Natural Perspectives: Bugging out at night

Vic must have decided that he didn't have enough to do what with teaching birding and biology, working with the Amigos, and serving as vice president of Sea and Sage Audubon. He has become a volunteer with the National Forest Service for Cleveland National Forest.

As part of his new volunteer work, he signed up to participate in a nighttime insect survey with Gary Meredith in Santiago Canyon. A bug hunt in the dark sounded just crazy enough to interest me. When I heard that dinner at the Silverado Café was part of the deal, I was totally on board.

After burgers and lemonade at the little café, 10 of us gathered at a pullout off Maple Springs Road about two miles from the gate that separates the wild area from civilization. We drove up the winding, one-lane canyon road near dusk, with Vic and Gary doing some birding along the way.

Meanwhile, Larry Shaw, who is director of operations of the Orange County Vector Control District, set up a white canvas with black lights that were powered by a 12-volt battery. Night-flying insects can't resist light in the ultraviolet range. They flock to it like, well, like moths to a flame. Only the moths don't burn up.

As we sat in folding camp chairs waiting for dark to fall, we listened to distant calls of poor wills and Western screech owls. The first insects that I noticed were the mosquitoes buzzing in my ears.

Gary helped me with settings on my new Nikon Coolpix 510 so I would have a better chance of getting some decent photos. It looked like everyone in the group except Vic was there to photograph the insects. The forest service benefits by getting the results of what insects were found, plus use of photos that people share with them.

Once it was dark, moths and other insects began to swarm onto the white sheet. The photographers vied with one another for perfect position to capture an image of first one moth, and then another. It started to look like a game of Twister on that white canvas on the ground.

Gary kept admonishing us to watch our feet so that we didn't step on any of the fluttering moths, beetles, and caddis flies that landed on the white canvas at our feet.

I regret to say that, photographically speaking, I was lost. I was facing photographic challenges that were new to me. I had no idea how to take macro photos in the dark. But by luck, I managed to get a few in focus pictures where the moth hadn't flown away.

I soon learned from the more experienced photographers that it helps to shine a bright flashlight onto the insect so the camera can focus on it. Without it, there is near total darkness and the camera cannot focus. It was quite a balancing act to have both a flashlight and camera in hand, leaning over a couple of crouched photographers on the canvas, all while taking care to not squash the moths underfoot.

The biggest photographic challenge was probably a small white moth that landed on the white canvas. White on white wasn't an easy subject, and my flash kept overexposing the shot. I fiddled with dials and eventually got a decent shot.

I was also lost entomologically. There was an enormous array of species, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me, or to Vic for that matter. We were both amazed at the variety of insects that we saw. Larry and Gary helped identify the various insects, but we didn't catch a lot of the species names.

The first moth that caught my eye was a Tussock Moth. These creatures had a triangular shape to their brown, mottled wings. They were amazingly fuzzy, with legs as hairy as a polar bear's, and freakishly serrated antennae that looked like they could pick up Radio Moscow or a transmission from the Mars Rover.

The largest insect was an Elegant Sphinx Moth. This big guy thwapped me in the face with its wings before settling down on Larry Shaw's back as he was kneeling on the canvas. We told Larry not to move so we could get photos.

Around 10 p.m., I was ready to head back home, but a newly arrived Pale Beauty Moth held me in thrall. With pale lime green wings, it was aptly named.

I found nighttime flash macro photography a real challenge. I had gone mainly out of curiosity, but those magnificent moths hooked me. I'm signing up as a forest service volunteer, and plan to go out with this group again. You can see more of the images that I captured, including a Leather-winged Beetle, on my blog at

Vic and I plan to take photos and collect data for the forest service this summer. Other volunteers help maintain trails, off-highway roads, and campsites, remove non-native plants in partnership with Back to Natives Restoration, assist with construction projects, or assist with interpretive activities.

If you are interested in helping out, contact the Trabuco Ranger District Volunteer Coordinator at (951) 736-1811, ext. 3227, or email Debra Clarke at

If you have an interest in learning more about the wonderful world of insects, there will be an insect festival, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. July 14 and 15 at the San Diego Botanic Garden. Visit for more information.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. You can reach them at

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