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.