2020. To use a mothing analogy, you travelled a long way to get to a great site for a really rare moth that you’d been looking forward to seeing for ages. The traps went on at dusk, full of anticipation, and then March came in, the rain started, the MV bulb got wet and exploded. Somehow despite the bulb being out Hornets still descended en masse and ate all the moths you had caught, and then set about you, and after you’d extricated yourself from all that mess, it turned out you had the wrong grid reference and had been trapping in the wrong place anyway, plus the consolation rarity you thought you’d caught needed gen det anyway, and you didn’t retain it.
Despite all that, 2020 was a really enjoyable moth year for me, and in spite of lockdowns and travel restrictions, I managed to catch up with an exciting variety of new moths. The mothing year basically started when I returned to ancestral Somerset for the first lockdown in March. As the season got going, I was unable to get out and do the usual spring butterfly stuff, and so I turned to micros in the local lanes and woods. Highlights here were three rather under-recorded Coleophoras – solitariella and lithargyrinella as larval cases, and Metroites lutarea as an adult, all on Greater Stitchwort along the lanes near home.
|Stichwort-feeding Coleophora habitat in West Somerset|
|Coleophora solitariella larva|
|Metrioties lutarea doing what it does best|
|Coleophora lithargyrinella case|
I also spent a fair bit of time up at a nearby forestry commission site, where there are some good stands of Broom clinging to the path edges as the serried ranks of Sitka Spruce advance. I found a number of new species for me feeding on this, including Mirificarma mulinella, Anarsia spartiella and Agonopterix assimilella. None of them blockbuster rarities, but really satisfying to see some of the characteristic species of this moth-rich shrub. As a bonus, while harassing it with a beating tray in the vain hope of Streak larvae I dislodged a couple of Epinotia fraternana (presumably from the nearby spruce plantation), the third record for Somerset.
|Mirificarma mulinella larva|
As restrictions eased, it was finally time to enact plans hatched over the winter to see a few new species, and my first proper trip out was on a classic May morning to a site near Porlock to look for the semi-legendary Schiffermuellerina grandis. It must have one of the most extravagant binomials of any UK micro, but unlike Brown House Moth (Hofmannophila pseudopretella!), it feels totally appropriate, this Oecophorid is a stunning mish-mash of yellow, silver and electric blue, and a bit of a rarity. For a while it was thought to only persist at a few sites in Somerset and Devon, but it's recently been re-discovered in the New Forest and the Wyre Forest. I was pleased to find it flying in numbers in the morning sun (between 8:00 and 10:00), textbook stuff. I saw just over 20 in the end, with little leks in sunny openings, and the males dancing to and fro like giant shiny midges.
|The mythic Schiffermuellerina grandis|
|In a suitably mysterious setting too|
Nearby, at Hurlstone Point on the same day, I came across a large patch of Sheep’s Bit growing in one of the coastal combes, giving me the chance to enact another winter plan. Having received Brian Hancock’s excellent ‘Pug Moths of North West Britain’ for Christmas last year, I was determined to be a bit more serious about pugs, and so returned at the end of May to trap at Hurlstone in the hope of Netted and Thyme Pugs, and perhaps Jasione in among that Sheep’s Bit.
|Sheep's Bit in what later turned out to be Jasione Pug country at Hurlstone Point|
It was my first evening of proper field trapping, and an ausipcious start - Nightjars churred over the heathland, the waves broke in Porlock bay, and the fishermen murmured to each other on the shingle below. The moths performed too – 2 each of Netted and Thyme Pugs, lots of Barrett’s Marbled Coronet (and Marbled Coronet), Horse Chestnut, Galium Carpet, Grass Emerald, and best of all 2 Jasione Pugs (inevitably not arriving at the trap set among the Sheep’s Bit). These were the 2nd for VC5 (and the first for over 100 years) of a moth that seems to be rather rarely-recorded recently, as it seems quite shy about coming to light. I later found it in the same area as a larva in August, the traditional way of recording it. A random micro potted off the same trap as the pugs was also sent off for gen det with Paul Wilkins, and came back as Denisia subaquilea – a first for Somerset. This species seems to occur quite widely on moorland up north, but is only previously known from Devon and Cornwall down south, where it frequents the same maritime heath/coastal grassland as Jasione Pug.
|Jasione Pug - Hurlstone Point|
|Jasione Pug larva - Hurlstone Point|
Pugs continued to be a feature of 2020, with a couple of others to raise the pulse back in Oxfordshire when restrictions eased. A wonderful session trapping at Aston Rowant in July yielded a whole host of chalk grassland specialists, among which was a superb fresh Pimpinel Pug. Like Jasione Pug, this is a rather shy one that doesn’t appear at light often, being more easily recorded as a larva on Burnet Saxifrage in September (when I had expected to be looking for it), and this was the first for Oxfordshire since the 80s.
Aston Rowant also provided a nice pug larva too, in the form of a Netted Pug hiding in a Bladder Campion seed head near the entrance to the site, while I also managed to find Valerian Pug larvae at a number of sites around Oxford (some of them with only small patches of the foodplant – seems to be one to look out for wherever it occurs).
|Netted Pug larva lurking in a Bladder Campion seedhead at Aston Rowant|
|Valerian Pug larva|
Alongside the pugs, another group that featured heavily this year was the plumes, again making good idle threats made in my round-up of 2019 highlights, to enact the teachings of another well-chosen Christmas gift, Colin Hart’s Plume moths of Britain. Back in Somerset in the spring, I spent a lot of time at the crumbling cliffs at Watchet, where I found two really nice plumes. After failing to find anything other than one extremely dead and almost unidentifiable larva, Goldenrod Plume proved to be common by day around all the larger patches of its foodplant on the cliffs. This is a rather rare beast (nationally scarce A) and absolutely stunning - some illustrations make it look a bit lake a fancy Triangle Plume, but it’s something else entirely in the flesh with its wonderful ermine trim. I also found a few Wood Sage Plume larvae here, in their characteristic wilted shoots, the second for VC5. The plume book wryly comments that larvae found at this stage are often parasitized, and indeed it proved so.
|Wood Sage Plume larva|
Another second plume for VC5 was the red-data book Horehound Plume. Its foodplant, White Horehound, is itself a rather scarce thing, only known from 4 areas of Somerset. I realised the moth had only been recorded from 3 of these, and headed to the last, some rather parched limestone grassland near Bridgwater. On arrival I was greeted by some good stands of the rather ghostly foodplant, liberally scattered with high densities of both adult and larval Horehound Plumes, resting on the leaves in the boiling afternoon sun.
|White Horehound in Horehound Plume country|
|Horehound Plume larva|
After these, the plumes kept coming, and I recorded a total of 15 species over the year. Another highlight was the diminutive Sundew Plume in Devon and Somerset. As its name suggests, this remarkable moth turns the tables on the insectivorous sundews, and the larva feeds on the leaves, licking the secretions off the sticky hairs that normally act as a trap for invertebrates, munching said hairs, and then setting about the leaf itself.
While down in Somerset, I managed one other trip out trapping, returning once more to the cliffs at Watchet. It was a cool night, but delivered a nice variety of hoped-for limestone specialists, many of which were new to me, including Pretty Chalk Carpet, Fern, and best of all more Thyme Pugs (for my money one of the prettiest of the group – with those bluish tones), the second Sand Dart for VC5, and Maple Prominent, a moth I had long failed to see (despite living just on the edge of its weird little Somerset outpost). By day the cliffs also provided further excitement – Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawks seemed to have a good year, and I had nice views of females thundering around the slumps and egg-laying on Devil’s Bit Scabious, while a nice little colony of Scythris picaepennis also revealed itself, the first for VC5.
|Narrow-Bordered Bee Hawk egg-laying|
|Goldenrod Plume habitat|
Another night time expedition to the coast came in late May, when I decided I was so starved of excitement by travel restrictions that a night time search for Scarce Blackneck larvae on Exmoor would be a good idea. After tramping out to the remote beach where it was last recorded in Somerset (in 2003), I stomped about in the darkness for a couple of hours, completely failing to even find any Wood Vetch (its foodplant) at the grid references I had, let alone any larvae. With my resolve failing, I tried heading away from my grid reference, and about a kilometre of pebbles later, I found the plant and found the larvae. 5 of them to be precise. Munching away quite happily out in the open at 11:30pm.
|Scarce Blackneck larva|
|Scarce Blackneck larva|
Back in Oxford, my solo field trapping was limited to three trips out, of which two were at Aston Rowant. The first was at Sydlings Copse, where after trekking across the fields, traps in hand, I managed to get wet from both above and below, choosing to trap in the very soggy fen, in the hope of Dentated Pug, on a decidedly rainy night. Dentated Pug of course did not show, and nor could larvae be found in September, but I got a nice variety of wetland species for my efforts. The two sessions trapping at Aston Rowant were rather more successful, with 100+ species on both nights. As well as the afore-mentioned Pimpinel Pug, other excitement was provided by a large selection of chalk grassland specialists, including Sitochroa palealis, Chalk Carpet, Oncocera semirubella, Parectopa ononidis, Barred Rivulet, Citron Plume, Coleophora lixella, Festoon and Hypochalcia ahenella. Top billing went to Coleophora niveicostella (pRDB3, a rather scarce Thyme Feeder and the 3rd for Oxfordshire) and Argresthia abdominalis. This Juniper feeder is pRDB2, and doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of garden plants, being restricted to wild Junipers on chalk downland. It is therefore very rare, and this was the second Oxfordshire record, the last having been in 1974… at Aston Rowant. It was caught on my second trapping trip on the reserve, a fantastically atmospheric night in August, right on the top of Linky Down, from where I could sit and watch the traffic roaring down from London on the M40, lightning flashing in the distance, and the Juniper Pugs busy fluttering around the foodplant egg-laying, all on a night that didn’t get below 20c the whole time I was there.
Aston Rowant also delivered excitement by day, including adults of the lovely little Nemophora minimella and the mines of Ectoedemia arcuatella on Wild Strawberry – the second and first records (respectively) of these species for Oxfordshire.
|Nemophora minimella (male)|
|Ectoedemia arcuatella mine|
Over the latter half of the summer, I found 2 more new moths for Oxfordshire as leafmines. Most cryptic was Phyllonorycter ulicicolella, rooted out of a gorse spine at Sydlings Copse in November, while more expected was Lyonetia prunifoliella which has been expanding its range and threatening to make an entrance for a while, duly doing so with some mines on Blackthorn along the Thames at Goring. About half an hour before finding these, I’d also potted a Sorhagenia sp. Off some Buckthorn and thought very little of it, other than that it was my first of this genus, and rather rare, but on going under Peter Hall’s knife it turned out to be janiszewskae, and another new moth for Oxfordshire. All of this was found on a trip that failed to find Epermenia insecurella at nearby Hartslock. In mothing, it seems best to expect the unexpected.
|Phyllonorycter ulicicolella mine - Sydlings Copse|
|Lyonetia prunifoliella mine - Goring|
Further local excitement was provided by a session leaf-mining up at Wytham Woods with Doug Boyes, where we found Phyllocnistis xenia (Grey Poplar) and Cosmopterix scribaiella (Reed), which (pending verification of 2019 records) look like they might be new to VC22.
|Phyllocnistis xenia mine|
|Cosmopterix scribaiella mines|
Leaf-mining has continued right up to the present day as well, at the start of December, scrabbling around on Putney Bridge and embarrassing some friends as I collected Pellitory of the Wall covered in Cosmopterix pulchrimella mines, and also with several winter trips to look for miners on gorse and broom. After the initial success at Sydlings Copse, I spent quite a bit more time looking for the mines of Phyllonorycter ulicicolella, and its close relative, scopariella. I found the former at 3 more sites, and the latter at 2, including back in native Somerset at Willet Hill, where it was new to VC5. There’s a bit more about searching for these in an older post on this blog.
|Cosmopterix pulchrimella - ex mine on Putney Bridge|
|Phyllonorycter scopariella mine - Greenham Common|
In numbers, 2020 was my best year for moths yet, I recorded 746 species in total, in contrast to 617 in 2019. Of these, 220 were new for me, taking me past my 1000th species (a Tissue at Aston Rowant apparently). Interestingly, in 2019, 161 of these were not at light, whereas in 2020 it was 322 – a marked shift in approach as being stationed in a city full-time deprived me of garden trapping, and I tried to be a bit more targeted about tracking down rare species by day (77 vs 56 nationally notable species in 2019). In a year marked by a dramatic shrinking of social horizons, it was also nice that some of my mothing managed to be a bit more collaborative than 2019 (or rather exploitative, as it was mostly other people generously helping me), and I owe a big thanks to people who helped with with IDs (particularly Rob Edmunds, Peter Hall and Paul Wilkins), queries (the long-suffering Somerset/Upper Thames recorders) and let me tag along with trapping trips (big thanks to Doug Boyes and the hundreds of species he showed me up at Wytham), as well as the people who generously let me trap on their land (the National Trust in Somerset, and BBOWT and Natural England in Oxfordshire).