One of my favourite jobs as a warden intern here is light-trapping and identifying our moths. We have thousands of species of moth here in the UK, and many are found in the Aire Valley reserves. Moths are mysteriously drawn to light, particularly light that is rich in ultraviolet and at times when the moon’s light is weaker. This is called “positive phototaxis,” and means moths are drawn to traps and once there they plunge into a funnel and into a refuge, traditionally of egg-boxes, which provides them some safety until inspection.
Moth trapping doesn't have to be difficult! A brilliant way to learn and see what you can attract is with a torch and bed sheet. Image: Nick Cunard (rspb-images.com)
Moths – an ID challenge!
Moths and Butterflies form a group known as the Lepidoptera, meaning “scale-wing.” Care must be taken when handling these creatures to prevent these dust-like scales from dislodging.
Not all butterflies are brightly-coloured or all moths nocturnal and drab; a more complex combination of features (of antennae and wing-coupling) is used to distinguish between the species.
Not all moths fly at night - this six-spot burnet flies in the day and flaunts its colours as a reminder of its foul taste to predators.
This classification is not straightforward; imagine a florist cutting several stems from a single plant and then adding other flowers to the same vase – this is an analogue for how the tree of life has often been “cut” in classifications of convenience by the biologists of the past.
It is better to enjoy the group as a whole than to overstress the differences between the widely-appreciated butterflies and the often-subtler moths.
Distinctive species such as the hawkmoths provide an opportunity for beginners and contain some tougher species too. Some of these are so hard to identify, even the experts have named them with descriptions such as ‘confused’ and ‘uncertain’!
The elephant hawk moth, found at Fairburn Ings, gets its name as the caterpillar has a protuberance that resembles a trunk!
The diversity of markings is hard to put into categories and often distinctive features are shared by many species. Some species show variation even amongst freshly emerged adults and all species may lose features with age; understanding this variation is important for identification.
One challenge is to find where in the book to look for the creature in question - there are sometimes several “islands” of similar looking creatures to work out!
Bright-line brown-eye moth - not to be confused with the brown-line bright-eye of course
Caterpillars and plants - at war As a plant ages it creates poisonous compounds. It is a race for caterpillars to eat enough whilst their chosen plants are still edible and nutritious – otherwise they will never reach cocoon stage.
In retaliation, some plants chemically advertise their caterpillars to parasitoid wasps which lay their eggs upon or even inside them so that their larvae can consume them.
This buff-tip moth goes to show that even cryptically marked creatures can be beautiful!
Timing and emerging moths
Different food plants, soil nutrient-levels, climate conditions and day-length influence moth maturation rates., which means different species emerge and fly in different months of the year.
Understanding our moths and when they emerge gives us a fine-grained sense of season that is of incredible scientific value in understanding climate change.
Week-by-week new species emerge and the superb Yorkshire Moths- Flying Tonight website can tell you what to expect and when. A huge help given the 2500 species of moths we have in the UK!
Pug moths are notoriously difficult. I photographed this one with a page of a book - possibly the wrong page!
Moths and conservation
This enormous group is diverse and widely-studied and so provides an excellent measure of our attempts to conserve the natural world.
If we can protect this group of species, for example by preserving wild herbaceous borders, we will also pass on benefits to other creatures whose niches are part of or overlap the ones occupied by these beautiful creatures.
For a great opportunity to identify moths and use a professional moth trap this summer - see Big Wild Sleepout at Fairburn Ings this weekend! http://bit.ly/2soAieEWild Wednesdays held every Wednesday in August will also feature a moth event - please stay posted or ask us on social media for specific updates. http://bit.ly/2u3koYp
Memory sharing is underway at Fairburn Ings to celebrate the reserve's 60th Anniversary. Here are some of long time visitor and volunteer- Joe Seymour's memories and own photos to prove them!
My love for the natural world began as a young boy when my grandma signed me up to the Wildlife Explorers Club at Fairburn Ings. It’s fair to say that I have seen Fairburn change quite a lot since I first started coming to the reserve. However, the spark for bird watching actually struck with the Swillington Birders - now St. Aidan's reserve where my Gran would also take me.
My first fond memory of Fairburn came on my very first day of volunteering, aged 15. My mum and I took a stroll down Lin Dike and low and behold hovering over Spoonbill Flash was my first ever sighting of an osprey! Grabbing my camera, I fired off a few shots before it moved on.
Joe's first sighting of an osprey
It is thanks to the countless hours volunteering at Fairburn Ings that a lot of my wildlife encounters have been made. One of my fondest memories was back in 2011 when a visitor came running into the shop saying there were FIVE kingfishers at the screen. As lunchtime was approaching I grabbed my camera, shot down and there they were: two adults and three juveniles having fun learning at the screen. Only the father would sit with them though, so only managed a shot of four!
Four kingfishers from the kingfisher screen
In February 2010, we were alerted when a visitor came in and told us about an eagle owl perched in a tree down cut lane. As confused as we were over the report; and after myself and then retail manager (Nik Goulthorp) explained to the visitor that we get long-eared owls on the reserve, we headed off hoping he wasn't confused. Strangely enough, there sat in a tree was a very big eagle owl. Due to the number of branches obscuring the bird I wasn’t able to get a clear enough shot, and the next day he’d gone. Other than the size difference between a long-eared owl and an eagle owl a clear difference is the eye colour. The eagle owl's eyes are orange and the long-eared's are yellow.
A surprise visit from an eagle owl
The common waxbill (presumably an escapee, due to the pink ring on its leg) was a strange sighting too. This bird, a member of the finch family and native to sub-Saharan Africa turned up in October 2010. Lasting no more than a couple of days before disappearing has extraordinary features, with its striped brown body and a vivid red supercilium (eyebrow) and beak. Here it was photographed under the feeders with a goldfinch in front of the centre.
Common waxbill and goldfinch
The topic of unusual wildlife encounters reminds me of Broady the bullfinch's arrival back in 2009. This was a young bullfinch, believed to have been released into the wild as he was far too tame. Not only would he land on your hand if you had some food, but would also sit on heads and shoulders. (I'm not too sure where the name Broady came from, but I think it was something to do with English cricketer, Stuart Broad and the ashes as he turned up at roughly the same time.) Here he is perched on the site manager, Darren Starkey’s binoculars.
Darren and a friendly bullfinch
It's not just magical wildlife sightings that have made this reserve so close to my heart, but also the devastation that flooding can bring too. As Fairburn Ings is a floodplain, we expect it to happen and welcome the protection it gives surrounding homes, but sometimes it is very extreme. I remember a few events when flooding has occurred on the reserve such as 2012 and more recently 2015. The below image shows a moorhen swimming on what should be the road near the welcome sign at the centre car park approaching from the Lin Dike part of the reserve. It was a close shave for the visitor centre!
Moorhen taking advantage of the 2015 floods
As photography is my passion, I will finish my blog with pictures of my memories from this year, mainly from breeding bird surveys. These include the great white egret which turned up in December last year, a fox taking dinner back to its family and the first successful breeding records for both bitterns and spoonbills at Fairburn.
Next time you're down, pop into the visitor centre and report your sightings and share your own memories of this grand reserve and I’m sure you’ll see me about with my camera. Happy 60 birthday Fairburn Ings.