Blame it on autocorrect. 

Mary Norris — writer and copy editor for The New Yorker, consummate comma user and author of two books on grammar — has this to say about that computer-assisted support: “I would never disable spell-check. That would be hubris. Autocorrect I could do without.”

I couldn’t agree more. When Susan Straight of Chilmark texted me a report and photo of an early flying moth on March 23, it came in as Roland’s Swallow Moth.  This sounded quite intriguing and I was hoping for a giant moth that looks like an elegant swallow. Alas, she corrected the autocorrect, sharing that it was a sallow, not swallow, moth. 

Roland’s sallow moth is not as showy as those beautiful blue and white insect-eating acrobatic birds. It is a nondescript moth with subtly-patterned grey wings and back. With a wee wingspan slightly north of an inch, it couldn’t compare to the just under one foot spread of the wings of a swallow. 

At such a small size, the sallow moth is easily missed unless you, like Susan, have an eye for the understated, a passion for nature and a fancy for photography. Needing to repair her reputation after reporting the scourge of invasive jumping worms, she suggested salvation though the sallow moth. 

This particular moth, also known as psaphida rolandi, is an owlet moth in the scientific family Noctuoidea. It is usually on the wing in April and May. This sighting, though early, is not unheard of. 

Named after an unknown Roland by Augustus Radcliffe Grote in 1874, it is one of many species that Grote found and described. Grote was a British-born entomologist who came to the United States as a child, living and bug-hunting on Staten Island. 

His interest in and affection for insects started early. He never had to collect creepy crawlers alone: two other budding bugologists joined Grote in his endeavors and they all became lifelong friends and scientists. One described their idyllic childhood in New York: 

“Equipped with the usual outfit of nets, cigar boxes, pill boxes and pins, we resorted as often as possible to the suburbs of the then relatively small city of Brooklyn. One favorite collecting spot was a vegetable garden, where now is the junction of Flatbush Ave. and Fulton St. Fort Greene Hill, now Washington Park, was another nice wild place. Then, there was the meadow, or sheep pasture, now part of Prospect Park, at that time devoted to pigeon shooting. Occasionally we took long trips to East New York, Bay Ridge and Parkville, as well as the many intervening unpopulated localities.” 

As he developed his skills, Grote planned to attend Harvard University to continue his education but economic difficulties determined that wasn’t to be.  Instead, Grote travelled and studied in Europe. He eventually returned to the States and received an honorary degree from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. During a very productive life of insect study, Grote identified and described over 1,000 species, wrote two books on religion, one book of poetry, and was an organist and music composer.  

Though many years apart, Grote and Susan shared a moment of lepidopteran discovery when they identified the same species. Grote could not have imagined that autocorrect would someday sour his species’ designation. And Susan can only shake her head in despair, roll her eyes and exclaim “ducking autocorrect.” 

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.