Moth Diaries ep.3

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It has been a strange but productive couple of weeks for the moth trap with one particular record being incredibly important for Leicestershire and Rutland and it is a record I am proud to have under my belt. With increasingly warmer days, the emergence of new and varied species has increased too, yet the cool nights (except for one balmy night in March which proved to be very productive) have kept numbers on the wing to a minimum in VC55 (Leicestershire and Rutland) at least.

Most of the common moths in the early months of the year are of the genus Orthosia; this includes the Quakers, the Drabs and Hebrew Characters (amongst many others) that fill the trap more than any other at this time of year. Around about now though, we have the ‘Orthosia lull’ where the numbers of the species suddenly drop off and in the last few days this appears to be apparent in the garden. April can be the calm before the storm of late Spring and Summer mothing, a brief respite before the number of species and number of moths increases dramatically from May right through to October. It has been noted by other moth’ers that several species seem to be appearing on the wing a month or so earlier than usual this year (one of which, as you will see later on, I’ve already had turn up in the trap) and this could well be yet another indicator of climate change. Excitingly though, this is what makes trapping worthwhile and more than just a hobby; it is citizen science at it’s best and without moth’ers up and down the country trapping their gardens and local woods patterns like this would go unnoticed. It might seem like just a bit of fun, but these records and statistics (my own, recorded methodically on a spreadsheet, included) are vital in the fight for preservation, conservation and a better understanding of the changing natural world in general.

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Hebrew Character

The most numerous visitor to the trap by far over the last few weeks have been the Hebrew Character and the Early Grey. The Hebrew Character (photo above) is a common member of the Orthosia genus and is a real trap filler throughout March and April with numbers on a good night stretching well in to double figures. The moth gets it’s common name from the distinctive black marking on the forewing that is very similar in appearance to the Hebrew letter ‘nun’. The Latin name is Orthosia Gothica which also seems apt, given the dark grey hues symbolic of the period. The Hebrew Character is an extremely adaptable moth and it is for this reason that they are common and widespread throughout the British isles; they have the luxury of a list of larval food plants as long as my arm and as varied as could be physically possible, from a vast array of deciduous trees to weeds and wildflowers.

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Early Grey

The Early Grey, a member of the Noctuidae family of moths is also common and well distributed across much of the British isles, though it is more common in the southern half. They are beautifully patterned; ash grey with a marble effect pale oval and kidney mark, there is an additional oval joined to the first, and also to the kidney mark in most cases which creates the distinctive swirl pattern. Unlike the Hebrew Character, the larval food plant is restricted to Honeysuckle, which luckily for us is a common garden plant in many forms whilst also a native species of our countryside.

The very distinctive Common Plume moth was also a visitor to the trap on several occasions over the last few weeks and are the only Plume moth that can be found on the wing in any month of the year. Plume moths usually have forewings consisting of two curved spars, the hindwings similar but with three or more spars and a little more rag-tag. They are instantly recognisable in their resting position as no other family of moths look remotely similar in the UK. Fantastically camouflaged as pieces of dry grass, the Common Plume rests with wings outstretch and narrowly rolled up, appearing in a ‘T’ shape. They are a lovely, delicate looking moth and there are a number of different species in the UK. Surprisingly, given that they can be quite lengthy in size, they are classed as a Micro moth.

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Common Plume

Another distinctive but highly camouflaged moth to arrive this week was the Pale Pinion, not overly common in Leicestershire and Rutland; considered a scarce resident although I believe this to be down to under-recording more than anything.

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Pale Pinion

The moth is widespread throughout most of Britain except for the far north and areas of Scotland. This angular, pre-historic looking moth, admittedly, isn’t the most beautiful out there but it is effective in it’s disguise as a split twig or piece of bark. It flies in October and November before hibernating as an adult over Winter, re-emerging in early Spring until April time.

The next couple of moths though, are absolute beauties. They may lack the colour of many of the late Spring and Summer moths but they more than make up for it in form and style. The first to hit the trap last week was the Early Thorn which belongs to a family famous amongst moth’ers for being particularly flighty and difficult to keep in the trap (the Geometridae family). Luckily, this little beauty was a little more subdued and obliging for a couple of photographs. Other than a pretty drab Dotted Border moth the other week, this is the first moth of the season for me that has a more butterfly like appearance; with a slim body and silk-like, hairless wings. The resting position is similar to that of a butterfly too and is quite a rare trait amongst moths, resting with wings folded upright and tight together. Although not quite as finely coloured as the Purple Thorn (which I hope to catch in the next month or so) they are still sublimely marked with shades of auburn, white and brown. Common throughout Britain, though less so in Scotland, the Early Thorn has two generations in each year. The first generation appears on the wing in April and May while a summer generation, usually smaller and paler, appear in August and September.

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Early Thorn

The other beauty to arrive this week is probably one of our most well known moths and definitely one of the most recognisable. This beautiful Angle Shades is aptly named, displaying angular, geometric lines throughout. The eye marks on the forewings are outlined with a lovely soft shade of mauve, adding a bit of extra colour to the moth vocabulary at this time of year. Although Angle Shades can turn up on occasion in any month of the year, they generally fly between May and October and so as mentioned above, this particular moth is almost a month earlier than usual. The Angle Shades is a common moth across the whole of the British isles, with at least two generations on the wing in the summer months. In some years, numbers are heavily bolstered, especially in coastal regions as they are also a common migrant from elsewhere on the continent. It always amazes me that given the size of these tiny creatures, many Moths and Butterflies common throughout Britain make these incredible overseas journeys.

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Angle Shades – the eye spots on this particular specimen are lacking a little of the mauve colour

Last but by no means least is by far the highlight of the last few weeks, the moth photographed at the top of this post; the Dotted Chestnut. The Dotted Chestnut is an extremely local species in the UK with the majority of colonies restricted to the South and South-east of England. They can, on occasion, turn up in small pockets elsewhere and there is some evidence that they are actually doing pretty well, expanding their range. The Dotted Chestnut is so under-observed nationally that we are not even sure what the larval food plant is for this little moth, though most indications point to a small variety of deciduous trees. This stunning little moth is however, extremely rare in Leicestershire and Rutland, so rare in fact that my record in mid-March is only the 5th recorded sighting in the county since 1907, 110 years ago!

It was an unashamed moment of magic, a real squeal of joy moment when I flipped over one of the egg boxes in the morning to find this golden gem nestled down in one corner. I knew instantly what it was; being incomparable to any other UK moth at this time of the year. With the excitement of having captured a rarity comes a certain sense of responsibility; a responsibility to properly record the catch, a responsibility to handle the moth with extreme care and also an almost frightening responsibility to ensure it’s safe release (images of birds snatching the moth on release, it being eaten by a spider or trampled by human feet put the fear of god into me). Thankfully the release went without disaster.

As a relative newcomer to mothing, there is a little part of me that worries I may have reached my peak already. It is unlikely that I will record another moth of such importance and scarcity again any time soon but that is the joy of mothing; when you open that trap in the morning, like a kid at Christmas, there is no telling what you might find.

The real joy has been the awakening to the wildlife of the night. Those creatures who live their lives relatively undisturbed or observed by us; I’ve heard and encountered Little Owls over the garden whilst all manner of bugs, beetles, flies, crane flies, lacewings, wasps, hornets and bees are attracted to the UV light emitted by the moth trap. Just this week a trio of huge Black Sexton beetles invaded the trap; also known as ‘burying beetles’, the Sexton’s are carrion feeders, dragging dead birds, mice and the like beneath the earth and feasting on the festering remains. Gruesome as it sounds, these insects play an important role as street cleaners and recyclers of the Countryside. Gorgeous looking beetles they are too, jet black with bright orange tufts at the end of their antennae; the downside is that like most carrion beetles, they absolutely stink!

With the nocturnal wildlife, there is a sense of delving into the unknown and I like that. If my little suburban garden can attract such beautiful creatures as the Dotted Chestnut, who knows what’s lurking just around the corner.

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My Dotted Chestnut, handsome little poser
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