Sunday, 12 July 2020

Lepping Around

Most of my birding involves a longish walk. And if for some reason the birding is a bit rubbish, what are you left with? Just a longish walk. I am fortunate that my surroundings are almost invariably lovely, so I've been trying to diversify a little bit this year, looking at other things when the birds won't play. Looking at butterflies for example. And anything else that catches my eye - even plants on occasion. And taking photos of it all.

Anyone who follows my Twitter output will already know my ID limitations when it comes to non-birds. I am hopeless. However, I'll make the effort if it's relevant. For example, just recently Sandra and I have been visiting a local spot which has Silver-washed Fritillaries, and I now know how to tell the difference between the males and females. Modest stuff, I realise, but after 61 years you've got to start modest...

Siver-washed Fritillary - male...
...and female

It occured to me just recently that I have never knowingly seen an Essex Skipper. How is this possible? Indifference I guess. Plus they are not easy. Anyhow, I thought it would be a nice challenge to set myself - see if I can find my own Essex Skipper. Unfortunately a quick online check revealed that they are not all that common in West Dorset. Never mind, I do like my challenges to And let me tell you, trying to suss the colour of a tiny, restless butterfly's antenna tip is indeed a challenge. Strewth! To be honest, my eyes alone aren't really up to it, and the camera has been essential. Still, with all this nice weather recently the skippers have been active. Just need to find some nice, neat black antenna tips...

Large Skipper. Black tips, wrong species.

So this morning I was at Burton Bradstock. The birding was a bit duff, and I soon found myself crouching in the grass, sneaking up on slightly drowsy skippers. I nailed two of them. Here's the first...

Black tips? Well...

I was pretty confident with this one, and posted it on Twitter. However, it was pointed out that the butterfly's right hand antenna tip (ie, the left hand one as you look at the photo) has a touch of dull orange visible, so probably it's not an Essex Skipper. Ah, right. Never mind, I had another candidate...

Well, definitely one neat black tip...
Same butterfy. Er... Not sure about this one either really.

Which brings me to this afternoon.

So I am still without a 100% unequivocal Essex Skipper. Sandra and I went for an afternoon walk locally, well away from the coastal scrum, and came across a patch of wild marjoram (I think) on which several skippers were feeding. In the hot, sunny weather they were constantly on the go, and I had to take photos with the P900's zoom rather than macro. Among the many shots was this one...

Third candidate Essex Skipper

In addition to neat black tips to the antennae, a male Essex Skipper can be identified by the size, shape and orientation of its scent mark. Again, new knowledge for me, but basically on Essex Skipper the scent mark is small, thin, straight and parallel with the leading edge of the wing. On Small Skipper it is long, thick and obliquely angled. So, a closer look...

See inset - scent mark circled. Small, thin, straight, parallel. Essex. Sorted.

So that was nice, a new butterfly for me. And then I remembered I'd taken some skipper photos at Burton Bradstock a few days ago too, but hadn't really got round to looking at them properly...

Those antenna tips look pretty good from underneath...
...but from above we can see it's also a male, with a short, thin, straight, parallel scent mark! Essex Skipper!

Apparently an Essex Skipper at Burton Bradstock would make it the most westerly ever recorded in Dorset. Nice. I'm glad I made the effort now.

So, yes, I'm well chuffed with this little diversification into the world of leps. But the best is yet to come. While I was trying to photograph the busy little skippers this afternoon, something caught Sandra's eye. She called me over and said she'd just seen what looked like a large moth fly into a bush, adding that the way it flew reminded her slightly of a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. We peered into the foliage and soon spotted it. I could see it was a clearwing of some kind, but the light was really awful and I couldn't make out any detail at all. Unfortunately it carried on through the bush and vanished.

Sandra kept watch, and a few minutes later it reappeared. This time we were ready, but it was quickly out of view and into the foliage again. Momentarily it paused and I managed a single photo. Then it was gone, and didn't reappear. I had a look at the back of the camera...


Just lately, Twitter has been crawling with shots of Lunar Hornet Moth, and I realised we had a photo of a very good candidate right here. I uploaded a crop to Twitter and asked for ID confirmation. 'Yes!' came the reply. Excellent!

I know little about moths, but reading between the lines I get the impression that until recently, Lunar Hornet Moth is one of those species that even a super-keen moth enthusiast might never have seen. But this year there is apparently an effective new pheremone lure (I've seen it given the epithet 'The Game Changer', so it must be good!) and many moth'ers have consequently added a new species to their list. Us too! Here it is...

Lunar Hornet Clearwing. Corker!

The bush is a sallow, which is apparently the species' food plant. It all fits. A female maybe? Looking for somewhere to lay eggs? Anyway, whatever the case, a cracking moth.

So that's Essex Skipper done and dusted. Plus a chemical-free Lunar Hornet Clearwing (the only proper way, right?). What next...?


  1. Hi Gavin it never occurred to that it might be the furthest west,record and the lunar hornet was great never seen one,but I have caught six belted clearing on Hounslow heath once, by sweep netting over neutral grassland and over it's larval foodplants birdsfoot trefoil

    1. Hi John, I heard today that Essex Skipper has recently been recorded even further west, over the border at Axminster, Devon. But yes, according to the BC Dorset branch map, Burton Bradstock would appear to be the furthest west in this county. I would imagine they're under-recorded.

      I don't think I've ever seen a clearwing before, but in photos they look really smart. I shan't be buying lures though! πŸ˜„

  2. Hi Gavin - great post as always You were unbelievably lucky with the Lunar Hornet Moth - I've searched for years for one but saw my first last week with the pheromone. Perhaps a sign that you should get into 'mothing'? The butterfly photos are stunning. I always grill Small Skippers but they're not this far west yet...
    All the best. Matt

    1. Ha ha! Thanks Matt. My 'luck' always seems to dramatically increase whenever my wife is with me! I would never have seen it otherwise. πŸ˜„

  3. Great pic Gavin, takes me back nearly thirty years when I was butterfly mad. I found Essex Skipper at Lulworth back then when they were supposedly still much farther east. As you say, under-recorded. That clearwing - wow. What deception, a humble moth looking like a big threatening hornet, very impressive.
    Not sure I agree with loads of bearded net wavers spraying pheromone about, it must have a negative effect on the insects daily routine and could reduce reproduction opportunities. Discuss :o)

    1. Funnily enough Dave, very nearly did 'discuss'. But after the low carbon birding post, maybe I'll leave it a few days before getting controversial again... πŸ˜„

  4. My only LHM was in a maist net onec years ago when we were constant effort ringing!

    1. That must have been a reailly neic surpreis! :)