Nature Notes – September 2017

I have had some minor complaints about the Notes this summer – too many dragonflies! So, I am giving them a miss this month. But don’t think they have gone away. There are some very colourful ones around in September, and you will probably get them next year.

There are still plenty of Butterflies about, but this month I have been seeing more of the Moths. With a few exceptions, like the Hummingbird Hawk Moth we have described before, and the Magpie Moth, a white, black and orange moth whose caterpillars feed on currant bushes, these are the night shift compared with the Butterflies. Night-scented flowers such as Honeysuckle have evolved to attract them. My brother, who came to stay with us from Dorset and who is an Entomologist, brought with him a light trap designed to study moths and we ran it in the garden for several nights. These traps work by showing a very bright light which attracts moths just as they are attracted to windows and outside lights, only more so. Beneath the light is a container which keeps them safe and dry, traditionally in a small pile of old egg boxes) until they can be examined and released unharmed next day.

The catch was very interesting, including quite a few moths I did not know. One of the commonest was the Ruby Tiger moth, small for a Tiger Moth but a handsome reddish-brown. Larger moths included the Elephant Hawk Moth, whose caterpillars have been shown to me by neighbours. They feed on Willowherbs (see last month) and, in gardens, Fuchsias. This is a spectacular moth with a delta-wing shape and bright pink and olive-green markings. Even larger was the Poplar Hawk Moth. This is a duller moth, the wings with a pattern of grey, but it is an unusual shape with the hind wings protruding forwards. Hidden on the hind wings are two red patches, revealed when the front wings are brought forwards – presumably a defensive device to startle a predator. (One of the Hawk Moths has much more realistic eye markings which must be even more effective.) The Poplar Hawk Moth caterpillar does feed on Poplar leaves, as well as Willows, and there are indeed White Poplars in the hedge near the trap sit.

Both Swallows and House Martins are still around although it seems to me that they are in even smaller numbers than last year, Away from Sweffling I have been watching Martins still feeding a brood in late August – probably their third. This must be a gamble to get them off before unsuitable weather comes, but both Martins and Swallows are often seen well into the autumn.

Geoffrey Abbott