The quickest way to catch a lot of exciting moths is to not invite me. It's enough of a struggle against nights that plummet to nearly freezing, have too little cloud (or too much) and the street lights of west London. But we go regularly anyway and all sorts of exciting beasts are caught when I can't make it; and not a lot of anything when I can. My bad luck is something spectacular; it is it's own law of nature.
We trap in Perivale wood, a members’ only reserve run by the Selbourne Society; wedged in between Central Line, suburban housing sprawl and the Grand Union Canal: the hazy area where London fades into the old Middlesex. Ancient woodland still exists behind a locked gate and high fence, and bluebells proliferate amongst the undisturbed tangle of oaks. Tonight we were to set up five moth traps. The skinner trap is my job to assemble: five slats of flimsy wood, clear Perspex, a heap of egg boxes and — minding the exposed nail — a blindingly bright light bulb on a bar of wood.
The next morning dawned deepest blue. At five am the jet contrails are vivid white scars, blushing as the sun hits them. The wood is a murky grey of bark and shadow and cold at this hour. The first trap is opened: the egg cartons examined and the corners inspected. The verdict: no moths caught.
It was the same with the second trap. The third trap produced a Shuttle-shaped Dart, a blonde-bodied brown moth that looks as odd as its name. A luminous yellow Brimstone and an Angleshades were lurking in the fourth trap. Angleshades is a common moth that's shaped like peeling bark and coloured like a dying leaf but manages to be much brighter and prettier than that suggests. It has a habit of spending days in visible locations, but also unexpected ones: the underside of my can opener in my first week at university was a particular head-scratcher.
As lovely as they are, they're not the sort of moth that drags you out of bed at five am on a Saturday. Not that there are many that are my friends would point out. But that is because they haven't seen Lime Hawkmoth, and that was what was nestling in the middle of the final trap. It is spectacular: not just worth getting out of bed for, but for all of those unsatisfactory sessions and time spent agonising over identification guides. It is a giant among moths, several Angleshades across in width and wearing a military camouflage (if you squint a bit) across its broad wings. It's astonishing to think that moths this spectacular are common in London but so rarely get seen without a trap. And even more amazing to realise that adult Lime Hawkmoths’ biological curiosity is that they lack developed mouth parts and only feed when they are caterpillars on the lime trees that line London’s streets.
Does this signal a change in my luck with moths? I hope so. It’s not long before we go again and I have my greedy eyes set on more hawkmoths…