Where the moths are

8926 - Syngrapha octoscripta - Dusky Silver Y

The last little while I’ve been hard at work making a push to wrap up the last of the maps for the moth field guide. This is partly because I’ve been itching for spring and the return of moths and wanted to focus on something moth-y, but mostly so that we will still have lots of time to review them before our deadline this summer. It’s been a bit of an undertaking – we plan to cover some 1300 species in the guide, and hope that some 800 of those will have range maps accompanying them. This will be the first guide to comprehensively provide maps for the majority of macro-moths, for the entire northeast region. Guides that have gone before have simply offered text descriptions of range (a few have maps, but of just the state and/or a subset of moths) but these can be so hard to interpret, especially when you’re not one of the corner states/provinces given in the text. We wanted to include something that would be faster and easier to interpret than text, more “user-friendly”.

The downside to this decision is that there just isn’t the data out there for moths that there is for other organisms, such as trees or birds. The data that does exist is in a highly scattered form. It includes records that may be extralimital occurrences (ie., vagrants), but with so few data points it’s hard to know for certain which ones are and which ones aren’t. I have a number of resources I’m referencing, both printed and web, as well as checklists and collection data from private moth’ers. I wish I had the sort of information at my disposal that birders have, but I’m making do.

There are a couple of approaches to presenting the data on a map. We could just plot points for locations we had data for. While this is easy to do and is guaranteed not to lie, it also doesn’t tell the whole truth as the species may occur in other areas where it just didn’t happen to be collected. We toyed with filling in states and provinces in a presence/absence presentation based on the data we had, but once again, while it was easy to do, this approach would also be misleading – even if a species only entered a state along one side or corner, it would still be displayed as though it occurred throughout. We really wanted to do smoothed range maps, because they look the nicest, but they require that you have a strong body of data in order to accurately define the boundaries.

After considerable thought and discussion, we decided to combine the latter two approaches. However, rather than using political boundaries to define our areas, we took an ecological approach. The map above shows ecoregional boundaries as defined by the North American Atlas project, a partnership between the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, and the governments of all three North American countries (you can download their maps for free here). The data I had for each species of moth was matched to the ecoregions on the map, and a range drawn encompassing all ecoregions that the species was known or believed to occur in based on collection data as well as information on habitat or food plants. Fortunately, because moths are so tied to their host species, ecoregions works better for them than it might for some other organisms.

Some assumptions are necessarily made in mapping ranges this way, and the depicted ranges may over- or under-estimate occurrence, but in a group of organisms for which data is sparse, this is almost inevitable. One of the hopes we have with the publication of this guide is that there will be an increase in interest in moths as a result of an easy-to-use ID guide, which will in turn create a bigger database of observations as people go out to look. Hopefully the second edition, down the road, would be able to refine the maps. In the meantime, I’m happy with how they’re turning out. Here are a few for a bunch of species that I’ve mentioned in the past here on the blog. I’ve also included the text range description from the original Peterson guide to moths by Charles V Covell, so you can see how they compare. The moth images below are the ones that accompanied the post, not the ones that will be in the guide.


6256 - Archiearis infans - The Infant

The Infant, Archiearis infans
These are early spring fliers, sometimes out even before the snow has completely melted from the ground. I typically see them in open areas near patches of birch. I wrote about them last spring, in a post I did about birch trees.

Text range description: N.S. to N.J. and Pa., west through Canada south to Minn.


9936 - Eupsilia morrisoni - Morrison's Sallow

Morrison’s Sallow, Eupsilia morrisoni
This was my very first moth last spring. They’re encountered late in the fall and early in the spring, and occasionally in mid-winter on very warm days/evenings. They overwinter as adults, so they’re able to emerge from hiding to fly as soon as temperatures are warm enough.

Text range description: N.S. to Wash., D.C. and e. Ky., west to Ont., Minn., and Mo. [after carefully studying ecoregion boundaries compared to the rest of the described range, my other data points, and the species’ hosts/habitat, I decided not to include Missouri. I had no other data points for Missouri besides Covell’s.]


7701 - Malacosoma americanum - Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth

Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth, Malacosoma americanum
I’ve posted about tent caterpillars on a few occasions, but the first was on encountering a number of tents early in the spring during my first year of writing this blog. The adults fly in late June and July, after the caterpillars from the tents have pupated.

Text range description: Common throughout our area. [True; doesn’t occur in the northern Boreal, however.]


6797 - Ennomos magnaria - Maple Spanworm2

Maple Spanworm, Ennomos magnaria
Back in September I participated in National Moth Night, a UK initiative that I was encouraging North Americans (and other countries) to adopt, too. Our two nights were cold here, and I got very little to my lights. The species that turned up in highest numbers was Maple Spanworm.

Incidentally, National Moth Night 2010 will take place on May 15. The date gets moved from year to year to sample different seasons. Don’t worry, I’ll remind you again before then.

Text range description: Nfld. to n. Fla., west across Canada, south to S.D., Mo., and Miss. [Actually found in a broader range within the east than the tent caterpillar, because it also occurs in the Boreal, however note that this species’ range was defined, while the tent caterpillar’s was not. My suspicion is that Covell started out trying to detail the ranges for everything, than then halfway through decided nuts to it, the common stuff he’d just save himself some time and put “Common throughout”.]


Late fall moths

Bicolored Sallow
Bicolored Sallow, the most abundant species at my lights right now

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, last night was quite warm, for the time of year; the overnight low hovered around 10 C (50 F). After a couple of weeks of near- or below-freezing temperatures, I was delighted to have the opportunity to put out my moth trap and catch some moths. When I went to bed I saw a few moths circling around the light, but mostly what I saw were Giant Water Bugs. I was excited to open up the trap this morning and see what had flown in while I was sleeping.

Morrison's Sallow
Morrison's Sallow, the species that got the honour of first moth of the year last spring

There were seven or eight water bugs in the trap, which I had to carefully release without triggering a phobic freak-out (I can’t help it, there’s just something about them). Once they were out of the way, I could examine the rest of my catch. There ended up being about 14 species of macromoth (those that are on the second half of taxonomically-ordered species lists, generally larger species) and several micromoths (those in the first half of the list, mostly small).

Ipsilon Dart
Ipsilon Dart, missing the corner of its left wing

I would classify my skill level with moths as intermediate-newbie – that is, I could probably identify a third to half of the moths coming to my lights over the course of a year, and have a reasonable sense of taxonomic groups, but I’ve still got looooots left to learn. And that’s just for the macromoths. The micros, I haven’t even really touched them yet. I’ve already got my hands full. So the micros from last night, for the most part, went unidentified.

Grotes Pinion
Grote's Pinion, one of a couple of gray pinions that all look kinda similar

Autumn isn’t the most colourful season, as far as moths go. There are lots of browns and tans and grays, colours that blend in with the muted leaves and bark that dominate at this time of year. Still, most of the moths that are on the wing in the cooler months are subtly beautiful in their own way, with intricate patterning and soft hues.

Bethune's Pinion
Bethune's Pinion, vibrating its wings to warm up the muscles before it flies off (I'd chilled it in the fridge to keep it still for the photo)

The majority of the species I caught last night are probably ones that will overwinter as adults, tucked into a nook somewhere. A few may have laid eggs that will hatch out come spring, while the adults die with prolonged cold weather. In general, the pinions, sallows, and some of the darts are the fall/spring groups, with members from these three groups comprising the majority of a catch. Eight of my macromoths last night belonged to one of these three groups.

Hoary Pinion
Hoary Pinion, sleek in its gray cloak

So many familiar faces: every one of the moths above were at my lights in the spring, too. They’ll head off for a long winter’s snooze, but I’ll see them again in five or six months. It’s kind of nice to have two opportunities a year to learn these species; others may only fly for a short span, some as few as two or three weeks in the middle of summer, and it can be hard to learn and remember some of these from one year to the next.

Waxed Sallow
Waxed Sallow, nearly identical to sister species Silky Sallow

New faces, too. This guy, and the next, below, and the one after that, they were all new to me last night. I find this an exciting aspect of mothing that one doesn’t really get with many other groups of organisms. Once I’ve learned the birds of my yard, the 150 species or so that I might expect to encounter in the area, that’s pretty much it; every bird you see is most likely going to be one of those 150. But moths, there’s so much less predictability in moths. Even my friend and co-author Dave, a long-time moth’er, still gets species he’s never seen before, or maybe seen once or twice, turning up at locations that he’s been mothing for years and years.

9878 - Lithomoia germana - American Brindle
American Brindle, a pinion that poses like and so could be confused with a prominent in the genus Schizura

For me, part of the reason I’m getting so many new species is just that I’m still so new to the hobby, relatively speaking. It may be possible to learn your birds in a year or two, if you apply yourself, but moths will take years. Part of it is that Dan and I have been moving around a bit the last couple years, and each new location, with new habitat, provides new species. However, a large part of it is that there are more than 2000 species of moths in Ontario, many of them rare and/or local in occurrence. To see all of Ontario’s species will require time and patience, and perhaps a good bit of traveling to different regions and habitats.

Dashed Gray Pinion
Dashed Gray Pinion, another new species for me

You’ll notice that most of the moths presented here have a green ruler alongside them. The marks on the ruler are millimeters, and give you a sense of scale. I didn’t used to include a ruler in my moth photos, but have been trying to make a point of doing so lately. The measurements will be used in the new field guide, and taking a photo is easier than writing it all down in a notepad, since I’m taking the photo anyway. Also, it allows Dave to confirm my ID, or to identify something for me if I don’t know it. I still defer to him in that department – I can’t wait till there’s a better guide out for identifying moths! All the parts of the book that actually require being able to identify the moths I’ve left to him to tackle; it seemed best.

Green Cloverworm
Green Cloverworm, a variable species that's fairly abundant in fall and often seen flying during the day

The trap will get packed up and head back down to the basement again, now. If I’m lucky we might get another good night of moderately warm temperatures, but anything more this year I will consider a bonus; I’m expecting the season to be pretty much finished at this point. It’s so sad to put things to bed for the winter, but at the same time, it makes their return in the spring that much sweeter. I’ll be much more excited to discover a Morrison’s Sallow circling my porch light in March than I was yesterday.

Sensitive Fern Borer
Sensitive Fern Borer, looking a little worn and having some technical difficulties with its wings (though it arrived at the light so apparently flies fine)

And since I’ve now run out of things to say (I’m impressed I managed even 10 paragraphs of rambling), here are the rest of the moths from last night, sans ramble.

Autumnal Moth
Autumnal Moth, which, appropriate to its name, flies in Sept/Oct; ours all seem to be quite pale individuals

Snowy-shouldered Acleris
Snowy-shouldered Acleris, one of the minority of micro species showy and/or common enough to have a common name

Caloptilia serotinella
Caloptilia serotinella; no common name. This guy is less than a half inch long.

acleris sp
Maybe Speckled Acleris, Acleris negundana; there is some amazing variation between individuals of the same species in the Acleris genus, so it can sometimes be hard to make a confident ID

Moths, and me

7885 - Darapsa myron - Virginia Creeper Sphinx
Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Darapsa myron

I finally got a chance this evening to sit down and put together the June edition of The Moth and Me. For something different, I set it up as a contest. Visit each of the sites, find the name of the moth shown and the country it’s from (or at least, the country of the blog it’s from), email the answers to me, and if you have them all right you’ll be entered into a draw for a $5 Amazon.com gift certificate (or Amazon.ca if you’re Canadian, or Amazon.co.uk if you’re British, or… you get the idea). It’s not a huge sum, but maybe it’ll help you finally decide to buy that book you’ve had your eye on for a while. Mostly, it’s a not-so-subtle attempt to show off just how cool and diverse moths are, and get you to go actually visit some of these sites. :)

7796 - Sphinx eremitus - Hermit Sphinx
Hermit Sphinx, Sphinx eremitus

Here on my own blog, I haven’t posted anything on moths for a little while, there’s just been so much else to write about! So here’s a brief mothing interlude. I’m up well over 200 species identified for the year so far, and there’s no way I could include everything I’ve been seeing. So I thought I would just mention one group of moths that, because of their size and unusual shape, are one of the more eye-catching families of moths. The family is Sphingidae, the Sphinx moths, which includes some 124 species in North America.

7822 - Smerinthus cerisyi - One-eyed Sphinx
One-eyed Sphinx, Smerinthus cerisyi

The most familiar to most people are probably the day-flying hawkmoths, which are often seen hovering at flowers in gardens or meadows. Other people may know the group by their caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms for the long “spike” that protrudes from the tail-end, such as the Tomato Hornworm aka Five-spotted Hawkmoth. However, these two subsets make up only a tiny portion of the sphinx moths.

7828 - Pachysphinx modesta - Modest Sphinx
Modest Sphinx, Pachysphinx modesta

All of the moths in this post are ones that have come to my lights at night so far this spring. With the addition of the Nessus Sphinx that I spotted briefly visiting the dog poop on the driveway, I’m up to 13 species of sphinx. There’s an incredible range of colours, shapes and sizes even within this small bunch of species. The Lettered Sphinx is one of the smallest, at approximately 1.5 inches (4cm) long, and of the ones shown here, the Modest Sphinx is the largest, at nearly the size of my palm.

7825 - Paonias myops - Small-eyed Sphinx
Small-eyed Sphinx, Paonias myops

The Small-eyed Sphinx is the most colourful, with rich yellows, periwinkle blues and deep maroons. Some of the most unicolored are in the nominate genus Sphinx.

7871 - Deidamia inscripta - Lettered Sphinx
Lettered Sphinx, Deidamia inscripta

There are some that curl their abdomens up, holding their wings above the surface they’re resting on in a very distinct posture: Lettered Sphinx, for instance, or Walnut Sphinx. Abbott’s Sphinx curves its back and curls its wings downwards when at rest; the parallel lines along the trailing edge of the forewing create the fairly convincing impression of broken bark.

7870 - Sphecodina abbottii - Abbott's Sphinx
Abbott’s Sphinx, Sphecodina abbottii

The sphinx moths are one of the most well-studied groups of moths, simply because their large size, often bright colours and eye-catching shapes and habits make them more interesting than most other groups of moths. Sphinx moths, like silkworm moths, are sometimes raised from caterpillars in captivity, providing information on their life cycle.

7784 - Dolba hyloeus - Pawpaw Sphinx
Pawpaw Sphinx, Dolba hyloeus

Of course, most of that rearing was for the purpose of then killing and mounting the specimens for private collections. Just like birding with binoculars evolved from the hobby of collecting with a shotgun, so too has mothing with a digital camera evolved from collecting and pinning specimens. Many entomologists still maintain collections, and they do have important uses, but it’s becoming more and more popular simply to record what you’ve found or caught, and then let it go.

7809 - Sphinx kalmiae - Laurel Sphinx
Laurel Sphinx, Sphinx kalmiae

The closest I’ve come to encountering a sphinx caterpillar in the wild is the mummified shells I found on the twigs of trees overhanging the lake during the winter. One website hypothesizes that sphinx caterpillars do most of their feeding at night, which would explain why they’re rarely encountered. Another factor is that sphinxes are never around in large numbers the way some things, like tent caterpillars, can be, although Lettered Sphinx can be found in small but moderate numbers in early spring, sometimes with as many as five or six individuals caught in a night.

7827 - Amorpha juglandis - Walnut Sphinx
Walnut Sphinx, Amorpha juglandis

Most other species you’re likely to encounter probably every year, but you may only see one or two over the course of the whole season. For example, the Laurel Sphinx above was a species I caught one of last year, and have only seen once this year so far. Some species have short flight windows, only a couple of months in the summer, but there are others that fly for several months, such as the Northern Apple Sphinx which is on the wing from May through September.

7787 - Ceratomia undulosa - Waved Sphinx (2)
Waved Sphinx, Ceratomia undulosa

The caterpillars of most sphinx moths actually burrow underground to pupate, though a select few might pupate in the loose leaf litter. Depending on their life cycle, some may spend the winter this way, while others may overwinter as eggs.

7824 - Paonias excaecatus - Blinded Sphinx (3)
Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecatus (no pupil in the eyespot = blind)

I must admit that I get excited when a sphinx comes in to my light. They’re such striking moths – the charismatic megafauna of the moth world. I’ve illustrated 12 species here, but I expect I’ll still see a few more over the course of the summer.

W Week – Wings of the day

White-striped Black, Trichodezia albovittata
White-striped Black, Trichodezia albovittata

To wrap up my W week I thought I’d post the counterpart of yesterday’s Wings of the Night: whereas yesterday was moths, today is butterflies. Well, mostly. Two butterflies and a diurnal moth. The latter is above, with Raven’s foot for scale. That wasn’t actually intentional; I noticed this little black-and-white lep fluttering along the roadside, and I had Raven sit-stay while I chased it around in circles waiting for it to land. It gravitated toward Raven’s black fur, warmed by the sun, and tried landing in a couple of spots on her haunches before settling in front of her paw. Even there, it didn’t stay long, just long enough for me to snap a couple of blurry shots as it trembled its wings.

It’s a White-striped Black, a diurnal species of wet areas within deciduous woodlands. Its larval foodplant is jewelweed, aka touch-me-not, part of the genus Impatiens (though I’m not sure that it would be interested in the ones you grow in your garden). Common, it can be seen most of the year, across most of the continent, from Alaska to California to the Atlantic.

Spring Azure, Celastrina ladon
Spring Azure, Celastrina ladon

Not far up the road I discovered this beautiful little blue guy. Although I regularly seem little blue butterflies flitting about in the spring, they hardly ever seem to come to rest anywhere, and when they do, you barely have time to get your camera to your eye before they’re off again. This was the first rather obliging individual I’ve encountered this spring, and the closer look allowed me to identify it as a Spring Azure. Another species that’s found nearly continent-wide, it’s generally associated with edges or openings in forests.

Spring Azures, Celastrina ladon
Spring Azures, Celastrina ladon

Larva are associated with dogwood, meadowsweet and New Jersey Tea, but the adults will nectar on a reasonably wide variety of flowers. I found these ones obsessed with a patch of Sessile Bellwort. They never flew far from it, and when they landed (always with their wings shut, of course), it would always be to visit the flowers on these plants. Interestingly, they spent as much time at the base of the flowers as elsewhere, and I wondered if they were working their proboscis between the petals to get at the nectar rather than coming up the long way from the mouth of the flower.

Olympia Marble, Euchloe olympia
Olympia Marble, Euchloe olympia

And finally, Olympia Marble. This is a species I had never seen before; in fact, I had never seen any marble before, so when I came across these while out hiking with Dan through one of our MAPS sites, I had no idea what it was. The patterning on the underside of the hindwing is distinct, and beautiful, a rich yellow-green. Their eyes were coloured to match.

Olympia Marbles, Euchloe olympia

They’re found in open woodlands and open habitats such as grassy knolls and meadows, and alvars and sand dunes. Add to that treed rock barrens, which is where I found one pair of these. It was the male that caught my eye, as he fluttered in the air around a stationary female who sat on the top of a wildflower stem. After a few moments he came to rest beside her, and then after a few moments more he took off and flew away. The female, meanwhile, continued to sit there, and I was able to get quite close to her. The first photo was actually of a second individual that I encountered along an open road allowance later that afternoon.

Olympia Marbles, Euchloe olympia

Presumably the male mated with the female and then headed off, leaving the female to lay her eggs on her own. The species is fairly specific to Hedge Mustard and various types of rockcress. The adults fly in late spring and then die, leaving behind just their progeny to carry on. Interestingly, the eggs aren’t laid on the leaves of the plant, but rather the flower buds, with a single egg per bud. The caterpillars, when they hatch out, eat the flowers and seeds but ignore the leaves.

For more wings, of both night and day but all lacking clubbed antennae, pop over to NAMBI for the latest edition of The Moth and Me. Although it was due up a couple of days ago, being busy with family has slowed me down so that I didn’t meet the intended deadline. Ah well – better late than never!

W Week – Wings of the night

7746 - Automeris io - Io Moth (2)
Io Moth, Automeris io

Okay, so maybe that’s stretching a bit to tie the subject in to W week, but I just had to share some of these moths with you. I’ve continued to do mothing on a fairly regular basis, aside from a brief stretch last week where it was just too chilly or two rainy for mothing to be productive. Things warmed up this week, and a couple of nights ago I set out my sheet and my light trap to see what new stuff was flying.

Well, was it ever a productive evening! I had around five dozen species of macro-moth, the larger species that are easier to identify. I haven’t been spending much time or energy on the micro-moths since they’re usually harder to ID, and I figure it’s probably best to take it in steps. It’s enough work just to learn and remember the big ones, especially when they start coming at you fast and furious (so to speak).

The above moth was the indisputable highlight of the night. Or morning, depending on how you look at it; I found it hanging on to the inside wall of my moth trap. Sometimes these large moths can get rubbed up a little inside the trap as they crawl around the egg cartons (although not so much as to cause harmful damage; it’s mostly just aesthetics that suffer), but this one was in very good shape. It’s an Io Moth, a male. The females have similar patterning but are a browny-red. They’re widespread across eastern North America, and can be found much of the year. Although there’s nothing to give you scale in the photo, he was probably about 10 cm (4 in) across with his wings spread out.

6840 - Plagodis serinaria - Lemon Plagodis
Lemon Plagodis, Plagodis serinaria

Another yellow moth, this one a little smaller (3 cm, 1.25 inch across). It was not the least bit cooperative about a photo, despite a number of attempts (via re-chilling it in the fridge before trying again). Eventually I just gave up and took a photo through the clear plastic container. It’s a lovely one, though, a Lemon Plagodis. Mostly a spring and early summer species, it’s associated with deciduous forests of the northeast.

7941 - Furcula modesta - Modest Furcula (2)
Modest Furcula, Furcula modesta

There are several species of Furcula; all have these dark bands bordered by orange dots (not as noticeable on this species) on a white background, and a curly dark blue and black thorax. This one, the Modest Furcula, has very thick, very dark bands compared to the others. It’s only just starting to appear right now and will fly for much of the summer. It’s widespread, found in deciduous forests from southern Canada into New England in the east and Arizona in the west.

7941 - Furcula modesta - Modest Furcula
Modest Furcula, Furcula modesta

The Furculas have this cool habit of curling up and playing dead when disturbed. Presumably it helps with discouraging predators, but it does make it hard to get a photo. In Europe the Furculas are known as Kittens (eg., Modest Kitten), which makes you want to scoop it up and cuddle it. They have such great names for moths over there.

7901 - Clostera apicalis - Apical Prominent
Apical Prominent, Clostera apicalis

The prominents are among my favourite groups of moths, although it’s hard to say exactly why. Perhaps because they’re never found in large numbers, and they all have interesting shapes and colours, they seem special somehow. This is one of a couple that have a similar pattern, with that thick white squiggle at the rear of the wing; I think this one is the Apical Prominent. I love the tail sticking up. Another summer species, it’s found across much of Canada and into bits of northern US, associated with early successional/riparian species such as birch, poplar and willow.

8695 - Zale undularis - Black Zale
Black Zale, Zale undularis

The Black Zale is a sexy moth. The photo really doesn’t capture the rich deepness of the black. It has an almost velvety feel to it. It’s got the characteristic Zale shape, including a couple of tufts on the back of the thorax, but it’s the only Zale species to be all dark like this. It’s found through most of eastern North America. Up here it’s a spring species but in the south it has a longer flight period.

9053 - Pseudeustrotia carneola - Pink-barred Pseudeustrotia
Pink-barred Pseudeustrotia, Pseudeustrotia carneola

This photo is of one from my trap, but I actually found one this afternoon just sitting on a blade of grass in a field. It’s a small moth with a big name, one of those sorts of Latin names that I need to pause to sound out – Soo-doo-stro-tia. It’s a holarctic species, found through both North America and Eurasia; in the former, it occurs in open fields and meadows and in forest edges and clearings (the latter would be the case with us, since we have no field within sight of my moth trap).

9259 - Acronicta noctivaga - Night-Wandering Dagger
Night-wandering Dagger, Acronicta noctivaga

And finally, I think that this is a Night-wandering Dagger (aren’t most moths night-wandering?), but there are several black-and-white moths with complex markings like this. The key to identification is often looking at whether the wing spots are bordered in white, whether the lines are jagged or rise up on one end, which lines are pale and which are dark, where the dark shading is. The daggers are a group of mostly monochromatic species. Some of them have elaborate markings like this, while others are pale with distinct black dashes at the shoulder and rear edge and sometimes in between.

That’s it for this batch, but I’m sure it won’t be the last!