Monday, September 17, 2018


Just back from a nice week in Westleton, Suffolk. We have stayed in the village, about 2 miles from Minsmere, about 8 times now over the years in 5 different houses. Its a nice spot, equidistant between Soutwold and Aldeburgh, nice seaside towns. The area has good heathland, woods coast and reedbeds so there is always something for the naturalist away.

This time, in line with most of 2018, little deliberate birding was done, but I still managed 2 Stone Curlew near Minsmere, 2 Hobby together at Thorpeness, several Green Woodpecker ( scarce birds at home), a dozen Little Gulls at Sizewell, 8 Whinchats at Aldeburgh, but generally I was unsettled at the general lack of small birdlife around the countryside. Place were quite literally silent. No woodpigeons, crows, robins or dunnocks. Not a sound. I did see the odd passing tit flock but that was about it really.

Other forms of wildlife added interest for this Northerner -

Munjac in several areas, Grey Squirrels ( not annual at home), Adder, Migrant Hawkers, Ruddy and Common Darters and of course, the moths. Bringing the trap down here is always gauranteed to get new species for me and this week was very good indeed, with a couple of very localised species that would never have been on my radar.

 Hopefully we will be brave enough to face that bloody horrendous A1 for a return visit next year, but in the mean time here are a few pics...


Moth Trap fired up.

About 200 yds away from the digs lies the heath.
Dusky Thorn

Oak Hook-tip

Least Carpet

Archers Dart

Gold Triangle

Cypress Pug

Tawny Wave

Heath Rustic

Lunar Yellow Underwing

Mullein Wave

Meal Moth

Wax Moth

White Point

Beaded Chestnut

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Another butterfly lifer...

...this time on the doorstep!

Lets go back to the 28th July and it was 28 degrees with full sun. ( Rain all day today).

When we were down in Fermyn Woods I was hoping to catch up with White Letter Hairstreak, a very elusive butterfly in Northumberland. Our luck was out and it remained as hidden as ever.

On our return, inspired by Iain Cowe's findings in the scottish borders only 30 miles to the North where he had located several spots for WLH up the Tweed catchment area, we decided to check elm trees locally.

Unsure how to go about this, I met John in Alnwick and we had an idea to cruise around and stop when we saw some elms, preferably ones along the River Aln as there river valleys seem to be good spots for the butterfly.

First stop was Canongate where some sucker elms were hanging over a tall stone wall. We stopped for tea and breakfast and scanned around. Across the road next to us was a mid sized bushy elm tree on a field edge. We were laughing about the hopelessness of it all when I noticed a movement through the outer branches. Tea forgotten, we scanned hard and there - a White letter Hairstreak! The first adult for VC68  after Iain had located eggs in February up on the borders.

We hopped into the field and sat down. In a few minutes, one WLH perched out on the lowest branches and gave great views. We finally saw two more here making three in total. A great result, in our home town too.

Surely this was a fluke? We drove across to the opposite end of town where the Aln runs east. Sure enough, a riverbank elm looked good so we gave it half an hour. Our luck was in, another 2 WLHs were flitting through the branches and landing briefly where good binocular views were had.

Two sites in an area previously unknown for this insect cant be bad...I wonder how many there are out there?

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Looking for an Old Lady and the art of Sugaring.

I have been moth trapping in our garden on a regular basis since 2009. Over the years a respectable number of species have turned up including some firsts for the VC68 list and even Northumberland. Still though, a couple of nationally common enough species have eluded capture so it was time to try another approach.

Before the creation of the widley used electric light traps that bring us big catches at present, other methods had to be deployed by our lepidopterist forefathers in order to catch a few moths to pin in mahongany cabinets. One in particular drew my attention. Sugaring.

Sugaring is based on the fact that moths will feed on the weeping sap from wounded trees or from the honeydew secreted by aphids. Moths and butterflies are well known to feed on rotting fruit in orchards or from brambles over ripe but still on the bush.

Some species are more attracted to this than other, and when those species are not so strongly pulled to a light source, even better. Up here in Northumberland, my two scarce targets were Old Lady Mormo maura  and the Red Underwing Catocala nupta. These are very large and drammatic species and well worth a little time spent in the planning for their capture.

What is 'Sugar'?

It is a simple concoction made up as follows - 

A bottle of brown ale.
A bag of dark brown sugar.
A tin of treacle or syrup.

Pour the beer into  a large pan and bring to the boil. Do this gently to stop it frothing over. Simmer, allowing the alcohol and fizz to boil away. Then pour in the sugar and treacle. Gently simmer for a further 15 mins or so stirring regularly until all mixed. I like to stir in a couple of over ripe pears and a blackened banana, mashed, while simmering. Mash in the pan so it looks like the liquid below.

Allow to cool, and decant into the treacle tin or large jars. The mix will keep a couple of years, but watch for fermentation in case it blows the top off or breaks the jar. I keep mine in the shed.
Some sources advocate mixing some amyl nitrate, pear drops, or rum into it later but this can be harmful to the moths, getting them drunk, lethargic and liable to predation from mice, toads etc when they fall to the ground.

You can add out of date jam, or more mashed pears later if you wish.

I use it in two ways. 

1. Take a large plate or saucer, mine is a terracotta plant pot base dish. Keep some old fruit to be well over ripe such as pears, plums, peaches, blackberries and banana. Juicy fruits seem to be best but banana over done, certainly is an attractant. Its not an exact science so experiment.

I then drizzle some sugar mix over the fruit platter like gravy to finish. Place the dish in a sheltered wind free spot but not in an obscured area, moths like a clear flight line. Top the sauce up nightly and replace fruit as required.
Fruit mash dish - Old Lady dwarfing Large Yellow Underwing, Common Rustic agg, Shuttle shaped Dart, Lesser broad bordered Yellow Underwing.

2. Take a 1 or 2 inch decorating paint brush and simply paint a strip on a vertical surface such as a tree trunk, fence posts or what ever, but make sure its not where someone will lean on it or sit on it the next day.Top up your spots regularly and it will be permanently attractive.

Sugar painted on a fence rail. This one has bramble jelly mixed in. Its going down well with this Old Lady and LYUs.

And thats about it really.

It is most attractive from early dusk to midnight when things seem to go quiet. I check mine every half an hour or so. During the day, the plate is attractive to Red Admirals, Speckled Woods, probably Comma though I'm still waiting for that one, and of course wasps, so make sure it is in a quiet part of your garden. It does the job of keeping the wasps busy, so they dont come after you when you are having a drink outside!
Sugaring is a difficult thing to predict the results. Warm humid nights with a light breeze to waft the scent seems best. From July through to late October is the main season.

Even though my sugar spots are only feet from the 125w mv Robinson trap, I have still not caught an Old Lady at light but have had up to three together on my sugar when until now there had only been 4 records in the vice county in total...

My main target, Old Lady with LYU and Common Rustic agg. Note the Water Melon. They liked that too. Banana skins if you dont want to wast the whole banana.
Target No 2, Red Underwing, only my second one since one at light in 2009. This was the 5th VC68 record.  
Sugaring attracts a good range of species, but its not a trap so dont expect miracles. Perservere though and you may be surprised at the results this odd method produces.

The Gothic

Angle Shades and mates.
I wish I had potted this one up for closer inspection as it looks like a Copper Underwing rather than the commoner Svensson's Copper Underwing. Next time...
Its not all noctuids either, here a Fan-foot tries the wares.
Purple Clay

A trio of Red Admirals during the day.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Its not all Purple...

One of dozens of Banded Demoiselles.
After the heat and butterfly excitement of Sunday, we were pleased to get back to the pub for food and drink. The scampi and chips were excellent and a very cold pint of Aspalls dry cider went down very nicely.  Our rooms at the Woolpack Inn were in annexed accommodation behind the pub. The room was basic but clean and comfortable. It would have been perfect had it not been for 'Junior Kickstart' taking place only 20 yards from our window! A quad, a rally car and a mini motor treid their best to out gun each other in the noise stakes around a small paddock. This was not advertised on the website, take note!

Due to the heat it was hard to get to sleep but it was soon Monday morning and after breakfast we went out for a wander. The River Nene was just outside and from the road bridge we could count 21+ Red eyed Damselflies basking on water lillies while a nice shoal of hand sized Roach hung in the current, occasionally rising to take some unseen snack. 

The damsels were added to the nice selection found yesterday around Fermyn Woods Country Park where we recorded, 13+ Emperor Dragons, 7+ Brown Hawker, 2 Broad bodied Chaser, 1 Four spotted Chaser, 2 Ruddy Darter, 1 Emerald Damsel and many Blue tailed Damsels.

Male Ruddy Darter sky pointing due to the heat. Its something when dragonflies are too hot!

Broad bodied Chaser looking a bit worn and leathery now, his season almost over...

We visited Fermyn again for a couple of hours or so but it was much quieter than yesterday but we did find 5+ Purple Hairstreaks basking around a ditch only 2 feet from the ground and my only lifer of the trip -  2 Essex Skippers showed well in masses of Small and Large Skippers along the rides.

Inspired by the excellent selection of odonata, we are very impoverished for odonata in the North east, we were on the look out for more likely spots. A small road on our way back towards the A1 looked promising as it crossed the junction between a canal and a river at Cotterstock Lock.

When we pulled up the temp on the car read 34 degrees! It was baking. A pleasant triangular walk around the waterside gave us a great variety of dragons and some damsels too. We had 2 male Scarce Chasers, 1 male Black tailed Skimmer, 2 male Emperor Dragonfly, 2 male Brown Hawker, 1 Red eyed Damsel, 50+ Banded Demoiselle and 2+ Common Blue Damsels.

A short last ditch try for Black Hairstreak proved a week too late at Glapthorn Cow Pastures but we did have more Purple Hairstreaks, Silver washed Fritillaries, Gatekeepers etc while three Ravens cronked over head.

It was now lunchtime and we had a long journey home. It was an excellent couple of days out with loads of stuff of interest to two northern naturalists, so no doubt we will be down this way again sometime...

This one is a male Scarce Chaser see the black triangles at the wing bases. And its on a plant. This seperates it from the next species...

Black tailed Skimmer. No black triangles and flat on a bit of concrete. It doesnt perch on emergent vegetation prefering harder surfaces.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

By Royal Appointment...

As a young lad, I used to read the books of the naturalist and field sportsman Denys Watkins-Pitchford other wise known as 'BB'. He was a great writer and illustrator who's evocative descriptions of warm summer days watching butterflies or  wildfowling on ice and snow bound salt marshes would hold me captivated. 

In particular I loved to see his black and white lino cuts and ink drawings. He was agreat inspiration. Nowadays his field sports interests might be a little bit frowned upon but he was a man of his era.

I can remember reading about his love of Apatura iris, the Purple Emperor butterfly that was an elusive and declining insect of the forests of the midlands and south of England. BB used to look for the eggs on sallows and take them to rear into adults away from predators to release the next summer. He was concerned that they may disappear altogether as a result of foresters spraying pesticides on oak trees to rid the woods of tortrix moths.

Fortunately, this practice seems to have stopped and iris numbers are on the increase. Or maybe it is due to some warmer summers in recent years in the areas they are found?

Last summer was a good one in the East Midlands with many Purple Emperors on the wing in the Rockingham Forest woodlands of East Northants. It was then that I decided we must have a trip down to have a meeting with the creature affectionately known to his fans as 'His Imperial Majesty'.

Fast forward to the heatwave of summer 2018. As the UK basked in 30 degrees temps for weeks on end, the Emperor was on the wing earlier than  usual and in bigger numbers. At the Knepp Wildlands project in West Sussex, for example, Matthew Oates counted over 300 on the wing in late June, making them more numerous than Meadow Brown! Knepp is a bit far to go over two days for us (and a bit expensive to get access) so last weekend John and myself visited the old stomping grounds of BB himself - Fermyn Woods in Northamptonshire.

We left sunny Northumberland at 4am and were onsite by 8.30am. Only one car was parked and its occupants had already left for their walk. As we entered the woods, I was a bit disappointed to see that the forestry people had annihilated the trackside scrub including all of the sallows favoured for breeding by the Emperors. What would BB have thought?

Onwards and upwards though, and a movement half way up and oak trunk attracted my attention. It was a worn old female Purple Emperor! First butterfly of the day too. This is a doddle, we thought.

Male Purple Emperor showing why he has his name.
How wrong could we be. For the next several hours walking the length of Fermyn and Lady Woods all we manged were brief flight views of H.I.M gliding around his territory but always too high. Other great butterflies for us invaders from the north filled in the void, with good sightings of White Admiral, Purple Hairstreaks, Silver washed Fritillaries, Gatekeepers and Marbled Whites, let alone masses of Ringlets, Meadow Browns, Small and Large Whites, Small and Large Skippers all along the rides. It was fantastic.

White Admiral, now past their best.

Silver Washed Fritillary

Essex Skipper, only two seen amongst dozens of Small Skippers and Large Skippers 

Gatekeeper. We dont get these at home.
The heat almost made us succumb by 2pm so we headed back to the car, without an 'iris on the deck' shot.

Only 50 mtrs from the parking area, a young lady said she had a male up in the taller trees. Another visitor has sprayed a little attractant ( vile fish oil) onto the track to no avail. She soon left, and John and me stood, gazing back up the ride hoping for a large butterfly to appear. No joy, so we turned to head off and there, on the path, 3 feet away, was His Majesty spread eagled in the dappled shade. I pushed John to one side and I the other to prevent him being trodden on and thought that was our chance gone, he was bound to flush back to the high oaks. But no, he sat a while then flew a few feet and landed again and sat there for the next hour enjoying sucking his yellow proboscis on the hardcore path.

More of the male that granted us an audience.
Our concentration attracted the attention of other watchers and some even came from the Cafe at the country park around the corner for a look. Patience scarcely paid off as despite being a beautifully fresh butterfly he didnt want to open his wings again. I couldnt resist trying to see if he would sit on my finger and with the agreement of the observers left, I gently slid my flat hand towards him, just touching his legs before he glided safely up into the woods.

What a great experience!

We were staying in The Woolpack Inn not far away overnight so I'll do another post about the next day soon....its mostly odonata...

The backstage door, butterfly style. You can see the Emperor in the front.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Should I stay or should I go? ...

...was never really the question I posted on Twitter the other day.

My Tweet said -

'Many of you are Natural History . I am wondering how Twitter and Facebook has affected your blog output? I'm wondering if my blog has had its day, its been going 12 yrs with 750,000 views... Comments please.'

Now with that short sentence or two, in a second it reaches over 2,000 people. The blog could never do that, but is that really its purpose anyway? I don't think so.

What I was mostly interested in when asking the question was, has social media had the same impact on the blogs of others as it has on mine and the answer was a resounding Yes.

Out out of the responses I received from fellow bloggers the most common response by far was 'too little time' to blog when you can rattle off a few tweets in seconds. I am one of those people too. Is it true though? I think the reason we dont have time to blog ( when we used to have time) is because of all the bloody time spent on social media!

Then I looked back only as far as August 2017 when I said this  .

Rather than repeat myself, again, I'll just leave it out there. I will continue to blog as frequently as I can, and will try to cut down on the others... Mmmmm...

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lamberton and Burnmouth

On Sunday morning we took our annual trip up over the border to catch up on some scarce butterflies and moths.

On arrival at Lamberton Cliffs it was cool and breezy, so being a bit late in the season I didnt have much hope of seeing the Small Blues that inhabit the path edges here. Fortunately, down on the scree it was more sheltered and the butterflies were out in decent numbers. We had 20+ Small Heath, 7+ Common Blue, 13+ Small Blue, 2 Wall Brown, 2 Large Skipper and a few moths including our first Blackneck, an oddity here with most other records for this moth coming from south of Yorkshire. We flushed 9 Blackneck including a mating pair. Commoner lepids included Latticed Heath, Garden Grass Veneer, Silver Ground Carpet, Celypha lacunana and Timothy Tortrix all in good numbers plus 4 Chimney Sweepers.

Small Blue

Small Blue

Quaking Grass


Small Heath

Wild Strawberry

Large Skippers
From here we drove the short distance along to Partanhall scree cliffs where the masses of Red Valerian, Rock Rose and Salad Burnet were the home to 13+ Northern Brown Argus, 1 Painted Lady, 2 Common Blue, 2 Small Copper and 1 Small White. A tiny brown and white banded pyralid seems to be Pyrausta cingulata.

A good morning out, as it always is up here...

Northern Brown Argus

Common Blue

Common Footman caterpillar