Autumn Moths in the Garden

After returning from Georgia at the end of August opportunities to run a  trap in my West Norwich garden were limited by work, weekend trips away and the weather.  As expected numbers dwindled from mid-September onwards and diversity was never great.  However in keeping with the rest of the year I recorded a steady trickle of species that were new to the site.  For example the night of 3rd Sept yielded  137 moths of 22 species, 99 0f which were just five common species, but which included a NFY (new for year) Maiden’s Blush and a micro Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing) a species for which there were just 3 previous records for TG20 and a new species for TG20D.

Epermenia falciformis (Large Lance-wing) – 3rd September 2019

A trip to Cornwall meant that I didn’t trap again in the garden until 11-12th September by which time the catch had a very definite autumn feel to it with Herald, Centre-barred Sallow, Angle Shades and Black Rustic all NFY.

Angle Shades (Phlogophora meticulosa) – 11th September 2019
Black Rustic (Aporophyla nigra) – 11th September 2019

Again the standout moth was a wandering micro – Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume) again new to TG20D with only four prior TG20 records.  Another micro species Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) although NFY was expected at this point in the year.

Oxyptilus distans (Breckland Plume) – 12th September 2019
Eudonia angustea (Narrow-winged Grey) – 12th September 2019

Moths were a bit thin through the rest of September notables included a NFY Barred Sallow and a couple of smart Box-tree Moths  on 21st and a rather battered new for garden Frosted Orange on 29th when Lunar Underwings peaked at 12.

I only ran four traps in October, but remarkably still managed to record two new moths for the garden; Mallow 5th and Brick 19th.

Brick (Agrochola circellaris)- 19th October 2019

Other NFY moths that appeared over the weekend of 18th/19th October included Yellow-line Quaker, Satellite, “November Moth” and the always stunning Merveille du Jour.

Yellow-line Quaker (Agrochola macilenta) – 19th October 2019
Satellite (Eupsilia transversa) – 19th October 2019
Merveille du Jour (Griposia aprilina) – 18th October 2019

November began with a near perfect night for mothing which delivered 28 individual of 14 species including a late migrant Silver-Y and a splash of late autumn colour in the form of three recently emerged Red-green Carpets.  Feathered Thorn and Acleris sparsana (Ashy Button) were both NFY.  But pride of place was went to the slim and unobtrusive Blair’s Shoulder Knot  which was a new species for me.

Feathered Thorn (Colotois pennaria) – 1st Nov 2019
Blair’s Shoulder Knot (Lithophane leautieri) – 1st Nov 2019

And that was it until a mild and mercifully dry night towards the end of the month persuaded me to switch on a trap which rewarded me with four furry chocolate NFY December Moths and a beautifully marked Mottled Umber which was new to the garden.  One more trap in early December added the expected Winter Moth at which point it was time to wind things up until the first mild nights in February.

December Moth (Poecilocampa populi) – 23rd November 2019
Mottled Umber (Erannis defoliaria) – 23rd November 2019

On the Beach

In recent years taxonomy, the branch of the life sciences concerned with the classification of living organisms,  has been revolutionised by the ability to rapidly, and inexpensively, read genetic material.  Whereas once upon time classification of species was  based largely on measurements and morphology (in the case of birds – structure and plumage) of museum specimens now differences in genetic make up provides important evidence as to the validity of a species.  In the case of birds an ability to turn a digital recording of songs and call into a sonogram – a graph of the frequency (pitch) of bird’s sound versus time that can act as a digital fingerprint has also become a valuable tool in the toolkit of both the professional taxonomist and field birder. This last technique has been pioneered and used to great effect by the Sound Approach team

Any birder who has travelled widely in Europe and Asia knows our familiar Yellow Wagtail is just one of about a dozen different forms with more or less defined breeding areas.  An encounter with a flock of migrating “yellow” wagtails in spring is always an exciting affair; sorting through the identifiable forms and guessing  their final destination.  The gallery below has a selection of images from Georgia (2014), Western Sahara (2018) and Kuwait (2019).

Recent work by Sander Bot and colleagues (Dutch Birding (2014) 36: 295-311 ) used a combination of genetics and sound recordings to assign nine western forms of yellow wagtail (including all of the above) to a species now known as Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) with the remaining four forms that breed in East Asia to a genetically and vocally distinct species – Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis).  Elevation of Eastern YW to a full species and greater awareness of both the different call  and the  monochrome look of typical first winter birds has led to an upturn in the number of records in recent autumn especially from the UK and Netherlands -although in most cases identification has been aided by sequencing of DNA extracted from faecal samples.  

As a consequence it was just a matter of time before a Eastern YW turned up in striking distance of home  – or to be precise Walberswick on the Suffolk coast where a first winter bird had been hanging about with a couple of lingering Western YWs during the first half of November.  

Fortunately I chose a fine, if cold, Saturday morning for my visit to its favoured beachside pool. I parked the car at Hoist Covert (52.310110, 1.638246) before striking out East across the marsh to the shingle beach.  There were plenty of showy Bearded Reedlings to slow my progress and by the time I got to the pools the bird had already shown itself to the assembled group  As I set up my camera and tripod I heard a loud and unfamiliar buzzing call and the Eastern YW flew directly towards us, landed briefly on the beach before flying strongly South! “Not to worry” I was told “all part of its daily routine”. Fortunately, whilst I waited for it to return, there was a delightful and confiding flock of 20 Snow Buntings playing hide and seek in the shingle in between visits to some seed that had been put down for them.

After about an hour and a half a “yellow” wagtail appeared in the vegetation at the edge of the favoured pool.  After a short wait it revealed itself to be one of the Western YWs. Unfortunately when the bird relocated onto the beach the entire group of observers  noisily moved  in order to get a better view As they did I heard a now familiar call overhead; its Eastern cousin had returned but took one look at the human activity and flew off South again!

Western Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) note the pale lores (area between the base of he bill and the eye) – Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

By now it was lunchtime, noticeably cooler and the light was deteriorating.  I decided to give it a further hour before trying to salvage something from the day.  Luck was with me and after a further 15 minutes the Eastern YW returned and posed rather distantly on a shingle ridge.   Although I was  grateful for the 2x teleconverter on my 600mm lens it made focusing challenging in the dull light. That said the gloom accentuated the birds dark olive upper parts, dark lores and crisp white feather edgings.  Eastern Yellow Wagtail it most certainly was and #716 for my Western Palearctic list.

Eastern Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla tschutschensis) Walberswick, Suffolk 17th Nov 2019.

The following day I was back on the shingle in pursuit of a rare bird.  After an early morning walk around Happisburgh with Graham which yielded a late Yellow-browed Warbler and a Woodcock we enjoyed breakfast in Walcott before heading up to the North Norfolk coast to catch up with an Isabelline Wheatear found by Mark Golley earlier in the week.  Despite a diet supplemented by meal worms the bird appeared to be struggling spending long periods almost motionless on its favoured fence posts.  A sombre reminder that despite the joy we get from finding and seeing vagrants for many  ending up hundreds or thousands of miles from home may be the beginning of he end. 

Isabelline Wheatear (Oenanthe isabellina) Cley NWT Reserve, Norfolk 18th Nov 2018

We made a quick stop on the way home to see a rather distant Rough-legged Buzzard near Wells  which in many ways felt an appropriate way to end an autumn that had started 3 months earlier in Batumi.