Montagu’s Harrier Circus pygargus

Rather pleasantly surprised to have seen a male Montagu’s Harrier, Circus pygargus recently on a day away from my desk. The bird’s altitude and the atmospheric conditions (heat haze) precluded clearer photos. It circled above me, climbing as it did so.

This is a +ID, confirmed by 2-3 other birders on Facebook from the snaps.

According to the RSPB website: The Monty is an extremely rare breeding bird in the British Isles. It is a Schedule 1 listed species and each pair has to be specially protected because its survival is precarious. A summer visitor (wintering in Africa), it seems that whereas like other Harriers, such as the Marsh Harrier it would favour marshes, over arable farmland is a more likely place to see them.

Cetti’s Warbler Calling at Wicken

The “song” of the Cetti’s Warbler (Cettia cetti) is anything but a warble, but what’s a warbler anyway? It’s a shockingly loud call for such a tiny bird; listen here. Been hearing a lot of them around RSPB Ouse Fen over the last few weeks and caught sight of a few. Also heard at least one or two during a walk around NT Wicken Fen on 26th April 2019, then heading back to the car via one of the hides thought we’d have a quick look to see if we could see the Reed Warblers (we could hear their raucous, but less tuneful calls from the reeds)…a Cetti’s called out and darted into the corner of the pond and scuttled around among the reeds search out titbits from the water.

After a couple of minutes, it grappled its way up a reed from water level, called again, and then darted out of sight. I fired off a couple of reels of film (actually 60 shots on a digital camera) in an attempt to get one of this furtive fellow feeding. The contact sheet did not look promising…

A closer inspection, cropping into the area where the warbler was, turned up a few almost shots…see above and below

Me old cock linnet

Many readers will perhaps have heard the music hall song “My Old Man (Said Follow the Van)” by Fred W. Leigh and Charles Collins and made popular just after The Great War by singer Marie Lloyd (who never actually recorded it). The song contains the lyric:

I walked behind wiv me old cock linnet.

The “cock linnet” mentioned is the male of the passerine bird species Linaria cannabina (previously known as Carduelis cannabina until DNA analysis separated it from the genus that carries the likes of the Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis). Captive songbirds were a favourite of all classes for centuries and certainly at the time of the writing of this song may well have been a favoured pet of a Cockney housewife.

The male of the species takes on a rather suggestive blush to its breast when in its mating plumage at the height of spring. The allusion to the male member being rather obvious and commented upon in several sources including the excellent “The Red Canary: The Story of the First Genetically Engineered Animal” by Tim Birkhead:

Moth of the Month – Maiden’s Blush

Maiden’s Blush moth, Cyclophora punctaria

The Maiden’s Blush moth, Cyclophora punctaria, Spring form is not as well marked as the Summer form where the blush is more obvious, but you can still see it here.

This species is a geometer moth, which means its larvae (caterpillars) move in such a manner that they seem to measure the earth, they’re known as inchworms in the USA and elsewhere. Specifically, this member of the Geometridae is a member of the sub-family Sterrhinae, which includes the “Least Carpet” and several “Wave” moths as well as the “Blood-veins”. The species was first described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the 10th edition of Systema Naturae.

According to the UK Moths site, the species occurs in oak woodland, its larvae feeding on that tree. It is fairly common in the south of England, but scarcer up north and into Scotland. As with several other moths in the genus Cyclophora, in Western Europe it flies in the spring/early summer (May to June) and then has a second brood in August. The adults of the second brood are markedly smaller than the spring specimens.

This specimen of Maiden’s Blush flew to 40W actinic light trap overnight 24/25 April 2019. Along with a host of other moths: Brimstone, Muslin, Garden Carpet, Early Grey, Spectacle, Nutmeg, Powdered Quaker (another new for me pictured below), Shuttle-shaped Dart (6 of them).

Powdered Quaker, Orthosia gracilis

You will not that I have called this post “Moth of the month”, don’t worry there will be more moths than once a month…

Spring Moths

I’m slowly seeing new moths to my actinic light trap as the spring surges forward, a new one or two each day now. But, one of the stalwarts of the British mothing world posts to the major Facebook mothing group how he had almost 300 different moths to his trap, with 50+ species new for the year. I’m not sure I could cope and certainly wouldn’t be able to identify from memory all of the ones he cited.

My “haul” from last night was a lot more modest but interesting nevertheless…and manageable:

Shuttle-shaped Dart (7)
Male Muslin moths (3)
Double-striped Pug (2)
Hebrew Character
Common Plume
Waved Umber
The Mullein
Pebble Prominent

Recent moths new to my “list” for the year, so I’d never seen before.

Waved Umber
The Mullein
The Nutmeg
The Spectacle
Pebble Prominent
Sallow Kitten
Chinese Character
Scorched Carpet
Pebble Hook-tip

Emperor in the house

You will have spotted by now, my current fixation on the Emperor moth, Saturnia pavonia. It’s Britain’s only resident member of the Saturniidae family (related to the Silkworm moth). I have a pheromone lure that has some (6Z,11Z)-hexadeca-6,11-dien-1-yl acetate on it, which I bought from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies.

It took me a while to track down the name of that sex pheromone, exuded by the less colourful, night-flying females, to attract the colourful, day-flying males. I had photographed one or two on the wing but used a homemade butterfly net to catch the specimen you see above. I let it chill out in a pot for a few minutes to get a nice snap showing all of his pareidoliac eyes and his enormous pheromone-detecting antennae without him flapping about.

He’s back in the wild now looking for true love rather than olfactory moth porn. Neither the male nor the female has mouthparts, so they cannot eat, they get all their energy from reserves built up when they were larvae (caterpillars) eating heather or brambles. They have to get it together as soon as they can during the flight time of April to May.

Aside from his patterns and colours, note the chewed up edges of his wings. This male has presumably survived birds pecking at him despite his fearsome appearance. Now, who said moths were grey and dowdy? This is surely the most photogenic moth in the UK.

Not much about

It’s always amusing to hear someone say “there’s not much about” when you’re working your way through a nature reserve. Depends on what you mean by not much…I only saw the following at RSPB Ouse Fen this morning:

Willow Warbler
White Throat
Blackcap, Swallow
House Sparrow
Carrion Crow

Greylag Geese and Goslings

Green Woodpecker
Marsh Harrier
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Black-headed Gull

Male Marsh Harrier

Tufted Duck
Greylag Geese (and goslings)
Mute Swan
Grey Heron
Little Egret
Wood Pigeon
Stock Dove
Bearded Reedling
Reed Bunting
Meadow Pipit
Green Sandpiper
Sedge Warbler
Cetti’s Warbler

Small Tortoiseshell

European Peacock
Small Tortoiseshell
Small White
Large White
Various Bumblebees, flies, and other flying insects

Male Bearded Reedling

I think that’s all…not much about at all. Admittedly, the person who said it was cycling…

Sex pheromone for an Emperor

I made a rookie research error. Saturnia pavonia, the Emperor Moth, was previously known as Pavonia pavonia, and in my search for the chemical identity of its sex pheromone (which is in the moth lure I mentioned previously) I’d assumed these were its only names. But, apparently, it was also known as Eudia pavonia.

Once I’d realised this, a scientific literature search quickly found a paper discussing the moth’s sex pheromone: (Z)-6,(Z)-11-hexadecadien-1-yl acetate. This is closely related to another chemical gossyplure, a 1:1 mixture of the (Z,E) and (Z,Z) isomers of hexadeca-7,11-dien-1-yl-acetate. That chemical is used commercially to lure cotton-infesting moths to traps to reduce breeding of different species Pectinophora gossypiella.

So, with the systematic name, I could get the InChI string from one converter and then generate a chemical structure, so here it is together with the male moth I photographed, which is attracted to this chemical:

Allotment Life, hashtag: #AllotmentLife

Some of the more astute among you may have spotted the occasional recent allusion to our acquisition of an allotment…well half an allotment to be precise, with a shed. For years, we had been toying with the idea of taking on an allotment, the site is just five minutes walk from our house, it’s almost a peppercorn rent, and it’s safe from the dog digging up seedlings and eating the veg.

So, back in February, I contacted the chair of the local charity that manages the allotments and as spring rolled on, got a reply from the trustee in charge of assigning them. We took a look at a possible “quarter” plot on 4th April, it had been sprayed with weedkiller it looked like a lot of work, but would be fun to take on.

Of course, as soon as we went back to start the arduous tasks of digging it over, we realised that we needed to take on the full half so that we’d have the shed attached to that half plot. And so it is that we’re paying double the peppercorn rent, which is still just two peppercorns, but have a half plot to grow on it whatever we fancy and a shed to keep a couple of camping chairs in for when we’ve finished weeding and feel we’ve earned a rest, maybe with a couple of beers or a flask of tea.

Before we started digging over the plot, we salvaged a chunk of rhubarb and what looked like a raspberry plant. Then it was down to the business of raking off all the dead couch grass, thistles, and other weeds and turning over the soil to a depth of our spade. I reckon I’ve spent 5 hours doing that task by now and have aching muscles I didn’t know I had. It now looks like a plot into which the seedlings I’ve seeded at home might ultimately be transplanted. Seeds for beetroot, beans, courgettes, and some squash courtesy of Roger the bassist in C5 the band. Meanwhile, the digging turned up maybe half a dozen moth pupae, I feel guilty that I didn’t bring them home to raise to adults. Maybe more will turn up with the next digging session.

We’ve also put in a few sunflower seeds at one end and some freesia corms, just for the glamour. Doug, great name for an allotmenteer gave me some onion sets, and they’re now in two rows. Mrs Sciencebase dug out some of the (wild) strawberry plants from our garden at home where they were doing very little and they now have their own protected bed.

Meanwhile, we cleaned up a patch that seemed to have some surviving fruit plants, which Cliff, our allotment neighbour, reckoned might be three or four different species, but they mostly look like raspberries. I dug over and cleaned up a 2x4m patch closer to the shed to seed with California poppies, Ox-Eye Daisies and spread a few pellets – bat mix and butterfly mix – from the kind folks at Seedball, whom I mentioned the other day.

We cleared out the shed and salvaged some fish bone meal, which I used to fertilize the aforementioned onion sets, there were lots of spikes and canes and compost bags, which are all coming in useful too. We have two or three Jackdaws that are keen to sample the worms revealed by my digging, a couple of Blackbirds and a very friendly Robin that loves to pose on the handle of the spade, as they do. Classic.

The camping chairs are in place, we just need to get the rest of the work, done (hahah, yeah, right), the Pinot chilled, and find a fine, warm evening to sit back and enjoy the putative fruit and veg of our labours.

Big, when I’m on Twitter

I write a lot, it’s been my wont for 30+ years. Everything from astronomy to zoology, with a lot of chemistry, materials science, nanotechnology, pharmaceuticals and much else in between. Then, of course, there are the butterfly and moth photos, the birds, the songs and the tech stuff. As I mentioned recently, I feel like education hoodwinked me into becoming a chemist when my childish self imagined I’d be a marine biologist. My first professional article was about The Great Barrier Reef after Mrs Sciencebase and myself a trip took a trip down under in 1989). I suppose during the last decade or so I’ve tried to reinvent myself as some kind of latterday polymath and not really had a second thought about hiring an aqualung.

Anyway, all that science and stuff…it gets some attention on social media, not as much as it used to, despite my peaking at something like 54,000 followers on Twitter and almost 12,000 page fans on Facebook, but some. Always a surprise then that something entirely off-piste, even for me becomes the most engaged tweet for a while. It was an attempt at a humorous graphical response following a post showing a photo of an adder that resembled the meanderings of the River Thames in London that reminded people of the ident for popular BBC TV soap opera, Eastenders.

Go on, get outta my skin!

With apologies to Eliza Doolittle for the blog title…