“Eye Eye”

Some mornings the moth trap produces a real wonder.

While noting the usual suspects ( footmen, yellow underwings, magpie etc etc ) I saw a hawk moth on the egg boxes. At first I assumed it was a poplar hawk moth, but it’s body was curled up like a convulous hawk moth so I took a closer look . As I gently took out the egg box on which it was sitting , it flashed two extraordinary blue and pink eyes at me.

The eyes were startling and bright and were unexpected enough to deter most predators. Just as quickly they were hidden again under dull coloured fore wings and the eyes were closed.

Many moth names are expressive or simply odd, so it was a little disappointing to find that this wonderful creature has been given the pedestrianly obvious name of Eyed Hawk-moth Smerinthus ocellata

Maybe you can suggest something more fitting to this eye catching beauty!

Suggestions please?

While I wasn’t looking.

Nearly a year ago, on a very hot day, a solitary wasp built a mud nest under my kitchen window sill. It filled the mud dome with food for it grubs and then it sealed the young in and flew away.

I have checked on it periodically, hoped it was still alive after a very cold winter and an icy spring. It was well sheltered from the hail by the overhang and while I was busy doing something else , the young bit their way out of the rock hard dome and literally flew the nest.

I wonder if a new wasp will be back to build again. It is cool and wet this year and these wasps are on the edge of their range, so maybe they will not venture north again this year.

The moths are about three weeks late this year. I have been mothing in this garden for so long now that I know when each species should appear. The yellow underwings are here: the large and the broad bordered: the first fan foots are here, the ubiquitous hearts and darts are here in proper numbers and the uncertains are definitely on the wing. Dark arches are appearing, common footmen and little magpie moths are in the moth trap and on the windows. Orache moths have turned up and today a lovely furry headed poplar hawk moth took a liking to my pencil and sat on it all rainy day. You can see my note book of species noted each day under his wings as he sheltered the endlessly rainy day away on the dry garden table.

Hearing the quarter moon.

It is warm and still. I forgot to water my two tomato plants and the half row of beans that have shouldered above the soil.

My neighbour sneezes: the sweet chestnut is in flower. Somewhere a food processor churns, or is it a washing machine or a heat pump? Someone calls in a cat who wants to hunt the light night away. The cars have gone, a lone motorbike rips through the silence . Curfew is an hour away and the air is sweet.

Very small white moths appear. The hobby sheep bleats in the bottom of his lucky garden .

A mosquito whines along the gathering darkness, shutters are descending and the last blackbird fusses out of the cherry tree, a half eaten fruit in his yellow beak.

I think there is still a glass of wine undrunk indoors, so I leave the watering can by the butt, bow to the brightening moon and go quietly inside.

The moths are back again.

This morning there were oak beauties, clouded drabs, dotted borders and Hebrew characters .

Oak beauty

Their names are beautiful and are now more familiar. Identifying moths was once something for the high summer when I had holidays and time to breathe. Last year when lockdown started and covid gave me fear and the time to appreciate it , I started trapping moths much earlier for distraction and escape.

Dotted border.

It turns out moths fly much earlier in the year than I imagined and I found a whole host of new species that would come to the light in surprisingly cold nights. I trapped much later in the year and become familiar with the species who over winter and are found in the late autumn and the spring, bookending the year with unpretentious names like clouded drabs.

Clouded drab

I checked my own photographic records of these glimpses of the night and in between the snaps of transient moths were the others pictures of the year, the garden, the cats, roses and snow and nothing else. It was as if time had stood still – same cats, same sunshine, same peonies.

Hebrew character

Horrors have raged around me. I have been lucky to spend more time than I expected amongst the quiet moths.

How to moth trap.

This post is for those who would like to trap moths and discover what is flying at night when they are safe in bed. If moths give you the heebie-jeebies then skip this post!

I am sure there are other ways of doing it, with other equipment, but I am just sharing my own experience for those who are curious.

I have been trapping for about 12 years on a regular basis.  I had been out with other naturalists many years ago in Wales, but it wasn’t until my husband bought me a trap for a present that I started in earnest.

 

First thing you need is a moth trap.   

https://www.watdon.co.uk/   Watkins and Doncaster provided Charles Darwin with his equipment.  They send across the world and they know what they are doing.  I recommend their basic plastic bucket trap to start with and two bulbs (in case you smash one!).

All a trap is, is a UV light bulb which attracts the moths, above a plastic funnel.  The moths then fall down into the bucket below, where they perch on cardboard egg boxes in safety for the night.

The next morning you switch off the light, open the trap gently and carefully remove each egg box one by one. You then photograph the moths (in case they fly off!) and then try to identify them using a good guide book.

I use British Moths by Chris Manley published by Bloomsbury.  I have not found a similar single volume guide for France.  I am certain there are excellent guides for where you live.  There are also some excellent free on line identification sites.  I use https://ukmoths.org.uk/systematic-list/ and also http://montgomeryshiremoths.org.uk/ which is very good for showing what is around at the right time of year.

You make a note of the weather and date and keep a list of what you find in English and or Latin.  I tick off all the species that I have confidently identified in my guide book, so that I can find them again more easily.  I later send my list and photos to my local naturalist organisation, https://faune-alsace.org  so that my records can be compared with others, but you can skip this bit!

That is the bare bones and I am aware that it sounds unutterably dull and nerdy.  The reason for doing it is because you get to see the most wonderful creatures with your own eyes, while drinking a cup of tea on the back step of your own home and that takes some beating as a wildlife experience.  I have been lucky enough to live in Zambia and to spend months on safari, I have lived in Costa Rica for four years and in Brazil for two and spent as much time as possible in the forests, rivers and oceans, seeing wildlife that most people only see on David Attenborough tv programmes and yet I have never enjoyed wildlife in such comfort, or been so amazed on a daily basis as I have been when moth trapping in my own back garden!

 

Tips.

  1.  It takes a long time to learn the common moths that you will encounter on your patch.  It has taken me 10 years to be confident with the common moths and even then I make mistakes.  There are a lots of moths and many of them look the same!!!

2. Start by identifying the ones with clear colours or markings.  Leave the dull ones until much later.  There is no shame in being confused.  If the guide book says the moth that you have spent hours identifying is very rare in your area, then you probably have made a mistake.

3. Keep your moths cool.  If it is warm and the trap has been left in the sun before you open it, then they will all fly away before you identify them.  Move your trap into the coolest shade you can and let them settle before taking out the boxes.  If you do this, you do not need to put them in collecting jars to look at.  They will sit happily on the egg box while you admire them.

4. Take a photo on your phone or camera, so you can look back at them and identify them when you have time.  This final phase often requires a glass of chilled wine and a sofa!

5. Let the moths fly off when they want to, or shake onto a bush.  My cats used to try to eat them, but now treat them with feline disdain.

 

Enjoy!!

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1. UV light and plastic funnel.

2. Box containing old egg boxes and electrical connection.

3. Lead to mains or to a big battery if you want to set up the trap in a remote place.

4. Identification guide.