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Archive for July, 2009

I have had a number of careers now, none of them illegal anywhere in the world as far as I’m aware – though management consulting is not a universally admired occupation.  For a while after leaving The Firm I ran a local charity shop; I had a bit of money behind me and an appetite for doing something positive and that would directly help the local community.

For eighteen months I had a generally wonderful time, but the back biting from a very small minority of others eventually became too much for me to bear and I moved on. The one Christmas I worked there I gave every member of the volunteer group a small gift. I had gone to the florist intending to buy a bouquet for each or perhaps a small potted flowering plant but my eye was caught by something a little different: attractively packaged and presented aloe vera plants. The shop had enough to go around and one extra so I purchased them as a job lot and presented them to The Ladies.

For those of you who have never had much contact with a Charity / Thrift / Opportunity shop it might be worth me explaining that in my experience they are largely the preserve of ladies of a certain age or certain social standing. But since we hereabouts lack numbers of the latter the work force at this particular shop was largely made up of the former. I was the odd one out being almost two generations younger than most of them and essentially able bodied.

I gave out those aloe vera plants and most of the ladies were, I suspect, rather bemused by my choice of gift. One was left over and I took it home intending to keep it for myself. Initially it thrived but within a few months it left me, then I put the experience of the shop behind me by moving on to other things. I forgot about the aloe vera plants in general and my failure with my own plant in particular.

Then about six weeks ago I was gifted a couple of aloe vera plants. They came to me potted up in flimsy disposable drink cups each in a little plastic bag of the sort you might get for yourself at the self-serve bakery counter in a supermarket. With no greater knowledge now than then of how to care for aloe vera I put them on my magic window sill and, since the weather isn’t reliable around here I left them in those plastic bags loosely knotted at the top to keep them reasonable warm. And every now and then I would remember to water them.

About two weeks ago I noticed that one of them had developed a little baby aloe vera out of its base.

The baby aloe vera

The baby aloe vera

So now I have a problem. Clearly my management of these little plants is doing no harm at this stage but at some point I am going to have to take action. I am going through this with my seed-raised asparagus plants which now desperately need re-homing but still look intimidatingly fragile, too. The difference with the aloe vera is that I have help at hand. These two little aloe vera plants are the offspring of one of the plants I bought and gave as gifts four and a half years ago. One of the ladies, hearing belatedly the fate of the plant I kept has given me these, raised from the plant I had given her.

Nature has an at times astonishing ability to vanquish improbability and so I hold out slender hope for my highly unlikely pumpkins. Last October I did the pumpkin carving thing for my little neighbour. She is into Halloween and likes the lit pumpkin which I sit on the stone fence where she can see it. Pumkin carving is a messy business.

I thought at the time I’d cleared up properly but earlier this year I found a clump of seed that had somehow missed the green wheelie bin and fallen behind a planter. I swept those seeds up with the rest of the rubbish one weekend intending to dispose of it at a later date. Time passed and the small pile of rubbish compacted; eventually I bit the bullet and swept it down the path to be added to some other organic matter to break down. Well I have pumpkin plants growing out of that small patch of decomposing sweepings. Four of them.

Infant pumpkin plants are rather sturdy little beings. I think they’ve left their race for posterity a little late but I’m going to let tham have their chance.

Pumpkin seedlings

Pumpkin seedlings

In better tended parts of the property the windfall Victoria Plums are piling up. The trees are producing in heroic but rather wasteful proportions. I cannot keep up. I am keeping back some of the rotten ones as they will attract butterflies, freezing them for use latter in the season when the fresh ones are no longer available.

I am nearly certain that I have two varieties of olive tree. While the fruit of the rest are still tiny weeks after the flower petals died and fell away two are racing ahead. Or perhaps this is just an individual olive tree thing. I suspect I won’t be able to know until I have fruit I can compare. Last year there were no olives at all so this year is already a major improvement.

English olives

English olives

The pinot noir vines are showing no hint of producing fruit this year but the plants themselves look healthy and are reasonable just as ornamental foliage. The pinot blanc have produced small bunches of grapes that are making progress and I still have hopes of these ripening this year. That too will be an advance on last year.

English Pinot Noir

English Pinot Blanc

The patrol of the garden undertaken today (and during which the outdoor photographs were taken) produced no moths but one mature bush cricket on one of the grape vines, and more Speckled Wood (pararge aegeria) butterflies. I had first spotted them a couple of days ago during a break in the weather and they seem to be drawn, as Red Admirals are, to the rotting fruit.

Speckled Wood (pararge aegeria)

Speckled Wood (pararge aegeria)

And so to yesterday. As tweeted I went to London which is always a mistake. I step out onto those streets and wish I was back there permanently. Commuting suddenly looks appealing again. I get over it, but slowly. Last year I went to an extraordinary exhibition staged by Wellcome Collection at the centre near Euston.

Something like 30 skeletons had been laid out in the display centre. These skeletons had been selected from the Collection and had been recovered from sites across London at various times and dating back to a variety of periods in London’s history.

They were the remains of individuals who ranged in age at death from pre-natal to advanced old age, and in occupation and socio-economic background. The exhibition including remains from London’s Roman past and from as recently as the late Victorian period. For a fair proportion of the remains, particularly the later sets, biographical had been established.

I understand that such an exhibition will strike many as macabre and visiting such a display as disturbing behaviour. I can only say that I found the tenor of the exhibition curiously reassuring. The curators had made every effort to produce a dignified and enlightening presentation. Well the Trust is running a new body exhibition at the moment and I went along. Closed, for the day. What luck. I may have another chance to get up to London next week. Fingers crossed.

With that plan scuppered I moved on toward Covent Garden. I can’t get vegemite locally and the lack of vegemite for my toast amounts to a domestic crisis. I now have a very large jar of the stuff. The Australia Shop is a treasure trove of half forgotten goodies: summer rolls, twisties, fruit tingles, life savers, minties, etc. I confined myself to one box of barbeque shapes and three (on offer) boxes of TeeVee snacks. And I haven’t opened them yet. Am I not good?

Being good at the sweetie counter meant I could spend up in the bookstore. The Waterstones in Gower Street is a favourite; I prefer it to Foyles in fact. It is close to UCL and has vast quantities of serious reading rather than shelf after shelf of rather banal and lightweight general interest level non-fiction in standard grade Waterstones shops. It also has a cracking remaindered section.

Apart from the other stuff I carried off as an indulgence I am now the proud owner of a new copy of the current edition of the Waring Townsend Field Guide to British (Macro) Moths. My old copy which was secondhand, heavily annotated by the previous owner, can now be donated to the charity shop when next I do a run over there, in the hope that it will assist another budding moth hunter as it has served me.

And that’s about it. No moths to report in the house or outside; aside from another Bird-cherry Ermine and a Brown Housemoth which I turfed outdoors. The weather has been abyssmal and though the sun is out I fear the bulk of the good (and in moth hunting terms, productive) weather might be beind us. But if I’m wrong, I’m now well armed.

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Après le déluge

It wasn’t obvious but the weather of earlier in the week was building to a crescendo which broke over head about an hour before what would have been sunset – last night, had the sky not already been black. Yet another electric storm and again pretty much overhead. With wind as well I had no expectations of much insect activity and then all thought of that went from my head. Last night’s dramatics included seriously heavy rain, semi-tropical torrents that the drains were unable to cope with.

Black water bubbled from manhole covers and began to run down the path that leads eventually past my front door. It was knee deep at points, but that, happily wasn’t quite deep enough: the path of least resistance and gravitytook the water around the house and down to the old water-watercourse which is between me and the river, thence to the Crouch and the sea.

This morning the debris is drying, the sky is clear and the wind has dropped. Perhaps, just perhaps, we might be back to business as usual tonight?

PS: have now been out and the smell is really not very nice. And someone else is spraying. The joys of living in the country.

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The past couple of nights have been very quiet indoors. I spent a while last night watching a Common Emerald bobbing back and forth across the outside of the bathroom window; that was the nearest I came to seeing a macro species inside.

The only two moths to actually come into the house were a Bird-cherry Ermine (yponomeuta evonymella) :

Bird-cherry Ermine (yponomeuta evonymella)

Bird-cherry Ermine (yponomeuta evonymella)

Bird-cherry Ermine (yponomeuta evonymella)

Bird-cherry Ermine (yponomeuta evonymella)

The other small moth was an agapeta hamana, but whereas the Ermine was in lustrous condition this moth looked rather worn and faded.

The night before last was even slower. The only moth, and again it was very, very small was (I think) tinea trinotella; a moth the larvae of which feed off what they can find in birds’ nests. Perhaps another candidate for “icky thing of the moth”?

tinea trinotella

tinea trinotella

Now the only other thing to remark on is the relative absence this year of non-moth insects: in past years I’ve had beetles, bugs, bush-crickets (katydids). All sorts. Well last night for the first time this summer I had a greenlace wing. In the past I’ve looked into determining the species but greenlace wing species are hard to differentiate – way beyond my level of competence. I still like them, they’re quite pretty and relatively harmless.

Green lacewing

Green lacewing

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I’m in a far, far sunnier mood this morning. Why? The weather is better, we’re in with a shout in the test match and, after yesterday’s tribulations over three small moths, I do have a couple of triumphs to report.

The first is that the moth which I found on my sleeve the night I came in from seeing Harry Potter has been properly identified for me. I was uncertain and suggested a couple of species but someone with far better knowledge as now IDd it as a moth that for about 50 years had been feared extinct and has only fairly recently begun to reappear in Kent (next county south) here in Essex and also, somewhat strangely over on the other side of the island, in Wales. I not only got the species wrong but had placed it in the wrong noctuid family.

The fact that I’d been visited by such an unlikely moth is compensation. The original post complete with my mis-diagnosis is here, or you can just scroll back a couple of days. It is actually the Small Ranunculus (hecatera dysodea); a member of the hadeninae sub-family of noctuids.

The good news is that for a moth returning from the brink of extinction I have found either the same specimen or another one again this morning, found one on a walk I reported a couple of weeks ago and have found a third/fourth specimen among photos I took a couple of years ago. The food plant is the flowers and seeds of cultivated lettuce so I’m now looking carefully over the cut-and-come-again lettuce on the kitchen window-sill.

Small Ranunculus (hecatera dysodea)

Small Ranunculus (hecatera dysodea) 30 June 2009

Small Ranunculus (hecatera dysodea) Bathroom, 11 September 2006

Small Ranunculus (hecatera dysodea) Bathroom, 11 September 2006

Ben has also confirmed that the moth I found in the past week in the kitchen was another Nationally Scarce B list species and that I’d correctly IDd the very tiny moth which is in yesterday’s post. He’s also (so far) stumped by the other two.

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I’ve had very little to write up, sadly. There were five moth species in the bathroom last night and two of them, the Clay and phylctaenia coronata have been very regular visitors this summer. The other three moths were obviously micro moths and new to me.

One was not actually that small, probably with a wingspan closer to 30mm than 20mm. But it is a remarkably deep and rich brown colour and I’ve found it impossible to capture a good image of it. Despite working my way through everything I could think of, including the UKMoths website one species at a time, I haven’t got to the point where I’m confident in the species. I’m only nearly certain it is a pyralid and possibly a dark variant. Nothing I’ve seen comes close.

Unidentified (pyralid?)

Unidentified (pyralid?)

The second moth seemed the most likely to be identified. Size-wise it was about half the size of the moth above, but several times larger than the smallest of the three, with quite distinct markings. But whereas I’ve been tempted to name the moth above and actually think I might have nailed the really, really tiny moth this one has completely eluded me. I wouldn’t even like to put it in a family. For what it might be worth, and I don’t imagine that’s much, here it is:

No ID

No ID

The last of the three is so small I might easily have missed it as a shadow on the ceiling or a small trail of cobweb I’d missed (I do this, as you may have already noticed in some previous pics). As it clung stubbornly to the ceiling the angles from which I could get pictures were few, yet I think I might have worked out what this is.

paraswammerdamia albicapitella?

paraswammerdamia albicapitella?

In taxonomy there can be few acts more perverse or even grotesque than lumbering such a petite creature with a name like that (assuming I’m correct). This particular species is on the wing at this time of the year and comes to light as this specimen did. The larva is a blackthorn leaf miner (the sort of grub that creates tracery in foliage). There are no contra-indications and in my long almost tedious slog through the entire UK moths database I found nothing fitted better.

All in all a father disheartening and deflating experience.

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Around here, everybody earns their keep.  This freeloader came in with me last night, attaching itself to my sleeve somewhere between the road and the kitchen door and only being noticed when I tried to take my jacket off. After flying about for a short while it landed in a shallow spot of water left at the bottom of the kitchen sink. It let me fish it out and then stayed put for me to take these pics (fortunately the camera was in my jacket pocket).

100_3487

100_3488

100_3494

Even after looking at these pictures a second time this morning I’m not sure what I’ve got here, I’m veering between the Poplar Grey (acronicta megacephala) and Marbled Beauty (cryphia domestica). These are from the same noctuid sub-family; the markings are more akin to those of the Marbled Beauty but I thought last night’s visitor considerably larger than the guideline given in each source I’ve looked at (though by the same token smaller than the size suggested for a Poplar Grey). Species do vary in size, wingspans quoted are only an indicator. I’ll have to wait for someone with better knowledge to come along and help.

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In lieu of details of tonight’s new moth let me bring centre stage, just for one night the world’s stroppiest feline and some light reading material.

Morrisey, cat.

Morrissey, cat.

What a bundle of charm. At least when he goes to the RSPCA he’ll have ‘invasion of privacy’ grounds for a divorce.

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It is still windy and I wouldn’t dare try to fix the great hole in the roof of the back shed in this so weather. I’m wondering who I can flutter my eyelashes at. The best I can do at the moment is jury rig something from the inside, move stuff out of the way, put down buckets and cross all my fingers and toes that I’ve done enough. At least it wasn’t hit by lightning and set on fire!

Having confidently predicted that it would be (another) poor night for moths I was relatively pleased with any at all. One Riband Wave (idaea aversata) and a mystery tortrix that only came as far as the inside of the window and didn’t photograph very well.

I got another pyralid which I think is a new one for me:

agriphila straminella?

agriphila straminella?

Agriphila straminella is common and widespread enough, so no contra-indications there, but I’m not always getting these similar shaped pyralids right (at least at first) hence the question against this ID.

There was another Clay (mythimna ferrago) in last night. I have recognised now that where this moth was a light orange-buff colour when I first started to see it, perhaps a month ago, the specimens I’m seeing now are much darker. The dark ‘dart’ down the wing couldn’t be seen in earlier visitors, and what before had been a white dot now looks more like a pale piece of ribbon:

The Clay (mythimna ferrago)

The Clay (mythimna ferrago)

This is precisely the sort of behaviour that is going to trip me up while I am at this point on what is after all just another learning curve.

There was another moth in last night that I’m not prepared even to suggest an ID for. One minute I think it this, the next I think it that. I’m hoping that someone with more experience and with greater knowledge of the marking variation of certain species will take a look at it and give me a hand.

Unidentified macro

Unidentified macro

Unidentified macro

Unidentified macro

The final moth of the day, and I’ve been unable to take a good picture of it because of the corner into which it has jammed itself is, I think, synaphe punctalis, a pyralid that if I’m correct is another Nationally Scarce B moth. It is not only scarce but restricted to coastal counties. No contra-indications and I can find nothing else to fit in terms of size and markings.

synaphe punctalis?

synaphe punctalis?

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Not all moths are dark, heavy-bodied night flyers.

Yesterday I went out to have lunch with a friend with whom I am plotting something that will keep me out of mischief for a short while later in the year. She’s not well so I didn’t stay long and as the cloud cover had cleared I went over to the marina at Burnham to see what I might see.

Though not as sunny or warm as it might have been there were Common Blue Damselflies on the water and one darter dragonfly, the Broad-bodied Libellula (libellula depressa) I think: sadly they would not let me get close enough for good pictures. I found Gate-keepers, Essex Skippers and Meadow Browns in the grass above the marina as well as plenty of Large Whites and my first definite Red Admiral of the year; but the Adder warning signs have gone up and all the training I had as a child often going bush with my parents kicked in.

Gate-keeper (Pyronia tithonus)
Gate-keeper (Pyronia tithonus)

The Gatekeeper (also known as the Hedge Brown) is readily recognised – the twin white dots in the eye are the signature. They were about in large numbers. I spotted my first Green Shieldbug of the year, too:

Greeen Shieldbug
Greeen Shieldbug

The find of the day, though, was something else. I’ve never spotted a Six-spot Burnet before and wasn’t looking for them specifically but walking back along one of the paths above the marina I stumbled upon what I suspect is a colony.

First one, then another a couple of steps further on and then, perhaps a metre or so further still a pair engaged in ensuring the future of the species. This is a magnificent and unmissible moth. All four were in beautiful shape with brilliant red marks against a metallic black background.

Six-spot Burnet (zygaena filipendulae)
Six-spot Burnet (zygaena filipendulae)
Six-spot Burnet (zygaena filipendulae)

Six-spot Burnet (zygaena filipendulae)

I saved this over from yesterday because I rightly suspected that there would be absolutely nothing in the bathroom last night. The weather is, if anything less promising today. What happened to summer?

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In all the excitement of finding Nationally Scarce B moths on shed walls and making friends with clingy Poplar Hawk-moths I neglected to even give this next moth a mention. It is yet another first for me and relatively an interesting species.

It is known as the Large Tabby (aglossa cuprina oraglossa pinguinalis), though it isn’t particularly big and, as a member of the pyralid family, classed as a micro moth. It is a pest both in its larval form and as an adult. It typically lives in buildings. There it may infest grain, though it is more likely to live on hay and dung. It is reputed to run rather than fly if disturbed and I found one (dis)reputable source* suggesting that it is under consideration as a forensic marker – by those who use insects in the investigation of crime scenes involving a corpse. It used to be more widely known as the Grease Moth for its habit of sipping (actually sucking up) fat and it allegedly doesn’t mind if that fat comes from a decomposing body.

Improbable as it may have seemed at the start of this post I may have myself an mid-month front runner for the title of ‘Icky Thing of the Month’. Here it is:

Large Tabby (aglossa cuprina)

Large Tabby (aglossa cuprina)

* these claims may in fact be nothing other than an entomology under-graduate’s joke.

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