Grubosaurus

The Eastern Hercules has a wing span up to half a foot, the armor of a knight, and the spots of a leopard.

~Orin McMonigle

I guess I should be honored that the front desk volunteer thought of me first. One day a little over a week ago, I got a call saying a woman was at the front desk with something she thought the Garden might want. She had a tree company take down a large tree in her front yard and the workers had discovered some Eastern Hercules beetle (Dynastes tityus) grubs in the rotten core of the tree. They had taken most of the grubs but she later discovered some still living in the rotten stump. So, she brought them to the place she knew cares for all things natural, and asked if anyone might want to keep them. Somehow, my name came up….go figure.

Eastern hercules beetle grubs

Eastern Hercules beetle grubs (click photos to enlarge)

When I went downstairs, the lady pulled out a flower pot filled with rotting wood from the stump and shook it around to reveal two huge grubs.

Eastern hercules beetle grub

They resemble the large grubs you frequently find under logs, only much larger!

These grubs are as thick as my thumb and as long as my index finger. They resemble the large, curled beetle larvae I often find under logs, but these are much larger. The only other grubs I have seen that were this large were in the Amazon. Years ago, on a museum educator workshop, we were walking in the jungle along the river. One of our participants was a teacher from a local village. The group stopped next to a fallen tree to look at some birds in the canopy above. I noticed the local teacher leaning over the fallen tree trunk, listening. He then became very excited, ran back to his village and returned with a machete. He began to chop into the log, pausing, and listening, then chopping some more. He soon exposed a group of huge beetle grubs. He had heard them chewing inside the log and wanted to get them out as they are a prized food in that region. After explaining what they were, he proudly presented one grub to the three group leaders for us to take the first bites. Being the youngest of the three, I managed to get the back end of the larva. I can’t say I really recommend them raw (or maybe it was just the choice of my cut). On his recommendation, we took the remaining grubs back to the lodge as a side dish for dinner that night. The roasted grubs were much more palatable, with a somewhat nutty flavor.

Eastern hercules beetle grub in hand

And to think, I ate something like this once

But not to worry, I have no intention of chowing down on these grubs. My interest is purely scientific. After bringing these not-so-wee-beasties home, I started searching the web for information on how to keep them. As is often the case these days when I search for what seems like an obscure topic, I found a wealth of information, including a link to purchase a guide to rearing Eastern Hercules beetles. Well, naturally, I had to have it.

Raising Hercules Beetles guide

You never know what you will find on our bookshelf

The booklet arrived a few days later and has everything you need to know about breeding and raising these beautiful insects. Apparently, it has become a thing to raise these behemoths (or their close relatives) as pets, especially in Japan, where they are sold in many pet stores. I learned I may have my pets for awhile, as they remain larvae for 12-18 months! Based on the information in the book, I now have them in a large flower pot with some potting soil and rotten wood. The grubs feed on the decomposing wood and associated microbiota. The substrate needs to stay moist (not wet) and I will need to replenish the rotten wood from time to time and maybe enrich the substrate with some rotting fruit or dry dog food on occasion. After pupating, the adult beetles will emerge and can live for 6-12 months.

Eastern hercules beetles adults specimens

Female (left) and male (right) Eastern Hercules beetle specimens from our collection at work

I have seen the adult beetles come to lights and have found a few dead ones over the years, but had never seen the grubs until now.

Eastern hercules beetles adult male specimen

Male Eastern Hercules beetles are adorned with prominent horns

The adult males are among the largest and heaviest beetles in the United States. The horns are harmless to humans and are used for battling between rival male beetles. The spot pattern is distinctive for individual beetles. Adult beetles feed on rotting fruit and tree sap. The large horn on top has a lining of stiff  “hairs” underneath. I tried to find a purpose for this distinctive trait, but, as yet, have not found any information on it. If anyone reading this knows, please drop me a note.

Here’s hoping I can successfully raise these larvae to adulthood. In the dedication to his book on rearing these beetles, the author thanked his wife for tolerating the beetles flying around the living room. Melissa and I are both looking forward to seeing and hearing that in a few months. Stay tuned…

Wild Places

The world and the universe is an extremely beautiful place, and the more we understand about it, the more beautiful does it appear.

~Richard Dawkins

Memories of Yellowstone are still lingering in my head…the scenery, the snow, the quiet, and the incredible wildlife. So, I did what I needed to do for my spirit last weekend, and headed to Pungo for the day. What better way to reinforce that feeling of wildness, the freedom that comes from being outside with countless wild creatures, than to go to my favorite spot in North Carolina, the Yellowstone of the East – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Melissa was out of town, so I did a solo one day trip, leaving home at 4:30 a.m. to get down there close to sunrise. When I pulled in, the morning show had already started…

Snow geese in field in morning light

Snow geese feeding in a cornfield at sunrise (click photos to enlarge)

Snow geese, mixed with a flock of tundra swans, filled one of the fields close to the maintenance area. I pulled down on the side of the field where the low angle morning sunlight was hitting the birds, stopped the car, and watched as thousands of white forms moved through the fresh corn stubble in a feeding frenzy. The birds were close to the road so I could hear that mechanical sound made by thousands of snow geese grunting, squabbling, and gleaning kernels of corn from the field.

snow geese blasting off

A blast off close to the road

Suddenly, they all blasted off, circled the field a few times and started to land closer than before. I scanned the skies, and soon saw the cause of all the commotion…

bald eagle flying through snow geese

The cause of the blast-off, a cruising bald eagle

An adult bald eagle was flying across the field, looking over the flock for any possible weaknesses. When it got to the other side I saw two more eagles, perched, waiting, hoping for a chance at a goose breakfast.

snow goose in flight

The light was perfect for photos

A car drove by and spooked the eagles, so the snow geese quickly calmed down and started making short flights to leapfrog ahead of the moving mass of white to get to untouched spilled corn. This allowed me to get several nice views of them flying by and landing in beautiful light.

Snow geese (dark morphs) landing 1

Blue phase snow geese coming in for a landing

Northern shoveler drake

Northern shoveler ducks were abundant in the marsh impoundment

I drove on to the lake and was surprised to see very few swans. The impoundment was also relatively quiet (only a couple of hundred swans), but the shoreline was crowded with ruddy ducks and northern shovelers.

northern shoveler pair feeding

Pairs of northern shovelers were feeding together in tight circles

As I pulled in to a spot and parked, the ducks moved away in short flights, but soon returned as I sat in the car, camera out the window. This is where I see many people make a mistake and get out of their cars for a better view. If you use your vehicle as a blind, the birds will often return faster and you usually get a better image.

Ruddy duck in canal

A ruddy duck in a canal next to the road

Mid-day found me over at Mattamuskeet. Things were very quiet there with high water in the marshes along Wildlife Drive leading to fewer waterfowl than usual. I did notice several swan carcasses in the shrubbery along the entrance road…bobcats perhaps?

Trumpeter swan?

Swan at Mattamuskeet – Trumpeter or Tundra?

On the back loop of Wildlife Drive, I stopped to photograph some swans and in looking at the images a little later, found one that resemble a trumpeter swan – longish bill, no yellow on the bill (not always a guarantee it isn’t a tundra swan). What do you think?

yellow-rumped warbler

What are you staring at?

I cruised slowly along the shrub zone, looking for song birds, and, at one point, found a group of yellow-rumped warblers moving through some wax myrtles and sweetgum saplings. They always seem to have a bit of an attitude when they stop and look at you.

Sandhill cranes in cornfield

Back at Pungo, the wintering sandhill cranes

I returned to Pungo at about 4 pm, a little later than I hoped, but just in time for the start of the evening show. There were vehicles near the refuge entrance observing a few thousand swans out in the winter wheat so I drove on toward D-Canal Road where a local farmer had been cutting the last remaining standing corn in one of the refuge fields earlier. I hoped the birds would find this fresh food supply. I got down there and had several hundred swans in the field all to myself for awhile. A car finally pulled up and the occupants got out and walked into the field a short distance to take selfies with the birds in the background. You can imagine my thoughts…I pulled up to them, admonishing them for walking out toward the flock and spooking the birds. I suggested they should stay in their vehicle for a better look and not disturb the flock. To their credit, they offered an apology and got back in their car as I drove off. As I drove by the adjoining field, I saw the familiar stooped posture of feeding sandhill cranes in the fresh cut cornfield. No doubt the same three birds we had seen on the Christmas Bird Count several weeks ago.

Sandhill cranes, swans, and rwb in cornfield

Cranes sharing the field with swans and red-winged blackbirds

The cranes were soon joined by several hungry swans and hundreds of red-winged blackbirds. As I watched, I heard the sound of approaching snow geese. I looked up and could see thousands of birds coming in from high up in the graying sky. This is why I keep coming back – this spectacle of the birds in winter at Pungo is unlike an other wildlife experience in North Carolina.

snow geese descending into field

Snow geese beginning their descent

I love the sounds and sights of a huge flock of snow geese, swirling above a field, and gradually coming down.

snow geese landing

Landing in a swirl of wings

I am always amazed they seemingly aren’t landing on top of their flock-mates, but maybe that’s what all the noise is about – snow goose warnings.

snow goose blast off

Late day blast-off of snow geese

After feeding for many minutes, something caused the massive flock to explode from the field in a wall of black and white feathers. That sound is one of the most amazing, loud, whumpfs in nature. I may not get back down this winter before they all start their long journey northward, but am thankful for this incredible day in this amazing wild place.

The Place We Love

Sometimes you look at an empty valley like this, and suddenly the air is filled with snow. That is the way the whole world happened – there was nothing, and then…

~William Stafford

We have returned from our special place – Yellowstone. Not all of us is back. We seem to always leave a little of each of us there to soak it in, to be ready to relive it at the slightest opportunity. Winter in Yellowstone is truly magical and we were lucky to spend ten days in our paradise.

Cottonwoods in mist vertical

Winter scene with fog in Lamar Valley (click photos to enlarge)

The trip had been planned for over a year, with NC friends joining us for a while, and Melissa and I out there on our own a few days, spending some time with some of our Yellowstone friends. This is the first of a few posts on the trip, this one being the first few days before our NC friends joined us. The forecast looked snowy for most of our time, with only occasional breaks for sun. Forecasts can be iffy in Yellowstone, but this one turned out to be pretty accurate. The region needs snow, as it is only about 50% of the normal amount on the ground for this time of year in many places.

Dead snag at Hitching Post

Dead snag near Hitching Post on the edge of Lamar Valley

Our first few days were spent traveling the Northern Range from Gardiner, MT (where our friends live) to Silver Gate and Cooke City (where other friends live). This is the only roadway open to cars in winter due to the isolated communities outside the Northeast entrance that would otherwise be cut off due to deep snows in the mountain passes to the East.

Bull elk

A couple of big boys in a band of bull elk chillin’ in the snow

We saw the usual wildlife in the lower elevations – bison and elk – with larger herds of elk (especially cows, young bulls, and young of the year) than I have seen in a few years. As usual, we ran into a few bands of bulls peacefully hanging out together, even though they had battled fiercely for dominance just a few months ago.

ungulate paths

The snow reveals the well-worn paths of countless mammals that have moved through this valley over the years

Round Prairie

Round Prairie

 

Reports online had indicated this is a good year for moose, especially in the area known as Round Prairie, out past the wildlife-rich Lamar Valley.

Moose and calf lying down

A pair of moose relaxing in Round Prairie

Our first full day confirmed that – a total of five moose seen on out first visit out there. Two (possibly a cow and her calf from this year) were fairly close to the road bedded down. They seemed quite at ease until a young bull sporting only one antler (it is antler shedding time for moose) passed through, seemingly intent on something in the woods beyond the resting pair. They sprang up and stared in the direction he had disappeared.

Moose and calf standing

Something has their attention

We never saw the object of all their attention but they soon calmed down and moved on to browse on vegetation sticking up out of the deepening snow. We were standing along the roadside when a truck pulled up, said something about the moose out in the meadow and then mentioned, “you know you have a moose up on the hill behind you, don’t you?”.

Moose coming down hill

Indeed, there is a moose above us on the ridge

We looked behind us, and there it was, a huge moose standing along the ridge line, looking out toward Round Prairie. It was what one photographer out there called a “silver dollar moose” – a bull that has recently dropped its antlers, leaving two large circles of bone exposed on the head.

Moose coming down hill 2

Coming down the hill in deep snow

The moose quickly came down the hill, moving gracefully through the drifted snow. Large hooves, long legs, and a special gait (due to the ability to swing out their legs over the snow) allow moose to move through deep snow more efficiently than most ungulates (hoofed mammals). This one made its way down the hill, across the road, and into the forest in a matter of seconds.

One of Melissa’s goals on this trip was to cross country ski on our first few days, so we headed up the Tower Road, a groomed ski trail. My sore leg didn’t care for that activity, so she went solo on her next two trips, with me being her shuttle and waiting for wildlife in the interim.

Old bison in winter

An old bull bison that may not make it through this winter

I hung out for a time at Soda Butte, where an old bull bison seemed not long for this world. A visitor told me a coyote had been sitting with it most of the morning, waiting its turn for a possible buffet. When I arrived, the coyote was across the road trying to extract a morsel form an old wolf-killed elk carcass. A pair of magpies kept hopping up on the old bull, wondering when they might have a chance at feeding. When one hopped on its face (they often go for the eyes on a fresh carcass), the bull shook its head to let us all know he wasn’t through quite yet.

Coyote

This coyote came toward the old bison by walking right past a few of us

The coyote then decided to come back to the bison and check in. But, to our surprise, it chose a path that took it right past a small group of us standing at the pullout.

 

Coyote approaching road 1

Coyote made a bee line for the opposite side of the road, but we happened to be nearby

Coyote looking sideways

Something catches its attention away from us

Once across the road, it went over, checked on the bull, and then walked away, stopping to listen for unknown sounds in the snow.

Aspens in Little America

Aspens in Little America

The first few gray days were broken only occasionally by brief bursts of sunlight. The snow fell each day, a light, fluffy snow that accumulated faster than seemed possible.

Little America

Most days had at least a sliver of sunlight to illuminate the landscape for a few minutes

Bighorn ram

Bighorn sheep ram at the confluence (photo by Melissa Dowland)

We drove back and forth along the Northern Range, watching wildlife (including scope views of wolves in Lamar Valley), with Melissa skiing through some gorgeous scenery, and me taking in the features of the landscape, from huge mountains, to wildlife, to delicate plant stems posing above the increasingly thick white blanket covering the ground. More in the next post…

Cross country skiing

Melissa’s cross country skiing backdrop

Seed heads in snow

Even the small things are beautiful if you stop to look

Winter Bliss

When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.     

~Alexandra Stoddard

I certainly carry certain places with me. And moments in those places have a way of adhering to my memory, reappearing when my mind wanders to sights and sounds of their wildness, their beauty, their mystery. And I now need these places and these memories even more. The beauty of nature has a way of helping us cope with the confounding issues of our times and gives us hope. One such place for me is what I usually simply call “Pungo”. Its official name is the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. I managed another trip last weekend, heading down after a program at work on Saturday, and meeting friends from work Sunday morning.

Blackbirds flock

Flock of blackbirds swimming through the sky above a corn field (click photos to enlarge)

I arrived fairly late in the day on Saturday and went straight to North Lake Road. Flocks of blackbirds (mainly red-winged blackbirds and common grackles) were flying back and forth from the corn field to the trees, twittering as they flew in wave-like patterns in response to aerial predators (real or imagined) or some other cues. I ran into some friends and we had a nice flyover of snow geese that couldn’t make up their minds where to go. Melissa was down last weekend also, leading a Museum trip, and I found that group on the way out. We parked and watched swans returning to the refuge for the night along with the swarms of ducks (called ducknados by a young observer a couple of years ago) flying into the corn fields from the adjacent swamp.

sunrise on Marsh A

The quiet beauty of a sunrise at Pungo

The next morning found me sitting in the quiet of a Pungo sunrise with the soft cooing sounds of swans. There is something magical about sunrises, the way they slowly change the landscape – the silence, the peacefulness.

sunrise from Duck Pen

Morning clouds over Pungo Lake from Duck Pen blind

I decided to walk down to the Duck Pen observation blind hoping to see some swans in close. Instead, I was treated to a beautiful sky over the calm waters. A long swooshing sound turned out to be an approaching flock of red-winged blackbirds undulating westward to the corn fields.

Swan preening 1

The elegant moves of a Tundra Swan preening

As the sun rose above the trees, I headed back to the impoundment known as Marsh A to spend some quiet time with the majestic swans. These birds are simply feathered elegance. The low angle of morning light produces sharp lines and highlights the gentle curves of these beautiful birds. They spend a lot of time preening their 25,000 feathers…

Swan with feather on bill

They look good even with a little feather stuck on their bill

…and occasionally get one stuck on their bill (probably the equivalent of that piece of lettuce that your friend tries to tell you is stuck in your teeth). I truly enjoy spending time with the swans. But, my friends were going to arrive soon, so I decided to drive around and get a few pictures of other birds (or whatever I could find) while the light was so nice.

Swamp sparrow 1

A Swamp Sparrow feeding along the edge of a canal

I drove slowly along the canal edges looking for brushy spots that often harbor a variety of small birds. The usually secretive swamp sparrows were feeding out in the open along the edge of the water. If you take the time to look at sparrows, they really are elegant little birds, each species with a distinct personality and a blend of subtle colors and patterns.

Savannah sparrow

Savannah Sparrows along the edge of a field

As I drove along the field edges, groups of Savannah Sparrows flitted up from the corn stubble and grasses into the shrubs and trees lining the canals. I appreciated a chance to view them against the sky rather than camouflaged in the grasses.

Turkey vultures

Bright skies and warm temperatures made for a good day for vultures

The calm winds and clear skies made for a good vulture day. There are a few large turkey vulture roosts along the road edges at Pungo, so it is common to see them perched in snags along the roadsides in the morning, waiting for the warmth of the day to create thermals for their efficient flight. One member of the pair above demonstrated a common vulture behavior – the spread wing posture. This is often seen early in the day as birds try to warm up or dry their feathers after a damp night.

Turkey vulture head

A Turkey Vulture close-up

One vulture allowed me to drive up closer than most, so I was able to get a few portrait shots (maybe not your dream photo, but they are interesting nonetheless). There is a stark beauty in their ugliness, a lot of detail and character in their wrinkled faces. Adult turkey vultures have reddish skin (juveniles have blackish-gray skin) and an ivory bill. You can also see their huge nostrils (nares) which help them have one of the keenest senses of smell in the bird world. They also have a larger olfactory lobe in their brain compared to other species so they are well-equipped to detect dead animals as they soar above the landscape. As I drove along D-canal road, I spotted a few vultures squabbling over a duck or goose carcass in the private fields across the canal. As I watched, they suddenly took flight, along with a great blue heron that had been stalking prey in the nearby drainage ditch.

Great blue heron flying

As I watched the carcass, a Great Blue Heron flew by in a hurry

The heron flew in an arc from one field to another across the road, squawking as it went. I turned and saw the reason for all this commotion…

Bald eagle

The reason the heron took flight

…an adult bald eagle had flown into the trees behind me, no doubt alerted to the possibility of a meal by the gathering vultures. Though I waited patiently for 30 minutes, the cautious eagle maintained its perch, waiting for me to move on, which I finally did. When my friends arrived, we piled into one car and continued searching for wildlife. Our first stop was to view the swans. Warm days seem to make the wildlife lazy, content to hang out longer, making some species a bit tougher to find.

Painted turtle basking

Painted Turtle basking in Marsh A

But lazy winter days also make some species, like turtles, easier to see. As we drove along, there were turtles (mainly a mix of painted turtles and yellow-bellied sliders) basking on almost every log. That made me both wary and excited as we entered the woods, for this is the kind of day you might see a snake, especially “my snake”. I had stumbled upon the large canebrake rattlesnake again last weekend during the Christmas Bird Count at the same hollow tree as 3 years ago. We hiked slowly to the tree, looking carefully around the surroundings in case the rattler was out enjoying the warmth. After looking all around the area without spotting it, I knelt down and shined my flashlight into the hollow – no snake. I moved to the right, and shined the light in the other hollow – nothing. Suddenly, my eye caught a familiar pattern…there it was, a few feet from me, curled up at the entrance, partially hidden behind the grass and vines that now block part of the hollow.

rattlesnake

Even after we knew where it was, the snake was tough to see (photo by Janna Starr)

I seem to have a strange affinity (and partial blindness, apparently) for this snake. The others in my group couldn’t see it at first, and then, one by one, they spotted it.

Canebrake rattlesnake at entrance to den tree

Holding the camera high allowed a better view

We all jockeyed positions to get a better angle to view the snake which was partially obscured by the vegetation in front of the hole. This rattler (it probably is the same one from previous encounters at this tree) has not lived up to its name, having never rattled in any of my encounters with it over the past few years. I must admit, I wouldn’t mind a little noise the next time we meet.

Canebrake rattlesnake head shot

The telephoto view from the side

Even with all the commotion from its admiring crowd, the rattlesnake remained still, no doubt confident of its ability to defend itself from this group of interlopers. We wandered on, wishing it well until we meet again.

Snow geese at sunset

The last scene of the day – the magic of snow geese overhead

We headed back out to the road, hoping for a flyover of birds from the lake. The evening before, the snow geese had flown out and around a few times, but not landed. As we walked back to the car, we heard them coming. We paused as they flew over toward the far corner of the corn field. At first, a few hundred. That flock went back to the lake and returned with a few thousand. More joined the flock as they began to circle the fields. Some would spin off toward the lake, but more kept coming in, until perhaps they felt they had enough critical mass to make a decision – to land in the field. They finally started to drop down into the corn and thousands more birds came in from the lake to join the circling mass. Finally, several thousand birds were feeding in the corn. After what seemed like a very brief meal (considering all the energy they burned flying around beforehand), they all lifted off and headed back to the refuge of the lake. There is nothing like this anywhere else in North Carolina (or anywhere else in the East for that matter)…thousands of birds filling the sky, golden light tinging their undersides as they noisily fly over you. The true meaning of spectacle, and the reason I keep returning to Pungo.

Pausing

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

~ Kent Nerburn

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

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile, slightly larger individual

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

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

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

Green Lynx Spider

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

Green treefrog

Green Treefrog

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

Green treefrog head view

Don’t bother me

Carolina anole juvenile

Carolina Anole

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

Variegated fritillary chrysalis

Variegated Fritillary chrysalis

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

gulf fritillary chrysalis side view

Gulf Fritillary chrysalis

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

Gulf fritillary after emergence 1

Freshly emerged Gulf Fritillary

Black swallowtail first instar - late!

Black swallowtail larva, early instar

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

Awesome Arachnids

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

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

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

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

~Rudy Francisco

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

Ther Laugher Moth larva on oak

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

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

Carolina wolf spider 1

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

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

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

Rabid wolf spider

A large, female Rabid Wolf Spider, Rapidosa rapida

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

marbled orb weaver

A Marbled Orb Weaver, Araneus marmoreus, in her web

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

Dolomedes spider

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

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

bread

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

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

See No Weevil…Well, Just One

A big nose never spoiled a handsome face.

~French proverb

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

weevil at moth light

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

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

weevil close up

Close-up view of that amazing rostrum

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

weevil on rail 1

Acorn weevil

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

 

 

Snippets

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

~John Hughes

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

Monarch butterfly at NCBG

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

monarch chrysalis with tachind fly pupa

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

caterpillar with parasitoid eggs on dorsal surface

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

green lynx pider under hooded pitcher plant

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

green lgynx spider and young

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

green lynx spiderlings up close

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

Cope's gray treefrog juvenile

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

black swallowtail prepupa

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

black swallowtail just after chrysalis formed

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

A Week of Moments

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

~Rabindranath Tagore

Monarch hanging on chrysalis

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

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

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

Hearts-a-bustin seed pod at NCBG

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

Purple-crested slug after molt

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

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

Caterpillar with wasp coccons

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

Turbulent phosphila larvae

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

Plume moth

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

Mantis with bee

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

Goldenrod and wasp

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

 

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

 

Florence Cats

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

~Morris West

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

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

Monarch larva, last instar

Monarch caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

Black swalowtail larvae on rue

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

Florida fernth larva mo

Florida Fern Moth larva on, what else, a fern

White furcula side view

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

White furcula ventral view

White Furcula, ventral view

Double-lined prominent larva dorsal view

Double-lined Prominent on elm

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

Fall webworm

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

White flannel moth dorsal view

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

White flannel moth side view

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

And a couple from earlier this week at work…

Datana sp. getting ready to molt

Datana sp. larvae just prior to a synchronous molt

Drab prominent larva

A Drab Prominent caterpillar looking anything but…

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