Thursday, July 9, 2020

A mothing night at Daughmer Savanna

A clear, starry night over Daughmer Savanna in north-central Ohio's Crawford County. This state nature preserve is probably the premier savanna remaining in Ohio. It is ably managed by the Crawford Park District.

I made the shot above last year, but last Tuesday night looked much the same except far warmer and muggier. A small team of avid moth'ers descended upon this place to sample moths: Josh Dyer (Director of Crawford Park District), Kyle Bailey of the Richland County Park District, Chelsea and Wade Gottfried, and your narrator. Many thanks to Josh for allowing us in after dark. To our knowledge, no one had surveyed this amazing natural area for moths. Based on what we found, I hope we can do more mothing here. I'm sure many other notable finds await. We set up two sheets, illuminated by ultraviolet lights, a mercury vapor light, and another bright light. It worked well, and many fine specimens came to our setups between dusk and 2:45 am, when we finally packed it in.

A Double-banded Grass-veneer, Crambus agitatellus, "hides" under a milkweed leaf. There are quite a few species of grass-veneers in our region, and some are rather "weedy" and probably in your yard. Many of them - this one included - eat grasses in the larval (caterpillar) stage.

Anyone who pays attention to moths has seen the behavior above. While walking through almost any sort of habitat, one will flush moths which promptly fly to a plant and scurry underneath a leaf. If you sneak in to try for a look, the moth often flushes again well before you get close. Obtaining a satisfactory look can be an exercise in frustration.

Approaching most animals is far easier at night. For whatever reasons, they are often far less inclined to extreme wariness. The little moth above allowed me to stick my camera right under his leaf and make some flash-assisted images. But we up our odds of seeing moths big time with the use of illuminated sheets. Like a moth to a flame, as the saying goes. Moth-lighting does not kill the quarry either, and at the end of the session all insects are brushed from the sheets and sent back into the dark.

One aspect of mothing that is always interesting are the non-moth visitors. This weird-looking cranefly like thing is actually a robberfly, Leptogaster flavipes. I don't see many robberflies come to the sheets at night.

This night's oddity show was headlined by this strange bug, which flummoxed all of us regarding the identification. Turns out it's a Pleasing Lacewing, Nallachius americanus. It is utterly gorgeous, like a small ornately marked dragonfly. I thought it was a Neuropteran when I saw it, but ran into a brick wall in trying to identify it. Chelsea was the first to figure it out, and it turns out that Pleasing Lacewings are apparently rare, or very good at hiding, or have a very brief shelf life as a winged adult, or some combo thereof. iNaturalist, that massive repository of natural history observations, lists but four Ohio observations, and only a grand total of 64 records (all in the eastern U.S.). I did find a mention of their affinity for oaks. This one was in the right place, as Daughmer Savanna is probably the best oak savanna remaining in Ohio.

Another pleasing find was this fetching moth, the Ruby Tiger Moth, Phragmatobia fuliginosa. It resembles a badly sunburned Isabella Tiger Moth - the adult form of the fabled Woolly-bear caterpillar.

NOTE: The photo above and many of the others were made on the white sheet, with the moth in situ and unmolested. I personally am not a huge fan of shooting moths on white sheets but in many cases it is necessary. My mothing compadres and I have learned over the years that the larger and fuzzier the moth, the easier it is to move it. A Luna, for instance, is easily coaxed onto a leaf, twig, or your finger and relocated to a more natural situation for photos. The smaller and smoother (less hairy) the moth, the harder it is to work with. Such animals will usually flutter off as soon as they are approached closely. This Ruby Tiger Moth would seem, by that theory, to be fairly docile but I made a few attempts to move it and it resisted. But it looks good on the sheet, thinks I.

And a note on sheets, since we sometimes have to shoot the little beasts on them. Splurge and get a really good high thread count sheet. I think mine is a 700 thread count or something like that. To get a proper exposure of a dark moth on a light backdrop, one must overexpose quite a bit. I was probably two stops to the plus side on my flash on many of these images, and up to three stops on the darkest subjects. But the combo of overexposure and high thread count sheet creates a creamy white background. A low thread count sheet will create a rougher look. It's also important to launder moth sheets before each use to keep them clean as possible.

Another lepidopteran gem, the Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria. This is another case where the white sheet serves as a complimentary backdrop. This is another species that includes oak in its diet (as caterpillars, of course).

We were pleased to see this Lunate Zale, Zale lunata, appear. Zales (pronounced Zal-ee; two syllables) are large subtly showy animals. In good light and under close inspection they appear to have been carved from a complex grain of wood.

A Bog Lygropia, Lygropia rivulalis, sporting an impossibly ornate op-art pattern. Moths like this serve to lure people into gaining an interest in the nocturnal butterflies. The variety and beauty of moths is seemingly endless. And there is much to learn. For instance, the host plant or plants (required caterpillar food) for this species, showy as it is, is apparently unknown.

What I have noticed at the moth sheets, and I am often guilty of this, is that moths generally get split into two camps by human observers. The BIG STUFF, and the "micro moths". The majority of attention goes to large silkmoths and other easily observed species. Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of visitors are usually the micros that are Lilliputian indeed. Many would be measured in millimeters and often don't even look like moths from any distance - more like tiny gnats or caddisflies or any of the other myriad non-moth tiny insects that invariably flock to moth sheets.

This incredible crested big-eyed beast probably tapes out at 14mm. It is a Striped Oak Webworm Moth, Pococera expandens. You'd never know how cool it is without a really close look.
Here we have a Yellow-winged Oak Leafroller Moth, Argyrotaenia quercifoliana. Its ornate patterning and beautiful golden patterning make it a crowd-pleaser.

Here's an example of moth relocation. This is a Green Leuconycta, Leuconycta diphteroides, and it is one of many lichen mimic moths. And fortunately quite easy to handle. So we moved it to some convenient lichen-dappled tree bark, the moth nestled right in, and we got more ecologically accurate shots.

A true showstopper, the Scarlet-winged Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia miniata. It's in the tiger moth family and is unbelievably flashy. The name stems from the food of the caterpillars, which consume the algal components of lichens. The moth is in an amazing evolutionary arms race with bats, but that's another story for another time.

Here's our other lichen moth and it's nearly as flashy as the preceding one. It is the Painted Lichen Moth, Hypoprepia fucosa. We were fortunate to have multiple specimens of both species come in on this night.

Tussock moths were well represented, and this is the White-marked Tussock Moth, Orgyia leucostigma. Its caterpillars are commonly seen - we found a few this night while strolling around - but the moths are mostly observed only by those who search for them in the gloom of night. Tussock moths perch with those shaggy legs extended out front, which is quite distinctive.

I'll end this photo-rich post with this little cutie - another of the tussocks, the Yellow-based Tussock Moth, Dasychira basiflava. Moths make incredible photo subjects, and many a photographer has gotten hooked on their charms once exposed to moth magic.

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