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"The Mothman's Diaries" (Letter from a Ragged Human No3) by M. N. Jones

After last month's sojourn in the wilds of hot and sticky Willesden Green (see “ All The London Geeks” ), this month’s tasks have included the usual rounds of printing out the photos and identifying the various bugs, moths and butterflies I encountered from notes and sketches. Filling page after page of formerly pristine sketchbook with hasty scrawls and annotated doodles might not be the most aesthetic use for it, but it is a kind of meditation, practical (if private) way to be a biologist and a secretly pleasing way to mark the passage of otherwise completely forgettable afternoons in a life that ticks by relentlessly, whether I use it well or badly.

Perhaps the most impressive example of this sort of notebooking pastime (“scrapbooking” is not quite the correct word) are the journals of the walker Alfred Wainwright, that ultimately became his books. That said, pretty much everything he ever produced was more beautiful and neatly described than anything loitering in my own moth & butterfly pages. For him, the activity provided an escape from a desperately unhappy first marriage. For me, the butterfly, moth and beetle thing is a pleasant pass-time that my own beautiful, beloved partner happily indulges. All over the world, there are probably countless similar notebooks being compiled, some good, some bad and some indifferent, yet each with a unique story behind it.

Typically, the task of identifying the creatures photographed or sketched during fieldwork (or even just off– duty bug spotting) takes many times longer than ever the fieldwork did, especially if butterflies are involved. For those who have never done such a thing, or have tried repress the memories, there is always a lot of squinting at the pictures with a magnifying glass and flipping between the 2 or 3 vertically identical illustrations in a couple of piles of books, counting the number of bands around the margin of the hind-wing, or looking to find where the markings for, relative to individual wing veins. Assuming what you have before you is not a fresh hatchling, or a tatty old adult with the relevant chunks of wing missing or damaged in its earlier misadventures… and trusting that there are no local variations, a quick flick through the standard volumes (usually “Collins Pocket Guide to Insects of Britain and Western Europe” or Collins Field Guide to “Butterflies of Britain and Europe”) tells you all you need to know. I’m never sure whether to be exhilarated by just how many butterflies there are upon the planet, or depressed by how many goddamned butterflies there are, with patterns that look almost exactly the same. Usually, I start off feeling all enthusiastic and then flip as the hours squinting pass and feeling quite the reverse.

Identifying plants and animals from their pictures should be one area where the internet can really come into its own; after all, there are so many people traipsing around every corner of the planet, 12 megapixel phone cameras always in their hand. But, for the most part, the material on the internet is nothing like as useful as that in specific identification guides. Sometimes, the problem is one of keywords-searches such as “Blue butterfly, Middle East, under-wing stripes” or “tall, yellow flower, verge, Switzerland”, will get enough irrelevant pictures to keep you occupied well into retirement. Oftentimes, though, the problem is not so much finding the correct search terms, but down to mislabelling – you may care about the species name and getting your comments just right, but there is always someone out there, sticking incorrect labels all over photographs and plastering them all over the web. I like to think the person doing it is the type of person who goes to Justin Bieber concerts, or gets all impassioned over Love Island or similar. Alternatively, I fantasise that it is some angry poison toad of a scientist trying to throw his rivals and any passing amateurs off the scent of correct identifications, so they will just have to buy his book. In truth, it is probably just some ragged human not so very different from you or me, trying to do something that interests them even if, at first, they do not do it very well.

One ray of glorious sunshine in this whole process is Singapore’s butterfly circle blog pages. Their website (blog) is a source so good that even the guidebooks cite it as a reference. Lavishly illustrated, well explained and full of pertinent notes, really cannot speak too highly of the site. It saved me countless hours work with my butterfly photographs last time I passed through Singapore.

Four-Line Blues, Two-spotted Line-Blues, Common Jays, Grey Pansies or Branded Imperials, the butterfly circle pages have them all. This month I need butterfly circle of Willesden Green page, but I make do with the “Collins Pocket Guide to Insects of Britain and Western Europe” and their “Butterflies of Britain and Europe”, both of which are works of art in their own right.

After last month’s London trip, then, I came back with some pictures of peculiar T-shaped insects that fluttered, night after night through the open windows, choked as they were with leaves and the aromatic white trumpets of Convolvulus flowers. Given past experience, I had expected identification to be a long and tedious process. But in this case, it was really quick. You can Google “T shaped insect” and pretty much find the answer straight away- plume moths. Now, these creatures are nothing if not distinctive and it seems that they generally invite the question “What the hell is that?”- The internet, naturally, is unshy about offering answers.

For the record, the plume moths are a small family of micro-moths in which the wings are generally split into 5 feathery “plumes”- the forewings constitute 2 of these plumes and the hind wings 3. When resting, the wings are ordinarily rolled up and held perpendicular to the body, giving the creature a T-shaped appearance that is superficially totally different from that observed when they are in flight. Many species are found on scrubby wasteland and generally unkempt grassland.

Although I have a general fondness for moths, they’re not one of my strongest areas of expertise, so it has been a pleasant change to spend some time reading about plume moths. They might not be the most colourful creatures on the planet, but they are entirely harmless and not without their own distinctive charms. This time, with or without spending hours identifying them, I’m truly happy to know that, despite mankind's global ecological rampage, such things as plume moths still exist and, in Willesden Green, are clearly thriving.

-M.N. Jones.

This post was originaly published Summer 2017,

Republished 2018 when The Greatest Minds moved between web-hosting companies.


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