Life on the doorstep

Green Alkanet on the doorstep
Green Alkanet on the doorstep

Just outside my front door there is an untidy patch of Green Alkanet. It’s not the ideal place for this rather scratchy plant to grow, but I cannot bring myself to dig it out, because it’s a favourite spot for some black and yellow caterpillars to feed. As a result, every summer there’s a day when I open the front door and get treated to the breathtaking sight of a newly emerged Scarlet Tiger moth – just fabulous.

Newly emerged Scarlet Tigers
Newly emerged Scarlet Tigers

Each year the first of these glorious moths surprises and amazes me, even though it’s been a regular experience since Scarlet Tigers colonised our vilage in 2009. It’s still a mystery to me how they first arrived: as far as I know there were no nearby colonies. Whatever the source, they are very welcome.

Scarlet Tigers getting friendly
Scarlet Tigers getting friendly

And this freshly hatched pair had wasted no time in getting to know each other – hopefully that bodes well for another Scarlet experience next summer – definitely one of life’s joys.

Scarlet Tiger caterpillars on Green Alkanet
Scarlet Tiger caterpillars on Green Alkanet

Snow cats in the Chilterns

Grangelands reserve under snow
Grangelands reserve under snow

Today saw the first reasonably heavy snowfall in our part of the Chilterns for quite a while, so we couldn’t resist heading up the hill for some sledging and to visit BBOWT’s Grangelands reserve. The air was crisp, and the snow-enveloped landscape was beautiful. I wasn’t really expecting to find much insect life to watch, so was surprised to see a small caterpillar crawling across the top of some fairly deep snow.

At first I thought this must be a one-off oddity, perhaps dropped onto the snow by a bird or carried there by the wind, but then I started seeing others. I found eight in a short space of time, all seemingly happy to be out and about on the surface of the pristine snow.

The dark speck in the lower middle of the photo is a caterpillar!
The dark speck in the lower middle of the photo is a caterpillar!

On closer examination at least some were caterpillars of the Large Yellow Underwing moth (Noctua pronuba), a well-known and very abundant species in the UK. I hadn’t been aware of its habit of being active in such conditions, but a web search leads to a number of American reports of similar snowy adventures for this species (see this post by Vermont naturalist Mary Holland for example, plus some additional photos on BugGuide). Large Yellow Underwing is an introduced species in America, and can be a pest species. Its winter activities are so well-known there that it also goes under the name of Winter Cutworm or Snow Cutworm.

I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for how well Large Yellow Underwing manages to survive in the modern world, but I’m even more impressed by its hardiness now! Has anyone else seen this snow-walking behaviour in the UK?

[Update at 15 December: thanks to Martin Townsend for pointing out that the brown caterpillar in the photo below looks like it is something other than Large Yellow Underwing, so it’s likely that at least two species were involved.]

Unidentified brown caterpillar on the snow
Unidentified brown caterpillar on the snow
Large Yellow Underwing caterpillar brought indoors for photo
Large Yellow Underwing caterpillar brought indoors for photo

It must be spring

Maybe it’s the time of year: during the next few weeks Buckinghamshire is bursting with meetings, conferences and general sociability for anyone interested in recording and conserving wildlife in the county.

The first ever BIG newsletter included a rotifer illustrated by Eric Hollowday, and Eric has entertained us with rotifer stories ever since.
The first ever BIG newsletter included a rotifer illustrated by Eric Hollowday, and Eric has entertained us with rotifer stories ever since.

First up is the spring indoor meeting for the Buckinghamshire Invertebrate Group, on Saturday 14 March, 10am to 1pm, at Wendover. Anyone with an interest in insects and other invertebrates in Bucks is welcome to join the (free) mailing list for the group, which produces an excellent annual Bulletin and organises a range of field and indoor meetings. This year is BIG’s 25th anniversary, which will be celebrated at the Recorders’ Seminar (see below). Our indoor meeting is a chance to catch up with friends, help plan the year’s field meetings and hear all the latest bug-related news. To join and get the meeting details contact BIG.

branch_logoOn Saturday 28th March there is another insect-focused day: the Conservation Review Day organised by Upper Thames Branch (UTB) of Butterfly Conservation. This is being held in Berkshire, at Dinton Pastures near Reading, but UTB covers Bucks as well as Berks and Oxon, and the day’s events include talks by Martin Albertini and Tony Gillie on Striped Lychnis moth in Bucks, and by Ched George on Duke of Burgundy butterfly in the Chilterns, as well as more general presentations that will be of interest to anyone involved with the conservation of butterflies and moths in the region. Please come prepared to join in the discussions.

Every year BMERC (the local environmental records centre for Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes) organises a splendid Wildlife Recorders’ Seminar, held as Green Park near Aston Clinton. This year’s programme (Word document download, includes booking form) is in part a celebration of the 25th anniversary of BIG, but also has John Sawyer outlining new developments for the National Biodiversity Network, as well as presentations on freshwater life and water quality from the Environment Agency, and on using DNA for environmental monitoring. BIG then takes centre stage with a series of short presentations from members of the group, and the day concludes with Buglife‘s Sarah Henshall focusing on the invertebrate paradise that brownfield sites can provide. Thoroughly recommended – I should warn you that I’m also down to speak, twice, but both of these are for short periods 🙂

Plant survey at Downley Common during a training course I ran for the Chiltern Commons Project (photo by Rachel Sanderson)
Plant survey at Downley Common during a training course I ran for the Chiltern Commons Project (photo by Rachel Sanderson)

Finally, on Thursday 23 April (and once again at Green Park) there is a fascinating conference with the intriguing title of “Local Spaces : Open Minds” (click for details and booking form). Organised by the Chiltern Commons Project, this day explores what role the Chiltern Commons could play in the environment of the future – how can they best play a part in conserving species, providing outdoor space for healthy living, and contributing to landscape and heritage? You may not realise it, but there are around 200 commons in the Chilterns, many of which have considerable biodiversity and historical interest, as well as playing a role in the wider landscape-scale conservation issues relevant to us all.

Sadly I can’t be at all these events but each looks like it will be worthwhile and enjoyable – join in if you can.