More and more moths

I am gradually adding moth species to my lepidoptera gallery on Imaging Storm. There are some 2600 different species in the UK alone (160000 worldwide). I’ve photographed and released about 50 so far since enlisting the help of a light trap.

As of 21 Sep 2018, less than two months in, I had doubled that number.

Still hoping for more Hawk-moths (only seen a Poplar and an Elephant in Cottenham so far, and a pair of Privet last year). The Jersey Tiger is the most unusual and unlikely, I’ve seen, although it never entered the trap just hung around in the dark and ultimately rested on the outside of the box. There is some hint that this native of the Channel Islands has spread north but some enthusiasts are propagating them in more far-flung places; they shouldn’t be doing that.

The slowly increasing list of species I have photographed and identified can be found at the foot of my Lepidoptera – Moths and Butterflies page on Imaging Storm. I reached 100+ species in my first two months of mothing. A year after I started I had logged more than 250 species, still just about 10 percent of all the species native to the British Isles!

Moth of the moment – The Setaceous Hebrew character

The Setaceous Hebrew Character (Xestia c-nigrum) is a moth of the Noctuidae family of moths, also known as the owlets. It is relatively common in Europe, Asia, and is also found in North America. Its wingspan ranges from 35 to 45 millimetres. This species broods twice a year (May to June and then again in greater numbers August to September). They are attracted to light and enjoy the flowers of buddleia bushes, ivy, and ragwort.

So far so standard. But, it’s that name that intrigues me. Moths, of which there are some 2600 different species in the UK alone have some rather fascinating names – Map-winged Swift, Variegated Golden Tortrix, Oak Processionary, Blood-vein, and the rather mundane sounding, Least Carpet – to name but a few.

The word “Setaceous”, simply means bristly. But, the “Hebrew Character” part of this moth’s name refers to the markings on its wings. The forewings of this species are reddish-brown and bear a dark, almost black, mark that resembles the Hebrew letter nun, with a pale cream-coloured area adjacent to this mark.

Not to be confused with a second moth in the Noctuidae, the Hebrew Character, Orthosia gothica, that also bears a Hebrew nun on each forewing, although the two species are not particularly closely related despite appearances.

UPDATED: Saw my first Hebrew Character in the spring of 2019. First HC of 2020 was in trap morning of St Valentine’s Day.


Rooks, rooks, croaks, and crooks

I always assumed that the chess piece we know as a “rook”, which resembles a castle was named for the bird, there being some link with ravens in towers and turrets, perhaps.


But, it’s nothing of the sort…
The word was coined around 1300 and comes from Old French “roc”, which in turn comes from the Arabic “rukhkh”, and that from a Persian word “rukh”, which may in turn come from the Indian name for the piece, “rut”, from the Hindi “rath” meaning “chariot.”
Of course, if I’d known my chess history, I’d have known about the mediaeval game “shatranj” where the rook symbolizes a chariot. But, it might also represent a siege tower after that. The original Indian game had chaturanga meaning also meaning chariot, but the modern version of that game calls those pieces “elephant”. Some people call the rook a castle and “castling” is a chess manoeuvre involving two pieces (king and rook) swapping relative positions in a single move. Does any of that have anything to do with the name of the old coaching inn, “The Elephant and Castle”, for which the area of South London is named? Probably not. Although the E&C statue is of an elephant carrying what looks very much like a chess rook on its back and that is an early gaming piece in chess evolution.
Anyway, he name of the bird, on the other hand, the Rook, comes from Old English hroc, and is perhaps onomatopoeic of the bird’s raucous call, which is something of a croak, a word that comes from the Sanskrit “kruc” meaning to cry out. Moreover, a rook is a 16th century word for someone who cheats at cards or dice. The word “crook” itself, which you might think is somehow related, was originally a word specifically for a devilishly dishonest trick.
Of course, a word that was bandied about a lot during the US presidential elections was “crooked”, a term pertaining to someone cheating, but also simply meaning bent as in a shepherd’s crook. But, the word bent also means crooked in both senses, but someone hell-bent is determined to get what they want, perhaps by hook or by crook.
Don’t you just love etymology?

Photographic refurbishment

I’ve spent far too long today hacking up my Imaging Storm website to make it more usable in terms of its photo galleries. Totally changed the way they function to make them better on desktop and mobile. By the way, if Sciencebase is my “Science, Snaps, and Songs” site, then Imaging Storm is definitely the “Snaps, Songs, and Science” site. There isn’t really a Songs, Snaps, and Science permutation yet, nor even a “Songs, Science, and Snaps” option. You have to just visit my BandCamp for the music.

Anyway, I’ve split the bird galleries into obvious categories: Perching birds, Seabirds, Waders & Waterfowl, Birds of prey, and Misc. I’ve also added a specific gallery for moths and butterflies for which the number of photos of different species I have is growing fast this week as regular readers may have noticed. I’ve also teased apart the wildlife gallery into mammals, non-mammalian vertebrates, and other invertebrates.

Be really nice if you could pay a visit to this sibling site of Sciencebase! Thanks.

You won’t believe the animals that live in your garden

You won’t believe the animals that live in your garden. You may well have frogs, toads, hedgehogs, rabbits, moles, mice, rats, squirrels, deer (perhaps), a couple of dozen different specis of bird and myriad invertebrates.

It is this latter category that offer the greatest biological diversity and actually in my title I was really just referring to moths, the Lepidoptera (which includes the butterflies, they’re just a type of moth). Lepidoptera is my current natural science inclination at the moment having borrowed an actinic moth trap from my friend Rob (later bought it off him and have been using it ever since).

There are some 2600 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) in the British Isles. I’ve seen a very, very small selection of them after a couple of nights of moth-trapping in two gardens. The moths are always released unharmed first thing in the morning after observations and optional photocall, by the way. The current list is at the foot of this post, there have been at least the same number again in the trap unphotographed and unidentified, mainly small (micro) moths.

Canary-shouldered Thorn (Ennomus alniaria)
Grey/Dark Dagger (Acronicta psi/tridens)
Buff Ermine, Spilosoma lutea
Buff Ermine, Spilosoma lutea
Riband Wave (Idaea aversata ab. remutata)
Yellow Shell (Camptogramma bilineata)
Brimstone (Opisthograptis luteolata)
Possibly a Barred Umber (Plagodis pulveraria)
Pebble Hook-tip (Drepana falcataria)
Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (Noctua janthe)
Pyrausta aurata (left), Argyrotaenia ljungiana (right)
Garden Carpet Xanthorhoe fluctuata
Garden Carpet Xanthorhoe fluctuata

Blood vein (Timandra comae)
Brown-tail (Euproctis chrysorrhoea)
Buff Ermine (Spilosoma lutea)
Burnished Brass (Diachrysia chrysitis)
Cinnabar (pre-trap)
Cloaked Minor (Mesoligia furuncula)
Common Rustic agg. (Mesapamea secalis)
Copper Underwing (Amphipyra pyramidea) (pre-trap)
Dark Arches (Apamea monoglypha)
Dusky Brocade (Apamea remissa)
Dusky Sallow Eremobia ochroleuca
Grey/Dark Dagger (Acronicta psi/tridens)
Hummingbird Hawk Moth
Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)
Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba)
Least Carpet (Idaea rusticata)
Lesser Broad-bordered Yellow Underwing (Noctua janthe)
Light Brown Apple Moth (Epiphyas postvittana)
Pale Tussock(pre-trap)
Pebble Hook-tip (Drepana falcataria)
Poplar Hawk Moth (Laothoe populi)
Privet Hawk Moth
Rose-flounced Tabby (Endotricha flammealis)
Ruby Tiger (Phragmatobia fuliginosa)
Scalloped Oak (Crocallis elinguaria)
Small Purple & Gold (Pyrausta aurata)
The Dun-bar (Cosmia trapezina)
The Lychnis (Hadena bicruris)
The Rustic/The Uncertain (Hoplodrina blanda/octogenaria)
Turnip Moth (Agrotis segetum)
Willow Beauty (Peribatodes rhomboidaria)

UPDATE: As of 1st August 2019, I’d identified and photographed 283 moths. I have much better macro shots of all of the above too.

The immigrant moth – Silver Y

Lots of animals species migrate – buffalo, wildebeest, swallows, swifts, monarch butterflies, and of course, moths. I found two Silver Y (Autographa gamma) this morning, before the rain. This species can turn up in the thousands, according to UK Moths, it’s a day and night flyer.

Curiously, having photographed it this morning and headed back to my PC to look for an ID, I logged into the “Moths UK Flying Tonight” group on Facebook and the first moth in the newsfeed was a Silver Y. More specifically, because its “Y” is split in two it was actually Silver y “f.bipartita”. But, mine according to the expert on the group was a classic example of the species.

The Silver Y is in the family Noctuidae, but within the relatively small sub-family Plusiinae. It is a medium-sized moth (wingspan 30 to 45 mm). It has intricately patterned wings with shades of grey and brown for camouflage. In the centre of each forewing there is a silvery mark shaped like a letter “Y” or a Greek letter Gamma, hence the common and scientific names. There are various forms with varying colours that arise dependent on the climate in which the larvae grow.

If you’ve been following Sciencebase this week on the site, Facebook, and on Twitter, you will have noticed a trend in the past few days, the focus is moths. A friend asked if I’d added a new string to my bow…well, not so much that it’s still just science and snaps, but maybe the subject matter is akin to having bought some new sheet music.

Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria)

The moth trap actinic lamp was on when I got home last night, so headed out into the garden to see if I could see any activity within. Lots of flies, a few moths already in the trap, mostly small grey ones, a couple of Buff Ermines. But sitting on a Virginia Creeper leaf a more vivid moth than I’d seen in the garden before - Jersey Royal (Euplagia quadripunctaria). It scuttled around for a while, landed on the trap, but didn’t fall in through funnel into the box. It was still sitting on one of the flight baffles when I got up first thing this morning to see what had settled on the egg cartons within.

Jersey Tiger

This striped species is actually a day-flying moth the original range of which was the Channel Islands, hence the name. It has apparently spread to the UK south coast and to Devon and there are some reported in London. To see one in a garden just north of Cambridge is unusual. It’s either an off-course migrant or an individual attempting to expand the species’ range northwards. The hot and dry weather we have had since the end of May here might explain unusual animal behaviour. Incidentally, a rain shower on the afternoon of the 26th July, first one since May.

The awful shots below were done in the dark of the garden with my phone to try and catch it with its wings open. It was fluttering by very quickly in around the actinic tube of the trap, up and down the baffles and then back into the creepers that coat our rear fence close to where I’d set the trap.


International Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) pass overhead twice while we were in the pub garden last night. It often does, obviously, and none of was simply seeing double. There are numerous websites that let you know when you can next see the ISS pass over your neighbourhood, VirtualAstro on Twitter puts out alerts, and thare are also smart phone apps that will push a timely notification.

Here are a few facts about the ISS:

  • First component launched into orbit 1998
  • Final pressurised module fitted in 2011
  • Total cost estimated in 2010 as $150 billion
  • Anticipated operation until 2028, extended from 2024
  • Some components might be re-used to build a new space station
  • ISS is a joint project between NASA, Roscosmos, JAXA, ESA, and CSA
  • 109 x 73 metres, with solar panels extended
  • 408 tonnes
  • Orbits at an altitude of between 330 and 435 kilometres
  • Makes about 15 orbits of the Earth each day
  • Takes 90 minutes to make one orbit
  • Travels at a speed of approximately 28000 km/h
  • Visible with the naked if you are in the right place at the right time
  • Appears as a slow-moving, bright white dot (reflected sunlight)
  • Takes about 10 minutes to pass from one horizon to another, but only visible when not in the Earth’s shadow
  • Continuously occupied since 2nd November 2000
  • 145 people from the USA and 46 from Russia have been aboard, plus people from 16 other nations as of January 2018
  • Since the end of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, Russian Soyuz rockets used to transport supplies and crew
  • In low orbit, the crew is protected from the Solar wind by the Earth’s magnetic field
  • They have a safe space for increased protection if a solar flare is heading their way
  • Main roles: laboratory, observatory, and factory
  • Additional purposes: staging base for future Moon, Mars, and asteroid missions
  • Other uses: commercial, diplomatic, and educational
  • The toilets are fitted with spring-loaded restraining bars to ensure a good seal
  • Solid waste is bagged and brought back down to Earth
  • Urine is recycled into drinking water on board


Trapping moths at night

Natural history bookseller NHBS Ltd also sells moth traps similar to the Robinson-type trap my friend Rob built way-back-when (2006, actually). I’ve sited his homemade trap in my garden in the hope of seeing a few creatures of the night in the morning. Of course, this process is one of scientific observation and interest, we’re not trapping them to kill them, once caught and observed they are released back into the wild of the back garden. Meanwhile, the NHBS blog – The Hoopoe – has a few tips on setting up and using a trap, which I’ve cribbed and adapted below.

Buff Ermine moth
Buff Ermine moth
  • Site your trap in a garden with lots of nectar-rich native plants, preferably species that open their flowers at night and on which moths like to feed: night-scented stock, evening primrose, honeysuckle, nicotinia. In September and October, ivy blossom can provide an abundant source of nectar for many species of moth.
  • Opt for a brighter mercury vapour bulb rather than an actinic type lamp if you can as this will attract more moths, although the bright mercury bulb might annoy neighbours that overlook your garden and it also needs protection from the rain as it glows hot and could shatter. Your mileage may vary, Rob caught a lot of moths with his actinic lamp. However, NHBS suggest that you might trap 500-1000 moths with a mercury-bulb trap.
  • Cloudy, warm, and moonless nights are best, Don’t set your trap on a cold, clear night, especially after a warm spell, as there will be far fewer moths and fewer species venturing out.
  • Avoid windy or wet nights, many moths will simply not fly and rain might damage your equipment.
  • Set the trap away from streetlights and switch off any external lighting in your garden as these will attract moths to them rather than the trap.
  • If there are southerly winds, the UK’s south coast might see increased numbers of migrants carried up from the continent.
  • You will get best results in July and August when moths are abundant and active. Check local wildlife websites and discussion groups for advice on moths that might be flying at other times of the year, especially in rural areas.
  • Don’t set your trap too often and avoid setting it on consecutive nights to avoid catching the same moths, you might end up starving them if they’re trapped repeatedly early in the evening before they have eaten.
  • Check your trap as soon as possible after dawn. If you cannot do so, then make sure it’s not going to be in direct sunlight when the sun rises.
  • If the rising sun is likely to be incident on your trap in the morning, place a wet sponge in the base of the trap to provide hydrating water for the temporarily incarcerated creatures.
  • Once you’ve examined, counted, photographed your trawl, release the moths into dense vegetation. If you plan to use the trap again, carry out the release at least 50 metres away from the trapping site to avoid capturing the same moths again, for the sake of the moths.
  • Watch out for predatory blackbirds and other birds that might latch on to the sudden flurry of dozy moths in the morning and make a meal of them. You can tell if a moth is only just waking up as it will most likely be quivering and vibrating its wings.
  • Be wary of wasps and hornets that might also have been trapped. Early in the morning these creatures will be fairly docile and can be removed with little risk of you being stung, however.

There was an Elephant Hawk-moth in the trap this morning, and there was me about to give up hope of catching a Hawk in our garden! Anyway, I posted a few pictures on one of the moth groups on Facebook and got some additional advice from a reader there called Jacqueline:

I always release any caught moths at night where there is less chance of them becoming an easy meal. Keep the moths that you don't want a closer look at covered to try and avoid escapees, and place in the cool shade. Ones you want to look closely at or photograph, pot them and put them in the fridge to cool down, then late afternoon, by the time they've had time in the fridge, try photographing them. They will warm up quicker when the weather is warmer so be aware of that and get ready to re-pot safely if they decide to fly. Have a larger tub for the larger moths like the Elephant Hawkmoth etc. When you have finished with photos, put them back in their pots, you can then either keep them on a table until you release at night.

Of course, there is the issue of pipistrelle bats, of which we have several that circulate our garden at dusk. They eat several hundred moths each most days, apparently. So, not sure which approach is best: night or day release…

Hunting Hawks (moths, that is)

First time I looked in an actinic moth trap, we’d landed a Poplar Hawk-moth. A phone camera snapshot is now in the moths section of my fast-growing wildlife gallery here, the one that runs in parallel with the bird gallery. The two nights I’ve had the trap lit in my garden, I’ve caught some nice, small species, but no more Hawk-moths. A highlight of last night, although one that didn’t ever enter the trap, was the Jersey Tiger (Euplagia quadripunctaria).

Jersey Tiger

My moth expert friend Brian Stone, of whom I have spoken in the birding context many times, pointed out that this specimen is probably a migrant given my location (north of Cambridge), although it could be due to range expansion. According to Ian UK moths site: “This species was until recently restricted in distribution to the Channel Islands and parts of the [British] south coast. On the mainland, it is commonest in south Devon, but colonies have recently appeared in Dorset and the Isle of Wight, and it has also been found in other southern counties.”

I asked Brian whether I was likely to see any Hawk-moths, having been disappointed after that initial success with the Poplar.

Poplar Hawk-moth

“During peak periods you will attract them without any difficulty,” he told me. “Poplar are double-brooded so you will get them from now on, Elephant should still be flying and Pine is a bit later and still plenty on the wing now but it is scarcer. With the weather [almost record-breaking prolonged period of hot and dry] we are having you could pull in one of the scarcer migrants like Convolvulus or one of the Hyles species.”

However, normally there would be fewer hawk-moths on the wing by late July. Lime Hawk peak in May/June and hardly any are seen by August. He added that it is possible to check out flight periods on local websites in your area. For me, closest would be Hants Moths. Brian also recalls that in one hot year (specifically, 1st July 2005) he trapped a Bedstraw Hawk-moth in his actinic trap, “a proper rarity”.

There is also the issue of whether one should use a trap on consecutive nights. “I tended not to run consecutive nights,” Brian told me. “You will tend to trap a fair few of the same [individual] moths and they need to get out there and do their thing. Plus you get a lie in.”