Mothing – something to get me through lockdown   Leave a comment


Before I continue to catch up with accounts of my foreign birding I thought I’d add a post about another area of interest of mine  – mothing.

Many birders have developed an interest in butterflies and dragonflies and other interesting invertebrates that they might see whilst out birding, but in recent years the arrival of some very good field guides have opened up the world of moths to non-specialists.

There are about 70 species of butterfly in the UK (and you’d only get to see about 20-30 of these unless you made an effort to go and see the rarer/more localised species) but there are 750+ species of macro-moth and if you include all the micro-moths then the total rises at around 2,500!

I first starting to hear about mothing back in the late 90s. There were always people talking about and pouring over moth traps at Portland Bill Bird Observatory but it was the publication in 2003 of ‘The Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Waring and Townsend that really got birders interested, because for the first time moths were depicted as you would see them alive in the field and not dead and pinned to a board. Of course moths caught in a trap are released unharmed.

I got a moth trap at the end of 2003 and started mothing in my garden in 2004. Unfortunately soon afterwards my life went through some major changes and over the next few years it was hard to find time to keep the hobby going. Things improved markedly by the end of 2007 when Margaret moved in with me and settled life resumed, but I spent less and less time on mothing and by the time we were married in 2009 I had given up.

Fortunately I kept the old trap. In April of this year with Coronavirus lockdown in place, I couldn’t do any bird ringing outside the garden and birding was reduced to what could be seen on the short one-hour walks from home that were permitted under the guise of ‘exercise’.

To maintain some sort of sanity I dug out the old trap and was surprised to find that the mercury-vapour bulb still worked after all this time. Of course it was like starting from scratch I had forgotten all the moth names and during the intervening eleven years my metal acuity had diminished somewhat. But nevertheless I still greatly enjoyed sorting through a night’s catch, a few of the results of which are shown below.

As the autumn approached and lockdown eased, then I spent more time bird ringing and mothing has been relegated to the occasional day when I couldn’t go ringing for whatever reason. I’ll have to wait and see if I can manage to maintain mothing, birding, bird ringing and foreign travel when (or should I say if) Coronavirus restrictions are ever lifted.


You can start mothing but just looking for the species that fly by day or by tapping vegetation in the hopes of dislodging resting individuals, but most moth-ers (note the hyphen to distinguish them from mothers!) attract moths to light. This can be as simple as leaving the porch light on, but it’s best is to use a purpose designed trap with a mercury-vapour light (which shines in the UV as well as visible) or an actinic light. Such traps can be bought commercially but mine was built by a friend in Weymouth for a much reduced sum. The interior of the trap is usually filled with old egg boxes to give the trapped moths somewhere to rest.


The first picture was greatly under-exposed so you could see through the perspex lid but in practice it looks more like this. I usually run the trap between the conservatory door and the neighbour’s fence a) because its sheltered from any wind and b) to avoid shining the light directly into neighbour’s bedroom windows.


So the first thing you are going to say is that all moths are brown and boring. Well some like this Shuttle-shaped Dart, are brown, but few are boring. Also the vast majority of moths larvae don’t eat clothes, I think there are only two or three species that do.


So as well as a trap and some small plastic/glass pots to hold them in until you have identified and/or photographed them, you will need a guide. There are various versions of this guide but I find the Concise Guide to be the easiest to use when mothing, although I think I will buy the updated version of the full guide soon.


Moths can be photographed easily with any pocket camera or phone. The main problem is photographing them before they fly away, something I have yet to master! Moths have some wonderful names, some are purely descriptive like Large Yellow Underwing others are bizarre like The Uncertain, the Anomalous or Cousin German. There is both a Bright-lined Brown-eye and Brown-lined Bright-eye! This species is called Setaceous Hebrew Character. The Hebrew character bit I get, but apparently there is no known origin for the word ‘setaceous’


Although may of them do come in dull colours, the variety of shades, patterns and shapes is extraordinary. This is an Angle Shades.


Moths can vary greatly within the same species, some come in a variety of shades depending on their sex and/or location. This is a typical Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (probably a male) …


… this is a female, but both sexes share the startling yellow-orange underwing which has probably evolved to startle predators. Photo by Bernard Dupont from Wikipedia Commons.


Like most wildlife moths can be habitat specific and moving just a short distance can result in a completely different series of species being trapped. I have a friend who lives a stone’s show from the wetlands of Lytchett Bay and gets a much higher variety in his garden than I do. Another friend from birding trips abroad lives in the Peterborough area and was surprised to find that I regularly catch this species, Bird’s Wing, albeit in very small numbers, as in decades of mothing he’s never had one in his garden.


Another moth that is brown but far from boring is The Drinker, so called because the caterpillar sips on drops of dew on grass stems. Initially I used a cork mat to photograph the moths as it resulted in a neutral background colour for the camera exposure without too many shadows but more recently I have gone for white sheet of paper as it is less distracting.


Of course moths are a major food resource for birds and many are consumed, so it makes sense that some pretty amazing camouflage will have evolved. None more so than this Buff-tip which has evolved a perfect imitation of a broken-off twig. Photo by Iain Leach from Butterfly Conservation


A similar deception seems to be at work in this moth known as The Spectacle …


… you have to see it head-on to see where it got its name.


Often its easy to identify a moth to a ‘group’ but harder to tie it down to a species. In this ‘group’ there are only two species both of which shown here. On the left is Lesser Swallow Prominent and on the right is Swallow Prominent.


Even brown and grey moths can be extraordinarily beautiful. This Buff Arches has an intricate pattern on the forewing …


… whilst the large triangular patches on the rear of the forewing (next to the abdomen on the the closed wing) glisten like polished flint or grey obsidian.


Moths vary considerably in size from a few mm to big critters like this Oak Eggar with a forewing length of 40mm. One of the largest is the Death’s Head Hawk Moth (see photos towards the end of this post) which has a forewing of up 60mm ie its wingspan would be a full 12cm or 5 inches.


In general butterflies have a club-shaped antenna whilst moths have a feathered antenna, especially in the male. Most butterflies rest with their wings closed whilst most moths rest with the wings open. An exception is this Canary-shouldered Thorn which usually rests in this position. Butterflies are very closely related to moths, in fact genetically the butterfly Families are embedded between the various moth Families.


As well as brown ones and yellow ones, moths come in delightful pastel shades like this Buff Ermine …


… or pearly white as in the Common White Wave.


A few moths are a rich shade of green like this Common Emerald …


… or the delightful Scarce Silver-lines, but most of the ’emeralds’ fade to an off-white in time.


Black-and-white moths such as this Knot Grass abound (and I find many difficult to separate) …


… but there was no confusion when I trapped this pretty little Rosy Footman.


I never caught this spectacular Swallow-tailed Moth in the trap but found it on the conservatory door one morning. I got one or two pics before it flew away.


This individual was photographed when some of us ran a portable moth trap at Lytchett Bay earlier in the summer but I have also caught the striking Black Arches in my garden.


Moths are very sensitive to climate change as it effects both their life-cycle and the timing and availability of their food plants. So species like this Jersey Tiger are moving in from the continent. I was very pleased to trap one in the garden although I had to get this photo from Wikipedia Commons (photographer wasn’t credited).


Some of the most spectacular of the moths are the hawkmoths. I’ve trapped four species in my garden this year, Poplar Hawkmoth …


… Elephant Hawkmoth, was probably the commonest. The other two are Privet and Lime HM.


There’s always a chance of catching something really rare when mothing, a species that has drifted over from Europe or even North Africa. That is exactly what I thought had happened when I found this strange looking moth which wasn’t in either of my field guides. I sent this photo to a local moth expert who told me it was an invasive species called Box-tree Moth which was accidentally introduced to the UK from the Far-East and is spreading rapidly. The caterpillars doing serious damage to ornamental hedges.


One group of moths, the pugs, is renowned for being very difficult to ID. However this one, Lime-speck Pug is the exception and is uniquely patterned. Pugs are the only moths in the ‘macro’ field guide that are shown at greater than life-size. Although obviously most ‘macros’ are larger than the ‘micros’ there is considerable overlap.


When I used to do mothing in the ‘naughties’ I used to ignore the micros but this year I though I’d buy the guide and give it a go.


I quite like a group of ‘micros’ known as plume moths. This one is Beautiful Plume Moth.


Many micros can only be identified by dissection, in some cases there are dozens of near-identical species in the same genus and nearly all only are known by their scientific names This one is Anania coronata. Unfortunately although I have picked up the scientific names of most British birds over the years I very much doubt that I will be able to repeat that with the micro-moths.


This micro for example cannot be identified to species without dissection and so I’ll have to find a way of recording it on my Wildlife Recorder program as Cnephasia sp.


Not a micro but a very usual macro. This moth belongs to a group called clearwings. They don’t come to light, they are diurnal and are wasp mimics. The only way to see these is to buy specially prepared clearwing pheromones to attract them in. This is exactly what my friend Nick did for this Yellow-legged Clearwing at Lytchett Bay. So I was introduced to the new experience of ‘moth twitching’ when I went round to his house (all of half a mile away) to see it. However some ‘moth twitchers’ will drive hundreds of miles to see a new moth which in most cases is sitting in a pot in someone’s fridge awaiting their arrival (the moth of course will be released when it gets dark).


Of course moths occur everywhere and I have come seen a number of species in locations other than my garden. If my interest grows I will make the effort to see species that I’m not going to see at home, such as this beautiful Magpie Moth.


Because I’ve been there so many (probably hundreds) of times for birding I’ve encountered a number of special moths at Portland Bird Observatory as they trap just about every night. Perhaps my favourite has been the enormous Death’s Head Hawkmoth, a moth that actually squeaks if touched.


This is a rare migrant/immigrant from the continent and I was very lucky to see one at the Observatory. The origin of the name is obvious with the striking skull-like marking on the thorax.


Of course I’ve travelled a lot for birding and, especially when staying at remote lodges, rather than city centre hotels, I’ve seen a lot of impressive moths. I’ve photographed a few and sent them to interested people when I get back to the UK, but little is known about moths in the tropics. many species haven’t even been scientifically described and those that have have only scientific (Latin) names.


Some like this fella that I photographed in Paraguay are truly enormous (compare it to the size of the bricks in the photo above) and undoubtedly have been named but there is little information available and on birding tours little time to even take in their beauty.



Mothing will undoubtedly remain a side-show in my desire (obsession?) to see the birds of the world but I’m glad that lockdown has forced me to revisit it as a hobby. I hope that I will continue to run my trap throughout the rest of this year and into the future and hopefully get to recognise (and remember) all the species that visit my garden.




Since I uploaded this post I caught, on 19th September, what was probably the best moth I’ve ever seen in my garden, if not the UK; the stunning Clifden Nonpareil. The Clifden part of the name refers to the estate of Cliveden in Berkshire where it was presumably first discovered in the UK and ‘nonpareil’ is French for ‘without equal’.


This mega (in both the literal and metaphorical sense) wasn’t found in the trap but resting on a fence post beside it.


An alternative name is the most descriptive ‘Blue-underwing’ but I prefer ‘nonpareil’.


Even the under surface of both the fore and wind wings is strikingly patterned.



It’s now October and the number and variety of moths is decreasing rapidly. However interesting species occur in late autumn and there are species lie December Moth that live up to their name so I won’t be packing the trap away anytime soon.



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