Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Birder to Moth-er

Black Witch moth - Jill Hays
Jill Hays is in our latest Master Naturalist training class and sent me this picture which she identified as a Black Witch, Ascalapha odorata.  Here is her story:
"Wednesday morning when I was on my way out to see neotropical migrants I opened the garage door and this moth flew in and landed on the wall! How cool!

I am an addicted birder and I think moths and others are calling me as well! I have some friends from St. Louis who came down this summer and set up a light and sheet to see and photograph moths at Steve and Debbie Martin's property. We were up until almost 3:00 am before we realized it, looking at all the moths. It was fabulous!"
Birders frequently become a mothers, which I will spell moth-ers to avoid a fear of pregnancy.  The ability to identify moths by shape and color comes naturally to birders and they don't have to learn the calls or songs.  Mothing is cheap, comparing a light and a sheet, or even just a porch light to the cost of binoculars and gas to drive around looking for birds.

The Black Witch is a particularly fascinating species.  It is a tropical species from Central America and the Caribbean that migrates in the summer northward as far as Canada.  It is reported throughout the US and Canada although it is rare in most locales.  The host plants for its caterpillars are in the legume (pea) family including our Kentucky Coffeetree.

In its native southern range it has a fearsome reputation in the local folklore.  It is considered a harbinger of death in Central America with many frightening local common names associated with death and dying.  In portions of Mexico, if one flies over your head, you will lose your hair!  When it gets to southern Texas, if it lands in your house you will supposedly win the lottery.  A garage in Missouri?  You get to start your own legend, maybe a new ATV?

Ailanthus moth - Jon Rapp
Moths are cool and under appreciated. Many of the tiny moths are nocturnal but will come to the deck light and remain for a while in the morning. Their beautiful colors are easy to overlook before the sun comes out, then they disappear, hiding in the daytime. One of my favorites which I commonly find by our deck light is the tiny Ailanthus moth, Atteva aurea.  This native of Florida developed a taste for Ailanthus, the "Tree of Heaven", an Asian invasive species, and the moth is now wide spread in the US.

Rapp at work - Click to enlarge
Jon and Nancy Rapp, friends from Columbia, came for a weekend at Bull Mills. He is a dedicated photographer and he collected over 70 species in these images in just one rainy night, huddled under our deck with just a light and a sheet. Most were tiny and dull at first glance.

Keep your eyes open and you too can become a moth-er. You can find moths almost anywhere, including at our swimming hole.

Polyphemus hanging out on the creek- REK
More on the Black Witch is at this website.


  1. Excellent! I should mention that Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren are the friends who got me so interested in the moths! 😃 Turns out it was a Black Witch at Tower Grove Park that sparked their interest!

  2. The first beautiful moth I saw out of doors, and not in my closet, was an ethereal Luna Moth on Isle Royal.