Sullivan resident Tobey Crawford sets up a bright light and white sheet to attract moths to her backyard, which abuts the pristine forests and ponds of the Donnell Pond Public Reserved Land. She then uses her smartphone to snap shots of the moths. PHOTO BY DAVID ROZA

Photos show the beauty of small things



SULLIVAN — Tobey Crawford has taken pictures of moths in her backyard every summer and fall night for years. And every time she discovers something new.

“That’s part of the excitement of it,” said the 35-year-old mother of two, who grew up in Eastport. She explained that there are over 1,000 species of moths in Maine, and over 160,000 worldwide. “I couldn’t hope to see them all in my own lifetime.”

Crawford’s parents were both scientists who taught her and her sister how to look for and identify critters living in the fields and forests and on top of the extinct volcano near their home.

A cherry scallop shell moth. Though Crawford’s not a social butterfly, she’s become skilled at socializing with moths. “Part of the joy is when you have them walking on your hand and you can see their eyes moving. They’re looking at you and you can feel a connection.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOBEY CRAWFORD

“From morning to dusk we would be outside playing either up the mountain or through the woods down to the beach,” Crawford said. “That was our world.”

The Oklahoma native developed a reputation for bringing orb and tiger spiders in jars with her into church and school.

“I became kind of notorious for being the spider girl, the bug lover,” she said.

Bugs were more than just a hobby for Crawford. Growing up shy and with autism, she identified with the beauty of nature, which often goes unnoticed or underappreciated.

“Just looking at the trunk of a tree, you see so many things,” she said. “Insects, moths, all sorts of things are hiding in the bark, blending in, and most people would never notice. I like to go and be part of that safe, hidden world.”

Crawford had a lot more going on, though, than being autistic. She also was artistic. After studying anthropology at New Mexico State University, she became a professional graphic designer. But her love of nature never faded.

In 2009, a few years after moving back to Maine with her husband and two kids, she started posting pictures of her moths on her website, downeastwildlife.com.

“I just went wild with the moths,” Crawford said. “Especially returning from the desert where it’s barren. I came back to Maine and there were moths everywhere.”

In 2012, she also started sharing pictures on her Facebook page, Moths of Maine.

“When I started there weren’t many people interested at all,” she said. “A lot of people would get freaked out or grossed out. Over the years, people got used to it and became interested.”

Also in 2012, a fellow moth enthusiast named Liti Haramaty reached out to Crawford.

Haramaty was starting National Moth Week, an informal series of moth-spotting events and presentations hosted in late July by scientists and non-scientists on almost every continent.

A luna moth, one of the largest in North America. “There was an always an assumption that moths were dull and ugly,” Crawford said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOBEY CRAWFORD

The event celebrates the busiest time of the year for moths, which hatch new eggs in the summer.

Crawford was one of the original participants in National Moth Week, and she watched it grow from a small scattering of fans to hundreds of enthusiasts around the world.

“With the internet, things grow exponentially,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see how much it’s changed.”

Along the way, Crawford’s own Facebook page grew more popular.

“During the summer I will get anywhere from 12 to 30 messages a day from people in Maine with pictures of moths they found,” she said.

It’s a big change for someone who first got into moths in part due to social anxiety. But for Crawford, it’s all done out of love.

“They’re so excited, like ‘what is this?’” she said. “I love identifying the moths for them.”

As she educates people about the winged insects, Crawford also spreads awareness about how important the species are to the ecosystem.

“Everyone likes butterflies because they’re pretty and in the daytime,” she said. “But the truth is butterflies are fragile and new and moths have been around tens of millions of years longer.

“They are also more prolific pollinators,” she added.

Moths support ecosystems by pollinating plants, but they also support Crawford by providing a brief respite from her often-hectic life.

Crawford’s husband, Mike, suffers from Ankylosing Spondylitis, a disease that is causing his spine to slowly fuse together. Her 7-year-old son Georgie, meanwhile, was born with Prader-Willi syndrome, which can cause insatiable appetite and other issues.

Crawford grew up exploring in the woods around Eastport, where she developed an appreciation for the tiny details that would normally be overlooked. “Just looking at the truck of a tree, you see so many things: insects, moths, hiding in the bark,” she said. “Most people would never notice.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF TOBEY CRAWFORD

Taking care of the two is a demanding task for Crawford, which is why the nightly moth-spotting serves as a welcome pause.

“It instantly gives me relief from the day-to-day life,” Crawford said. “When everyone goes to sleep I have my time out in the dark.”

Crawford usually spends an hour or two photographing the moths, but she doesn’t want to leave her backyard light on too long for fear that the critters will go haywire.

“I’ll usually do two hours tops, or sometimes sooner if I really see the moths going crazy,” she said.

Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what attracts moths to light. Crawford said one theory is that the species use moonlight to help them navigate. When they see streetlights and porch lights, they go towards the light in an attempt to correct their navigation.

They end up colliding with the light and staying there until it goes out. Thing is, moths have a very short lifespan — often only a few days — so Crawford tries not to take up too much of their time with her photography.

“The bigger moths get maybe three days, and that’s why I don’t want them to waste half of that time on my porch light,” she said.

With her depth of knowledge and enthusiasm for moths, Crawford also participates in grassroots moth-tracking efforts such as Project NOAH (Networked Organisms and Habitats).

The project is an app that not only helps users identify wildlife, but also helps collect data for scientists about where certain species are located at a given time.

Due to climate change, Crawford has noticed many new moth species coming up from the South, while some Maine species are moving north for colder climates. One of the new species, the oak slug moth, has an appetite for Maine’s oak trees.

“As time goes on they can do a lot of damage,” Crawford said. “The change is happening more rapidly. It’s speeding up here.”

If there’s anyone who can help track that change, it’s Crawford.

“The more you look, the more you see,” she said. “There’s always more to be found.”

David Roza

David Roza

David grew up in Washington County, Maryland, has reported in Washington County, Oregon, and now covers news in Hancock County and Washington County, Maine for The American and Out & About.