Mid-March Moth Madness

After a snowy delay, last weekend it seemed like spring had finally sprung and temperatures rose into double figures. Looking at the forecast for this weekend and into next week however, it looks like the wintry weather will return once again which is very odd for this time of year. I’m usually a fan of a bit of snow, but only at the appropriate times of year. So I decided to write this blog post to try and keep my spring feeling going for as long as possible, before the snow showers begin to move in from the east again.

Saturday night was the first time I have put my moth trap out this year. In previous years I have been a little more keen, with very little reward and sometimes even null counts at this early stage in spring, so I decided to hold it off until now. And with the Beast from the East only about a week gone, my hopes were not particularly high. Although I was in for a surprise.

Most of the time, I just leave my trap out for the whole night and check it in the morning. However, on the off-chance of something notable (or anything at all!) being in there, I decided to look down from my bedroom window just an hour or so after switching on the light. To my surprise I saw what seemed to be an Oak Beauty already within the trap, so I rushed down to check if there was much else about.

To my immense surprise, there were at least 20 moths flying around the trap and on the nearby house wall. Most were March Moths as well as several more Oak Beauties, along with a couple of Tortricodes alternella and a Common Quaker. Already we had recorded around twice as many moths as I usually get in an early-spring night!

I was more than keen to check the trap the following morning. Unsurprisingly, there were moths everywhere, with the final tally being 55! I would be happy with that in May or September, let alone the first half of March! I will run through a few of the stand out highlights:

Small Brindled Beauty

This was the rarest moth that I caught last night, and the second time I’ve caught this species, the previous occasion being early March last year. It is most common in southern England, becoming rarer further north although classified as ‘local’ – found in less than 300 sites nationally. The females of this species are one of many winter and spring species that are apterous – lacking wings. The females of many of these apterous species seem completely unlike most moths to me, although I’m yet to find one myself.


Small Brindled Beauty

Dotted Border

This species is unique among the early spring moths as it is one of the few Geometrid moths out at this time of year. In my experience it is usually the Noctuids (such as the Clouded Drabs, Hebrew Characters and the Quaker species) that are the most commonly trapped, although the most abundant species caught during this night were the 18 Oak Beauties which is a slightly unusual Geometrid species. The Geometrids can be distinguished by the way they hold their wings; most Geometrids hold their wings out to the side whereas most Noctuids fold their wings over their abdomen.


Dotted Border

This species can usually be identified by the row of dots running along the bottom of the wing which you can see in the photo above. However, it is a variable species throughout its distribution and there are forms which are very dark making the row of dots (the dotted border) very hard to see.

Clouded Drab

This species is quite common especially where its foodplant Oak is plentiful although, despite its name, it is can be really nicely patterned. It is another species that is really variable, with many colour forms. We caught three, one of them in particularly was particularly good-looking, with its pattern enhanced by the flash on my camera.


Clouded Drab

Hopefully the upcoming cold snap will be the last of the winter, and spring will be allowed to continue unabated. I look forward to moth trapping further once it warms up again, hopefully we’ll continue with some good numbers!

Final Tally

  • Common Quaker 3
  • March Moth 9
  • Oak Beauty 18
  • Hebrew Character 4
  • Tortricodes alternella 2
  • Small Brindled Beauty 1
  • Dotted Border 5
  • Clouded Drab 3
  • Small Quaker 8
  • Chestnut 1
  • Brindled Pug 1



Moth Night 2017

The nights of 12th, 13th and 14th October were moth night 2017. You may think that dates so late in the season may not be great for moths, however there is still a surprising amount of diversity on the wing, including scarce migrants.

I put my MV light trap out on the Friday night, and I too was actually quite sceptical about catching many moths. Although my garden regularly attracts upwards of 200 moths a night during the summer months, it is far less reliable in the autumn and winter compared to other sites, for an unknown reason. However, I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Checking the trap at 7am, I could instantly see that it was much busier than I was expecting. The wall of the house near the trap was carpeted with Red-green Carpet moths, one of the most attractive Geometrid moths (the carpets, pugs and waves). There was a Snout moth on the white sheet beneath the trap, a Black Rustic in a gap between the patio tiles, and within the trap itself was my number one target: a Merveille du Jour.


This was the first Black Rustic I have ever caught, which is overdue as they’re not an uncommon autumn species.


This Red-line Quaker, named after the red line at the end of the forewings which is more obvious in real life, was a nice addition to the catch. Its cousin the Yellow-line Quaker is less commonly attracted to light and is best found by searching Ivy flowers after dark.


This rather dull-looking moth is a November Moth. There are two species of November Moths that are very similar and can only be separated by dissection, the November Moth and the Pale November Moth. Therefore most people record them as ‘November Moth aggregate’.

Whoever named the Merveille du Jour (translated from French as Marvel of the Day) was not over-exaggerating. This species is often regarded as the holy grail of autumn moth-trapping; its exquisitely detailed markings and colouration are hard to resist. I’ve only caught one previously, so I was ecstatic about this!


Another highlight was a Barred Sallow moth, one of those species where you can easily tell what it is supposed to be camouflaged as. It has patches of russety-brown and warm yellow, that perfectly match the colours of autumn Birch leaves. It’s certainly an effective disguise, which must have taken millennia to perfect.


To finish off this blog post, I will leave you with a video of the Merveille du Jour. In the video, you can see that it is vibrating its wings. As moths are nocturnal, they cannot get direct energy from the sun (although they do get indirect energy from the plants that they eat), so they have to shiver (like humans do) to warm up their flight muscles. I used a lower shutter speed for this video, which appears to slow the vibrations down and they are shown as a ripple through the wings.

If you are viewing the email version of this blog post, the video may not show, so I would recommend visiting the site directly to watch it.


Don’t worry – all moths were released unharmed!

Moth #300

After my recent trip to Portland Bird Observatory in Dorset, I added a fair few nice moth species such as the rare Scarce Bordered Straw. Then, following a couple of new additions from my garden light trap, my moth life list was left on 299. I was very close to a big number!

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting my 300th species until I next put out the light trap which would be in another few weeks. However, it was much sooner than that and very unexpected! My mum let me know that she had found a large moth on the wall, my first thought was ‘probably just another Large Yellow Underwing’ as they are very common at this time of year.

Although when I saw it I was quite surprised! It was indeed very large but definitely not a Large Yellow Underwing as I had expected. The abdomen was projecting beyond the wings, which were sandy-brown with black dots and markings. I was able to get it in a pot and with the help of my Concise Guide it was identified as a Bulrush Wainscot, Nonagria typhae.

It is widespread in the British Isles, but usually only encountered in suitable habitat. For the Bulrush Wainscot, this is reedbeds and marshy areas. We don’t live in a marshy area (or a reedbed!) however we do have some in our local nature reserve, Hedgecourt. The larvae of the Bulrush Wainscot feed inside Bulrush (Typha) stems which has only recently started to really colonise Hedgecourt and is greatly outnumbered by Common Reed (Phragmites australis). The very helpful website UK Moths also says that this species can sometimes wander quite far away from suitable habitats, so we can’t be certain that my moth came from Hedgecourt.


The Bulrush Wainscot that I found inside my house.

Every species is bringing me closer to my Pan-species Listing target of 2000 by the end of the year. I need just over 200 more species to reach this tough target, so every species counts!


Not always straightforward

During my Garden Bioblitz of the the 6th June, I found a moth case on a cotoneaster leaf. I tried to identify it by using this webpage and I thought it looked most like Coleophora trigeminella. I was very excited by this as the species hasn’t been recorded on Cotoneaster in the UK before, only in Europe. Could I have discovered a new foodplant for this species in Britain?


I emailed the Surrey moth recorder, Mr Graham Collins, with news of my finds. I asked him whether it was likely to be Coleophora trigeminella or something else. He kindly responded saying that he didn’t think that the larval case belonged to this species but Coleophora serratella which is ‘probably the commonest species of British Coleophorid’ according to the UK Moths website. I was quite disappointed!

However, why was it on a cotoneaster leaf? The larvae usually feed on hazel, birch, elm or alder. It is most likely that the larvae fell from the foodplant (there is a birch tree straight above the cotoneaster) on to the leaf where it formed the case, or the larvae wandered off the leaf looking for a better place to create its case.

When I returned to the same leaf nearly a fortnight later, on the 18th June, I was given a huge surprise. The adult moth had emerged from the case overnight and was resting parallel to the case! It was so fresh in fact that the antennae were not resting forward in the typical coleophorid fashion but running backwards along the body! I sent this photo to Mr Collins.


I thought that it was too light for Coleophora serratella and the ochre colour matched Coleophora trigeminella. Could I have found a species of moth that hasn’t been seen in Surrey for nearly half a century? Unfortunately that was not to be the case. Mr Collins responded writing that he now thought that the moth is either Coleophora flavipennella or Coleophora lutipennella. The larval stages of both of these moths feed on oak leaves, which makes sense as there are several large oak trees which also have branches above the cotoneaster bush. The larva probably fell from the leaves.

However, it is not possible to separate moths of those species without examination of the genitalia. For this I sent the moths off to Mr Collins by post and he kindly looked at them under the microscope. The genitalia point to Coleophora flavipennella, which I think might be the least common of the pair although I am not certain. The genitalia of C. flavipennella look like this:


Compared to the genitalia of C. lutipennella:

Coleophora lutipennella

There is quite a lot of difference! This is a new species for me and I hope this blog post shows that often identification is not that straightforward.

(genitalia photos from http://www.mothdissection.co.uk)


1 Garden, 24 Hours, 184 species!

…and counting! Last Sunday, the 5th, I took part in the Garden Bioblitz for the first time. The aim of a bioblitz is to record every species you find in an area within a period of time. For the Garden Bioblitz, you record every species you find in your garden during a 24 hour period.

To begin my Garden Bioblitz I looked through the moth trap from the previous night. There was a very wide range of species, including 23 that were new to me. The highlights were:

  • Great Oak Beauty – annual in Domewood, but Nationally Scarce B (NB).
  • Cacao Moth – usually found indoors in stores of products such as nuts, almonds, tobacco and cacao. I’ll be checking my muesli from now on…
  • Scorched Wing – a beautiful moth which is also classed as Local. There were 8 in the trap.
  • Peach Blossom – a great moth with a great name although quite common.
  • Cypress Carpet – quite an uncommon moth, which arrived in Britain through its host plant, cypress. There are lots of Lawson Cypress trees in the garden which probably explains its occurrence here.
  • Diamond-back Moth – for some reason, I rarely see immigrant moths. The Diamond-back Moth is only the third immigrant moth I’ve recorded. I recorded it for the first time during the last weekend of May, but there were 29 in the trap!

I also caught a very interesting beetle that had a very pungent smell. I thought it was a sexton beetle and I was right. However, I wasn’t too sure which species it was. It was all black and luckily there are only two all-black species in the British Isles: Necrodes littoralis (the Shore Sexton Beetle) and Nicrophorus humator (the Black Sexton Beetle). It turned out to be the Shore Sexton Beetle due to the antennal clubs not being brushes as in the Black Sexton Beetle. Thanks to Chris Brooks on iSpot for the identification. Sexton beetles are interesting because they feed on dead animals. If the dead animal is small then they will bury it to keep other scavengers from taking it. They do this by excavating the soil under the body so that the dead animal sinks into the ground. The adults lay eggs nearby and when the larvae hatch they crawl to the dead animal to feed and even be fed by the adult. Even though this beetle was caught in the moth trap there isn’t necessarily a dead animal nearby as they can fly quite long distances in order to find their food.


After I had finished looking through the moth trap, I walked around the garden listing all the wild plants. Before I added the plants I already had a list of almost 70 and there was still lots to identify! Other non-moth highlights included a Canada Goose flock flying over and the first Grey Heron I have seen fly over the garden in more than a year. After I finished off the plants I had breakfast, meaning that I had a list of 130 before breakfast. Things were going well!

It wasn’t just plants that I added to my list on the walk around the garden. It was quite early but there were still some insects on the wing, including Rose Sawflies, Speckled Wood butterflies, Large White butterflies and various bees. I was even lucky to see the young fox that has been hanging around the garden for the past few weeks. It is not that shy, here is the photo I took when I first spotted it:


After breakfast I looked under the logs and stumps in my garden. As always, they were brimming with slugs, beetles, woodlice and other creatures. The most common ground beetle was Agonum emarginatum, a species usually associated with damp habitats near freshwater. This makes sense as most of the stumps were near our tiny pond. The list of slug species was quite good too: Budapest Slug, Leopard Slug, Yellow Slug, Dusky Slug, Greenhouse Slug and Ambigolimax nyctelius, the species I found new to Surrey last year. When I first found it I had to send it off to Wales to get the genitalia looked at, but this confirmed the scientist’s suspicions that there were slight morphological differences between Ambigolimax nyctelius and the Greenhouse Slug. In my experience, Ambigolimax nyctelius is more boldly marked than the Greenhouse Slug.

Finally, the highlight of my bioblitz was finding an amazing fly species that I have been looking for in my garden since Tony Davis told me that it was likely to appear here. It’s not rare or scarce, but it is impressive. It is a species of hoverfly that mimics bees. It has many different forms that each mimic different bee species. It’s called the Narcissus Bulb Fly or the Greater Bulb Fly and it’s eggs are laid in bulbs of various species such as garden daffodils. I found a mating pair on a Bulbous Buttercup, perhaps the plant that the eggs were about to be laid in? The male seemed to be an Early Bumblebee mimic:


However, I’m not sure which species the female was impersonating:


It seemed to be all black except for the last 4 or 5 abdominal segments, which were off-white.

So, I’m currently on 184 species and hope to identify a few more for my bioblitz list.



Some New Book Reviews

Looking at my statistics page, the page entitled ‘Book Reviews’ appears to be quite popular. I hope this is because they are good and not just because the page is the second one after ‘Home’. I have realised that I don’t get quite so many page views after ‘Book Reviews’ though…

Anyway, here are some new book reviews. They will also be available on the ‘Book Reviews’ page.

Title: The Lichen Hunters
Author/s: Oliver Gilbert
Summary: This is a lovely collection of tales from the point of view of an experienced lichenologist, Oliver Gilbert. It retells stories from places like remote islands and mountains, the Lizard and various churchyards. This is not just a dry book about lichens, it is often exciting and even terrifying and spooky in some places! Unfortunately Oliver passed away in 2005, but this and other books by him will hopefully be a long-lasting legacy.

Title: The Carabidae (ground beetles) of Britain and Ireland
Author/s: Martin L. Luff
Summary: This is one of the few great detailed books for people wanting to identify what ground beetles are around them. I find that constant referral to the diagram of the beetle anatomy is needed, so some beginners might find the jargon quite confusing. However, once you successfully get to the end of the key, there is a lot of information about the beetle you have identified. This is a feature I don’t often see in keys like this and it is an easy way to check your identification.

Title: Concise Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland
Author/s: Martin Townsend and Paul Waring (Illustrations by Richard Lewington)
Summary:This is an easy-to-use, concise guide which is perfect for the beginner, the amateur and the professional. The illustrations are incredibly detailed, which is often needed for this type of identification, all done by “one of Europe’s leading natural history illustrators”. The wiro-binding design lets the book sit permanently open whilst you are peering at a moth, very convenient in the field along with the ‘waterproofness’!



Canary-shouldered, Purple and Early, a Thorny Moth Trap!

When I checked the moth trap on the morning of August the 2nd, there weren’t as many moths as there usually is. However, there were many species I’ve never seen before, including three species of Thorns. Thorns can be identified by the way they hold their wings – not flat like most moths but angled upwards.

The first species of Thorn I found by the trap was the Purple Thorn, which was resting on the sheet. It’s a pretty large moth, the individual I caught had a wingspan of 34mm. However that’s not the species’ maximum wingspan. The Purple Thorn has two broods (generations) each year, the first flying in April and May and the second flying in July and August. The first brood has a larger wingspan, whereas the second has a smaller wingspan, and the moth we caught was from the second brood. The species is fairly common in the south, and prefers habitats like woodland and heathland. However, it gets scarcer as you move northwards. It is patchily distributed in Scotland, with the main stronghold being around the Moray Firth. It’s common in Wales, but practically absent from Ireland.

Purple Thorn

Purple Thorn, above view

Purple Thorn

Purple Thorn, side view

The second species found, the Canary-shouldered Thorn, was perched on the metal bit which holds up the bulb. It’s the prettiest species we caught, with a bright canary-yellow thorax and yellowy-orange wings. It is also the largest species, even larger than the Purple Thorn, and it also only has one generation. It’s widespread throughout the UK, from Cornwall to Orkney, although like the Purple Thorn, it’s scarcer in Scotland. However, this might be because there are fewer recorders up in the highlands, and there are many concentrated around the South-East (like me). The Canary-shouldered Thorn can also be found in Northern Ireland and even the Isle of Man.

Canary-shouldered Thorn

Canary-shouldered Thorn

The last Thorn species is called the Early Thorn. It’s by far the smallest species and, like the Purple Thorn, has two broods each year. We caught an individual from the second brood which flies from August-September. The first flies from April-May. Even though it might be the smallest, it’s the most widely distributed, being found on Scilly as well as England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland (including Orkney) and the Isle of Man. It’s identifiable by the way it holds its wings, flat above the body like a butterfly. A melanic (dark) form of this species is fairly common in Northern England, but rare down here in the South.

Early Thorn

Early Thorn

The reason we put the moth trap out was because I had an event planned for the following morning. I thought that as I lived in a small, quiet village it would be nice to teach the people who live in my village a little bit about the moths found in their area. I invited all the people I knew from the village and was pleasantly surprised that quite a few people decided to come! I even got a few to sign up to my monthly natural history newsletter, which I will be writing for the residents.