Hawk-moths are indisputably impressive beasts. They’re a small group of species – here in the UK we only have nine resident species and a further eight that occur as immigrants from abroad. But they’re large, often strikingly marked, powerful fliers and, in some cases, great travellers. And we’ve had a bit of a purple patch for them lately at Forvie.
We’ll start off with the resident species. You may recall in a recent edition of the blog that we found one of these caterpillars at the ternery. It’s the larva of the Elephant Hawk-moth, so named because the caterpillar’s head resembles an elephant’s head and trunk when it’s stretched out. The one in the above photo has retracted its head into its body, thereby causing the eye-spots on its body to swell up, to warn off a would-be predator. In this case the ‘predator’ was probably the person with the camera that startled the caterpillar!
Elephant Hawk-moth is resident year-round at Forvie, with the caterpillars feeding on Rosebay Willowherb, a very plentiful food source. The adult moths can sometimes be seen feeding at nectar sources at dusk.
The other resident species we’ve encountered recently is the Poplar Hawk-moth. This striking green caterpillar was found feeding on a willow tree in your author’s garden on the north-eastern boundary of the Reserve. Willows are common across the Reserve and its surroundings, so this species does very well locally, and the adult moths sometimes turn up in the light-trap at the Forvie Centre.
The adult moths are large, attractively-marked beasts with a patch of fox-red on the underwing – just visible in the above photo. Look out for these striking moths if you have willow trees in your garden at home.
Now onto the really exciting ones – the long-distance migrants…
This Bedstraw Hawk-moth showed up on the north edge of the Reserve a couple of weeks ago, and was the first one that any of us here had seen, despite each of us having a lifelong interest in nature! This stunning moth is an immigrant from south-east Europe, and probably hitched a lift across the North Sea on warm south-easterly winds. It was spotted feeding on the flowers of Honeysuckle, fuelling up after its long trip.
Bedstraw Hawk-moths only occur in very small numbers in Scotland, with usually just a handful of records each summer. So to see this one was a special treat.
Two days after the excitement of the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, the very same Honeysuckle bush played host to a Hummingbird Hawk-moth. Another immigrant from the south-east, this too is a spectacular sight, resembling a tiny hummingbird as its whizzes from one flower to the next, sipping the nectar through its long proboscis while hovering on the spot. In fact the likeness is so remarkable that many people, upon encountering one, believe they are seeing an actual hummingbird.
These are quite a bit more plentiful in Scotland than the Bedstraw Hawk-moth, and we see Hummingbird Hawks in most summers here at Forvie. Check out any nectar-rich flowers like Buddleia or Honeysuckle; note also that these moths are active by day as well as at dusk, so you may see one in bright sunshine as well as evening gloaming.
The final species we’ve recently recorded is the mighty Convolvulus Hawk-moth. Like the previous two species, this comes from southern shores off the back of a warm southerly airflow and settled weather. This huge moth – with a wingspan of 4 inches (10cm) and a body as long and thick as your thumb – is a powerful flier and loves the same sort of nectar-rich flowers favoured by other hawk-moths. This one was discovered roosting by day on our neighbour’s washing(!) before being relocated to that same lucky Honeysuckle bush. Later on, after warming up its wings it flew off into the night over the Reserve, and onto the next leg of its epic journey.
So if you’re lucky enough to have nectar-rich flowers in your garden or in your local area, keep an eye on them just now, especially at dusk as the light is beginning to fade. You too may be lucky enough to cross paths with one of these fabulous insects as it goes about its nightly rounds – an experience to savour!