We are halfway round a circular walk from Robertsbridge in East Sussex, not far from Bodiam Castle, and flat out in a field edge, resting on our elbows, with phone camera aimed at a small moth on a blade of grass a foot away.
It’s about half an inch long and sits wings folded downwards, like a tiny towel draped over a bannister.
It’s a very delicate apricot colour, with a thin pinkish-purple line running diagonally backwards from top to bottom.
We haven’t the faintest idea what it is.
We inch closer. The perch sways in the breeze. The auto-focus tries to lock on again and, oops, there it goes again, the moth flicks off again.
There are around 2,500 species of moth in the UK. By way of comparison, there are 57 butterflies (59 if you count regular migrants).
So which of the 2,500 or so is this moth here? Or more broadly, how do we come to know what we’re looking at, across the natural world?
There are books, of course – Collins Birds Guide and Richard Lewington’s Butterflies Of Great Britain And Ireland are indispensable, while the RSPB Pocket Nature Wild Flowers is organised by colour, rather than, say, genus, which is handy if you know your colours but are no genius with genuses.
Undoubtedly, the best way is to find someone who knows more than you and latch on to them like a limpet whenever they go out in the field.
And when you do, never be afraid of the daft question, nor to hazard a guess at an ID for fear of seeming stupid. People are invariably happy to help. They, too, were novices themselves once.
If, however, you do have the misfortune of bumping into one of that rare breed who remain ungenerous, recognise that it is they, not you, who suffer a deficit of joy and pity them.
If you can’t find a mentor there are some fantastic digital resources.
With plants or flowers, take a photo and – if you have an Android phone – open the image and click on the ‘Lens’ tool. This will search your image against Google’s vast library for a match. You can use Lens on an iPhones but you’ll need to download it first.
Each time we have used Lens it has come up with an accurate result but it’s always worth checking against a reference book.
This can work with insects too if – and it’s a big if – you can get a decent picture of the thing.
Which in the case of our mini-moth, we cannot.
For this, we went to the Butterfly Conservation website, which has a neat tool that uses multiple choice questions to recommend identifications.
It gave us 46 options, all with clear photographs and there it was, option 44 – the vestal, Rhodometra sacraria.
Clicking through, we find out it’s a migrant species that occurs largely in southern England and in good years several hundred may appear between August and October.
It flies largely at night – or when disturbed from its daytime slumber by someone trying to take its photograph on a phone.
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