Thursday 31 August 2023

Very Bad at Collecting

As a young boy I inherited a small collection of birds' eggs which my maternal grandfather and uncle had put together in the first half of the 20th century. And, like a number of kids did in my day, I added a few more. One of my father's brothers was a keen lepidopterist, with a sizeable collection of mounted butterflies and moths kept in glass-topped wooden display cases reeking of camphor. By the early 1970s he no longer collected, but his impressive hoard nevertheless inspired me to try it myself, and I recall pitiful attempts at pinning out sorry specimens on a home-made setting board.

None of those boyhood efforts at collecting made it past adolescence I am glad to say, but the urge to collect certainly did. When I started birding as a young man, that urge manifested itself once again in an unexpected way: listing. In the introductory pages of my 1976 copy of Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe is a 'European Check-List', with a little space for a tick next to each species. Personally I preferred a cross, and in many cases my 'X' is accompanied by a date. In the very early 1980s my list passed 200, and I vaguely recall being conscious that 300 was approaching fast. However, I have no idea what my 300th bird was, nor any record of of my journey to that landmark or beyond it. Why not? Because I am very bad at collecting.

I did briefly check out Wikipedia's blurb on the psychology of collecting, but only skimmed it. I am aware that the collecting urge exists in many of us, that there is a scale from 'casual' to 'obsessed' and from 'innocent' to 'destructive', but beyond that I'm not curious enough to probe. All I know is that I am something of a failure at it. To illustrate...

A simple assignment: in one year, collect as many bird species as possible within a defined geographical area. And so I signed up to the 2023 Patchwork Challenge. The first winter period and spring went pretty well, with moderate levels of effort and enthusiasm building a decent collection. And yet here we are on the threshold of meteorological autumn - a birdy time of plenty - and I have totally lost interest. I have not updated my collection in three months, and could hardly care less. It's not that I haven't added to it (Cattle Egret, Wood Sandpiper, Spoonbill, Garganey and, today, Ruff spring to mind) but other factors are at play. For example, since coming off Twitter I no longer see Patchwork Challenge notifications and consequently feel a bit distanced from it all. Also, the nice hedgerows but largely sterile fields of my designated 'patches' have got me hankering after what is probably my favourite local spot, Cogden, where the fields are lush with wildflowers and insects. So much so, in fact, that I can see a fair bit of autumn being spent there...

A Cogden Redstart in typically unconfiding mode last Saturday.

Cogden Beach Wheatear. Such pics were once ubiquitous on this blog.

And my first Whinchat of 2023!

It was so good finally to see a Whinchat this year. Still no 2023 flycatchers of any kind though. Woeful.

In addition to the Blackneck featured in the last post, at Cogden I photographed another moth that is unlikely to feature in my garden collection...

Shaded Broad-bar

In summary then, yes, I am very bad at collecting. I lack the whatever-it-is that a collector needs in order to grow his collection. Dedication? Single-minded purpose? I can dabble at collecting for brief periods, but it always ends up seeming a bit pointless. Even the garden moth list, which is coming along nicely right now and has undoubtedly held my attention for longer than most such endeavours, will eventually need to become a lot more than just a collection if it is to keep me interested.

Having said all that, why did I bother twitching a couple of Ruff that Pete Forrest found today on the edge of my West Bay & Eype patch? A genuine question that, which in the light of the above I have explored at some length. It wasn't because I was anxious for the Patchwork Challenge points. It wasn't because Ruff are stunning creatures which one must always at all costs see. It wasn't even because of their novelty value on a patch with no proper wetland habitat...

In the end I reached the conclusion that I went because I was in the mood and fancied it. Which is a pretty lame reason, and explains why I will always be very bad at collecting.

Two scaly juvenile Ruff on a wet West Bay field. Nicely collected.

Big and Blue

In Bernard Skinner's Colour Identification to Moths of the British Isles (1984) the colour plates depict life-size mounted specimens. Browsing through them as an interested but ignorant reader in the late 1980s, several moths leaped off the page, mainly due to their size and audacious patterning. One eye-catching beast was both very big and partly blue, a rare combination. However, listed as 'Immigrant and transitory resident', I knew my chances of encountering Clifden Nonpareil in the flesh were slim to zero. Still, that striking image has stayed with me, just in case...

Thirty-odd years later, things have changed. Widespread breeding means Clifden Nonpareil is no longer the rarity it once was, and in recent times many moth folk have no doubt been delighted to add this once-mythical moth to their garden list. Including - as of last night - me.

Popping outside around 23.00 I could see a humungous moth clinging to the cabin door. I didn't risk getting any closer until armed with appropriate Tupperware. As expected, the moment it was enclosed there was a big flash of stripy hindwing, but in the dim glow of a 45W actinic lamp I could not detect any colours. So, indoors with it.

And, just wow!

They may be less unobtainable, but boy, no less unbelievable! What a moth!

Clifden Nonpareil. Just a hint of hidden delights.


A precautionary snap taken in the kitchen last night, in case of any disasters this morning. Photography was accompanied by a quietly-breathed undertone of awed superlatives.

How scarce is Clifden Nonpareil locally? The Dorset Living Record map shows just over 30 Bridport area records, almost exactly the same number as for Red Underwing. That was a surprise. Still, in this particular case I cannot see familiarity ever breeding contempt!

Recent mothing has been sporadic and rather quiet, so this beautiful beast was a very unexpected highlight. Just for the record...


Monday night, 28th August

37 moths of 20 species. None new for year or garden.

Wednesday night, 30th August

A bit better, with 50 moths of 27 species. One new for year and garden: Clifden Nonpareil.

Last Saturday afternoon I added another new moth to the life-list I don't keep, simply through carrying a few pots in my camera bag...

Blackneck, captured in the species-rich grassland at Cogden. This moth's flight period is listed as June-July, so I imagine that August 26th is an unusually late record.

Saturday 26 August 2023

The Ictodious Warbler

A curious consequence of our digital age is how much it is possible to enjoy a bird that you don't even see. And so it was yesterday, when Kev Hale discovered an Ictodious Warbler on Beer Head, near Seaton.

Why so much fun for me? For a start, Beer Head is responsible for many fond birding memories, and I'm always pleased when it turns up a goodie. Also, it is long overdue a confirmed Icterine or Melodious Warbler, so I was chuffed that Kev got a photo which appeared to nail the ID. But there were a couple more aspects which added another level of delight. Number one, the bird's identity suddenly got all controversial, and I had a great time wading into the debate from afar. Number two I will get to shortly. In the meantime, back to that photo...

The thrill of finding a good local bird is all too rare, and the last thing you want to do on such occasions is botch the identification. So when a yellow-tinged Hippolais warbler pops out in front of you, the pressure is on to clinch it as either Melodious or Icterine. Down here in the Southwest, Melodious is by far the more likely species, but Icterine is always a possibility. So what do you do? A lot of birders these days are faced with a dilemma...

  1. You observe it carefully, checking for and ticking off salient field marks.
  2. Or, you frantically dig out the camera and pap away like crazy, hoping to convert said field marks into pixels that you can later analyse at leisure.

Realistically, at somewhere like Beer Head, where birds are often through and gone in the blink of an eye, option two makes a lot of sense. Especially for a warbler. That's certainly the way I would have played it. And it's what Kev did.

Also, with their built-in image stabilisers, modern cameras can minimise the effects of that involuntary adrenaline surge. Binoculars, not so much.

Anyway, having got less-than-clinching views, but a couple of shots, Kev put a message plus pics on the local WhatsApp group. Pretty quickly there was broad agreement on the bird's ID, and the news was passed on to BirdGuides, one of the bird information services. Here is the best photo...

The original was a bit over-exposed, so this is a tweaked version. (Photo by Kev Hale)

Possibly you are now thinking, 'Well, I see a vividly pale wing-panel, obviously pale-fringed greater coverts and what looks like a massive primary projection. It has to be an Icterine Warbler.'

In which case you are in great company. That was yesterday morning's consensus, and what BirdGuides published on their news service. But shortly after that, the BirdGuides bods took a closer look at the photos Kev had sent them. They came to the conclusion that the images actually depicted a Melodious Warbler, not an Icterine, and updated their news item accordingly:

Melodious Warbler...Beer, Devon...1st-winter in hedge, blah, blah...(not Icterine Warbler; reidentified from photographs)

Okay, they didn't actually highlight that crushing phrase 'reidentified from photographs', but they might as well have. The gauntlet was down...

I set to work with Kev's photo, producing what I thought would be incontrovertible evidence for the Icterine defense...

Even without the supporting features outlined earlier (and others which weren't) that many visible primaries rules out Melodious.

And, though crudely measured, the primary projection is way too long for Melodious.

By way of comparison, here is a Melodious Warbler I photographed in 2010 on St Martins, Scilly...

Interestingly, this bird had initially been identified by some very capable birders as Icterine.

However, The BirdGuides team were not persuaded so easily. There is more to this saga, but better that you read it here, on Steve's Waite's excellent blog.

But all's well that ends well, and I am pleased to say that the controversy is no more. This morning, on BirdGuides...

I'm not quite sure about the 'reidentified from photographs' bit, but fair play to the BirdGuides team for putting out this correction today. They are an excellent and very helpful bunch, just fallible like the rest of us.

And the final reason I was so pleased about this bird...

Many years ago (2006-ish?) a less-experienced Kev Hale found a probable Melodious Warbler on Beer Head. Good views, but no camera in those days, and the ID was never nailed to Kev's satisfaction. How appropriate that he should find the Icterine.

Meanwhile the Axe patch still awaits its first Melodious Warbler.

And so to moths...

Thursday night, 24th August

97 moths of 37 species. None new for year, but a couple worth photographing...

Despite 2023 seemingly not being as good for migrants as last year, this is our seventh Rusty-dot Pearl. By this time in 2022 we had caught just five.

Magpie Moth. Only our third this year.

Friday night, 25th August

Just 62 moths of 30 species; one new for year and garden.

Recent weather has not felt conducive to a good haul of moths, and there has been a sameness to catches lately, with Yellow Underwing, Uncertain/Rustic agg. and A. tristella in numbers, but not a lot new. So it was good to step outside into the morning gloom and spy an interesting moth on the cabin window. Momentarily I wondered if it was our second Jersey Mocha, but corrected myself straight away. Nope, that wing shape looks a tad off...

Sure enough, the garden's first, much hoped-for Clay Triple-lines.

I was intrigued by how sure I felt that this moth was not Jersey Mocha. That species appears to be exactly the same shape as Blair's Mocha, and I see a lot of those. So I wondered exactly how much difference there is, shape-wise, between Jersey Mocha and Clay Triple-lines...

Not much! That forewing is slimmer and more pointy, but the difference is subtle. It's pretty amazing how the eye can nevertheless discern such nuances with a bit of practice.

Probably because we've done well for them, I particularly like the Mocha family. But I think that's probably it for the Cyclophora I'm likely to trap here. Chances of the other three are slim to zero. Birch Mocha: just one Bridport area record on the Living Record map. Dingy Mocha: though apparently regular in East Dorset, no West Dorset dots at all. False Mocha: dream on; no recent Dorset records, and very few anyway. Still, you never know...

There were one or two other bits worth a pic...

This battered Black Arches is our first in almost three weeks. We did have a good run of them through July into early August, but I guess they must all have been males, because I could not believe the size of this beast! Females are a good 10mm longer than males, and that translates to a vastly increased acreage!

Female Black Arches even gives Old Lady a run for its money!

We've trapped a few Dark/Grey Daggers this summer, and had another last night...

Dark Dagger...or Grey Dagger.

I understand that it is possible to ID males to species without resorting to dissection. Apparently the process involves a gentle, if undignified, squeeze, and a quick inspection of what is revealed. This is a bit beyond my abilities, but I have nevertheless been able to add Grey Dagger to the garden list by other means...

It may be young, but it is still a Grey Dagger. The caterpillars are distinctive. This one is anxious to get back to its feast of Cherry Plum leaves.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Of Portland and Pugs etc...

Since discovering the Garganey at West Bay last weekend, recent outings there have resulted in literally nothing worth writing down. Also I am struggling a bit with the sheer number of people here in the summer. Possibly a more rewarding endeavour than noting the birds I see might be keeping a list of dog breeds or tattoos. Already I can feel my resolve crumbling.

A welcome break from routine was provided by eldest son Rob, who is currently working just the other side of Weymouth. We met up on Tuesday afternoon and had a walk around Radipole Lake and Portland Bill...

One of two Cattle Egrets at Radipole.

A scraggy, ringed Little Owl in the observatory quarry. Little Owl used to be resident in the Axe Valley near Seaton, but (as far as I know) not any more. The species is a rare sight for me these days.

Soaking up the afternoon sun.

While on Portland we popped in to the bird observatory. It was almost deserted, but there were a few potted moths on the lounge table. I could not resist...

I'm not a moth lister, but yes, a lifer. Obviously.

It is more than 25 years since I last stayed at a bird observatory. That was Dungeness, on maybe four or five memorable occasions in the mid-1990s, mostly with the boys. And it was a hoot. For a long time I've been promising myself a stay at Portland, but haven't made it happen. So I collared Martin Cade, the obs warden, and booked a couple of nights in September. I think it may well be just the birding fillip I need, and perhaps the start of something a bit more regular.

I do wonder if my enthusiasm for birding right now has been somewhat undermined by the three-ring circus that is mothing, where there is always something to look at, something new and exciting, even on a poor night...

Tuesday night, 22nd August

122 moths of 49 species; two new for year and for garden.

A major highlight was the capture of a very worn pug on the cabin wall. Despite a severe lack of scales I knew instantly what it was, and that I hadn't seen one before, even if I couldn't recall the actual name...

Seriously faded, but those orange patches can mean only one thing: it's a Tawny Speckled Pug. Listed as 'common', but few of the thinly-scattered dots on the Dorset Living Record map represent more than one record (with just two in the Bridport area) so I reckon this is a pretty decent catch.

There are apparently something like 49 species of pug on the UK list. Tawny Speckled Pug brings the garden tally to 22 species. I've no idea how that compares to most gardens, but I am pretty impressed that we've recorded getting on for half the UK total.

Despite appearances, this is not the same Portland Ribbon Wave that we trapped on Saturday.

A Poplar Grey in lovely condition. Our eighth of 2023, but the first since July 6th.

Blair's Mocha #22

A few weeks back I purchased a little trap to use with pheremone lures. At the same time I bought a Ni Moth lure from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies. Ni Moth is a scarce migrant which I am unlikely to catch, but the lure also attracts Dewick's Plusia, a more realistic target. So far it has accounted for nothing more than the occasional Silver Y. Still, you've got to be in it to win it, so the lure went out again on Tuesday night.

Except it didn't.

By sheer accident I used the pheremone lure that came with the trap, which is intended to attract the Plum Fruit Moth Grapholita funebrana. And in the morning, surprise, surprise: three Grapholita funebrana...

New for the garden.

I'm not sure exactly how safe my identification is here. According to the Dorset Moths website, G. funebrana requires gen. det. (dissection) to confirm ID. But the confusion species, G. tenebrosana (which is also attracted by the pheremone lure) has pale palps. We caught two in early June, and I posted a photo at the time...

Netted from our wildlife hedge on June 8th. Noticeably pale, off-white palps.

Anyway, unless there's another confusion species that I've missed, I am pretty happy to add G. funebrana to the garden list.

Wednesday night, 23rd August

107 moths of 39 species; two new for year, one new for garden.

Last night was a bit of a damp squib. I was expecting an overcast, warm night, but initially it was clear, and the temperature dropped rapidly. Still, I noticed a small micro-moth on the trap vanes, and managed to pot it. Then another, also potted. Then another, and another...

By the time I went indoors I had seven pots containing what looked like the same species, definitely a new one for the garden. And in the morning I found another five in the trap, and potted four. How weird is that? A moth that has never before appeared in the garden decides suddenly to turn up mob-handed! And here it is...

With a wing length of just 5.5mm, Ancylis comptana is a challenge for the camera. It is listed as 'local' and there is one Bridport area dot on the Living Record map, representing four records.

So, what was that all about? A curious and unexpected arrival which turned a so-so night into a very memorable one. This is exactly the sort of thing that has made mothing so beguiling...

And here they all are, in a postcard wot I made to commemorate the event.

It wasn't just Ancylis comptana though. Also potted...

First Marbled Beauty of 2023. We caught two last year (or the same one twice) and I get the impression that in Dorset this is a one-or-two-records-a-year kind of moth.

Currant Pug x2

I've been a bit worried about my Currant/Wormwood Pug ID skills lately. There have been several in recent traps, and without exception I have identified them as Currant Pugs. Yet I know that Currant Pug is the less-common species. Had I lost my eye?

Apparently not. Checking the two species' flight times reveals that for Wormwood Pug the national norm is a single brood in June and July, which tallies well with our nine records (13 individuals) between June 23rd and July 18th. Currant Pug also has an early-summer brood, during which we trapped three between June 9th and 18th. However, it also has a second brood in August. Which explains not only the six records (seven individuals) since the 8th, but also why I've identified them all as Currant Pugs. Because that's what they are. Phew!

Mind you, I am still surprised at how well we seem to do for this species (and several others!) in a local context. On the Living Record map there (sorry) five Bridport area dots for Currant Pug. One is ours, representing seven records (all from 2022) and the other four represent a grand total of seven records between them. And at least one or two of those dots belong to very busy and active moth traps. If I were to include 2023 data, our dot would now represent 16 records. What is so special about our location? I would love to know.

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Five Nights

This post is what happens when I'm a bit slack with the moth diary. Five nights, lots of action...

Thursday night, August 17th

79 moths, but only 26 species. No new ones...except the one that got away. Clinging to the cabin wall first thing was a moth I recognised instantly from lustful sessions with the literature: Catoptria pinella. I didn't even get close to potting it. Gone. But I'd seen it, hadn't I? So I dried my eyes and wrote it down. Hours later, racked with self-doubt, I crossed it out. Mind you, I cannot imagine what else it might have been.

Catoptria pinella is apparently quite common, so I shall simply wait.


Our second one of these, though we've had another since.

Friday night, August 18th

99 moths of 38 species; two new for year.

No show-stoppers, but a nice selection of bits and bobs...

Bright-line Brown-eyes are usually a bit tatty, so this one was worth a snap.

New for the year, after one in 2022.

White-point, a migrant. This was one of five, which is a very good haul for here.

I thought this was new for the year, but then noticed we had two in June. Senility is a bad thing.

First of the year and, no doubt, of many.

Our fifth one of these, and still we appear to have the only Bridport records.

Wax Moth #3 for the year.

Saturday night, August 19th

107 of 46 species; three new for year, one new for garden.

Again, some nice highlights, including a couple of decent [presumed] migrants...

Our first Six-striped Rustic this year. Nice.

According to Sandra, this is a Koala Moth. I can see where she's coming from. In 2022 we trapped four Portland Ribbon Waves, so this is number five, and by far the most pristine. There are just four other Bridport area records on the Living Record map, shared between three locations. Another one we seem to have done well for. I assume this is a migrant, but perhaps not?

A nice migrant. Just six Bridport area records on the Living Record map.

Sunday night, August 20th

115 moths of 50 species; four new for year, one new for garden.

Another great selection, amongst which was a very smart Knot Grass. 'Excellent,' I thought to myself, 'It's about time we had one of those,' and put it down as a new species for the garden. And then I discovered that we recorded it on four occasions last year! What is the matter with me?

Turnip Moth, our third of 2023. Recorded on 12 nights last year.

Knot Grass. Not new for the garden.

A 3mm speck. New for the garden, but apparently confusable with a similar 3mm speck and therefore pending. Judging by online pics, looks pretty unequivocal to me, but strictly requires 'gen.det.' to confirm. I would like to see the tools employed to extract the microscopic 'nads of something this small.

Our first Vestal of the year. A pukka migrant, and a rather pale one. Bet it's from somewhere very hot. In 2022 we recorded nine, between 8/9 and 13/11.

Monday night, 21st August

149 moths of 47 species; three new for year, one new for garden.

Moth of the night (of the post?) was on the garage wall this morning...

The whole process of its discovery and identification gave me some troubling insight into how sluggish my early-morning brain is. At the time of taking this photo I'd decided it was not the Old Lady that I had initially thought. Clearly the markings did not fit. But it was HUGE, so what other moths were as big as, indeed bigger than, an Old Lady? In my head was a big blank space where there should have been at least a couple of obvious options.

I fetched a plastic box from the kitchen and proceeded to pot it. Instantly the moth woke up and flashed red and black and white. Of course! But I haven't seen Red Underwing for more than 25 years, and had forgotten how enormous they are. And how stunning...

Red Underwing. Legitimate use of the word 'awesome' I think.

There were other moths of course, but yes, they had been seriously upstaged...

The year's first Flounced Rustic.

A very nice Yellow-barred Brindle.

Our second Oak Eggar of 2023. This monster is a female. Not as big as the Red Underwing though.

Small Rivulet. Two last year, and now two this year as well.

New for the year. We trapped this species twice in 2022.

Finally, the Blair's Mocha count is now 21, one more than last year...

Blair's Mocha #20 and #21. Despite occasionally catching this species on consecutive nights, as in this case, it always seems to be a different individual each time.