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Going for Gold

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

(photo above courtesy of Steve Green)

It was that time again for my summer mothing visit to Wicken Fen and I wanted to make it a really good night so I put the word out on the Cambridgeshire Moth Facebook page and to some mothing friends. The Date was 11th August meeting by the visitor centre at 7.30pm. I got a great response from people and 10 of us met up, some had never trapped here before and I suspected they might be in for a really good night. Earlier in the year I wrote a blog about my Wicken visit in April where we had 14 traps out and likened it to Blackpool illuminations, well this time we had even more with 18 traps, and It was beginning to look more like the neon lights of Las Vegas than a nature reserve on the fens but I was sure it was going to be worth it.

This is a list of those that came along and how many traps they had each:

10 People came along on the night

Steve Thompson - 2 traps

Steve Green - 2 traps

Steve Lee - 3 traps

Steve Whitehouse - 3 traps

Martin Gray - 2 traps

Lois Clarke - 1 trap

Seb Buckton - 3 traps

Leslie Gardner - netting along the paths

Laurence Machin - 1 trap

Ian Machin - 1 trap

A map above of roughly where the traps were sited. Around the visitor centre and car park, along the boardwalk on Sedge Fen and opposite around the outside education area.

I thought there might be too many traps out but more traps definitely means more moths as we discovered when I collated everyone's lists we had a huge total of around 270 species, some of which are still to be verified by gendet so the total number might change slightly. Everybody had something different and someone really did strike Gold as you will find out later in the blog. This is a report of what we found, photos, video, a complete list of species and also a few words on a successful public engagement exercise on the Saturday morning.

Garden Tiger Moth

1 moth that seemed to be having a good night was the Garden Tiger Moth, a gorgeous rather colourful moth I have only ever seen at Wicken and 1 other place in Wales, we see them at Wicken regularly but not usually in such large numbers, we recorded around 40 of them.

A few photos below and a stunning slow motion video of 1 in the hand by Steve Green.

Just a warning, the video below has a strobing light effect caused by the light from the headtorch.

Small Rufus, Common Wainscot, Magpie Moth by Steve Green

Lois Clarke tells the story of her experience of Wicken and her Golden Discovery

I’m not a great believer in lucky mascots or talismans, but in the late afternoon of August 11th, as I was packing up my moth trapping kit for that evening’s session at Wicken Fen, I spotted a moth high up on the kitchen wall. It was moth I hadn’t seen in a while; a Yellow-barred Brindle; a rather pristine specimen too, I thought. Must be a good omen, I thought.

Wicken Fen is the jewel in the National Trust crown; a watery wonderland in the heart of the Fens, seemingly wild and untamed yet shaped and worked by humans over the centuries, creating a rich mosaic of habitats; home to a teaming array of birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates including more than 1000 recorded species of moth – some of whom are sadly extinct, and some of whom we hoped to see drawn into our light boxes that very evening.

And so, we intrepid trappers convened for the third time this year outside the Visitors’ Centre; the weather mild and breezy, expectations and hopes high for what the night might bring – a first for Cambridgeshire, a re-discovered fen dweller, a new migrant species…

We busied ourselves strategically locating our traps – our 18 traps- along the droves and boardwalks, swapping anecdotes of past mothing highlights over steaming cups of coffee as we set ourselves up for the exciting night ahead. Moth-ers always anticipate exciting nights ahead.

As the sun slipped away, as the Mercury Vapour lamps & actinic bulbs blazed brighter; softly, silently, the first fluttering of wings circled the traps.

Call me a pessimist if you will, but I trap in the expectation of not catching a great deal in terms of numbers or diversity of moths, yet early on the moths began to arrive; an Oegeconia, an Agapeta hamana, a gorgeously marked Sallow Kitten. After an initial flurry it was time to amble round to the other traps to see what was arriving. This is one of the real pleasures of mothing with others, particularly at Wicken Fen when you have pretty much the entire night to kill by wandering from trap to trap, checking out the latest arrivals, on the look out for the rare and the unusual: Marbled Clover, Mere Wainscot, Oblique Carpet, Reed Leopard, Ypsolopha horridella, Monopis weaverella (this one’s a scavenger of carcasses and poo), but in these environmentally precipitous times, also gladdened to see the so-called common moths too; Vines Rustic, Square-spot Rustic, Straw Underwing, Turnip, along with the larger, more eye-catching moths like the Poplar and Elephant hawkmoths, the Jersey and Garden Tiger Moths and the ungainly Drinker moths…..

As the night rolled on we kept watch over our own traps, totting up the arrivals, taking photos as best we could before switching off the lights in the small hours and wrapping up the traps in their groundsheets like large ghostly parcels ready for the final reckoning in the morning.

My trap contained quite a modest collection of moths both macro and micro including a few I’d not seen before; a Small Rufous, a Dark Umber, a Sallow Kitten and a rather glitzy Gold Spot..but it wasn’t till I looked back over my photos the following day that the Gold Spot really glinted at me – winked at me even…I stared back at it and wondered, just wondered in a casual, speculative way, could it be the Gold Spot’s more shy and retiring ‘cousin’: Lempke’s Gold Spot?

I uploaded ‘the’ picture to my favourite whatsapp group, along with other moths requiring clarification. The general consensus was Gold Spot. I sat down with a cuppa and a copy of Manley (aka the Moth Bible) and studied the Gold Spot/Lempke pictures hard, flicking back and forth between them and my photo. The harder I looked the more certain I was that it was a Lempke’s. I even asked a friend of mine – the ultimate non-specialist, to choose which of the two moths mine most resembled and of course they picked the Lempke’s – so of course it must be the Lempke’s.

I asked the question of the group again. Despite murmurings of uncertainty there were helpful reference suggestions which I followed up, some with the relevant wing markings labelled. They only increased my certainty that it was indeed a Lempke’s.

Ben Sale, after seeing another photo of a Gold Spot caught that night declared he was ‘blooming sure’ mine was a Lempke’s. Send it to Bill they said. So the picture was duly sent to Bill Mansfield The (Cambridgeshire ) County Moth Recorder who was not thrilled with the picture quality but still thought it was good enough to decide that it was, after all Lempke’s Gold Spot.

Lempkes Gold Spot by Lois Clarke.

And who is Lempke by the way? A learned 20thC Dutch teacher, more renowned as a lepidopterist who when comparing what we know as Lempke’s Gold Spot (Plusia putnami ssp gracilis) with Gold Spot(Plusia festucae) saw there were differences between the two, and concluded that it was a new species which he named Autographa gracilis. The French lepidopterist Claude Dufay, recognising that it was connected to the American Plusia species renamed it Plusia putnami ssp graciliis in 1969 and thence it became commonly known as Lempke’s Gold Spot.

That Yellow-barred Brindle sure was a good omen.

Some other photos by Lois Clarke:

Sallow Kitten, July Highflyer, Ethmia quadrillella, Black Arches, Dusky Sallow, Beautiful China Mark, Southern Wainscot, Bright Line Brown Eye, Agonopterix ocellana, Setaceous Hebrew Character, Eudonia pallida & Ruby Tiger.

You never know what you are going to find when out mothing, that is why I love it, It is full of surprises. Below are a few scarce micro moths that we found.

Epinotia cinerena (new for Wicken - confirmed by Gendet)

Monopis laevigella (new for Wicken)

Elachista alpinella (2nd record for Wicken subject to gendet)

Elachista pomerana (confirmed by gendet, last seen in cambs in 2004)

More stunning moths from Ian Machin

Marbled Clover. Lychnis & Common Wainscot, Ancylis paludana, Silver Barred, Poplar Hawk Moth, Chevron and checking one of the traps.

Some pics taken by me:

Red Underwing (caught in Steve Lee's trap), Spectacle, Yellow Shell, Knotgrass & Lesser Swallow Prominent.

For me, the morning after is always a fantastic chance to meet and talk to people about the Moths we found. It is important to communicate to the public all about Moths. It is always puts a smile on my face to see people taking an interest especially young children and It is a chance to see moths up close. I was joined by Lois, Steve, Ian , Laurence and my friends Alex and Eileen (who bought me a flask of coffee to keep me going) As you can see from the photos below, It was very popular.

A busy moth event. me holding a Goat Moth, Small Chocolate Tip, a handful of Garden Tigers, a Leopard Moth taking a rest and a comparison shot of an Oak Eggar and male & female Drinker Moths.

Above photos from Lois Clarke, Alex Inzani and Stephen Thompson

It's not all about moths, there are lots of other animals and plants to see around Wicken Fen. A few Common Lizards put in an appearance on the Saturday morning by the boardwalk.

Below is a link to download the full list of species seen at Wicken Fen on 11th August. The list stands at 271 species with some to add when gendet results come back. I will update this list when I can. Another simply amazing night in the fens. Thank you to all the staff at Wicken for hosting this Moffy event. We will be back!

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