Wildlife Column: Watch for the big hawks of summer

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With a long, hot summer as we are having it is worth keeping an eye out for the big hawkmoths.

We do have species that breed locally, such as Large Elephant Hawkmoth, Lime Hawk (especially on big highway trees……), Poplar Hawk and the like. However, we also have the possibility of some more exotic ones and indeed some species that you probably last saw if you were on a Mediterranean holiday!

If you are sat outside a taverna in Greece or Italy for example, and as the sun sets you spot a humming bird hovering to feed on nectar from the profusely exotic climbing flowers, then you are mistaken.

The humming bird is exclusively ‘New World’ and so we see them in the Caribbean, Florida, Mexico, and along the USA east coast, but not in Europe.

What you have seen is a hawkmoth and they do a pretty good impression of a humming bird; indeed so good that one species is actually called the ‘Humming Bird Hawkmoth’. Excitingly, both this and the rather similar Bee Hawkmoth are visitors to our region and can be spotted during a prolonged, hot summertime. As hawks go, these are not so big but they are rather stunning.

The big ones can be very dramatic indeed, and one I have always wanted to see is the Privet Hawkmoth. On holiday in Cornwall I was in luck when I found a huge green caterpillar with the distinctive markings. The beast was as big as my middle finger and had an amazing anti- predator behaviour to boot. The caterpillar is incredibly solid and muscular and when disturbed it writhes and flicks itself in a way that is surprising and disconcerting. This is enough I guess to put off a would-be predator.

They also have the typical hawkmoth prong or tail on the rear of the body which also serves to put off unwanted predatory attention and is probably to ward of parasitic wasps that prey on these juicy larvae. It is a resident in southern England but may be moving northwards and can turn-up as a migrant.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.