Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Death On Swift Wings

On a rare sunny morning in July 2012, almost a year ago to this day, I accompanied Tom Forward of Gatwick Greenspace Partnership on our first Gatwick bird survey. We had finished the transect and were walking back through the grasslands in the Land East of the Railway Line when we stumbled across this beauty (or perhaps beast)…
  
Death's-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos)

Death's-head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos) about 13cm in length

A Death’s-Head Hawkmoth is a pretty unusual sighting in the fields around Gatwick Airport, or anywhere in the UK really! Again I was just obliviously stomping past when Tom (self-named 'Hawkeye' for apparently valid reasons) spotted this roosting in the grass. I didn't have a clue what sort of moth I was looking at (only that it was ridiculously huge) until he pointed out the obvious skull-like pattern on the back. On average only 2 or so are spotted in Sussex each year and a wingspan up to 13cm makes this one of the largest moth species to be found. They are common in the Middle East, African and Mediterranean regions and occasionally pass through Britain. 


 
Warning -  annoyingly excitable geeks feature in this video; feel free to mute.

The peculiarities do not stop at its appearance… when threatened this (extremely harmless) moth puts on quite a show, rearing up on its hind legs, lashing out with clawed forelimbs and displaying the bright orange colours of its abdomen. It also emits a loud squeak by expelling air from its proboscis. The caterpillar of this species feeds on the leaves of potatoes, the adults however raid beehives for honey at night, avoiding being stung by emitting a smell similar to that of bees. Cheeky.

The underbelly of the beast

The theory is that this individual was either a passing migrant or perhaps an escapee from a private collection. I'd like think it is the former; an intrepid explorer who's path we were fortunate to cross! 

Apparently there is even a limit to a Hawkmoth’s patience… tiring of our attention it began to quite literally hum as the large wing-muscles warmed up for take-off. A thrum of its wings and a spectacular flash of orange, we were left gawping as it flew a short distance and resettled out of sight in the long grass. This will certainly go down as one of our top natural history moments!