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Nightlife in the Adirondacks: Counting Moths

A small-eyed sphinx in hand on Moth Night. Photo by Mary Thill

“Boy, they’re really drunk,” Dale Schweitzer says. “I think we’re going to have a good night.”

He is shining his flashlight on the trunk of a wild cherry. A dozen obliging moths sip a slurry of beer, rotten fruit, sugar and corn meal that Schweitzer painted onto the tree before dusk. As one hand holds the light, the other uncaps a relish jar and flicks one of the moths inside. He’s not sure what species that one is, so he’ll take a closer look later, when he can sit down for a beer of his own.

Schweitzer recognizes the rest of the tan and white shapes from a lifetime of study. He rattles off genus and species as well as a few terms that sound more familiar: catalpa, dagger, underwing—most of the little brown ones don’t really have common names, he says. More to the point, guidebook authors have lately tried to assign common names, but there are so many that it’s easier to learn the Latin.

Except bird-poop moth. That one is easy to remember for reasons that are unforgettable once you see it. Nature’s manifestations are mind-blowing. About 20 people follow Schweitzer into the night, seeking more revelations.

Bioblitz

So began Moth Night, part of the Adirondack All-Taxa Biological Inventory’s annual bioblitz. About 50 biologists from around the Adirondacks and the East gathered Sunday at Intervale Lowlands, a 135-acre private preserve on the west branch of the Ausable River outside of Lake Placid. Their goal was to record every species of plant, animal, fungus and other (look up “wolf’s milk”) they observe on the property in a 24-hour period. In previous years the AATBI bioblitz has been held at the Nature Conservancy’s Follensby Pond and in the village of Saranac Lake. Technically this year’s rapid ecological assessment began at 12 a.m. Sunday, but everybody loves Moth Night, so it got going early, as soon as the first stars appeared Saturday evening.

Schweitzer, who lives in New Jersey, and fellow lepidopterist Michael Sabourin, of Vermont, also hung three sheets in a meadow. They illuminated each with a different wavelength of light to attract different kinds of moths. The one lighted by a mercury vapor lamp—a common parking lot fixture—got the most action. Several varieties of fat-bodied sphinx moths fluttered with smaller bits of life, including a few mayflies and caddisflies from the river.

Entomologist Ezra Schwartzberg, of Saranac Lake, left most of the moth work to the moth specialists. When an errant ladybug flitted onto a sheet, he snapped a photo on his smartphone. With an iNaturalist app, he uploaded the picture, along with genus and species (Harmonia axyridis) and GPS-located latitude and longitude, to an online iNaturalist database linked through Intervale Lowlands’s website. The technology is easing tabulation for field biologists.

Before Sunday, 440 species had been identified at Intervale over the years. I haven’t yet heard how many more have been added to the tally as of 12 a.m. today. Wildlife biology students from the Adirondack Ecological Center, in Newcomb, had set out trail cameras and small-mammal traps. A team of bird-watchers was scheduled to begin a count at dawn yesterday. Adirondack ecology expert Jerry Jenkins was collecting and photographing grasses and sedges. Mushroom I.D.s popped up on iNaturalist all day Sunday. Property owner Larry Master set up bat sensors and oversaw the whole effort. Master is retired chief zoologist with NatureServe, a network of North American natural heritage programs, and many of his colleagues were on the property to lend a hand.

The information will inform what Master and others know about life in the Adirondacks, and it will serve as a baseline by which to compare future inventories. The location of next year’s bioblitz has not yet been decided, but it is expected to take place on a public site with many opportunities for citizen scientists.

Public Moth Night Tonight

If you’d like to participate in a Moth Night, tonight is your chance. From 9 to 11 p.m. at the Paul Smith’s College VIC, Professor Janet Mihuc will deploy her own fruit/beer bait as well as moth-attracting lights to observe and identify different species. Mihuc said she would keep a few of the more colorful specimens in pop-up cages for viewing on Tuesday morning, and then they would be released.

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