Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.


Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.


Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.


Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1



Christ’s blood covers the Lords-and-Ladies

Being only mid-April it is quite early for a number of wildflower species to be blooming, in particular Orchids. Therefore I was very pleased when I spotted quite a number of individual orchid plants, or ‘spikes’, on Good Friday.

The colour of the flowers of these orchids were purple, and they were flowering quite early in the orchid season. That meant that they were Early Purple Orchids! I was pleased that I managed to see these orchids as although they are not a particularly rare or localised species, they are a species I have never seen before.


Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole spike



Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) flower detail


Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) whole plant


Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) leaf detail

As you can see from the last photo above, the leaves of this species are covered in dark black markings. Early Purple Orchids share this characteristic with several other orchid species such as the Common Spotted Orchid and the Heath Spotted Orchid. And, as there so often is, there is folklore that surrounds the spots that are present on the Early Purple Orchid. It has been believed that this flower grew below the Cross on which Christ was crucified, and the leaf spots are the drops of Christ’s blood.

And not only orchids have these dark spots on their leaves. We came across these leaves on the same walk:


These are the leaves of Lords-and-Ladies, Arum maculatum. When the scientific name is translated into English it becomes ‘Spotted Lily’, after the spots on the leaves. Along with Lords-and-Ladies there is a huge range of other vernacular names including Cuckoo Pint, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Cows-and-bulls and Naked Boys. The names that are gender-related such as Lords-and-Ladies and Cows-and-bulls refer to how the flowers of this species apparently look like the process of sexual reproduction:


The flower is very clever in attracting insects for pollination. The spadix, the dark inflorescence rising vertically from the flower, has an odour resembling that of dung which is particularly attractive to a number of fly species. The flower can also produce a temperature significantly warmer, up to 15 degrees or so, than the surrounding air, which also helps to bring in pollinators. Below the spadix there is a ring of robust hairs, which temporarily keep the flies inside. The flies are able to escape but usually only when they have come into contact with the male flowers inside the spathe (the green hood surrounding the spadix) and have therefore been covered in pollen. Once the fly has escaped then it will fly to another Lords-and-ladies flower, again attracted by the faecal scent. Some of the pollen on the fly will find itself inside the female flowers – which are situated below the male flowers – allowing fertilisation to take place.

Both Early Purple Orchids and Lords-and-ladies are common plants in the UK at this time of year, definitely species to look out for. Early Purple Orchids are easy to spot due to their tall and bright flowers, particularly in their favoured habitat of woodland and woodland edge. Lords-and-ladies are less easy to spot due to the green colour of their leaves, however keep an eye out for them and you should be able to find some of the distinctive flowers.



Hedgecourt Invertebrate Survey: Part 1

I am very lucky to live within walking distance of a great Surrey Wildlife Trust reserve in South Surrey near the Surrey-Sussex border. Hedgecourt Nature Reserve is quite a small reserve, but it contains a mix of habitats. It is situated on the edge of Hedgecourt Lake, so that you can get a good view of the open water and the river that feeds into it runs through the nature reserve, creating a few stony streams too. There is a lot of marshland on the reserve, some open and some with tree cover. The woodland near to the lake is almost always flooded, especially so after rain when the lake level rises. This creates a fantastic habitat and I keep saying that it resembles the Florida Everglades in some places. I keep expecting to see a snapping turtle rise up from the murky water! There is also lots of dry woodland – interspersed with many small ponds – which attracts birds such as Nightingales.


It is usually much wetter than this!

This year I have been given permission to conduct a relaxed invertebrate survey of the reserve. The wardens were very happy to have a free survey take place, they haven’t had one in quite a few years. My target number of species is 1000 by the end of the year but I’ll have to work quite hard to get to that figure! On my Pan-species list I barely have 1300 species, and that includes fungi, birds, mammals and plants!

So far this year I have made a few visits, mainly mopping up the common species before I get weighed down by the bizarre beetles and fantastic flies! Most were in the first winter period (January – March).

However, I have made one April visit so far this year. The walk through the reserve started off well. I had just passed the entrance sign when two Brimstone butterflies flew past across the marsh. A Buff-tailed Bumblebee clumsily flew in front of me and a Peacock butterfly erupted from the path ahead. There is a patch of new iris shoots coming out in the first marsh and I noticed small dark things on them when I walked past. At first I thought they were just holes in the leaves but on closer inspection I saw they were very small beetles. I tried to get one in the pot but it vanished – characteristic of a flea-beetle. One moment it’s there, the next: Whoosh!

When I got home I searched ‘flea beetle on iris’ on Google. Lots of results came up, almost all resembling my beetle. Guess what it was called? The Iris Flea-beetle (Aphthona nonstriata)!


This mating pair was more reluctant to hop away.

Just 10 metres further up the path the open marsh turned into the woodland marsh. I bent down to have a look at a large ground beetle that was scuttling across the path when another one, smaller, caught my eye. A third species, which I recognised as one I found the other day: Asaphidion flavipes, also ran out from under a clump of moss. This site is great for beetles, I thought! I ran through the first two beetles at home and the first I didn’t find too hard to identify. It was quite distinctive and it turned out to be Elaphrus cupreus. I’m glad we found this species as it is found in very wet habitats so the wooded marshland at Hedgecourt is perfect for it.

The second one was a bit trickier as it was small and there weren’t really any distinctive markings. I spent a quite a while puzzling over this beetle with The Carabidae (Ground beetles) of Britain and Ireland (Luff, 2007) open on my lap. Eventually, using a combination of appendage colour and pronotum shape, I narrowed it down to Bembidion properans. This is interesting as this species is usually found in drier areas, the complete opposite of this section of the path at Hedgecourt.

My favourite part of the reserve is along the river that runs into the lake. The vegetation has recently been cut beside the river, presumably to let new vegetation grow through. The sun was shining directly on this open patch and there was lots of insect activity. Some Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) was already poking through and on one flower I only just spotted a resting Orange-Tip Butterfly. My first of the year!


There were also lots of flies taking advantage of the warm weather. Three hoverflies were noted – the very common Eristalis pertinax and Helophilus pendulus and the very-common-but-new-to-me Platycheirus albimanus (White-footed Hoverfly). I also saw a Bee-Fly hovering above the cut vegetation, I have seen many this year.

A bit further along the path, I walked out onto the boardwalk to see what was out on the open water of the lake. I was glad to see three Common Terns loafing about on the buoys, showing no interest in breeding. Maybe they had just arrived and were catching their breath! They were sadly the only migrants I saw besides 3 male Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff.

We walked back along the path and turned onto the boardwalk leading into the sheltered reedbed. I was hoping to see an early Reed Warbler, but I did see another Peacock and a Comma butterfly on the boardwalk. They were absorbing up the sun before it goes away again!

There are several old trees by the edge of the lake where the bark is peeling off. I looked under one of these pieces of bark and I found both Common Shiny and Common Striped Woodlouse. I haven’t really looked at Woodlice in great detail before so the Common Striped was a new species to me. It is good to get them both on the year list as I’ll certainly be more busy in the warmer months.

So, I’m currently on 42 species for the year. Only 958 left to go before I reach my target! Hopefully I can find some of Hedgecourt’s specialities before the year ends.