I like ’em rare (though well-done is nice, too)

9899.1 - Lithophane thujae - Cedar Pinion (3)

It’s been a while since my last moth post. There were sprinklings of moths on and off throughout March (including the ones I posted about most recently, when the last The Moth and Me came out), but things started to really pick up on the really warm Easter weekend. Since that first moth at the start of March I’ve tallied at least 60 species – I say at least because there have been many little micros that I’ve been happy to leave unidentified. I suspect, were I willing and able to take the time to pin an ID to those little guys, the total might stand at over 70. Not bad for halfway through April. Things only pick up from here.

One of the most satisfying things about the mothing so far this season has been how many of the faces coming to my light are familiar. Of the 47 macro species so far, I’ve probably only had to look up eight of them. Of course, it’s taken me three springs to finally get to this point. And as soon as April fades into May my smug satisfaction at being able to identify so many will slowly dissolve as I become overwhelmed by the diversity. But let’s just be happy in the moment, shall we?

The 39 I could identify are all, by and large, fairly common species. Or at least appear to be common out here, some more than others. All but one of the other eight are species that I’ve only seen one of each so far this spring, and have all been new for me. When I’ve been scanning the sheet, examining all the moths come to the light, these new ones really jump out. It’s one of the oft repeated bits of advice in trying to pick up a new group of organisms (could be anything, doesn’t have to be moths – birds, butterflies, wildflowers, whatever): learn the common stuff first. Once you know the common stuff, it’ll be easier to pick out the things that are different. Also, I find, knowing the common stuff helps you to learn the different taxonomic groups, which in turn helps make identification of less common things easier.

9899.1 - Lithophane thujae - Cedar Pinion

The first and above photos are of the same moth. When I found it on the sheet at my mercury vapour lamp at my parents’ over the warm Easter weekend, two thoughts came to mind: first, “Hey, there’s an interesting Lithophane” (recognition of taxonomic group) and “Hey, I’ve not seen that before” (recognition of something different). When I got it inside and identified it, it turned out to be a Cedar Pinion, Lithophane thujae.

It is so, so tempting when first getting started to want to ID everything. I know, I did. But it’s not humanly possible. Let the less common stuff slide (if you’re obsessive about it, take photos if you must, but don’t bother ID’ing, for now) and focus on the things that there are several of, or potentially dozens of. As I said, spending your first couple years doing this makes identification easier. But more than that, it also gives you an appreciation of what to expect in your area.

That way, when your strange Lithophane that you’ve not seen before turns up at the sheet, you’ll know it’s worth taking a closer look at. Not only that, but you’ll be much more appreciative when you discover that it’s so rare, it’s not even in your province’s annotated checklist, published 1991. Or when you read in the neighbouring province’s guide, published 1999, that (roughly translated) “There is, in the north-east of the continent… a Lithophane near L. lemmeri [taxonomically speaking] which feeds on Thuya occidentalis and perhaps Juniperus virginiana. This species has been found in New Brunswick, Ontario and the states of Michigan and Wisconsin; this new species is excessively rare, [and] is very rarely attracted to light…”.

Anyone can appreciate rare, sure – two years ago I would’ve said, “oh wow, that’s neat”, but to me, then, every moth was new and interesting and unique. You need to get a little bit blasé about the common stuff in order to get really excited when something’s rare.

Incidentally, that same book (Handfield’s guide to Québec leps) notes, later in the same paragraph, “To watch, as this group probably still hides many secrets, including, perhaps, new species.”

9904 - Lithophane querquera - Shivering Pinion

Last night I found another interesting Lithophane at my sheet (this time here at my own home). This one appears to also be very rare, although less so, perhaps, than the Cedar Pinion. This one is actually in the original Peterson moth guide (now Virginia Museum of Natural History) by Charles Covell. However, it barely sneaks in to Ontario. To the publication of the Ontario annotated checklist in 1991, it had only been found at one locality, down near the Queen’s University Biological Station in south Frontenac county. In looking up more info on it, I read through Lynn Scott’s webpage on it. She happens to live up Ottawa way, not all that far (relatively speaking) from me. On the page she notes that she had a single individual come to her light in April 2005, which was positively identified for her by the master moth guru up at the Canadian National Collection in Ottawa. That makes two locations. As far as I know (given the resources available to me, and pending hearing from the CNC folks with a positive ID and more info) mine might be just the third recorded locality for Ontario. Even if there are others that I’m not aware of, it’s certainly not common.

Handfield notes, for Québec, “L. querquera… also resembles L. baileyi but this species doesn’t appear in our fauna; its northernmost limit is at Perth Road in Ontario, where a specimen was collected on May 11, 1971.” Bearing in mind that the book was published in 1999, and this was the most recent record he gives, there either aren’t very many of this moth, or there aren’t very many people out mothing. Probably both.

Interestingly, there appear to be two colour morphs of this species, a pale and a dark. The pale is common through its range in the US; thus far, of the tiny number of images for it on BugGuide and Moth Photographers’ Group, the only dark individual was the one caught by Lynn near Ottawa.

So, get to know your common stuff, and get to know what’s common. Then, once you know all that, start checking out the other things on the sheet (or in the meadow, or wherever). Or, if you’re obsessive like me, go back and have a look through your photo archives again. Those interesting observations will not only stand out more readily, they’ll also have a lot more meaning.

I plan to have The Moth and Me #10 up tomorrow sometime. If you’re interested in submitting a post, you’ve got till around midday tomorrow (Friday the 16th) to get it in to me!

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3 responses to “I like ’em rare (though well-done is nice, too)

  1. Thanks for the excellent advice, it was exactly what I need.

  2. Oh drat – I had a good one earlier this week for TMaM and forgot about it!

    Maybe next month – oh wait, I’m hosting next month :P

  3. Pingback: The Moth and Me #10 – Down to the letter « the Marvelous in nature

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