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They’re back!

A lot of people watch for the first signs of spring.

The first daffodil in flower…
the first butterfly…
the first bumblebee…
the first leaves bursting on a particular tree…

I look out for the first lesser black-backed gulls arriving in Belfast city centre. I don’t know where they go all winter, the dump maybe, but they always arrive back in February to terrorise the city. I love them.

Happy printemps everyone!

Lesser black-backed gulls, Springmartin, 26 March 2011

“Blackbacks”, Larus fuscus, photographed here in March 2011. (I know, I know, they’re not the ones I saw today – but as I generally don’t bring my camera to school, these’ll have to make do.)

2013 BIRDS: 46


Siskin au jardin

Male siskin, home garden, 27 Jan 2013

A male siskin enjoying some peanuts in our garden this morning

Glencairn Road, 20 Jan 2013

The snowy Glencairn Road

This year’s snowfall was nay too bad up our way – last weekend a few inches fell and mostly thawed overnight, followed by a few fresh flurries, ice on pavements and a final thaw yesterday as a warm front pushed in.

Up in Glencairn Park (above) last Sunday, the snow crunched deeper underfoot as I gained altitude, listening out for birdsong as I went. At the bottom of the park the piping calls of blue tits and coal tits, and the more strident vocalisations of great tits, filled the trees. A herring gull flew solemnly over while black-headed gulls gallavanted by the housing estate.

On the first hill hooded crows picked through the grass and argued loudly with magpies in their skyscraping conifers. A jackdaw also put in an appearance.

As I climbed the hill, listening out for new finds, the round-winged, long-tailed silhouette of a sparrowhawk swooped across the sky. (I probably could have just watched it rather than trying to focus through a hopeless pair of pocket binoculars!)

Soon enough I heard the robin… and perhaps a goldfinch, but I wasn’t sure and didn’t hear it again. Likewise a rattle from the trees could have been a mistle thrush… but probably just a magpie.

I’d been keeping a beady eye out on the bramble bushes. If you remember, last year I really got into leafmining micro-moths, and one of the most common of those is Stigmella aurella. Its tiny orange caterpillar mines bramble leaves, making brown-white squiggles on them. So far on my walk I’d seen plenty of old vacated leafmines that the caterpillars had already left long ago. But what I was really hoping to see was a tenanted mine – one with a caterpillar in it.

And after a while, I had success!

Stigmella aurella larva in mine, 20 Jan 2013

Literate larva!

Not one, but two little caterpillars huddled in their mines, in the freezing cold.

After a few minutes’ worth of fiddling with my camera and hand lens, my hands were going cryogenic so I put my gloves back on and left the caterpillars to their sleep.

As I was rebooting my hands, a bird started calling very loudly from the tree above me.

“Chick…      chick…      chick…”

I peered up to see what it could be, but before I could get my eye in it was off. I chased the sound down the road a bit… it was father away and still calling. Then it flew back the way it had come, revealing itself to be a thrush of some kind.

Didn’t sound like a blackbird,
or a song thrush,
or a mistle thrush…
fieldfare maybe? That would be quite a find.

But as I later found out on the RSPB’s newly-revamped website, fieldfares chuckle not chick, and the only thrush that it really could have been was a redwing. Quite pleased to find this winter visitor.

Before I headed back down to the urban jungle, I had a close encounter with a friendly robin which perched no more than a metre or two away from me, then flew right past me to the other side of the road and back.

It appeared so interested in me that I raised my arm, thinking there might be a possibility it might even come and perch on me, but as it turned out, he wasn’t quite as tame as that common darter dragonfly!

Descending through the woods, I was arrested by a flash of white, black and pink. It couldn’t be… it was! A jay! It flew silently away from me, from tree to tree.

A clan of bullfinches escorted me down the hill.


Yesterday, while I was at school and the rain was clearing the last of the snow, my parents got quite a treat. Just look who showed up in our garden!

Waxwings in the garden! 25 Jan 2013


The Internet is always awash with waxwing photos at this time of year. They come over to the British Isles from Scandinavia during winter, to feast on berries. And I can tell you they did a pretty good job clearing out our cotoneaster!

Apparently the collective term for waxwings is “a grosbeaks of waxwings”. Some people, like me, prefer “an earful of waxwings”. 🙂

If you haven’t yet seen these fantastic fellows, it’s well worth checking online to see if any have been spotted near you. They are fabulous!

And don’t forget the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend!

Home Garden, 26 Jan 2013

What’s-a-in your garden today?

2013 MOTHS: 1L
2013 BIRDS: 33

The Planets #3

Happy New Year!



The wallflower is flowering by the wall, the daffodils and tulips are shooting up, and the days are starting to get longer.

So by my definition, spring is underway! Hope this picture conveys a sense of the rich, joyful energy of new life bursting forth.

(Life which includes moths!!! I’ve had the trap out for the past few nights, as it’s been mild, and caught nothing, but I’ll keep trying – there are some species flying at this time of year.)

I’m looking forward to all the experiences 2013 will bring – one of which is (hopefully) university! Another thing I’m looking forward to is not spending my summer watching terns through a telescope! (Don’t ask.)

I wonder if 2013 can be any more moth-tastic than was 2012 – my moth year list came to 273 species!! I have, amongst others, Catherine Bertrand, Andrew Crory and Ted Rolston to thank for some memorable mothy moments. Hopefully it’ll be better on the butterfly front this year – nationally last year was quite poor for butterflies, and I didn’t see as many as usual myself.

I learned some lessons in 2012 too. Like, when you open your mind to new ideas and perspectives, a whole truckload of bs falls in along with the gold dust you’re after. (I’ll say no more.) There were plenty more lessons – some I haven’t unwrapped yet.

Anyway, you can expect more sporadic, spontaneous, randomsocks writing from The Caterpillar in 2013! (Including the return of The Planets!)


The internet’s very quiet about what happened on Friday.

Zebra spider, 25 June 2011

Every end precedes a new beginning – ask this zebra spider!

There wasn’t a massive solar flare.
The Earth didn’t get battered up by a rogue planet called Nibiru.
There were no spectacular planetary or stellar alignments.
And there definitely wasn’t a sudden global “awakening”.

Plenty of people did a Chicken Little and lost their heads, while the Mayans celebrated the new baktun, the Prime Minister played table football on a visit to Afghanistan, and the US Food and Drugs Administration approved a genetically modified salmon for sale in stores.

A pretty average day at the zoo, on the surface anyway.

Have a peaceful time with your families this Christ-mass, and take time to remember, muse on and give thanks for the massive act of Love 2000 years ago that changed humanity forever.

A Butterfly in December

Some butterflies, such as the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Comma, Brimstone and Red Admiral, hibernate as adults over the winter. Others, such as the Small White, don’t. Pity no-one told this one.

Small White, Highfield Drive, 28 Nov 2012

Well that was smart

Two Wednesdays ago, my mum found this fellow fluttering about in our back entrance hall.  He was pristine, with the scale fringe on his wings unspoilt, so he had obviously just emerged from his chrysalis and finished drying his wings. In the wild, Small White butterflies (Pieris rapae) hibernate in the chrysalis stage, suspended from a hard vertical surface.

Evidently, a caterpillar from my garden must have found its way indoors and pupated, but when the expected winter didn’t materialise, gone ahead with metamorphosis and emerged when it did, in late November.

Or, it escaped from a broccoli from Tesco.

Either way, it’s doing quite well in our back window, with sugary fluid to drink and an occasional period under an incandescent lamp to warm it up. It’s now 11 days old.

Small White, Highfield Drive, 28 Nov 2012

Here’s looking at you

Small White, Highfield Drive, 01 Dec 2012

Opening his wings to bask under the lamp. The fact that he has one black spot on each forewing shows he’s a he – the female has two.

Small White, Highfield Drive, 08 Dec 2012

Still going strong

Small White, Highfield Drive, 08 Dec 2012

His “butterfly house” – a windowsill covered with a net curtain, oriented to catch the afternoon sun. You can see him basking under the lamp.

You can find out more about this butterfly at the UK Butterflies site:
Pink-barred Sallow, Murlough NNR, 20 Oct 2012

The fantastic Pink-barred Sallow, nectaring on ragwort at Murlough.

If you can believe I actually had to make a decision – biology duh!

Small Tortoiseshell, 30 Sep 2012

Small Tortoiseshell, at the Westy, 30 Sep 2012

A Smiley Caterpillar

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 6 Sep 2012

The spectacular Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar

After all the mad leafmining caterpillars I adopted over the summer, with varying success, it was nice to get back to the much simpler macro caterpillars. This is a Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar, which I collected from Murlough less than a month ago. It’s grown very fast since then (compare 10 Aug, below, with 6 Sep, above), moulting at least twice, and is probably still munching his hawthorn leaf as I type.

I called him Smiley as soon as I saw him. Why?

Coxcomb Prominent caterpillar "Smiley", 10 Aug 2012


That’s why. 🙂

[Project 31A: Coxcomb Prominent]