Backyard moth’er

By Ian Maton,  Member of the The Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild and the Altaleps discussion list, BugGuide editor and contributor to the Moths Photographers Group (MPG)
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Great Tiger (Arctia caja)

My two light traps

My journey into live moth trapping started a relatively short time ago towards the end of 2007.  My brother, who lives in the UK and has been live moth trapping since 1999, frequently encouraged me to buy a light trap and in August of 2007 I finally gave in and purchased a small 12V portable, 6W Heath trap at the British Birdfair while on vacation in the UK.  As this point I should explain that live moth trapping has become quite popular amongst bird watchers in the UK (my other hobby), to the extent that you can now purchase quite a lot of entomological paraphernalia at the annual Birdfair.

My backyard photographic setup

So it was, with some trepidation, that I put my light trap out for the first time in Lethbridge, Alberta, at the end of August 2007.  My camera equipment was fairly basic but I did manage a few photographs and I think it is safe to say that I was completely hooked from that point on.  I was able to identify a few of the moths but, although the situation has improved in recent years, identification guides were hard to find.  In the UK there were already a good number of handbooks to help with moth identification but this did not appear to be the case in North America.  I did buy some of the “Moths of North America North of Mexico” series and the Peterson guide “Moths of Eastern North America” but initially, my main aid to identification was BugGuide.net.  Not being able to separate the moths into their respective families meant that identifying any moth could take me several hours and sometimes involved my scanning through 300 plus pages of Noctuids on BugGuide!  This was not all bad as it forced me to become somewhat familiar with the family names and gave me a great sense of achievement when I did identify a moth.  However, in April of 2010, something happened which dramatically changed all this.

Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda)

I had started to submit one or two photographs to BugGuide and one of these was Delphinium Leaftier (Polychrysia esmeralda).  While there were pinned images of this moth, there were very few live images in North America and I was contacted by Bob Patterson who asked for permission to display my photographs on the Moth Photographers Group (MPG) website.  Shortly after this it became apparent that I was photographing some moths that were not yet in BugGuide.  Bob created a couple of guide pages for me so that I could upload my photographs to the correct taxonomic spot but quickly suggested that I be given editor privileges on BugGuide.  All this was extremely exciting to me and added an entirely new dimension to my hobby.  In addition to this, Bob put me in contact with Gary Anweiler who, based in Alberta, is one of the premier experts on Noctuids in North America.  Since then Gary has been instrumental in helping me to identify moths.  Always patient and quick to respond I can’t thank Gary enough for his help and advice over the last few years.

Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba)

2010 was a very big year for me with regards to moth trapping.  A major highlight occurred in October of 2010 when my wife (I was then working long hours and had convinced her to help out with the moths) picked a Bilobed Looper (Megalographa biloba) out of the trap.  It was immediately identifiable and seemed to be an unusual sighting.   Indeed, Gary Anweiler confirmed that there had been only two previous records in Alberta and only two additional records for western Canada.  I can’t think of a better way to end the 2010 mothing year!

White-lined-Sphinx-(Hyles-lineata)

Since then I have continued to add photographs to BugGuide and I am pleased to say that a good number of them have been picked up and added to the MPG website.  I have also pieced together a database of the moths I’ve seen which now includes 245 species.  2011 was another landmark year when I attempted to record the number of each moth species that had been in my trap.  This had been practically impossible until I become familiar with the more common species I was getting.  Consequently, I can now say that my most common moth in 2011 was, by far, Thoughtful Apamea, followed by Glassy Cutworm, Olive Arches, Bronzed Cutworm and Bristly Cutworm.  This was a very nice personal achievement.  Most recently I have started a blog “Moths of Calgary”.  I have to admit that I got the idea from my brother who created a blog “Moths of Boughton-under-Blean”.  Apart from the enjoyment I get from posting my latest sightings, I’m hoping that it may help to advertise live moth trapping as an interesting hobby in Canada.

So far, the highlight of 2012 was my first Silkmoth seen in the Twin Butte area of Southern Alberta while on a short vacation.  Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri) is a species that I’ve been trying to see for a number of years and there they were, in daylight, perched on the side of our cabin when we arrived!  Other colourful and unexpected species that I’ve seen include my first backyard Sphinx moth, a White-lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata) and a Great Tiger Moth (Arctia caja).

Glover’s Silkmoth (Hyalophora gloveri)

For me there are two things which make live moth trapping a really great hobby.  Firstly, you never know what you are going to get!  It may be a while before you see some of the more eye-catching moth species but that’s all part of the appeal.  Secondly, it’s something that you can do without venturing further than your own backyard!

While, at first, identification was a bit of a struggle, the sense of achievement gained when I did identify a new moth, for me, more than compensated for the time spent getting there.  Live moth trapping is a fascinating hobby and it is my hope that, over time, it will become a more popular, eventually contributing to the knowledge of moth movements and distribution throughout Canada.

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About Adrian D. Thysse

Naturalist, rationalist and photographer.
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