Messing about on the river

Early morning boat trip

A Midsummer Dawn – A few hours of calm, good company, glassy waters, a golden sunrise, and birdlife

Misty narrowboat
Clouds at dawn
Sunrise
Sunrise from the boat
Moorhen and chicks
Moored sunrise
West River footbridge
River signs
Great Crested Grebe and Roach
West River footbridge
Common Tern
Grey Heron sleeping in a tree
Shelduck ducklings

Twitching wildflowers

The rather derogatory term “twitching” (see definition in my tongue-in-beak bird glossary) is usually preserved for someone going out of their way to see a rare bird…but those with an interest in seeking out natural wonders may well twitch anything. Yesterday, I took my daily walk partly along the Cambridge to Stives guided busway to “twitch” the bee orchids that are thriving sporadically along the wild margins of the route.

While I was walking back to my turning-home point, I bumped into a group of people who were well aware of the bee orchids, pointed out that there were also some pyramidal orchids around and explained that they were (mostly) amateur botanists out for a day’s botanising (the wildflower equivalent of birding and mothing, I presume).

The plant that had taken their interest at the time I stopped to talk them was  a seemingly mundane specimen in the impacted dirt at the edge of the by-way and guided bus cycleway. What made it interesting was that it was a maritime species, a wildflower that should only be seen growing along our coasts. Now, given the number of wading birds that seem to have taken to being landlubbers these last few months in and around our village, it’s perhaps no surprise that a maritime plant species will have taken root, perhaps a seed having hitchhiked among the feathers of one of those coastal waders or been delivered in conjunction with a bird’s inflight fertiliser in the form of avian guano. I think this is the plant, but there were several others around it, so not sure, and no idea of its ID.

Mystery maritime – Is this a coastal plant that has become a landlubber?

Luring clearwing moths

There is a beautiful group of moths known as clearwings that at first glance look rather waspish. Rather than having wings covered in scales like all of the other Lepidoptera (which roughly translates as scaly wings, or perhaps more strictly tiled wings), they’re wings a transparent, but for the supportive struts.

Red-belted Clearwing

These are generally day-flying moths and look like tiny shimmering jewels if you catch sight of one. The males are attracted to sex pheromones exuded by the female. As such, it is possible to draw them to a lure impregnated with the appropriate sex pheromone for each species. The moths that arrive at the lure can then be counted and ticked, perhaps even photographed in the name of (citizen) science.

Currant Clearwing

I purchased a set of pheromone lures from Anglian Lepidopterist Supplies ( a company that does exactly what it says in its name). I had previously used a lure for the Emperor moth with great success regular readers will recall. In the clearwing set there are lures for ten clearwing moth species. I began putting lures out individually on likely days – warm and breezy – back in May, but it is only into June that I’ve had success with the clearwings.

In early June, a Red-belted Clearwing was drawn to the target lure. By mid-June I was trying others and discovered that the lure for a different species, the Large Red-belted Clearwing drew in the smaller cousin – 14 of them, in fact! I put the lure out for the Hornet Moth next, no luck. Then, the  Currant Clearwing, success this time. Then I tried the Orange-tipped Clearwing lure, and drew in not the target species but a Yellow-legged Clearwing. Later, I learned from an expert name of Anthony Wren, that those two lures are identical in composition and now I am musing on what that says about the evolutionary history of these two species.

Yellow-legged Clearwing

Clearly, the lures are not 100% on point when it comes to the species they attract. Now, ALS does list non-target species for each of its lures, so it is not entirely surprising. The reason is perhaps to do with the composition of the lures.

Red-tipped Clearwing

As I understand it, the lures each have the primary sex pheromone of the target female, but they also contain a mixture of other modified, volatile fatty acids and so on. This will lead to a degree of overlap in what the lure attracts because those other chemicals may well be interesting to other species of insect. It may not be about sexual attraction it could simply be that they are attractive or stimulating molecules. There does not seem to be a whole lot of clarity in the overall picture of what does what to each species yet, although there is a huge amount of excellent and ongoing research in this area.

 

Orange-tailed Clearwing

Orange-tailed Clearwing (Synanthedon andrenaeformis) with its golden hair pencil turned up (2 or 3) at about 10am to the SYN lure in the garden on 16th June 2021.

Sharpen your Peregrines

Just giving Topaz Sharpen AI and Denoise a try-before-you-buy. I had some hastily grabbed photos of the Ely Peregrines, but the best of the bunch had quite a lot of motion blur and was rather noisy because of high-ish ISO and exposure compensation to get the underside markings of the bird against a bright blue sky as it flew overhead.

So, here’s the basic photo converted from camera RAW and close-cropped to a square to ultimately upload to the Sciencebase Instagram. It looks very grainy/noisy and the motion blur and shoddy focusing look irretrievable, to be honest…

I told Topaz that the photo is suffering from serious motion blur and is “very blurry” and let it choose the basic settings. It took several minutes to process the image but the output is quite astonishing…you have to admit!

Still noisy, but then I hadn’t asked it to clean up the grain, I used the separate Denoise AI software to do that, again with quite astonishing results just setting it to “standard” and letting it do its job. Denoising was very quick…

The final step was to go back to my usual photo editing package PaintShopPro to develop the image as I normally would and to add my logo…

That’s a pretty good result considering how shockingly bad the original unprocessed image was and perfectly acceptable for Instagram and other social media I’d say although probably not going to be good enough for National Geographic in any way, shape, or form.

The Topaz Labs software – Denoise, Sharpen, and others – can be found here.

 

A little bit of environmental activism can save a little life

I have mentioned the biodiversity issues on one of our local fenland drains, known as the Cottenham Lode. Over the last couple of years several of us have seen Brassy Longhorn moths feeding on the Field Scabious that grows on the lode bank at the dogleg near the footbridge into the woodland at Rampton. There has been a problem with the time of the mowing of the Lode bank, which is done each year by the Environment Agency for flood risk reduction an important maintenance job, obviously.

Brassy Longhorn feeding on Field Scabious on the Cottenham Lode

The mowing is usually done in two stages a strip towards the top of the bank is mown fairly early in the summer and the lower strip and the upper strip are then mown completely towards the end of July. Unfortunately, that full cut takes with it all the field scabious flowers, which are still blooming and with it the insect life that had until that point been thriving on the flowers. It is a crying shame one might say, especially in an age when conservation and biodiversity are high on the agenda.

I have great news to report. I have been in discussions with the Environment Agency who have now agreed to defer the first cut of the lode bank until no earlier than the week commencing 16th August this year and a similar date for future years. This means that the second, full, which takes in all of the lower part where the field scabious grow will be later still.

This will hopefully give the insect life and the wildflowers a better chance before the blades fall on them each year. So thank you to Alex Malcolm and Neil Stuttle at the EA for listening to my argument and finding a solution.

Red-belted Clearwing – Synanthedon myopaeformis

Earlier in the year, I bought myself a summer of moths – a pack of pheromone lures with which to entice clearwing moths into the garden, with a view to grabbing a quick photo opportunity and letting them on their way to find a mate etc.

Red-belted Clearwing

Regular readers will recall I have mentioned pheromone lures before in the context of the Emperor moth. The clearwings are a very different group and I’ve not had time to find out much detail about the chemistry of their pheromone attactants. Regardless, I have been putting out a lure, known as “myo” for the Red-belted Clearwing (,em>Synanthedon myopaeformis).

Red-belted Clearwing

Usually, I hang the lure in the back garden and have had no luck, but on a whim, today I put it in the front garden and within about ten minutes, a RbCw turned up. The specimen was a lot smaller than I was anticipating, but checking in my “Collins”, I see that it is a rather small moth, with a wingspan of 19-24 mm. I’d say this one was on the lower end of that size scale. Beautiful creature, obviously belted and see-through wings. If you didn’t know, you might guess at it being some kind of wasp-type insect. But, definitely no sting in the tail of this one.

Red-belted Clearwing

The species flies June to August but is rarely seen except by those with a pheromone lure for citizen science purposes. The larvae live under the bark of old apple, and other fruit trees such as pear and almond. Got the best snaps I could of this rather skittish specimen so I could let him back into the wild sooner, rather than later.

Aethes tesserana – Downland Conch

This tiny little micro moth known as Aethes tesserana is a mere 5 millimetres long. It was drawn to a 40W actinic lamp in our garden on Sunday evening (2021-06-06). It was a still and balmy evening, I seem to remember.

Incidentally, not all the micro moths are tiny, some of them are bigger than the macro moths, some of them are huge. The distinction between micro and macro is now understood to be about evolutionary history rather than size. All the butterflies sit in the micro moth grouping, being just a specific group within the moth family.

A. tesserana does have a trivial, vernacular name, it’s sometimes called the Downland Conch, and is listed as such on iRecord. However, these vernacular names are rarely official when it comes to the micro moths and indeed are frowned upon in many cases by moth-ers and lepidopterists because they are inconsistent and the scientific binomials are preferred to avoid ambiguity.

Meanwhile, some long-form reading matter for you (a book, in other words) – Much Ado About Mothing.

Much ado about mothing – Book review

For a lot of people, moths are tiny, fluttery creatures that turn to dust if you try to catch them and whose caterpillars can chew through their vegetable patch, their prize perennials, and even their carpets and clothes. Now, there are pest species, admittedly, and these can to some extent be controlled in appropriate conditions. However, for those who have been initiated into the wonders of the Lepidoptera, the 180,000 different species around the world are a natural wonder to behold.

Much ado about mothing
Some of the Sciencebase mothing kit

For those of us who do get hooked on moths – we call ourselves “moth-ers” by the way – it can become an obsession that persists from the first very first lep sighting. For those who insist that moths and butterflies are somehow different, and that butterflies are far more beautiful and far more worthy of our attention, it’s worth pointing out that all butterflies are just a single group within the Lepidoptera.

Emperor

The other groups include the noctuids (also known as owlets), the geometers (their caterpillars, larvae, measure the earth, they’re the inchworms), the sphinx moths (also known in the British Isles as the hawk-moths), and several others. Butterflies are merely one such group among the moths. Moreover, they’re actually just one group within the so-called “micro moths” (nothing to do with size, everything to do with their place on the evolutionary tree).

Gypsy Moth

It’s complicated, and all moth-ers come to the obsession through a different route. In his wonderful new book, Much Ado About Mothing, James Lowen, challenges all those dusty preconceptions about moths. He takes us on a lavish and circuitous route around the UK searching for the rarest and most intriguing of our scaly-winged insects. Incidentally, of the 180000 worldwide species a mere 2500 or so are found in the UK, some of them migrants and rare visitors.

Clifden Nonpareil

With Lowen, we clamber up mountains, we wade through marshes, and we look for what lurks in the wood and on the trees in ancient woodland. What we find is an incredibly diverse group of animals, all of them sharing common features but each very different from the next. Lowen shows us just what most people seem to miss about moths – their natural beauty.

Gold Spot

Mothing, as a hobby, is on the rise. It has often been a parallel hobby for birders, one that can be done with lures and lighttrap or even just a white sheet and a bright torch, in one’s own back garden or a local patch of countryside, and…even right in the centre of the city! Your mileage may vary on what you find, but each mothing experience brings new delights, and a new hope that the next lep to turn up will be one of the rarest of the rare or perhaps even one once thought extinct that turns out to be very much extant.

Cinnabar

If you are not yet convinced, then delve into Lowen’s book, it will astonish and intrigue even the hardiest of mottephobe, I am sure. And, remember butterflies are just one group within the moth family…and who doesn’t like butterflies?

Pale Tussock

If you love or loathe lepidoptera buy this book, Lowen’s wonderful enthusiasm will give you a mental boost either way and if you were indifferent to the scaly-winged insects, it might even let an interest pupate and to take to the air.