Emerging from a long winter

Looking back at the date of the last post on this blog – October 31st – it’s clearly not just moths which are emerging from a long winter. Life has been a bit wet and windy, literally and metaphorically, and this has kept both the moths and me quiet.

However, the MV bulb of life is burning bright again and moths are trickling back. In many ways this is my favourite time of year, as Spring arrives. The moths reflect the state of play of the trees in the garden: browns and greys, with patterns mimicking bark or the dead leaves left from Autumn. My first moth of the year was Early Grey, which to me is a beautiful, subtle species with, here, a wonderful pink flush to it:

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Last year I managed to record and submit records for every moth I caught, bar the odd escapee. This amounted to 1209 records of some 1800+ moths and so it’s great to be able to look back and start to make comparisons year-on-year. After a couple of nights with the trap completely empty, this first Early Grey arrived on 9th March, three days earlier than my first one of 2016, but still remarkably ‘on time’. More prompt still was this Hebrew Character which arrived on the night of the 12th March this year, exactly matching last year’s first arrival:

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I love the markings on this moth, named after the Hebrew letter Nun. It’s from the Orthosia family, the Quakers, and some of its fellow family members are on the wing too, especially the aptly named Common Quaker which is already becoming a familiar sight in the trap again:

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If you look at this blog regularly you might remember that I did a post on this family back in April last year. In that post I noted several members of the family that I had not yet trapped, some more likely than others, including Twin-spotted Quaker. I was therefore delighted to catch this species on my third night of trapping, to add to my Quaker collection.

Just three other species have come to the trap so far. Two are typical of the time of year: Early Thorn, which escaped as I tried to pot it up; and Oak Beauty, aptly named indeed as these photos show.

Finally though, I had this Pug. I think it’s Double-striped Pug, though the markings are faded which seems strange since it is also early for its flight season according to Waring et al. (given as late-March to May in the earlier of two flight seasons).

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As ever, I’d be pleased to have confirmation from someone – either that it is, or isn’t. When I started this blog I was certainly a novice moth-er. I’ve come on a good deal and feel far more confident now … but the pugs …

Happy mothing!

 

Autumn colours – a coda

Like buses, I don’t manage a post for a month and then two come along at once (1).

Having mentioned the Autumnal colours of my recent catches, matching, like the Angle Shades above, the turning leaves turn on the trees, into the trap last night came this fabulous Green-brindled Crescent (Allophyes oxyacanthae).

The two photos are of the same moth, but in different light conditions. The left hand photo is taken in the collecting pot, in weak light (squares are 5mm); the right hand photo outside in stronger natural light. I love the way that, outside, the green sheen comes alight – a fabulous example of the way in which the wing scales can refract light to generate interference patterns, and thereby produce a coloured sheen (see here for my previous post on this effect).

My only other specimen of this moth was on 2nd November, 2015, so the timing is almost exactly a year, give or take a few days. Last night I also had Feathered Thorn … but naively, having persuaded the Crescent to sit still for photos, I got too casual and managed to let it go. I noted in my post on the ‘Thorns’ back in August that I’d only caught one of these last year, and again it was on almost the same day – Oct 27th, 2015. Since I don’t have a photo of my moth, I refer you instead to this lovely Tweet that I saw last week which shows the superb camouflage of this delightful moth.

Mind where you tread!


(1) I’m always amused when people are surprised that buses come in twos, since there is an obvious reason for it. If one bus accidentally becomes a bit late – say by being delayed at lights, or unusual traffic – the gap between it and the following bus is reduced. This means that the average number of people arriving at any stop for the second bus becomes lower (since there is less time between the buses) and becomes greater for the first bus (since there is now more time between it and the bus ahead of it). More people means more/longer stopping, and the net effect will be for the difference in passenger pickups to get greater and greater, thus encouraging the second bus to catch up more and more. Of course, once they are together they get ‘stuck’ together, since the second bus is either literally stuck behind it or, if it overtakes, it becomes the ‘slow’ bus.

So, buses do tend to come in pairs … but moths don’t have to pick up passengers, so we’d expect them to be separate, unless their feathered antennae start picking up the scent of nice pheromones of course.

Awakening to moths and more …

It is good to be bringing this blog back life again after an extended period during which it’s been work, work, work, with no time for moths, birding or pretty much anything else. Like one of my own moths that’s been in the fridge overnight, I’m shaking off my frozen sluggishness and stretching out my fingers to write again. Whilst rare moths have been turning up in (fairly) nearby Portland – they had Scar Bank Gem on the 26th – my own garden has been dark, without any mercury vapour lighting to lure in a catch. However, a lull in the work, coinciding with a warming up of the weather, got me setting the trap again on the 27th, with a decent catch of moths, albeit common ones.

I like this time of year. As the trees turn to gold, brown and yellow and start to drop dead leaves, so the moths mirror this in colour and shape. Gone are the gaudy colours of summer, the ‘don’t eat me’ warning of Tigers, Hawkmoths and Brown-tips. In their place are the bark-camouflage of Blair’s Shoulder-knot, Cypress Carpet and Cypress Pug, and the subtler, autumnal shades of Rusty-dot Pearl, Black Rustic and Feathered Ranunculus – all of which showed up last night.

 

 

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Blair’s Shoulder-knot
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Cypress Carpet
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Cypress Pug
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Rusty-dot Pearl
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Black Rustic
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Feathered Ranunculus

The last of these is a personal favourite. Not only are the colours endlessly subtle, with gold and green shining in amongst the browns, but they were the first ‘interesting’ moth I caught when I started trapping last October. Ok, I know all moths are interesting, since taking interest is something we do as humans, not an intrinsic property of things (you know there are people who are interested in TV shows about minor celebrities locked in houses … yes, really!), but one of these turned up the first night I ever set my trap and compared to the Large Yellow Underwing, and even the Blair’s Shoulder-knot that were also there, this was a thing of beauty. A year later, they are equally beautiful, and on their return this autumn, somehow still equally surprising.

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Feathered Ranunculus

If I put my entomology alongside my etymology for a moment, I note its Latin name, Polymixis lichenea, is presumably from the same derivative as the ‘lichens’ and it’s not hard to see why when the two are laid together. Laid on top of each other, Polymixis would be pretty much invisible I think.

Seeing these Ranunculus – I had Large, as well as Feathered – returning is a lovely feeling of having gone full-circle round the year. I also had another common visitor, but one that allowed me to take a further small step in my journey away from moth-novice, towards ‘competent-amateur’. This was Common Marbled Carpet, but the strongly angled, and deep, notching on the wing patterns made me wonder about Dark Marbled Carpet instead – a species I’m still waiting to record.

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A quick look at Waring et al suggested it couldn’t be since the latter only fly earlier in the year in the South. More conclusively though, and useful for the future in sorting them out, I discovered that the difference lies in the angle of the median line on the underwing. In Common its a gentle curve; in Dark it’s steeply angled in the middle. You can see the difference here … And here’s my moth, showing that it is definitely Common:

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One of the things that I missed as work took over in early October was the chance to blog about the first anniversary of my trapping exploits. I’m planning an end-of-year review of all I’ve caught, but nonetheless it’s worth noting here that in the year from October 9th 2015 to October 9th 2016 I made 1173 separate records on the online moths count database, recording 2698+ moths (the ‘+’ meaning that on a number of occasions I recorded lower estimates). These moths were comprised of 242 different species, made up of 61 micros and 181 macros. With a couple of months to go before the New Year I’m hoping to hit 250 species in the garden.

You can see, I hope, from the information above, just how much I’ve caught the moth bug – if that’s not mixing my Orders! One of the pleasures of the whole thing for me has been how much I’ve learnt, and not just about moths – such as the differences in Dark and Common Marbled Carpets, above – but also in other insects that one tends to notice because I’m on the lookout. A couple of examples have cropped up in the last few weeks. Firstly, whilst birding Orcombe point, I came across this beetle.

Given that there are so many different beetle species I often can’t i/d them, but this one seems to be Chrysolina banksii (sometimes recorded as banksi) to me, one of a number of Chrysolina species. C banksii is larger than most and found more commonly on open ground in coastal sites than its close relatives, especially C. hyperici which is similar in appearance. See here for the excellent Eakringbirds guide to these beetles.

Then, on a walk by the River Otter with the kids yesterday (the promise of tea and cake at the Otterton Mill always drags my son off the XBox) I became aware of what I initially thought was a large number of bees hunting around trees above the river bank. But a closer look revealed them as Hornets, a species I’ve never really been too aware of before.

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I was wondering why there were so many until I rounded a corner on the riverbank and saw several together on a dead tree stump. A closer look showed that they had a nest here and could be seen coming in and out of a beautifully constructed ‘tube’ made from pulped wood.

It was a fantastic sight and, despite their fearsome reputation, like all animals, when treated with respect and care were quite happy for me to take some snaps with my phone.

Sad then, when I Googled them later, to see how the national press stirs up so much emotional nonsense around wildlife. ‘Hornets’ brings up not articles about the fascinating life of these social creatures, but instead wild stories of ‘killers’ from Asia that are, apparently going to ‘invade’ our country. Of course, Oriental hornets are likely to spread as global temperatures rise, and they do indeed threaten other species, but I’d be much more worried if I were another wasp or a bee than I am as a human – and anyway, these are European Hornets – Vespa crabro, and are protected as an endangered speciesI also wonder why the press don’t pick on the humble peanut which I’m sure kills far more people through anaphylactic shock than hornets do! Still ‘Invasion of Killer Peanuts’ really doesn’t cut it for linguistic ring, nor implicit anti-immigrant overtones!

Finally, then, in the same vein, can I draw attention to the current petition of the government to debate the recent decision to allow culling of 10 buzzards to ‘protect’ the farmed pheasant population. Again, powerful lobbies are cutting through rationality and common-sense, not to say common decency, and permission to cull even a small number of birds that are protected in law to ensure that the population of 45 million (Guardian, 2016) game birds isn’t ‘threatened’ is the thin end of a very large wedge in my view. Sign here if you want to try to stop it.

Portland Ribbon Wave … again

It’s been a very busy few weeks and I’ve not been doing much trapping. However, I set the trap on the night of 5th September and enjoyed a bustling posse of moths, due in part to the very warm, muggy weather – a minimum of 20C and humid.

Nothing stood out as I emptied it – though there were lots of smart moths around – and I was just lifting it back down from the table in the back garden when I noticed what I thought was a Riband Wave. Then my heart missed a beat as I realised it was actually the much scarcer Portland Ribbon Wave.


This is a scarce moth – the National Moth Recording Scheme has records in just twenty six 10km squares in the last few years, all scattered along the South Coast, East of the Isle of Wight and with a stronghold on Portland. However, amazingly I had trapped one before, on May 31st – photo below, and see this link to a previous post.

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Barry Henwood, our county recorder, kindly confirmed both record for me and noted that there have been a number of sightings in the Exe and Teignbridge areas, raising the prospect of there being a small colony nearby. My sense though is that this is unlikely. I have had none between these two dates, and field guides suggest the flight period is June/July, though this can be later on the Continent where they are more common – the Channel Islands have them in all their 10km squares. It’s also surely too much of a coincidence that it was a perfect night for migrants, and the photo shows this as a partially damaged moth, suggesting adventures on a long voyage perhaps.

For me then, I think this is a traveller, one that has drifted on the warm SW winds that bubbled up around that date from Spain and Africa, and landed in my garden. We will see, depending on what it catch next. This for me is the beauty of trapping and keeping careful records. It’s now 11 months since I started and, at the time of writing, I have 1221 records of moths uploaded to the national Moths Count database, with this mornings (meagre) trappings to add. Even in this short time patterns are beginning to emerge – times that moths come and go, and for special species like this one, records that show whether it coincides with the recognised flight periods. There is a real sense that even a relative beginner like me has the opportunity to add to what we know about moths in the UK.

Meanwhile, as well as trapping in the garden, Matt, Derek and I enjoyed another great night out, this time at Exminster Marshes and resulting in 56 species, including some unusual moths. Perhaps the best moth of the night was Cydia amplana, an immigrant moth – photo courtesy of Matt:

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We also got all of the China mark species, but my personal favourites included these:

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Agriphila selasella
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Gold Spot
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Cream-bordered Green Pea
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Treble-bar

And of course I’m always keen to learn a little more about species, so the Treble-bar was a nice chance to learn the difference between this, and its almost identical cousin Lesser Treble-bar. After some research, and a careful reading of Waring et al, I discovered the answer is in the shape of the abdomen – blunter and shorter in Lesser; longer in Treble-bar. UK moths has a good photo here … and quick look confirms this as Treble-bar, as you can see below.

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Treble-bar showing its pointed abdomen

Having purchased the generator that we used to run the traps that night – thanks to Derek for negotiating the deal here – we are set for more ‘nights out’ to target particular species. Perhaps a good job too, as my garden list has passed the 240 mark and I suspect that new species may become harder to find as I enter the second year of trapping this October.

Now you see me, now you don’t…

Anyone taking the lid off a moth trap will know that a few invariably make a bid for freedom. As they dash off I try to follow their flight path until they land again, but often lose them at the last minute, the moth seeming to vanish just is it is about to settle. This doesn’t seem to be simply a case of my failing eyesight – though I do now own three different pairs of glasses and have to switch between them as I empty the trap. No, this looks like a deliberately evolved escape mechanism to me, allowing the moth to evade its predators. It was with interest then that I read this article about the flight path and dynamics of moths and the way they use each wing. The paper is worth reading in full, but in essence the researcher experimented with trimming the wings on different moths and seeing what happens, watching using a pair of high speed cameras. He used pest species only and of course in the wild moths often get quite badly damaged in this way, like this Jersey Tiger I trapped last week:

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Apparently, dissection has long shown that the hind wings are passively coupled to the front wings which are muscled up to provide the motive power. Cut off the forewings and the moth is going nowhere! Cut off the hindwings and the moth can still fly, though it’s not ideal. However, when the researcher progressively trimmed the hindwings of a single moth he found that it could still fly and zig-zag but as more wing was removed, so the speed of the zig-zagging slowed down. It seems then that the moth is equipped with a pair of fore- and hind-wings which provide power and steering respectively. The larger the surface area of the wings, the greater the turning acceleration they can generate so that whilst one might think that large moths and, even more so, butterflies which fly diurnally would be sitting ducks for predators, their large wings actually provide the means of escape. Now you see me … now you don’t! Strong colours then potentially work to your advantage if you are a day flyer, as predators will learn that it’s not worth chasing that bright looking thing there.

But there are other senses in which moths vanish too and of course camouflage, built into the colours of the wing scales, is perhaps the number one trick for many moths. Some of my favourite examples that I’ve trapped are here:

… think moss and lichen.

… surely just twigs?

… just a yellowing leaf?

Whilst the scales themselves are pigmented to provide these colours, the iridescent coloration in some moths (and many butterflies) comes from light refracted through ‘ribs’ of different sizes in the scale’s structure (nice photos here). The exact mechanism for this is more complicated than I can deal with, but the basic principle is that as light hits these ribs it gets scattered and refracted (like light passing through a prism) into its different wavelengths (colours) and then interference between these, dependent on the size of, and distance between, ribs will generate new colours and patterns – a bit like water waves heading towards and bouncing off a swimming pool wall and creating interference patterns that look stationary. The intense colours sometimes say ‘Now you see me, but don’t try eating me’, like the ‘eyes’ on this Eyed Hawk-moth …

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Alternatively they mimic similar iridescence in nature – light catching a water droplet perhaps. This Green-brindled Crescent for example, trapped last November, suggests just such a thing to me, at a time of year from water droplets might be prominent.

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In the annual cycle of eggs, larvae, hatching and flight seasons, moths also come and go, appearing at certain times of the year and then gradually fading away. These are always fresh to start with, with smart, scale-packed wings, and then gradually become more bedraggled as these scales are lost, perhaps shedding them as a way of slipping from a spider’s web – one of the clever evolutionary features of moths. Now you’ve caught me, now I’m gone! These Treble Brown Spots show the wear and tear nicely…

Many species have two generations as well and have caught me out, wondering why I’m suddenly catching Bright-line Brown-Eye again when I’ve not seen them for weeks.

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Now you see me, now you see me again!

These second generations are often smaller, and with different coloration to match the mood of the changing season. But on a smaller chronological scale moths come and go too. I’ve loved the way in which this happens so that one day, as happened two weeks ago, I trap no Brimstones and the next there are 10 fresh ones which linger for a few days or so, gradually declining in numbers and then disappearing. Clearly there is a colony somewhere nearby in which, some months ago, an adult laid eggs which have all hatched together. Now you see us all, now you don’t.

So like all the other things I’m discovering about moths, their endless ability to come and go, to appear and disappear, to adapt and change, is fascinating and provides lots of food for thought. I could study it endlessly, but then of course work gets in the way and I have to drop it for a while. Just like the moths, if you are looking for me in the garden early in the morning you may find it’s a case of now you see me, now you don’t.

 

 

Thorny Issues

It’s still high summer but the first few signs that Autumn will soon be on its way are starting to appear. Blackberries are ripening and the oak tree behind our garden has a few leaves beginning to turn on it.

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As ever, the moths are adapting to fit the changing environment. I’ve been getting bright green Common Emerald throughout July, disappearing amongst the leaves brilliantly, but the last one was on the 26th July now and since then none have come my way.

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Common Emerald

Meanwhile, in their place, the Thorns are arriving in numbers. This is a beautiful family which, to my eyes, perfectly mimic the turning leaves of Autumn. There are four genus groups bearing the common name ‘Thorn’ – SeleniaEnnomos, Cepphis and Colotois. The first has two generations whilst the other three have only one.

In the genus Selenia then, the early generation overlaps with the leaves of Spring. Indeed, I trapped my first, a Lunar Thorn, on 13th May.

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Lunar Thorn (Selenia Lunularia)

You can see the ‘lunar’ half-moon mark on the wings here and also, just above it, the diagnostic straight edge to the dark area in which it sits. The V-shape in which the wings are held is characteristic of the Thorns as a family, though the angle changes with species as you will see below. This one is a nice yellow colour with feathered antenna suggesting, respectively, first generation and a male.

In the last week or so though, I’ve begun to trap a number of others. Most similar to Lunar Thorn is the more common Purple Thorn (Selenia tetralunaria).

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Purple Thorn (Selenia tetralunaria)
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Purple Thorn
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Purple Thorn

Two things to note here: firstly, the lunar mark which is still there but  with a curved – rather than straight – edge to the dark area by it, as well as two dark spots on the hindwing; secondly, the browner colour of the second generation. Presumably, this is to more closely match the turning leaves (though Purple Thorn is indeed more red/purple than yellow in its first generation).

Alongside these two, I’ve also had the third Selenia; Early Thorn (Selenia dentaria). As the name suggests, the first generation is as early as February. I didn’t actually get one until the end of this first hatching period, on 7th May, and then started catching second generations specimens, like the one below, from 15th July.

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Early Thorn

Here, in comparison to Lunar and Purple, the ‘lunar’ mark near the leading edge is missing and the moth is smaller as a whole.

As well as these three Selenia moths – Lunar, Purple and Early – I’m also trapping the second genus, Ennomos, with just one generation appearing at this time of year and going on to September/October. These are as follows.

First, Canary-shouldered Thorn (Ennomos alniaria).

This species speaks for itself, with the bright canary yellow ‘shoulders’. It’s common and having caught my first one on 3rd August I’m now getting two or three each night.

Second,  here is September Thorn (Ennomos erosaria)…

… I think … but it’s very similar to August Thorn (Ennomos quercinaria). According to Waring and Townsend the latter has a kink in the outer cross line as it reaches the leading edge. On these photos the line joins the edge in a smooth curve, so I think these are September. I’m yet to trap August, which, like its similar cousin, flies throughout late July to October – the one above trapped August 3rd. The larval food-plant includes oak and once again I suspect that the wonderful tree behind our garden is the provider here.

Finally, this morning I trapped Dusky Thorn (Ennomos fuscantaria).

Again, the name is self-explanatory with the lovely ‘dusky’ colouring in the wings. The larvae feed on privet which our neighbour kindly provides in the hedge between our gardens.

There are two others Ennomos moths which I’ve not trapped. Large Thorn (Ennomos autumnaria) is Nationally Scarce B listed and confined mainly to the SE, so I guess unlikely. Then Waring et al also list Clouded August Thorn (Ennomos quercaria) … but as ‘Doubtfully British’, so no hope here!

Next comes ‘Feathered Thorn’, but this is a separate genus – Colotois pennaria – and it flies late in the year from September to December. I caught just one of these last year on 27th October, only a couple of weeks after I started trapping.

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Feathered Thorn

Lastly, for those with the common name ‘Thorn’ there is Little Thorn (Cepphis advenaria).  Again, this is Nationally Scarce B and so I’m not expecting to find it soon, especially as Waring et al detail two main centres for populations – one east of here in Sussex/Dorset and the other north through Somerset and Gloucestershire. I guess I could be lucky one day though and immigrants are always possible.

Finally, though not ‘Thorns’ by name, it is worth mentioning Scalloped Hazel (Odontopera bidentata) and Scalloped Oak (Crocallis elinguaria). These moths fly May-June and July-August respectively and share many similar features – though not the distinct V-shape in which Selenia and Ennomos hold their wings, being held flat instead:

Both lovely moths.

So as Summer passes through and turns gradually to Autumn, it seems like we can follow its progress by looking at the shapes and colours of the moths that find their way into our traps. If it looks like I’m very knowledgeable about all this then I can assure you that I’m actually holding on by my fingertips here. In the hour or so it’s taken to do this blog I’ve learnt a huge amount – a nice example of how making myself write about them supports learning about them. I’m also finding that the discipline of recording every moth I trap – macros at least, and as many micros as I can – on the national moth recording scheme website is paying off. Over the course of a year I’ve begun to build up a nice picture of how moths come and go, the way the year shapes them and is shaped by them, and what to expect the next time round. I’ll be looking forward to catching my second Feathered Thorn this Autumn and completing the cycle of the year.

Micros, step-by-step

It’s nearly 10 months since I got my trap, and therefore I’m beginning to get close to a full annual cycle. As I get more familiar with the moths visiting the garden and more adept at identifying the macros, so the micros have become more and more interesting to me. I have to admit that I don’t tackle them all; that will wait for my retirement when I can spend all day happily searching for matches in books and blogs. For now though, my strategy is to try to tackle just one or two each time I run the trap in order to build up my knowledge gradually. The others I simply release … though of course I’m always worried about what I’m letting go; a species new to science?

Anyway, rather than worrying about what I haven’t identified, here are a few of the more recent trappings (most in my garden, though a few trapped by Matt) and my best shot at id – as always somewhat tentative.

Tortricidae:

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Cydia splendana
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Eucosma campoliliana

 

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Eupoecilia angustana

Pyralidae:

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Acrobasis adventella
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Euzophera pinguis

Yponomeutidae:

These two are very difficult, since there are number of very similar dark and very small moths in the same group. I’ve done no more than give my best guesses …

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Paraswammerdamia nebulella
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Swammerdamia pyrella

Lyonetiidae:

This one is happily eating the leaves on our apple tree in the garden … my family think I planted it because I wanted the apples!

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Lyonetia clerkella (Apple Leaf Miner)

Gracillariidae:

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Phyllonorycter geniculella

Crambidae:

Another of the ‘Grass moths’ …

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Crambus perlella

Oecophoridae:

Thanks to Matt for trapping this one …

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Batia lunaris

I think these are all cracking little moths; even when captured with an iPhone, as here, the detail is amazing. But with over 2000 species, id is no mean feat, so I’m planning to stick to my one-a-day diet, until I have more time.