What the Cameras See

The trees will tell their secrets to those who tune in.

~Steven Magee

I check the trail cameras once a week or so and am always anxious to see what secrets they uncover in our woods. The past few weeks it has mainly been squirrels chasing each other around and deer, lots of deer. November is the peak of the mating season (aka rut) for deer in our area and they have been busy. The abundant acorn crop is giving them plenty of food so they all look in their prime. There is a herd of about nine does that I see regularly on the cameras. Several bucks (at least four or five that are 6-pointers or larger) are making the rounds, chasing does and challenging each other and nearby tree saplings. Here are a few of the highlights from this month.

— Three large bucks (look for one to come in from the left) check each other one morning behind the house before one big guy becomes the obvious king

— One large buck comes in near the end to chase a doe. The cameras have caught many cases of bucks chasing does in the last few weeks.

— Sometimes a buck is just looking, hoping for a doe to be near. This beautiful 8-pointer likes the camera

— It is not all about the deer. Here, my oldest camera model captures a grainy night-time image of four raccoons (one adult and three young) climbing the large Tulip Poplar that serves as a den tree

— It has been a few weeks since the cameras caught a coyote. Here is a slow motion view of beautiful canine trotting along a favorite coyote pathway in our woods.

November Treat

Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.

~John Muir

It’s been awhile since I posted. Not sure where the time goes, but here we are. Last week I had a last minute idea to run down to my favorite wildlife refuges for a wildlife observation and photography fix. The weather was supposed to be nice and cold on Friday, so I thought whatever birds have arrived this early might be active as would the bears. I didn’t get out as early as planned but arrived at the Pungo Unit about 9 a.m. I went straight to “Bear Road” and there were 4 cars there so I headed elsewhere. As I approached the impoundment, I could see two trucks and several photographers out in the vicinity of last year’s Eastern Screech Owl roost so I figured it was still there. Several people were getting back into their vehicle as I drove up, so I just slowed down and stopped for a second to take a photo – yup, still there!

This beautiful Eastern Screech Owl (red color morph) is still using the same roost as last year (click photos to enlarge)

It is always nice to spend time with the swans on Marsh A, so I pulled up and sat for awhile, window down, listening to their soothing sounds and watching them preen, bathe, feed, and interact.

Tundra Swans have arrived on the Pungo Unit

I scanned the back side of the water and saw what I had hoped for, a few Sandhill Cranes preening amongst the swans.

The gray colors of the Sandhill Cranes separate them from the mostly white Tundra Swans

The light was pretty bright, the water in the canals is low, and the vegetation along the canals high (making it difficult to see anything in the canals), so I decided to head over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge for a couple of hours to see what was happening there. The deterioration of the water quality in the lake the past several years means that now there is almost never anything to see on the causeway road across the lake (I used to see plenty of swans and other waterfowl feeding or resting on the lake near the causeway, but not now).

As I approached Wildlife Drive I saw movement along side the shrubs lining the road – a Virginia Opossum! It was grubbing through the short grass out from the shrubs, pausing every now and then to munch on something it found. I pulled a U-turn and stopped near it. It scurried to the cover of the shrubs, but soon came out and started feeding again. It gradually came closer and I took a few photos before it headed back to the edge of the cover and stared grooming itself.

I noticed that it had a tooth exposed on both sides of its mouth. I don’t know if this is typical for an opossum to be snaggle-toothed, but I think it is a good look.

You’ve got to admit, opossums are just cute

At the lodge, I saw one Great Blue Heron in the usual roosting spot grove of trees across the canal. There are some ducks, but not much else yet and water levels are low in the impoundment.

A Great Blue Heron surveying its world

After talking with a friend I saw near the lodge, I headed back to Pungo for the remainder of the afternoon. Driving near Marsh A, I stopped to take a couple of photos of the screech owl since no one else was around. The little guy seems oblivious to any admirers and just sits in the late day sun, soaking it all in.

A couple of quick photos and then I moved on, leaving his little guy to its peace and quiet

I had seen three bears near the entrance when I first drove in, so I figured I might as well head over to “Bear Road” and see what I could see. There were 5 cars already there and I could see a group of a dozen or so photographers at the far end of the field. Oh well…I walked down and then slipped into the woods for some quiet time before I reached the crowd. I sat down on a log to enjoy the golden light flooding the forest and soon heard the tell-tale heavy tapping of a large woodpecker behind me. I eased around and saw a Pileated Woodpecker hammering away at a vine encrusted tree trunk.

— A Pileated Woodpecker hammers on a tree snag looking for dinner

After watching it for a few minutes, it suddenly flew off and landed in a tree above me, frozen against the trunk. Did it see something I had missed – a predator like a hawk or owl? It remained motionless for a minute or two before finally moving up and around the tree.

This view clearly shows the toe placement (like an X) and stiff tail spines that are woodpecker adaptations for clinging to vertical surfaces

I eased out of the woods as the crowd was headed back to their cars, excitedly talking about the bears they had seen and sharing images from their cameras. Out in the field were three bears, a sow and two cubs, grazing in the light of a setting sun. Swans returning to the lake were highlighted in the golden light as they called their soothing ou, ou sounds. As I walked by one of the people on the road, he asked if I had any good shots of the bears. I responded that I hadn’t really tried, I just wanted to be out there with the sights and sounds of the refuge. I’m not sure he understood…but every time I am there, I just want to sit quietly and take it all in. I do love to take photos, but I am realizing that I love the quiet, solitude, and the memories even more.

A sow and one of her cubs feeding in a field along “Bear Road”

Happy Halloween

Like delicate lace, so the threads intertwine, oh, gossamer web of wond’rous design! Such beauty and grace wild nature produces…

~Bill Watterson

Yes, ’tis that special holiday, ’tis Halloween. And we manage to gravitate toward all manner of spooky things and transfer our fears anew to many elements of the natural world such as bats, wolves, and spiders. One of my favorite arachnids is aptly particularly evident this time of year – the Marbled Orbweaver, Araneus marmoreus. It’s relatively large size and bright yellow-orange colors make it particularly noticeable in October and gives rise to a couple of its other common names – Pumpkin Spider and Halloween Spider.

Last week I was changing cards in my trail cameras in our woods and took my camera along in case I saw anything interesting. I’m always checking for spider webs in my path this time of year as many orbweavers reach their peak size and, therefore, apparent abundance, in October. I try to avoid the silk-in-my-face greeting of most of these weavers by doing the forest side step if I spot the web or one of the often long anchor lines. This species creates a hide outside the main web, a fact that I appreciate as it means you are much less likely to have a crawling spider on your head or face if you should miss seeing their gossamer handiwork in your path. When a prey item lands in the web, she can feel the vibrations and rushes out of the hide to subdue her meal. I suppose if you are such a noticeable bright color, it pays to have a place to conceal yourelf from would-be predators.

I soon spotted a beauty highlighted in the the dappled sunlight in her holly leaf shelter on our south slope. I stopped to admire her intricate black patterns on a bold yellow background and grabbed a few photos.

Marbled Orbweaver in her silken hide (click photos to enlarge)

Walking a few feet more and I missed seeing another silken line and got entangled in a large web of another Halloween Spider. When I pulled on it to free myself, the owner dropped out of her hide onto the ground and scuttled away (a common defense strategy), but not before I managed a photo as she crossed an equally colorful fallen leaf.

This Halloween Spider dropped from her web and scurried under some leaves on the ground, allowing me only a photo before she disappeared.

As it turns out, this beautiful species is the subject of an article I wrote for the October issue of Walter magazine. Last year I was approached by the magazine editor (at the suggestion of some of my former co-workers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) and asked if I would be willing to write a monthly nature column. I had heard of this publication, but wasn’t that familiar with its content. After looking at it, it struck me as a quality magazine that I likened to being similar to an Our State magazine for the Triangle area. They have high production values and I am impressed by the quality and range of topics covered. I encourage you to take a look and subscribe if you agree. Here is a link to this month’s spider article with more information and photos. You can search for my other monthly articles (starting last January) in the archives by putting Nature in the search box on their website and scrolling through the articles. I must admit, I never thought I would have my photos of spiders and the like next to advertisements for Rolex watches, but, it’s a good chance to reach a broader audience.

A beautiful Marbled Orbweaver spotted on the ground one Halloween weekend long ago on a museum educator workshop about elk in Cataloochee Valley.

And here’s wishing you all a safe, sweets-filled, and Happy Halloween!

September Deer

I don’t have to take a trip around the world or be on a yacht in the Mediterranean to have happiness. I can find it in little things, like looking out into my backyard and seeing deer in the fields.

~ Queen Latifah

It is deer season. They are very active in our woods as the weather changes to bring on fall. The trail cameras have picked up almost nothing but deer the past few weeks (except for a raccoon family, the occasional opossum and squirrel, and, unfortunately, my neighbors cats). Here are a few of my favorite clips from last month.

— A fawn demands some nursing time

Fawns born in May weighed about 7 pounds at birth and are approaching 60+ pounds as fall begins. Still sporting a few spots, a fawn gets in some nursing from its mother. This is about the last month it will be nursing.

Below are some scenes of bucks, now reaching their prime for the rut. A couple of nice bucks have been seen together frequently. One spent several minutes testing a sapling with its antlers while another enjoys the bountiful supply of acorns on the forest floor this season.

— A buck thrashes a sapling

— Two nice bucks ease in front of one of the trail cameras

— A nice buck crunching on an acorn

BugFest 2022 Caterpillarology Highlights

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

~Rachel Carson

Our booth, Caterpillarology, was a tiny fraction of the hundreds of educational opportunities available at the museum’s annual BugFest event last weekend. This was the first time in a few years (that pandemic thing) that the museum has hosted a full scale BugFest and we were excited to participate once again. Staff and volunteers spent hours searching for, collecting, and then feeding over 50 species of local larvae to showcase at the event. Based on my cracking voice at the end of the day, I would say it was a huge success as we had a steady stream of visitors observing our caterpillars and asking questions for a solid seven hours. Though it doesn’t include all the species, here are photos of some of the stars of the show. Almost all have now been released back into the wild (we are raising a couple of species until they pupate to protect them from predation/parasitism and then will release that stage back into suitable habitat). Looking forward to next year’s event and what we may find.

Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus) caterpillar. The large fake eye spots, its habit of creating folded leaf shelters to hide in, and the woodcock-like creeping motion (it often bobs its head as it crawls) make this common species a crowd favorite. Look for these on Spicebush and Sassafras. (click photos to enlarge)
A close relative to the larva above is this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus). Favorite host plants include Tulip Poplar and Wild Cherry.
An early instar White Furcula (Furcula borealis). The long “tails” are actually the anal prolegs. When disturbed, the caterpillar shunts fluid into them, they greatly elongate, and are then whipped about as a defense.
Waved Sphinx (Ceratomia undulosa) on ash. Most sphinx moth larvae are adorned with a horn (hence the name hornworm) on their posterior. The exact function of the horn is not known, although it may serve as a visual predator deterrent. I have had many people tell me they think they can sting (but they can’t).
A Snowberry Clearwing (Hemaris diffinis) larva on Japanese Honeysuckle. This caterpillar turns into a day-flying bumblebee-mimic moth.
A Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe). I once had someone ask about the really tiny hummingbirds at their flowers…it turned out to be the adults of this caterpillar, another day-flying moth.
This Hog Sphinx (Darapsa myron) was captured by accident as I brought in some wild grape vine to feed another larval species. I snipped some vine from the yard, brought it in and Melissa spotted this little guy. Guess I need to look before I snip. This species varies in color from brown to green to yellow.
Pink-striped Oakworm (Anisota virginiensis) on Red Oak. These often occur in large clusters as female moths may lay several hundred eggs on one branch.
Lace-capped Moth larva (Oligocentria lignicolor). Like many of the prominent caterpillars, these larvae eat away a portion of the leaf and then rest their body along the chewed edge to camouflage themselves.
Another leaf edge larva, a Unicorn Caterpillar (Schizura unicornis) (see, unicorns ARE real).
A Clear Dagger Moth (Acronicta clarescens) caterpillar withdrawing its head capsule as a defensive posture.
Grapeleaf Skeletonizer (Harrisina americana). Touching this tiny larva may result in a skin rash on sensitive individuals.
Luna Moth larva (Actias luna) on hickory. In our area, Sweet Gum is usually the primary host plant, but we also found them on this tree and a Persimmon.
The largest Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) caterpillar we have ever seen! They are often confused with Luna Moth larvae, but lack the prominent red dots and the lateral line of the latter. Oaks and River Birch are the primary hosts.
Another of the big caterpillars this year was this beautiful green Imperial Moth (Eacles imperialis) larva. They come in a variety of colors from this leafy green to brown, red, and salmon. All are easily recognized by their long setae (hairs) and prominent white spiracles (breathing ports along the side).
The true star of the show, a Hickory Horned Devil (Citheronia regalis), was given to us by a friend in Southern Pines. North America’s largest caterpillar is always a delight to find, but, due to the usual timing of BugFest, is a tough one for us to get as they usually pupate by early September. This one stopped feeding and started turning blue-green in color the night before the event, indicating it was preparing to pupate. At the end of the day, we placed it in a tub of soil and it quickly buried itself to form a pupal chamber and shed its caterpillar skin one last time to turn into a pupa. It will spend the winter underground before emerging as a Royal Walnut Moth next summer.
These early instar Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia) caterpillars were raised in the museum’s Arthropod Zoo. They will grow to be almost as large as the Hickory Horned Devil before forming their cocoons.
This beautiful larva is a Saddleback Caterpillar (Acharia stimulea), one of the so-called “stinging” caterpillars. They possess spines that can inject small amounts of venom into anything they touch. The resulting sting feels much like a wasp sting.
This beauty is a Stinging Rose Caterpillar (Parasa indetermina) from the Sandhills. They also occur in orange or red and can be found on a variety of woody plants.
One of my favorite slug caterpillars, the Crowned Slug (Isa textula). David L. Wagner, in his wonderful field guide, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, sums up the bizarre slug caterpillars as being “more fantasy than reality”. As a group, the slug caterpillars often become the favorites of anyone that gets interested in caterpillars, and I admit to thinking they are the coolest of the Lepidopteran larvae.
This Yellow-shouldered Slug caterpillar has a tachinid fly egg on it (the white oval near the bottom of the larva). The fly larva hatches shortly after the egg is laid and burrows into the caterpillar, eating it from the inside and eventually killing the host.
The unusual shape is a diagnostic feature of the odd Skiff Moth (Prolimacodes badia) larva. Unlike most of the slug caterpillars, these do not have stinging spines, but can emit a foul-smelling liquid when disturbed. The white spots may be an adaptation to deceive tachinid flies from laying their eggs since female flies may not lay an egg on a caterpillar that is already infected with the parasitoid.
Black-waved Flannel Moth (Megalopyge crispata) larva on Persimmon. The dense hairs hide spiny warts which can inflict a painful sting. This species feeds on a variety of hardwood leaves.
Another Black-waved Flannel Moth showing the color variation in this species.
The Puss Caterpillar (aka Southern Flannel Moth, Megalopyge opercularis) is a species you definitely do not want to touch. The stinging spines beneath the dense hairs pack a powerful punch that can send worried victims to the ER due to the long-lasting pain. Most people never encounter this unusual caterpillar as it usually spends its entire life cycle from egg to pupa up in the branches of various hardwood trees.
A museum staffer collected this species, a Southern Tussock Moth (Dasychira meridonalis). I have never encountered this unusual caterpillar, which, to me, looks a bit like a spider-mimic.
We found this fuzzy American Dagger (Acronicta americana) at night using a UV flashlight. Many species glow under UV light, making them easier to locate, although this species can be readily spotted during the day due to its long white or yellow setae.
A harmless, but spiky, Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) caterpillar on Passion-vine.
This strange mystery caterpillar was found on a blackberry plant near Raleigh. A local entomologist tentatively identified it as a type of tiger moth larva, but we have not been able to pin it down as yet.
Another strange-looking larva, the Harris’ Three-spot (Harrisimemna trisignata). It mimics a bird-dropping and possibly a spider. It also has the unusual habit of retaining its shed head capsules on long setae. It supposedly uses these as a club to ward off small parasitoid flies and wasps.
Perhaps the most bizarrely shaped caterpillar we have is this Curve-lined Owlet (Phyprosopus callitrichoides). It feeds on greenbrier vines and the long extensions from its body look a lot like the tendrils on the vine.
A later instar of a Curve-lined Owlet showing how it is also a dead leaf mimic. It even vibrates slightly when disturbed, looking like a dried up leaf segment gently fluttering in the breeze.

Caterpillar Hunting

From east of the East-est to west of the West-est we’ve searched the whole world just to bring you the best-est.

~Dr. Seuss

This past week, I helped Melissa prepare for the largest museum event of the year – BugFest. As always, we headed up the Caterpillarology booth showcasing the incredible variety of larvae we have in this area. She and a few other staff at the museum started looking on Tuesday and I joined the effort on Wednesday through Friday. We searched numerous wild locations and a couple of native plant nurseries and ended up with over 50 species. We didn’t collect everything we found for a variety of reasons and here are some of the critters that didn’t make it to the big show.

Walnut Caterpillars, Datana integerrima. We found these in a natural area in the Sandhills, but decided to leave them be since they are what we call “droppers”. The least bit of disturbance and they fall to the ground. as a defense. This is not a good characteristic for a species to have for a day-long public event with lots of human feet trampling all around.
This beautiful larva is (we think) a Pink Prominent, Hyparpax aurora, found on a Turkey Oak in the Sandhills. Since we don’t have a food source near us, we reluctantly left it in its home turf.
A Luna Moth (Actias luna) larva that has succumbed to a wasp parasitoid. The tiny white q-tip looking things are the cocoons of the wasp larvae that have emerged from the caterpillar’s body after feeding on it from the inside for a few weeks. This caterpillar is doomed, so we left it in the Sandhills. An amazing percentage of the larvae we find have been attacked by various parasitoid wasps and flies.
Purple-crested Slug, Adoneta spinuloides. The so-called slug caterpillars lack the normal legs and pro-legs of most other caterpillars and move slug-like across leaf surfaces. August and September are the best times to find the various slug caterpillars, but this one was so tiny (less than 1/2 inch) that we left it on its host plant.
We found these early instar caterpillars (not sure what species) on our night hunt at a nearby natural area (with permission from the manager). It was a cluster of newly hatched larvae so we decided to leave them alone.
It wasn’t until I looked at the photo on the computer that I saw the parasitoid wasp looking, no doubt, for a victim on which to lay her eggs.
Always excited to find a Saddleback larvae, Archaria stimulea. This one was on a Pawpaw in our yard over a week ago so I was hoping it would make it to BugFest. I checked on it twice and the second time it was missing, so I figured it had gone off to pupate (as so many of the ones we find do just before BugFest!!). But when I looked at the photo this weekend I saw the probable cause for its disappearance…
…yet another parasitoid wasp (or is it two?) laying eggs in the little guy. It amazes me any caterpillars make it to pupate given all the predators and parasitoids that are out there.

Look for the stars that did make to to BugFest in the next post.

Lake George

Lake George is without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw; formed by a contour of mountains into a basin… finely interspersed with islands, its water limpid as crystal, and the mountain sides covered with rich groves…

~Thomas Jefferson, 1791

Melissa’s family has a long tradition of summer vacations on Lake George in upstate New York. I can see why as it is one of the clearest lakes I have visited and is surrounded by forested mountains, so the views are great. It is also a large lake – 32 miles long, up to 2.5 miles wide, and almost 200 feet deep. In early August, the entire family was able to get together at a beautiful old house surrounded by state-owned land for a week of relaxation and fun. A bonus for me was the abundance of wildlife (big and small) on the property and that is the primary focus of this post.

Our rental home for the week. Built in the early 1900’s, this was a caretaker’s house for a large estate, the bulk of which was sold to the state as part of Adirondack Park (click photos to enlarge)
Melissa and I spent nights in our truck down by the lake to free up some bedroom space in the house (not a bad trade at all given the view and the almost constant breeze)
View of the dock and the lake

The owner told us to expect some wildlife, especially out by the mulberry tree in front of the house. The first morning, Melissa’s dad saw some turkeys and a Red Fox out under the tree. Dang, we were down by the lake so we missed all of the excitement.

A flock of Wild Turkeys (two hens and nine young ones (poults) visited us daily

Then he showed me a phone video he had taken of a critter I have only seen once in the wild (In Grand Teton National Park) – a North American Porcupine! Porcupines range in the West from Canada down to northern Mexico, but are found only as far south as Pennsylvania in the Eastern United States. The next morning we were talking about the “wildlife tree” and I look out and there are two porcupines strolling towards it. They provided entertainment for the family for the next hour or so as they slowly climbed into the mulberry tree and, to my surprise, seemed to feed mainly on the leaves rather than the berries (they did consume a few berries as well).

Young North American Porcupine in mulberry tree

Porcupines spend most of their time in trees, foraging on leaves, fruit, and bark (especially in winter). They have several adaptations that make them excellent tree climbers – long claws, wrinkled pads on their feet that give them extra grip, and stiff bristles on the underside of their tail that acts much like a woodpecker’s tail spines to brace them as they climb. They do spend time in dens (rock crevices, hollow logs, abandoned buildings) in cold snaps or when giving birth.

A look at the formidable claws that help porcupines climb

The word porcupine is derived from Latin and means thorn pig. They are not related to pigs, but are, in fact, the second largest rodent in North America (behind American Beavers), attaining weights of up to 20 pounds. But it is their quills that make porcupines so distinctive.

We found several shed porcupine quills under the mulberry tree. The quill is attached to muscles below the skin that control its movements. The microscopic barbs are at the tip (in this photo, the left side of the quill)

Quills are modified guard hairs filled with a spongy matrix and can be up to 4 inches in length. They have microscopic barbs at the tip that are angled such that, if not removed, the quill digs deeper and deeper into an animal as it moves. They can work their way into vital organs of the victim or, over time, go entirely through and come out the other side of the animal if they avoid bones and organs. They are an effective protection against most predators, with the weasel-relative Fisher, being the primary exception in New England. There may be as many as 30,000 quills on one porcupine! it is a myth that they can throw their quills, but they do release easily when they come in contact with a predator (and are easily shed as they move about).

One porcupine came down one branch to climb another and I approached for a clearer view. It raised its quills along the back side and tail in a defensive posture that gave a clear message – don’t come any closer. The bold black and white pattern on the back and tail resembles that of a skunk, and is believed to serve as a similar warning to would-be predators

The quills are covered with a mild antibiotic greasy compound that is believed to provide some protection to the animal should it fall from a tree or otherwise manage to get punctured by its own spines.

The larger porcupine finally came down out of the tree and slowly ambled into the forest, the quills on its back side erect, letting us know we should leave it alone. The younger porcupine spent its days sprawled across a limb high in a tree about a hundred feet from the mulberry tree

We also had a lot of smaller wildlife to keep me fascinated during our stay. I had never seen evidence of the introduced Spongy Moths before, but there were egg masses, shed caterpillar skins, and pupae on many tree trunks around the property. Spongy Moth is the new common name of Lymantria dispar dispar, formerly known as the Gypsy Moth. The name was changed by The Entomological Society of America as part of their Better Common Names Project. These destructive insects were accidentally introduced to North America from Europe in 1869 in an effort to create a silk industry. Caterpillars are generalist feeders and can defoliate large swaths of forest in eruptive years.

Spongy Moth egg masses and pupae on a tree trunk

Under some of the protective eaves and open barns on the property were lots of tiny funnels in the sandy soil, a sure sign of the presence of one of my favorite insects – Antlions.

A patch of ground under a shed roof is covered by Antlion funnels. Larval Antlions dig these and lie in wait at the bottom of the pit for ants and other crawling insects to tumble down into their waiting jaws.
I scooped out an Antlion larva for this pic, showing the formidable jaws and spines on its legs and body that help the ant lion hold its position in the bottom of the pit when subduing a struggling ant. Antlions pupate in the soil and then emerge as a nocturnal flying adult that somewhat resembles a damselfly.

One day, I grabbed the camera and just wandered around the yard (which included some nice mini-meadows) and photographed some of the abundant charismatic micro-fauna. Here is a sampler.

A Pigeon Horntail adult female, Tremex columba. These are large insects in the wasp family, but they do not sting. Females insert that ovipositer into dead or decaying wood, lay eggs, and deposit fungal spores with the eggs that germinate to enhance the wood decomposition. She carries these fungal spores with her in a special abdominal pouch. After hatching, the larva then eats the decaying wood and the fungus.
There were several Crab Spiders hanging out on the wildflowers in the unmowed areas. Some species are capable of changing their color to better match the background color of the flower where they wait for incoming prey
The last thing a small pollinator may see as it approaches a Black-eyed Susan
Another ambush specialist is the aptly named Ambush Bug. Like some Crab Spiders, some species of Ambush Bug are thought to change color to match their surroundings. These guys look like a small tank had a baby with a praying mantis, since their bodies appear heavily armored with huge raptorial front legs.
Here is a yellow one on a Black-eyed Susan. When an insect lands nearby, they grab it with those front legs and inject a fluid that immobilizes the prey and starts to digest it. They then suck up the innards of the prey’s body through a beak-like proboscis.
A mating pair of Ambush Bugs on Queen-Anne’s-Lace. Males are often darker than females.
A new group of insect for me – tiny bee flies in the genus Geron (means old man, in this photo, imagine a hump-backed old man with a cane). These hunch-backed little insects were common on many flower heads, sipping nectar. Larvae of this group are parasitic on many moth larvae.

All in all, a spectacular week of scenery, fun, food, family, and the wild creatures that make Lake George so special.

Night Flashes

Life begins at night.

~ Charlaine Harris

It’s not just moths that I have been seeing out in the yard after dark. The new flash system has been out on a few nights with me as I wander the premises (carefully in case there are any Copperheads out and about) looking for what’s happening on the night shift. Here are some of the highlights of the late night crowd.

The sculptor of leaves, a May Beetle chewing its way through the foliage of trees and shrubs after dark (click photos to enlarge)
An Oblong-winged Katydid, Amblycorypha oblongifolia. Summer is the time for the katydids to come out and sing their chorus in the darkness. This is one of the katydid species that can occur in different colors other than the dominant green – orange, tan, yellow, or even pink.
A nymph of the Common Tree Cricket, Oecanthus sp., hiding on the underside of a leaf. An adult male tree cricket calls by rubbing the ridges of their wings together.
A common spider in our woods, this Spined Micrathena, Micrathena gracilis, is armored with stiff spines to deter predation. This is a female as they are much larger than males and are the ones that build the webs. Males probably use silk only during the mating ritual.
Annual or Dogday Cicada, Neotibicen sp. Although called “annual” cicadas, they actually have two to five year life cycles with some adults emerging every summer. Males produce loud high-pitched sounds by vibrating specialized round abdominal membranes called tympanums. Sounds can be as high as 100dB
The stars of my night-time strolls are the Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, Hyla chrysoscelis. This is prime mating season for these beautiful amphibians and we can hear their harsh trills from inside the house almost every night now. This one was shy when I approached and quit calling (his vocal sac is enlarged, but he is not inflating it for calling)
This one was not shy. Perched on a plant a few feet from one of our amphibian ponds, he was cranking out his calls trying to attract a mate. You can see the bright yellow on the inner thighs, usually visible only when the frog is moving.
Note the huge toe pads on this species, allowing them to expertly climb almost any surface.
I believe this is a female (because of the white throat). She was on the edge of one of our ponds, no doubt trying to decide which caller she liked the best. Once she chooses, she will approach the male and often touch him, and he will then grab her and, together, they will move to the water.
A small, loose cluster of eggs is laid at the surface of the water. They will hatch in a few days, with tadpoles developing into froglets in about 45 days.
Another pond dweller is easier to see at night – a Backswimmer, Notonecta sp. Note the long hind legs used like oars for locomotion and the upside down resting position at the water surface. Backswimmers are predators that capture prey with their front legs, and stab them with their strong beak-like mouthpart. They then suck out the hemolymph (insect “blood”) of the victim. They breathe by capturing air in a fine layer of “hairs” that cover their body.
Here is one of many larval Spotted Salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum) still living in our ponds. Eggs were laid in February and early March and the largest larvae now look to be about 2 inches long. They will soon absorb those feathery gils and leave the pond to find a home in the woods nearby.

Moth Night 2022

There are moths outside, ready to die for a light they crave but which is denied to them, … Sometimes, in the midst of all I have been given, I watch the moths in us all. Everybody has a light which they think they cannot live without.

~Alma Alexander

A bit of a deep starting quote perhaps, but, with all that is happening right now in our world, I realize even more now that, for both Melissa and I, nature is the light that we cannot live without. So, we did find the time and energy to have a few friends over this past weekend for our annual moth night. This week is National Moth Week, where thousands of people around the world are out looking at our nocturnal neighbors. It is a simple thing that anyone can do, and it opens up a new world of biodiversity and beauty right in your own backyard.

Moths are insects, related to butterflies, but they differ from their better-known cousins in many respects. Most moths fly at night (we do have some common day-flying moths in our area, like the Hummingbird Clearwing). Moth antennae are either tapered or feathered in shape whereas butterflies have knobs or hooks at the tips of theirs. And many moths have a “hairy” looking body, whereas a butterfly’s body tends to be leaner and smoother.

In North Carolina, 177 species of butterflies have been recorded. Compare that to the 2962 species (and counting) of moths we have. Though they can often be challenging to identify to species, there are now several great resources for moth enthusiasts. Some of my favorites include: Peterson Feld Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America; BugGuide (https://bugguide.net); North Carolina Biodiversity Project (https://nc-biodiversity.com/); and two free apps – Leps by Fieldguide and Seek by iNaturalist. And, don’t forget, you can still enjoy the beauty and wonder of these members of the neighborhood night shift even if you can’t find them in a field guide.

We have a couple of inexpensive black lights that project light in the ultraviolet (UV) spectrum. We set them outside, next to a suspended white sheet, one on the front porch, one on the back deck. then we go out periodically to see what has been attracted to the light. This set-up brings in many species of moths as well as other night-flying insects. Many species tend to come in and just sit on the sheet, making them easy to observe. A few tend to fly in and bounce around, never settling for very long as you desperately try to get a photo for identification.

Here is a sampling of our tally for the night. Most are fairly small (except where noted) and photos are taken with a 100mm macro lens. I have done my best to identify using the two apps I mentioned, plus corroborating with various field guides. As always, if you see an error, please let me know in the comments.

By far, the most abundant creature of the night – a May Beetle, Diplotaxis sp. These are the beetles that keep banging on our windows every night during the summer until we turn off our inside lights. (click photos to enlarge)
The first moth of the evening, this mohawk-adorned species is an Eastern Grass Tubeworm Moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella. I’m guessing this is a male since the description says the mohawk is actually a pair of elongated, recurved labial palps that the male moth holds over its head. Labial palps are paired mouthparts that act as sensory organs.
A Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus. I love the scale details toward the rear of the wings.
A tiny Dimorphic Tosale Moth, Tosale oviplagalis. The posture (tip of abdomen up, wings down) is distinctive for this species.
Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Another small moth with a distinctive posture. The larvae of this species have “stinging hairs” though I doubt they are painful as the caterpillars are pretty small.
Another non-moth visitor, this enormous (1.5 inches) Triceratops Beetle, Phileurus truncatus. Males and females have horns on their head. Larvae are believed to feed on decaying wood and the adults may be predatory on other beetle grubs.
White-roped Glaphyria Moth, Glaphyria sesquistrialis. Not many details online about this species other than it has a long flight period from February to November.
Walnut Caterpillar Moth, Datana integerrima. One of five similar-looking species of Datana moths in our state, the caterpillars of this one are gregarious feeders on walnut and various hickories.
Variable Reddish Pyrausta Moth, Pyrausta rubricalis. Named in 1796, but I could not find much at all on this species online.
One of the most common moths in our woods, the Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria. These are fairly large moths that hide in plain sight on tree trunks by day.
Another of the very cryptic moths, a Brown-shaded Gray, Iridopsis defectaria. This is another common species on our property. The larvae feed on a variety of hardwood tree leaves.
It is always a delight to see a beautiful Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda. This is one of the smaller members of the Giant Silk Moth family, Saturniidae. The larvae feed on maple leaves.
A much larger (about a 4-inch wing span) Saturnid moth, a Tulip-tree Silkmoth, Callosamia angulifera. This guy rarely sits till for a photo, but instead flaps wildly as it bangs around on the sheet or flies into your head (it landed momentarily on one of our friends’ nose).
A showstopper at any moth event, a Luna Moth, Actias luna. Unfortunately, the two Luna Moths arrived after everyone had left for the evening. Larvae feed mainly on Sweetgum in our area.
A much smaller (about 1-inch wingspan) lime green moth, a Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria. Larvae feed on oak leaves, one of the most important food plants for the larvae of many moth species.
Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia. Larvae feed on American Hornbeam and American Hop-hornbeam, both of which are found in our woods.
A Hebrew Moth, Polygrammate hebraeicum. The common and species name likely refer to resemblance of the pattern to characters in the Hebrew alphabet.
Decorated Owlet, Pangrapta decoralis. Often seen perched with wings spread. Larvae feed on blueberry plants and Sourwood.
Citrus Flatid Planthopper, Metcalfa pruinosa. The most common of the planthoppers found in our yard during the day, it is also attracted to lights at night.
Green Cone-headed Planthopper, Acanalonia conica. Another common species that feeds on a variety of herbs, shrubs, and trees.
I wasn’t sure what type of insect this was when I first saw it, but enlarging the photo on the computer and using the Seek app, it appears to be one of the Cixiid Planthoppers, Bothriocera sp.

A nice sampling of the nocturnal critters in our back (and front) yard and an enjoyable evening spent oohing and aahing with friends. I highly recommend it.


Squeaky Bird

There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business.

~Grant Hutchison

I was out pulling some weeds in our yard jungle one day this week when I suddenly realized there was a high-pitched peeping sound coming from the stand of Common Milkweed a few feet away. It didn’t sound like any insect or frog I recognized, so I eased around the milkweed stems and was surprised to see what I assume was a young Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched on a plant support. It was incessantly squeaking (or peeping, not sure which best describes the noise it was making). I stepped a little closer, wondering if the bird was okay, and it just turned its head, looked at me, and continued squeaking. So, I went inside, grabbed my camera and phone, and came back out. Yup, still squeaking.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird (possibly a young one) sitting on a metal plant support in my yard (click photo to enlarge)

I took a few pictures with my DSLR and a macro lens and then decided to do a quick iPhone video to share.

–I heard the squeaking and walked over to find this hummingbird peeping (iPhone video from about 3 feet away)

A few seconds after I finished the video clip, the bird lifted off and flew to a nearby tree branch, at least confirming that it could fly. I went about my yard work and encountered this little hummingbird a few more times, usually down low near or, on one occasion, sitting on one of the hummingbird feeders. It was perched a bit awkwardly, up on top of the feeding port instead of on the foothold in front of the hole. I watched it feed for a minute or more (a long time for a hummingbird to feed). I was standing only a couple of feet away and I guess I was too close for the other hummingbirds to swoop in and chase the little guy off. I’m not sure if this was a young fledgling bird begging for food or what it was doing sitting there squeaking so much. We have four feeders out and a bunch of summer blooms right now and the yard has at least 6 or 7 hummingbirds that are constantly doing battle for supremacy at the feeders. I wonder if this little guy has just been intimidated to the point that it is difficult for it to feed. If anyone has any experience with this type of behavior in hummingbirds or any other thoughts, please post them in the comments.