Moth News: Midwinter


What a difference a year makes! Christmas 2010 saw Britain shivering under several inches of frozen snow while this year Yuletide temperatures were often in double figures across much of the country. Either side of New Year witnessed severe gales, then a week of frost followed in mid-January before conditions settled back to being mild, if breezy, later in the month. Quite a wide range of species were recorded, including a few primary migrants, many residents appearing on late or early dates, and several long-hibernating species coaxed out of their midwinter sleep by some 'near-balmy' conditions.

The rarest find was Britain's third-ever Black-spotted Chestnut, again in Kent (see Moth News October–November for details of the first record). It was trapped overnight by John Beugg at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory on 22nd December and was considered as the 'event of the year' by the warden Ian Hodgson. Surely now that observers know what they look like, and with much more winter time trapping going on, this species could become a regular feature on these pages.

Black-spotted Chestnut, Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory (Kent), 23rd December 2011 (Ian Hodgson).

The last Dark Sword-grass of 2011 was at Little Treleaver (Cornwall) on 21st December and the first Pearly Underwing of 2012 was at Chickerell (Dorset) on 8th January. Hummingbird Hawkmoths were at Robert's Cove (Cork), Barnwell (Northants), Portland (Dorset) and Hayle (Cornwall), all in January. Other migrants included 17 Silver Ys, nine Angle Shades and ten Rusty-dot Pearl. One of only five national Diamond-back Moths was on Benbecula (Western Isles) on 18th December. A Lesser Yellow Underwing found roosting on a concrete pillar in a Southampton multi-storey car park on 21st December was probably a migrant and was certainly the latest ever recorded in Hampshire. Next day a Shuttle-shaped Dart was at Portland Bill (Dorset).

A presumed neotropical Satin Stowaway (Antichloris viridis) was found by Richard Julian Fairclough among bananas at Alnwick Sainsbury's (Northumberland) on 19th January. First recorded in Britain in Hertfordshire in July 1977, this accidental import is more likely to be found at large in the larval or pupal stage. The Northumberland individual was found in a consignment of fruit from Colombia and follows hot on the heels of another, also found in bananas, reported to the British Museum's website before 11th January.

Satin Stowaway, Northumberland, January 2012 (Alan Fairclough).

As many garden moth-ers refused to put their traps away it was inevitable that autumn species would continue to be seen right up to and even into the New Year. A Cypress Carpet was at Funtley (Hants) on 20th December. Amazingly on 22nd a Blair's Shoulder-knot was at Howick (Northumberland) and elsewhere a Brick was at Tincleton (Dorset) and a Clancy's Rustic was on Alderney (Channel Islands).

Blair's Shoulder-knot, Howick (Northumberland), 23rd December 2011 (Stewart Sexton).

A Garden Carpet was at Tynemouth (Northumberland) on the last day of the year. A Dark Arches remained at Broadwey (Dorset) until 1st January, becoming the latest ever in that county. While taking down some Christmas lights from the outside of a house in Hampshire, a lucky observer noticed a roosting Horse Chestnut on 2nd January. The last reported Yellow-line Quaker was at Tincleton (Dorset) on 8th January. Of the Tortrix moths, a Pseudargyrotoza conwagana (1011*) was at Buryan Bridge (Cornwall) on 26th December and a Crocidosema plebejana (1157) was at Ringwood (Hants) on 28th December.

It was also no surprise that, with such a prolonged mild spell, a number of spring species made appearances much earlier than expected. A Bee Moth found in a house in Shilbottle (Northumberland) on 17th December was perhaps responding to the central heating being turned up the week before Christmas. A Mottled Grey at Portland Bill (Dorset) on 22nd was the first ever December record there and was followed elsewhere by January records in mainland Dorset, Glamorgan, Pembrokeshire and Yorkshire. Two incredibly early Small Quakers were recorded at Harewood (Hants) on 27th December. A fresh Pyrausta aurata (1361) was observed at rest on a sunlit wall at Torpoint (Cornwall) in late December. The first Early Moths were seen on 1st January by Stan Campbell along a regular survey route in Dunbartonshire. Other similar searches since have produced eight at Langbank (Renfrewshire), six at Warndon (Worcs) and 15 at Longton Brickcroft (Lancs). The method for these is to walk slowly alongside hawthorn or blackthorn hedgerows that retain reasonable lateral growth from mid-evening. The male moths can be spotted with a torch, usually clinging to the tips of outer branches. They have a glossy sheen to the upperwing when fresh, which can make them more visible in artificial light. With extreme skill or luck one may even find a mating pair!

Male Early Moth, Warndon (Worcs), 12th January 2012 (Steve Whitehouse).

A very early Early Thorn was at Portland Bill (Dorset) on 8th January and on the same day a Pale Tussock was found alive inside a house at Brockenhurst (Hants); it is was not known whether the latter had 'flown in' or, more probably, previously pupated in the house and emerged four months early! A Bright-line Brown-eye was trapped at Rugby (Warks) also on 8th and was followed by another Midland record very soon after at Stoke-on-Trent (Staffs) on 12th. The species can use tomato as food-plant and these very early ones could be explained by local pupation in heated greenhouses, thus being 'brought on' artificially by constant elevated temperatures. The first March Moth was at Wadhurst (East Sussex) on 21st January. Single examples of the tiny Psychidae moth Pyschoides filicivora (200) appeared in Cornwall, Lancashire, Norfolk and Yorkshire between the end of December and mid-January.

Bright-line Brown-eye, Rugby (Warks), 10th January 2012 (Paul Nicholas).

Small numbers of both Common Quaker and Hebrew Characters were widespread. Out in the woods, Pale Brindled Beauty, Spring Usher and Tortricodes alternella (1025) were all seen in good numbers after New Year and a handful of Double-striped Pug and Dotted Border were also recorded. Mottled Umbers, Satellite, Chestnut and Dark Chestnuts gave many garden moth-ers something to look at and December Moths lingered well into January in places.

Hebrew Character, Gretton (Glos), 25th January 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Typical Spring Usher, Warndon (Worcs), 19th January 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Melanic Spring Usher, Warndon (Worcs), 19th January 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Tortricodes alternella, Warndon (Worcs), 19th January 2012 (Roger Wasley).

Scarce hibernators tempted out of midwinter slumber included a Dotted Chestnut at Breakheart Quarry (Glos) on 9th January, Bloxworth Snouts at Bonchurch (Isle of Wight) on 12th and Hove (East Sussex) on 22nd and a Pale Pinion at Chickerell (Dorset) on 21st. Acleris logiana (1051) included one at Menheniot (Cornwall) on 23rd December and the second county record at Warndon (Worcs) the next day.

Acleris logiana, Warndon (Worcs), 25th December 2011 (Oliver Wadsworth).

One rare Tortrix with a limited southwestern bias to its distribution is Acleris umbrana (1052). Singles were found at Menheniot and Polbathic (both Cornwall) on 23rd December and another was at Tincleton (Dorset) on 8th January, which was only the fifth recent county record. Other micro-moths of interest were a Mompha bradleyi (889a) at Dursley (Glos) on 6th January, a Rhigognostis incarnatella (468) at Tignabruaich (Argyll) on 13th and a Calybites phasianipennella (296) near Stalham (Norfolk) on 16th.

Butterflies on the wing included a Brimstone at Pennington (Hants) on 8th January and a Speckled Wood at Falmouth (Cornwall) on 13th. There were a few Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells and many Red Admirals were seen, especially in East and West Sussex.

Other moth-related news

Back in December, the Daily Mail reported that a British company had proposed releasing a modified strain of the Diamond-back Moth developed in an attempt to reduce the population of this vegetable-eating insect. Males carrying a 'lethal gene' would be released into farmland, where any subsequent generation would be so weak that they would die almost immediately. The envisaged rapid fall in numbers could help increase crop yields for farmers. The company hopes to begin trials in 2012 but faces strong opposition from environmental groups who say the untested technology could threaten the fine balance of wildlife within ecosystems; the scheme could be impossible to reverse if anything went wrong. In some years Diamond-back Moths are quite scarce in the UK and the economic advantages of the scheme here seem questionable. The species is a firm favourite with moth-ers as it is one of the easiest micros to identify and is often the first indicator that moth migration is just getting underway.

Diamond-back Moth (Patrick Clement).

On a brighter note, record numbers of the Red Data Silky Wave were recorded in the Avon Gorge (Somerset) in 2011. The gorge is one of only three places in the UK where the moth can be found. They also inhabit the Gower Peninsula (Glamorgan) and the Great Orme (Conwy). A survey by Bristol Zoo and the Bristol Conservation and Science Foundation counted 954 moths at 15 sites in the gorge over a nine-week summer period. The study revealed that 119 moths were recorded in one day at one site. This was nearly four times as many as the previous maximum of 33 found there in 2001 and reflects increased numbers elsewhere in the South Wales population. The moths like areas that have species-rich limestone grassland with patches of low and taller scrub which often form little sheltered sunny hollows. They are found on both sides of the Avon Gorge, not just the warmer south-facing slopes. Apart from the very large numbers, the moths were also identified at several new sites illustrating the strength of the species to colonise suitable habitat in the local area.

Silky Wave, Avon Gorge (Somerset) (John Martin).

As we will soon be entering the exciting spring period, BirdGuides Moth News would be delighted to hear from moth-ers all across the British Isles about their first dates for moths and butterflies, emergence numbers and trends and of course any interesting or rare species. To send your news, email steve.whitehouse@birdguides.com.

Finally, I would like to encourage all moth-ers to use the quieter late winter period to send in all 2011 moth records to their respective County Moth Recorders. It is very important that all garden and field data alike should reach County Moth Recorders as soon as possible so that your data can be verified and forwarded to the National Moth Recording Scheme by 31st March each year. Ideally data should be supplied using Excel or OpenOffice spreadsheets or, even better, by using biological recording packages such as MapMate for larger numbers of single-county records. However, do discuss with your County Moth Recorders the best way to forward your data. Remember to send in images of scarce and rare resident and migrant species to make the process of verification fast and easy. Butterfly Conservation's Moth Count website has a full list of County Moth Recorders, downloadable able as a PDF. MapMate can initially look rather daunting but, if you can get your local co-ordinator to show you the ropes, it is really quite straightforward and surely the best way of getting the task done. All your records are important, common and rare species alike. Without the data, conservation and the survival of all our moth species cannot be achieved.


Barnett R. J. et al., (2008). The Moths of the Bristol District. Charlesworth.
Currently on special offer for £20 from the environmental records centre: http://www.brerc.org.uk/products/brerc_books.htm
Waring, Townsend and Lewington. Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland. Revised edition, British Wildlife Publishing, 2009.
UKMoths online photographic guide

* The numbers given after several species in the text are the British Checklist Species Numbers as assigned by J. D. Bradley in Log Book of British Lepidoptera, 2000.

Written by: Steve Whitehouse