Nocturnal activities

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Moths are often seen as the less glamorous cousins of butterflies.  The dull, drab, brown creatures with suicidal tendencies that flutter into the lights when we’re having a barbecue, or the annoying little creatures that eat our cashmere sweaters.
Although familiar with some of the day-flying moths, many of which are quite as beautiful as butterflies, night-flying moths have been a bit of a closed book to me.
As a long-term enthusiast for butterflies, I was keen to get involved with the oft-neglected other half of the order Lepidoptera – indeed, there are many more moth species than butterflies in the UK.
After a visit to Alvecote Wood to advise on improvements in habitat to encourage butterflies, the Warwickshire branch of Butterfly Conservation arranged for a night-time moth-trapping session to attempt to establish a seasonal baseline for the woods, so we can chart the effect of any changes in management.
So it was we found ourselves on a warm, but rapidly-cooling night, walking around the wood with torches, moth traps, generators, lamps and cameras to see just what we had.  And we were very lucky indeed in having Alan and Val, two extremely knowledgeable moth experts to do this survey, as well as Keith and Heather from Butterfly Conservation Warwickshire.
Three traps were quickly sited in three areas of woodland, selected to provide different habitats and therefore hopefully to get a wide range of moth species.  Then we settled down to a cup of tea, thoughtfully provided by Val, and a biscuit and chat, listening to the first bats come out to play, before heading off for the first count.
Moths – nocturnal and drab?  Not a bit of it.  Some of the tiny little moths were quite restrained in their colouring, but even they had a delicate beauty.  And there were some large and spectacular moths too, some with amazing names.  Common Quaker, Angle Shades, Purple Thorn, Lunar Marbled Brown, Hebrew Character, Lesser Swallow Prominent, White Ermine and many more.
We learned a fantastic amount about moths from a real expert, as we were doing the rounds of the traps.  We did not know, for example, that moths come out at a certain time after dark.  Some species are always the first to be caught, others come out later, so you need to keep looking until these later species appear – in our case we were looking for the Brindled Beauty.  When she appears, we can pack up and go home, knowing that no more species will appear that night.
What was also impressive was the perfection of the camouflage that some moths have developed.  Many of us know about moths such as the buff-tip which looks like a broken twig, but some of the really beautifully-coloured moths are less easy to envisage.  However if, like Alan, you know where they roost, you can then see how they disappear into the background.  The Lesser Swallow Prominent, for example, sits on birch bark.  Quite vivid in the trap, you would not see it at all on a silver birch trunk. 
And so it was, as time went on, different species began to emerge and appear in the traps, and we drank more tea and ate more biscuits.  We had contacted the police in advance to warn them that there might be lights in the wood (in case they decided we were poachers).  However we hadn’t told the Parish Council, and as one Councillor was driving past and noticed the lights, she kindly phoned us to warn us.
Despite the tropical daytime temperatures, the night-time was cold, and the log-burner provided us with some warmth in between forays to the traps until finally, at just after 3am, the Brindled Beauty put in an appearance, and Alan and Val could pack up and go home, and we could climb into our sleeping bags and try to warm up and get some sleep.
I found the whole thing fascinating, particularly to watch an expert at work.  Moths all have a four digit number code, and Alan knows every one of these codes.  Many are remarkably similar, with only tiny differences between species, and to have someone at hand to point these differences out is a learning experience not to be missed.
We have already scheduled another session in July to catch the summer moths.  33 species were recorded on our site, which is very good for April.  Predictions are that over the course of the year we may get up to 200 species of moth.  Let’s hope so!

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