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A LIFETIME WITH BUTTERFLIES AND MOTHS RAFE F.

ELEY

I have always been interested in all aspects of natural history, but butterflies and moths have been my main interest and, as I look back over the years, I realise just how lucky I have been to be in the right place at the right time and to have seen so many of our native species in their natural haunts. I have seen most of our butterflies and some 700 species of the macro moths, and they have given me great pleasure. I well r e m e m b e r as a young lad in the late thirties seeing my first C o m m a butterfly (Polygonia c-album L.), a rare insect in Suffolk then, but of course a common species today. I have vivid memories also of seeing my first White Admiral (Ladoga Camilla L.) in the early war years when the species suddenly became quite c o m m o n here at Nowton, near Bury St. E d m u n d s . Although I have seen many of these butterflies in various places over the years I have never ceased to be fascinated by their unusual flight. In the mid-forties another scarce species, the Large Tortoiseshell ( N y m phalis polychloros L . ) , suddenly became quite common in the district. O n e sunny morning during August 1944 I saw no less than four individuals sunning themselves on a wall of my cottage. This in itself was rather unusual as one seldom saw more than a Single specimen at any one time. A n o t h e r butterfly worth mentioning during this period was a colony of Silver-studded Blues (Plebejus argus L.) in a small corner of grassy parkland, as this species is usually associated with heathland. Unfortunately the colony died out in 1948. H o w e v e r , a few years ago I counted no less than 18 of these little butterflies roosting on one grass stem on a heath in Surrey where the species was a b u n d a n t . In the fifties, August 9th 1950 is a date I will always r e m e m b e r . I had walked into a field of potatoes (about 7 acres) here at Nowton with thoughts of the Death's-head Hawk Moth (Acherontia atropos (L.)) larvae on my mind. Lady Luck was by my side as the very first plant I examined produced a nearly full-grown Caterpillar. Imagine my joy as I had never seen this insect before. Thrilled at making a 'kill' so quickly I decided to search the whole field. This t o o k two weeks, working in the evenings, but the reward was great as I found 52 larvae, all but one of which eventually reached the adult State. Only those who have bred this species will have experienced the thrill of seeing a newly-emerged Death's-head moth clinging to the side of a breeding cage, a true giant indeed! These large larvae were hard to find as they seldom defoliated a plant, which would make them conspicuous, but eat a few leaves and move to the next plant, always resting on the main stem with which they harmonise in colour. I found them by Walking along the furrow and turning back the foliage with a short stick, thus exposing any frass underneath, which rather resembled rabbit droppings. Of course I have had to go further afield in search of some of o u r native butterflies and moths which d o not occur in Suffolk. I have spent many happy days and nights in the Scottish Highlands, such as the day when I saw my first

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A LIFETIME WITH BUTTERFLIES A N D MOTHS

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Mountain Ringlet butterfly (Erebia epiphron Knoch) high on a mountain side (not a habitat to be found in Suffolk). These butterflies have a curious 'bobbing' flight and look black from a distance. All would suddenly disappear when a cloud obscured the sun for a few minutes, only to bob back again as the sun reappeared. The Scotch Argus butterfly (E. aethiops Esp.) has also given me great pleasure, but it is more a lowland species, and many times I have seen it Aying in rain, unlike the sun-loving Mountain Ringlet. I have also had happy times on the mountains searching for pupae of the Northern Dart moth (Amathes alpicola Zett.). This species occurs between 3-4,000 ft., and there is usually a strong wind to contend with, but after searching for hours with frozen fingers a mat of liehen may be turned to reveal a pupa underneath. Perhaps only a naturalist would find this type of activity pleasurable? I have also found the Black Mountain Moth (Psodos coracina Esp.) on almost bare windswept mountain summits, and the Scotch Burnet moth (Zygaena exulans White) which is found on only one or two mountain tops in the Braemar area. The former is small and blackish, but the later is a lovely red and black, and to see it in profusion after a couple of hours hard Walking and climbing is a sight indeed. These moths tend to congregate on the flowers of Bird's-foot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), with often two or three dozen on one plant. The Isle of Skye has also provided me with many happy memories, such as of the Large Heath butterfly (Coenonympha tullia MĂźll.) Aying over the cotton grass. This sub-species has little or no spots on the underside and, of course, does not occur in Suffolk. I remember Walking along my favourite cliffs at Taliscar, on the western side of the island, seeing the Argent and Sable moth (Rheumaptera hastata L.) Aying in the sunshine, and being surrounded by hundreds of Transparent Burnet moths (Zygaena purpuralis BrĂźnn.). One memorable morning I found four extreme varieties of this moth in a few minutes, and a pure albino Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja L.), a species which has been found in Suffolk but has always been uncommon. I watched this particular butterAy quartering the cliffs all day while listening to the call of Corncrakes from the marsh below. Returning to Suffolk, and Coming to the eighties, I must mention the evening of February 9th, 1980. It was a rather murky evening, but I decided to look at an oak wood in the Stanford Battie Area in search of the Spring Usher moth, (Erannis leueophaearia Schiff.), a species I had yet to record from this area. Having laid out my sheet and switched on my MV lamp, I estimate that about 1,000 of these variable little moths came to the light in about l'/2 hrs. I had never seen anything like this number of one species at a light before, nor have I seen such numbers since. It is not always necessary to leave home to make an exciting discovery. I found a Tunbridge Wells Gern moth (Plusia acuta Walker) resting outside my kitchen window. It had ignored my moth trap in the garden. This was only the seventh individual to be recorded in this country. Blair's Shoulder-knot moth (Lithophane leautieri Boisduval.), a relative neweomer to Suffolk, also turned up on my kitchen window a year or two ago. In 1987, quite by chance, I found a larva of this species feeding on Lawson Cypress (Chamaecyparis lawsoniana) in my garden. The food plant of this species is

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Suffolk Natural History, Vol. 25

Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa) and the Lawson seemed an unlikely Substitute. However, on searching the tree last year I found a further seven of these beautiful caterpillars. Ten of the moths came to my light trap, thus the moth would seem to be well established on the Lawson Cypress. I realise that there is much to see and learn and that my 65 years of watching butterflies and moths have been a mere drop in the ocean. Rafe F. Eley, Hall Cottages, Nowton, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

Trans. Suffolk Nat. Soc. 25

A lifetime with butterflies and moths  

Eley, R. F.

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