Going beyond birds

Silver-spotted Tiger Moth

Silver-spotted Tiger Moth

I’ve been birding since 2000, when, as a first year student in university, I decided I wanted a job in my field rather than a boring office job, and was offered an opportunity to work for the Toronto Zoo doing an “inventory” of their breeding bird community. This is not a long time, compared to many birders, particularly given my age. I came into birds late in life; most serious birders I’ve met have started either in their early-teens (13-14 seems to be the age something twigs for a lot of people), or as a young child. Myself, with the rural setting for my childhood, I was certainly aware of the birds, and knew all the common backyard stuff, but the birds that you have to go out to look for in order to see I didn’t get to know till that job at the zoo.

I have had the advantage of having spent a very large portion of the last five years out in the field, nearly every day. When you’re out there seven or eight hours every day you hone your identification skills rather quickly. Just about anything likely to be encountered on an average day at any time of year here in southern Ontario I would feel pretty comfortable identifying now, by sight or even just sound. Some of the less common birds of our region I could identify by sight but perhaps not sound, and I will be the first to admit that some groups (gulls, for example) I generally stink at – though mostly for lack of interest in learning (nothing against gulls, but they just don’t hold my attention for very long).

Lunate Zale

Lunate Zale

So what do you do when you’ve reached your desired level of proficiency with something? Well, you could try to hone it further (suppose I could buckle down and learn those gulls). You could try investigating deeper (learning to identify the different subspecies). You could travel to new areas (works best if you have money and time to travel). Or you could branch out into something different.

White Underwing, Catocala relicta

White Underwing

Lacking money and any real desire to get nit-picky with bird identification, I’ve opted for the latter. Even early I started learning butterfly identification (the obvious second choice to a birder – you’re standing there watching the birds with butterflies dancing about your feet anyway), as well as odonates (the dragonflies and damselflies). I got familiar enough with these groups to be able to identify all the common things. But for whatever reason, I never really got caught up in them the way I am with birds.

Pale Beauty Moth

Pale Beauty

Then, last summer, I traveled west, to British Columbia, for a job. The job didn’t work out quite as planned, and I spent three weeks staying with the organization’s gracious president, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for word on the situation. While there, I discovered he had a blacklight. And I thought, what the heck, let’s throw a sheet up and see what I get.

Violet Brocade Moth

Violet Brocade

Well, that hooked me. I don’t know what it was, specifically. Perhaps the amazing diversity and beauty of the moths that came in. Perhaps the mystery of these nocturnal creatures that makes them so hard to observe. Perhaps the fact that they’ll come to you, wherever you are, and you never know what you’re going to get. TheMothMan has well over 500 species of moths recorded for his little (and I do mean little) urban Toronto backyard. Perhaps it’s that moths are everywhere.

Ailanthus Webworm, Atteva punctella

Ailanthus Webworm

While I don’t think they’ll ever trump birds on my priority list, they may eventually run a close second… we shall see (I dislike making such bold predictions). So far, with the exception of those nights in British Columbia and one hosted by TTPBRS in early September, all my “mothing” has been done in the off-peak (for moths) late fall and, now, early spring periods. The moths are just starting to come out now, on the warmer nights, but these cool-weather moths are generally more drab. The flashy species are mostly found in the warmer months, and I’m rather looking forward to looking for them in the next few months.

Unidentified moth

Unidentified Eucosma sp.

Doesn’t matter where you live, attracting moths is pretty easy, and I almost guarantee productive (unlike trying to bird from your suburban backyard, where House Sparrows and starlings are your most likely guests). Any night where the temperature is warm (>10C/50F), hang a white sheet from a clothesline or against the side of your building, and set up a light in front of it. Although a regular white bulb will work okay, bulbs that emit rays in the UV spectrum, such as blacklights (cheap, less than $5 at Home Depot) or mercury vapour bulbs (considerably more expensive but brighter so will draw more in) will give you the best success, since the moths are attracted to the UV wavelengths. Make sure your white sheet is the sort that glows in the dark – some types of fabric don’t phosphoresce, which decreases its effectiveness.

Lempke's Gold Spot Moth

Lempke’s Gold Spot

The above photos are all ones I took either in British Columbia, or at the TTPBRS moth night. They’re only a few of what I have, primarily of some of the brighter species. If you’re interested in seeing some of the rest of my extremely modest collection of moth photos (mostly from BC at the moment, and taken with flash; I’m refining my technique), visit my moth set on Flickr.

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10 responses to “Going beyond birds

  1. You’re so right–moths seem the perfect companion for birders.
    So much variety, such detail and color–and you capture it so well in these photos.

  2. What gorgeous critters! Even their English names are lovely. I’ll have to try the moth-sheet thing this summer, with my 11-year-old babysittee and my camera-wielding partner.

  3. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Nina; and not to mention that they don’t interfere with your birding activities during the daytime! :)

    LavenderBay, it’s a great thing for kids, for sure. TheMothMan often hosts moth nights at various locations around southern Ontario, and says kids get a great kick out of seeing the moths. I think that underestimates how much the adults do, too!

  4. Great display! There is a covered entrance to the building I work in…the night lights attract numerous moths every night and morning. I believe I’m the only one who stops in the darkened entrance to examine them, and I don’t mind pulling my camera out of my bag, either.

    Wonderful post!

  5. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Mary – I’m glad to hear you’re not too shy to stop and risk a few stares to snap some photos. :)

  6. These are wonderful pictures. Please consider sending your BC shots to E-Fauna BC. They would be appreciated, I am sure.

    Yes, moths are a natural draw for birders (dragonflies are too). I spent an evening on a veranda in Bermuda with several other birders. We had been lazily birding, eating and drinking (all at the same time) and then the sun went down and the overhead lights drew moths to the table, lots of tiny cylindrical ones of the webworm morphology. We studied them with our binoculars turned upside down. (Upside down binoculars can be okay ersatz microscopes.) We collectively learned that there were many species of tiny moth, and that none of us knew anything about them. Humbling.

  7. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Hugh. I’ll look into signing up with E-Fauna BC and submitting the photos.

    Great moth story. Moths are certainly a daunting bunch, definitely humbling when you think you know how to pick out field marks on an animal for use in identification.

  8. Hmmm. Parts of this, and the excellent photos, sound like they could be incorporated into a book if one were enterprising about it.

    Your jumping spider shots are ossum. I love my little black Phidippus that haunts my studio windowsills in late winter. His name is Boris. Never knew that about spider retinae. Keep teaching!! Write a book!! If the words just flow out like this, it’ll be like breathing.

  9. themarvelousinnature

    Thanks, Julie! To be quite honest, it was one of the underlying directions of the blog when I started it, and something I’d really like to pursue in the future.

    I love that you have a spider to keep you company through the end of winter. And the name is perfect.

  10. Pingback: April redux « the Marvelous in nature

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