Early spring is one of my favourite times of the year to be a naturalist. Winter in Canada is far too long for my liking and naturalizing opportunities are few and far between. There is only so much winter birding I can do, and identifying frozen mosses or undertaking winter plant ID only holds my interest for so long.
As the snow recedes and the temperatures warm up, migrant birds appear - first waterfowl and Horned Larks, then waves of robins, blackbirds and Killdeers, and eventually the kinglets, creepers, and sparrows in early April. Observing each "first of year" species brings a smile to one's face, while also providing a reminder of the waves of migration still to come. Observing the phenomenon of bird migration really gets my blood pumping!
The first reptiles of the year are found on warm, sunny March days, filling a void that had been absent since the autumn. Once the ice has receded from the ponds and the first warm rains of the spring fall, the voices of Spring Peepers, Western Chorus Frogs and Wood Frogs emanate from vernal wetlands while salamanders rush to the ponds to lay their eggs.
Meanwhile, the first ephemeral wildflowers - usually Hepatica in my experience - add a jolt of colour to the otherwise brown tones of a deciduous forest floor. Early beetles, bees, and moths appear, eager to get on with their lifecycles during these initial spring days.
It is the last group - the moths - that has captured my attention this spring. I only got hooked on mothing recently, during the summer of 2019. Last spring I was pre-occupied with other things and I did not set up my moth sheet for the first time until early June. Therefore, 2021 has been my first spring of mothing in Ontario. Almost everything has been new, which is always a lot of fun!
I previously blogged about some of my finds from the first mothing session of the year during unseasonably warm temperatures on March 10. Since then, I have gone out on five other occasions as documented below.
Warm-ish temperatures on March 22 motivated me to leave the house and set up my sheet at Short Hills Provincial Park. Unfortunately, the temperatures dropped quicker than I would have liked, falling below ten degrees Celsius by the time that I called it a night around 9:30 PM. That being said, since this was one of my first attempts at early spring mothing, even some of the common species were new. I excitedly photographed my first Orthosia hibisci, an abundant noctuid species that I have now seen dozens of.
The following night, March 23, promised much warmer evening temperatures and so I returned to Short Hills. This time, I had a double-digit species total for the first time all spring.
The genus Acleris includes many late autumn/early spring species. That night I noted the striped form of Acleris robinsoniana for the first time. The diversity in pattern and colourating is astounding with many of the Acleris, and some are impossible to identify given our current knowledge of their external morphology.
Two common early-spring moths are in the genus Phigalia, and they include the Half-wing Moth (Phigalia titea) and Small Phigalia (Phigalia strigataria). They are not particularly exciting to look at, but after a long winter it was nice to see twenty individuals on my sheet at one time.
To maximize species diversity, I have resorted to baiting for moths this spring as well. A delicious mixture of fermented fruit, molasses and beer seems to do the trick. Often, certain species will come to the bait as opposed to the light, while the bait attracts numerous spiders, beetles and other invertebrates.
After that March warm spell, temperatures for the next fortnight were much more seasonal. This was not conducive to "active" mothing (waiting by a lit-up sheet and seeing what arrives). Other moth-ers in the province set out a trap each night and peruse through it in the morning. Even on cool nights they will often find a handful of interesting species. Unfortunately, I do not have a good property for this, nor do I possess a moth trap. It is not worth the amount of effort to wait by my sheet on cool nights and only see a couple of moths, and so I only go out when the weather cooperates. Once I have my own property, I would love to start trapping since it is easy to do every night and much less time-consuming.
A break in the cool temperatures arrived this week. As Laura was working the night shift, I dropped her off each evening and headed off to some great local areas to set up my sheets and put out the bait. The first night (April 7) was the coldest of the three nights and not much was flying. I did not even tally a single Phigalia. But this was a night of quality over quantity. A very fresh Lettered Sphinx (Deidamia inscriptum) appeared!
This is the earliest-flying sphinx moth in eastern North America, but April 7 is exceptionally early for southern Ontario. Typically, the first individuals appear in late April or even early May. According to the Ontario Moth Atlas, the previous early date for this species was April 9 (from 1996). Eric Giles, another moth-er who resides in Norfolk County, had one enter his trap the same evening as well.
My first Grote's Sallows (Copivaleria grotei) showed up on April 7, with four of them in all. I love the subtle green highlights on their wings.
A new Acleris appeared on the bait - Acleris pulverosana. This species is incredibly varied in pattern.
This other Acleris was quite unique in appearance, but it remains unidentified (for now).
The mothing may have been relatively slow, but the spidering was great!
The conditions on April 8 were finally what I had been hoping for. At sunset the temperature was around 15 degrees Celsius, and it increased to 17 degrees by the time that I finished around 11:30 PM. I switched things up and set up my sheets at St. John's Conservation Area, a beautiful forest that contains many mature oaks, tulip trees, beeches, and maples.
Three species of moths dominated, with 10 - 20 individuals of each - both Phigalia species (featured earlier in this post), as well as the geometer moth known as Small Engrailed (Ectropis crepuscularia). But there were many others mixed in as the night progressed.
From what I gather, the Variable Carpet Moth (Anticlea vasiliata) is relatively common in the springtime. It, too, was a new one for me. You can see the reason behind its common name just with these two examples.
Some of the pug moths (Eupithecia sp.) that I have observed in the tropics are strikingly coloured, but in Ontario I am used to dull grays. This was a new one for me, and for a change it was actually a fairly attractive one!
You may have noticed that up to this point, almost all of the moths featured in this blog post have been some shade of brown or gray. I would hazard a guess that it makes sense that the early season moths would look like this because it helps them blend in to their environment. It is not like there are a lot of green leaves out yet. That trend was broken when a bold green moth appeared by my black light. Could it be? There was no kidding around, this moth was The Joker.
Noctuids put in a good showing this evening and I noted a few for the first time. The rarest was probably one known as Citrine Sallow, a species that is not too frequently noted in Ontario. Its foodplant is Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
The family Nolidae is represented by just a handful of species in Ontario. This was a new one for me - the Three-spotted Nola (Nola triquetrana).
My main moth interest are the "micros", and luckily there were a few neat ones this evening. My favourite was a new Acleris for me, known as Acleris ptychogrammos.
Agonopterix moths were everywhere this evening. The vast majority were Goldenrod Leaffolder Moths (A. pulvipennella), but a good number of what I believe are A. clemensella also appeared.
These small moths in the tribe Eucosmini (family Tortricidae) seemed to have hatched recently since I noted a half-dozen over the course of the evening. This tribe of moths is notoriously difficult to identify and there is still much to learn about them.
Following that highly successful evening, I was pretty excited for what the next night, April 9, held in store. I returned to Short Hills Provincial Park and set up in a new area. Both lights were close to a creek, located within a floodplain and sheltered from the wind. Given the abundant grasses, goldenrods, asters, and other herbaceous species in this semi-open environment, I was not surprised with how many Goldenrod Leaffolder Moths (Agonopterix pulvipennella) appeared. But it was an excellent night for other species in that genus, and I tallied five different ones.
I have tentatively identified the next one as Agonopterix eupatoriiella, but note that identification of certain species in this genus is challenging at times. If my identification is correct, it would represent one of few records for Ontario. One of the hostplants, Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), is abundant in the immediate area as well.
Of course, many of the moths this evening were the same from yesterday's excursion at St. John's Conservation Area. I find that moths often emerge en masse in different areas on the same night. There were some new ones, though. This next species of noctuid is called the Figure-eight Sallow (Psaphida resumens).
An amphibian friend joined me at the sheet for a while. I had to keep an eye on this American Toad since it was eager to eat any insects on the sheet that were within reach! After wolfing down a few moths, it went on its way.
One of the unfortunate victims of the toad was a Reddish Speckled Dart (Cerastis tenebrifera). RIP...
Linden Prominent Moths are a favourite of mine. Typically, the first Linden Prominents in southern Ontario appear in late April or early May. A testament to the early spring we have been experiencing, at least four Linden Promiment Moths appeared this evening.
One of the more unusual moths was perhaps the most boring. I believe that this is a worn example of Eucosma ambodaidaleia, which is a rarely reported species across its range. For example, there are only 15 iNaturalist observations (3 Ontario).
This post is getting a little long, so I will try to speed things up a bit as we near the conclusion. Below are a few more other random moths and other invertebrates that I photographed that evening.
With a size of 15 centimetres, surely the following species is one of the most impressive true bugs we have in Ontario. It is always fun finding one on the sheet!
I checked some bait I had put out a few days earlier and was surprised to see how active it was, especially with beetles (but with some moths as well). Clearly, it helps to let the bait percolate for a bit before checking it, since all of my fresh bait produced nada.
And with that, I called it a night. I am excited to see how the moth diversity changes as we progress through April and into May!