Of Monsters and Moths

Of Monsters and Moths (Part One of Two)

Deaths-head Hawk Moth. Bill Morton

A few years ago when I was employed as a countyside ranger in Runcorn, Cheshire we would occasionally be asked to go and investigate concerns the general public may have about animals they have found secreted in unwanted places in the garden or home. On nearly every occasion it would be something really common or misidentified and/or in the wrong context e g Newt (Lizard) in washing basket or Mouse (Bat) hanging from a porch… but sometimes they turned up a real nugget!

It was a sultry August summers day with beautiful azure blue skies and the morning temperatures were rising the thermometer steadily.

I received a telephone call via the authority’s main switchboard from a couple who had phoned Liverpool museum about a strange creature on their driveway in Oxford Road, Runcorn (in the centre of the old town). The museum’s (wisely in these circumstances) advice was to contact their local council, adding “it was probably something common and not to get too unduly alarmed”. Eventually word got through to me and I was given the task to investigate their query and go through the inevitable rigmarole of picking it up and finding some suitable habitat where it would be safe and sound to be released. Along with my colleague (Karen) we went along to the house in question and knocked on the door. A short wait and a friendly couple greeted us both. Hello my name is Bill and this is Karen and we have come to rescue the critter from your driveway. “Oh, we’re really pleased to see you both we have tried everywhere to get someone to come and tell us what this ‘thing’ is?…It was shrieking when we found it”.  A glance from Karen and I could see written large in her eyes…A M.O.U.S.E! A banshee was my telepathic reply. The couple escorted us both to an empty upside down ice cream container. “It’s under there” the lady said. Karen hesitated to lift the container up and not wanting to let malekind down I manly reached out and lifted up the box…I wish I could describe the sound of my chin hitting solid concrete with a thud! I turned to Karen and somehow managed to silently mouth WTF! It’s a ‘dead’ DEATH’S HEAD HAWK MOTH!!! She didn’t realise the significance but assumed from my expression it was a goodie!

The couple said “Oh, is it unusual?” I’m no moth-er by any means (there are some who would beg to differ?) but I do know you don’t get many of them to the pound. The couple continued to say “last time we looked it was fluttering about!” I didn’t have the heart to tell them they were probably responsible for its undoing by placing a plastic box over the creature in blazing sunshine at midday in August. I asked the couple if they wouldn’t mind me taking the creature away and getting its id confirmed (It’s id didn’t need confirmation, but I didn’t want them chucking it away after we left).

I managed to get the Death’s Head Hawk Moth mounted and it was on display at the Runcorn Hill Visitor Centre for the rest of that summer. It now sits happily framed on the top of my CD shelf at home and away from JS’s unapproving hands.

So – sometimes it’s worth following up a neighbours sighting you never know what can turn up in totally unexpected places, at unexpected times of the day and at unexpected times of the year.

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…And of course this species became notorious by appearing on the cover of The Silence of the Lambs.

Hannibal Lecter: “All good things to those who wait”

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An extract from the Runcorn World Newspaper from the day

Rare Halton Visitor

Death's Head Hawk Moth, Runcorn 1999.

Picture the massive moths in Silence of the Lambs and imagine one landing on your doorstep.

Pat and Ron Houghton got quite a surprise when they found a rare, six-centimetre long Death’s Head Hawk Moth lurking under a car on their driveway on Norman Road in Runcorn.

They called the council’s parks and countryside service who revealed that the insect was a rare visitor from the Mediterranean or South Africa, spotted only three times in Cheshire.

Sadly, the moth didn’t recover from its transatlantic journey and died shortly after it was discovered. The rangers took it to a moth recorder in Manchester to be pinned, mounted and prepared for display at Runcorn Hill.

Bill Morton from the Parks and Countryside Service said: “This was an exciting find as the species is very rare and we are grateful to Mr and Mrs Houghton for contacting us. I’m sure when it goes on display at Runcorn Hill it will prove a popular attraction.”

Eds. Typical newspaper reporting:- crossing the Atlantic via South Africa and the Med?

And a short video from the NHM http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nature-online/species-of-the-day/evolution/acherontia-atropos/index.html

Bill Morton