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Moths – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Friday, June 24th, 2016

emperor mothGarden tiger, peach blossom, beautiful golden Y,  vapourer and Hebrew character are some of the names of the most fascinating  group of insects namely moths.   Despite the fact that there are over 800 types of larger moths we rarely see them as the majority are nocturnal.    Whilst all the butterflies are seen in daylight taking nectar or egg laying, the moths take over at night.     Whilst some of the moths, such as the ones listed above, are attractive, the majority are small and drab and we tend to overlook them.     Some get their names from the markings on their wings and two of these can be found in readers’ gardens.  One is the antler moth and the creamy markings on the wings really do look like miniature  deer antlers.   They have another interesting  feature in that they fly both during the day and at night.   The silver y moth gets its name from the tiny white mark on each of the forewings.  This can be read as a Y or as the symbol for the Greek letter gamma (y).  Like the antler moth they are unusual in flying both during the day and at night.  However, what is even  more fascinating about the silver Y is that, despite its sometimes very large numbers, it cannot survive our winters.  This means it relies on immigrants from the continent every year which seems incredible as the moths are only about 40 mm across the wings.

One of the most unusual  of all the moths is the attractively named emperor moth that is an impressive 83 mm across the wings. The adults have false eyes on their wings  and this acts as a defence mechanism in two ways.  If a predator such as a bird or a mouse approaches and the moth flashes its wings in annoyance the predator  may well  be put off by the flashing eyes.  If the predator persists it may think the eye on the wing is a vulnerable  part of the moth, namely the eyes on the  wings.  This means that if only that part of the wing is taken the  moth can still fly well so it is not a disaster.  The other feature of the emperor moth that is even more amazing is that only the males fly by day  whilst the females fly at night.   If this was not unusual enough, the moths have their own special way of attracting each other.  The  female, see the photograph, sits in the heather on open moorland, which conveniently is the food plant of the caterpillars, and emits a strong smelling hormone.   This attracts the male from some distance.  In some circumstances you can actually see the male quartering the ground to find the receptive female.

Although some moths do not feed at all as adults, others will gorge themselves at night from nectars rich flowers such as honeysuckle.  You can use this attraction to your advantage if you want to attract moths to get a closer look at them.   It is called “sugaring” and involves mixing various items to attract the moths to feed.  To make the moth mix take some brown sugar, molasses, a little red wine or beer and boil it up in a  large pot.   The end result is a sweet, sickly fluid and you paint this on trees or fence posts.  At night use your torch to look at the sugar and the surrounding  vegetation for any  moths that are attracted.    The first night may not be successful so try several nights application and then move to another site.  Good hunting!

Tracking Scottish Wildlife – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

pine martenIn the last two weeks there has been a dramatic change in the countryside with the trees coming into leaf and the grasses and other vegetation flourishing.    The different shades of green on the trees are fascinating and my favourite is the grey green of the aspen leaves but this may be because they are always trembling in the slightest braze.   Legend has it that the trembling is because it can never rest as it was cursed as the tree on which Christ was crucified.   In fact the leaves are trembling because they have long, flattened leaf stems. The “greening” of the countryside means  one major thing to a range of wildlife – cover and shelter.   At a time when many mammals and birds have young it means that it is relatively easy to hide from predators and disturbance.

However, to the field naturalists it can be frustrating and the only way forward is to become more of a nature detective.  This means that instead of looking for wildlife  you look more for the signs of where they have been and, hopefully, what they have been doing.   However, wildlife  has the advantage that there is so much cover that even if you see fresh signs it can still stay hidden.  Interestingly as far as the nocturnal  mammals are concerned such as fox, badger and pine marten the nights are so short that they need to be out in some daylight hours  just to feed enough. Droppings are a good  way  to see if any of these three mammals are present and it may surprise people to see just how many gardens are frequented  by them.  For example, with the pine marten, the droppings  are conspicuous being about ten centimetre’s long,  twisted  and twirled.   If you are lucky enough to see a pine marten ( see photograph) you can often tell individuals apart by the size and extent of the creamy yellow throat.   Droppings in general are best left where they are as more often than not they will be marking territory which is important.

Signs of feeding can tell you a great deal as I found out in my last visit to the tall pines at the road  end of Loch Farr in Strathnairn. I was looking for any scattered pine cones under the trees as they are a giveaway.  Some of the cones had been just stripped to the centre of the cone which is the work of a red squirrel.  In other  cones each scale had been split down the middle.  This is the work of the crossbill that has a beak that is crossed to extract the seed.  Interestingly a reader had reported  small parties of crossbills in that area a few days  before.  These would be family parties as if the cone/seed harvest is good the crossbills  will have already bred this year.   Tracks are also important but it needs to be a good print such as in mud to make identification easier.  River banks, gateways and roadside verges  are good tracking areas.   Once you find  that mammals are frequent the you can go back and look from a distance.  Remember it is important  that mammals should not be disturbed.

Considering how important  tracks and signs are  for the naturalists it is surprising just how few books have been written on the subject.  To my mind the best is “Nature Trackers Handbook” by Nick Baker published by Bloomsbury Natural History in 2013 at £14.99. The Nature Trackers Handbook is available direct from the RSPB.

Red Deer – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Thursday, May 26th, 2016

Red Deer StagThe native red deer in the Highlands, both hinds and stags, will  face problems in the next few weeks particularly as the winter lasted so long this  year.  For much of the year the hinds and stags occupy the same areas but now the hinds will have move into their own areas, sometimes  on the higher ground.    For  many hinds these are traditional grounds where they have their calves and the stags generally  stay away from such areas.  One of the  problems the hinds face this year is their condition  as the first bite of fresh grazing did not come until later than usual, especially on the higher ground.   Some hinds will have already  had their calves whilst  others will not drop them until  next month.  Fortunately the red deer  hinds normally only have one calf, unlike the roe deer that will often have twins.

Once the hinds have had their calves they are very attentive to them  and there is a great deal of licking and small talk from the hind to the calf.  There is also  a complex  social system where although a group of hinds and calves may look rather scattered there is  a complex relationship.  For example, it may appear that a calf is a long way from its mother  but there will always be a hind on the watch over such calves no matter how far the mother may wander.  So  the hind behaviour is highly social  and not more so than when they  face a predator whether it be a fox,  golden eagle or, presumably now, a white tailed eagle.   Hinds will charge at  would be predators, even the eagles, but there is no doubt that a number of calves are taken by such  predators.

The stags also have problems.  They will have had to recover from the rut of last Autumn and so will  have gone into the  winter in poor condition and last winter did not help them as it was so long. The larger stags have already cast  their antlers   which are shed annually  and regrown in time for  the rut next Autumn. The cast antlers  are often chewed by both hinds and stags  for the bone calcium.  However, that is if  they get the chance as antlers are still very much a commercial product in their sale for a variety of items from handle’s to walking  sticks. This makes a perk for the stalkers and it is interesting that it is illegal for anyone other than the landowner or someone credited by him to collect the cast antlers.   Whilst on a live deer they belong to no-one but once cast or on a dead stag then it is  another matter.

Re-growing antlers takes it out of a stag but there is also the problem of the covering of the growing antlers.    This is called velvet  and close to can be seen to be partly  made of hairs that are tightly packed and look and feel like velvet, hence the name.  The photograph shows an early growth of antlers covered by velvet.  The problem is that this velvet is very sensitive and can easily be damaged and must be protected at all times  Any damage can affect the growth of the final hard antler.   So any jostling, real or pretend fighting or sparring must be avoided at all costs.  The answer, if there is to be any aggression, is for the stags to rear up on their hind legs and box with their front legs.  It is rather like when brown hares are boxing  but with such a large mammal as a red deer it looks really incongruous.