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!

Buzzin’ in the trees …

When I began this blog a little over a year ago it was because I wanted to share my new-found enthusiasm for moths with other people. It was, as the subtitle said, describing ‘mothing from the very beginning’. And so it seems appropriate to offer you a spoiler – no moths feature in this post!

Little did I know that having started to get into moths I would be so, well, bitten by the bug(s). A light trap at night brings many other insects to it and I guess one thing just leads to another so that, as I shared in my last post, I have found myself with a growing collection of id books and, tomorrow, am awaiting the arrival of a sweep net (medium size, professional grade, of course)! I think it is fair to say therefore that the last year or so has led to me becoming, not just keen on moths, but generally entomologically enriched.

And so to the id. Bees and hoverflies are, as I said last time, tricky to catch and even trickier to work out, not least since many of the features need a hand lens, or even a microscope (and yes, before you ask, it is on my birthday list). The bumblebee species (Bombus) at least have the advantage of size, particularly at this time of year when the female queens are foraging, so that in the garden cherry blossom and with the aid of binos I’ve been able to id some common species: Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris); Red-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius); and, confirming my findings from my porch last week, Tree Bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum), have all been buzzing about. These large queens are taking advantage of the new flower blossom, vital in what is a race against time for nectar and pollen to build nest cells and lay eggs.

With these confidently sorted, I then netted another Bumblebee which I didn’t recognise.

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I had imagined that identifying these big bees would be relatively easy, but in practice I’ve found it trickier than I thought. Female (queen) or male? Colour variations? Stripes of yellow and white in subtlety different positions? A new vocabulary of anatomy? All these things make life harder and, as I’ve often noted with moths, having no reference points and little understanding of the basic structures that form the groupings means everything is starting, well, from the very beginning again. With this in mind, where I’ve made a tentative id below – and they are all tentative at this stage – I’ve tried to describe my thinking so that others can see what I think, and hence what they think. In qualitative social research, which is my daily stock-in-trade, this is called leaving a data trail. As ever, I’d be delighted to receive corrections or suggestions.

Here then, none of the patterns of yellow and white appeared to fit exactly. This seemed to me not to be a Bumblebee after all … and yet it surely was. It led me, then, to what I think is my first Cuckoo bee – in this case Forest Cuckoo Bee (Bombus sylvestris), I believe.

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Here’s my thinking, all based on Falk and Lewington’s (2015) wonderful Field Guide. The colour pattern fits the queen type – yellow stripe on front of thorax only (not on abdomen) and white tail. Also, the tail loses its white near the tip and the bee seems to have a well ‘turned-in’ shape, curving the abdomen under itself. The flight season is right too, from March onward. Finally, the outer side of the tibia on the hind leg is hairy, where on true bumblebees it is shiny and forms the ‘pollen basket’.

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I guess that Cuckoo bees don’t need to collect large quantities of pollen for nest building since, as the name suggests, they lay their eggs in the nest cells of other bees – mainly Bombus terrestris in this case – and  leave their larvae to be reared by the host bees.

Next, having dealt with this one, something easier. This is Apis mellifera – Honeybee to you and me – buzzing around our flowering maple.

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Considering how classically we think of the honeybee as ‘the bee’ in popular culture, I was surprised how unable I was to confirm its identity. In fact it brought home the realisation that I have been assuming that all smallish, vaguely black and orange bees were ‘honey’ bees; in fact, all smallish, black and orange hoverflies too! It was only by following the key in Falk and Lewington (2015) and looking at the shape of the veins that nailed it for me: note the ‘long’ and ‘slanted’ third submarginal cell in the photo (detail on right) which is unique to Apis.

In the next pot I had another ‘similar’ bee.

This time, though, not Apis, clear from the overall form of the bee and confirmed by the different shape of the third submarginal cell:

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Unfortunately there are many orangey, hairy bees out there and I have to admit I spent ages using the key to no avail. Was that third submarginal cell greater or equal in area to the second? Did the 2m-cu vein bulge, bend and meet its neighbour at right angles? Will the meek inherit the earth? Frankly, I’ve no idea … but with a bit of dedication and using the key to eliminate species at least, I think I found it in another text (Brock’s (2014) fabulous photo-guide to insects). I’m going for a female Andrena scotica (Chocolate Mining Bee) and my thinking is as follows …

Firstly, size and flight period are right and it’s common in this part of the world. Secondly, its overall appearance seems right, with orangey hair on its thorax and black abdomen with slight pale banding. However, it has black sides to tergites (abdomen segments) 1 & 2 – ruling out other similar Andrena (Mining) bees where these are tinged with red.

The final reason is that I have scoured the book for ages and, frankly, have to go for something, so Andrena scotica it is! Ok, so the last of these is not very entomologically sound, but time presses and I have the hoverflies to do yet …

Two hoverflies have been captured to date – though the arrival of my net will improve the strike rate I hope! One of them I haven’t dealt with fully and so won’t tackle here – though I’m fairly confident that it is Epistrophe eligans. The second is, I think, relatively clear having invested some time in the vocabulary of the anatomy – Eristalis pertinax. As Ball and Morris (2015) state,  the 10 British species of Eristalis form ‘one of the group of genera that have a loop in the vein R4+5’ (p.200)

Eristalis pertinax - R4+5 loop

Then, E. pertinax ‘is one of the easiest of the Eristalis to identify as the tarsi on the front and middle legs are yellow’ (ibid.) …

Yellow tarsi on E. pertinax

Finally, the face is ‘a narrow shining black stripe (set in a broad, dull darkened area)’ (ibid.):

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Amazing what one can do with an iPhone held up to a 20x hand lens! I’m therefore reasonably confident, but happy to be corrected.

Finally, as I opened the moth trap this morning, I couldn’t help smiling at this sleepy Common Wasp (Vespula vulgaris).

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How I wish that all those unimaginative holiday makers who swipe, slap and squash these amazing creatures could come face to face with one and see how beautiful they really are …

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I would challenge any of them not to smile back …

References:

  • Ball, S., & Morris, R. (2015). Britain’s Hoverflies: A Field Guide: Princeton University Press.
  • Brock, P. D. (2014). A Comprehensive Guide to Insects of Britain and Ireland: Pisces Publications.
  • Falk, S. J., & Lewington, R. (2015). Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Hot, and (a) Cold

It’s one of life’s most annoying, but reliable, habits that just as one gets some leave from work and the weather picks up, so illness strikes. In this case we’ve had some wonderful early Spring weather … but I’ve been hit by a terrible cold that’s laid me out for a few days. Of course, it’s a ‘terrible’ cold from my point of view; but a ‘fantastic’ one from the point of view of the virus that has caused it, no doubt managing to spread itself far and wide via my generous hosting!

And so it is with much of life, where one perspective seems so different to another. Being laid low has meant that I’ve not been birding, but have had more time to sit and ponder insects. And, what’s more, the fine weather has meant that migrant birds seem rarer than hen’s teeth; whilst the moths, on the other hand, are starting to pick up.

After last week’s Frosted Green, Sunday night (the 9th) saw 5 FFY (first for year) moths, including one which was a lifer for me: Water Carpet. This is a moth I’d been on the lookout for because they are turning up regularly on local blogs, but I missed it last year.

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It’s a fabulous moth; I just love the way the cream colour seems to run out of the wingtips, like watery paint trickling off a painting. Like many of the carpets, it was hiding quietly on a garden chair nearby, not making it into the trap itself; also taking a different perspective perhaps?

The FFYs included 2 of Nut-tree Tussock which I’m used to, having recorded 12 individuals on 9 different occasions last year, from April 21st to 31st July. It’s still a lovely moth and, being the first of the year, was looking really fresh.

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One was on the wall by the trap and I thought there was a second near it, but in fact this turned out to be Lunar Marbled Brown – trapped just once last year, on April 20th.

Though from a different family, to me they are two different takes on a similar structure and colouration, though in a different pattern of course. Here they are alongside each other to illustrate my point.IMG_3290

The other FFYs were this male Muslin Moth … a species that is beautifully subtle from above … but which you have to see from the reverse perspective to really appreciate.

Finally, another carpet, this time an early Spruce Carpet (though I’d be happy if anyone can give me their perspective on Grey Pine Carpet, because the two are very similar).

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These moths took me an hour or so to sort and to record on the Online Moth Recording site … but they have been the precursor to a much trickier task centred around other creatures from the Class Insecta.

A week ago the post delivered the left hand one these to my door … to accompany the right hand one I already had …

… hence why I was not too disappointed to be tied to the house. ‘Struggling’ through my (man?) flu, I managed to drag myself to the flowering cherry tree in the garden armed with a child’s fishing net to see what I could catch.

If moths are a slippery slope, bees might be considered a slimy incline and hoverflies a well-greased cliff-face! Moths, of course, rather obediently gather overnight and wait for me, but having tried, and failed, a few times to catch my first hoverfly, I came to the sanguine realisation that not only do they try to run away, but they are blinking good at it. Even if you do catch one (and I’m now developing a rather clever swipe and flick technique), you then have to pot them up, bearing in mind that they won’t sit still … and the bees might sting! Nonetheless, I’ve spent a very pleasant couple of days on a few of each, working my way through the keys and finding ways to photograph them with my phone. The results are for another post which I’m working on still, but I’ll whet your appetite with a short video … one of my discoveries being the use of the ‘Slo-Mo’ feature on my iPhone.

I hope you’re getting the ‘buzz’ …

 

 

A ‘Frosty’ Irony

It has been the hottest day of the year so far, with temperatures in the mid-20s in parts of the UK, and warm enough here in Devon to have us rooting around in the bathroom cabinet for the sun cream. I set the moth trap last night and with the minimum temperature a balmy 11C I was confident of a decent catch. In fact numbers were rather low: 3 Early Grey, a couple of Common Quaker, 5 Hebrew Character and a Double-striped Pug, somewhat worn and washed out. However, there was one visitor that I didn’t recognise. It took me a while to find it in Waring et al, but I finally narrowed it down to Frosted Green (Polyploca ridens) – somewhat ironically named given the temperature. It’s a beautiful moth, made up of deep, subtle greens and pale cream cross-lines, and a first for the garden.

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The photo was was taken after a bit of activity from the moth and it therefore has its wings somewhat spread. In the trap these were tightly wrapped around the body, giving the impression of a slim moth, with a prominent shape to its head. Its underside is also subtly shaded:

A lovely moth.

One other observation is worth noting. One of the Early Greys had these strangely coloured, bright yellow palps.

I’m curious to know what’s happening here – some kind of parasitic infection? Or has it just been at the pollen? If anyone knows what’s it might be, let me know.