Early tent cat nests


A week ago when I was out with Raven a glint of white in one of the black cherry trees in our back fields caught my eye. Wondering if it could possibly be a tent caterpillar nest so early in the season, I checked it out. Sure enough, it was. This feels very early to me, but I admit I’ve never caught the nest at such an early stage before, barely started. Normally I check in when it’s already the size of my fist or thereabouts. I start noticing them (without having to consciously search) in early May usually. Was it just that I was paying attention this year?

Part of the reason I was watching was because of the warm spell we had in March, of course. I worried that it would not only accelerate the budding-out of the trees and shrubs, but also the growth and emergence of early-spring species. I did, in fact, have an Arched Hooktip (a moth) show up at my light one night at the end of that week; ordinarily the species first shows up in mid-May, so it was nearly two months early. It didn’t seem a stretch to think it might have prompted the tent cats out prematurely, too.


When I investigated more closely I discovered all the little caterpillars in this particular nest were dead; blackened and unmoving. We’d had several nights in a row of freezing or just-below temperatures, including one hard night of several degrees below. I wondered if that had killed them. Tent cats use their tents to help thermoregulate, and I would assume that, since we still get frosts potentially as late as mid- to late May most years, it also serves as protection against frost. But the little nest of these cats was still so small, perhaps the size of a plum. Maybe it didn’t provide enough protection.

When I did my usual late-winter walkabout searching for tent caterpillar eggs I only found a few clusters, all on the same tree. The other trees that have had them in most past years didn’t have any, so I was already starting to wonder if it’d be a year of low abundance for the species. This freeze won’t have helped, if it’s killed all the caterpillars from this egg cluster. I couldn’t really tell if all the eggs had hatched or only some of them. I’ll hope some hadn’t hatched yet and might go on to build a new nest.


In another field I found a second nest. This one was larger and the caterpillars on it obviously older – and, happily, still alive. They were clustered together sunning themselves on the surface of the nest, which they’ll do on cooler days. This nest was closer in size to an orange, so I wondered if the extra layers of silk had helped protect the caterpillars against the cold.


They’d already started making their silken trails up the branch from the nest to their feeding location. This is one of the reasons tent caterpillars appeal to me so; there’s so many neat aspects to their biology that are fascinating to look for. They leave this trail as they walk so they know where the nest is when it’s time to return. The nest is their protection from both the elements and predators, so you can understand the desire for a lifeline like this.


These were the buds the line was leading up to, though. The whole tree was like this. There can’t honestly be enough plant material there to sustain them yet, can there? I guess they’ve got little mouths and wouldn’t eat very much, so maybe there would be. The nest was full of frass (see the little brown dots in the photo with the sunning cats), so they were obviously eating something, and it was orangey-brown like the bud sheathes here.

I’ll be keeping an eye on these guys over the next little bit to see how they do – not that there’s much I can (or would) do if the weather goes cold again. But I like to keep tabs on my local families of wildlife, and tent cats are such easy ones to monitor…

A quick note re: the moth guide

Currently Amazon lists a Kindle edition of the PFG to Moths as being available for pre-order with release on April 17. I inquired with our editor about this, and there will be no Kindle/ebook edition released anytime soon. The field guide format is trickier and more involved to convert to ebook than a standard narrative/text, and the tools to do a good job of it are fairly new. The way the information is stored in the computers is apparently a little confusing and results in Amazon putting this sales link up (I gather this has been a problem for a while and the publisher has been looking at changing the computer system to try to address it).

There may well be an ebook version in the future, but it won’t be available on April 17. So if you’ve pre-ordered a copy, you’ll need to cancel and order the print copy instead. Sorry about that, everyone!

March Moths (and a few PFG to Moths plates)

Goat Sallow - Morrison's Sallow - Three-spotted Sallow

With the gorgeous weather yesterday, I knew there’d be moths flying come evening. I put my mercury vapour light out, even going to the trouble to dig out and pin up my white sheet in front of it. And I wasn’t disappointed! I got a great diversity, 15 macromoths of 11 species, and another dozen or so micros of the agonopterix and acleris variety.

I collected up one individual of every species except the Straight-toothed Sallow, which was the First Moth of 2012. The top shelf of the fridge was satisfyingly crowded. Since I’ve already got dozens of photos of these species on the plain background I usually use for species portraits, I thought I’d do a collage, in groups.

The above group is all the sallows (again, minus the Straight-toothed, which I sort of wish I’d brought in just for completeness). Top left: Goat Sallow, Homoglaea hircina; top right: Morrison’s Sallow, Eupsilia morrisoni; bottom: Three-spotted Sallow, Eupsilia tristigmata.

Small Phigalia - Half-wing - Spring Cankerworm

There are three early-spring geometers that you can pretty much count on on any given night in March and early April. I was pleased that all of them turned up last night – just singles of each. Top to bottom: Small Phigalia, Phigalia strigataria; The Half-Wing, Phigalia titea; and Spring Cankerworm, Paleacrita vernata. Having this photo with them all in the same shot helps emphasize the size difference between Small Phigalia and The Half-Wing.

Dowdy - Dimorphic - Hemina - Grote's Pinions

And finally, the pinions. The third group of overwinterers who’re likely to come to lights early in the season. I was surprised there were so many species last night, ordinarily I just get the bottom one here. Top: Dowdy Pinion, Lithophane unimoda; middle left: Dimorphic Pinion, Lithophane patefacta; middle right: Hemina Pinion, Lithophane hemina; bottom: Triple-spotted Pinion, Lithophane laticinerea.

These guys have distinctive shapes and so are easy to pick out, usually. There are two shape types: the long, narrow gray ones, and the bow-winged (look at the outer edge), shoulder-padded ones. Within each of the shape groups there are a number of look-alike species. For instance, Hemina and Wanton Pinions look very similar, but Heminas tend to be orangier with more diffuse markings than the grayer Wantons. Likewise, Grote’s and Triple-spotted can be hard to tell apart, but Triple-spotted typically are a smoother gray with the ST line often sparser/dotted or nearly absent compared to the rougher-gray Grote’s.

Since we’re still a month out from the release of the moth guide (but only a month! April 17!) but the pinions are flying now, I thought I’d scan in and post the identification plates for the group. Enjoy!

For all of these, click on the image to see a larger version.




First moth of 2012


Yesterday was beautiful. (I felt the need to start the post this way because every first-moth-of post I’ve done has started with these words, I discovered.) I took an extra-long walk with the dogs in the afternoon, soaking up as much of that lovely southern-warm air and gorgeous sunshine as I could, to store up against today, which is overcast and wet and blustery. We return to winter for a few days, but the mild temperatures are forecasted to return next week, happily.

With the weather so mild yesterday, I figured there was a pretty good chance that the first moth of the year might make an appearance. So I dug out my mercury vapour bulb from where it had spent the winter, set up my tripod and put it out. I turned it on just before 7pm; finally, at around 10:30pm, as I was beginning to consider the evening a bust and turning it off for the night, the first (and only) moth arrived.

I’d been expecting a little wee guy, most likely an agonopterix of some sort, which tuck themselves into woodpiles and other cracks and are quick to warm up. We still had a good 7 or 8 inches of snow on the ground, and I thought that might affect the potential for moths. So when I spotted this guy fluttering around over my head, I felt a rush of excitement. I was worried he’d fly off before I could catch him!

But he didn’t. The first moth of 2012 iiiis…. a Straight-toothed Sallow (Eupsilia vinulenta)! (Of course, the element of suspense is sort of lost when you head up the post with the photo of the individual in question.) He’s arrived about on schedule, compared to past years:

  • 2011 – March 17 – Morrison’s Sallow (Eupsilia morrisoni)
  • 2010 March 7 – Goat Sallow (Homoglaea hircina)
  • 2009 – March 6 – Morrison’s Sallow (Eupsilia morrisoni)

In actuality, last year’s first moth was an unidentified micro in late February, but the weather hadn’t been very warm so it felt less like the first moth of spring and more like a fluke moth of winter. Winter really hung around last March, too, and our first spring-like days weren’t till the middle of the month. Also, the true first moth of 2010 was on March 2, an Inornate Semioscopis (Semioscopis inornata); but I wanted to compare the first macromoths across the years so it didn’t fit.

You’ll notice that three of the last four years, the first moth has been a Eupsilia species. Another early species that I haven’t yet recorded first but is generally seen in the earliest days is Three-spotted Sallow, Eupsilia tristigmata. This whole genus is cold-weather moths, appearing late in fall and early in spring. They all overwinter as adults so they can emerge on those first mild days. Their caterpillars all feed on tree species, so they get out early, lay their eggs on the bare branches, and the caterpillars hatch as the tender new leaves are emerging.

I’d placed my bets on a Morrison’s Sallow being the first moth of the season… so I was wrong, but not by much!

National Moth Week

9631 - Callopistria mollissima - Pink-Shaded Fern Moth
Pink-shaded Fern Moth, Callopistria mollissima, #93-2192 / #9631


It’s late winter and mothing season is on the horizon – just another couple of weeks, at most, and the first moth of the season will arrive here at my porch lights. They’re calling for pretty warm daytime temps on Wednesday, and as long as the rain holds off I’m hopeful we might get one or two that night. It’s been nearly four months since we had the last ones of fall, and I’m looking forward to their return. I’ve been meaning to post about the following for a little while, so as we gear up for the start of the season it seems like a good time.

Great Britain has run a National Moth Night for a number of years now. Theirs is a three-night affair, with moth’ers all across the UK participating, recording and reporting their finds. This year the UK’s event will be held from June 23 to 25. It will be in August in 2013 and July in 2014; they shuffle it around so that all of the mothy months eventually get sampled, since many moth species have short and/or specific flight windows.

Till now we haven’t had anything comparable in North America (though I did join in the UK night on two nights in 2009). But David Moskowitz and Liti Haramaty of East Brunswick, NJ, decided to remedy this, putting together North America’s own National Moth Week (don’t let the name or logo fool you; it’s actually open to all moth’ers everywhere, including outside of North America). The premise is the same – on a set of specified dates, moth’ers everywhere go out with their lights and sugar bait and see what they find. They’re working on setting up methods to collect data from participants, much the way they do in the UK.

This year, National Moth Week has been scheduled for July 23-29. On one, a few, or all nights that week, go out with your mothing equipment and record what comes in. You can either run your own night(s) or join in on a public event in your area – check out this webpage for a map of participating moth’ers, including public events.

There will be some contests for people taking part in the event – for instance, highest species total or most participants at an event. A few people have donated prizes; there will be a few signed copies of the new Peterson moth guide, for instance, as well as books from David Wagner and John Himmelman. But you need to register your participation in order to be eligible!

I’m planning to hold a public moth night that week, though I haven’t yet set a date or location for the event. I’ll probably start figuring that stuff out in July, and will post an update (and reminder to participants) then. In the meantime, mark your calendars! I’m looking forward to seeing what we all turn up.

The moth guide has arrived!


Guess what arrived today? My first copy of the new moth guide! Yaaaaaay!

The books are all printed overseas, and they’re all on a container ship somewhere on the Pacific at the moment, but the printer sends a few copies by air to the publisher so they can review them for quality (and start distributing them to the authors :), etc. This is one of the copies that came by air; the rest will arrive at the publisher’s about a month from now, then will be checked and inventoried and distributed and will be in bookstores maybe the week before release.

So you guys still have to wait. I’m sorry. But I can share with you some peeks at the book in advance! Complete with goofy faces. Because that’s just how excited I am. (Also, forgive the photo quality; these were taken with my webcam.)


For example. My name! On a book!

Check out the width of that sucker. It’s 1.25 inches thick. That’s 611 pages of amazing mothy goodness.


And between my fingers there is the species checklist at the back of the book. It’s 38 pages long. That’s a lot of moths, folks! I lost count along the way, but I think we were just a couple species shy of 1500 total in the book. Very close to 2000 images. (Which I clipped out from their backgrounds by hand. Every single one. Whew. Thank goodness they look so good in the book!)


The title page! I love this photo. It was taken by Dave, in his yard, and was a last-minute addition to the book.

Look! There’s my name again! Also, the map of area covered. Quite a number of the species in the book will be present in other parts of the continent, though, so the guide is potentially useful outside of the range depicted here. You just won’t have the benefit of range maps with the species accounts.


Here’s the opening page of the How To Use This Book section. All of the sections have full-page images of different species of moths, like this. They’re nearly all Dave’s photos, moths he’s caught and placed on a natural-looking log or branch for photographing, and they look really great. The top of the sections also have those little square photos, also of moths in natural settings. All of them have the species name given, so you know which species the moth is. (This was my mom‘s suggestion. Thanks, Mom. :)


That’s me! It’s the only photo of a person in the entire guide (no author photos). That’s my blacklight setup from… I think that was taken at my parents’ old house, actually, the place in Halton county where I grew up. I still run blacklight bulbs occasionally, but mostly now I use mercury vapour at home. They don’t make as interesting a photo, though. I’ll probably have both with me on the book tour.

The How To section has information on how to go about attracting and photographing moths as well as the necessary info on how to read and interpret the guide. Also tips on how to start learning to identify moths. It’s relatively short and quick to read, at 18 pages. So I hope you all read it, because I put a lot of time and careful consideration into writing it. :)


These are the front endpapers. The diagrams are also in the How To section, but because it’s a pain to have to flip through the introduction in order to look up terminology, I requested these be put here at the front, where they’re easy to flip to. On the left are structural terminology, on the right are those for patterns. A number of these get referred to regularly in the text accounts.


And these are the back endpapers. We don’t have every type of moth displayed here, but we do have many. The idea is a lot of moths can be quickly identified to group by shape/size alone. Some are very distinctive (scoopwings, for instance, or plume moths). So this provides a quick reference to give you a place (or places) to start browsing, if you’re not sure.

All of the measurements in the book are given in millimeters because so  many of the species are so small that inches don’t work well. On the inside of the back cover (barely visible in this photo) there’s a ruler printed with both centimeters/millimeters and inches, so you can quickly look up sizes.


On to the identification pages!

Each family is headed up with a paragraph describing general family characteristics and often mentions habits and/or host preferences, if there are some that are particular to the group. Where two families are on the same page, as here, the identification plate is separated into two panels.

Although it’s hard to see on this particular page, you’ll notice on the next few there’s a gray silhouette beside one of the images on the plate. This is showing the moth’s approximate size in real life, so you can get an idea how big these things really are.


One of the things that makes this book unique over the few guides that have come before (besides that they’re all in natural resting poses here; most other guides show pinned/spread moths) is the number of micromoth species we’ve included. These are all the species that come in the first half of taxonomic lists, basically the moth equivalent of non-passerine birds (the first half of a bird field guide, all the birds that don’t sing songs). For the most part they’re small, hence the “micro”.

Not very much is known about most micromoth species, except for a few that are commercial pests (crops/forestry). So there are no range maps for these species. There are, however, flight period bars, those coloured bars beside each species’ name. Under each is a black line that corresponds to the time of year the moth can be found, and the three colours in the bar represent the three seasons of spring, summer and fall, roughly three months each.


Here’re macromoths – the second half of the taxonomic list, and, for the most part, larger than the micromoths. These ones mostly do all have range maps, information being much easier to come by for these. A large part of the reason for this has simply been the paucity of field guides that include micromoths – hobbyists actually contribute quite a lot of what we know about the distribution and other information for species. Some macromoths are still lacking in this department – for instance, the Obtuse Brocade, here, didn’t have enough information for me to be able to extrapolate a range map with any degree of confidence. Hopefully there will be future editions of the guide, and we’ll be able to create maps for these species then, as more people join the hobby.


Not the greatest photo, though I blame that mostly on the limitations of the webcam. But trying to point out here the Peterson arrows. It was unfortunate timing, but Dave ended up being away for most of the period when the manuscript was at the stage where we insert the arrows (it wasn’t something that could be planned for, either, really), so I ended up doing this mostly all myself. And let me tell you, on 1500 species, there are a lot of arrows.


Although there are plenty of species of moth that are so distinct they don’t really need the arrows, there are also lots that look so similar the arrows will be invaluable in helping you separate them out. For instance, the hydriomenas. That face I’m making here? I wore that for about two hours, seriously, as I sorted out specifically which features I should be pointing the arrows at. It involved several emails back and forth with moth expert Chris Schmidt of the Canadian National Collection (he was awesome with his time and expertise – you rock, Chris!), and lots of studying of images he sent me, ones I had, and ones online. As you can tell from this plate and the fact that each species has multiple images, there’s a fair bit of variation. But I finally got it figured out. You lucky souls don’t have to worry about it; the arrows are already there for you. :)


The timing of the release could hardly be much better – right at the start of the new mothing season! It’s still winter here, but the first moths will be arriving soon – potentially just two weeks from now. That moth I’m pointing to, that’s my bet for first of the year for me – Morrison’s Sallow. All of the species on this page are contenders for first-of-season, though. (That’s my you-can-bet-on-it face, which actually works better when you can see me nodding knowingly.)

So there you go! A quick preview of the new field guide to moths. I honestly can’t wait till the release date (April 17! Two months!) so all of you can get your hands on a copy, too, because it looks great. Dave and I are both really happy with how it turned out, and I hope you will be, too.

You can currently preorder the guide from most retailers (online, though I think if you go into your local indie bookstore they’ll take orders, too…). If you want a signed copy, there are buttons on my sidebar or on this page where you can order one directly from me.

Book tour update

Just a quick post to provide an update on the book tour! I’ve got a number of dates set now, and some others that look likely. Here’s the schedule of set and probable dates and locations:


Red dates are confirmed or probable; I’m trying to set up something for teal dates; brown date is the New River Birding and Nature Festival (paid event); navy date is my day off to visit a couple friends in the area. :) A few of these are subject to final confirmation and may change; I’ll post the definitive schedule in a few weeks once I know.

April 29 – Detroit, MI area

April 30 – Columbus, OH area (The Nature Conservancy Ohio)

May 1 – Wheeling, WV (Good Zoo at Oglebay Resort)

May 2-5 – New River Birding and Nature Festival, WV (closed/paid event)

May 5 – if anyone is interested in an event in eastern KY, western VA or southwestern WV, let me know; it may be possible to arrange an event on May 5

May 6 – Richmond, VA area

May 7 – Davis, WV (Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge)

May 8 – Millersburg, PA (Ned Smith Center for Nature & Art)

May 9 – Hockessin, DE (Ashland Nature Center; Delaware Nature Society)

May 10 – East Brunswick, NJ (Playhouse 22, Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission)

No event on May 11.

May 12 – Athol, MA (Athol Bird and Nature Club)

May 13 – Ithaca, NY