The moon is perhaps too little remarked upon. I mean, it’s remarkable! That white disc in the winter sky is another world, an 80 quintillion ton sphere of rock circling the earth in a graceful monthly journey. As it travels, waxes and wanes it reflects light from the sun, flinging rays over 200,000 miles back through empty space to illuminate the night sky. It governs the tides we depend on for important things like seeing wading birds and surfing. It’s the stuff of poetry, legend and scientific discovery. In short, it’s brilliant.
The moon itself is dark, cold and lifeless, but seen from earth it is as beguilingly changeable a natural object as any other. It’s a shape shifter, slinking into the shadows and veiling itself in mist and cloud. Chameleon-like, its colour adapts and changes, from pure white to the grey of a washed-out winter’s evening, from the orange of a harvest moon to a blood-red eclipse.
As we approached full moon this week other denizens of the night began to emerge, as if by way of celebration. Moths are said to use the moon for navigation – hence their magnetic attraction to light – and a pleasantly surprising four species were found in the Reading University trap on Friday morning. One, Oak Beauty, was a whole four weeks ahead of schedule. Pale Brindled Beauty is more accustomed to flying in January. The fine specimen of this species we trapped seemed particularly eager to fly back into the darkness when I released it the following evening.
Pale Brindled Beauty
Even more to my surprise, the moths’ great enemies, bats, were also active at dusk on Friday. Two or three made leisurely laps of a tall, dead, ivy-covered tree in the Wilderness, interspersing bursts of flapping with short glides as they hawked. Bat silhouettes are not my forté, and in the absence of a bat detector I couldn’t be sure what these were, but the mid-paced, gliding flight and suggestion that they were larger than a pipistrelle point to something like brown long-eared bat. All the while a brilliant moon shone through clouds beyond, illuminating the latticework of branches through which moth and bat alike flew.
The moon over Whiteknights Park, 22nd January 2016
There’s a thrilling freshness to the air. Spring’s first tantalising secrets are being revealed, flooding the world with colour. I started the morning scraping ice on the car, and air temperatures are still on the low side. But the earth has turned since midwinter, and it’s tangible in the warmth of the sun on your back. By summer I’ll be shy of it, but for now I delight in the sun, squinting into the light and basking like a self-satisfied cat. In February one can almost feel drunk on sunlight.
This gentle stirring of air molecules is all it took to rouse chironomid midges from their hiding place. On the bright side of an ornamental pine, a column of impossibly tiny black flies with exuberant bottlebrush antennae were busy with their ritual dance. It’s a kind of lek – for, as with birds, it is the male chironomids that dance – but operating at the kind of scale we don’t usually suspect of harbouring wildlife spectacles.
Each competing fly accelerates towards the blue sky before turning back, just as abruptly, and plummeting earthwards, occasionally spiraling into the tree for a well-earned break. I intercepted one or two with my hand and watched them rest on my fingertip, wings folded back, gently ruffled by an imperceptible breeze. A perfectly poised, wonderfully formed animal, yet one considered good for nothing but bird food by some people. Too many would simply squash one without a second’s thought.
Better known signs of the season were also in evidence. Crocuses cheering up roadsides, a carpet of snowdrops in the orchard, a few early hoverflies using rhododendron leaves as sunbeds. A blackbird in full song at the apex of the afternoon, and a March moth perched daringly in the open, as if inviting me to set the light trap out and see what else has emerged. The black-headed gulls that winter on Whiteknights Lake are out to see who can grow back their summer headgear the fastest, and it’s a cheering sight, a reminder that in not too many weeks I’ll be dusting off mine.
Crocuses near the Chaplaincy Centre.
Most of these are still looking fairly wintry. The gull with a white ring on one leg is 27L0, ringed as a youngster in 2013 just up the road at Lea Farm.
March moth, on a lamppost near the Meteorology building.
Crocuses near the Chaplaincy Centre.
Marmalade hoverfly basking in the sun.
Moles have been busy in the Wilderness meadow.
For what seems like months now I’ve been drawing blanks in the campus moth trap, or nearly doing so. Since our spectacular haul on a hot All Hallows’ Eve moths have come in ones, twos and threes if they have come at all; none of them spectacular, and none new to the site. I persist in putting out the trap, for like I always say to the Ricebirder when he helps set it up and bring it in, if we don’t, how can we be sure we wouldn’t have caught anything? Still, the daily emptiness of the moth trap has become a bit of a running joke between us in the run up to Christmas.