Chris Mattison Wildlife Photographer
Chris Mattison Wildlife Photographer
Chris Mattison Wildlife Photographer
Chris Mattison Wildlife Photographer

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Monmouthshire moth magic

Although I have had a fair bit of experience with moth traps over the years these have always involved other people’s traps, and usually when I have been leading tours to other parts of the world. Moving to a more isolated location in SE Wales, where we are not overlooked by neighbours, gave me a long-awaited opportunity to buy my own trap and see what we could find.  The trap I use is a Robinson trap with a mercury vapour lamp; this lights up most the garden, which is why I was reluctant to experiment when we had nearby neighbours.

Robinson moth trap set up in a back garden.

Robinson moth trap set up in a back garden.


Although it’s early days, the results so far have been encouraging. Despite cold nights, March has proved surprisingly productive. My regime is to set the light once a week – any more than this would, I feel, simply encourage the same moths to visit repeatedly, which would prevent them from feeding and mating. Early morning is the time to check the trap, before it is fully light and before the birds have had time to glean any moths that have come to rest on nearby walls and shrubs, and this involves an early start – 5.30am at the moment but this will get earlier as the summer progresses! Species that have been caught previously are released straight away. Anything new is placed in a tub with a piece of tissue and stored away in a cool, dark place (otherwise known as a refrigerator) until I have time to photograph it: photography is the main motivation although interesting records (just one so far) are passed on to the county recorder.

The photography is relative simple. Moths are placed on a background that illustrates their camouflage and photographed with natural light, often using three or four focus stacks to make sure there is front-to-back sharpness. The trick, of course, is to get the stacks done before the moth decides to move off and here a focussing rail speeds up the process as well as making sure the stacks are evenly spaced. Some individuals are then photographed on a plain white background, as records, before being released.

Shown below is just a sample of the moths we have caught this month.

Early Thorn moth, Selenia dentaria, Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March

Early Thorn moth, Selenia dentaria, Monmouthshire, March

 

Hebrew Character moth, Orthosia gothica, family Noctuidae. Camouflaged among willow litter. Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March. Focus stacked image

Hebrew Character moth, Orthosia gothica, family Noctuidae. Camouflaged among willow litter. Monmouthshire, March. 

Hebrew Character moth, Orthosia gothica, family Noctuidae. On white background. Monmouthshire, March. Focus stacked image

Hebrew Character moth, Orthosia gothica, family Noctuidae. On white background. Monmouthshire, March. 

 

Oak Beauty moth, Biston strataria, Monmouthshire, March.

Oak Beauty moth, Biston strataria, Monmouthshire, March.

 

Early Grey moth, Xylocampa areola, Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March.

Early Grey moth, Xylocampa areola, Monmouthshire, March.

 

Common Quaker moth, Orthosia cerasi, family Noctuidae. Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March. Focus stacked image,

Common Quaker moth, Orthosia cerasi, Monmouthshire, March.

 

Dotted Chesnut Moth, Conistra rubiginea, Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March

Dotted Chestnut Moth, Conistra rubiginea, Monmouthshire, March. Our rarest catch so far with only a handful recorded from the county.


All released moths are taken to a part of the garden with plenty of cover, away from the house, and tipped out into a place where they can crawl down into cover.

Many of the species we have caught are quite plain superficially, but a look through a macro lens, with good lighting, brings out the subtle colours and markings, and definitely enhances the appreciation of these modest little insects.

On the move…..

Beech wood, autumn, Monmouthshire

Beech wood, autumn, Monmouthshire

Two grabshots to give me an excuse to announce my move from Sheffield to the Wye Valley, Wales, designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”, which it surely is.  Unfortunately, we missed the best of the autumn colour this year but these photos will give some idea of its potential. Once we are settled in I hope to post more frequently than of late.

Country lane, Wye Valley

Country lane, Wye Valley

Drumnadrochit, Inverness

We took a short break to Drumnadrochit, on the north-western shore of Loch Ness.  Although this was supposed to be a family holiday, I did manage to sneak a few photo sessions, mainly of the moths and other insects that visited a light that was conveniently fixed above the door of our accommodation.

Divach Falls, Drumnadrochit,

Divach Falls, near Drumnadrochit

Divach Falls is not as well-known as the nearby Dog Falls, in Glen Affric, but it is more photogenic because nearly the whole length of the falls can be seen from the viewing point. Heavy rain helped to ensure there was plenty of water.

As yet unidentified moth on the door to our room.

Dark Marbled Carpet, Chloroclysta citrata, on a wooden door.

Many small and medium-sized moths, and other night-flying insects, were attracted to the light that we left on each night.  Early starts are necessary to prevent them from either flying away into the forest, or being picked off by birds, once it is light.

Peppered Moth, Biston betularia, light colour form, on Alder.

Peppered Moth, Biston betularia, light colour form, on Alder.

A single Peppered Moth put in an appearance on a nearby Alder tree one morning.  Great camouflage.

Miner bee

Honey bee, Apis mellifera

This very small, very dark and very bedraggled Honey Bee entered our cottage and obliged with a photo opportunity just before I released it.  Thanks for not stinging me!

Sexton Beetle, or Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus investigator

Sexton Beetle, or Burying Beetle, Nicrophorus investigator

Sexton Beetles are so-named because they bury small dead birds or animals before laying their eggs on them.  The larvae feed on the decaying flesh.  Like moths, they are attracted to light.

And a fern abstract to end with: Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas, erness, Scotland

Male Fern, Dryopteris filix-mas.

And a fern abstract to end with. No shortage of these in the Highlands.

 

Mull tour completed

Highland cow, Mull

Highland cow, Mull

The Mull tour has been and gone and we had another successful tour.  I will add details of any future tours, to Mull or elsewhere, as the occasion arises.  Thanks for your interest!  

Frogs from The Algarve

Western Spadefoot Toad, Pelobates cultripes

Western Spadefoot Toad, Pelobates cultripes

November is the time of year when, like most sensible people, my thoughts turn to warmer places.  This year I had toyed with the idea of several tropical destinations but, for various reasons, decided in the end to try southern Portugal, the region known as the Algarve, inspired by the variety of reptiles and amphibians that occur there and by a an article by Matt Wilson. 

The Iberian Water frog is the most common amphibian in the region, found in most bodies of water and active during the day and night.

The Iberian Water frog is the most common amphibian in the region, found in most bodies of water and active during the day and night.

We got off to an inauspicious start, as it began to snow heavily just a few minutes before we left our home in Sheffield en route for Manchester Airport.  About half way across the Pennines, in worsening conditions, the car skidded off the road and caused significant damage but not, fortunately, enough to prevent the continuation of our journey.

The Western Spadefoot Toad is one of three European members of the small Pelobatidae family.

The Western Spadefoot Toad is one of three European members of the small Pelobatidae family.

We duly arrived in Faro and immediately headed west for the southern-most tip of Europe, Cape St. Vincent, where the plan was to base ourselves for the week.  The preceding few weeks had been very dry, which did not augur well for amphibian activity and such proved to be the case.  On one evening we experienced a light shower, however, and this period produced three of the five amphibian species seen: Western Spadefoot Toad, Pelobates cultripes, Natterjack Toad, Epidalea calamita, and the very large Southern Common Toad, Bufo bufo spinosus.  Two additional species were found by searching during the day: Perez’s Water Frog, Pelophylax perezi, and Iberian Painted Frog, Discoglossus galganoi.  We found the latter in the montane area of Monchique while looking for Fire Salamanders, which we were unable to find – the Painted Frog was therefore a consolation prize, but a very acceptable one. 

Natterjack Toads from southern Europe tend to be more colourful from those from the UK and other parts of Northern Europe and lack the yellow vertebral stripe.

Natterjack Toads from southern Europe tend to be more colourful than those from the UK and other parts of Northern Europe and lack the yellow vertebral stripe.

 

The subspecies Bufo bufo spinosus is a huge form of the Common European Toad.

The subspecies Bufo bufo spinosus is a huge form of the Common European Toad.

A word about the photography All photos were taken with a Canon 5D Mklll camera and a 100mm or 180mm macro lens.  Fill-in flash was used in some cases.  Exposures were long due to low light levels so a sturdy tripod (Gitzo 3-series) was essential.  Although this prevented any camera movement, the constantly pumping throats of the frogs resulted in some blurring in some cases, which I don’t regard as a problem as it is a natural activity.  The same camera, with the 180mm macro lenses was also used to create a couple of short video clips of the Painted Frog.

The West Iberian Painted Frog is invariably found near water, here along a fast-flowing stream in the Serra Monchique.

The West Iberian Painted Frog is invariably found near water, here along a fast-flowing stream in the Serra Monchique.

All species were photographed within a few metres – sometimes a few centimetres – of where we found them and released them back into exactly the same place after a short photo session; this may not be ideal but is really the only practical option when working with crepuscular and secretive species. 

A miscellany of beetles

During our wanderings this year we have been fortunate to run into a few interesting beetles, including a couple I hadn’t seen before.  Here is a small sample. The “beetle year” started in April with the usual swarm of Green Tiger Beetles, Cicindela campestris. These are the commonest of the UK’s tiger beetles and the one most likely to be seen, running about on patches of sandy soil, usually south-facing, and taking flight if it’s warm enough.  The larvae live in sand and build pitfall traps in the form of inverted cones.  Both larvae and adults are efficient predators, with large horny jaws.  

Green tiger beetle, Cicindela campestris, North Derbyshire

Green tiger beetle, Cicindela campestris, North Derbyshire

By June there were plenty of beetles in the Peak District, including the distinctive Green Nettle Weevil, Phyllobius pomaceus,which are indeed green and live on nettles.  

Green Nettle Weevil, Phyllobius pomaceus, Derbyshire, June

Green Nettle Weevil, Phyllobius pomaceus, Derbyshire, June

Later in June we visited South Wales and were fortunate to find a few Strandline Beetles, Nebria complanata, also known as Beachcomber Beetles.  These are adapted to live exclusively on sandy beaches and, like the Tiger Beetle, are voracious predators with large jaws.  I have been unable to find out much about their life-cycle but colonies appear to be associated with deposits of driftwood towards the top of beaches (the strandline, in fact).

Strandline beetle, or Beachcomber beetle, Nebria complanata, Wales

Strandline beetle, or Beachcomber beetle, Nebria complanata, Wales

Violet Ground Beetles are not uncommon and can be found under logs and flat stones, where their main prey – slugs – also live. There are two types, quite similar, and the one illustrated is the least well-known, Carabus problematicus, which doesn’t seem to have an English name of its own so it will have to share a name with the more common species (Carabus violaceus).  

Violet ground beetle, Carabus problematicus, Derbyshire

Violet ground beetle, Carabus problematicus, Derbyshire

Finally, I was pleased to find a Lesser Stag Beetle while I was out looking for Midwife Toads in South Yorkshire recently.  They are not too common around here and this one was a beauty.  Smaller than the better known Stag Beetle, but impressive never-the-less and looking very smart with its orange trimming.  It delights in the scientific name of Dorcus parallelipipedus. Wonderful.

Lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelipipedus, South Yorkshire

Lesser stag beetle, Dorcus parallelipipedus, South Yorkshire

 

Photographic note: All the beetles were photographed with a Canon 5D Mklll, 100mm IS macro lens (the new one) using a Canon MT-24 twin flashgun or, in the case of the larger species, a Canon 550EX Speedlite (the old one) fitted with a diffuser.  

 


Nature

Dotted Chesnut Moth, Conistra rubiginea, Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March
Monmouthshire moth magic

Although I have had a fair bit of experience with moth traps over the years these have always involv…

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Photography

Dotted Chesnut Moth, Conistra rubiginea, Catbrook, Monmouthshire, March
Monmouthshire moth magic

Although I have had a fair bit of experience with moth traps over the years these have always involv…

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