Another One Hundred!

During all these years there existed within me a tendency to follow Nature in her walks.

~John James Audubon

Per my habit of posting such milestones, it is time to recognize another one hundred posts gone by. This makes 400 posts since this blog was born shortly into my retirement. Like the others before it, this last 100 has covered a lot of ground, and remembering it helps me appreciate how fortunate I am to experience the things I write about. Here are just a few of the highlights from this past 100…

Green Mantisfly, Zeugomantispa minuta 1

Green mantisfly found on my back door window (click photos to enlarge)

As usual, a lot of my posts concerned things observed right here in the yard and woods of Chatham County. Sometimes the most beautiful and unusual are right outside (or on) your door.

Monkey Slug from below

Monkey slug caterpillar

I continue with my obsession of all things caterpillar (hope you don’t mind).

Zombie fungus on cricket 3

A Carolina leaf-roller cricket that has been manipulated and killed by a “zombie fungus”

Zombie-making fungi and mind-controlling larval parasitoids played a role in several of my posts…what strange phenomena!

bear in canal wider view

It was a long hot summer

It was another hot summer, so it was tough to be outdoors for a few months. I did learn one way to stay cool while visiting Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge…

NW Alligator River 1

Paddling near Columbia, NC

I was fortunate to spend some quality time in the wilds around Columbia, NC, working on a project with NCLOW to encourage ecotourism to this beautiful, and wild, part of our state.

Screech owl in wood duck box close up

Screech owl peering (or is it glaring) at me as I drive by the nest box

There were many close observations of wildlife over the past several months. I always enjoy spending time with them in their haunts.

snow geese banking

Snow goose landing in a corn field

snow geese over field

Snow geese circling a field at sunset

Spending time at my favorite refuge, Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, is always a highlight, and this winter was no different.

canebrake rattlesnake head

An unusual wintertime rattlesnake

I had several encounters with beautiful rattlesnakes this year, including this one, which was out and about for a few weeks in January at Pocosin Lakes NWR.

least bittern and reflection 1

Least bittern

There was a rare treat of seeing a least bittern at another of my favorite haunts, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (thanks, Keith!).

Northern Gannet  just at impact with ocean

Northern gannet just as it hits the water while diving for fish

I joined a museum trip for an unforgettable cruise off our coast in February. The rapid-fire diving of large numbers of northern gannets was a photographic challenge, and a highlight.

Chestnut-sided warbler singing in NC 1

Chestnut-sided warbler belting it out

Another wonderful museum trip was to the opposite end of our beautiful state in search of mountain birds, like this chestnut-sided warbler.

View from Grassy Bald

Roan Mountain highlands

Melissa and I hiked part of the Roan Mountain highlands, along with a large group of other visitors…but spectacular nonetheless.

alligator black and white head

An alligator basking in the sun in Everglades National Park

little blue heron head

Little blue heron next to the trail

I was lucky to lead a trip with friends to Everglades National Park in early spring. Gators and birds were everywhere!

Littel T on ridge at sunset

A quiet moment watching a wolf before my group arrived

Great Gray Owl female

Great gray owl just outside the park

Yellowstone is always a highlight in my year. I had a great couple of folks with me, and we had a wonderful time hiking and observing wildlife.

sunset LCT 2

Sunset along the Lost Coast

We backpacked for a few days along the Lost Coast Trail in California when fires and smoke altered our earlier plans for Yosemite.

Redwood forest with trail for scale

A trail through the redwoods

Hiking among the giant redwoods is a humbling and peaceful experience, something we can all use when times get difficult.

Bald Eagle on snag 1

Bald eagle at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

I made a swing north looking for snow geese last November. Not too many of the target species, but plenty of cool sights.

Yellow warbler male on nest

Yellow warbler nest along the boardwalk

Northern parula warbler male singing

A northern parula warbler singing

One of the highlights of the year was a trip to famed Magee Marsh along the south shore of Lake Erie in Ohio, perhaps the warbler capitol of the world in spring. Definitely worth the trek.

So, another 100 events and observations of the incredible beauty all around us. I am fortunate to live in an area where there are many wonders just steps outside the door. Many are small wonders, there for the observing and enjoying, if only we take the time. Others were found on a variety of public lands across our state and beyond. It is fitting that this past Saturday was National Public Lands Day, the nation’s largest single-day volunteer effort for pubic lands. Public lands are critical as habitat and for our recreation, education, and health. We owe them our support and our votes in this election season.

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of the Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks





BugFest Residue, Part 2

Nature, in her blind search for life, has filled every possible cranny of the earth with some sort of fantastic creature.

~Joseph Wood Krutch

Here are a few more of the fantastical critters from our scouring of the woods and fields for BugFest…

Polyphemus moth caterpillar

Polyphemus moth caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

The stars of this year’s caterpillar table were several huge polyphemus moth larvae. We found them on oak, river birch, and red maple this year, and found several on trees at a Chatham County wholesale native plant nursery, Mellow Marsh Farm.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar head shot

These large larvae are eating machines

I was happy that only one of these eating machines began to pupate before the big day, since it is always a treat to share some of our larger species with the crowds.

Smartweed caterpilar

Smartweed caterpillar

One of the more striking species we usually find is the smartweed caterpillar. And this year, we actually found it on smartweed (although I think it crawled off to something else when I took this photo), instead of the usual cattail.

Snowberry clearwing freshly shed

Snowberry clearwing

We borrowed a coral honeysuckle plant from a nearby native plant nursery, Cure Nursery, because it was loaded with feeding snowberry clearwing larvae (these become bumblebee mimic day-flying moths). I caught this one right after it shed (you can see the head capsule just under its legs, and the old tail spike lying with the whitish shed skin behind the caterpillar).

Nason's slug underside

Underside of Nason’s slug caterpillar

The slug caterpillar group is one of my favorites because of their bizarre shapes and colors. We had a Nason’s slug in a petri dish and it obliged by sitting upside down all day so people could see why it is called a slug caterpillar (they lack paired abdominal prolegs that other caterpillars have; they glide rather than crawl).

Crowned slug

Crowned slug

One of the more fantastical of the group, the crowned slug, is ringed by what look like feathered tentacles armed with stinging spines. These are always a treat to find and share.

Spiny oak slug

Spiny oak slug

One of the most striking in terms of color from this year was this spiny oak slug. It is a species that can be quite variable in color, but all are beautiful.

Smaller parasa 1

Smaller parasa

My favorite find was one that didn’t last long enough for other people to enjoy it (it pupated the morning of BugFest). But, to be honest, it probably meant more to me than it would have to a lot of other people. Melissa spotted this (somehow) above our heads on a back lit leaf. When we pulled the branch down to see if it was even a caterpillar she had seen, I knew immediately what it was. I had seen it in the field guide a couple of years ago and had wanted to find one ever since (yup, I am a caterpillar nerd for sure).

Smaller Parasa 1

Smaller parasa moth from two years ago

That page in the book caught my attention when a small beautiful moth came to my window one night a couple of years ago. The gorgeous green helped me identify it as a smaller parasa moth. But when I saw the caterpillar, I really wanted to find one. Well, two years later…

Smaller parasa

What a cool caterpillar!

Good things really do come to those who wait.

BugFest Residue

If you have a chance to play in nature, if you are sprayed by a beetle, if the color of a butterfly’s wing comes off on your fingers, if you watch a caterpillar spin its cocoon– you come away with a sense of mystery and uncertainty.

~Michael Crichton

BugFest, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ premier special event, is over. Somewhere around 29,000 people visited this year, and, as always, we talked to a lot of them about the caterpillars we collected in the days leading up to the event. A lot of effort goes into preparing for the event, by everyone involved. For us caterpillar wranglers, it means finding and caring for a variety of fascinating critters, and then releasing them all back into the wild. Every year we have specimens that never make it to the big day because they either pupate or have been parasitized and die. So, there are many things that our visitors miss seeing. Here is something that only a few us were privileged to witness this year.


Mystery cocoon (click photos to enlarge)

Let’s start with a mystery. I found this cocoon on a leaf in one of the cages with multiple species of larvae we collected right before BugFest. It reminded me of a tussock moth cocoon of some sort since it appears some of the “hairs” from the caterpillar have been incorporated into the cocoon covering. I didn’t have time to do much with it until after the event. I looked at it more closely, and then remembered we had collected a very nice spotted apatelodes (Apatelodes torrefacta) caterpillar who had started to shed its setae the day before BugFest.


Spotted apatelodes caterpillar

I was disappointed at the time, because these large larvae are certainly in the cute category of caterpillars, especially if you manage to get a look at their undersides…

Spotted Apatelodes showing red proleg feet 1

This caterpillar looks like it is wearing red socks

They are one of the only larvae I know that dress like a friend of mine from my museum days (you know who you are) and wear outlandishly bright “socks” (in this case, red, instead of the purple ones my friend still wears). When I realized I had not seen the pupa of this particular specimen, I googled it, and there it was, mystery solved – it is a spotted apatelodes cocoon.

I’ll share a few more of the leftovers from our caterpillar collecting efforts in the next post.

Shedding Light on the Subject

The insect world is nature`s most astonishing phenomenon. Nothing is impossible to it; the most improbable things occur there.

~Rachel Carson

Last week we were looking for caterpillars for this past weekends’ BugFest event, and ended up making a couple of nocturnal excursions (it is often easier to see cryptic caterpillars at night by the light of a flashlight or UV flashlight). One location had a mix of meadows and forest along a gravel road. As I scanned the edge, a bright spot caught my eye.

Cloudles sulphur resting under a leaf after dark

Cloudless sulfur butterfly resting under a leaf after dark (click photos to enlarge)

It was a cloudless sulfur butterfly perched under a sweet gum leaf for the night. I don’t often get a chance to see roosting butterflies, so this was a treat. The flash didn’t seem to bother it, but it did illuminate something else just to the side of the sleeping sulfur.

Katydid molting ventral view

From this angle, it was hard to tell what it was (can you?)…

At first glance, all I could tell was that some insect was molting, but it was very odd-looking from the ventral side.

Katydid molting

Another view and it looked like some sort of katydid in the process of shedding

I moved to get a better view of the side of the insect and guessed it to be some sort of katydid caught in the act of shedding its exoskeleton. Arthropods must shed their hardened exterior “skin” in order to grow, a process we call molting, or ecdysis. The process is initiated by hormones and involves growing a new cuticle under the old one, then increasing the internal pressure, so that the outer skin splits. The katydid then pulls itself out head first, and hangs underneath until the new skin hardens. These insects undergo what is known as incomplete metamorphosis that progresses from egg to nymph to adult. The young stages resemble the adults, but usually have incomplete wings, and often disproportionate body parts relative to the final stage. Butterflies, in contrast, undergo complete metamorphosis with 4 stages – egg, larva, pupa, adult. Molting is both a necessary and a hazardous process – necessary in order to grow and mature; hazardous in that things can go wrong. Molting takes time, and the insect is very vulnerable during this process due to its inactivity and softened cuticle. This is why many insects tend to molt at night or early in the morning, when there is less chance of being seen by potential predators. I stumbled upon this one shedding at about 8:51 p.m. I took a couple of images and continued on our caterpillar quest. I returned via the same path and stopped to check on the katydids’ progress.

Katydid molting 1

It had pulled all the way out of the old skin by 9:32 p.m.

About 40 minutes had passed, and the katydid was all the way out of its old skin, but still had a ways to go to harden its new exoskeleton and change into its adult color. I did see that is is a female with a long sword-like egg-laying appendage (ovipositor) protruding out its back end. This looks like the final molt based on the ovipositor and the size of the new wings. By the looks of it, I am guessing this whole procedure may take a few hours before the katydid is ready to resume normal activities. I wished her well, and we headed back to the car, a few caterpillars in hand, and a memory of another astonishing phenomenon of the insect world.


In all works on Natural History, we constantly find details of the marvelous adaptation of animals to their food, their habits, and the localities in which they are found.

~Alfred Russel Wallace, 1853

It is that time of year again…yep, the museum’s annual BugFest event is tomorrow, Saturday, September 17. Join us for an incredible array of exhibits and experts on all sorts of topics relating to the incredible world of insects and other invertebrates. I will be at the caterpillar tent again (where else?) this year out on Jones Street. Drop by for a visit (and if you have found a large caterpillar like a hickory-horned devil or an imperial moth larva, bring it!!). To celebrate another year, here is a series of photos from the yard, showing the transformation of just one of the stars of the show this year, and one of my favorites, the spicebush swallowtail.

Spicebush swallowtail in curled leaf early instar

Early instar spicebush swallowtail larva in curled leaf retreat (click photos to enlarge)

Female spicebush swallowtail butterflies lay eggs on the leaves spicebush or sassafras. The larvae spread silk across a leaf, causing the leaf to curl as the silk dries and contracts. This provides a retreat for the developing larvae (they move to a larger retreat as they grow).

Young spicebush swallowtail

Early instar larvae are considered bird poop mimics

The early stages are bird poop mimics (as are the larvae of many swallowtail species). But, they also have another strategy to avoid being eaten…

Spicebush swallowtail early instar larva head shot

Their fake eyespots are quite realistic

Large fake eyes make them look like small snakes, something some birds might think twice about trying to consume. They even have small white marks on the eyespots that make them look like moist eyes.

Spicebush Swallowtail larva feeding on Spicebush leaf

Later stages are green

As they molt, they turn green and the eyespots enlarge. All stages of the larvae also have a forked gland, the osmeterium, that exudes a foul-smelling compound that deters predators.

Spicebush swallowtail prepup

They change color once more as they prepare to pupate

About a day before they transform in preparation to pupate, the larvae change to an orange color, and start crawling. When they find a suitable site, they form what is called a prepupa, and attach themselves with a silk button at their base, and a silk loop near the head (they create a loop and then slide their head under it, looking somewhat like a telephone line repairman hanging on a pole).

Spicebush swallowtail chrysalis

The chrysalis resembles a piece of a twig

The next day, they molt their caterpillar skin one more time to reveal the chrysalis, which resembles a broken twig or piece of dried leaf. The ruse continues. This guy was photographed this morning and will remain in this state until sometime next spring, overwintering as a pupa (as do most of our common species of butterflies and moths).

Spicebush swallowtail adult

The end result – a spicebush swallowtail butterfly

Humming Along

One minute poised in midair, apparently motionless before a flower while draining the nectar from its deep cup—though the humming of its wings tells that it is suspended there by no magic—the next instant it has flashed out of sight as if a fairy’s wand had made it suddenly invisible.

~Neltje Blanchan, 1923

hummingbird at feeder

Hummingbird on a feeder (click photos to enlarge)

It seems the hummingbirds have been zipping about the yard with added intensity these past couple of weeks. Maybe they are like me and it is the heat that is making them grumpy. Or maybe they know the season is about to change, and that they will soon need to move on, so they had better stock up for the long flight. Whatever the reason, it has been quite a show at the feeders and flowers scattered around the yard. I typically see 4 or 5 of the tiny jet fighters at once, meaning there are probably 4 or 5 times that many around the yard. Our place is so shaded that it is hard to find a good sunny spot to photograph them other than in the morning, when the sun highlights the pathway to one of the feeders on the front porch. The past few days have found me standing out in the yard, watching their comings and goings, and trying to capture a few moments of their hectic lives.

Hummingbird silhouette

Hummingbird surveying his domain

Hummingbirds tend to perch near their favorite feeders/flowers, guarding them against interlopers that might get some of “their” nectar. One bird likes a particular dead branch hanging out over the front walkway.

Hummingbird releasing liquid waste

Hummingbird in mid-air (note – it is excreting as it hovers)

While things at the feeder can be frenetic, I spent a lot of time standing and waiting. Studies have shown that hummingbirds feed, on average, 5-8 times per hour, but only for 30 – 60 seconds at each feeding.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male 4

This one has kicked it in to overdrive as it approaches a feeder

But when they do move in, they do it with gusto. There is nothing subtle about their flight. They are pure aerial acrobats, and a joy to watch. Here are some incredible facts about hummingbirds from two sources: The Hummingbird Book, by Donald and Lillian Stokes; and Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male

A hummingbird hovering

Hummingbirds have the amazing ability to fly forward at speeds up to 50 miles per hour, can hover, fly backward, and even upside down briefly. The number of wing beats is also impressive – 60 times per second in normal flight; up to 200 times per second in courtship flight dives.

Ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Hummingbirds hover better than other birds

Their unusual wing structure allows hummingbirds to hover better than most other species. Unlike other birds, the bones in the wing of a hummingbird are fixed, except at the shoulder joint, which can move in all directions.


Wing motion of a hovering hummingbird

While hovering, a hummingbird’s wing moves forward and then the leading edge rotates almost 180 degrees, and moves back. As this motion is repeated, the tips of the wings trace a horizontal figure eight in the air.

female ruby-throated hummingbird in flight

Female ruby-throats generally have white bellies and throats, and are slightly larger than males

Female ruby-throats are  often more aggressive at feeders than males, since they are usually slightly larger. The average male weighs about 3 grams, or about the same as a penny. The average female is slightly larger, weighing in at about 3.5 grams. But both sexes can put on considerable weight this time of year in preparation for the migration south (often almost doubling their mass prior to flying south).

Ruby-throated hummingbird back view

White-tipped, rounded tail feathers, belong to female or immature male ruby-throated hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird male with pointed tail feathers

Adult males have pointed, dark-tipped tail feathers

Male ruby-throated hummingbirds are the first to arrive on the breeding grounds in spring, and the first to leave to return to their winter homes in late summer. Many of the adult males have already headed south, so, at first glance, it may look like a bunch of females in your yard. But, a closer look may give you some insights. While the tail feathers of adult males are dark-tipped and pointed, those of young males resemble the female, being rounded and white-tipped.

Ruby-throated hummingbird imm male showing one red feather

Young males often have streaked throats and just a few feathers showing red color

A better way to distinguish the sexes is to look at their throats. First-year males often have streaked throats (some females can as well), and frequently will have a few red feathers in their throat patch (or gorget) by this time of year.

Ruby-throated hummingbird adult male

Adult male ruby-throats have a brilliant red gorget, that can vary in intensity according to the light

Adult male ruby-throats have about 200 specialized feathers on their throat patch, which is called the gorget. The outer third of these feathers are iridescent. They have microscopic grooves and air bubbles that scatter and refract incoming light to make the feathers appear red. But, the iridescent part of the gorget feathers are flat, and only reflect light in one direction.

Hummingbird male with dark throat

Adult males have dark throats (color varies according to how the light hits the feathers)

You have to be looking at the feathers from the right direction in order to see the flash of iridescent red. From other viewing angles, the feathers appear dark, or even black.

Hummingbird blinking close up

Hummingbirds have “eyelashes”

In looking at my images, I found several where the hummingbird was blinking. It almost looked like they had eyelashes. Well, in a way, they do. They have short bristle-like feathers along the edge of their eyelids. They probably function similar to our own by helping keep objects out of the bird’s eyes.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 2

Hummingbirds in my yard feed from a variety of wildflowers, in addition to the sugar water feeders

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are believed to ingest at least half their weight in sugars each day. If you watch them closely, you can see they also feed on small insects and spiders, often snatching tiny flying insects out of the air.

Ruby-throated hummingbird at jewelweed 3

Young male hummingbird hovering and feeding below a jewelweed flower

Dining on the wing as they do, hummingbirds have significant flight muscles, which account for bout 25% of their boy weight. Compare that to the analogous pectoral muscles of a human which make up a mere 5% of most humans.

Hummingbird sticking out tongue

Even at rest, they are humming along at a fast pace

A hummingbird is fast-paced even at rest – their heart rate is about 1250 beats per minutes and they breathe about 250 times per minute while perched. And what about that tongue! They can extend it a distance about equal to the length of their bill. And when lapping up nectar or sugar water at your feeder, their tongue flicks in and out about 13 times per second. They are truly remarkable birds, the flying jewels of our gardens. Enjoy them while they are still here, humming along at the flowers and feeders wherever you live.








What a Way to Go

Nature is so much worse than science fiction.

~Quote attributed to a student in an introductory entomology course

We discovered a small caterpillar last week that was adorned with some unusual accessories, and that usually isn’t a good thing if you are a caterpillar. I think it was either a variable oakleaf, or a double-lined prominent caterpillar. Both are common species that feed on a wide variety of trees and shrubs.

Variable oakleaf caterpillar with parasites

Caterpillar adorned with green accessories (click photos to enlarge)

I have seen these bright green baubles attached to a few other caterpillars over the years, and it never ends up well.

Variable oakleaf caterpillar with parasites close up

Not the type of fashion accessory you want if you are a caterpillar

They really are beautiful in shape and color when you take a closer look. The first time I saw a caterpillar with these green blobs on its side was a few years ago. I thought they might be some sort of strange cocoon of a parasitic wasp. I was close…they are actually the larvae of a tiny parasitoid wasp in the family Eulophidae.


Eulophid wasp pupae next to the dead host caterpillar

After watching the caterpillar for a few days, I came back to find a strange array of tiny black blobs near the shriveled caterpillar carcass.


The small piles of yellow “stones” near the pupae are actually waste products

When I looked at my macro images, the small black blobs looked like some sort of macabre lawn recliner, with a tiny pile of rocks at the base. The black blobs turned out to be wasp pupae lying on their backs, and the piles of rocks are the waste products excreted by the wasp larvae prior to pupating. These are parasitoid wasps in the genus Eulophis. They feed inside their caterpillar host, mature, and then pupate in a group near the carcass of their victim. The excellent reference by Eiseman and Charney, Tracks and Signs of Insects and Other Invertebrates, refers to these bizarre creatures as “tombstone pupae”.  I find a lot of these clusters of Eulophis pupae on the undersides of sycamore leaves this time of year.

Caterpillar with Euplectrus pupae

Another strange way to go

A few days ago I found another caterpillar that had met what seemed like an unusual death.

Caterpillar with Euplectrus pupae 1

At first, I thought a fungus had attacked this caterpillar

The fuzzy texture initially caused me to think some sort of fungus had killed it.

Euplectrus wasp pupae

And what are these tiny black pellets?

But when I knelt down and took a closer look, I could see what looked like pupae inside the fuzz, as well as some tiny black pellets or balls stuck to the threads. What the heck is this? Going back to my reference book (mentioned above) for all things strange in the invertebrate world, I found a plausible answer. This caterpillar had been killed by another type of parasitoid wasp in that same family, but most likely in a different genus, Euplectrus. These larvae tend to form a cluster on the dorsal surface of the living caterpillar. When they finish feeding, they move to the underside of their deflated host, and arrange themselves in a row, and prepare to pupate. They create a gauzy, web-like cocoon, which attaches the caterpillar remains to the plant and provides a protective covering. The black pellets are the meconium, or waste products, cast out by the prepupa. It looks as though there wasn’t quite enough room under the carcass for all the wasp larvae to pupate, so some had to be elsewhere in the fuzzy covering.

How bizarre…and it is all happening just outside my door!



From Beast to Beauty

It has to get ugly before it gets pretty.

~Nicholas Sparks
Red-spotted purple adult

Red-spotted purple butterfly (click photos to enlarge)

Well, that is certainly the case for at least one species of butterfly here in the woods… the red-spotted purple, Limenitis arthemis astyanax. This common species is probably not considered beautiful by most observers during its pre-butterfly stages.


Early instar of red-spotted purple caterpillar

It is a bird poop mimic throughout its early life, especially from the third instar larva all the way through the chrysalis stage.


The larval stages are bird poop mimics with light splotches on a dark background

red-spotted purple last instar

Last instar red-spotted purple caterpillar

I found a late instar caterpillar on a wild cherry recently and decided to watch it in hopes of finding the chrysalis when it crawled away.

Red-spotted purple prepupa

Pre-pupa of red-spotted purple (note silk pad attachment point at rear of body – top in this photo)

The next day the larva was gone. They often crawl off the plant where they have been feeding and look for a vertical surface to climb. They make a silk pad, attach themselves and hang from it, forming a pre-pupa that lasts about 24 hours. Then, the last molt of the caterpillar skin occurs, revealing the chrysalis. Luckily, I discovered the pre-pupa attached to the basement door frame. The caterpillar had crawled a distance of about 25 feet. The next morning I hoped to see the chrysalis.

Red-spotted purple prepupa parasitized

Dead pre-pupa the next morning

But, what I found instead was a dead, blackened pre-pupa. I have seen this shriveled black appearance in other caterpillars when they have been parasitized by various things from tachinid flies to a virus. I watched it the next couple of days and never saw any sign of something emerging, so I am guessing this is a viral infection of some sort that killed this particular larva. I was disappointed, but, to my surprise, I discovered a chrysalis a few days later while pulling weeds in the front yard.

Red-spotted purple chrysalis

Red-spotted purple chrysalis (still a bird poop mimic)

The red-spotted purple chrysalis looks like damp bird poop hanging from a twig. One odd feature is the small round disc that sticks off the side of the chrysalis at about the mid-point. I have never been able to figure out what this is in relation to the butterfly that emerges. I decided to try to keep tabs on this pupa over the next few days to see if I could get lucky and photograph the newly emerged butterfly.

Red-spotted purple butterfly freshly emerged

Freshly emerged red-spotted purple butterfly

Sometimes you just get lucky, and the next morning when I checked, there was a freshly emerged butterfly clinging to the shell of its chrysalis. They usually hang on for an hour or so while they pump fluid into their wings (via the veins), and allow the wings to become firm for flight. This one’s wings were fully formed, so I found it just in time to get a few images.

Red-spotted purple butterfly freshly emerged close up of head

A closer look at the head of the butterfly shows a coiled proboscis

I moved around taking photos. The butterfly occasionally moved in response, flapping its wings in preparation for its initial take-off. The colors on fresh butterflies are so vibrant!

Red-spotted purple butterfly freshly emerged 1

The colors don’t quite match the butterfly’s name

But, admiring this fresh beauty reminded me that the colors don’t really match the rather odd name of this common species – the red-spotted purple. I wonder why it isn’t called the orange-spotted blue butterfly instead. And, come to think of it, while I am renaming things, perhaps I should change the title of this post to From Poop to Pretty. Both changes are perhaps a bit more descriptive of the unusual life history of this fascinating insect.

In an Instant

Nature taking its course – hunter and prey, the endless circle of life and death.

~Stephanie Meyer

Melissa found some cool caterpillars on a Viburnum this weekend while we were walking in a city park in Richmond.

hummingbird clearwing larva

Hummingbird clearwing caterpillar on Viburnum sp. (click photos to enlarge)

I walked over to take a look and saw a beautiful hummingbird clearwing larva, Hemaris thysbe, in the classic defensive pose of most sphinx moth caterpillars – front of body reared up, head tucked in, body aligned along the twig or mid-vein of a leaf. Suddenly, a huge European hornet, Vespa crabro, appeared and went straight for another caterpillar on the shrub, another hummingbird clearwing.

European hornet attacking caterpillar

European hornet attacking a caterpillar

I managed two quick pictures, and the hornet flew off, carrying its prize back to its nest, where the defeated caterpillar was sure to be chewed up and fed to some hungry wasp larvae. We just stood there, amazed at what we had witnessed. When I looked at the image the next day, I noticed there was another, smaller caterpillar on the same leaf (look just to the left of the clearwing’s “horn” and you can see another small, green caterpillar).

European hornets first appeared in the United States in the mid-1800’s and have since spread throughout most of the East. They look like a very large (up to 1.5 inches) yellow jacket, but are more brownish yellow in overall appearance. We didn’t have time to stick around, but I would not be surprised if that same hornet didn’t come back and search that shrub again, perhaps finding one or more other victims to carry back to the nest. Amazing how a scene in nature can change in an instant.

Leading a Double Life on the Edge

There is more both of beauty and of raison d’etre in the works of nature- than in those of art.

~Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC)

The adaptations of insects in our yard are both beautiful and incredible. Here is a little more on some leaf edge caterpillars discovered the past few days…

Double-toothed prominent

Double-toothed prominent on elm leaf (click photos to enlarge)

One of the most exciting finds was a group of double-toothed prominent caterpillars (Nerice bidentata) on an elm sapling. These guys are amazing in that they have noticeable fleshy “teeth” on their dorsum that mimic the double serrated leaf edge of elm leaves, their host plant.

Double-toothed prominent early instar 1

Early instar of double-toothed prominent larva

Several of them molted over the past few days and I noticed what seems like a slight change in behavior between the different sizes. The smaller larvae are somewhat darker in color and seem to feed along the leaf edges in a more exposed position.

Double-toothed prominent on small leaf

Their color and pattern aids in the deception

The brown tips of the prolegs match brown spots along the mid-vein of the leaf.

Double-toothed prominent close up

Later instar

Larger larvae appear lighter in color, and seem to feed at an angle that puts them slightly under the leaf. The leaf underside is lighter in color than the top, so maybe this is why. The larvae also have angled stripes along their sides which mimic the venation of the leaves, adding to their effective disguise.

Double-lined prominent

Double-lined prominent on elm leaf

While looking at other elm saplings, I came across another species that seems to mimic both the leaf edge and the twigs of its host plant. When viewing the dorsal surface of a double-lined prominent (Lochmaeus bileneata), the reddish-brown color resembles an elm twig.

Double-lined prominent 1

The light stripes may mimic the leaf petiole

When viewed from the side, the white and yellow stripes along the cater[pillar’s body look like the mid-vein of a leaf, and the brown resembles dying leaf tissue.

Double-lined prominent 2

Even the head stripe helps in the disguise

The feeding position (head towards the tip of the leaf, body along the mid-vein) reinforces the effectiveness of the cryptic pattern and colors, with even the stripes on the head capsule resembling part of the angled leaf venation. I suppose it should come as no surprise that I can spend hours wandering around the yard, amazed by the small wonders all around me. I hope you all can spend some time outside this holiday weekend and discover wonders of your own.