Returning

When the uniqueness of a place sings to us like a melody, then we will know, at last, what it means to be at home.

~ Paul Gruchow

It has been almost a year since I went back to work. Don’t get me wrong, I feel lucky to have landed in such a wonderful place as the NC Botanical Garden – a beautiful setting, a staff of knowledgeable, fun, and kind people, and a mission that I believe in (plus, the nicest office I have had in all my years). But, I have to tell you, in case you are not aware already, work sure gets in the way of some of the things you want to do. And with the chill of winter in the air lately, my mind turns to a special place for me in my home state, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (aka Pungo). It hit me recently that I have not been down there in months and that is such a departure from my last few years. So, when I was offered a chance to tag along with a museum group last weekend, I jumped at the chance. The only down side was the weather…it was pretty miserable, especially Friday night and Saturday. Cold, windy, and wet. Because of that, I now realize I did not take a single photo all day Saturday, so you’ll just have to believe me when I say the highlights were seeing my first swans of the season on Lake Phelps, and four river otter and a bobcat at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (especially the bobcat!).

Tundra swans at sunrise

One of my favorite scenes, tundra swans at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

The next day proved to be much nicer, but bitterly cold. We spent the day at Pungo arriving before sunrise, seeing a couple of bears right away, and watching the sun rise over the trees at Marsh A, watching and taking in the sounds at the place that calls me back year after year. This is how certain places are – they are part of who you are, a brief sighting, a certain sound that can fill your mind’s eye with years of images and feelings in amazing detail.

We spent the day cruising the roads, looking for wildlife, keeping track of our sightings.

Estern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

We spotted many of the usual suspects, from Eastern phoebes to killdeer, and saw the first flocks of snow geese of the season lift off from Pungo Lake in the early morning light.

Bald eagle perched

A bald eagle viewed through the van windshield

Bald eagle flying away

Taking flight

Several eagles were spotted, including one that allowed us to drive up quite close before taking flight. My first winter walk of the season on “Bear Road” was brisk but beautiful.

Large black bear

Huge black bear resting next to the corn

We only saw one bear on that walk, but he was a huge one, easily 500+ pounds. When I first spotted him, he was lying up against rows of standing corn, soaking in the morning sun. He finally sat up, walked a few steps to get a drink out of a nearby ditch, then laid back down. I hope he stays on the refuge and makes it through the upcoming bear hunting season  (the refuge boundary is just beyond those trees in the background of the photo above). We didn’t see as much bear sign as usual, but there was still evidence of several bears (different sized tracks) using the corn fields.

Bald eagle flyby

Bald eagle fly-by

Though it was a weather-challenged trip, it was great to be back. Returning to this part of the state, especially in winter when the waterfowl have returned, always makes things seem better in the world, that the morning light will still brighten the dark sky, and the spirit of wildness still lives in a place close to home.

_-3

Even when surrounded by charismatic wildlife, don’t forget to take the time to enjoy the simple beauties that surround us

Species observed at Pettigrew State Park, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge on December 8-10, 2017:

Birds: American coot, Common loon, Double-crested cormorant, Pied-billed grebe, Canada goose, Snow goose, Tundra swan, Canvasback, Ring-necked duck, Mallard, Black Duck, American widgeon, Wood duck, Green-winged teal, Northern shoveler, Gadwall, Bufflehead, Northern pintail, Hooded merganser, Forster’s tern, Ring-billed gull, American bittern, Cattle egret, Great egret, Great blue heron, White ibis, Black-crowned night heron, Killdeer, Greater yellowlegs, Bald eagle, American kestrel, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Barred owl, Turkey vulture, American crow, Fish crow, Wild turkey, Belted kingfisher, Mourning dove, Northern flicker, Yellow-belliied sapsucker, Pileated woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, Red-bellied woodpecker, White-breasted nuthatch, Brown-headed nuthatch, Northern cardinal, Northern mockingbird, Carolina chickadee, Tufted titmouse, American robin, Eastern bluebird, Hermit thrush, Eastern phoebe, Carolina wren, Winter wren, Marsh wren, White-throated sparrow, Swamp sparrow, Eastern meadowlark, Red-winged blackbird, Yellow-rumped warbler

Reptiles: Ribbon snake (dead); Worm snake, Skink sp., River cooter, Painted turtle

Mammals: White-tailed deer, Black bear (4), River otter (4), Gray squirrel, Eastern cottontail rabbit, Virginia opossum, Raccoon, Nutria, Bobcat

Petals of Ice

[W]hat a severe yet master artist old Winter is…. No longer the canvas and the pigments, but the marble and the chisel.

~John Burroughs, 1866

Yesterday’s post shared some of the intricate beauties of a frosty morning – objects adorned with tiny crystals that reveal new patterns and create sculpted coats on everything in the landscape. One of my coworkers saw me out taking photos and asked if I had seen any frost flowers. He then went on to explain they usually occur on a couple of species of plants (he threw the Latin names out and they escaped me) in the garden, but he couldn’t remember exactly where they were. I replied I had not seen any, all the while searching my memory bank for an image of what a frost flower looked like. We parted and I put the camera away and went out to fill the feeders in the bird blind. As I was walking back, something caught my eye in one of the garden beds…

Frost flower 1

My first frost flower (click photos to enlarge)

That has to be one – a frost flower! I ran and got the camera and told our communications assistant about it so she could get some photos as well. The sun was hitting that area so it would not last long. There were two plants with these unusual structures. A quick web search helped explain this bizarre phenomenon.

Frost flower with pen for scale

An ice flower with a pen for scale

More commonly called ice flowers, these structures go by a variety of other local names – frost flowers, ice ribbons, and rabbit ice to name a few. Several resources mentioned that although they are often called “frost flowers”, these formations are not a type of frost. It seems as though these beautiful creations are caused by a process called ice segregation. Under certain conditions of temperature and humidity in late autumn and early winter, super cold water moves through a medium toward ice, freezes at the interface, and adds to the ice.

Frost flower

Ice flowers typically have curved “petals”

At this time of year in some species, water is still being brought up from the soil by the roots or through capillary action. When conditions are right, the water expands in the dried stems, fracturing thin slits in the stem wall. Water squeezes from cracks in the stem and becomes ice, pushing the previous ice further out. Ice crystals on the outside of the stem may be a prerequisite for the formation of ice flowers. There are quite a few resources online with many beautiful photos of this phenomenon – see Ice Flowers and Find an Ice Flower Before it Melts for samples. For reasons that are not fully understood, this has been found in relatively few species of plants. I hope to get some help identifying this one by its basal leaves when I get back to the office. And now that I have seen my first ice flowers, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for these delicate, ephemeral beauties on cold frosty mornings in the future.

Frosty Morning

It is the life of the crystal, the architect of the flake, the fire of the frost, the soul of the sunbeam. This crisp winter air is full of it.

~John Burroughs

It has finally turned cold, the true feeling of winter is now in the air. Walking in to to my office yesterday morning I could see the early hour handiwork of an special artist whose work is only available certain months of the year. Everything within a few feet of the ground was delicately sculpted with miniature pillars of ice – a heavy frost covered the plants and ground, painting the world with a crystalline white palette. I couldn’t resist and grabbed my camera for a walk-about to see the frosty splendor. Below are some of my favorites from a stroll through a temporary world of frozen masterpieces.

blueberry leaf

A native blueberry shrub with one frozen leaf (click photos to enlarge)

Southern maidenhair fern

Southern maidenhair fern

Phlox flowers

The last delicate phlox flowers of the season

Creeping blueberry?

The tiny leaves of what I think is a creeping blueberry

Lotus leaf upside down with frost

The last leaf on an American lotus droops over towards the water

bushy broomsedge seeds

Grass seeds

There are so many interesting seed heads now and they were all covered by ice crystals, adding another layer of beauty to these minute botanical sculptures.

seed head

bushy seeds

Coneflower seed head

Maryland golden aster seed heads?

Partia seed head

seed head 2

The frosty detail of a single stem of horse tail is simple, yet elegant.

Horse tail

Horse tail (scouring rush)

My favorite icy hosts were the pitcher plants. Their unusual shapes and colors seem an unlikely companion to a coating of ice crystals, but they manage to pull it off.

Pair of pitcher plants

Large crystals formed on the top of pitcher plants that have “lids”

Hooded pitcher plant 2

The hooded pitcher plants developed a “spinal column” of tiny frost crystals

Hybrid pitcher plant top

The ice enhances the details on this hybrid pitcher plant

 

Hooded pitchers

The hooded pitcher plants have such artistic forms

Hooded pitcher plant 1

A shape that could make a sculptor envious

Tops of pitchers

If plants huddle for warmth, this was a day to do it

But the most unusual ice feature of the morning is one I had never seen before…I will share that mystery with you in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

Good Mamas

Motherhood: All love begins and ends there.

~Robert Browning

It has been a good few months for new mothers at work with several new babies among the staff. So, it seems only appropriate that I share a couple of extraordinary mothers from the Garden’s animal kingdom as well. First, an update on the amazing green lynx spider that I wrote about last time. You may recall she had been sitting with her egg case for a couple of months in the top of some rattlesnake master seed heads in our Piedmont Habitat. Her spiderlings emerged around October 20 after having their egg sac already guarded for about a month by their attentive mom.

Green Lynx spider with yellow jacket

Green lynx spider with a meal of yellow jacket last week (click photos to enlarge)

I have been keeping an eye on her off and on since the eggs hatched and am amazed at her site fidelity, even after most of her offspring had seemingly dispersed. Last week she caught a yellow jacket on one of the warm days when flying insects were out and about. This is the first prey I have seen her capture in all this time, although I heard from some other staff that she had caught a couple of other insects during her ordeal.

Green lynx and young on Dec 1

She is still at it on on December 1…amazing!

I made a special visit to see her last Friday, on December 1, to confirm that she had made it into another month. She is still at it and to my surprise, when I checked my photos, I saw one of her offspring sitting next to her on the egg sac (zoom in on the photo above). It looks like it has molted at least once since I photographed the group in October because the shape and color pattern now more closely resembles the adult female. I plan to keep tabs on this dedicated mom, but I don’t expect her to last much longer, with another wave of freezing temperatures headed our way later this week. She has been guarding this egg sac since late September, a truly amazing feat of motherhood.

Salamander pool in winter NCBG

The salamander pool was high and dry last week

While looking for some trees to use in an upcoming activity last week, I decided to check out the salamander pool in the woods near my office. When I started work last winter its water surface was probably 5o feet across and was a hotbed of activity of animal life, shifting from spotted salamanders and upland chorus frogs in winter to American toads and dragonflies as the seasons progressed. With the lack of rainfall this fall, it was no surprise to see it totally dry last week. This is typical for many vernal pools, and is one reason they are such hot spots for breeding amphibians (due to the lack of fish). I gently lifted a few of the smaller logs lying in what had been the water-filled area this summer, hoping to find some salamanders.

Marbled salamander eggs

Marbled salamander eggs under a log

After turning a few, I found part of what I was looking for – an egg mass of a marbled salamander, but minus the attending adult female. Females typically lay their eggs in September and October in these parts, usually under a log near the edge of a low-lying area that fills with water in the winter and spring. She stays with her eggs until rains begin to fill the pool and cover them (usually late October to December) and then she heads back to her woodland home nearby, leaving the eggs to hatch with hours or days of being inundated. If the rains don’t come, she may head back to the woods before they hatch. I wrote about this interesting species in a post a couple of years ago when we found a very late clutch of eggs (in March) that was finally about to be covered by water. I think the thing that surprised me the most that day was how quickly one of the eggs hatched after I placed it in a small container of water. It hatched within just a few minutes! As reported in my bible of salamander biology (Salamanders of the United States and Canada by James W. Petranka), this is  caused by the release of digestive enzymes (from hatching glands on the snout) that dissolve the egg capsule and allow the embryo to escape.

marbled salamander guarding her eggs 1

An adult female marbled salamander guarding her eggs under a different log

Turning over a nearby log, i found a large female marbled salamander curled up around her egg mass. Studies have shown that egg clutches where the female remains with them until they are covered by water have a higher offspring survival, perhaps because she helps protect them from predation or getting too dry. I carefully laid the log back in place, and wished her well and for rains to soon fill this pool. Another case of a dedicated mother.

newt under log in dry vernal pool

Red-spotted newt under another log

Lastly, on a non-motherly note…the last log I looked under had a somewhat crumpled-looking red-spotted newt laying under it. At first, I thought it was dead, but looking a bit closer, its eyes were open, so I presume it is just lying in a protected spot, waiting for the waters to rise. Let the rains begin…

Big Cat in the Garden

Venom spitting spiders hatching out all over Alabama make great mothers.

~Ben Raines, title of article in Real Time News from AL.com

Green Lynx spider with hatchlings

Green lynx spider and recently hatched spiderlings (click photo to enlarge)

You may remember this photo from about a month ago in another post. It is a female green lynx spider perched near her recently hatched egg case, with many spiderlings visible in the surrounding web mesh.

Green lynx spiderlings

Close-up of spiderlings

Their egg cases (usually only one per female per season) contain anywhere from 50 up to 600 eggs. Mating occurs in late summer and egg are laid in September or October.

Green lynx spider with wasp and freeloader fly

Green lynx spider with one of their favorite prey, a wasp (note the small flies clinging to the wasp, most likely members of the so-called free-loader fly group that steals a meal from a large predator while it feeds)

Green lynx spiders are named for their bright green color and their stealthy hunting technique, much like a big cat. They do not make webs for capturing prey, but rather tend to stalk around flowers and then leap on their victims (often taking fairly large wasps and bees). These are one of our most recognizable spiders, females being large (3/4+ inch body length) with long legs adorned with stiff black spines. They have a distinctive hexagon-shaped whitish eye patch with eight keen eyes.

Green lynx spider near egg case after it hatched and broke free

A late season female has changed color and has one lone spiderling clinging to the seed head just to the right of her abdomen

Late in the season, they often change color, gradually losing the bright green and slowly blending more into the fall colors of the wildflower stalks where they usually place their egg case. This species is well known for guarding their eggs, and this female was no exception. She first spins a loose irregular web in the top of wildflower stalk or small shrub, and then lays her eggs, protected by a somewhat flattened egg case having several irregular projections. She then takes up a nearby position and guards her eggs, aggressively taking on any would be egg-eaters like ants or egg parasitoids. Eggs hatch into postembryos within about 2 weeks. After another 2 weeks, the postembryos molt and the now fully formed spiderlings soon emerge. The female often assists their emergence by tearing open the egg sac. Most of the young spiders disperse after a few days, but the mother continues to stay in the vicinity in “guard mode”. Perhaps it is to protect any stragglers (look for the one spiderling hiding on the seed head to the right of her abdomen in the photo above).

Green lynx spider egg case after hatching

Spider egg case weeks after the hatch

This particular spider has been a frequent stop on my tours this fall as she was right next to a path, and quite visible if you knew where to look. The amazing thing to me is how long she stayed with her eggs. The first photo was taken on October 20, a day after the eggs hatched. She had already been guarding her egg sac for at least 3 weeks at that point. I would check on her every time I walked past. On November 14, I noticed the egg case, and the female, were not in their usual place. I found the egg sac a few inches outside the web mesh, probably dislodged by wind or rain. The female had simply moved to the back side of the rattlesnake master seed heads.

Green lynx spider at end of season

The female holding her egg sac after I retrieved it

After taking photos of both the egg case and the female, I decided to move the egg sac back over to its former position. She stretched out one of her legs as I pushed the sac through the silk lines, and then gingerly pulled the egg sac from my fingertip, and clung to it again as she had for the past several weeks. A couple of days later, I showed some coworkers how she would take it from my hands and we all looked at her through magnifiers, admiring her markings and her motherly instincts. We discussed some aspects of the life history of this species and I wanted to find out more, so I did a web search when I returned to the office. That was when I stumbled across the article title used in the quote at the start of this post. It turns out this species has the unusual ability to squirt venom a distance up to several inches as part of her defensive strategy while guarding her eggs! A good mother, indeed. The venom is reportedly an eye irritant in humans, but it appears as though we were all lucky as we moved in for a closer look (I think my coworkers have forgiven me). I have never noticed this behavior when photographing this species, but I have only been close to a couple at their egg sacs over the years. Of course, now I want to test this next year and see for myself (with a clear piece of plastic rather than my eyes). I also want to see how much longer this female stays in this spot (she has been there almost 2 months at this point!). She will soon succumb to the freezing temperatures, but her young will overwinter, hidden in protected spots in the vegetation, and will repeat this amazing life story next year. Once again, I am amazed what I learn every time I wander outside and take the time to observe and ponder.

Cypress Cities

Visit the only bald cypress blackwater swamp habitat in Wake County and you will feel like you’ve stepped back through the ages.

~from Robertson Millpond Preserve brochure, Wake County Parks and Recreation

I finally had a weekend “off” and was able to join Melissa and Megan on a Museum educator workshop, Find Your Muse on the Millpond. It was a collaboration with the 2017 Piedmont Poet Laureate, Mimi Herman, with a focus on experiencing nature and writing poetry in a beautiful setting, Robertson Millpond Preserve. The millpond was created in the 1820’s to run a grist mill that stayed in operation for over a hundred years. Though the mill was demolished in the 1970’s. the dam remains intact. It was built on Buffalo Creek, so named for herds of bison that once roamed the area. Wake County purchased the millpond and some surrounding land (85 acres total) in 2013 for a nature preserve due to its unique flora – it is the only bald cypress habitat in Wake County and is more similar in species composition to a Coastal Plain habitat than one in the Piedmont.
Cypress trees

Robertson Millpond with fall colors tinting the swamp in reddish brown bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) needles (click photos to enlarge)

If you know us, you know that Melissa is the poet in the family, not me. But I thought this would be an opportunity to take some time and try to write, and, hopefully, get some tips on the craft. And it certainly is a beautiful place, so what’s to lose??

group on millpond

Part of the group of educators on the workshop at the millpond

It was a hearty group of folks that assembled Saturday afternoon, ready to paddle into the swamp on what turned out to be a very brisk day (highs only in the 40’s). The marked paddle trail winds through the cypress trees for a little over a mile, with a nice change of view from sections of narrow, twisting trail, to small openings or “rooms” in the otherwise heavily forested swamp. I had helped Melissa lay out some signage in the swamp for use during the workshop before everyone arrived and was struck by the diversity of plants growing on the small cypress islands.

cypress trees 1

The swamp consists of numerous cypress islands, most with one or two bald cypress trees and a host of shrubs and herbaceous plants underneath

As our line of kayaks snaked through the swamp, I enjoyed the fact that I was a participant, not in charge. It gave me time to observe and help others as they pondered some natural history mysteries.

wheelbug egg mass

A beautiful egg mass of a wheel bug provided a nice surprise on one alder trunk

We paired up at one point and took some time to observe the communities on several cypress islands. One team found a fascinating mini-sculpture of a wheel bug egg mass.

cypress flower midge gall

Cypress flower midge galls

Something else we saw as we examined the tangle of life on the islands were hundreds of tiny whitish, vase-shaped structures scattered among they fallen cypress needles. At first glance, they resemble a tiny fungus, but they are actually caused by the larvae of a gall midge fly classified as Taxodiomyia cupressi. Galls are formed in response to chemicals injected by the adults at the time of egg laying, or produced by the developing larvae and are characteristic shapes on specific areas of certain plants. Each type of gall insect creates a unique structure on a particular species it favors. It would be like living in our refrigerator – a nice, relatively safe home, with plenty to eat.

journaling in kayaks, Roberston Millpond Preserve

Writing our poems with the darkening sky reflected in the blackwater swamp of Robertson Millpond Preserve

After paddling, stopping, observing, and writing for a few hours, I finally came up with a poem. Mimi instructs her students to not have any disclaimers about your poetry (this isn’t very good, I am not that pleased with it, I’m not really a poet, etc.), so I’ll leave all that off (sort of)…here goes:

Cypress Cities

Paddling on this glassy highway, through a city of islands

Taxodium towers, gray-trunked skyscrapers

Sentinels, watching over their tangle of tenants

Crowded storefronts with strange names, hawking their winter wares.

Dodder has braided bracelets.

Alder, catkins and cones.

Titi, with patches of red and green.

And dried flower bouquets from Itea.

Beneath each tower, a rust-colored carpet, soft and spongy,

A welcome mat and refuge for weary drifters

Traveling with me on this highway of wind and water, all seeking sanctuary

titi

Titi, Cyrilla racemiflora, in brilliant fall colors

Halloween Spider

The difference between utility and utility plus beauty is the difference between telephone wires and the spider web.

~Edwin Way Teale

Marbled orb weaver dorsal view

Marbled orbweaver hanging in her web (click photos to enlarge)

Every year about this time I run into (sometimes literally) one of my favorite spiders, the striking Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. This widespread beauty is usually seen in late summer and fall, hanging out in her large circular web, or, as is often the case, hiding nearby.

_

Hiding in her rolled leaf retreat

This species generally has a hiding place just off to the side of her web, usually in a curled leaf. She keeps up with the goings-on in her web by means of a connecting strand of silk that acts as an alarm when something hits her silken trap. When an insect is caught, she will run out and engage it, wrapping it in silk and injecting venom which will subdue the prey and set the stage for her dining pleasure.

Halloween spider

You can see why they are called the Halloween spider

Their dorsal view is spectacular, usually with a bright yellow background with some interesting ghoulish dark patterning. They can vary in color but I have read that they tend to turn darker with age and often appear more orange than yellow just in time for our pumpkin-spiced holiday. The picture above is from the archives of one I photographed several years ago in early November in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Marbled orb weaver ventral view

A ventral view

Underneath, they are less striking, but colorful nonetheless. You can also appreciate the black bands on the legs a bit better when not distracted by the bright colors of their top side.

Marbled orb weaver side view

Side view of a female Marbled Orbweaver in her web

I stumbled into this particular web this past weekend while looking for seeds for a program at work. Luckily, I only brushed against the web before realizing my mistake and was able to pull back without ruining her day’s work. As with many orbweavers, this species often makes a new web every evening.

Marbled orb weaver eye view

Here’s looking at you…

In spite of their association with spooky themes like this special holiday, I find these spiders particularly beautiful and a welcome addition to our woods.

Happy Halloween…

 

The Long Sleep

We are like caterpillars contemplating pupation.

~Terrence McKenna

Last weekend was one filled chores around the house. It seems many things have gone undone this fall with our hectic schedules. In putting away various caterpillar cages, floral tubes, plastic bags, and other gear associated with our many caterpillar programs last month, Melissa decided to look in the soil-filled plastic box we dubbed the pupation chamber. Every year at BugFest, we end up with several of our program specimens (often the stars of the show) deciding it is time to begin their long winter “sleep” where they form a pupa. Caterpillars tend to enter a “crawl-about” phase for several hours when they get ready to pupate and, if you don’t contain them, they will wander off their host plant (not a good thing if there are thousands of human feet attending an event). Most of our common species of butterflies and moths spend the winter in this life stage and usually emerge sometime next spring or summer, depending on the species.

Pupae from Bugfest

Contents of our pupation chamber from BugFest (click photos to enlarge)

We were pleasantly surprised at the number and variety of pupae in the soil-filled box. Before looking more closely at these pupae, a quick review of the terminology associated with the pupae of butterflies and moths. A pupa (Latin for doll) is a life stage of some insects. It is found only in insects that undergo complete metamorphosis – those that go from egg to larva to pupa to adult. The pupa is a non-feeding, usually stationary stage (although many pupae will move or twitch when disturbed). During pupation the adult structures of the insect are formed while the larval structures are broken down. While use of the word pupa is correct for any insect with this life stage, there are some special terms often used for the pupal stages of different groups of butterflies and moths.

Varigated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated fritillary chrysalis surrounded by loose silk spun by the caterpillar

A chrysalis is the “naked” pupal stage of butterflies. The word is derived from the Greek word, chrysos, for gold, and refers to the metallic gold coloration found in some types of chrysalises. The chrysalises of most butterfly species are attached to a substrate by a single silk pad.

Spicebush swallowtail chrysalis

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly chrysalis

Members of a few butterfly families use two attachment points for their pupae – the silk pad at the posterior end, and a silken girdle that suspends the chrysalis off of a substrate (looking much like a telephone repairman’s safety harness).

Luna cocoon

Luna moth cocoon

A cocoon is a pupa wrapped in an outer casing of silk (and often other materials) that acts as a protective covering. Many of the giant silk moths, such as a luna moth,  incorporate leaves into their cocoon. The last instar of the caterpillar wraps some leaves around itself using silk, and then molts one last time on the inside of this chamber to form the pupa.

Luna cocoon opened

Luna moth cocoon with outer covering gently cut open to reveal pupa inside and silk fibers

If you look inside a cocoon, you will see the familiar brown or reddish-brown cylinder-shape of a pupa (if done gently, the adult moth can still successfully emerge from an opened cocoon). The silk from a giant silk moth cocoon can be unraveled to harvest silk fibers on a very small scale (commercial silk production uses the cocoons of the domesticated mulberry silkworm moth). If you are an insect that creates a cocoon, you need to have a way to escape from it as an adult. Most species do this by either cutting their way out or by secreting enzymes that soften the cocoon. Some cocoons are constructed with one-way escape holes or with lines of weakness that allow easier escape from the inside.

Hickory horned devil pupa

Pupa of a hickory horned devil caterpillar (royal walnut moth)

The classic pupa is “naked” and is formed by a moth caterpillar in an underground chamber or some partially hidden location (under a log or rock, in loose soil, etc.). They are often encountered while digging in your garden and resemble little cigar butts. In a nod to this month’s unique holiday of all things scary, moth pupae also remind me of miniature mummies. The size of the pupa and associated structures can help you identify these mystery creatures. Large pupae (greater than 1.5 inches) usually belong to either the sphinx moth family or are one of the giant silk moths. The largest (about 2+ inches) we encounter are those of the fantastical hickory horned devil. The last instar caterpillar burrows into the soil and forms a crusty chamber around itself before pupating. The pupa is shiny dark brown and has a couple of dark circles on the back of its head that give it a Darth Vader appearance.

Imperial moth pupa

Imperial moth pupa

This pupa had the characteristic double-tipped projection at the end of the abdomen indicating it is an imperial moth.

unid pupa with reddish tint

Mystery pupa

The identity of one of the pupae remains a mystery as it is tough to remember which species were added to the chamber on a busy day of programming.

Tobacco hornworm pupa?

Tobacco hornworm pupa

Sphinx moth pupae generally have a distinctive “handle” on their heads.

Tobacco hornworm pupa close up

The head region of a tobacco hornworm pupa

This fishhook-looking apparatus is actually a sheath that contains the moth’s developing proboscis (tongue). You can also clearly see the developing eyes and antennae of the adult moth in the pupal covering.

Unid sphinx moth pupa

A different sphinx moth pupa

We found another sphinx moth pupa in the chamber that differed from the tobacco hornworm in that the proboscis sheath did not arch out away from the moth body but rather was laid flat against it. We had many species of hornworms this year, so we will just have to wait and see which one emerges.

Unid parasitoid pupa from moth pupa

Unidentified fly puparia

Our smallest discovery was one we weren’t very happy about – some fly puparia. These are probably a species of tachinid fly that are parsitoids on the larvae or pupae of butterflies and moths. We placed these is a separate container to see what emerges. Observing the life cycles of our wild neighbors always leads to additional stories and connections that continue to amaze and delight. Can’t wait to see what happens next spring and summer.

Dewy

You are an ocean of knowledge hidden in a dew drop.

~Rumi

The chilly nights this time of year lead to dewy mornings, and the world is decorated for a time each day with droplets of glass pearls. One morning last week I took a short stroll through the gardens at work searching for jewels. Here are a few of my finds…

seashore mallow seed pod with dew

Seashore mallow seed pod (click photos to enlarge)

Maidenhair fern with dew

Maidenhair ferns

Unid seed head 1

Wildflower seed head

aster with dew

Asters

Lynx spider with hatchlings

Female green lynx spider with recently hatched young

Unid seed head

Wildflower seed head

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning

Male carpenter bee hanging onto phlox flower

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning close up of head

Closeup of carpenter bee head covered in dew

Whistle While You Eat

Forget your trouble
Try to be
Just like the cheerful chickadee
And whistle while you work

~Alternative lyrics to the Disney song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Walnut sphinx  caterpillar 1

A brief post today to share a remarkable scientific study on an unusual caterpillar behavior. In an earlier blog, I mentioned the unique sound-producing capabilities of the beautiful walnut sphinx caterpillar. What I had read is that the sound was produced to startle would-be predators. New research has refined this explanation. As reported in The Scientist (check it out to hear the caterpillar), a new study has shown the loud sound, created by the forcible expulsion of air from specialized holes along the side of the larva, is now believed to mimic the alarm call of birds. Some birds, such as black-capped chickadees, make special vocalizations when they see a potential predator. Other birds react by diving for cover. When this caterpillar is threatened, it emits a similar sound that can fool a hungry bird into thinking there is danger nearby, thus breaking off the birds’ attack on the larva. Amazing!