Monday 14 August 2017

Hummingbird Imposter 12th August 2017

Saturday and after a cloudy start it became sunny and warm around noon. After a singularly uninspiring morning at Farmoor Reservoir I returned home. Once out of the car I walked down our drive to inspect my own mini butterfly reserve - a line of five small buddleia bushes growing along one side of the drive.

The sun had brought out the usual lepidopteran visitors, a dozen or so Red Admirals, some as immaculate as it was possible to be while others were tattered and faded. Peacocks were putting in an appearance and up to three were feasting on the flower cones. Large and Small Whites, Gatekeepers, a Small Tortoiseshell and a Comma, so faded and worn it hardly showed any colour at all, completed the gathering.

I stood and inhaled the delicious honeyed scent of the buddleia bushes with their white, purple and blue cone shaped flower spikes, happy to see that there were still many flower cones to bloom and so, weather permitting I would still have the pleasure of watching the butterflies for some days to come.

An indistinct movement low down by one of the bushes caught my eye. A small brown and orange insect, no more than an inch and  half long was floating, disembodied, in the air in front of one of the white flower cones, its wings moving at such a speed they were but a haze of orange and brown whilst its portly, brown furry body was held still and horizontal, displaying a chequer patterning of black and white at its tail.

Having been to South America, for a moment, instinctively I thought of hummingbirds but this was no hummingbird but the nearest equivalent we have here, a Hummingbird Hawkmoth. Although not scarce I do not see one that often, certainly not annually and it is always a thrill to find one of these day flying moths, especially in one's own garden or at least driveway. They defy all the popular myths about moths as they fly by day, they are pretty and most people love to see one!

I stood entranced as it fed, probing the purple cones of a buddleia, hovering a couple of inches from the flowers and extending its wire like, outrageously long proboscis to imbibe the nectar. It floated from one flower to the next, powered by wings that were almost invisible to my eyes as they moved at such speed. The moth moved sideways, forwards and even backwards, deliberately and systematically examining and feeding from every flower cone on the bush before moving on to the next bush. For thirty minutes at least, it was feeding, never resting but in constant motion, its wings moving with such speed that I marvelled it could expend such energy for so long without resting.

Occasionally it would swoop up and around to circle above the bushes at incredible speed before returning to feed once again. For all the world just like its avian feathered counterpart it brought a bit of the exotic and magic of true hummingbirds to my otherwise
 mundane driveway in Kingham.

This year is meant to be a good one for observing Hummingbird Hawkmoths in Britain and they are, traditionally, particularly noticeable in July, August and September. It is abundant and resident from Portugal and all the southern European countries around the Mediterranean, with its distribution extending eastwards across central Asia to Japan. North of the Alps, in Europe and the Caucasus in Russia they are encountered only as summer migrants as they are unable to survive the winter. 

In Britain they have been recorded in every county, even as far north as the Orkney and Shetland Islands but only visit Britain as a migrant in varying numbers each year, mainly coming from southern France. They cannot survive a British winter and there is evidence that some migrate south in autumn. The late summer peak in numbers is largely due to moths that will have hatched here in Britain from eggs laid by earlier migrants that arrived in Spring.The individual feeding from my buddleias was probably one of these.

Sighting this moth is also considered to be a good omen and there is a rather charming tale of how on D Day and the Normandy landings, a swarm of Hummingbird Hawkmoths were seen migrating across The Channel. How poignant that this delightful creature carried on its natural peaceful existence innocent of the hell and carnage that we humans were creating on the beaches of Normandy.

They like to fly in full sunlight but will also fly in dull conditions, even rain, as well as at dusk and dawn. In order to power their flight and replenish their energy levels they need flowers with a plentiful supply of nectar such as Red Valerian, Buddleia, Honeysuckle and Petunias. They also have the capacity to memorise a good source of nectar and will return to the same source every day at about the same time. So no guesses where I will be on the next sunny day.

Yet another wonderful creation of our natural world.

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