Wednesday 25 May 2011

More things to do in June: Moths

If you thought you were crap at small brown birds, wait until you try Moths. Really, most small brown birds in this country are do-able if you give it enough time. Dunnock or Sparrow, you'll get there. Linnet or Redpoll, there are a couple of differences. And really you only have a few hundred to learn. With Moths, a few hundred of them look identical, and there are thousands. About 800 or so are big ones, Macro Moths, that you at least stand a chance with, and then there are another couple of thousand tiny ones, Micros, that you stand almost no chance with. The average garden will likely have several hundred species present at different times of the year - do you like listing? And there you were thinking that there was just one really persistent one buzzing around your patio light.

For a modest outlay, in my case £65 I think, you can purchase a moth trap. Or you can make your own if you're feeling clever. A moth trap is essentially a light on top of a box. There are different types of light, and different types of boxes, but they all do essentially the same thing. The light draws the moths in, and they flutter into the box, get stuck in the labyrinth of egg-boxes you have put in there to baffle them, and then go to sleep until you potter along the following morning, stick them in little pots, and then cut their willies off to look at under a microscope. You don't have to do the last part. I never have, in fact it disturbs me a little. For the ones where supposedly you have to, I have come up with a brilliant solution. Just call it whichever one you have not seen before, and you thus get a tick out of it, and the moth can be released without harm. Win win.

I started mothing about a year ago now, and with the aid of a cheap little book have so far managed to identify a whopping 178 species. There are about 30 more that I have long since given up on. It is actually pretty straightforward. My trap has a long lead, and runs off mains electricity. It is on a timer, and so comes on and turns off without me needing to do anything other than adjust the timer now and again. I have a morning routine whereby I go and decant the trap into small pots, and then make a cup of tea and ponder over them. Many, it must be said, are brown. A few however make your heart leap.

Check out these stunners.

Respectively, Barred Yellow, Blotched Emerald, and the superb (and yet to be bettered) Scarce Silver Lines.

It is addictive, just like birding, except there is potential for something new and exciting in June. Or May. You can actually trap year-round, there are different moths all through the winter. Pickings are slim though, so I tend to start in April and give up by about October. You don't have to go anywhere, so no time in the car, and no outrageous fuel bill, it really is ideal. The only trouble is that as dusk gets later, and dawn earlier, sleep gets squeezed by mothing at one end and birding at the other, but if you can cope with that, this could be another feather to your all-round naturalists bow. And you can get the kids involved too - mine are fascinated by it. Sometimes I come down in the morning to find that Muffin has been out, emptied the trap and ID'd half of what is in there before I've really woken up, and put the rest in the fridge for me.

Yes, the moths go in the fridge for the day. It does them no harm, makes them dopey and thus easier to photograph, and means they remain calm until it is time to release them safely the following evening when the birds won't be around to pick them off. It also has the possibilty of pleasing your loved ones a great deal, especially those with a proprietal interest in the fridge.

So, mothing, an ideal summer activity for all the family. Ticks all the boxes - natural history, listing, photography, learning, child-entertaining, wife-pleasing. What are you waiting for?

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