They’re Baaaaack

The homing instinct in birds and animals is one of their most remarkable traits: their strong local attachments and their skill in finding their way back…It seems at times as if they possessed some extra sense—the home sense—which operates unerringly. 

~John Burroughs, 1905

Last weekend we managed to escape for a couple of days and head down to our favorite spot, the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. My friend, Michael, had been sharing images of the many bears he was seeing feeding in the cornfields on the refuge, and it finally got to me, I had to get down there! We were met at the refuge by some new friends that understand the power and beauty of wild places and the creatures that call them home. Though seeing bears was the goal, we were all open to whatever the refuge cared to share, so we were delighted to find the first swans of the season already on the lake.

Swans in Marsh A

Tundra swans have returned from their Arctic breeding grounds to spend the winter in NC (click photos to enlarge)

When we drove up to the impoundment known as Marsh A, there they were, hundreds of graceful white forms, filling the crisp air with their mellow sounds. We stopped, watched them for several minutes, quietly taking it all in and appreciating the fact that these birds had just completed an amazing journey of 3000 miles or more to spend the winter here. It is reassuring that these natural rhythms continue, that the natural world has some order to it, even when much of what we hear on the news does not.

Black bear tracks

Large bear tracks (plus another creature…do you see it?)

On to “Bear Road” where we saw several people parked at the gate and sitting along the road waiting for an appearance by one of the area’s many resident bruins. The tracks in the hardened mud tell the story…frequent comings and goings from the dense woods to the local feed store, the cornfield across the road and canal.

Bear Rd tracks

A busy bear crossing

With a small crowd of photographers hanging out near one of the main bear crossings, we decided to walk on down the road, away from the chatter, and experience a little quieter part of the scene. Quiet, except for the sounds of swans and Canada geese coming from the lake a short distance through the woods. We soon saw our first of many bears across the open field at the edge of a patch of woods.

black bear

Most of our views were distant

This would be our fate for this day of woods-walking and refuge road exploration – a total of 19 bears, all seen at a considerable distance. We did find three in a large tree, two resting and one playfully climbing up and down. But most were headed to or from a cornfield, stocking up before the bitter cold of winter might cause them to go into hibernation (perhaps an abbreviated one that is more typical of bears in the Coastal Plain). We also witnessed some bad human behavior of people trying to get just the right photo and causing a bear to alter its choice of pathways (it is always best for the human to give way and let the bear go where it wants). The day ended with a great horned owl calling against a flame orange sunset through the black branches of tree silhouettes…another beautiful Pungo day coming to a close.

sunrise Pungo

One of my favorite things in the flat lands of Eastern NC – a large-scale sunrise

Our friends departed for home and we drove to our campsite at “nearby” Pettigrew State Park. We could hear swans flying over us to the lake all night indicating they are just arriving from their long journey. We spoke with people that had seen almost no swans two days before so it seems we were lucky enough to be there with the first wave of winter arrivals. We were awakened by some noisy campers at a ridiculously early hour, so we were out at sunrise, headed back to Pungo. The big sky of these flat lands is always a highlight at sunrise and sunset, especially in the crisp air of cold weather.

injured wood duck

Injured wood duck along a canal bank

A few flocks of ducks were mixed in with the swans, whose numbers grew to a few thousand by Monday morning. It is not unusual to see wood ducks in the canals along refuge roads as they flush in front of your car and zip through the trees. It is unusual to see one stay put after you spot it. I caught a glimpse of a stunning drake as I drove past it, so I stopped and backed up, fully expecting it to dart away (it seems no creature will tolerate a car that is backing up). One glance at its awkward posture and you could tell something was wrong. It shuffled up the bank a little when I stopped for a photo, so we drove on, sorry to see this beautiful bird in such a state, but knowing that some predator will probably get a meal.

Eastern phoebe on sign

Eastern phoebe on sign

Driving over to Bear Road, we encountered another group of photographers hanging out, waiting for bears. There was also a phoebe debating the true meaning of a road sign…surely this doesn’t apply to me (I have seen many human visitors debating that same thing, unfortunately). So, we drove back over to Marsh A to fix our breakfast and to spend time watching the swans greet the day.

Trumpeteer swan

Trumpeter swan honking as it comes in for a landing

It wasn’t long until we heard a sound very different from the coos, whistles, and hoots of the tundra swans – the distinctive horn sound of a trumpeter swan. This is the swan species we see in Yellowstone (although less frequently in recent years) and are seeing now more regularly each winter here in NC. The past few years have brought a few of the larger trumpeters to Pungo and Mattamuskeet. The characteristic calls are by far the easiest way to locate a trumpeter in a sea of look-alike tundra swans. If they are standing next to each other, you can tell a trumpeter is larger, and, in this case, the call was coming from a flying bird, and we soon spotted it flying with a group of tundras. In flight, it is possible to see a size difference, but I don’t think I would really notice it unless I heard the call and was looking for it. Another clue to separate them is the head – look closely at the two photos of swans in flight. Trumpeter swans have a long, straight bill. The inner edge of the bill forms a rather straight line up to the eye, encompassing the eye so that it is difficult to separate from the black bill. The eye of tundra swans is more distinct as a circle separated from the bill. Plus, the inner bill line comes off the eye, and then drops downward. Most tundras also have a yellow spot on the bill below the eye, trumpeters do not. And a trumpeter has “red lipstick” along the inner edge of its black bill. After looking at the birds circling us and then comparing images, I think there were at least three trumpeter swans in the group, two immatures and the adult shown here. I hope we can spot them on the Christmas Bird Count next month! To learn more, check out this link for some of the ways to distinguish these species.

Tundra swans flying out of Pungo Lake

Pair of tundra swans – compare the outline of their bills to photo above

We ended our trip just after lunch, with only 3 bear sightings for Monday, but plenty of memories to last until we get back in a few weeks. I really do love this time of year!

Pausing

Something precious is lost if we rush headlong into the details of life without pausing for a moment to pay homage to the mystery of life and the gift of another day.

~ Kent Nerburn

As usual, it has been another busy week – catching up on rescheduled programs (due to our incredibly rainy fall), getting up wood from trees that came down in recent storms, and just living life. But, working where I do, there is always something that can make me pause and relish the moment, help me appreciate the beauty and mystery of my surroundings, and remind me of why I do what I do. Here are a few of those things from this past week…

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile, slightly larger individual

Cope’s Gray Treefrog, juvenile (click photos to enlarge)

We had a late season breeding of Cope’s Gray Treefrogs in our vernal pool and it seems the juveniles are everywhere in the garden right now. This one was hanging out in our daily plant sale area clinging to some flower pots.

Green lynx spider female with egg sac in green vegetation (hoode

Green Lynx Spider

This female Green Lynx Spider has lost one leg while guarding her egg sac (even though it hatched in early October). Unlike most of the late season lynx spiders I have seen, this one is still bright green (most turn a maroon-ish brown). But her egg sac was nestled in a group of hooded pitcher plants, which are still very green. I wonder if this species can alter their color late in the year to better match the egg sac surroundings?

Green treefrog

Green Treefrog

A co-worker alerted me to this chillin’ Green Treefrog, who stayed calm throughout its brief photo shoot, in spite of me manipulating its leaf bed for a better angle.

Green treefrog head view

Don’t bother me

Carolina anole juvenile

Carolina Anole

Most of the anoles I am seeing now are brown in color (color change is dependent on temperatures and hormones of the lizard), but this little guy was out in full sun and still bright green.

Variegated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated Fritillary chrysalis

Next to a passionflower tangle are a couple of chrysalids of two species of fritillary that use that vine as their caterpillar host plant. It is a bit ironic that the plainer of the two species (as an adult), the Variegated Fritillary, has a chrysalis that is much more striking than that of the beautiful Gulf Fritillary.

gulf fritillary chrysalis side view

Gulf Fritillary chrysalis

I am not sure whether Gulf Fritillaries overwinter as a chrysalis this far inland as they are a partial migratory species from further south and along our southeastern Coastal Plain. So, I was curious what this chrysalis would do. I watched it for a several days and was surprised how it changed position by twisting and turning, and then holding that new position for hours. It finally emerged on Friday.

Gulf fritillary after emergence 1

Freshly emerged Gulf Fritillary

Black swallowtail first instar - late!

Black swallowtail larva, early instar

One of the biggest surprises for me has been the presence of several Black Swallowtail caterpillars this late in the season. I have found a few last instar larva on the abundant Golden Alexander at work, but was amazed to see this first or second instar caterpillar on Friday. It is good to be reminded to take a moment to appreciate your surroundings, even when you have so many tasks at hand. Beauty and miracles surround us, wherever we may be. We just have to pause and enjoy.

Awesome Arachnids

She asks me to kill the spider.
Instead, I get the most
peaceful weapons I can find.

I take a cup and a napkin.
I catch the spider, put it outside
and allow it to walk away.

If I am ever caught in the wrong place
at the wrong time, just being alive
and not bothering anyone,

I hope I am greeted
with the same kind
of mercy.

~Rudy Francisco

I led a full moon walk this past week at Mason Farm Biological Reserve, a wild and wonderful tract managed by the NC Botanical Garden, only a mile or so from my office. I love being outside at night, hearing the night sounds, and trying to catch a glimpse of the creatures that make darkness their time of choice. The night before the hike, I walked alone along the trail at Mason Farm, looking for things to highlight and reacquainting myself with the brilliance of an almost full moon. A variety of night sounds greeted me as I walked in silence – the startling snorts of alarmed deer, a solitary hooting of a Barred Owl, a lone tree cricket…but the most magical was when a group of Coyotes initiated their yipping and howling as the moon rose above the tree line. Though it lasted less than a minute, it is a sound that sticks with you (and might even raise the hairs on the back of your neck a bit). Chilly night temperatures, combined with recent floods, seemed to reduce the number of night-time invertebrates that were out and about.

Ther Laugher Moth larva on oak

A fuzzy larva of The Laugher Moth feeding on oak, my only glow-in-the-dark caterpillar this past week (click photos to enlarge)

I searched with my ultraviolet flashlight for caterpillars, hoping to find some of my favorite slug larvae species, but came up with only two fuzzy larvae of The Laugher Moth. But there was one group well represented and quite noticeable, if you know how to look…

Carolina wolf spider 1

Carolina Wolf Spider, Hogna carolinensis, out and about along the edge of a field

Yes, that’s right, and somehow theme-appropriate at this time of year, spiders! On my pre-trip, they were everywhere, especially concentrated along the habitat edges (boundary between forest and field) and along the stream banks and swamp edge. If you don’t know, you can “sniff” spiders by holding a flashlight near your eyes or nose (or wear a headlamp) and scanning your surroundings. On almost any night from March through October, you are likely to see what look like dewdrops scattered across the ground. These are most likely spider eyes reflecting your light back to you (some may be dew drops if it is damp). If you are just holding a light down by your side, their reflection comes back at that level and you probably can’t see it. That’s where the sniffing part comes in. You tell your group you smell a spider. Since most people don’t usually walk around with their flashlight up near their eyes, they can’t see the eyeshine. On my program walk, I was able to run about 25 feet over to a tiny spider on a tree trunk by keeping my light on it to see its eyeshine. Of course, you always share that trick with your participants so they can see for themselves the incredible abundance of these spiders.

Hunting spiders, like wolf spiders, have a reflective layer in their eyes that bounces the light around so that there is a better chance to have it absorbed by the rod cells that help them see in low light. This is similar to what happens in the eyes of nocturnal vertebrates like deer and cats. One of the larger species out this time of year is the Carolina Wolf Spider which generally hides in underground burrows during the day, and then emerges to hunt prey at night. Females carry their egg sac off the tip of their abdomen. The baby spiders hatch and ride on the mother’s back for a week or so until they molt and then disperse.

Rabid wolf spider

A large, female Rabid Wolf Spider, Rapidosa rapida

Another large, and quite common, ground hunting spider is the oddly-named Rabid Wolf Spider. Its common and scientific names come from its rapid movements, not any ability to carry a mammalian disease. The bold stripes on the cephalothorax (the front body part that is sort of a head and thorax combined) are diagnostic of this species (along with some more subtle features). Males are distinguished by their smaller size and by the first pair of legs being black.

marbled orb weaver

A Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneus marmoreus, in her web

There are relatively few web builders left out in the fields and woods this late in the season, but there is one notable exception, the Marbled Orb Weaver. This distinctively colored (yellow or orange abdomen) spider can be found in woods and along field edges into November. During the day, the large female hides in a folded leaf retreat along the edge of her circular web. She holds a line of silk attached to the web to detect and struggling prey. At night, they are more typically found perched in the center of the web. Their color scheme and occurrence through late October has given them another common name, the Halloween Spider. Web-builders typically have no eyeshine since they rely less on vision and more on vibrations of struggling prey in their web to obtain their meals.

Dolomedes spider

A huge Dark Fishing Spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, on a tree trunk at the edge of the swamp

The best spider find on our tour was made by one of the participants as we stood near the closed portion of the trail through the swamp. Hurricane Florence took out the boardwalk through this section so you can no longer walk the circular route. But, perhaps because of that pause, we got to see one of our most spectacular spiders, a very large Dark Fishing Spider. This large female would almost fill my palm. They are frequently found head-down on tree trunks (like this one) near water, but can occur quite some distance away. I have them in my workshop and frequently find their sheds scattered among my scrap wood or tools. There are other members of this genus that are more frequently found on and/or in water (e.g. the Six-spotted Fishing Spider) where they actively hunt for creatures that fall on the surface, or those that live just beneath (like aquatic invertebrates, tadpoles and even small fish). Female fishing spiders carry their egg sac beneath them, hanging onto the silken bag with their chelicera. When the young hatch, she creates a nursery web for them where they stay for a short while before dispersing.

bread

Even the bread, Greatbreadus multigrainiia, at the Farmer’s Market is arachnid appreciative

I had a chance to write up some of this on Saturday, but not before I made my weekly trip to the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. There, I spied one more thing to add to this post – a loaf of beautiful bread from Chicken Bridge Bakery. So, whether its a graphic on tasty bread or an eight-legged critter on the trail, take the time to learn more about these awesome arachnids. If you want to learn more and see some incredible photos, check out some of the scientists I follow on Twitter – TurnFear2Fascination, Catherine Scott, and Thomas Shahan…you, too, will learn to appreciate these amazing creatures even more. Happy Arachtober!

Hiking the High Country

Live your life each day as you would climb a mountain. An occasional glance toward the summit keeps the goal in mind, but many beautiful scenes are to be observed from each new vantage point.

~Harold B Melchart

Seems like just a little over a week ago that I was struggling to climb a mountain with a heavy load on my back…wait, it was just a little over a week ago! And this past weekend, we did it again. This time, in one of our favorite areas, the Mt. Rogers-Grayson Highlands region of southwest Virginia. My back was a bit sore from chainsawing fallen trees after the remnants of Hurricane Michael passed through, but we had planned this trip for some time. Melissa’s sister and boyfriend were going to meet us at Grayson Highlands State Park for a two-night adventure in the high country of Virginia. The weather forecast was a bit iffy, but off we went, ever hoping for the best. Our first day was a short one and after a hike of only a couple of miles, we found a great campsite along a beautiful mountain stream (Wilson Creek, I believe).

campsite first night

Campsite for our first night along a rushing stream (click photos to enlarge)

The overcast skies soon turned to rain after dark, but we were comfortable under a stretched tarp and the fire continued until a break in the rain let us get into our tents.

sunrise day 2

Sunrise in the high country

The next morning dawned clear and cool, with a mist drifting through the trees. It finally felt a little like Fall.

sunrise mist

Early morning mist in the boggy meadow near camp

spider web

Invertebrate designs – a dewy spider web

I love early mornings – the quiet, the morning coffee, the first stirrings of the wildlife around you, and the softness of the light that gently touches everything, especially if there has been condensation overnight. I spotted a couple of shimmering orb weaver spider webs at the edge of the trees and we walked over. One was a particularly odd design. At first, we thought the spider was still busy weaving, but a closer look showed it was sitting in the center and the interior spirals of silk were there, just not glistening with dew like the rest of the web.

morning scene

A scene near camp in the early morning light

moss and fern

The greens of mosses, club mosses, lichens, and ferns added a rich backdrop to every scene

I suppose backpacking on wet, rocky trails does have one advantage – I tend to not look around too much in order to keep my feet under me and the rest of me upright. Though I may miss some beautiful scenery or treetop wildlife, I do see a lot of interesting things on the ground. The lushness of moss hummocks and beds of club mosses were particularly noticeable on this trip. And there are still caterpillars out there to be found!

Hickory tussock moth caterpillar

Hickory tussock moth larva

Fall webworm?

A Fall webworm (I think) covered in dew

Our day 2 hike was about 7 miles, with a steady climb through the forest to the more open high country for which this region is so well known. In addition to the expansive mountain views, the other major tourist attraction in this area are the herds of wild ponies. I saw an article stating this region is “the only place on the Appalachian Trail where you can see wild ponies”. Depending on which reference you use, the ponies are believed to have been introduced in the early 1940’s by locals wanting to keep the area open, or by the Forest Service decades later for the same land management purpose. There are believed to be about 100 ponies spread out over thousands of acres of high grassy balds and forests. They live up here year-round, but are watched over and rounded up once a year by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. The Fall round-up serves to check the health of the herd and to auction off some of the ponies (mostly males) to keep the population under control. Park rules ask visitors to observe the ponies from a distance and to not feed them. We had to step aside a couple of times as ponies walked by on the trail.

nursing pony

A foal nursing along the trail

Grazing of cattle in the highlands has long been a part of the local way of life, and in 2012, the Forest Service allowed herds of longhorn cattle to graze alongside the wild ponies during the growing season. The cattle are removed every winter, but the ponies stay through the bitter cold months.

grass competition

This grass patch isn’t big enough for the two of us

As we approached the rocky outcrops of Wilburn Ridge, the strong winds caused us to rethink our plans for camping on the crest. So, we searched for something a little more protected in the open landscape. We ended up picking a spot of the leeward side of the ridge, partially protected by a large rock outcrop and a small grove of trees.

Wilburn Ridge

Our home for the night – not a bad view

There were a couple of campfire rings and a few relatively flat spots without too much pony poo, so we were able to set up camp, gather firewood, and relax and enjoy the spectacular views.

campsite 2

Sitting by our protected campfire looking out toward our tents

Shortly after dark, it started to rain, so we had an early end to the evening, climbing into our tents and hoping the gusty winds would subside before a tent wall collapsed under the strain. At one point during the night, I woke up to a sky full of stars. But by sunrise (well, when it got light anyway), it was a different story.

cloud camp

Inside a cloud on Wilburn Ridge

We were socked in and the view was a bit different from the sunset the night before. The wind was gently blowing as the clouds blew around us. A couple of ponies were barely visible100 feet away, and there was an eerie silence, save for the whap, whap, whap of a tent flap. It was only a couple of miles to the cars, so we grabbed a quick breakfast, packed up our wet gear, and headed out.

below the couds

Below the clouds on our way out

The trail down the ridge is rocky but we were soon below the cloud deck and could see rolling ridges of highlands stretching to the gray horizon. Though the skies had been leaden for much of the trip, we appreciated the solitude and serenity of our time in the high country and are looking forward to a return trip. In case you go, our hike took us from the Overnight Backpackers Parking Area near Massie Gap (you must register and pay at the entrance station to Grayson Highlands State Park), up the AT to the Scales Trail, then to the Pine Mountain Trail, and finally rejoining the AT back to the parking area.

Shining Rock

Backpacking: An extended form of hiking in which people carry double the amount of gear they need for half the distance they planned to go in twice the time it should take.

~Author unknown

Melissa loves to backpack. That is an understatement. And I love to be in the places that backpacking takes us. It is the getting there that sometimes gets me. So, Melissa, the quote above is just a joke (sort of). This trip was planned between our birthdays (a several year tradition for us) to be an outing to one of our favorite spots, Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia (see previous post). But the weather forecast looked rainy in WV, and we are not fans of long hikes in the rain, so we changed plans at the last minute and headed to an area Melissa had visited on a recent Museum workshop – the Shining Rock Wilderness. This is the largest wilderness area in North Carolina at about 18,000 acres. It is well-known as being one of the most scenic hiking areas in our state, with excellent views from several mountaintops over 6000 feet. There is easy access from areas near the Blue Ridge Parkway, making this a very popular destination on weekends. We decided to start from a lower elevation at the Big East Fork Trailhead and had planned to hike the Old Butt Trail (no comments, please) up to Shining Rock. But, as is apparently common in this area, we missed that trail juncture and ended up on its loop counterpart, the Shining Creek Trail. Both of these sections are described as difficult. I agree with that judgement as they climb about 2600 feet in a few miles over very rocky terrain. But Shining Creek is absolutely beautiful and, being on a weekday, we had no company on the way up.

Tributary to Shining Creek

A tributary to Shining Creek (click photos to enlarge)

Crown of thorns slug caterpillar

Crowned Slug, the first of many caterpillars we found along the trail

Pipevine swallowtail larva

Pipevine Swallowtail larvae were a common sight in the woods feeding on their host, Pipevine

Hickory tussock moth larva

A Hickory Tussock Moth larva

With the late start, we didn’t make it far up the trail before deciding to camp at a relatively flat spot above the creek. While sitting at camp, Melissa found a Blue  Ridge Two-lined Salamander crawling up her leg. That evening, we went down to the creek to wash up, and I got distracted by other salamanders crawling about in search of their evening meal. It really is amazing how many salamanders must live in these mountains!

Gray-cheeked salamander

Gray-cheeked Salamander

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander dorsal view

One of three Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamanders we saw down by the creek. This species often climbs up on vegetation at night (or a hiker’s legs) looking for invertebrate prey.

Blue Ridge Two-lined Salamander male with cirri

This is a male with swollen cirri (those snout appendages) which occurs during the breeding season

Black-bellied salamander

We spotted a couple of large Black-bellied Salamanders in the creek during our hike

The next day’s hike was a difficult one for me (somehow, our birthdays seem to have taken some umpf out of my legs, and added zip to hers) but we made it up to Shining Rock Gap with plenty of time to set up camp in a sheltered spruce grove. We took our stove and fixed dinner atop an outcrop of brilliantly white quartz that gives this mountaintop its name.

Quartz outcrop at Shining Rock

Outcrops of white quartz shine in the late day sun at the summit of Shining Rock (elevation – 6000 ft.)

View from Shining Rock

The mood changed dramatically as mist drifted through the valley with the approach of sunset

Sunset from Shining Rock as mist rolls in

A beautiful sunset view from Shining Rock

The next morning we hit a section of the famed Art Loeb Trail in search of views from a grassy bald. It turns out, there aren’t that many places through this stretch with that type of scenery. You are mainly hiking through rhododendron thickets and vast expanses of waist-high blueberries and blackberries. We broke out into the open at Flower Gap, but another couple had claimed that spot for the night. We weren’t keen on that spot anyway as we had heard from two guys at the trailhead that a bear had raided their supplies in this gap two nights ago, a fact we shared with the couple. It turns out, those guys had not brought a bear canister, a requirement when camping in the Shining Rock Wilderness. We went on a bit further and climbed a side trail up to the summit of Grassy Cove Top (elevation – 6049 ft.). There were a couple of tent-sized grassy patches, so we claimed one for the evening and had time to relax and enjoy the stunning views. We were hoping to see some raptors migrating, but it seems we missed the peak migration by a week or so. We did manage an American Kestrel, a Northern Harrier, an unidentified Buteo, and two Broad-winged Hawks, along with dozens of Cloudless Sulphur butterflies, and some mystery critters at sunset (they looked like large insects, but we couldn’t tell for sure in the low light).

Our tent nesteled among the blueberry shrubs

Our tent nestled in a small grassy area surrounded by blueberry shrubs atop Grassy Cove Top

bumblebee on gentian

Bumblebees were quite common in the balds, and here is one on a Gentian along the woodland trail

We strung our hammocks in a nearby stand of spruce to have some time in the shade, and then went back out to a rock outcrop for dinner and an amazing sunset.

sunset iphone

A spectacular sunset from Grassy Cove Top

sunset behind campsite

Looking north from our camp after sunset

That night, we sat and looked at stars, got great views of Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, and were thankful to be here rather than in the distant lights of towns and cities on the horizon.

sunrise

The incredible view at sunrise from our campsite on Grassy Cove Top

Melissa mentioned the beauty of simple things like the scent of spruce and fir, an unobstructed view of the night sky, and the quiet of a mountaintop. She is right, this is why we do this. A more appropriate quote for backpacking these rugged hills might be this one by the muse of the mountains, John Muir…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature’s sources never fail.

Looking forward to our next birthday adventure (but we don’t have to wait that long, honest).

 

See No Weevil…Well, Just One

A big nose never spoiled a handsome face.

~French proverb

I set out the moth light the other night and had a few species come in, but had many non-moth visitors – katydids, a praying mantis, lots of caddisflies, and one very interesting little guy, a weevil.

weevil at moth light

Weevil on sheet at moth light (click photos to enlarge)

Weevils are the largest family of beetles with over 3000 species in North America. They are distinguished by often having a distinctive snout (rostrum) with chewing mouth parts at the end, and antennae part way down its length. They are plant feeders of one sort and many are considered agricultural pests, but, they sure are interesting and crazy-looking creatures. The Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America states that hardly any plant is not affected by at least one species of Curculionidae.

weevil close up

Close-up view of that amazing rostrum

My visitor the other night looks like one of the acorn weevils, Curculio sp. They are tan to brown with a long rostrum and spurs on the femurs of their legs. Weevil antennae are elbowed and can fit into a special groove in the snout.

weevil on rail 1

Acorn weevil

I am guessing this may be a female since they tend to have longer snouts, at least as long as their body. So, she has probably been using the mandibles at the tip of that “nose” to chew holes in some of the many acorns out back. She then turns around and lays an egg into that hole. Her baby will feed on the meat of the nut and then chew its way out and pupate in the soil once the acorn falls. I reported on the fascinating grubs of acorn weevils in an earlier post. No matter your opinion on the dietary costs of weevils, you gotta admit, they are one odd-looking, and some may even say, cute, critters.

 

 

Snippets

Life moves pretty fast.If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

~John Hughes

Indeed, life has been moving too fast of late, with so many things happening at work and in our personal lives. Luckily, I work in a magical place, and it doesn’t take much time to find something of interest – a short walk across the garden for a meeting, a trip out to my car, or just doing some of the outdoor chores that need doing, there is so much to see, if you just pay attention. It also helps when my co-workers and volunteers find something and drop me a note or give me a call. That was what brought many of these snippets to my attention this past week. Here are some of the highlights from the week of what you can encounter in a native plant haven like the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

Monarch butterfly at NCBG

Monarch butterfly stretching her wings after emerging from the chrysalis (click photos to enlarge)

monarch chrysalis with tachind fly pupa

Some monarchs are not so lucky. This one was brought to me by a wonderful volunteer. She was hoping to release an adult butterfly, but a tachinid fly larvae emerged instead. Its pupa is the brown case beneath the damaged monarch chrysalis.

caterpillar with parasitoid eggs on dorsal surface

Tachinid flies are common parasitoids of many butterflies and moths. But I had never found a caterpillar with the white eggs of one of these flies on it until I stumbled across this one this week.

green lynx pider under hooded pitcher plant

This female Green Lynx Spider laid her egg sac in the protected cover of a Hooded Pitcher Plant.

green lgynx spider and young

Another Green Lynx female sits next to her recently hatched spiderlings atop a Cardinal Flower seed stalk.

green lynx spiderlings up close

These Green Lynx Spider babies have molted once and will soon disperse away from their protective mother.

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile

After our wet summer, the Garden is now alive with many tiny Cope’s Gray Treefrogs.

black swallowtail prepupa

A co-worker alerted me to this Black Swallowtail pre-pupa one afternoon this week. Knowing it would shed one more time and reveal the chrysalis in the next 24-hours, I brought it to our volunteer training  the next morning.

black swallowtail just after chrysalis formed

I carried the pre-pupa along on a training session and, right on schedule, the last molt occurred and everyone was able to witness the amazing transformation to the chrysalis.

A Week of Moments

The butterfly counts not months, but moments, and has time enough.

~Rabindranath Tagore

Monarch hanging on chrysalis

Monarch butterfly shortly after emergence from its chrysalis (click photos to enlarge)

Last week was a busy one (actually, aren’t they all) at work with getting everything back out after the hurricane and preparing for and delivering several programs. And yet, it was still a week full of natural history highlights, brief moments when the beauty and mystery that surrounds us reveals itself and I take a moment to pause and wonder. Here are a few of those moments…

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One of the horticulture staff spotted this female marbled salamander (females have gray markings, males have white  ones) among the soil around some plants in the Display Gardens. She will be laying eggs soon in a wetland depression and will guard them until rains fill the pool.

Hearts-a-bustin seed pod at NCBG

Seed pods of Hearts-a-bustin, Euonymus americanus, one of my favorite native shrubs of autumn.

Purple-crested slug after molt

A purple-crested slug moth caterpillar (Adoneta spinuloides) that has recently molted.

I did a lunchbox talk at the Garden last week on one of my favorite topics, caterpillars. So, in spite of the postponement of the museum’s BugFest event due to the hurricane, Melissa and I were still able to go out one evening and collect a few for my talk (sounds like the prefect date night, doesn’t it).

Caterpillar with wasp coccons

This larva has fallen victim to a wasp parasitoid. The white silky blob beneath the caterpillar are the wasp cocoons. One study estimated that 10 to 25% of all last instar caterpillars are parasitized by wasp or fly parasitoids.

Turbulent phosphila larvae

The day after my caterpillar program we discovered this group of turbulent phosphila moth larvae feeding on their host plant, greenbrier. It can be hard to tell which end is which on this gregarious feeder.

Plume moth

Certainly one of the stranger-looking groups of moths, the plume moths, resemble tiny gliders.

Mantis with bee

The week ended rather poorly for this male carpenter bee that was prey for this Chinese mantis.

Goldenrod and wasp

Fall is just around the corner when the goldenrods (Solidgo sp.) are in bloom.

 

Be sure to take the time to find some moments in your week ahead.

 

Moths in a Storm

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

~Robin Wall Kimmerer

As the rains continue to pour down from what was the hurricane that mercifully just glanced by us here in the woods, we are both reading and pursuing some indoor activities. I decided to look back at some recent photos of moths and try to learn a few more names using our Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America and a few of my favorite online resources (I mentioned some of these in a recent post on moths). This thing with moths has grabbed me for some reason in recent months. Certainly, the availability of a great field guide has helped (I am known, and sometimes mocked, for my tendency to browse field guides as my reading entertainment). But it is as if I have also just discovered this amazing variety of life that is so readily available just outside (literally sometimes) our door. For me, naming things is a way to feel connected to them. And naming moths is a challenge! For one thing, there are so many – over 2200 species in North Carolina, according to one of my go-to sites, Moths of NC (compare that to 177 species of butterflies recorded in the state). Plus, their differences are often quite subtle and variable. But, it is a great way to learn to appreciate them. As usual, there are many amazing and bizarre life histories. There is also the relationship to their larvae, which, for someone that is as fascinated by caterpillars as me, is reason enough to learn moths so I can make those life cycle connections. So, on a weekend when I normally would be surrounded by caterpillar cages for BugFest, I present a few of the adults of my larval friends that I have recently learned. As usual, if anyone finds an error in my ID, please drop me a note.

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria. This little beauty fluttered up from some grass the day before Florence appeared.

Packard's wave, Cyclophora packardi

Packard’s Wave, Cyclophora packardi. Many of the Waves have a flattened appearance, often with a straight-edge line to the fore-wings.

Yellow-fringed hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Yellow-fringed Hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata, one of a group of moths whose larvae feed on lichens.

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Richard's Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi

Richard’s Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi– perhaps a Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis, above

Robinson's underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Robinson’s underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella, dorsal view

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella

Next are a few species seen on the buildings at work before the storm…

Variable oakleaf caterpilar moth, Lochmaeus manteo?

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo – this faded individual was a tough call, but this is one of the most common species of caterpillars I find in this area

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults cannot be separated  to

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults apparently cannot easily be separated to species without dissection) – note the distinctive spread-wing resting posture

Below is a series of species from a couple of years ago that I never got around to naming (this was before the publication of the new field guide)…

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria – another straight-edge fore-wing

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria, a tree bark mimic

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola – the slug caterpillars are one of my favorite groups, so it is nice to learn what the adults look like

This last one was, by far, the most difficult to try to identify (not that we got all of the other ones correct). Still not sure if this is right, but it is the closest thing I could find (which is odd since it seems to be such a distinctive pattern)…

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George’s Midget, Elaphria georgei

Florence Cats

If you spend your whole life waiting for the storm, you’ll never enjoy the sunshine.

~Morris West

Florence has already had a huge impact on things here in the Piedmont, far away from her predicted point of landfall. While this is minor compared to what people in the more direct path of the storm will have to deal with over the next several days, many schedules in this area have been rearranged and many things canceled or postponed with the storm’s approach. One such cancellation was one of my favorite events of the year, BugFest, at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. As predictions of the stormy weather grew, it seemed less likely we would need to scour the fields and forests for caterpillars for our annual show of the diversity and beauty of the larvae of butterflies and moths of our region.

But some things are hard to give up. What does a caterpillar-lover do when all the preparations have been made for any wind and water headed our way? Why, you stroll through the yard looking for caterpillars, of course. So, below are a few species discovered this afternoon (and a couple from earlier in the week) while we wait for any impacts from Hurricane Florence.

Monarch larva, last instar

Monarch caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

Black swalowtail larvae on rue

Two instars of Black Swallowtail larvae – notice how different this species looks in different stages. The larger instar is often mistaken for a monarch due to similar colors and patterns, but note the yellow dots inside the black stripes and the lack of black tentacles on either end compared to a monarch.

Florida fernth larva mo

Florida Fern Moth larva on, what else, a fern

White furcula side view

We love finding “Furkys”. Here is a White Furcula caterpillar on wild cherry

White furcula ventral view

White Furcula, ventral view

Double-lined prominent larva dorsal view

Double-lined Prominent on elm

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A mystery Geometrid moth larva on spicebush…anyone know this one?

Fall webworm

The most common caterpillar in the yard right now, the Fall Webworm, found now on almost any plant

White flannel moth dorsal view

A treat to find a White Flannel Moth larva on redbud, as it has been a few years since I have seen one of these odd beauties..

White flannel moth side view

This clownish looking caterpillar is one of the so-called “stinging caterpillars”, with tufts of urticating spines that can cause a bee-sting-like pain should you touch it.

And a couple from earlier this week at work…

Datana sp. getting ready to molt

Datana sp. larvae just prior to a synchronous molt

Drab prominent larva

A Drab Prominent caterpillar looking anything but…

Stay safe if you are in the path of the storm, but remember to take a moment to enjoy the beauty and wonder that surrounds you.