Tuesday 7 May 2019

Emperors in Sussex 23rd April 2019

I rather like Emperor Moths. They are spectacular, elusive, large moths that fly by day and appear relatively early in the year from April until mid May. They are not uncommon, being found throughout the British Isles and have a fairly catholic taste in habitat and can be found not only on heathland, and moorland which are their particular favourites, but also in open woods, downland, on commons, mosses and even on waste ground.

I have never found an adult moth but have seen the large colourful larvae in as widely disparate places as dunes in North Norfolk and moorland in Caithness at the very tip of northern Scotland. I even encountered one on the borders of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, where they are meant to be scarce, crossing a wide track between two meadows. 

Fully grown Emperor Moth larva in Oxfordshire
The male is the most colourful of the sexes with brown and white forewings marked with red and orange and each wing has a black and orange eye spot. The hindwings are bright orange again each sporting a large eye spot.The male is 60mm in size and the female, which is less colourful, being basically grey and white, is larger at 80mm

Although locally common they are still hard to locate but fortunately for me I know a man, Bob, who is expert on all things to do with butterflies and moths (for his superb pictures see here). However he lives in Seaford on the Sussex coast  so in order to see an Emperor Moth with reasonable certainty I would have to travel to his home to join him in a search for this large and superbly patterned moth.

Thus I contacted Bob and we arranged a mutually suitable day to go out looking for Emperors in East Sussex. It would be the more colourful male that we would seek as the larger female is only active at night. 

The start to my day with Bob was not going to be too early, with us agreeing on a civilised 1030am start, so I took this opportunity of visiting the Sussex coast to reprise my former glories of sea-watching at Seaford's Splash Point, where many like minded individuals congregate at this time of year to watch migrating seabirds, ducks and waders moving up the Channel. The day before had seen favourable southeast winds which bring the birds fairly close to the shore and offer the chance of getting to  see that most coveted of the various  birdlife passing Seaford, namely Pomarine Skuas.There had been  double figures seen yesterday.

There was still an outside chance to see a 'Pom' today so 3am found me leaving my home in Oxfordshire to arrive at  5.30am at Splash Point to join up with other familiar Sussex diehards such as Richard and Matt.

Sadly it was slow going, the wind having moved northeast and dropped in strength. Undaunted I sat it out as I had nowhere else to go. We chatted amongst ourselves as Common Scoters in small groups of four or five hustled past. Three drake Pintails landed on the sea. Hardly riveting stuff. In fact it was deadly slow and I wondered why I had bothered. It was now 6.30am and I resolved to give it until 9am and then go for some breakfast.The wind dropped further, to a whisper, the visibility became hazy and it was hard to discern where sea and sky met. Waders always seem to come in a northeast wind and none more so than Whimbrel and Bar tailed Godwits and sure enough both appeared, the godwits far out and well above the sea, the distant flocks looking like dispersing smoke on the wind. Where had they set out from? Direct from Senegal or the Gambia? Their migrations are a phenomenon, covering vast distances without coming to land.

I was summoned from a gentle reverie by a dark cigar shaped bird looming out of the haze and there was a Great Skua or as it is now universally called by sea-watchers, a Bonxie, a Shetland name which sums up neatly its character. It was remorselessly making its way eastwards, probably heading for Shetland or the northern coast of mainland Scotland to breed, and then a second Bonxie followed it close behind. This inevitably gave a fillip to my flagging spirits and at just after 7am the highlight of the morning came when another skua appeared, flying steadily east with powerful wingbeats and a methodical progress that belied its grace. As it came closer Matt called 'Pom Skua!' and so it was, relatively close in,  a pale morph individual. I watched until it disappeared around the chalk cliffs of Seaford Head not wanting to let this moment go. It was probably going to be the only Pom I would see this year.

Further excitement came with a couple of distant Arctic Skuas but then it was time to go and seek sustenance.I still had a long and hopefully enjoyable day ahead of me with Bob.

We met at his house and drove a short way up onto the top of the South Downs to the rather wonderfully named Frog Firle Farm which is divided by the road and is now owned and managed by The National Trust. Here we rendezvoused in the car park at the top with two other fellow enthusiasts Trevor and his wife Kathy. The four of us then set off down a track to a very steep chalk scarp slope called High and Over that overlooks the Cuckmere Valley and east to the cliffs of the iconic Seven Sisters.

The view from up here is truly spectacular looking down the meanders of the River Ouse and away to the sea and my heart soared with joy surrounded  as I was by familiar downland and feeling the gentle warmth rising from the sun warmed chalk . What is it about Sussex that tugs at my heart almost as strongly as my native Scotland?

We slipped under a wire fence and found ourselves teetering on the precipitous slope that is High and Over, so steep we had to take great care to not slip and fall. Crab wise we slowly descended some fifty feet below the top with Bob drawing our attention to first, some newly hatched Wall Brown butterflies which refused to settle and allow us to photograph them. Next it was a rare micro moth, the name of which escapes me, so small it was a trial to discern it flying let alone find where it landed in the downland sward.

This was all well and good but we were seeking a much larger and to my mind more spectacular moth. In order to increase our chance of attracting and seeing a male Emperor Moth we used an artificial aid which disperses a scent identical to the female Emperor Moth's pheromone, which she secretes to attract males to come and mate with her.

We sat or stood quietly awaiting developments and sure enough no more than twenty minutes had passed before a large, fast flying moth was fluttering around the lure and then settled for us to take its photo. What a wonderful and beautiful creation it was as it clung to a hawthorn sprig and I felt a little sad that it had arrived under false pretences but no harm was done to it and it soon realised that it was a false scent and flew off. Its brief existence and purpose only marginally and temporarily disrupted by the lure.

We were all overjoyed with this quick and successful result. It could just as easily have gone the other way and our efforts met with failure. Nothing is guaranteed in the natural world.

We now moved further along the slope and gently downwards. As we progressed we found a number of Green Hairstreaks, flitting around hawthorns newly come into leaf. Their upperwings are brown and the tiny butterfly looks totally non descript as it flies but when it lands, which it does frequently, to angle its closed wings in the direction of the sun, the reason it is called green becomes only too apparent.

The underwings are an almost translucent pale emerald green and in the sun gleam. Green Hairstreaks are feisty little things and the males, perched on their particular hawthorn leaf which almost matches the colour of their wings, launch themselves into the air at regular intervals to patrol their small territory or occasionally intercept another hairstreak, whirling in tight circles around each other before separating. Green Hairstreaks seem to have favourite perches and will return time and again to the very same small leaf from which they flew. 

Green Hairstreak
I could have watched them for much longer but we were going to look for another Emperor Moth. However before we got to the designated spot another, even smaller butterfly caught our attention. Dark chocolate brown, with a grey furry body, its wings liberally sprinkled with a profusion of white uneven squares and spots, it skitted about just above ground level amongst the violets and cowslips on a steep bank rising up from the track we were on. It was a Grizzled Skipper.

So small and inconsequential it was difficult to follow as it moved and for periods we could not find it or others but eventually we found one that remained in situ so to speak and we got our photographs.

Grizzled Skipper
We moved on to a sheltered slope overlooking a huge vineyard on the other side of the valley. Amongst cowslips and a wealth of downland flora we put out the lure and it was not long before another male Emperor Moth arrived in a hurry and was fluttering in excitement around the lure.This time the moth settled for a prolonged period and allowed us ample opportunity to photograph it from all angles.

The Emperor Moth from underneath

Once we all felt fulfilled, as if you can ever have enough of Emperor Moths, we slowly made our way up the slope and back to the car park. It was then back to Bob's house where he generously supplied us with coffee and chocolate biscuits.

We sat in the garden and chatted for some time but then I fancied some more sea-watching at Splash Point. Well, you never know, something might turn up. It didn't of course but it was so good to be back on familiar and much loved ground. Sat on a bench looking out to sea and chatting to various passers by a bitter sweet melancholy embraced me. I was not sad but had a yearning and did not want to leave this pleasant feeling of familiarity and happy memories.

I set off for Oxford at 7pm but I can always return. There is nothing to stop me after all.

My ever grateful thanks to Bob Eade for making the above possible

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