Magnificent moths found at Barnum Creek
By Belinda Gallagher
Special to the Times
The sun was bright and the mosquito count was down when we arrived at the latest Haliburton Highlands Land Trust Discovery Days event, Magnificent Moths. As we walked into the field, a gentleman poking around in the long grass with digital camera in hand, greeted us warmly, “Come here, come here. We have just released some moths on a tree trunk. See if you can spot them.”
It was the beginning of an exceptional morning at the newest of the Land Trust’s nature reserves, Barnum Creek, located in Haliburton off Gelert Road.
My husband and I have attended dozens of “nature-based” workshops, hikes, talks and walks and the majority of these events have been both entertaining and educational. But this event was more – it was utterly surprising.
The publicized description of the morning – “moth experts, moths released from live traps, slideshow, local moths” – while correct, missed the sense of wonder that shone bright on the faces of the participants and specialists alike.
Our guide for the morning, local naturalist, Ed Poropat, (who kindly agreed to add the technical meat to this writing) welcomed the group and described the activities that we were witnessing. Tucked behind the small cottage near the entrance to the property was a small group of folks sorting and photographing specimens. There were scores of clear medicine bottles, each containing a single moth alive and well. Scattered around the grass were several large wooden boxes and plastic tubs.
In the shade near the cabin was David Beadle, meticulously setting up his camera and make-shift stage to get the perfect photograph of yet another interesting moth. David has been mothing for over 20 years in North America and for years before that in his native England. An excellent, all-round naturalist, he is well known in the province and beyond as the co-author of the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths. (Beadle, David and Seabrooke Leckie, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, New York: 2012)
Around him, emptying traps, releasing moths, photographing, or recording data were the other members of the team, all passionate moth aficionados: Dennis Barry and Margaret Carney (who graciously donated the Fred and Pearl Barry Wetland property to the Land Trust), Mike King, Phill Holder, Mike McEvoy, and Phil Reyenga. Open almost any nature magazine, and there is a good chance you will see one of their photos. All are amazing photographers and knowledgeable naturalists.
Every few minutes, someone would yell out, “Newly released moths on the trunk of that large maple!” The announcement was followed by a mad dash to the tree and a few seconds of silence while we searched for the critters. “Here’s one – it looks like a lichen.” “Look at the size of this one.” “Over here. There is one that matches the bark.”
“And this one is the shape of a Delta-wing fighter jet.”
A deep voice behind me whispered, almost reverently, “It’s a Luna moth. I have always wanted to see a Luna moth.”
As excited as we all were viewing the moths, it was time to move into the cottage for a short slide presentation. We squeezed together on the assorted stools and chairs and learned the basics of the world of moths.
Ed began by sharing information on how to separate moths from butterflies by examining the antennae (clubbed in butterflies and thread-like or feathery in moths). He mentioned how diverse butterflies and moths are in the insect world (about 180,000 species), being the second most diverse group behind beetles. Remarkably, moths comprise up to 95 per cent of this massive group. In Haliburton County, for example, we have 90 different kinds of butterflies. With only a sampling of data over the past few years, there have already been over 800 species of moths recorded!
Ed continued, speaking about how moths are able to defend themselves, using camouflage or bright colours and spots to surprise potential predators. Some are even able to detect bat echolocation signals and possibly even “jamming” these signals or creating “ghost images” in space to confuse the attacking bats. He addressed how important moths are ecologically. They not only provide food for a myriad of creatures, but they take over from bees, wasps, and butterflies as the “night shift” pollinators for many plants. Some species even rely exclusively on certain moths for pollination. Although some moths are known to be destructive, countless more are extremely beneficial to both us and our environment.
Back outside, we were now drawn to the medicine bottles with an amplified sense of curiosity. No longer were moths those brown little things that eat sweaters and tents. These winged-wonders belonged to a big, big family and overnight these experts had collected an amazing selection, from the minute Parornix Leaf Blotch Miner (4mm) to the largest native moth found in Ontario, the splendid giant Cercropia silkworm moth (150mm).
An astounding 250-plus species were captured in a single night of live trapping (they’re still combing through pictures to identify some, so the list may grow). Of these, over 50 different kinds were new to the county inventory. As impressive as that may sound, it is also indicative of the knowledge gaps that still exist in the region. After all, who’s looking? On Beadle’s last visit to the county, for example, he discovered a moth new to Ontario within a kilometre of Haliburton village. What else is out there?
Just when we thought the morning could not get better, the next announcement echoed out, “We are opening one of the live traps.”
Live trapping is David Beadle’s rule. The night before, the moth collectors rolled out extension cords and plugged in light traps in several different directions from the cabin. These traps are essentially covered boxes filled with loosely stacked egg cartons. A bright bulb attracts the moths, and they buzz around the trap. Below the bulb is a funnel that directs moths downward into the trap, where they settle into the egg cartons for the night. In the morning, the traps are emptied, each carton scanned carefully, and every type of moth diligently recorded. If a moth is particularly fresh, or if it is rare and hasn’t been photographed by some of the team, it is carefully placed into a clear pill bottle so it can be photographed later during the morning.
The lid was lifted and Beadle reached into the trap and gently removed the first of many egg carton sections.
I must admit that I dislike the word “awesome” as the word is rarely used accurately to describe a sense of awe. In this case, it was awesome! As the egg carton was rotated, a finger was pointed at each resting moth, providing a description, species name and scale of rarity. Occasionally, a moth was “bottled” and sent to the photography tables. “The guys will want this one.”
It took about 15 minutes for the bucket to be emptied. There was a deafening silence as we all absorbed the wonder we had witnessed.
One of the donors of the Barnum Creek property, Margaret Dobrzensky leaned close to me and said, “What a wonderful event, I didn’t think so many would come to see moths.” As I paused to answer, I heard a comment from another participant – “I thought there would be a hundred more!”
Perhaps this writing will inspire you to attend a Land Trust Discovery Day, or at the very least, take a second look at the magnificent moths in your own back yard.
The next Haliburton Highlands Land Trust Discovery Days – Marvelous Mushrooms - will be held at Barnum Creek Nature Reserve on Saturday, Aug. 24. For details go to https://www.
With files from Ed Poropat