Blog

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.  

 

The Sierra Baguales, Patagonia

The long and winding road to Las Cumbres, Sierra Baguales, Patagonia, Chile.

The long and winding road to Las Cumbres, with the Sierra Baguales in the distance, Patagonia, Chile.

In March 2015 we made a second visit to Chilean Patagonia.  For two weeks we toured the region from the coast at Puerto Natales to the Argentinian border.  Our daughter Victoria had organised accommodation at some of the more remote estancias, and we were privileged to visit some areas that are rarely seen.  The Sierra Baguales falls into that category; approached along a broad valley formed from the Rio Baguales, this is a spectacular area that extends to the Argentinian border.  “Baguales” refers to wild horses, escaped from estancias at some point in the past and become feral. They still exist but are rare nowadays; the only horses likely to be seen belong to the occasional gaucho that passes through the area. 

Baguales River, Sierra Baguales, Patagonia, Chile

Baguales River, Las Cumbres, Patagonia, Chile

The geology of the region is interesting and includes veins of fossil shells and leaves.  Relicts of past occupation are sometimes found in the form of bolas, or boleadores, round stones with a groove running around them, three of which were tied together with rope or rawhide and thrown at the legs of prey such as guanacos or rheas, to bring them down.  

Shearing shed, Estancia Rio de los Chinas, Patagonia, Chile, with a backdrop of freshly-fallen snow, the first of the year.

Shearing shed, Estancia Rio de los Chinas, Patagonia, Chile, with a backdrop of freshly-fallen snow, the first of the year.

Mainly, though, we were over-awed by the grandeur of the landscape, with golden grass, craggy cliffs and a wide, fast-flowing river cascading over rocks.  Everywhere we looked there were rocks encrusted with outrageously-coloured lichens.

Colony of lichens on granite rock, including Xanthoria elegans (orange), X. candelaria (yellow), rock posy, Rhizoplace sp (grey) and several others.

Colony of lichens on granite rock, including Xanthoria elegans (orange), X. candelaria (yellow), rock posy, Rhizoplace sp (grey) and several others.  Las Cumbres, Sierra Baguales, Patagonia

There are more images from this region, and from other parts of Patagonia in the latest gallery “Patagonia 2015”

 

Goodbye to 2014

Friendly Robin

Friendly Robin

Four shots to finish the year with, all taken today – December 31st – within a couple of hundred metres of where I parked my car, near the Longshaw Estate, in the Peak District.  I had set out with the intention of photographing icicles along a small brook but they had already disappeared when I arrived, due to the warmer weather.  As so often happens, though, other opportunities presented themselves. 

Burbage Brook, long exposure.

Burbage Brook, long exposure.

Gold Dust lichen Chrysothrix candelaris, growing around and over shield lichen, Parmelia sulcata, on sycamore bark.

Gold Dust lichen Chrysothrix candelaris, growing around and over shield lichen, Parmelia sulcata, on sycamore bark.

Patterns formed by the layers of a bracket fungus.

Patterns formed by the layers of a bracket fungus.

Photographic note: although I had a number of different lenses with me, all these shots (including the Robin) were taken with just one lens: my 180mm macro.  I used a Gitzo tripod and RRS ballhead for everything, and a two-stop neutral density filter for the running water, to give a longer exposure (2 sec).  No other modifications or manipulations.

And finally: A Happy New Year to anybody who may be reading this. 

 

Re-designed gallery pages

The old galleries were looking a bit dated so I have re-designed them. This should give me an incentive to add more as the opportunity arises.  I would welcome any feedback, especially if you find that something is not working as it should.  Thanks!

Screen Shot 2014-12-14 at 13.30.45

A Log Blog

It’s amazing what you can find on, in or under a log.  I have a small pile of rotting wood at the bottom of my garden and, together with a few excursions to a nearby wood, I have found enough material here to keep me happily taking photographs for the last week or so.  Fungi are the most obvious subjects at this time of year but there are plenty of others.  Some are very small and my 65 MP-E lens has never been so busy.  The only other lenses used for the images shown was my 90mm tilt and shift lens for the avenue of beech trees (unnecessary probably but it happened to be the right focal length for where I was stood) and my 180mm macro for all the larger fungi.  A 17 – 40mm lens came in handy for some “fungi in habitat” type shots but these are not part of this article. To complete the picture, if you’ll excuse the pun, I also downloaded the Pro version of Helicon Focus and have made good use of this excellent programme, exploring parts of it that I had not used before.  The retouching function is brilliant.

The first photo is a scene-setter – some early morning mist along a little-used road in the Peak District en route to some fungus-hunting.  Logs of the future! 

Beech trees in autumn

Early morning mist along a small country road.

First of the macro shots is a pair of small “bonnets”, Mycena, with a small amount of flash to give some rim and back-lighting in an otherwise shady situation. 

Mycena species

Mycena species, probably M. galericulata

These pink balls are the fruiting bodies of a slime mould belonging to the genus Lycogala, known, for reasons that completely escape me, as Wolf’s Milk, which appeared on the surface of a moss-covered log as if from nowhere and then quickly turned brown and shed its spores.  The images were made just two days apart. 

Wolf's milk, the fruiting bodies of a slime mould, Lycogala epidendrum or Lycogala terrestre (the two species are indistinguishable at this stage).

Wolf’s milk, the fruiting bodies of a slime mould, Lycogala epidendrum or Lycogala terrestre (the two species are indistinguishable at this stage).

 

Wolf's milk, two days later.

Wolf’s milk, two days later.

On the same log, but a few feet further along was this group of Glistening Inkcap, a common but attractive fungus that can be found over a longish period of time. 

Mica cap, shiny cap, or glistening inky cap fungus, Coprinellus micaceus, sharing a beech log with the Wolf's Milk

Mica cap, shiny cap, or glistening inky cap fungus, Coprinellus micaceus, sharing a beech log with the Wolf’s Milk shown above

The Pale Stagshorn Fungus was growing on the same log as the two other species of stagshorns:  Small Stagshorn and Orange Stagshorn.  The pale species is the smallest and required the 65 MP-E lens and a stack of 11 exposures.

Pale Stagshorn fungus, Calocera pallidospathulata,

Pale Stagshorn fungus, Calocera pallidospathulata,

The Stump Puffball was growing exactly where you would expect it to be – on a stump.  An easy enough photograph to take providing you don’t mind kneeling in boggy ground for a few minutes. 

Stump puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme

Stump puffball, Lycoperdon pyriforme 

Another slime mould, this time a group of miniscule fruiting bodies belonging to the species Trichia decipiens.  I found two clusters of these this year, one about six miles from home and the other on my garden wood pile.  This is where the 65 MP-E lens, set to its maximum 5X, and Helicon Focus, were absolutely indispensible.  The image consists of 40 individual stacked frames.

Fruiting bodies of a slime mould, Trichia decipiens

Fruiting bodies of a slime mould, Trichia decipiens

The photo of the underside of the cap of Suede Bolete was made from a specimen that had toppled over, at about 4X life-size and using a stack of 11 exposures.  The bolete fungi shed their spores through honey-comb-like pores, whereas most other species, including the edible mushroom of course, have radiating gills.

Suede Bolete

Pores on the underside of the cap of a Suede Bolete, Boletus subtomentosus

Finally, lurking under a sliver of wood from my log-pile and discovered while I was searching for more fungi and slime moulds, was this harvestman, photographed at between 3X and 4X and using a stack of 13 images.   It is a common British species, Ophilio saxatilis.  Like all harvestmen, it has no English name.  A tiny springtail managed to get in on the act.

Ophilio saxatilis

Ophilio saxatilis, a common British harvestman.

A final plug, for a book that I bought to help me identify some of the fungi: “Collins Complete Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools” by Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes.  Not only does it contain photographs of 1500 different species of fungi but also has sections on habitats and an introduction to their biology.  There is even a page on slime moulds; well worth the money if you spend any amount of time looking at logs!