Elephants, Leopards, Damsels and Dragons

It’s been a bit of a quiet time in the garden for butterflies recently, but there’s been plenty of other activity: foxes, deer, stoats, and water shrews in the stream (though the site of the stoat swimming suggests water shrew life – if still present – is precarious). And we’ve seen plenty of insects other than butterflies – some visiting, some born and bred in the garden.

We were out checking for slugs on pot plants the other evening – around about 10:00 – when we noticed a swarm of Elephant Hawkmoths over the Valerian. They were illuminated in the light from the kitchen windows, and there seemed to be dozens of them. They are impressive insects, almost as good at hovering and probing the tiny flowers with their proboscises as the Hummingbird Hawkmoths that visit during the day. And bigger too, and in an unusual and striking shade of pink. Have seen them before in the garden but never in such numbers. And we see their caterpillars now and again, marching across the patio.

Elephant Hawkmoth Caterpillar, marching

Apparently it gets its name from the way its caterpillar looks like an elephant trunk. Which it does, pretty much, apart from the cartoon-like false eyes on the front. And it’s big too. Not as big as the Leopard Slug I once saw outside the back door, but big – a good three inches. Here’s a picture of our enormous Leopard Slug from Aug 2018.

Our enormous Leopard Slug

It was quite a shock. I had no idea slugs ever got that big in this country. The Leopard Slug gets its name, not unreasonably, from the spots on its back. The smaller slugs found on our pot plants get thrown into the field on the other side of the stream, but not this big fella. We learned they eat other slugs so he stayed where he was. He revisited the following evening but sadly we didn’t see him again after that and haven’t seen any others anything like that length since. We get quite a few badgers passing through and I’m guessing a six inch slug would have been quite a tempting snack for one of them. I think if a toad had had a go, it might have fought back.

Back to the Elephant Hawkmoths. I went out to see if I could get a picture of them the night before last, but after all the rain we’d had, and with the lower temperatures, there were far fewer about. Maybe three or four at any one time. I’d noticed, on the warm night when we’d seen so many, that they didn’t seem to like the light from the torch, but I thought that if I used the camera flash the shot would be in the can before they dispersed. I’d forgotten that the camera uses a light beam – in low light – to get the autofocus to work before the flash picture is taken, and the focusing light beam seemed to scare the moths away before that was possible. Which was frustrating. Having said that, I think I might have read somewhere that they are attracted to light so maybe it’s just that I was too close for their comfort when moving in for the shot. Anyway, there were one or two that seemed less sensitive than others and I did get some reasonably crisp shots that show off their hovering skills.

Other insects seen in the garden recently include three species of Damselflies: the Banded Demoiselle, the Large Red Damsel and the Beautiful Demeoiselle.

I was initially confused over the identification of the ‘Beautiful Demoiselles’ as I hadn’t realised that the males start off their adult lives with brown wings and finish them with bright blue ones, once they’ve matured. Now I know who’s who, it looks like the Beautiful Demoiselles have taken up the majority of territories along our length of stream. The Banded Demoiselles we see seem to be passing through and haven’t settled – at least not when I’ve had a camera to hand. And the same goes for the darters and Emperor Dragonflies that we’ve occasionally seen.

Here’s a small red damselfly which I identified from the book as a Large Red Damselfly (the small ones must be tiny).

Spent some time watching a mature male Beautiful Demoiselle who was doing some hunting of tiny insects that I could hardly see. I noticed he was using the same perch between sorties, so I thought I’d try freeze-framing him with a fast shutter speed as he came back in to land (there was no chance my reactions would be quick enough to get him taking off). His sorties were pretty quick, so I thought that if I kept taking pictures at five frames a second (or whatever it is) after I’d registered him taking off while keeping the focus on the flower head, there was a decent chance I’d get some sharp pictures of him coming back in to land.

Here’s the resulting slideshow: coming into land; undercarriage out; touch-down; fold back wings; manoeuvre into alert position for next take off.

Haven’t managed any pictures of dragonflies in the garden, but took a few at a near-by lake. Here’s one of what I think is a Four-Spotted Libellula. Have been surprised, since I first became interested in close up photography, how hairy some insects, especially butterflies, are. But the hairiness of this darter dragonfly – which they don’t show in the books – was was even more unexpected. And very different from the metallic, tubular bodies of Damselflies and some of the Hawker Dragonflies.

Wonder how it affects their aerodynamics. Maybe it gives them more traction in the air, allowing them to stop and change direction more quickly, darting this way and that – as their name describes.