Worcestershire Record No. 6 April 1999 p. 25

MOTH IDENTIFICATION - A BEGINNER'S EXPERIENCE

Ian Duncan

I started using a moth trap in February 1998 and have found it such an enjoyable and rewarding experience I felt moved to write down my thoughts to try to encourage others to start using a moth light. I purchased a Heath-type trap -this is a small collapsible, trap which can be run off the mains or car battery. I paid 106 for the unit including one spare light bulb. It is lightweight and very easily assembled. The trap consists of a box with an inverted cone on top. The fluorescent tube light has 3 plastic fins attached and is inserted in the cone. Moths are attracted to the light and fall into the box. Some may escape but this can be discouraged by putting egg cartons in the box for the moths to settle or hide. The light can be controlled with a timer switch. The moths can be examined and identified in the morning and then released unharmed.

I purchased two books to help with the identification of the moths -Colour Identification Guide to Moths of the British Isles by Bernard Skinner-price 40 and Collins Guide to the Insects of Britain and Western Europe by Michael Chinnery -price 10-95. I also purchased The Natural History of Moths by Mark Young which provides very interesting additional information on moths-price 27. My only other purchased was a dozen plastic tubes to store the moths in the fridge if I needed time to identify or photograph them. They will keep for several days in this way. My family were not too keen initially to have moths in the fridge (!) but they have slowly come to appreciate them. 1 bought the tubes from Watkins and Doncaster the naturalists suppliers -price 8. 

February

I started on February 1st and on the first night I had one moth-it was brown and beautifully marked. I consulted Skinner but had no idea where to begin with the identification so I paid my first of many visits to Peter. Holmes (a local "expert")who told me it was a Pale Brindled Beauty. It is difficult initially to relate specimens to the illustrations in Skinner which are all shown pinned. Chinnery is much easier to use but unfortunately shows only a limited number of species. However you gradually begin to get a "feel" for the moths and it is well worth persevering. It is a great help if you can find someone to help you at the beginning. Butterfly Conservation, with the assistance of the County Moth Recorder (Tony Simpson) are compiling a list of the 200 or so moths most likely to be attracted to gardens in the West Midlands. This list will be available early in 1999 and should be a big help for beginners using the Skinner guide.

There then followed a spell with no moths until the 17th -a warmer, cloudy night. Three new species: Dotted Border, Hebrew Character, and Clouded Drab. This was followed by the Satellite, Small and Common Quakers before the end of the month. A quiet start but good to get your eye in before the deluge of individuals and species in the summer. 

March

I was beginning to recognise the nights favoured by moths, preferably mild, humid and overcast. Cold clear and moonlit nights were definitely not liked. I was also starting to appreciate the wide range of "plumages" shown by some moths e.g. the well named Clouded Drab. Some of the more spectacular species started to appear I had my first Early Thorn then 49 individuals and 8 species on the same night. By the end of March I had reached 18 species. 

April

I missed the first two weeks and returned to lots of new and exciting species: Swallow and Pebble Prominents as well as my first Pugs and the nationally rare Silver Cloud. I was also interested in the other insects attracted to the trap -1 had no idea Caddis Flies were so beautiful and Dung Beetles so smelly. There was now a steady stream of new species and I reached 29 by the end of the month. I was now eagerly anticipating opening the trap each morning to see what delights I had caught. 

May

May started with the delightful Brimstone Moth Garden Carpet and the curious Angle Shades. The 12th brought a real thrill -my first Poplar Hawk Moth -I never realised there were insects of this size in my garden. It was at this time that I decided to start taking photos of all my moths to help me with future identification. Also I suddenly started to become aware of day-flying moths: Silver-Y, Mother Shipton and Speckled Yellow-it is really surprising that there is no good guide to day flying moths. Mid-May brought my first Heart-and-Dart which would be an ever present for the rest of the summer. More delights followed: Muslin Moth, Buff Ermine, and the stunning Maidens Blush, Oak Hook Tip, and Small Phoenix. Despite the poor weather I was up to 73 species by the end of the month. 

June

I was being told this was a poor year for moths but it was actually quite a help to me as the new moths were appearing slowly but surely giving me time to get familiar with the jizz of the different species. It is intriguing how many species are only seen on one night-why is this? The first week in June brought my first Wainscot, the exotic Snout and the amazing Buff Tip-I really am running out of superlatives! There was now a flood of new species including Dark Arches, Small Magpie, Rib and Wave, and Mottled Beauty. There were lots of trips to Peter to distinguish the difficult Minor species. A friendly Robin joined me at this time in the morning looking for a few tasty morsels -I had to be more careful in releasing the moths! The 15th was a red letter day: the shimmering Burnished Brass and the superb Elephant Hawk Moth. On the 20th I reached my 100th species with 7 new species in one night including the Small Elephant Hawk Moth. I had my first definite Uncertain (this is not a contradiction) on the 22nd - this is another well-named species which can be hard to identify. The month ended with the lovely Swallowtail Moth bringing my total to 153. Throughout the month I had an average of 12 species per night well down on the normal apparently but good for a beginner allowing me to keep on top of the identification.

July

Every night now was bringing new species. The 4th brought 11 Buff Tips and the 5th 11 Dark Arches. More stunners such as Spectacle, Drinker and Beautiful Hook Tip appeared. Mid-month was probably the culmination of the year when Garden Tiger and the very subtle Tissue appeared on consecutive nights. Second brood moths such as Swallow Prominent, Early Thorn, and Garden Carpet were now emerging. The list of lovely new moths seemed never ending -Mother of Pearl, Foxglove Pug, and Scalloped Oak to name a few. On the 30th, while looking for Grayling on the Malverns, I stumbled on a Hummingbird Hawk Moth on some buddleia in Hollybush Quarry. The average number of species per night had now risen to 20 and by the end of the month I had seen 176 species of which 150 had been in the garden.

August

Early in the month I attended a moth night organised by Peter Holmes on Craycombe Hill-this produced a further 11 new species including Ruby Tiger, Purple Bar, and Coxcomb Prominent. My nightly trap was now bringing only the occasional new species but the 200 was in sight. I had several exotic sounding moths (but really rather drab) True Lovers Knot - how did some of these moths get their names? Finally on the 16th Bordered Pug was my 200th species. Most of these are the larger macro moths there are many more micro moths which I will turn my attention to next year.

All records should be sent to the County Moth Recorder to assist in the understanding of the status and distribution of the moths in the area.

Thoughts

When I started back in February I had no idea my moth trap would bring me so much enjoyment. The richness and variety of the moth life around us is really quite amazing. I think my outlay of just under 200 is among the best value money I have ever spent. I am looking forward to further revelations in the future - there are over 1300 species (500 macros and 800+ micros) recorded in Worcestershire. As you can see I am well and truly hooked and I would be delighted to help anyone else who would like to get started - phone 01684 568415

Editor's note; a full up-to-date Guide to the status of larger moths of Worcestershire by county recorder Tony Simpson is published in this issue of Worcestershire Record

 
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