I’m at my parents’ this evening, and it is chilly, unseasonably cool (it seems to me) for a mid-June night, nearly summer. I would ordinarily be outside, checking for moths on the blacklighted sheets I’d have set up, but it’s too cool for that tonight; approaching 10 C (50 F), the moths are, for the most part, tucked into sheltered spots waiting for a warmer night to fly. Since it’s June, there ought to be many nights of 20 C (68 F) temperatures that would be much more ideal. I’ve got my trap running anyway, since it involves very little effort and hey, you never know. But I’m not expecting much when I check it in the morning; the couple times I’ve peeked out the window at it I haven’t seen anything at the sheet I set up behind the light.
In contrast, earlier this month I had some excellent, warm nights. I have yet to see any nights with a sheet covered in moths, but that’s probably just as well – my identification isn’t good enough yet for me to be able to pick through the common stuff to locate the more unusual species, and I would probably feel a little overwhelmed. Even just the couple of busy-ish nights I’ve had, with 50-80 species, have been enough to keep me busy for many hours the next day. Another disadvantage to not knowing anything is that I have to photograph every moth I encounter if I want to identify it, whereas if I already know 40 of those 50 species there’s not much photographing that needs to be done the next day.
The other problem with getting so many moths is trying to choose a select few to post to the blog. With such variety, how do you narrow it down? For the non-moth’er, the large or colourful species are the obvious choices, but even among that group there is quite a selection. I eventually settled on half a dozen that I thought were the most interesting from the last few weeks. Narrowing it down to just the species I had identified helped considerably as well.
The above moth is a Wild Cherry Sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), which came to the blacklight at my parents’ last week. I happened to be checking the sheet as it flew in, and I knew something that large had to be a sphinx, so I really wanted to catch it. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my large-moth containers there at the sheet with me. I didn’t trust it to remain (it still hadn’t settled on the sheet, but was buzzing across its surface), so I ended up catching it in one hand, creating a loose cage with my fingers. Good thing I did, too, as it’s a somewhat uncommon species, and one that The Moth Man hadn’t seen before, so we needed photos.
On a similar note, another uncommon species that he hadn’t seen so we needed photos of was this one, the Silver-spotted Ghost Moth. The reason this species isn’t often seen is less due to its abundance, however, and more because of its habits. Most moth’ers attract their moths to some sort of lure, either a UV light or sugary syrup concoctions. This moth rarely comes to lights, so it’s infrequently caught. It has a sort of lekking behaviour, where giant swarms of males form in the evening near the species’ host trees, alders, and female moths will come to check them all out. The moths are most often encountered in these swarms. In the case of my moth, it was the rare individual that did come to check out the light, and I found it sitting in the trap. This species is also unusual in that, taxonomically, it is more closely related to the wee bitty moths than the larger moths, but it itself is about two inches long.
The caterpillar of this moth will be more familiar to most people than the moth itself. This is the adult form of the Wooly Bear caterpillar, that fuzzy, brown and black caterpillar frequently seen in the fall and perceived as a predictor of the nature of the impending winter. For such a distinct-looking caterpillar, the adult is rather bland, although its abdomen has an orange wash to it. The adults are known as Isabella Moths (Pyrrharctia isabella).
There are a number of different species of tiger moths, which are generally characterized by being about an inch in size and fuzzy, with a fuzzy caterpillar stage. The Isabella Moth is part of this group, as is the above, appropriately named the Pink-legged Tiger Moth (Spilosoma latipennis). There are two tiger moths that are nearly entirely snow white, this one and the very similar Agreeable Tiger Moth. The primary difference is in the legs – the Agreeable’s are a yellow-orange instead of pink. I’ve seen a few Agreeables so far this spring, but this was the first Pink-legged I’d caught.
Yet another bunch of tiger moths have black and tan-striped wings. This one is a Harnessed Tiger Moth. There are half a dozen or more species with this sort of pattern, and telling them apart relies on the size of the stripes, the presence of cross-bars, and the colour and pattern of the hindwings. Last week I also caught a Little Virgin Tiger Moth, very similar but for the orangeish rather than pinkish hindwings, and thinner and more numerous stripes.
When Blackburnian and I were at his mom’s place, we went for a walk through the bit of forest that backs onto her property. As we walked we kicked up many moths, about an inch in size and a bland tan colour. They were these guys, Stone-winged Owlets (Chytolita petrealis), so named for the stone colour of their wings (apparently; I think of stones as gray, not beige, personally). The long up-curved “snout” is actually a pair of palps, and are used as sensory organs. Many moths have palps, but they’re more exaggerated in some species than others.
This last one is the subtle but beautiful Unicorn Prominent (Schizura unicornis). I’m not sure why it’s been called unicorn since it has no obvious horn (unlike the previous moth). I love the shades of mocha, peach, olive and teal in the wings of this moth. I couldn’t get him to do it again for the photo, but while he was sitting in the little jar I had him in he had his hind end and wings tightly furled together and raised up in the air, like a bit of peeling bark. The prominents are a varied bunch, with some mottled like this one, others smooth and sleek, and still others rather fuzzy like the tiger moths.
As usual, if you’re interested in browsing some of the other species I’ve caught, check out my moths photoset on Flickr.