Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Oleander Hawk-moth - a rare migrant discovered close to Castle Hill LNR, Newhaven

As a Lepidopterist, yesterday's news will be hard to beat... very hard. Yesterday could prove to be as good as it gets.

I received a report at work yesterday that a hawk-moth had been found by the Custodian of Newhaven Fort, Steve Watkins. There was a suggestion that it might be an Oleander Hawk-moth. It was lunchtime, so my colleague (the Lewes District Council Ranger, Thyone Outram) and I dropped everything and drove straight from Lewes to Newhaven. It was indeed an Oleander Hawk-moth, and here it is:

The Oleander Hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii) is a rare immigrant which is resident in northern Africa and some Mediterranean islands including Sicily, Crete and Cyprus (Waring & Townsend, 2009). In its native lands it feeds as a larva on Oleander and Lesser Periwinkle. The British climate is too cool for it to survive here. This specimen is likely to have been the progeny of an African moth which laid its eggs somewhere in southern Europe

Its wingspan measures up to 130mm and this large size and its impressive markings mean is one of the most spectacular insects to be found in the UK. It has been suggested that about one hundred British records exist in the national database, but the Sussex dataset has not yet been uploaded to national level, so a further 26 records need to be added to this total.

The 26 Sussex records date back to 1852. It has been recorded only once in West Sussex and the rest from East Sussex. The last time the moth was recorded here was 1995, so the Newhaven Oleander is the first record in Sussex for nearly 20 years (Pratt, 2010). It is the first time it has been recorded in Newhaven itself - the 27th all-Sussex record.

When Steve Watkins first saw the moth on 14th November it was at rest on a wall near some lights in the entrance tunnel to the Fort. It remained there for about a week and was then found on the ground close to where it had been at rest. Sadly, it had perished, but Steve collected the moth and passed it to Simon, who informed Thyone, who informed me. A few days prior to 14th November I commented to our other colleague, Dan Fagan, that the Oleander was at the top of my moth bucket list, but that I did not expect to ever see one. I'm so glad I was proven wrong so soon.

The staff at Newhaven Fort have very kindly offered the moth to the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton and their bequeath has been accepted. It will now be properly pinned and cared for so that future generations can see the Newhaven Oleander.

As an aside, as Thyone and I left the Fort yesterday we naturally checked the area in which the moth had been found. There on the wall we saw another rarity, the Bloxworth Snout. This is another rare migrant which hibernates overwinter. It's a shame that it has been somewhat eclipsed by the excitement generated by the Oleander. To put that right, here's a photo of the Bloxworth. What a day!

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