Learning the moths: do it in pieces

6842 - Plagodis phlogosaria - Straight-lined Plagodis (2)
Straight-lined Plagodis, Plagodis phlogosaria

This weekend saw some exceptionally warm temperatures for this time of year, weather that I equate more with mid-July than with late April. It was glorious, sunny and warm, shorts-and-tee weather. Providing that you don’t get rain accompanying the warm weather (and even if you do, to some extent), these sorts of temperatures usually stimulate a huge flight of spring moths. If you put your sheet out on an unseasonably warm night, you can be sure that it will be crawling with critters.

7179 - Leptostales rubromarginaria - Dark-ribboned Wave
Dark-ribboned Wave, Leptostales rubromarginaria

As a result of these warm days, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the diversity of species coming to my lights. Yesterday evening, for instance, I tallied probably upwards of 75 species. For someone just starting out in moths, such an evening can be incredibly intimidating. In my first spring, I knew virtually none of the species that were flying. Keener that I am, I really wanted to know what everything was. I took photos of every single moth I could separate as a unique species, and then spent all day trying to identify it all. I was way over my head, and even though I knew it, I plowed onward, determined to try to figure it all out.

10520 - Morrisonia evicta - Bicolored Woodgrain (2)
Bicolored Woodgrain, Morrisonia evicta

Well, it’s a great way to burn yourself out. If you live in a rural area with a diversity of natural habitats, you’re likely to see several hundred species over the course of a year. My number one tip to new moth’ers, based off of my recent experience – don’t try to learn it all in one year! It’s a great way to really turn yourself off this budding interest. As much as you itch to know what everything is, draw yourself a line and stick to it. Learn a subset this year. Then, next year, when the season rolls around again, you’ll have a good base of all the species you’re familiar with, onto which you can build the next subset of species.

7330 - Anticlea multiferata - Many-lined Carpet
Many-lined Carpet, Anticlea multiferata

I would strongly suggest beginning by learning the common things – the moths that you see dozens of on a given night. There aren’t usually too many of these species, perhaps two or three a week, so they’re easy to start with. This is really just common sense – by learning a small handful of species you can often easily skim over a quarter to half or more of the moths on your sheet. It eliminates a large portion of the “unknowns” from further consideration.

7895 - Clostera albosigma - Sigmoid Prominent
Sigmoid Prominent, Clostera albosigma

Where you go next is entirely according to your own preference. Perhaps in your first year you’d prefer to choose to concentrate on just the noctuids (primarily “chunky-bodied” moths) or the geometrids (the “flat” moths). Or maybe you’d like to focus on the brightly coloured and/or unusually-shaped species, the eye-catching things that will be easy to call to mind again next year when you start to work on the more subtle patterns. If you’ve got lots of time at your disposal, or you’re particularly good at picking up and learning identifications, you could even broaden your scope to include all of the macros, and next year tackle all of the micros.

6252 - Drepana bilineata - Two-lined Hooktip
Two-lined Hooktip, Drepana bilineata

The main thing is to break the effort into manageable pieces, and how you go about doing that is up to you. Taking photos of the moths, and then sitting down to identify the photos later, will help to solidify the identification in your mind, as will sorting through, labeling and organizing your files. It also helps provide a useful reference both for re-familiarizing yourself with the species the following year, and for comparing other photos you take to.

7871 - Deidamia inscripta - Lettered Sphinx
Lettered Sphinx, Deidamia inscripta

Personally, I think if I were starting from scratch again, it would be the unusual and eye-catching species that I would start with after I’d learned the common stuff. Not only are they easier to remember, and stand out on the sheet, but they’re also more interesting and help to stimulate and solidify your further interest in moths. To use a bird comparison, it’s a little like learning to identify the Scarlet Tanager, Eastern Bluebird and Indigo Bunting before you start looking at sparrows. Probably there are not many birders who can say that their interest in birds was piqued by a sparrow, but I suspect many were sparked by a Scarlet Tanager.

7939 - Furcula occidentalis - Western Furcula
Western Furcula, Furcula occidentalis

I’ve included in this post a variety of the more interesting or eye-catching moths that I caught yesterday evening, a taste of what’s flying this time of year, at least here in the northeast. And if you think this is great, just wait till June!

6240 - Euthyatira pudens - Dogwood Thyatirid
Dogwood Thyatirid, Euthyatira pudens

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3 responses to “Learning the moths: do it in pieces

  1. This is really helpful.

    As an aside, house sparrows and song sparrows figure pretty prominently in how I started birding. I wouldn’t expect that to be true of all or most birders, though.

  2. There is a lot to be said for marking out a group and saying to oneself, “I’ll get to them later.” I’ve used that approach in birding and I use it now with moths. I’m a big fan of “analog” notetaking with birds, but I have to say that taking lots of photos of moths and stashing them away until I can try to identify them later is also a big advantage. The worst thing you can do is pressure yourself to name them all, right now. I also enjoyed seeing Dogwood Thyatirid and Bicolored Woodgrain in this post, since they were some of the first moths I learned when I started mothing. Thanks for another great post!

  3. This brings back memories! I spent the first summer in our house on a wooded lake staying up until 2-3am, photographing moths and then coming back inside and trying to ID as many as I could on the computer. I didn’t have the Peterson field guide back then, so I used a lady in Ontario’s website that had all kinds of gorgeous moth phtotos and their identifications.

    I had an older friend, Janice Stiefel, who has since passed away, that I would correspond with each morning so we could compare what moths we had seen. She started my interest in moths.

    It was an obsession for me that summer, but then I got involved in other stuff. This NAMBI project has rekindled my interest in identifying those non-ID’ species and reporting them for the new field guide, in memory of that summer “contest” with Janice.

    Seeing your moth photos has reintroduced me to some “old friends”. My favorite ever was the Harris Three Spot. I call it the “Beatles” moth.

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