Thursday 9 June 2022

Learning Curves

The natural world has fascinated me since childhood, and I have many clear memories involving assorted creatures and a very small me. In one of them I am shown a bat clinging to a wicker chair in a garden. I was probably four or five years old. I recall the wonder and thrill of it, but I definitely do not recall asking what kind of bat it was. It was a bat, and that was good enough for me.

The desire to be more specific, to put a name to things, came later. But even then I might not have been that bothered unless it meant points in an I-Spy book. Birds changed that. I made an effort with birds. And now here I am in my seventh decade, knowing quite a lot about how to put a name to almost any bird you might encounter in these islands. Terrific. However, the same cannot be said about butterflies, moths or dragonflies. Or plants. Or...well...a stack of other stuff...

On many occasions my ignorance has been a source of frustration. Last year I quite fancied trying to find Lulworth Skipper locally. I had never seen one but knew they were here somewhere. I guessed that the best places to look would be where its foodplant was abundant. The foodplant of Lulworth Skipper is Tor Grass, so I just needed to find a load of that. Except I had no idea what Tor Grass looked like. So I looked it up, found some, and scored with Lulworth Skipper at my second attempt.

My delight at discovering the wealth of orchids available at Cogden and West Bexington definitely stirred something, but I suspect my involvement with the Mapperton rewilding project is what finally woke it properly. I don't think I had ever appreciated quite how much plants can tell you about the local geology, habitat and potential invertebrate population, for example. Sure, I can identify a few plants, but have decided - at the ripe old age of 63 - to turn that into 'a lot of plants'. I asked plant buff and fellow blogger Steve Gale for a bit of advice, and as a result now own this...

It fits nicely in the outer pocket of my camera bag, and on several occasions has been open on the ground beside me as I have knelt to grapple with a new plant. Like this one...

Mouse-ear Hawkweed at Cogden

Its paler, more primrosey shade of yellow made it stand out from its myriad mates (which I'll tackle some other time) and clinching the identification was quite pleasing.

And then of course, moths. Partially that is Sandra's doing, but I didn't need much prodding. What a world of super-subtle trickiness it is. And I thought gulls were hard. Yes, there are plenty of obvious ones. We've had one specimen of the most-photographed moth on the planet - Buff Tip - and this corker...

A pristine Poplar Hawkmoth

But there have been several that, while distinctive, are less 'instant'. A couple of examples...

May Highflyer

Brussels Lace - what a great name!

 And then there are those which look different, but might not be...

L: Marbled Minor...or maybe Rufous Minor or Tawny Marbled Minor.
R: Tawny Marbled Minor...or maybe Marbled Minor or Rufous Minor.

Apparently the three species can reliably be identified only by examining their genitalia. I shan't be inflicting that indignity upon them. And anyway, all are common.

And then there are the plain weird...

Below: Heart and Dart.
Above: er...

Sandra and I spent ages trawling through the books for a moth with those distinctive 'saw tooth' markings. Nothing matched, not even slightly. Finally we realised that the dark, shallow V on its collar (visible between the front legs) looked exactly like a Heart and Dart. Conclusion? Aberrant Heart and Dart. Strewth! It's hard enough without all that kind of nonsense!

There's even been a bit of dabbling with micros. It was impossible to ignore one with antennae a mile long...

Buff Long-horn (Nematopogon metaxella)

There are a couple of potential confusion species (surprise, surprise!) but I think the identification is pretty safe. And it's not a rarity, so no big deal really.

Two things have struck me since embarking on these two fascinating - but eno-o-o-o-o-rmous - learning curves:

  1. There are not enough hours in the day
  2. There are not enough remaining years in my life

Lesson? Don't be like Gavin. Start young. Sleep rarely.


  1. Don’t go down the Micro rabbit hole🀣 Had my first Brussels Lace yesterday in my Wareham trap.

    1. Ha ha! Just flirting with it really. πŸ˜„ Unfortunately some of them look like they should be easy...until you open the book and find there are six almost identical!

      Brussels Lace is my favourite so far. Subtle beauty. Love it.

  2. Micro moths? Heck no, not in this life time, but I am drawn to micro wasps but they too are difficult to identify unless captured and that all seems a bit of a faff. I do my best with identifying all manner of natural things but alas, my memory doesn't help and names are easily forgotten, aging doesn't help at all.

    1. I feel similarly about bees and hoverflies. But they will have to wait. Probably for a very long time. πŸ˜„

  3. Gav, you have to admit, being able to put a name to every item of fauna and flora, or at least a lot of it, is a rare talent, and quite handy at times.
    I guess I'll have to get by on the basics. I have only limited brain space for fine detail.

    1. A knowledge of plants seems to be especially handy, Ric. Wish I'd made the effort years ago. And yes, my capacity for new knowledge feels rather inadequate too. It's a struggle to retain it!

    2. That looks like a useful book, I didn't know about that one. Trying to do botany this year too, it's not really going that well, overwhelmed...

    3. It's great. Not exhaustive, but will cover just about anything I'm likely to come across. Designed for the likes of us, I'd say. πŸ‘