Moth night

Moth night for rare Charitable Research Reserve
Me (left) and new moth enthusiasts checking out a Large Tolype

Despite being in what I hope are the final throes of preparation for the moth field guide, I wanted to post about this before it lost relevancy.

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by rare Charitable Research Reserve, a non-profit that manages some 900+ acres outside of Cambridge, Ontario, to come to their site and do a talk and moth night for a group of about a dozen of their volunteers. After some initial waffles (largely due to my shyness and reservations regarding speaking to groups) I decided to accept. I was very glad I did, because I think the evening went quite well.

We started out inside, where I gave a powerpoint presentation, an introduction to moths and mothing. I wanted to try to imbue a bit of my passion for moths into my audience, or at the very least foster an appreciation for the insects. My target was 45 minutes to an hour, but going in (and not having done the presentation before) I was simply hoping to reach half an hour. As it turned out, I did fill the full time allotment. Dan, who had joined me for moral support and stood at the back watching, said it was the most nervous he’d ever seen me (I did feel pretty nervous). My friend who works for rare and was the one to extend the invitation, said I didn’t appear nervous at all. So hopefully that’s how all the other people saw me, too! They laughed when I tried a joke, no one fell asleep or looked bored, and one younger girl who looked like she might have been in her teens even kept studious notes through the whole thing.

Moth night for rare Charitable Research Reserve

Following the presentation we went out to where I’d set up my moth sheets and lights earlier in the evening. We had two mercury vapour bulbs and a blacklight going, in addition to the two security lights on the side of the building, plus we’d put out some sugar bait to try to draw in some nectar feeders. The night was cooler than was ideal, but we still got a good assortment of moths – some 31 species by my tally.

Examining moths

I took my “moth jars” (prescription pill bottles obtained in bulk, never been used for pills) and had folks visit the lights and bait and bring back moths they found. I’d do my best to identify the species (there were only a few I wasn’t certain of, fortunately). As new species were ID’d I set them up on a couple sheets of paper and wrote their common names underneath. People could compare the moth they brought back to those already caught, or simply look at and admire the moths in the jars. I got the impression that the volunteers found the variety interesting, even though they weren’t the flashiest of species – autumn moths tend not to be as bright or wildly shaped as summer moths.

7670 - Tolype velleda - Large Tolype

This guy was probably the star of the show. This is a Large Tolype (Tolype velleda), an autumn-flyer that’s related to the common Tent Caterpillar Moth. They’re pretty neat-looking moths – all fuzzy with a dark, blue-speckled mohawk down their back – and it happened to be one of the first ones to show up at the lights. I think it set a good tone for the evening!

7670 - Tolype velleda - Large Tolype

A few of them came in to the lights over the nearly two hours we were out there. One of them landed on the cement walkway, and I picked it up to move it to a safer location. It immediately went into its characteristic defensive posture, curling its legs and abdomen and playing dead. I brought it back to the ID table thinking it would interest the folks there for the few minutes it remained like that, but in fact it stayed curled up for the rest of the evening.

8316 - Orgyia leucostigma - White-marked Tussock Moth

The other species to turn up weren’t quite as strange to look at, but were still interesting, I thought. This one is a tussock moth, a group of moths that have fuzzy caterpillars with tufts of long hairs sticking up in patches. Adults all have this deltoid shape, and typically rest with their front legs sticking out like this guy is doing. The tussocks can be a little hard to identify, but I believe this one to be a White-marked Tussock Moth (Orgyia leucostigma).

9427 - Meropleon diversicolor - Multicolored Sedgeminer

And this last one was probably only appreciated by me at any great level, and that was largely because it’s a relatively uncommon species. It’s a Multicolored Sedgeminer (Meropleon diversicolor), and its caterpillars feed on (you guessed it) sedges. Although I’ve mothed at a few locations now (all of which had some wet areas with sedges), the only place I’ve caught it has been here at Tay Meadows.

So it was a good evening, and I think I’ll be less reluctant about doing one again in the future now. :) In fact, rare have indicated they’d like to ask me back again in June (during the peak mothing period), so we can enjoy some of the colourful and amazing moths on show then. I’d look forward to it! Thanks to my friend Julia at rare for making this event happen.

Biothon moths

Hunting for insects
A self-portrait (posed, of course) of me in "action" for the biothon, equipped with my sweep net and my favourite field guide.

Last weekend was the first annual Frontenac Biothon, a bio-blitz fundraiser event for Frontenac Bird Studies, which Dan runs. We had a team of five people – Dan and myself, and three friends of ours from the Toronto area – out to Frontenac Provincial Park for our 24-hour count. We booked a couple of campsites at the north end of the park, which were canoe-access only, and operated as our “home-base” for the biothon. While we fell just short of our target of 500 species (our final tally was 441), I think everyone had a great weekend (I sure did), and we learned lots that will help make future editions even more successful. If you’re interested in reading a bit more about the biothon as a whole you should check out the summary Dan did at the Frontenac Birds blog.

Examining a blacklit moth sheet
Me checking out the blacklit sheet (photo by Julia Marko Dunn, one of our biothoners)

As the member of the team with the most experience with invertebrates, I was heading up the six-legged component of the bio-blitz. I spent the afternoons trying to wrangle up a good selection of bugs, and while I could probably have done a bit better if I’d been in more open/meadow habitat than in the forest area where I was, I still got a reasonably decent list. My biggest contribution, however, was through my moth light. I brought my blacklight and sheet, and we lugged in one of those self-contained emergency batteries to power it for a few hours (no mean feat as those things weigh several pounds). We got about 60 species of moths, give or take a few, which I was fairly satisfied with considering we only ran the light for a couple of hours and just had the low-wattage blacklight, not my mercury-vapour.

Since we didn’t have a cooler to place them in I didn’t bother saving anything till the morning. The shots aren’t great, as a result, but they were just for sharing here anyway.

Imperial Moth

Imperial Moth. This was the largest moth species that we had come to the sheet, and the only silkmoth species. I think by the time we shut the light off there were three or four of them. Quite impressive, but they kept fluttering up and down the sheet and disturbing the other stuff that’d settled there. The bug beside this one is a caddisfly.

Harris's Three-spot

Harris’s Three-spot. This was my favourite of the evening, and its eye-catching pattern meant it also appealed to the other non-moth’ers in our group. I’ve only caught this species there at the park – besides at the biothon, I got a couple of individuals at our lake house our first summer there.

Brown Scoopwing

Brown Scoopwing. These guys are always neat to see come in, they have such a unique shape. There’s also a Gray Scoopwing in our area, but I believe those are the only two species. Hard to mistake it for anything else.

7906 - Datana contracta - Contracted Datana

There were two species of Datana that came in, at least that I could identify as separate species: Contracted Datana, above, and Walnut Caterpillar Moth, below. We have six species of Datana included in our field guide to moths, and they all look very similar to each other. Another caddisfly joining the moth in the photo below.

7907 - Datana integerrima - Walnut Caterpillar Moth

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!

Return of the moths

I’m a couple days late posting this, but let me start out by saying that The Moth and Me, the fabulous blog carnival dedicated to our most favourite lepidopterans, has returned after a short three-month winter hibernation. In TMaM #9, Jason at Xenogere has treated us to an enjoyable recounting of a chance encounter with a female Woolly Gray, Lycia ypsilon (check it out to see why this is memorable!), and along the way shared a dozen excellent mothy posts.

I’m looking for hosts for April and onward! Interested? Drop me a line at sanderling [at] symbiotic [dot] ca to say which month you’d like to host.

6658 - Phigalia titea - The Half-Wing

Outside, our local moths have also made a return with the warm weather. Although I haven’t been seeing as many this year as I was at this time last year, I don’t know if it’s because of weather patterns or just the change in location. Even still, I’ve been getting a pretty good assortment to my lights most evenings over the last week. I thought I’d share a few here.

I very much expected this moth to be one of the first out, but I’d already tallied more than a dozen species before it showed up. It’s called The Half-wing, Phigalia titea, its common name derived from the female moths which have stunted wings incapable of flight. It also comes in an all-black morph which is less common.

9935 - Eupsilia tristigmata - Three-Spotted Sallow (2)

This is a Three-spotted Sallow, Eupsilia tristigmata. Although not the first moth, this one was one of the earliest to turn up at the porch light this year. Since then I’ve had a few, which I’ve been pleased with. Prior to moving here I’d only seen one. The Eupsilias are all early-spring and late-fall moths, spending the winter as adults holed up in some snug spot.

9933 - Eupsilia vinulenta - Straight-Toothed Sallow

This is another Eupsilia, a Straight-toothed Sallow, E. vinulenta. Or, at least, it could be a Straight-toothed Sallow. The only way to tell it apart (without dissecting it to examine the genitalia) from a couple of nearly-identical species is by the tiny “teeth” at the edges of the scales – on all the other species, these “teeth” curl. Most people don’t have the means to check this, and so any moth that looks like this gets labeled a Straight-toothed Sallow. It might be more appropriate to call it part of the Straight-toothed Sallow group… but that’s such a mouthful.

0916 - Semioscopis aurorella

The rulers shown in these photos are all displaying millimeters. The measurements are being used in the guidebook, but they’re also useful for conveying scale. This moth is a member of the micromoths, the group of moths that make up the first half of a taxonomic list. Much like birds are divided into “non-passerines” (the first half, taxonomically) and “passerines”, with moths we have micromoths and macromoths. I’m sure they fall into some sort of broad category header with a fancy scientific name, but I don’t know it.

This one’s an Aurora Flatbody, Semioscopis aurorella. I’m not sure why they’re called flatbodies (beyond potentially the obvious). There are a few Semioscopis species, all of which are early spring fliers.

3531 - Acleris hastiana

Most of the time the littler micromoths get overlooked. They’re tiny, harder to see, and tend to be harder to ID both because the patterns have fewer distinguishing marks (less space and fewer scales to form marks with) and because there really hasn’t been a good guide to them. The best one out there is the Moth Photographers Group plates, which is online. None of the printed guides I own include micromoths. The new guide Dave and I are working on will have about 600 species or so. Hopefully this will help encourage interest in the group.

It really is a shame that they’re underappreciated, because some of them have some nifty patterns and shapes. This one is Acleris hastiana (as a sign of how passed-over they’ve been, more than half of them don’t have common names, while nearly all macromoths have common names).

3531 - Acleris hastiana

I think this one is also Acleris hastiana. It’s a rather variable moth, with some of the patterns of the adults looking like they really should be separate species. Most of them are pretty striking, though.

All for now. I’ve been posting daily photos over at my moth blog to showcase some of the diversity of this group of organisms. Now that the moths are flying again, I’m going to try to post species appropriate to the date, whatever’s out and about. Swing by and check it out!

First moth(s) of 2010!

914 - Semioscopis inornata - Inornate Semioscopis

Yesterday was a beautifully mild day, the sort that says spring is on the way, even if it’s not quite here just yet. There was still a nip to the air, but the gorgeous sunshine made you forget it was there. I could have sworn the temperature must have reached at least 8 or 9 °C (~47 °F) but weather.ca’s records indicate it only reached 5.5 in the nearby town where the temperature is recorded. Amazing what a little bit of sun can do.

The birds were feeling spring in the air; the chickadees were singing in the trees around the feeders, as were the American Tree Sparrows; I heard a Downy Woodpecker calling, and from across the street our Man in Red was doing his “cheer! cheer! whit whit whit whit!”

Still, by sundown the temperature had fallen to nearly freezing again. I’ve been checking the porch lights hopefully for the last week or so whenever I go out to get wood, but it’s always too cold. Last night being no different, I naturally assumed that when Dan called me down (“Moth alert!”) he meant one of the little jobbies who’ve been hanging around inside the house over the winter, the ones too small to be able to identify without counting genital bristles or something equally obscure.

914 - Semioscopis inornata - Inornate Semioscopis

But no, he meant actual moths! Honest-to-goodness, free-range outdoor moths! The temperature had continued to fall and by that hour had reached -4 °C (25 °F). What the heck these little guys were doing out and about at that temperature is beyond me, but there they were. I scrambled for a few of my moth jars, which were still tucked away in the basement, collected them up and brought them in out of the cold. I put them in the fridge where it was a relatively (for them) balmy 4 °C (39 °F) (or so; there’s no thermostat in our fridge to tell you the temperature. But it’s above freezing, anyway).

This morning I took them out, did my best to get photos (these little tiny micro-moths are such a headache to photograph, because they have really low volume:surface area ratios, meaning that they warm up a lot faster than the chunky-bodied macro-moths. And clearly these species were fairly cold-tolerant in the first place. I couldn’t get one of them to cooperate at all and had to photograph it through the plastic jar), and then released them on the porch in the sun where they could warm up and fly off to someplace to spend the night.

914 - Semioscopis inornata - Inornate Semioscopis

The first three moths are all the same species, and it was one of these that Dan noticed and called me down for. The other moths were spotted after I came out to collect the first one. I had a reasonable idea on the approximate taxonomic area it belonged to, but when I searched the species in that group on the online identification pages at Moth Photographers Group, I couldn’t see anything that was a good match. So I submitted one of the photos to BugGuide.net and got a prompt response that it was simply a “lightly-marked” example of an Inornate Semioscopis, Semioscopis inornata.

862 - Agonopterix clemensella - Clemens's Agonopterix

The fourth and final moth was in a closely related but different genus, Agonopterix. They have a distinctive squareish shape, so I knew where this one belonged right away, and it was easy enough to find an ID for it. I believe this one is A. clemensella, which I don’t think has an official common name, but which I’ve unofficially called Clemens’s Agonopterix in my records (remembering complicated Latin names with unfamiliar spellings and letter groupings is not a skill I was blessed with, so I give moths an English label if they don’t have one already, even if it’s only for my own use). This was a new Agonopterix for me, but that’s not a great surprise; there are 30 or so Agonopterix species in North America, and I’ve seen just a handful.

So I was pretty stoked at this event, finally seeing moths at the light after a long three and a half months of mothlessness. Although I won’t really consider the moth season to have started until I get a big macro to the light. Nothing against the micro-moths. But there’s just something about a chunky sallow…