Saturday, 3 March 2018

Costa Rica - Moths and other insects

Last November, we visited Costa Rica, primarily on a birding trip, but it offered good opportunities to see moths.  Simon said before we went 'I hope you are not going to spend all your time looking at insects....'

In some places, there were moths around the hotel lights after dark, but at Rancho Naturalista, in the Talamanca Mountains, there is an illuminated sheet, just inside the rainforest. This is switched on about 3 or 4 nights a week, and attracts hundreds of moths and many other insects including mantis, wasps, flies and katydids.

I found myself getting up at 4am to photograph the moths, (and rescuing some by taking them away from the light and into the rainforest), before the woodcreepers and flycatchers arrived to feast at first light.  Some moths could be easily assigned to families eg hawkmoths and tiger moths, but with no field guide available some were much trickier – made more difficult by the incredible mimicry which is an important survival strategy.

There are moths which resemble wasps, as well as wasps which resemble moths; moths which looked like butterflies, and moths which looked like scorpions; and others which mimicked their toxic relatives. There were many moths which resembled dead leaves complete with ragged edges, ‘disease’ blotches and sometimes even curled wings. There was even one moth which resembled a thorn.


Early, one morning, I was surprised by a huge Saturniid moth, probably Rhescyntis hippodamia. It is the size of a dinner plate and fluttered about like a large bat, before landing on the sheet. You can see how huge it is compared to the hawkmoths on the sheet next to it. If you look closely, you can see that the tips of the forewings resemble a snake’s head.

You can see more photos from the trip here

We spotted  number of rather impressive caterpillars including this handsome creature:

There were plenty of beautiful butterflies - my favourites were the glasswings – we were lucky enough to find a lekking site in a dappled patch of sunlight in the rainforest where the males were displaying to attract mates.  

Lurking under the hummingbird feeders outside our room, we spotted a few hooded mantis. These amazing insects actually catch and eat hummingbirds - although thankfully we didn't see this happen.

And no, I didn't spend all my time looking at insects - we also saw many birds, amphibians and reptiles, and mammals. The only thing I was short of was sleep!

Clare Boyes

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

2018 January Moth Challenge

Hello Mothers,

The January challenge has now finished, the data is all in and has been collated in the two charts below.

This year 12 mothers took part (one more than last year) and between us we recorded 22 species, the same as last year (11 macro and 11 micro) and 204 moths (179 macro and 25 micro), which is again an excellent effort on everyone's part. However, in general, moth numbers were well down on last year.
Only one person achieved the macro part of the challenge, with 10 plus species that was myself with 10 species. Julie Pearce/Mark Thomas and Sue Southam were next with 6 species. I also managed to achieve the micro part of the challenge with 8 species.
The six recorders who managed to record nothing this year will have to share the coveted ‘wooden bulb’ award (formally the ‘wooden spoon’ award).

Click to enlarge

Now for a more in depth breakdown of what was recorded.

Macros - As can be seen in the chart below several people managed to record 3 species. Across all recorders the most numerous species was the Winter Moth with. Once again the Mottled Umber came second with 31 moths and the Mottled Grey was third with 26 moths.The most moths recorded by individual recorders was 125 by myself, Sue 32 and Julie/Mark 21.Of the 11 species recorded, none were totally unexpected, although the Pale Pinion and Spruce Carpet are always good January records.

Micros - Interestingly, for the first time, the micro species recorded of 11 matched the macro species recorded, so that was a particularly good effort on the part of the five recorders trapping something (one up on last year). The species recorded by the most recorders was once again Agonopterix heracliana (2 people). No unexpected micro species were recorded this year.

Click to enlarge

Many thanks to all those for taking part this year - key below.

DG             Deborah Griffith                         Welshpool
SS              Simon Spencer                            Llanfyllin
PRW          Peter Williams                            Commins Coch
JP&MTT   Julie Pearce & Mark Thomas     Aberbechan
PR              Paul Roughly                             Abermule
AT             Alan Tadman                               Derwenlas
GBC          Gavin Chambers                          Lake Vyrnwy
JH              Jeny Heard                                  Montgomery
SOS           Sue Southam                               Guilsfield
TS              Tammy Stretton                          Welshpool
IM             Ingrid Maugham                          Meifod
LW            Les Wilkins                                  Dernol

Happy mothing to all in 2018.


Monday, 19 February 2018

The evolution of butterflies and moths

Many of you probably saw the recent discovery of ancient moth scales in the news. Following on from this discovery, I wrote a blog on the early evolution of Lepidoptera - including what the first moths living over 200 million years ago looked like and some of the reasons why the group has since evolved to be so successful. Might be of interest in these winter months when the trap is (relatively) quiet?


Wednesday, 24 January 2018

My 2017 Mothing Highlight

In March 2014 I had a Small Eggar one evening fluttering around by the moth trap. I checked what food plant they used and was surprised to find that such an uncommon moth feeds mostly on hawthorn and blackthorn. From April through to July I checked the bushes nearby for signs of the larva or their tent and found nothing. In the autumn I lightly trimmed some of my blackthorn and hawthorn as that is what they are supposed to prefer. Checked again in 2015, found nothing. More trimming in autumn, checked the hedgerows in 2016, still nothing. By 2017 I had lost interest and didn't bother checking, with only a couple of sightings of larva for Montgomeryshire I thought it was unlikely that I would ever get to see them.

In early 2017 I had obtained some pheromones for luring Burnet moths as part of a project run by Ashen Oleander at Canterbury for his PhD. In July to test the lures I went to a site about a mile away from here were I had seen some Burnets in 2016. I was putting out the lures when I noticed something odd in a small hawthorn bush a few metres away. On closer inspection I realised it was a Small Eggar larval tent. The larvae were well grown, and most were clinging to the outside of the
tent, with a few wandering around the bush munching on hawthorn leaves. I watched them for a while, most didn't stray from their tent, but some were moving quite rapidly along the branches looking for leaves to eat, or returning to the tent after feeding. There is a short video clip of them here:

The area they were in was grassland that had been allowed to scrub up, there were a number of smallish hawthorn bushes and a few clumps of gorse dotted around. The hawthorns didn't look very trimmed, but I suppose the sheep might have been nibbling at them. It is hard to understand why some species are so unusual. The habitat didn't look different to anything else around, so why arent they everywhere?

Paul Roughley

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Essex Skipper confirmed in Montgomeryshire

2017 saw an extremely rare - though, in this case, not unexpected - event in Montgomeryshire: a new county butterfly record. Essex Skipper has been spreading rapidly in recent decades and has become common over much of southern England and Wales. It is rather similar to the Small Skipper so has possibly been overlooked to some extent.

It's definitely worth checking your Small Skippers in 2018, especially in the east of the county. There are some useful pictures for separating the two species under the 'similar species' section on UK Butterflies. If possible, please take photos to have any potential sightings confirmed.

Essex Skipper. Peter & Sue Young. July 2017, Welshpool.

Monday, 15 January 2018

2018 event programme

We will begin the year with two events held at private residences - this should give us the option of some shelter and warming beverages in the (unlikely!) event of poor weather. On the 14th April, we are visiting Simon Spencer's smallholding, hoping to catch Broom-tip (a nationally scarce species that has been found at the site in the past). On the 28th April, Steve Attwood-Wright is hosting us at his private nature reserve in the south-east of the county. This is a particularly under-recorded area and the site has had no moth trapping in the past, so who knows what will turn up...

We will hold an event at Cors Dyfi reserve in the far west of the county on the 2nd June. Later in the month, for Moth Night 2018, we will be trapping on limestone grassland at Llanymynech Rocks (16th June). The site has produced a number of exciting records over the years including:
This Netted Pug was caught at Llanymynech last year (GO).

On the 14th July, we will hope to entice amorous male Welsh Clearwings at Lake Vyrnwy (a joint event with the RSPB). This rare day-flying species has not been seen in the county for several years (though it is thought to experience population cycles lasting several years so this may not be a cause for concern). Fingers crossed! Even if we're unsuccessful in luring the clearwing, we will no doubt be able to find some other moths which may be on the wing (or feeding as larvae).
Welsh Clearwing at pheromone lures. Lake Vyrnwy, 2010 (MDH)

Wern Claypits nature reserve is another site that has not had any previous trapping - a fact we'll be rectifying on the 4th August. The site is designed to recreate the habitat of an abandoned canal. We'll be targetting specialist moths associated with wetland habitats. Montgomeryshire Wildlife Trust (MWT) will be joining us and will be aiming to record some interesting bats foraging over the water.

We'll end the year by visiting two MWT reserves: Coed Y Dinas (1st September) and Deri Woods (22nd September). The latter is a joint event with the MWT and we will be targetting the autumn sallow moths.

Please consult the programme, which can be found in the events section of the website, for further information (including location details, directions and meet times).

Friday, 5 January 2018

A good steady mothing year at Commins Coch

During 2017 I maintained a good average for both macro and micro moths, although my butterfly count was slightly down on recent years.   

The highlight for me was a NCR of the micro species Cedestis gysseleniella – a species which hadn’t been recorded in North Wales before.

Cedestis gysseleniella
One of the more outstanding trapping periods was during December with massive numbers of Mottled Umber I recorded. A grand total of 835 were recorded during the month which peaked on 21st with 222 moths (counting was as manic as a good night's trapping in the summer). Although these massive numbers were during a milder spell of weather the curious thing was that I didn’t have overly large numbers of any other species (apart from slightly inflated Winter Moth numbers), I don’t really know what to put it down to.

My overall figures for the year were:-

Macro = 313 species recorded. This includes 3 new species for my site (details below); 18828 moths.

Small Argent & Sable; 1 recorded on 20th June. 
Orange Footman; four recorded between 27th May to 15th June. 
Beautiful Brocade; 1 recorded on 21st June.

Micro = 140 species recorded. This includes 8 new species for my site (details below); one of which is a NCR; 2324 moths. 

Phyllonorycter harrisella - 1 on 22nd May  
Cedestis gysseleniella - 1 on 2nd August  - New county record
Ypsolopha sequella – 1 on 28th August 
Teleiodes vulgella – I on 23rd July                                 
Cochylis nana – 1 on 26th May 
Eana osseana – 1 on 25th July                                   
Acleris caledoniana – 16 between 28th August and 2nd October  
Schreckensteinia festaliella – 1 on 30th March

Butterflies = 16 species recorded. 717 butterflies (no new species).

Hopefully, 2018 will be a good season for us all, which as usual I'm very much looking forwards to.


Thursday, 4 January 2018

Mothing at Derwenlas 2017- a year best forgotten.

Mothing at Derwenlas 2017 - a year best forgotten..
2017 showed all the signs of being a good mothing year despite failing dismally in Peters’ January challenge. My overwintering Herald moths were found in the attic at the cottage again otherwise January was very lean.

As I have mentioned previously my moth recording is split between our home in Denbighshire and our cottage at Derwenlas and as the season progressed so the numbers increased with Derwenlas having a slightly greater number and variety of species. One highlight of this year was to be our 6 week trip to the Outer Hebrides again in May/June. With my Skinner trap duly packed we set off for the islands of North and South Uist. The first overnight stop was at Onich on the shores of Loch Linnhe and that evening our walk down to the shoreline took us through a wildflower meadow absolutely full of Grass Rivulets and at the hotel was a honeysuckle hedge covered in “Twenty-plume” moths- at least twenty! Once settled on South Uist I set up my trap near the machair behind the cottage but on the third day of the holiday I managed to completely rupture my Achilles tendon whilst playing with the dog at the edge of the sea.

Moth trap on South Uist machair
The end of mothing
The result was my right leg non-weight bearing in plaster for 3 months followed by more months in an orthopaedic boot. Whilst crutches were undoubtedly essential I soon discovered you have no hands to carry anything. Needless to say this changed our plans considerably not least my ability to empty a moth trap. My wife Mary discovered new talents putting moths in plastic pots not to mention chauffeuring our Land-Rover home to North Wales. Among the more interesting moths we caught were Shears, Sharks and Knot Grass. We then moved to North Uist where the terrain was very different- moorland with rocky outcrops- quite unsuitable for a one-legged moth-er.

Once home at our bungalow I finally tried running my trap again in the Autumn but we spent very little time at Derwenlas as the bedroom and bathroom are up 2 flights of very steep stairs. As I write this I am feeling very optimistic for 2018 and have already planned trips with the moth trap to Dumfries, Cornwall and Somerset. I am driving and walking but have yet to venture far “off-piste” and smooth tarmac is not a great habitat for moth traps. I hope to spend far more time at Derwenlas cottage this coming year and even attend a few MMG meets. One final challenge for the coming Autumn- has anyone tried a portable Heath trap onboard a narrow boat?? Watch this space.

And to my fellow Montgomery moth-ers

All the best for a great 2018


Butterfly Conservation North Wales - Facebook group

BC North Wales have a group which may be worth joining if you use Facebook:

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Unseen World

To be aware of the wonders of the living planet is to take on an unbearable burden of grief
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 19th December 2017
What you see is not what others see. We inhabit parallel worlds of perception, bounded by our interests and experience. What is obvious to some is invisible to others. I might find myself standing, transfixed, by the roadside, watching a sparrowhawk hunting among the bushes, astonished that other people could ignore it. But they might just as well be wondering how I could have failed to notice the new V6 Pentastar Sahara that just drove past
As the psychologist Richard Wiseman points out, “At any one moment, your eyes and brain only have the processing power to look at a very small part of your surroundings. … your brain quickly identifies what it considers to be the most significant aspects of your surroundings, and focuses almost all of its attention on these elements.” Everything else remains unseen.
Our selective blindness is lethal to the living world. Joni Mitchell’s claim that “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is, sadly, untrue: our collective memory is wiped clean by ecological loss. One of the most important concepts defining our relationship to the living world is Shifting Baseline Syndrome, coined by the fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly. The people of every generation perceive the state of the ecosystems they encountered in their childhood as normal and natural. When wildlife is depleted, we might notice the loss, but we are unaware that the baseline by which we judge the decline is in fact a state of extreme depletion.
So we forget that the default state of almost all ecosystems – on land and at sea – is domination by a megafauna. We are unaware that there is something deeply weird about British waters: namely that they are not thronged with great whales, vast shoals of bluefin tuna, two-metre cod and halibut the size of doors, as they were until a few centuries ago. We are unaware that the absence of elephants, rhinos, lions, scimitar cats, hyaenas and hippos, that lived in this country during the last interglacial period (when the climate was almost identical to today’s), is also an artefact of human activity.
And the erosion continues. Few people younger than me know that it was once normal to see fields white with mushrooms, or rivers black with eels at the autumn equinox, or that every patch of nettles was once reamed by caterpillars. I can picture a moment at which the birds stop singing, and people wake up and make breakfast and go to work without noticing that anything has changed.
Conversely, the darkness in which we live ensures that we don’t know what we have, even while it exists. Blue Planet II revealed the complex social lives and remarkable intelligences of species we treat as nothing but seafood (a point it failed to drive home, in its profoundly disappointing final episode). If we were aware of the destruction we commission with our routine purchases of fish, would we not radically change our buying habits? But the infrastructure of marketing and media helps us not to see, not to think, not to connect our spots of perception to create a moral worldview upon which we can act.
Most people subconsciously collaborate in this evasion. It protects them from either grief or cognitive dissonance. To be aware of the wonder and enchantment of the world, its astonishing creatures and complex interactions, and to be aware simultaneously of the remarkably rapid destruction of almost every living system, is to take on a burden of grief that is almost unbearable. This is what the great conservationist Aldo Leopold meant when he wrote that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
In June this year, a powerful light – 125 watts to be precise – was shone into a corner of my own darkness. Two naturalists from Flanders, Bart van Camp and Rollin Verlinde, asked if they could come to our tiny urban garden and set up a light trap. The results were a revelation.
I had come to see the garden – despite our best efforts – as almost dead: butterflies and beetles are rare sights here. But when Bart and Rollin showed us the moths they had caught, I realised that what we see does not equate to what there is. There are 59 species of butterfly in the UK, but 2,500 species of moth, and our failure to apprehend the ecology of darkness limits our understanding of the living world.
When they opened the trap, I was astonished by the range and beauty of their catch. There were pink and olive elephant hawkmoths; a pine hawkmoth, feathered and ashy; a buff arches, patterned and gilded like the back of a barn owl; flame moths in polished brass; the yellow kites of swallow tail moths; common emeralds the colour of a northern sea, with streaks of foam; grey daggers; a pebble prominent; heart and darts; coronets; riband waves; willow beauties; an elder pearl; small magpie; double-striped pug; rosy tabby: the names testify to a rich relationship between these creatures and those who love them.
Altogether, there were 217 moths of 50 species. This, they told me, was roughly what they had expected to find. Twenty-five years ago, there would have been far more. A food web is collapsing, probably through a combination of pesticides, habitat destruction and light pollution, and we are scarcely aware of its existence.
Moths evolved around 190 million years ago. By comparison, butterflies are a recent development, diverging 140 million years later. Most explanations for this split focus on the spread of flowering plants. But might it have more to do with the fact that bats developed echo-location at roughly that time? Could the diurnal butterfly have been a response to a deadly adaptation by the nocturnal moth’s main predator?
Every summer night, an unseen drama unfolds over our gardens, as moths, whose ears are tuned to the echo-locating sounds bats make, drop like stones out of the sky to avoid predation. Some tiger moths have evolved to jam bat sonar, by producing ultra-sonic clicks of their own. We destroy the wonders of the unseen world before we appreciate them.
That morning I became a better naturalist, and a better conservationist. I began to look more closely, to seek the unseen, to consider what lies beneath. And to realise just how much there is to lose.