Swallow prominent
Swallow Prominent


Willow Beauty
Willow Beauty


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!)

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

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

And the equally attractive Peppered moth:

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…


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.)