Baby Bluebirds

Be like the bluebird who never is blue, for he knows from his upbringing what singing can do.

~Cole Porter

I checked on the bluebird box out in the yard yesterday to see if any of the four eggs I saw about a week ago had hatched. As always, I approached noisily, then knocked on the side of the house to give any sitting adult ample warning and time to fly out. I gently opened the box, pulled out the nest cup and saw this…

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Newly hatched Eastern Bluebird nestlings (click photos to enlarge)

Three of the four eggs have hatched today. It amazes me they can even hold up their giant heads with oversized closed eyes to beg for food. It will take another 17+ days for these little ones to fledge and be seen following their busy parents around the yard. Wishing them well as they enter the world.

Museum Moth Night

The poets say some moths will do anything out of love for a flame…

~Mohsin Hamid

Last night we participated in the NC Museum of Natural Sciences’ National Moth Week live event (well, Melissa worked it and I just rambled around taking pictures through my fogged glasses). It was a great start to National Moth Week and we shared lots of moth (and other nocturnal creatures) observations with participants from all over the state. After the fact, we discovered that, unfortunately, our really crummy internet diminished the viewing quality of Melissa’s live streaming of the many cool critters we have out here in our woods. But, I hope it was still fun for people to see some of the great diversity of moths and other insects attracted to our moth lights (we set up two white sheets and two UV lights to draw them in). Our friends, Deb and Keith, were here helping us monitor the sheets and identifying what we could using field guides and apps such as SEEK and LEPS. This is a great outdoor activity for sharing while physical distancing.

The live program was from 9 p.m. until 11 p.m.. We had to wait until just before the start time to set up the sheets due to a thunderstorm, but then the weather cooperated (if you call sweltering humidity and heat cooperating). But our Chatham County moths didn’t seem to mind. Below is a roster of the some of the amazing nocturnal visitors we entertained last night…

Southern Flannel Moth, female

This female Southern Flannel Moth (Megalopyge opercularis) actually emerged yesterday from a cocoon we have kept since last year’s BugFest event at the Museum (in September)…perfect timing. This is the adult moth of one our favorite caterpillars, commonly called the Puss Moth caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

Datana sp.

Our first moth of the evening was a Datana sp. (aka cigarette butt moth – several species look very similar) (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Deep Yellow Euchlaena Moth, Euchlaena amoenaria

One of the more unusual shapes from last night, a Deep Yellow Euchlaena, Euchlaena amoenaria

Large Maple Spanworm Moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Continuing with the odd-shaped, presumably leaf-mimic, moths is the Large Maple Spanworm, Prochoerodes lineola

Juniper-twig Gemeter Moth, Patalene olyzonaria

The bizarre Juniper-twig Geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Canadian  Melanolophia Moth, Melanolophia canadaria

One of several bark mimics, a Canadian Melanolophia Moth, Melanolophia canadaria

Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria

One of the most common moths in our woods is the Tulip-tree Beauty, Epimecis hortaria

Curved-line Angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line Angle, Digrammia continuata

Darker Diacme Moth, Diacme adipaloides

Darker Diacme Moth, Diacme adipaloides

Early Fan-foot, Zanclognatha cruralis

Early Fan-foot, Zanclognatha cruralis

Betrothed Underwing, Catocala innubrens

Betrothed Underwing, Catocala innubrens

Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia

Mottled Snout, Hypena palparia

 

American Idia Moth, Idia americalis

American Idia Moth, Idia americalis

Faint-spotted Palthis Moth, Palthis asopialis

Faint-spotted Palthis Moth, Palthis asopialis

Common Tan Wave, Pleuroprucha insulsaria

Common Tan Wave, Pleuroprucha insulsaria

Green Cutworm Moth, Anicla infecta

Green Cutworm Moth, Anicla infecta

Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia

One of our favorite slug caterpillars turns into the Skiff Moth, Prolimacodes badia

Eastern Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus plumifrontella

One of the mohawk moths, the Eastern Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus plumifrontella

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes, fasciola

A common small moth here in the woods, the Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes, fasciola

Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria

One of several small, lime green moths we see here, a Red-bordered Emerald, Nemoria lixaria

Delightfful Dagger, Acronicta vinnula

A Delightful Dagger, Acronicta vinnula

Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda

One of our smaller Royal Silkworm Moths, a Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda

Desmia sp (Grape leaffolder Moth)

Desmia sp., one of the Grape Leaffolder Moths, best identified to species by looking at its underside apparently

Hebrew Moth, Polygrammate hebraeicum

A moth that was waiting for me the morning after, The Hebrew, Polygrammate hebraeicum

There were a few non-moth finds as well…

Female dobsonfly

A large female Dobsonfly, Corydalus cornutus (note its tiny moth neighbor, among others, a White Stripe-backed Moth, Arogalea cristifasciella)

Male dobsonfly

An impressive male Dobsonfly showed up right after the live program ended

All in all, a great evening of mothing and sharing. National Moth Week lasts all this week, so get outside and observe some of your night-time neighbors (the winged kind) at your window, porch light, or even in your wildflower garden (especially on white, fragrant flowers).

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One of the cooler finds of the evening, a male Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus (photo by Melissa Dowland)

Walking Small

Nature will bear the closest inspection; she inspires us to lay our eye level with the smallest leaf, and take an insect view of its plain.

~Henry David Thoreau

The heat of summer is not my friend. It slows me down, saps me of energy, and makes me a little complacent I’m afraid. But, there is one saving grace – the abundance of minute life forms taking advantage of the green world that exists (in abundance I might add) outside our door. And, lucky for me, it doesn’t requite much effort to saunter around the yard, poking through the greenery, perusing the native plants, and looking for our tiny neighbors. I’ll most likely have several posts in the coming weeks that result from such forays into our yard jungle. Here are some recent discoveries…

Fall webworms leaf damage

Skeletonized leaves of a mulberry are the handiwork of Fall Webworms (click photos to enlarge)

Fall webworms on mulberry close up

The craftsmen (larvae of Fall Webworm, Hyphantria cunea) at work on a mulberry leaf

Fall Webworms are a widespread moth caterpillar easily recognized by their often large silken tents covering leaves and the branches of many species of hardwood trees in late summer and Fall. In contrast, the Eastern Tent Caterpillar makes its silken hideaways in the forks of branches (of mainly wild cherry trees around here) in the spring. Females lay clusters of several hundred eggs on a leaf and the young larvae construct silk tents and feed on the leaves underneath, moving to new branches when they skeletonize one food source. When disturbed, they do a group fling and jerk dance to attempt to drive away any predators or parasitoids.

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Close up of a group of Fall Webworm larvae

Northern Flatid Planthopper

An adult Northern Flatid Planthopper, Flatormenis proxima

We often find these distinctive planthoppers along the stems of many of our native wildflowers. This is probably the most common planthopper in our yard and is easily identified by its pale green coloration and the right angle of the rear corner of the wings.

Scudder's Bush Katydid nymph

Scudder’s Bush Katydid nymph, Scudderia sp.

One of my favorite tiny neighbors is the nymph stage of Scudder’s Bush Katydid. They are both gangly and bold in their appearance, with banded antennae to top off their comical look.

Blackened milkweed beetle showing pattern on dorsal surface?

Blackened Milkweed Beetle, Tetraopes melanurus

While checking out the milkweed patch, I spotted one of the many boldly marked insects that feed on this plant. It was a beetle with the bright warning coloration typical of insects that can feed on the toxins in milkweeds. This one had large, heart-shaped dark markings on its elytra (outer wings), identifying it as a Blackened Milkweed Beetle. When I looked up the scientific name, I discovered that the genus name, Tetraopes, means four eyes. This, and other members of the group of longhorn milkweed beetles, have compound eyes that are bisected by the base of their antennae (I could not find any explanation as to the possible benefits of this unusual eye arrangement). Every time I look closely at my little neighbors, I discover something new. Give it a try in your own nature neighborhood.

beetle

Various longhorn milkweed beetles have divided compound eyes

Growing Up

Even though you’re growing up, you should never stop having fun.

~Nina Dobrev

A quick update on the Cecropia caterpillars we are raising…you may remember an earlier post where the eggs from a Cecropia Moth began hatching. That was on June 10. We are almost a month out and they are growing and changing as they feed on wild Black Cherry leaves. Below are pictures of how they have changed over the past few weeks. The remaining time period of their last two instars (a phase between two periods of molting) will be busy ones as we try to scrounge enough cherry leaves to keep these guys happy. If you enjoy learning about giant silk moth caterpillars and their different instars, check out Sam Jaffe’s incredible photographs on The Caterpillar Lab’s web site.

cecropia moth eggs hatched

The hatched eggs on June 10 (click photos to enlarge)

Cecropia moth larvae day 1

First instar Cecropia Moth caterpillars

Cecropia larvae second instar

Second instar larvae

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A third instar Cecropia Moth caterpillar

Cecropia fourth instar

Fourth instar larva (one more to go!)

fireworks larval style

A close up of the tubercles on a fourth instar larva…I shared this picture on July 4 as an entomological fireworks display

 

The Sweet Smell of Milkweed

Its flowers are very flagrant and when in season, they fill the woods with their sweet exhalations and make it agreeable to travel in them, especially in the evening.

~Peter Kalm, Swedish scientist, on Common Milkweed, 1750’s

I don’t really remember how long ago it was that I spread some Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds around the yard. I think I did it a couple of years in a row, and finally, one spring, there were some shoots that popped up. Not where I had put the seeds, of course (and that should have prepared me for how this plant “behaves” in garden), but I was excited nevertheless. Years went by, and the milkweed would appear and send up new shoots well beyond where I had intended it to grow. But no flowers…I figured it was due to our wooded setting and these normally field habitat plants just could not get enough sunlight to send energy into flower production. Then, a few years back, the first flowers appeared. At first, on only a couple of the taller stems. But last year and this one have been spectacular showings of the sweet-scented floral globes.

common milkweed flowers

Common Milkweed flowers blooming in the yard (click photos to enlarge)

The patch of twenty or so milkweeds has been abuzz with activity since the flowers opened with honeybees, bumblebees, and large butterflies being the most frequent visitors.

bees on milkweed

The flowers are centers of pollinator activity, especially bumblebees and honeybees

Zebra swallowtail on milkweed

I have seen three species of swallowtails visit the milkweed patch

Besides their wonderful fragrance and obvious benefit to pollinators, milkweed flowers have something else going for them…their unusual structure. In addition to a whorl of sepals and petals (the petals are reflexed downward), milkweed flowers have a third whorl of five hoods (seen here as the upward facing openings) each of which encloses a horn (the modified filaments of the anthers).

Common milkweed flowers close up

Close up of flowers – look for the orange-ish pollinia in the gaps between the five open hoods of each milkweed floret

Instead of the loose, powdery pollen grains most of us are familiar with, milkweed pollen grains are packed into two connected sacs (pollinia). Together they are called a pollinarium and are shaped like a tiny saddlebag.

Large milkweed bug

Large Milkweed Bug with a pollinarium attached to its leg

When an insect lands on the flower, its leg slips into the crevice between the hoods and can pick up a pollinarium. When it visits another flower, the waxy pollen sacs can be deposited if the leg slips into a vacant crevice. These slits can occasionally capture some insects if their leg gets stuck.

milkweed pollinia on milkweed bug leg

Close up of a milkweed pollinarium

I have seen a few bumblebees that have several of these pollen structures stuck to their legs so I think large (and strong) insects like bees and butterflies make the best milkweed pollinators.

 

 

Frills, No Frills

It is almost impossible to think of something no one has thought of before, but it always possible to add different frills.

~Isaac Asimov

Friday morning when I went out the basement door to fill the bird feeders, a fuzzy blob on the window caught me eye. I leaned over and saw this strange-looking moth. It looks the way many people have during this extended time of hair salon closures – very floofy.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm on glass Acrolophus mycetophagus

The bizarre floofiness of a Frilly Grass Tubeworm Moth (click photos to enlarge)

I had seen one of these at the NC Botanical Garden once before, but never here at the house. The moth is about 1/2 inch in length, its beautifully patterned wings held tent-like over its back, and the anterior region adorned with elegantly curved “hairs”. I looked online and in my field guides and discovered it is a Frilly Grass Tubeworm Moth, Acrolophus mycetophagus. The frills are apparently extensions on the central pair of legs. I could not find any reference as to the function of these adornments, so let’s just assume it is a fashion statement of some sort.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm, Acrolophus mycetophagus

Looking down on the nice doo of this moth

Members of this group of small moths are often accessorized with extended labial palps held over their head like helmet crests or with fringed scales along the wing edges. The other trait they share is their unusual diet as larvae – most feed on decaying organic material or fungi. It turns out, the caterpillars of this frilly species feed on what seems to me to be rather unpalatable bracket fungi (shelf fungi). Its species name, mycetophagus, actually translates to “eats fungi”.

Frilly Grass Tubeworm head close up, Acrolophus mycetophagus

A close up of the frills

A few inches away on the door that morning was another, larger, moth with some distinct dark markings on its otherwise plain wings.

Deadwood borer moth, Scolecocampa liburna

Another door moth that morning – the Dead Wood Borer Moth

It has the uninspiring name of the Dead Wood Borer, Scoleococampa liburna. Larvae of this species feed in dead wood of various deciduous trees, and may, in fact be feeding on the fungi within decaying wood. So, two moths, two very different styles of dress, but a similar unusual diet. Once again, it is always amazing what you can find right outside (or on) your door.

Day 1

There is beauty to be found in the changing of the Earth’s seasons, and an inner grace in honouring the cycles of life.

~Jack Cornfield

A recent post discussed the eclosure of several Cecropia Moths that had spent the winter with us as cocoons. There was a mated pair when I found them that morning. I released all but that pair, keeping those two one more night to try to get some eggs, which the female obligingly laid on the inside of the mesh butterfly cage.

cecropia moth on leaves

Cecropia Moth adult that emerged on May 29 (click photos to enlarge)

Yesterday, the eggs started hatching. Eggs were laid on May 30 and began hatching on June 10.

cecropia moth eggs hatched

Hatched eggs

First instar larvae are gregarious feeders (I have put them on Black Cherry, one of their listed host plants). They are small (~3/8 inch), dark, and covered in black spikes. They will undergo five molts with each stage lasting about a week. So, for the next 4 or 5 weeks, we will be busy feeding some very hungry caterpillars. The changes will be amazing and I’ll be sure to share photos along the way.

Cecropia moth larvae day 1

First instar Cecropia Moth larvae on their first day

 

Posing

Good bug and bad bug

Holy pose or killer strike

Survival instinct

~G.S. Romero

I was working in my shop yesterday when I saw something skitter across one of the work tables. I went over and looked, and found two baby mantids. I carried them outside and released them. A few minutes later, a couple more. Obviously, somewhere in my shop is a hatching egg case with perhaps a couple hundred tiny alien-looking insects ready to take on the world. I looked around but could not find a source (perhaps on some wood I brought in for the winter?). The last one I released in one of our wildflower beds. It quickly ran up one of my favorite native grasses – Bottlebrush Grass, Elymus hystrix. You can see the resemblance to a loose lab bottlebrush in the grass flower/seed head below.

bottlebrush grass flowering

Bottlebrush Grass in flower (click photos to enlarge)

The little guy ran up into the spiky flower head and started grooming, and then climbing among the thin plant filaments. Its slender, leggy shape blends in quite well.

Baby mantis

Baby mantis checking out the world for the first time

Baby mantis 1

After posing, the mantis headed out on patrol, looking for a meal

I’m not sure which species of mantis this is, although, for some reason I think it is probably a Carolina Mantis. They tend to be more common here in the woods than the much larger Chinese Mantids, and this one looks a little different than the Chinese Mantis babies I have observed in the past. Whichever one it is, it is well equipped to hunt creatures large and small and play an important role in the invertebrate jungle of our backyard.

Eclosure

You do not just wake up and become the butterfly. Growth is a process.

~Rupi Kaur

Eclosure = the emergence of an insect from the pupa case, or of a larvae from the egg…

Nature is always providing examples of remarkable survival and transformation. Witnessing eclosure is one of those magical things to me (must be because of my love for all things caterpillar). I have been lucky over the years to stumble upon freshly emerged butterflies and moths in the wild a number of times. It is always a special moment to see these fragile creatures as they begin their relatively short-lived winged lives. Here are a few of my favorites over the past few years…

Luna mothfreshly emerged

Luna moth just after eclosure, Jones Lake State Park (click photos to enlarge)

Red-spotted purple butterfly freshly emerged

Red-spotted Purple butterfly in our yard, hardening its wings while resting on its chrysalis

Zebra swallowtail shortly after emergence

A stunning fresh Zebra Swallowtail discovered by a summer camper at the NC Botanical Garden a few summers ago

It is thrilling to find a fresh emergence in the wild, but most of my experiences with eclosure have been with caterpillars I have raised or pupa I have found and protected. We have some mesh pop-up butterfly cages that we raise larvae and house pupae in on our screen porch. This gives them the temperature changes and humidity needed for survival. The mesh sides (and plenty of sticks in the cage) allow the newly emerged adult to climb and hang until it can pump fluids from its swollen abdomen through the wing venation to pump up the wings and allow them to harden for flight. Last year, I had a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar create a chrysalis inside one of the chambers and overwinter. We were also given a few Cecropia Moth cocoons to rear. These have been with us since September, and, earlier this week, they all made their official entry into the world as winged beauties.

spicebush swallowtail freshly emerged

Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly with spent chrysalis in foreground

One of the best things about seeing these newly emerged butterflies and moths is being able to closely examine and photograph them as they complete their transformation. You can get details that are much more difficult to capture once they are capable of flight.

spicebush swallowtail closeup of head

Close up of head and proboscis

spicebush swallowtail wing detail

The colors and patterns are at their most vibrant just after eclosure

cecropia moth antenae

Close up of antennae of Cecropia Moth

The amazing thing about the Cecropia Moths is that they all emerged on the same night. We released 4 of the 6 the first night, but kept two that were mating, releasing them the following evening.

cecropia moth on leaves

North America’s largest native moth (wingspan up to 7 inches) just after release

The female laid several patches of eggs inside the chamber so we now will have a bunch of hungry mandibles to feed in the coming weeks. I can’t think of a better summer pastime…

cecropia moth eggs

The next generation

First of Season

Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.

~Kris Saknussemm

I sometimes feel like we live in the jungle. Looking out across the small sunny area around the house you see a green wall of vegetation before the tall trees of the forest begin. The yard itself is a tangle of all sorts of wildflowers and shrubs, layer upon layer, with years of accumulated leaves in between the green patches. Being at home so much this spring has given me a rare opportunity to actually do some tidying up (also known as weeding). Now, don’t get me wrong, I actually like the wild look, but there are unwanted species (like Microstegium) that tend to infiltrate everywhere and then some wanted species that like to take over if not watched. But, here in the hood, I try to be careful about where I put my hands and feet in this jumble of greenery because of one local resident in particular, the Copperhead. Yesterday found me repairing a patch of deer fence where a dead snag had fallen during the heavy rains. As I was walking through the woods dodging tree branches with my armload of tools I thought…Jeesh, it is hard to watch where you step in here, and they blend in so well with these leaves. Well, an hour or so later, I walked down the road to check on something, and on my way back, there was the first of the season, out in plain sight, where its usually incredibly effective camouflage was not so effective.

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First Copperhead of the season (click photos to enlarge)

This one was particularly beautiful, with a bright, contrasting pattern of dark and light colors. As I approached, it flattened its body in what I assume is a defensive posture (to make it look bigger perhaps?) and remained motionless (one of their usual defensive modes). I took a few images with my phone and then walked back the hundred feet or so to the gate to our driveway to get my real camera. When I returned, the road was empty.

IMG_8691

Distinctive traits include a vertical pupil, the pit between the eye and nostril, and the Hershey Kisses-shaped pattern along the sides (like hourglasses when viewed from above)

I walked into the woods where the snake had been headed, only to see nothing but leaves. At least, that was all I could perceive. The snake was now back in its element – advantage Copperhead.