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Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Giant moth is a star in O.C.
Readers send their photos, stories of encounters with the black witch moth during mass migration.
By PAT BRENNAN
The Orange County Register
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For an 8-year-old in San Clemente with a scientific bent, the giant insect became a pet.
But a man in Rancho Santa Margarita was frightened by what he thought was a 'sick bat.'
One thing is certain: the black witch moth is making a splash all across Orange County as it flies through the area on a mass migration that occurs only once every few years.
After a Register story about the black witch migration earlier this month, reports of the giant, dark moths came flooding in – some complete with pictures.
About 20 people from a variety of cities – Yorba Linda, Anaheim, Fullerton, Orange, Mission Viejo, Costa Mesa, Irvine, Huntington Beach, Newport Beach – told of finding the dark-colored moth with a wingspan as broad as seven inches. About another 20 people from around California, including Los Angeles and San Diego counties, sent their accounts of the moth directly to Mike Quinn, an entomologist with Texas Parks & Wildlife who tracks the moths.
The migration continues, and the reports are still coming.
Among them is one from 8-year-old Hunter Fisher of San Clemente, who said he is keeping the moth, captured by his father in Newport Beach, "to see if it lays eggs."
Hunter says he likes "catching bugs and growing them."
"We have a praying mantis right now, two china beetles, tobacco horn worms," he said.
Hunter's mother, Nathalie Fisher, captured Hunter and his latest pet on camera.
"Sometimes it likes to crawl on my face," Hunter explained. "It tickles."
But the black witch moth, which is harmless, also can provoke fear – or at least make a human heart skip a beat – because of its large size.
Eric Dortch was on the lot at a car dealership in Rancho Santa Margarita, he said, when he saw "what seemed to be a bat, but flying erratically." He realized it was an oversized moth just before it landed on his brother's shirt and startled him.
The moths are surrounded by mythology, often as harbingers of death or good luck. "I wonder now if a lottery ticket was in order," Dortch joked.
The moth flies silently by night, but its habit of resting by day under house eaves or inside porches can make it easy to spot.
Shaylah Schwegel was home alone in Huntington Beach when she flipped on a light and " this bird or bat-like thing starts flying around and into a corner of the wall."
When her husband called on her cell phone, she said in an email, "I'm scared and I tell him 'something' is in the house!"
Her husband, worried about a creature making a mess in the couple's home office, where the "thing" was lurking, urged her to go back for a better look.
"So I reached for the light switch and perched on a bookshelf was this huge moth!" she said. "Each wing was about the size of my hand."
Schwegel left the window open, but her husband, Jason, found the moth dead a few days later.
"He said, 'It really was big," she said.
Quinn says the mass migration of black witch moths is possibly larger than one in 2004, when many residents had also noticed and reported them.
"It's a good year for California," said Quinn, who collects reports of the black witch moths from around the country.
The moths might migrate every year, but in low numbers; some years, like this one, they move in a mass migration northward from Mexico.
The reasons are uncertain, but the migration might simply be dispersal of the moths when their southern habitat becomes crowded.
In any case, Quinn says the phenomenon will likely end within a few weeks.
"By, certainly, mid-September or so it may really start to taper off," he said. "It hasn't really tapered off just yet."
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