Tag Archives: Elephant Hawkmoth

Butterfly Fly-bys

Some butterflies and many moths have short flight periods. They spend most of their lives as caterpillars and only become butterflies or moths in order to find mates and lay eggs. We are coming to the end of the flight season of one of these butterflies right now, the Ringlet (Aphantopus hyperanthus). This butterfly like long grass in open areas such as fields or meadows, so it’s a little off the beaten track for most people to come across. It’s also quite dark. Here is a male, which is quite handsome and has a white edge to its wings which looks quite impressive:

The female is slightly more brownish and less bold.

Another summer butterfly which lives in a similar habitat, but which flies mostly throughout July until the end of August is the Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina). Although not very brightly-coloured they are very handsome, but rarely sit still for too long except in the tall grasses of meadows. Here is one which, unusually, has stopped to feed on a buddleia bush:

   You have up until the end of august to see this butterfly, but if you want to see a Ringlet you have only a matter of days.

Despite my efforts to find and photograph an Elephant Hawkmoth it seems that the window of opportunity for this year has run out, or just about, and I will have to wait until next year. However, there is no shortage of food for the enormous caterpillars, which jungles of its beloved rosebay growing all around Wicklow, especially on the eastern seaboard, as you can see here:

Sometimes rosebay can grow to almost three metres tall!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

(A special thanks to Auntie Ros for her recent endorsement.)

The Summer Solstice was on Wednesday morning at 5.24 am (BST) aka 4.24 am Greenwich Meantime. However, Midsummer’s Day is actually tomorrow, St. John’s Day, making this the magical time of year known as Midsummer’s Eve. According to legend the most dangerous time of Midsummer’s Night is between midnight and sunrise. This is when the most powerful magical beings were said to roam the earth. However, modern time-keeping has created great confusion because true midnight, when the sun is on the exact opposite side of the earth to when it is in daytime at noon, is 12.00 am GMT.

But thanks to British Summer Time true midnight is actually at 1:00 am tonight at Greenwich in England. But, true midnight does not actually occur here in Wicklow, on the east coast of Ireland, until half-an-hour later because we are a few hundred kilometres to the west. So for us the magical beasts don’t actually have the run of the place until 1.30 am and for the very few hours until sunrise, which is very early in northern Europe. And yes, Midsummer’s Night is actually Midsummer’s Eve’s Night, or more correctly by modern reckoning, Midsummer’s Morning.  And there are some wonderfully magical creatures out there right now, such as this beauty:

   The White Plume Moth is a small moth which appears soon after dark and flies about at the ends of gardens. It looks just like a child’s idea of a fairy and appears to glow in the dark. Also, they are so white their details can only be seen properly in sunlight – your kids will be certain they’re seeing fairies as soon as the sun goes down. So do have a look for these at sunset. And then there is a very similar but much larger creature, the Ghost Moth (Hepialus humuli):

   The very best place to see these moths is on meadows along the seashore on warm balmy nights when they hover like small ghosts over the grassland. You can easily approach them. The males are a shiny, silky white and the reason they hover is that they are searching for the yellow and pink females lying in the undergrowth below them. These are quite large and impressive moths and really do seem magical. They can also be found in gardens with unsprayed lawns where their caterpillars feed on dandelion roots.

The magical creature I’m searching for tonight, and have never managed to see in my life, is the moth that this gigantic caterpillar will turn into:

   This is the caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor) a very large moth which is a stunning pink and yellow colour. It feeds on honeysuckle in hedgerows and other similar plants, and lays its eggs on Rosebay Willowherb, which the extraordinary caterpillar feeds on. I have found several of these little monsters in my garden in the last few years, but have still never managed to see the moth, so tonight I’ll definitely be looking. And if I have any luck I’ll definitely be posting the photo tomorrow. In case you’re wondering about the caterpillar, it does give the species its name, but those are not eyes but in fact eyespots designed to make it look like a larger animal, perhaps a lizard. The actual head is at the very end of the ‘trunk’ and is a typical caterpillar-type head.

Remarkable Beasts

There is a whole host of incredible wildlife in the Wicklow countryside at the moment, and often going unnoticed. Keep your eyes peeled. Here is a superb example which I found two days ago, the gigantic snake-like caterpillar of the Elephant Hawkmoth (Deilephila elpenor). Hawkmoths are the largest moths found in Ireland, and we are not short of them in Wicklow, although they are relatively rarely seen. Some, as I previously mentioned, can be as large as small birds. And their caterpillars are gigantic and often spectacular, such as this example.

What appear to be eyes on this caterpillar are actually eye-spots. The head is the little nose-like projection at the front. The tail-end has a sharp and hard thorn-like projection on it.
What appear to be eyes on this caterpillar are actually eye-spots. The head is the little nose-like projection at the front. The tail-end has a sharp and hard thorn-like projection on it.

When alarmed, or irritated, this caterpillar rears up as those going to strike. But if further irritated it will lie down and go through a series of frightening spasms, which make it look as though it has been mortally wounded, as though an electric shock was running through its body. It’s a harmless creature though, mostly feeding on Rosebay Willowherb, which most gardeners consider a weed, although it is a beautiful wild flower to we naturalists. Believe it or not, the moth is actually more spectacular than its caterpillar, but I have no photos of it yet. My To-Do List is ever-growing.