The slow road to perfection

The nights remain in the 10ºC region, meaning that it’s still pretty cold. The mothing reflects this – bits and pieces each night, but numbers limited to <10 moths in general. But whilst scarce, I’ve still had enough of interest to share here and keep my spirits up. I’ve also had plenty of fun looking at bees – but I’m planning a separate post on that at a later date.

Amongst the routine stuff I’ve had one or two of note as FFY. Though they are common visitors, Setaceous Hebrew Character and the Buff-tip always make for good viewing:

More of a surprise was this Orange Footman, not least since it was well into June when I had it last year; and only four records meant that it was still exciting to see this time.

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Also a surprise, but for a different reason, was this moth. I had just been wondering where my favourite Scoparia/Eudonia family had got to, and noting that I hadn’t trapped one yet, when this was found by the trap, just prior to pressing the ‘publish button. It’s Eudonia angustea.

 

Though all these have been before, I’ve also had some new ‘lifers’. Despite its name, I didn’t manage to trap Common Pug last year, but had it on the 19th May this time round.

It’s a subtle thing, like a lot of the pugs, plain at first sight but then more and more intricately patterned as you look closer. The white dot at the corner of the forewing is, unlike in current pug, simply an extension of the subtle white line of dots around the edge of the wing. The discal spot is small and the costa of the forewing is beautifully patterned.

After these macros, I’ve also had three new micros. Firstly, though it was dead when I found it, this one turned out to be Incurvaria oehlmanniella – though I could only ID it with the help of Barry Henwood, the county moth recorder.

Barry does a fantastic job, always taking the time to come back to me on questions and never minding when I make novice mistakes. His help is much valued.

Next, another that I needed help for – but this time from my fellow Twitter-ers. The fabulous @mothidUK feed run by Portland Nature is a great example of the power, and generosity, of the online community for this kind of things. This moth turned out to be Pammene argyrana, one of the Tortrix moths, though I have to admit it could also be P. albuginana in my book:

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Pammene argyrana

 

But my favourite new micro was this ‘Longhorn’ moth, I think a male given the length of its antennae which I measured to be about 2.5x its winglength. It’s Nemotopogon swammerdamella (I think):

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Nemotopogon swammerdamella

Great things come in small packages.

So even though it remains slim pickings in terms of numbers, there is still plenty to keep the interest up. What’s more, even after 18 months of my mothing career, I still get an amazing thrill in turning over egg boxes and finding moths underneath. It really is like Christmas every day … sort of Slade, made manifest! And, if you are lucky, just occasionally you get a moth that comes close to perfection …

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Muslin moth – simply stunning!

NFY and a Couple of Lifers

After a difficult couple of weeks it has been nice to get back to mothing. I’ve been interested in the different views of those with more experience in relation to the number of moths around. One would expect it to vary of course; each year will bring different patterns of weather and, with it, different moths. We had a very warm April which meant that many of the moths I got last year are a month or more earlier this year … but then a cold snap at the start of May which may have affected moths already hatched and on the wing. A Twitter post I saw this week referred to this period of the year at the ‘post-Orthosia lull’ and this seems appropriate to me. It’s a transition between the hardy moths of the cold end to winter and the more delicate ones that match the oncoming of spring and the fresh leaves and colours. However, this article in the Guardian today offers a less optimistic view, claiming that insect biomass is decreasingly rapidly and alarming in German forests. It brings credibility to the many moth-ers who seem to sense this decline in their trapping.

In my trap things are still quiet, but I’ve had some nice moths, including some lifers and those new to the garden. This Scorched Carpet satisfied both these criteria and is a cracking moth both from above and below.

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Also a new moth was this one.

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On first sight it seemed familiar. I had Lunar Marbled Brown on 9th April, along with Nut-tree Tussock … but this was not quite either of them – no ‘lunar’ crescent on the wing for the former and not so half-and-half brown and pale for the latter. A quick look at the field guide showed it to be Marbled Brown, a common moth in the south of England at least, but one I’d missed last year. The caterpillars feed on oak, so its presence is not unexpected given the large oak tree in the garden – a tree that supplies a good many of the moths in my garden I suspect. Given the antennae, I guess it’s a male.

After these lifers, there were a couple of others that were new for the year. This Green Carpet had me searching through Waring et al for a while. I had it twice last year, but this one was in the hedgerow in the valley below the house and the context meant that I didn’t remember it well. Again, it’s a beautiful moth and, once one sees the pattern in the wing markings, it’s quite distinctive.

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Also NFY was this Pale Tussock

These are mad moths, with front legs making them look like some kind of demented Cossack Dancer! I just love them, and though I had them four times last year these sightings were all in a 13 day period in June (4th – 16th) – illustrating my point about many moths being earlier for me this year.

This is the case too for this new (for year) moth – Small Dusty Wave. It was caught on 11th May, with last year’s first catch not until 25th June. This does indeed seem like an early specimen.

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Lastly, no NFY post would be complete without a show-stopper, which in the moth world must surely include the Hawkmoths. The first Poplar Hawkmoth came as a surprise to me, not least since the first one last year was also the same night as the Dusty Wave, June 25th. They appeared together on cue then, but a full 6 weeks earlier.

Once again, it’s a wonderful moth as the wing-detail shows. Surely, designed to be for anther world?

The only other things of note have been this lovely Lackey caterpillar seen on a walk on the coast path – not rare, but startlingly colourful.

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… and this Diamondback moth – Plutella xylostella – which reminded me of the influx we had last year and raises the question of whether enough stayed to keep the population high this year.

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So, as you can see, new moths are dribbling in with enough interest to keep my hopes up … but the decline, in general terms, seems real enough. I’ll set the trap again though.

In Memorandum …

One of the dangers with a blog is that one can become self-indulgent, with the story becoming about the author, not the subject. I’ve tried to avoid this, except in as far as attempting to understand how I’ve come to know something about moths. In this post though I’m going to take liberties and indulge in some reflections in memory of my dear dad who sadly, though not unexpectedly, passed away on April 28th. If the links with moths and other insects are somewhat tangential, I hope you will forgive me.

Dad was not a naturalist, but he married one, and when my mum died in 2004 he understood enough to employ a gardener to maintain mum’s plan for a small garden as friendly to wildlife as possible, albeit with some functional lawn and decoration in the beds – see above. I spent time this week sitting in that space, listening and watching, the whole garden awash with the sound of bees, and of birds busily gathering nesting material and food for their young. In a world so busy and full of global crises, it was good to be reminded that life starts, moves on and ends on all sorts of different scales. If you have seen the recent pictures from NASA’s Cassini probe passing through Saturn’s rings, with the Earth a tiny dot in the background, you will have been forced to reflect on life on a grand scale. Nonetheless, despite any Gaia-like thoughts about the wholeness of life, when someone close to you dies it matters in an acute, immediate, demanding kind of way; a reminder that life is precious on the big scale, but also on the small and that there are connections between people and things that one ceases to be aware of, but which come into focus when they are suddenly disturbed.

All the more reason then to look closely at what’s around us and to spend time examining and feeling how it matters; how it joins up and fits together. Wonderfully, as I walked through dad’s conservatory to the garden the first thing I saw was a Garden Carpet moth, stuck  and looking for a way out to go about its business – though I must admit that if this happened to be a blog about door handles I would probably have ‘noticed’ these first! John Mason is an educationalist, well-known amongst maths teachers, and he has pointed out that we ‘notice’ all the time, but what we ‘mark’ (i.e. actively take account of) and ‘record’ (on paper, photo or just in our mind) is affected by where our attention lies. This was what the great birder Martin Garner who, like my father, succumbed to cancer, understood so well; looking beyond the ‘frontiers’ of what he already knew, taking risks with hypotheses and guesses and then testing them out through looking carefully.

What better metaphor to represent such looking, then, than The Spectacle, a wonderful, almost comic, moth that well-deserves its name. I caught this one on the night of Tuesday 2nd May, the first for this year, though caught on 5 occasions last year between 9th June and 28th August.

Other than this, unusual moths have been scarce. Brimstone is beginning to appear in numbers, along with the micro Tachystola acroxantha with its orange-tinged wingtips and almost purple hue to the wings (though the camera has accentuated this in the photo below, I think). Last night I had 4 of the former and 10+ of the latter at the light.

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Though also not rare, new for the year were Waved Umber and Scalloped Hazel, both beautiful ‘camouflage’ moths from the geometridae …

More flamboyant are the Flame Shoulder and the amazing Streamer (which I featured in my last post).

And, though they are still in short number, a few micros are beginning to emerge such as this Swammerdamia pyrella (I believe – given the coppery tinge to the end of the wings)

If you trap moths it won’t be long before you notice the different ways in which they respond to being caught. Most slow down in the cold – putting them in the fridge is a good way to calm down a busy moth – but some, especially the geometridae, are quick to take off and fly away. Others, though, take a different approach. Perhaps this is too morbid, but my father’s death had to be confirmed by two doctors because of our plans for a cremation, to check, of course, that he had indeed passed away. Many moths seem to try a pretence of death, often flipping themselves over and lying on their backs, presumably in the hope that a predator will take less interest in something that isn’t still alive and may not therefore be so nutritious. The Quakers (Orthosia) do this a lot – one can pick up a Common Quaker by the wingtip and (gently!) toss it in a flowerbed without it even flying off. Another to play this game, new for this year last night, is Buff Ermine – this one a male …

Though the moths are slow – perhaps because of it – I’ve had time to focus more attention on bees as well. Several walks with the dog have produced a number of new bees and wasps. Last week I had the queen Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum) left and lower photos) and this week I also found the male on the wing – similar in pattern with yellow bands on both thorax and abdomen,  but more compact and smaller in stature (right).

As I’ve noted before, it has the longest face of all the Bombus species (see lower photo), making it distinct in the field and separating it from the Heath Bumblebee (B. jonellus) which has similar banding but a shorter face.

Meanwhile, there was a number of new bees that I think I know but might have misidentified. Here goes, but with trepidation …

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Female Hairy-footed Flower Bee (Anthophora plumipes)?
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Common Carder Bee (Bombus pascuorum)?
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Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cinceraria)?

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Digger wasp sp.? [Edit: Nomada Bee (N. fucata?) – thanks to Tim Worfolk for this info]
I’m really only starting to get to grips with the bees so, as ever, I’d be happy to be sent corrections here. Nonetheless, one of the things I’ve been interested in is the way bees move from flower to flower, stopping at some and passing by others. As I understand it from the bit of reading I’ve done, they have mechanisms for telling how recently the flower was visited by other bees – and hence, of course, whether nectar is likely to be available. One doesn’t have to go far to see this. In my front drive the flowering shrubs are humming with honeybees and they move, apparently knowledgeable of the state of nectar in each flower.

Scent left by previous visitors, that decays at a certain rate, seems to be the key; timed, as only nature can, to match the refilling period for nectar in the flower.

Fauna, flora and their interconnections are amazing like this, and the more one ‘marks’ the more one realises what there is to learn … and what limited time there is to learn it. However, long before the ‘mindfulness’ movement commercialised the idea, Buddhists (and others) taught us to live in each moment – to be aware of what is around us here and now. So I encourage you to pause, wonder and enjoy the world … as I will on Thursday at dad’s funeral.

In memorandum …

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New Acquaintances, Old Friends

Twenty-five years ago I was playing cricket for Exeter St James at Budleigh Salterton Cricket Club. We’d been set a massive 268 to win by the hosts … and I was well set, making hay with the bowling, seeing the ball like a melon – well, cricket is designed for slightly overblown metaphors and similes. Nonetheless, at 87 not out, the target was well within sight and I felt a century, and victory, was there for the taking. Then disaster struck, as I was triggered by the home umpire. LBW, well forward, to a left arm bowler? Never!

It was with my teeth gritted therefore that I took my son to Budleigh last night to join the cricket club, determined to forget that day from my own past. Of course, it all panned out well. Sammy had a great time and we were both welcomed with open arms into the club. I even found old friends there, faces that I know I remembered, but couldn’t quite place.

So it was with the moths this morning. As always I looked around the boundaries of the trap, then opened it up, and there were friends I knew from recent days – Common Quaker, eight Hebrew Character and an Early Grey – so familiar I noted them swiftly, then passed on. But there were others I knew, though not so readily, from days gone by – not 25 years, of course, but from last year, where I got to know well over 250 new friends. The one that stood out amongst them was this one.

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I couldn’t make sense of it for a while. Like the people at the cricket club, its face was familiar, but somehow out of context … until I realised that it was a very early Common Marbled Carpet. I say very early because, although I trapped it on 24 occasions in total, my first one last year was not until 19th May, almost a month later. Indeed, I looked on the Moths Counts Recording Scheme pages and the earliest record they seem to have there since 2000 is ‘week 18’, which equates to w/b 8th May. You can see this, and the nice bivoltine (two brood) breeding pattern, in the reporting rate diagrams taken from the species page:

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It’s great to see this old friend again after our time apart. But it wasn’t on its own. I’d found it on the boundary edge, outside the clubhouse which sits under the MV light, and next to it was this wonderful Brimstone.

I trapped nearly 70 of them last year, on 24 separate occasions, with 10+ on some nights, so you wouldn’t expect it to come as a shock. But having sat out the dark nights of winter, it was a pleasant surprise to see it again and to be reminded how intensely bright and patterned it is. A real stunner, and sleepy enough to handle, as you can see.

Also looking great, sat watching from the boundary, was this Brindled Pug, again, a first for the year. All those years ago the umpire committed quickly and with conviction to his LBW id. I’ll be more cautious, and though I’m fairly confident, I’d be grateful for confirmation from any ‘off-field’ umpires looking at this – a kind of moth DRS.

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It’s really smart and, with so many of the pugs looking tatty by the time they are trapped, it was wonderful to get such a fresh one to see the patterns clearly. In a recent post I had Oak-tree Pug and seeing these two almost alongside each other for comparison is helpful – note the zig-zag white lines near the wingtips on this brindled, and the black spot within, rather than on the inner edge, of the pale patch in the middle of the wing. Do I sound confident enough?

Less familiar, but a moth who I have come across recently, was this Small Quaker, more classically marked than my last one. It’s a subtle species, and one that always bears a close look.

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So, old friends, reunited, but the best moth was a newcomer in the clubhouse. This was a moth I’d been hoping to sign up, but not yet managed – Streamer.

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If you were designing moths from scratch, this one would be rejected for being too outlandish, surely? To the naked eye, it appears subtly patterned, but the camera manages to pick out all the shades of purple and grey; with even its hind wings looking stunning.

Perhaps it was the excitement of finding this beauty, trapped LBW (Lepidoptery Before Work), but somehow, the pain of not making my century and securing victory against our rivals has faded into history. In fact, 87 wasn’t such a bad score and, anyway, it’s being eclipsed by my current innings, counted in moths. A garden total of 249 not out … enough to know that I’ll soon knock off that 268.

Two Moths and a Cuckoo …

Though the days have been glorious for some time now here in Devon – the freshly cut lawn has brown patches beneath the green grass – the nights are still cold. Moth numbers are limited, perhaps by this cold combined with the moon which was full on the 11th and is still only half-waned. Nonetheless, it’s been worth setting the trap because each night I’m getting new-for-year moths.

Last night, the usual Quaker-brigade – Common (Orthosia cerasi) and Hebrew Character (O. gothica) – were joined by this one.

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I’m fairly sure this is Clouded Drab (O. incerta), a common enough moth, but one that it’s easy to overlook because it’s most obvious feature is, well, its drabness. This one is a fairly worn individual too. When they are fresh they can look much smarter, like these examples from the Norfolk Moths website.

It set me thinking about a moth I posted about but couldn’t id two days ago. I’m wondering now if this was clouded drab too. Here it is again (left) with today’s moth alongside (right):

The patch of red half-way up with front of the wing look good to me, along with the overall shape. I’ll pencil it in, but no more.

As well as the Drab, I trapped this moth.

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For some reason I just couldn’t place it and yet – thanks to Matt – once I saw it as Knot Grass I couldn’t understand how I’d missed it. This is a moth I’m quite familiar with from last year – I even did a post about the ‘Dagger’ family (Acronictinae) from which it comes. I trapped it three times, starting on 6th May, with four individuals on the night of 26th July, so it’s not exactly a newcomer. The passing of a year or so though means I need to get my eye back for some of these moths, and reminds me of how novice I still am. Great moth though, and really smart, even if it has lost a bit of its wingtip.

Beyond the moths, my interest in bees is growing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve not been able to get out birding at the right times; or maybe that as spring begins, the large female bumblebees are so obvious to see. This morning I took the dog out to Orcombe Point, hoping that a few of the many migrants that Matt saw last night might still be lingering. They had all moved on, but my eye and ear were caught by this Bombus (Bumble) bee which I managed to trap in the jam-jar I now keep in my birding bag.

It is Bombus vestalis¹ – Vestal Cuckoo Bee – and though one of the ‘Bombus’ species, it is another cuckoo, or social parasite. This one is parasitic of B. terrestris – Buff-tailed Bumblebee – and because I’m in danger of making it sound like I know what I’m talking about, I’ll quote directly from Falk and Lewington (2015, p.414) to show I’m merely half a step ahead here:

‘The social parasite of Bombus terrestris and possibly the most successful of the cuckoo bumblebees in the south of England in terms of host-parasite abundance ratios and the number of host populations exploited’

The queen, like this one, having been fertilised at the end of last year, has been hibernating since then, emerging later than the host because, well, there’s no rush to build her own nest! Once ready, she will work her way into the B. terrestris nest and hide there for a while to acquire its scent. She will then lay her own eggs in place of those already there, sometimes also pushing out or killing the queen. Her work done, the eggs are then reared by the workers of the host nest, and emerge as new vestalis bees. It’s a smart way to live – and this video shows some slo-mo of her in close up.

It’s the latest of my attempts to capture these bees using my iPhone – now aided by a couple of bits of new field kit. The home-made video pot and the folding insect net …

Like Blue Peter, all you need is a bit of glue, a few tools and children who like jam and rock-pooling!

Happy mothing …

 

Note:
(1) Though I’m fairly confident about Bombus vestalis, Falk and Lewington (2015, p.414) point out you can’t easily separate it from B. bohemicus, Gypsy cuckoo bee. the size, the brightness of the yellow on tergite 3 and the fact that vestalis is much more common in this area all point to it being highly likely though.

Reference:
Falk, S. J., & Lewington, R. (2015). Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

The Pugs are coming …

I set the trap last night with some degree of expectancy. The forecast was warm, and overcast for the first time for a few days; but it proved somewhat disappointing in practice. Just 10 moths of 6 species.

However, amongst them there were three moths of interest, if for different reasons. Earlier on yesterday evening I’d walked the dog on Orcombe point, along the coast path, and seen my first ‘proper’ swallows of the year. There had been singles of swallow for the last week, but these birds were coming ‘in off’, low over the fields heading north with a purpose – a sign of migration in earnest. Having witnessed this then, I should have been expecting immigration on the moth front too, yet found still myself surprised to see my first Silver Y of the year.

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As you can see, it’s in cracking condition, freshly emerged and little the worse for wear despite its flight from southern Europe or northern Africa. I still think of this as the the moth that held up a major football final, evidence if ever it were needed that Silver Y migrates in large numbers. How lovely that one drops into my small garden here in Exmouth.

The second moth of interest to me was this Shuttle-shaped Dart, if only because it’s such a subtle shade of light and dark, surrounding its ‘shuttle’ mark on each wing.

Frustratingly, as with last week’s oil beetle, it wasn’t until I let it go that I read that id of the sexes needs other photos, this time of the hind wings. Damn – missed opportunity! UK Moths suggests that the male has ‘brownish variegated forewings and white hindwings’, so I’m going male here … but happy for someone to put me right.

The third moth of interest was this pug.

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Oh, the pugs are here again. How I love ’em … It’s like having a puzzle each day, but one where you are not sure all the pieces are there! They are so smart, but the differences are so subtle, and with their variation, often make it very hard to id them. At this time of year, this is either Brindled or Oak-tree – not Double-striped, which is smaller, more pointed in the wings, and has a clear ‘double-striped’ set of markings. However, I did a post on id of pugs past year and in fact, I’m fairly confident on this one being Oak-tree Pug and here’s why (again, to show how I’m thinking, not to assert any expertise).

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Firstly, size and shape. Its FW is about 9mm, within the Oak-tree range, but small for Brindled. Wing tips are relatively rounded too.

Secondly, markings:

In the LH photo I’ve ringed the black spot, which is fairly oval (rather than then ‘slit’ shaped on Brindled) and there is a pale patch just to the outer side of it. In the RH photo the leading edge of the FW shows reddish colouring (as does the trailing edge too). For comparison, here’s Brindled from last year:

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Brindled Pug

These three formed the major interest for me last night, then, but one more puzzling moth was evident too. It was this, very worn, individual, which I couldn’t do much with, but which intrigued me for its reddish colouring on each wing.

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There is no reason it’s not something very common, but it just didn’t ring bells for me. Any thoughts welcome … but meanwhile I need to get out and set the trap again. After a week off work I’ll need something to slow down the start to the working day tomorrow!

 

Moths Update – slowly does it

Despite some beautiful days, or perhaps because of the clear skies that create them, the nights are still cool and though there is an air of things about to really get going, both bird migration and moths are yet to take off. The moths are slowly, slowly hatching out and though numbers are not great, some interesting species are turning up.

The night of 12th April brought perhaps the pick of the bunch – my second Pine Beauty, this time even more colourful than the one trapped on 30th March. The recent one is on the left, with the first one on the right, below:

The difference in colour shades, given that they were collected in the same garden, is interesting to see, with this second catch a much richer orange colour.

The night before, 11th April, had brought three other interesting moths. Firstly, this Small Quaker is not classically marked and had me scratching my head for a while, but I lined it up with the pictures in Waring et al and the flight season and size make it pretty certain (helped by a friendly and reassuring Tweet from the artist, Richard Lewington, himself who kindly confirmed it for me!).

The picture on the right is taken with a 20x hand lens held up to my iPhone camera and nicely shows the black scales which give it its dusty appearance. Last year I had just two records of this, the first on 23rd April and the second on 6th May.

The second nice find was this Dotted Border, recorded just once last year on the 2nd Feb 2016. The photos here show where it gets its name, the dots extending across the dorsal (hind) edge of both front and rear wings, and on both upper and under sides.

Lastly from the 11th was this micro which took a little while to id. Micros have been in short supply, so finding one was nice. The white head and grey/black wings told me it was Swammerdamia sp., but which one?

The clue (I think – as ever, I’m communicating my thinking here so others can help, not making confident claims of expertise!) is in the colour of the termen (the ‘hairy’ structures at tips of the wings) which shows a distinct coppery shine. This suggests S. pyrella which is what I’m going with, but other ideas are welcomed.

Finally, the night of 13th April turned even colder, dropping to a minimum of only 7°C. The trap yielded just four Hebrew Character and a single Early Grey, but inside our lounge, presumably seeking both light and warmth, was this lovely, and quite early, Garden Carpet.

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Again, as has been the case with several other species, this moth has appeared earlier than last year – first record was 30th April, 2016. It is lovely, having worked hard last year to enter all my records on the Moths Count National Moth Recording Scheme website, to be able to look back this year. Over time I hope I’ll be able to start to see relationships between moths, weather and temperature, though for now, as all GCSE maths students are told (but not, apparently, politicians) two data points don’t form a pattern!

Happy mothing!