Removing the Elephant from the Greenhouse.

26 June 2013

I like going out into the garden just as night falls, or even later: it’s magical. It’s a different place than it is during daylight hours: a whole new shift of wildlife takes over and the sounds and smells seem different, though in reality it is partly that there are scents and sounds specific to the night, and partly that these senses are amplified when the sense of sight is less useful.

I went out sometime after 10.00pm tonight: it wasn’t fully dark, but details were fading. It was very still, as it often is at this time of day, and the bird sounds had reduced to a few distant rooks, a song thrush still going stong (he was belting it out at 4.30am this morning!) and an unidentified bird calling next door. I was heading for the pond to count newts – there are always more around after dark, and a torch illuminates them very clearly. Before I got there, I became aware of a noisy fluttering from within the greenhouse. I wondered if it was the Poplar hawk-moth that has chosen to spend three days in the greenhouse since I did my last moth trap, but the frantically fluttering insect was too small to be a Poplar, though moving too fast to identify what it really was. Whatever it was, it was too high for me to reach, so I dragged Chris out from his comfy armchair, and we utilised the ever-ready insect-catching kit. This consists of a see-through plastic beaker, to put over the insect, and a piece of card to slide between the glass and the beaker to allow it to be removed. He scooped it up with consumate skill, and it was evident that it was either an Elephant Hawk-moth or a Small Elephant Hawk-moth. I carefully put my finger into the beaker, and – as I hoped – it clung to my finger and stopped fluttering, revealing itself to be a Elephant by the clear dotted line along its back.

Elephant Hawk-moth on rosebay willowherb

Elephant Hawk-moth on rosebay willowherb

As you might guess, this isn’t a photo taken of tonight’s Elephant – it’s one I caught in a moth trap a few years ago and let go onto one of its foodplants: rosebay willow-herb. Seen by itself you wonder how its colouration can ever be good camouflage, but seen on its foodplant, the answer is clear.

I can’t really recommend growing rosebay willowherb: it is very invasive, though the flowers, close up, are exquisite. Luckily, the Elephant’s caterpillars will use more garden-friendly plants, like fuschia. I’ve also found it on evening primrose. I’ll do another post on the caterpillars – they are amazing.

To finish my tale of tonight’s outdoors expedition. Having let the Elephant go about its business, I did count the newts: 17 plus two dragonfly larvae. While I was counting, my husband spotted a bat, and going up to the end of the garden we saw two very large ones flying round; there were also other moths around, but I can rarely catch them nectaring on flowers, they are just a blur going past. The one nocturnal visitor we didn’t see was the hedgehog, but he, and sometimes his friend, are usually a bit later turning up.

Do try a night-time stroll in your garden if you can – you never know what will turn up, and the whole experience is just magic.

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2 Comments to “Removing the Elephant from the Greenhouse.”

  1. I love rosebay willowherb and I love the fact that it is great at spreading everywhere. Along the sides of the railway tracks up here in the central belt of Scotland we have loads and loads of rosebay willowherb and when that starts to flower and the sweet rocket (that seems to have spread everywhere aswell) comes out it is just a sea of pink and white and it looks absolutely beautiful and the best thing is that its one of the few places where people don’t bother to “clean up” and so the insects have free reign. It’s wonderful!

    • I agree – the unlikeliest places make good nature reserves. As well as railway lines, army ranges can be fantastic: I’ve been on a trip to Porton Down in Wiltshire, and because the army has kept out the public and the habitat is little affected by man, the butterflies are incredibly plentiful.
      Lyn

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