From the appearance of the insect, the largest moth you can find in the UK, and its sinister reputation in folklore, literature and art, you might prefer the designation used in my title. But I have always hoped to find one of these remarkable creatures, ever since I was a schoolboy in shorts and an Aertex shirt with a net and 'killing bottle'. (Our local chemist in Leeds supplied me with a potent little bottle of 'killing fluid' without any questions asked).
Would I!! Penny and I duly turned up at the home of a very hospitable couple who laid on tea and flapjacks as well as the moth - and revealed the extraordinary fact that they had found not just the one caterpillar back in August, but FOUR. If I found a Death's Head Hawk caterpillar, I wouldn't let it out of my sight (once I had recovered from swooning), but with remarkable coolness this chap went indoors to 'phone the local wildlife expert and ask him round, then returned to his lawn across which the huge (for a caterpillar) beast had been trudging.
Bright yellow and green, it was some eight feet further on its journey which ended when he placed a rhubarb forcing pot over it, both to confine it and keep it safe from predatory birds. These would have been brave, given the lurid warning colours and the caterpillar's habit of trying to bite attackers - an extremely rare thing in UK species - but the threat was real.
|The original caterpillar and the grub-like state of the second one, pre-successful pupation|
Meanwhile, advised by the local wildlife man and Martin, the caterpillar finder and his niece and nephew then carefully dug his potato patch and found two further Death's Head pupae and one caterpillar in the process of metamorphising, which is complex in this species. As the photos taken at the time show, the caterpillar turns first into a vulnerable grub-like thing before encasing itself in a hard protective shell. Exposure at this stage can be fatal and sadly that proved the case; but one of the other pupae was the one which hatched into yesterday's grand moth.
|The pupa of the original caterpillar which hatched into yesterday moth and (right) the 'grub-stage' which didn't make it|
|The moth on the Bible-writer's hand|
I made a film of this which I'll try to run in a separate post. It's not terribly good and you have to listen very closely to hear the moth's alarmed squeaking - another unique ability in UK terms, made by a reed like a saxophone's at the base of the short, thick proboscis. As always happens when I film, some hidden electrical gadget (or it maybe the camera) produces a regular and louder squeak of its own.
One little postscript to this saga. I took along my Bible for Martin to sign which he kindly did, and he also pointed out one of those tiny errors which make books extra-interesting. Removed from the second edition, it's slap in the middle of Richard Lewington's characteristically brilliant illustration of the Death's Head Hawk. I've looked at this picture plate (left) many, many times without noticing it. Can you see it, below?