A Brief Review of 2020

As 2020 draws to a close I thought I would pull together a few of the mothing highlights from what has been quite a year. Back in March, as the lockdown began, I confidently wished everyone well, saying that ‘whatever happens over the next few weeks I hope you manage to find time and space to see some good wild-things’. Little did I know that nine months later we’d still be under strict regulations due to COVID, with Christmas plans in chaos for many. But, whatever else the year has brought, the moths have been kind to me and, below, I share some of the real highlights of a good mothing year.

The year began in FEBRUARY for me, not with the moth trap but with seeing hibernating moths in the Exeter catacombs whilst on a bat survey. Despite the risk of predation, Herald moths hibernate as adults in numbers and these one were clinging together in an old wardrobe that had been discarded.

Herald moths hibernating in Exeter catacombs, 20th Feb 2020

But the real mothing year started for me in MARCH when I dusted off the trap for the first time and caught some of the classic Spring Orthosia moths, the best of which was this cracking fresh Powdered Quaker:

A really fresh Powdered Quaker

This isn’t a rare species, but you seldom see them this fresh, with all the subtle black markings showing so clearly. The rest of March was not spectacular but my first ever March moth, on the 24th, was a welcome, and appropriate, way to start adding to the life list.

March Moth – a lifer, then caught twice more in March 2020

APRIL too was far from exciting in terms of new stuff, but it’s always a wonderful time of year in general as other insects, including the bees, start to really become active. The moths get more dramatic too, in my view, with Prominents and Tussocks, still well wrapped up in long scales, making for good viewing. Perhaps my favourite was this Coxcomb Prominent, a real looker:

Coxcomb Prominent

It’s easy, when you are into recording something, to be too focused on new finds and good to remember as well that the fun is in looking closely at whatever you find and as April turned, MAYDAY brought three more Prominents, all as beautiful as each other:

And so, on, in what is always a rather strange time of year, plenty of moths about, but not in huge numbers yet, nor likely to provide you with a real heart-stopper. Indeed, May was half done before I suddenly got my first really exciting moth – a Privet Hawkmoth. This isn’t rare, and I’d seen one before, but it was the first one I’d trapped, and pristine to boot:

What a stunner, and so big that you felt like you were holding a small songbird rather than a moth. It stared out at me as I approach the trap; no hiding in the corner for this one … and an omen of better to come later in the year.

But first, May 27th, which suddenly brought the year to life with no less than six lifers in one trap. The best of the bunch were Broom Moth, a species rapidly declining, and Small Elephant Hawkmoth which, though common enough, had not crossed my radar before.

The others were less spectacular, three being micros, but equally exciting: Aspilapteryx tringipennella, Epinotia tedella and Pseudatemelia flavifrontella (/josephinae). The last was Chinese Character which, again, I’d seen everywhere but in my garden up to this point, but was now a garden tick:

Chinese Character

This final trapping of May, with lots of new moths, certainly signaled the onslaught of summer when numbers really pick up.

JUNE brought some spectacular species, if familiar to me, with Phoenix, True Lover’s Knot and Grey/Dark Dagger being good examples:

Perhaps the star of June though was saved for the very last day, when this Scarlet Tiger came to light:

It’s a moth of the SW, though extending its range rapidly in a changing climate and a brilliant example of just how spectacular moths can be.

By JULY things are in full swing and running a trap regularly is hard work. Firstly, the shear volume of moths can be daunting, sometimes several hundred to sort through and catalogue. I record them all in a notebook first that comes outside with me alongside the compulsory cup of tea and then upload all the records onto the Moth Recording Scheme website where it stores them and allows me to look back later. I also take photos of the more exciting ones, often posting them to Twitter and also uploading to my Flickr site so that I have a photo-record too. All this takes time, as you can imagine, not to mention the time spent identifying the little devils in the first place – which for micros can be an exhaustive, and exhausting, process. Moreover, the early mornings are tough; to avoid too much bird predation you really need to up and at it at dawn, which in late June and July means a 5am start at the latest. But it’s all worth it when something exciting turns up in your garden, which is certainly did for me this summer … but first a little detour, down to the River Otter which runs below the house about half a mile away.

Ottermouth, Budleigh Salterton

In early July Matt purchased the new ‘lure’ for Lunar Hornet Moths. This is something that hadn’t been available prior to this year and its introduction revolutionized many people’s understanding of these amazing moths, mine included. Overnight, a moth that few had ever seen was being found all over the place, including Budleigh! After showing me one he’d caught himself, Matt kindly leant me the lure and within about an hour I’d trapped six, in different locations all along the river bank!

To say these are amazing is an understatement. For all the world like a full-sized hornet, the males come drifting down from the tree canopy of a willow to smell out the lure. Read a full report here if you missed it the first time.

Also in July, and then again in August, Matt and I made a second trip to the river, this time at night with a generator to run the traps to see what came out of the reed beds. It’s great habitat, and there was lots to see but out target species were Wainscots and we managed to find both Fen and Brown-veined Wainscot, both new for me:

Also of note were Southern Wainscot – the characteristic dark forehead band just visible – and Crescent, a moth with a beautiful, curling kidney mark.

And so into AUGUST proper, where, on three nights, within a week or so of each other, the 3rd, 11th and 12th, my mothing world exploded with new and fantastic species. First, on the 3rd, a moth that was a dream come true – Bedstraw Hawkmoth.

This is a moth that many moth-ers never get to see, and so I consider myself lucky to have caught it. An immigrant, almost certainly, but with the possibility that it hatched from local larvae, three of which were found in Exmouth last Autumn apparently.

After this, stunning find on the 3rd, the 11th August was a still, muggy night which brought over 65 species to the trap, with some stunning migrants. The stars of the show were Tree-lichen Beauty, a rare immigrant from Southern Europe (though possibly now breeding in the SW) …

Tree-lichen Beauty

… and Lesser-spotted Pinion, which has resident populations in the SE, but very few records this far West, making this another likely immigrant:

Lesser-spotted Pinion

There were other good moths too – Vestral and White-Point as immigrants, and Portland Ribbon Wave, which many people will never see if not on the South coast, but which is breeding locally to us and why I get them in good numbers here.

All this felt incredibly lucky … to be seeing such fantastic moths in my own garden. But then to cap it all, a second Bedstraw turned up!

You can see from the wing details that these are two different moths, not a recapture – incredible luck indeed! And, yet more, this time not in my garden, but on the same night as this second BHM, Matt caught Dark Crimson Underwing in his trap in Exmouth … another stunning moth:

It’s all enough to need a lie-down. Fortunately, the rest of August trotted by with some nice moths, but nothing extraordinary. I also took a break from trapping as I went on holiday, taking me into SEPTEMBER, always a slow month as I work in education and it’s the busiest time as the academic year gets started. I barely got the trap running in the garden, but the month still produced one highlight, the 14th, when I got a last minute call from Paul Butter to join him on the cliffs above Lyme Regis to set three traps between us. It was a wonderful evening, not least to simply be on the clifftops on a lovely evening, but capped by trapping not one, but two Clifden Nonpareil:

These are the biggest moths you’ll hold in the UK in terms of wing area, sitting fairly fully across the whole of one palm, and flat, making them feel almost like two-dimensional cut-outs. I’ve been lucky to trap this three times in my life (five individuals in total) – though once was not really ‘trapping’ as such when two fluttered across the flood-lit hockey pitch that my son was playing on in Taunton and landed on my bag!

And so to OCTOBER, always a marker for me as my birthday falls in this month and it was in 2015 that my wife gave me my trap and I started ‘mothing’, meaning that each year it feels like a kind of fresh start. Things are quietening down of course, but this Heath Rustic, a regular up on the common, was the first I’d caught in the garden.

Heath Rustic

Also nice was this micro, Ypsolopha parenthesella, a super-looking little fella, reminding me how much I like the micros, as much because of, not despite, the ID challenge they present:

Ypsolopha parenthesella

As October turns into NOVEMBER and it starts to turn colder, many of the moths are done – though not of course dead, as they live on as larvae, pupae, or even adults overwintering, such as the Heralds that started the year above. In fact, it’s tempting to put the trap away but I try to run it a few times and it’s great to see the end of the year connecting with the start like this. One also tends to get some quite unusual species, and for me Oak Rustic stands out.

Oak Rustic

Still a fairly rare moth, though getting more common, it was only first recorded in the UK in 1991, on the Channel Islands. I had had it in 2018, but took it again this year on Nov 7th. It appears like a late flying, slightly stocky, Common Rustic.

Also of note as November fliers are the ‘marvelous’ Merveille du Jour – just the most stunning shades of green – and Scarce Umber.

But, if I thought that that was it for the year, I was in for one last surprise, with a moth I had been on the lookout for over the last few years.

Radford’s Flame Shoulder

This is Radford’s Flame Shoulder, very similar to the common Flame Shoulder, but an immigrant moth with some subtle differences around the shoulders and the extent of the black markings in the wing. It’s increasing in numbers, like so many moths that are traditionally from warmer climes, but still a rarity and one I’d really hoped to catch.

Finally, then, into DECEMBER, and another Oak Rustic is all I’ve managed of note. I’ve tried a couple of times for December moth, but, as yet, to no avail. It’s been a great year for rarities and new moths, but it goes to show that mothing is an unpredictable affair – one of its frustrations, but also one of its great joys. I’ll leave you with this nice smart male December moth from 2017, in my old Exmouth garden.

December Moth, 2017, Exmouth

One still to catch here in Budleigh. May be in 2021?

Happy Christmas and New Year!

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Budleigh Salterton resident; keen birder; moth-er.

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