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Sunday 21st December, 2014

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Muncaster Moth Hunt A Soaring Success!

The World Owl Trust’s moth hunt turned out to be a huge hit, despite the overcast sky threatening showers all night. As people began to arrive it became apparent the event was going to be more popular than expected, with a grand total of 30 people in attendance, locals and visitors alike, all with high hopes of seeing the promised night-time wildlife. I held my breath that the nocturnal creatures would perform on cue, as we all know how predictable and well behaved wild animals are...

The main aim of the event was to catch a glimpse of the rare Netted Carpet Moth. The larvae have been surveyed annually at Muncaster for the last ten years, yet no-one had so far seen the adult moth. The survey is no easy task, and involves counting the number of individual food plants on site followed by a back-breaking effort to lift each and every leaf in search of the tiny and well camouflaged caterpillars.

Touch-me-not Balsam in the owl aviaries
Touch-me-not Balsam in the owl aviaries Picture courtesy Vicky Lane

John Hooson from the National Trust was kind enough to attend, and provided a wealth of knowledge on the Netted Carpet Moth and its food plant, Touch-Me-Not Balsam, a nationally scarce plant and Britain’s only native Balsam. We are fortunate enough to have around 2700 of these plants within the grounds of Muncaster, many of which grow in and around the owl enclosures. John demonstrated the “exploding” seed pods and explained about the female’s egg-laying behaviour, after which the group set off into the owl centre on the hunt for Netted Carpet moth eggs.

The owls performed right on cue with some truly weird and wonderful hoots and calls. From the squeaky gate chirps of the Long-eared owls, to the spine-chilling screech of the Barn owls, to the jungle-like “wowowow” of the Mottled owl, it seemed they all wanted to voice their interest at having visitors so late at night. This unique display made the owls a star attraction and as so few people have had the chance to listen to such a variety of different night-time hoots, it made the experience that little bit more extraordinary.

We had several cunning ideas in place to improve our chances of seeing the Netted Carpet Moth; in the wildlife garden, ropes laced with sugar and red wine were hung around branches to entice the sweet-toothed moths into viewing distance and a torch was left shining on a white sheet to attract those which preferred the glitz and glam of bright lights. John was on hand with his butterfly net over the Balsam plants and we were also lucky enough to have with us Millie Clarke, armed with her fantastic home-made light trap. Surely with so many tricks up our sleeves the elusive moth stood no chance of hiding tonight?

Having a look in the light trap
Having a look in the light trap Picture courtesy Vicky Lane

Leaving the traps to do their work we set off in search of some other interesting night-time creatures – bats! Using a couple of bat detectors and 30 pairs of keen eyes we managed to spot a Noctule Bat in flight and over the pond we detected the echolocation call of Natterer’s and Daubenton’s Bats hunting insects on the water.

The Swallowtail Moth  The Orange Underwing Moth
The Swallowtail Moth The Orange Underwing Moth Pictures courtesy Vicky Lane

Finally our efforts were rewarded when John Hooson put all of his expertise into play and managed to net the Netted Carpet Moth! Despite its small size it didn’t fail to impress. With its intricate white patterning on a dark chocolate background it was beautifully delicate and received plenty of ooh’s and ahh’s from the group as it was passed around. The light trap was also a success and, throughout the rest of the evening moths of all shapes, sizes and colours fluttered towards the bright glow, including a Swallowtail, an Orange Underwing, a Ruby Tiger, a very unusual looking Snout and a Dark Arches.

The evening was a huge success and provided an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the fascinating local wildlife and get up close to rare and unusual species. The feedback we received was encouraging, with many concluding the night had been both informative and highly enjoyable, and we will certainly be taking on board suggestions to hold similar events in the future.

Rebecca Gregory
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The World Owl Trust is a member of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA). The Trust relies on a dedicated membership, visitors, donations and legacies.
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