Big Cat in the Garden

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

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

Green Lynx spider with hatchlings

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

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

Green lynx spiderlings

Close-up of spiderlings

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

Green lynx spider with wasp and freeloader fly

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

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

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

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

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

Green lynx spider egg case after hatching

Spider egg case weeks after the hatch

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

Green lynx spider at end of season

The female holding her egg sac after I retrieved it

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

Cypress Cities

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

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

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

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

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

group on millpond

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

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

cypress trees 1

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

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

wheelbug egg mass

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

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

cypress flower midge gall

Cypress flower midge galls

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

journaling in kayaks, Roberston Millpond Preserve

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

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

Cypress Cities

Paddling on this glassy highway, through a city of islands

Taxodium towers, gray-trunked skyscrapers

Sentinels, watching over their tangle of tenants

Crowded storefronts with strange names, hawking their winter wares.

Dodder has braided bracelets.

Alder, catkins and cones.

Titi, with patches of red and green.

And dried flower bouquets from Itea.

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

A welcome mat and refuge for weary drifters

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

titi

Titi, Cyrilla racemiflora, in brilliant fall colors

Halloween Spider

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

~Edwin Way Teale

Marbled orb weaver dorsal view

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

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

_

Hiding in her rolled leaf retreat

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

Halloween spider

You can see why they are called the Halloween spider

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

Marbled orb weaver ventral view

A ventral view

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

Marbled orb weaver side view

Side view of a female Marbled Orbweaver in her web

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

Marbled orb weaver eye view

Here’s looking at you…

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

Happy Halloween…

 

The Long Sleep

We are like caterpillars contemplating pupation.

~Terrence McKenna

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

Pupae from Bugfest

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

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

Varigated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated fritillary chrysalis surrounded by loose silk spun by the caterpillar

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

Spicebush swallowtail chrysalis

Spicebush swallowtail butterfly chrysalis

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

Luna cocoon

Luna moth cocoon

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

Luna cocoon opened

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

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

Hickory horned devil pupa

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

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

Imperial moth pupa

Imperial moth pupa

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

unid pupa with reddish tint

Mystery pupa

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

Tobacco hornworm pupa?

Tobacco hornworm pupa

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

Tobacco hornworm pupa close up

The head region of a tobacco hornworm pupa

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

Unid sphinx moth pupa

A different sphinx moth pupa

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

Unid parasitoid pupa from moth pupa

Unidentified fly puparia

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

Dewy

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

~Rumi

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

seashore mallow seed pod with dew

Seashore mallow seed pod (click photos to enlarge)

Maidenhair fern with dew

Maidenhair ferns

Unid seed head 1

Wildflower seed head

aster with dew

Asters

Lynx spider with hatchlings

Female green lynx spider with recently hatched young

Unid seed head

Wildflower seed head

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning

Male carpenter bee hanging onto phlox flower

Male carpenter bee on a cold morning close up of head

Closeup of carpenter bee head covered in dew

Whistle While You Eat

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

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

Walnut sphinx  caterpillar 1

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

Sexy Slugs

The mating of the leopard slug is one of the most sensuous film sequences you’ll ever see in your life.

~ Sir David Attenborough

The bizarre happenings just outside our door continue to astonish me. As is often the case, this discovery came while I was out on a completely different mission. I had several programs in a row last month on one of my favorite topics, caterpillars, and was out hunting at one of the best times for spotting these masters of camouflage – after dark. I was sweeping my UV flashlight back and forth among the tree saplings in the yard, hoping to catch the glow of a sphinx moth larva or one of the so-called slug caterpillars, when I saw something strange on a tree trunk. Not a slug caterpillar, but verbally close – two leopard slugs caught in the act of their bizarre mating ritual.

Slug sex

Early stages of leopard slug sex (click photos to enlarge)

First, a little background on these slimy stars. Leopard slugs, Limax maximus,  have been accidentally introduced into many parts of the world from their native Europe. They are large (up to 8 inches) slugs which have a small rudimentary shell hidden under the skin on their back. They are loathed by most homeowners since they may feast on garden vegetables, although much of their diet is decaying organic material and fungi. They are also carnivores, racing after and devouring other slugs at the break-neck speed of up to 6 inches per minute. You will also never forget them if you are unlucky enough to step outside one evening without shoes and suddenly feel a slimy blob underfoot. In addition to locomotion and protection, that slime serves another function – communicating readiness to mate. And this is what this species is  most famous for – its very unusual reproductive habits. Leopard slugs are hermaphrodites – they possess both male and female reproductive organs. They can self-fertilize, but what’s the fun in that?

Long before I saw them that evening, these two slugs were already engaged in their unorthodox breeding sequence.  When the time is right (it takes two years for this species to reach sexual maturity), one slug leaves a chemical trail in its slime signaling its readiness. Another slug may pick up that trail, following the first. There is then a long bout of slug foreplay involving circling one another, nibbling, and whispering sweet nothings. At some point they both climb a nearby vertical surface and entwine their bodies, dropping down on a mucus string they create just for this strange mating dance. They slowly rotate and extend their bright blue male organs out the right side of their heads (from a hole called a gonopore, just behind the tentacles). This is when I first encountered them. The photo above shows their male organs being extruded.

Slug sex 1

Their bodies and their male organs intertwine as they mate

The blue organs entwine and change shape into a translucent cerulean chandelier over the next hour or so and exchange sperm. There is even a scientific treatise (Taylor, J.W., 1894, Monograph of the land and freshwater Mollusca of the British Isles) that details how these blue extensions change shape through the mating sequence…

Limax_maximus_mating

I found myself transfixed by this strange behavior, and sat out there watching it for over an hour (I know what you’re thinking…). My only regret was that I had left my camera at work and so was only able to record this otherworldly occasion with my iPhone.

Slug sex 2

Changing shape as they exchange sperm

Slug sex 4

Nearing the end of their romantic encounter (you can see the mucus string in this photo)

When they finished, they slowly became untangled, one slug crawling off on the tree trunk (one often just drops to the ground), and the other slowly climbed the mucus love rope, consuming it as it went. Both presumably wandered off to lay a couple of hundred gelatinous eggs. I don’t know about them, but I was exhausted after all that. If you are up to it, you can google David Attenborough Leopard Slug Mating and find several YouTube clips online from his BBC series, Life in the Undergrowth. Hearing Sir David explain it all adds a certain elegance, lacking in my prose, to this most unusual backyard event.

 

 

Fall Herps

One of the most beneficial and valuable gifts we can give to ourselves in this life: is allowing ourselves to be surprised! It is okay if life surprises you. It’s a good thing!

~ C. JoyBell C.

The busy schedule at home and work have left little time for getting out and about these past few weeks. But, in preparing for recent programs, I managed a couple of short walks at work searching for some educational props. One night, while out looking for caterpillars, my flashlight beam came across a sleeping reptile…

sleeping Carolina anole

Sleeping Carolina anole (click photos to enlarge)

… a Carolina anole clinging to a leaf along the edge of the meadow. I took a photo and observed it for a moment, pondering how it managed to hang onto a leaf while in that upside down position. I left it alone without disturbing its beauty rest, somewhat amazed that it didn’t budge.

A week or so later, a couple of us at work strolled through the Garden searching for some last minute additions for a weekend program. We spotted a couple of cool reptiles and amphibians along the way, perhaps getting in some of their last days of sun before cooler weather sends them seeking shelter for their long sleep.

Spring peeper and dead leaf

Camouflaged spring peeper

We (actually, she, my boss) spotted a spring peeper clinging to a fringe tree, trying its best to mimic a nearby dead leaf.

Spring peeper 1

Peeper portrait

With a gentle prod, we managed a peeper portrait that included a look at their incredibly long toes equipped with pads that allow them to perform their amazing arboreal acrobatics. A few minutes later, she spotted another tree-hugger…

Juvenile black rat snake in tree

Juvenile black rat snake resting in fork of a tree

… a small black rat snake resting about 6 feet up in the tight fork of a tree along the trail.

Juvenile black rat snake in tree  close up

Not sure he wanted his picture taken

That weekend, we had a successful public program that included our caterpillar table, and several other family-friendly topics. One station was all about our incredible carnivorous plant collection, showcasing a variety of insect-eating species found in North Carolina. The table included a few dissected pitcher plants to show visitors what the plants had captured and digested (a popular activity in one of our school programs). As they cut open one of the pitchers, the educators discovered a very interesting dietary supplement. One of the plants had caught something slightly larger than the usual bug…

Dead anole from pitcher plant 9/23/17

Digested juvenile Carolina anole from inside a pitcher plant

…a juvenile Carolina anole! Its shrunken countenance hinted at a somewhat horrifying tale of picking the wrong spot to take a nap or search for a meal. Though not unheard of, it is pretty rare for a pitcher plant to capture and digest a vertebrate.

While setting up for this program, another co-worker said she had seen a dead rough green snake at another location in the Garden. When I asked her if it had started turning blue, she gave me a quizzical look and rushed off to see if she could find it. She returned in a few minutes with snake in hand.

Rough green snake dead and blue

Dead rough green snake

It turns out that the usual beautiful green color of a rough green snake is created by a combination of yellow and blue pigments.

Rough Green Snake

The usual color (although there seems to be a blue spot down on the body, perhaps from a damaged scale)

Shortly after death, the yellow pigments break down quickly, leaving the dead snake a brilliant blue color. The world is full of surprises if you take the time to look for them.

Dead rough green snake turning blue

Turning blue

A Fondness for Caterpillars

And what’s a butterfly? At best, He’s but a caterpillar, drest.

~John Grey

Another season of caterpillar finds and larval programs is winding down. We have been searching high and low for larvae and, consequently, caring for a menagerie of crawling critters for several weeks now. My caterpillar programs have ended, and Melissa’s will be finished later this week. Our charges have been oohed and aahed over by hundreds of wide-eyed learners at a series of events at the North Carolina Botanical Garden, the museum’s BugFest, and a well-attended (and well-run) Master Gardener’s conference in Greensboro. These little guys have really earned their keep this past month. Many have pupated in preparation for their long winter’s nap, others have been (or will be) released back into the wild, and, sadly, many have succumbed to a variety of parasitoid wasps. It is somewhat shocking how many caterpillars meet this fate, but I suppose it is one of the main reasons we are all not knee-deep in frass (caterpillar poop) by the end of the summer.

So, this post is to say thank you to all the marvelous Lepidoptera larvae that have graced us with their beauty and fascinating behaviors these past few weeks. Their variety of “attire” and striking forms are just one of the reasons that I have developed such a fondness for caterpillars over the years. Here are a few of the stars of this caterpillar season…

Hog sphinx green

Hog sphinx on wild grape (click photos to enlarge)

Hog sphinx 1

Same hog sphinx, later instar

Waved sphinx?

Waved sphinx on ash

Rustic sphinx

Rustic sphinx on beautyberry

pawpaw sphinx

Pawpaw sphinx deciduous holly

Hummingbird sphinx larva

Hummingbird clearwing on possum haw

Four-horned sphinx

Four-horned sphinx on river birch

Yellow-haired dagger

Yellow-haired dagger, early instar

Hoary alder dagger

Hoary alder dagger moth on tag alder

Retarded dagger moth

Bantam maple dagger on maple

Salt marsh caterpillar?

Salt marsh caterpillar

unid parasitoid pupal mass from salt martsh caterpillar

Strange, communal pupal case of parasitoid wasps that emerged from the salt march caterpillar

Black-etched prominent whipping tails

Black-etched prominent “whipping its tails” as a defense

unid early instar prominent

Mottled prominent, early instar, on oak

White-barred emerald

White-barred emerald, a wonderful twig mimic, on oak

Purplish brown looper larva - twig mimicg

Purplish-brown looper, a huge twig mimic with a head capsule that resembles a leaf bud, on sweetgum

Imperial green

Imperial moth on sourwood

Smaller parasa

Wavy-lined heterocampa just after a molt (you can see the thoracic antlers of the early instar on the shed skin), on wax myrtle

Stinging Rose Caterpillar and shed skin

Stinging rose caterpillar about to eat its shed skin (I accidentally touched this guy at BugFest and felt a mild bee sting sensation for about 45 minutes), on persimmon

Puss Moth caterpillar shedding its skin

Puss moth caterpillar shedding its skin (note color change), on wild cherry

Spiny oak slug

Spiny oak slug on witch hazel

Smaller parasa 1

Smaller parasa on ironwood

Nason's slug

Nason’s slug on oak

Io moth caterpillar

Io moth on hickory

Black-waved flannel moth early instar

Black-waved flannel moth, early instar

Black-waved flannel moth later instar

Same black-waved flannel moth, later instar

Skiff moth larva on cherry

Skiff moth, last instar, on wild cherry

Skiff moth larva approaching pupation

Same skiff moth, getting ready to pupate

Viceroy chrysalis

Viceroy butterfly chrysalis

Monarch chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Muir’s Mountains

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.

~John Muir

It is appropriate to start this post on Muir’s beloved mountains, with one of his most famous quotes. We use it often when referring to what happens when you enter that other famous Y park, Yellowstone…”while cares will drop off like autumn leaves”. A long-time friend who is a ranger in Yellowstone teased us about perhaps changing our favorite Y park to this one, Yosemite. But I assured her that while it is spectacular, it can never replace the special place that Yellowstone has in our hearts.

Bridal Veil Falls

A rainbow atop Bridal Veil Falls in Yosemite Valley (click photos to enlarge)

We headed to Yosemite after the relative quiet of Kings Canyon/Sequoia, expecting large crowds and uncertain of our destination, but hoping to get lucky with a campsite outside the park and then a back-country permit the next day. Unfortunately, we could see smoke from a nearby new forest fire as we approached, so we once again feared obscured views of the famous valley.

sunset Yosemite Valley

El Capitan

But as we drove in, the sheer granite walls surrounding Yosemite Valley towered above us in sharp detail, with the smoke merely adding color to the background. I can’t imagine what this valley must have been like in Muir’s time, without all the roads, construction, and people. Even now, Muir’s mountains are breathtaking and you feel you should just stand there in silence and stare at the various peaks.

sunset Yosemite Valley 2

Sentinel Rock at sunset

But we needed to find a place to lay our heads. The Forest Service campgrounds on the way in had all been small and full (although an interesting guy had offered to allow us to share his site at one of them as we drove in). As we drove through the valley, to our surprise, we spotted a vacancy sign at one of the valley lodging facilities with the odd name of Housekeeping Camp.

Housekeeping Camp 1

The tent cabins at Housekeeping Camp seem quiet early in the day

We stopped and snagged one of three remaining units for two nights and thought ourselves lucky to get a place while having no reservations. When we drove into our site, you suddenly start to wonder what your stay might be like…crowds of people, often with large groups gathered around a campfire, music booming from various electronic devices, kids riding bicycles through the camp, dogs, cars jammed into every nook and cranny, and facilities that look a bit…rustic (that may be too nice a word).

Housekeeping Camp

Our little “home” (thankfully, for only one night)

The units are two back to back rooms with three thin walls. The fourth “wall” is a  large shower curtain-looking partition, which also serves as an entrance. Each room has a bunk bed, a double bed, one small shelf and one light bulb. There is a picnic table inside a small privacy fence area that separates you from the next block of two camp units about 5 feet away. Togetherness is the phrase that comes to mind (if you are of a positive mindset). I was feeling some other thoughts, although people around us seemed to be enjoying themselves and ignoring the cramped feeling I was getting. The room cost $98, plus, for a few dollars more, you rent sheets and pillows if you don’t have them. The restroom was nearby along with a shared shower house. Signs warning of the potential for Hanta virus and plague (from fleas of the many rodents in the region) added to the surreal nature of this camp experience.  I compared this to my many times staying at the aptly named Rough Rider cabins in Yellowstone, and suddenly they seemed like luxury accommodations. I guess many people enjoy this closeness and the imagined step-up from tent camping, but I felt sorry for these visitors, for Muir’s legacy, and for the stunning landscape of the valley, that this is the way so many people experience this sacred spot. We debated the pros and cons of this type of lodging – the number of units, their price (seemed high for what you get), the crowded conditions, etc.  These are difficult choices – allowing affordable access for the masses to this incredible valley versus providing a lodging experience that might be more in tune with the sense of reverence that such a landscape evokes, a choice that would likely be more exclusive. Is that an “elitist approach”? I don’t know. People certainly seemed to be having a good time, but, is it in tune with the spirit of the place, its history, its majesty? I guess I came away disappointed that the National Park Service has not done a better job of providing clean, comfortable, and site-appropriate facilities in one the gems of the park system.

sunrise Yosemite Valley with Black-eyed Susan's

Sunrise in Yosemite Valley

The next morning we headed out before sunrise to watch the valley come alive in the morning sun. The usual colors of the morning sky had an assist from waves of smoke from the wildfire just outside the park boundary.

sunrise Yosemite Valley

Smoke moving into the valley at sunrise

This is the huge advantage of lodging in the valley – the ability to be there at sunrise and sunset and still be able to access your lodging without a long drive. The sky turned orange red as the sun peeked over the famous peaks. We were alone in the meadow, another advantage of viewing the world at sunrise.

smoke toward half-dome

Smoke blocks the distant view of Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point

For reasons mentioned above, and the added smoke we saw at sunrise, we decided to forfeit our second night at Housekeeping Camp (with only the loss of a $10 handling fee). We packed up and headed to the back-country office to get a permit for hiking the high country. Being third in line when they opened helped us secure a permit for an area near the famed Tuolumne Meadows. As we drove high into the Sierras, we realized the smoke was following us, which would make hiking less than ideal at these elevations (9000 ft+). We made the difficult decision to forego our back-country permit (we turned it in at another back-country permit office so someone else could use it) and to try to find a campsite in one of the campgrounds just outside the park boundary. Again, we got lucky and ended up with a lakeside campsite in a Forest Service campground less than a mile outside the park.

campsite outside park

Our campsite on Tioga Lake in Inyo National Forest

It was on a beautiful lake with 13 primitive campsites and very convenient to the park’s high country. Once we set up the tents, we drove back into the park with our stove and freeze-dried food for a dinner with a view.

Lembert Dome

The view from Lembert Dome

As luck would have it, the veil of smoke seemed to stop before reaching all of the high peaks, so we had an amazing view after our hike up Lembert Dome, a popular destination, but one devoid of fellow hikers this time of day.

Lembert Dome at sunset

Sunset from Lembert Dome

We ended up having one family from Belgium pass us on the mountain, but, aside from hundreds of migrating yellow-rumped warblers, we ate our dinner with nothing but the spectacular scenery and each other as company. To me , this is the best way to experience this majestic park.

Olmsted Point

The view toward Yosemite Valley from Olmsted Point, minus the smoke

The next day, our last in this whirlwind tour of three parks, we wanted to hike up to one of the classic mountain lakes. We started by driving out to Olmsted Point where we heated up water for coffee, tea, and oatmeal. The view was what we had hoped for the previous morning – looking out toward Half Dome. The skies had cleared up in the high country, but we heard all day from people coming from the valley that it was still shrouded with thick smoke.

Leichtlin's Mariposa Lily

Leichtlin’s mariposa lily along a trail

The area around Tuolumne Meadows is not as crowded as Yosemite Valley, but is still a place where it can be tough to find a parking spot at a trail head. We opted for the trail to Cathedral Lakes. One guidebook said “if you only do one hike in the high country, do this one”.

alpine lily

Alpine lily

The trail starts at about 8500 ft and winds upward to the lower lake at an elevation of 9200 ft. It is about a 7 mile round trip hike. We saw plenty of other hikers along the route and on the eastern shore of the lake which is a wide, flat, granite outcrop.

Cathedral Peak with reflection in granite

A reflected view of Cathedral Peak, elevation 10,912 ft

There are many places to capture a beautiful reflection of nearby Cathedral Peak in a pool on the rock or in the adjoining marsh. We decided to hike around to the other side of the lake for lunch since we did not see anyone on the far shore.

bathtub with a view

Pool with a view

Melissa never misses a chance to take a dip in mountain water, no matter how cold, so, once again I was convinced to cool off in a gorgeous pool at the far end of the lake. This particular pool probably had the best view of any spot we have ever dipped our toes in. Not far beyond our swimming hole (well, really just a splashing hole due to temperatures and water depth) the lake water left its calm existence and plunged down a waterfall, exposing a view off to the mountains and valleys beyond. Megan managed snap the shutter at just the right moment to capture that quintessential expression we often have when first squatting down in a mountain stream.

Cathedral Peak 1

View of Cathedral Peak on the Lower Lake

After a relaxing lunch, we headed back down the trail and off to our campsite to pack up. It had been an amazing trip, full of quiet beauty, crowded tourist spots, cold water, smoky skies, and majestic scenery. These mountains are truly spectacular. Muir wrote “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” I can only imagine what it was like to have tromped over these granite domes before the crowds descended on the now iconic places of Yosemite. Melissa and I are thrilled to have finally made it, and we hope to return and hike the backcountry without the threat of clouds of smoke obscuring the peaks. The “other Y park” is definitely special.