Change is in the Air

Summer is a promisory note signed in June, its long days spent and gone before you know it, and due to be repaid next January.

~Hal Borland

There is a change in the air…it doesn’t seem as humid; hurricanes are in the news; and at our house, we are starting to look for caterpillars. Yes, Fall must be coming and with it, the museum’s BugFest event (and some other caterpillar-related programming at both Melissa’s work and mine). Our annual love-hate relationship with “caterpillar wrangling” is starting and will continue for the next three weeks. So, our labor for this Labor Day, was to start looking for some interesting larvae. If things run true to form, we will find a lot of really cool caterpillars in the next week or so, and then many of them will pupate before their big day (this year, BugFest is September 21…really pushing it to be able to find many of our caterpillar species still in their larval state). But, the fun is in the finding. Here are a few highlights from recent searches.

spicebush swallowtail larva

Peek-a-boo look at a last instar Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar in it folded leaf lair (click photos to enlarge)

hemipteran eggs and parasitoid wasp

While looking for Spicebush Swallowtail larvae, I spotted this colorful array of insect eggs on a twig

hemipteran eggs and parasitoid wasp 1

It appears as though some parasitoid wasps were first to hatch in this batch of what look like eggs of some Hemipteran bug (perhaps a stink bug)

cvariable oak leaf or double-lined prominent

This is one is tough to identify – either a Double-lined Prominent or a Variable Oakleaf caterpillar (they can look very similar and are both quite variable)

freshly moled luna moth

A luna moth larva just after a molt. This one is feeding on a hickory. instead of the usual Sweetgum

puss nmoth arva next to last instar

A Puss Moth caterpillar (do not touch these as they have painful “stinging” spines hidden under that “fur”). This is probably a next to last instar

saddleback

One of our most common “stinging” caterpillars, the Saddleback

monkey slug

One of the more bizarre-looking slug caterpillars – the Monkey Slug

Imperial moth early instar

An early instar Imperial Moth larva feeding on American Beech. Will it last until BugFest?

pawpaw sphinx

A brown form of Pawpaw Sphinx on Deciduous Holly

hog sphinx and wasp cocoons

A Hog Sphinx with parasitoid wasp cocoons

drab prominent

The defensive posture of a Drab Prominent on the underside of an American Sycamore leaf

Seek, and Ye Shall Find

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name.

~Confuscius

This past month, I have tried to find 5 or 10 minutes each day at work to walk around the building breezeways to photograph any moths that were attracted to the lights the previous night. I hope to create a library of images of some of the common species. As I have reported before, I am relatively new to “mothing” and am still struggling to learn some of the more than 2600 reported species in NC. The release of the Peterson Field Guide to the Moths of Southeastern North America last year has made a huge difference in my ability to identify what I find. My copy is already showing signs of wear from the frequent page-flipping. I also refer to the Moths of North Carolina or Bug Guide web sites to confirm an identification.

Now I have another ally in my quest to learn more. It may be a game-changer, in fact. It is the Seek app by iNaturalist. Using the millions of observations on iNaturalist, Seek shows you lists of commonly recorded insects, birds, plants, amphibians, and more in your area. You don’t even need to take a photo, just open the camera and scan whatever you want to know more about. It instantly gives you information, and if it can’t ID it, it may suggest looking at the subject from a different angle. It is usually at least gets you to the family level or beyond even if it doesn’t ID to species. This free app is available for both iOS and Android. I have found it to be particularly useful for moth identification, most likely due to the countless recorded observations of several local moth enthusiasts. In order to get the best possible image, I usually take the photo with my normal camera set-up (100mm macro and twin flash), download the image onto my laptop, and then scan it with my phone and the Seek app for ID help.

I have double-checked many of the early identifications using the other references mentioned and found them to be accurate. A few times, Seek has not been able to provide anything but a family recommendation. But, overall, I have been very impressed with the results thus far.

Here are a few of the highlights from this past month. Note the variety of shapes, colors, and patterns. One thing you can’t tell from these images is the huge range in size – the Common Tan Wave has a wing span of about 20mm while that of the Io moth is about 80mm.

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria 1

Canadian Melanolophia moth, Melanolophia canadaria (click photos to enlarge)

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca confusaria

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Black-dotted ruddy moth, Ilexia intractata

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Common tan wave, Pleuropucha insulsaria

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis 1

Baltimore snout, Hypena baltimoralis – one of the more striking species this month

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia moth, Cycnia tenera

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Dark-spotted Palthis moth, Palthis angulalis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Ambiguous moth, Lascoria ambigualis

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Curved-line angle, Digrammia continuata

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis

Ironweed root moth, Polygammodes flavidalis – a delicate beauty with hints of iridescence

One-spotted variant, Hypagyrtis unipunctata

One-spotted variant moth, Hypagyrtis unipunctata  – quite variable indeed

Tulip-tree beauty 1

Tulip-tree beauty, Epimecis hortaria – a common bark mimic

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

White-marked tussock moth, Orgyia leucostigma

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella 3

Eastern grass tubeworm moth, Acrolophus plumifrontella – a very common species right now

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Oblique-banded leafroller moth, Choristoneura rosaceana

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis

Southern flannel moth, Megalopyge opercularis – this is the adult form of the puss moth caterpillar

Juniper twig geometer, Patalene olyzonaria

Juniper geometer moth, Patalene olyzonaria

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoerodes lineola

Large maple spanworm moth, Prochoroedes lineata

Io moth, Automeris io

Io moth, Automeris io – a large female

Io moth, Automeris io with wings spread

Io moth, Automeris io, with wings spread to reveal the false eye spots

Tribute

Wow, what a planet!

~Mary Ann Brittain, May 20, 1942 – March 17, 2019

I’m going to post something a little different this morning. A brief tribute to my dear friend and mentor, Mary Ann Brittain. We attended her memorial yesterday at her beloved Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh. It was a beautiful, hopeful, memorial to one of the most amazing people I have ever known. She was full of grace, kindness, laughter, and had an endless curiosity about the natural world (and all another aspects of the world we live in). In looking for some images to include, I sadly realized that most are in the files of the museum as digitized slides from my early years at that amazing institution. So, I’ll just share a couple I still have (those who know me, know I have few people pictures among my thousands of images, and this is one of those times I regret that). And I will only share a tiny bit of Mary Ann’s impact on me this morning (to tell it all, would require a book, a book that is still being written).

I met Mary Ann while I was working as a naturalist/educator for NC State Parks. Back then, we were sometimes stationed at popular parks far from our usual station on busy holidays to serve as roving interpreters or to provide programs to visitors. I was at Mount Mitchell State Park one Fourth of July when this woman approached me and asked about the skeletons of fir trees scattered across the mountain. Scientists were discussing the impacts of acid deposition on high elevation forests in the southeast at that time and the impacts of the introduced Balsam Woolly Adelgid as a factor in the die-offs of Fraser Firs. But, many visitors assumed there had been a fire. After discussing this with Mary Ann, she emphatically said we should be interpreting the science to the public to make them more aware of the issues. What could I say? I had to agree. So, we discussed it back in Raleigh and over the next several months a display was developed and installed on Mount Mitchell about “What’s Killing the Trees?”.

privy-front

My career with Mary Ann began with a call about this…

I don’t remember the exact timeline, but some months after that, I got a call from Mary Ann. We chatted for a moment about our meeting at Mount Mitchell, and then she got to the reason for her call. She had a farm in Franklin County with a small cottage on it as a weekend retreat, and she needed to build an outhouse up there. She had pondered who might have plans for an outhouse. State Parks has outhouses, she thought. Who did she know in state parks? That guy she met at Mount Mitchell (me). During the conversation, she mentioned the potential for hiring an education position at the museum. Thus began my 24 years in the best job that state government has to offer (and she got her plans for an outhouse).

I put this in her tribute only because Mary Ann loved to laugh, and helped everyone around her to find the humor in our daily lives. Her friends and family shared many stories yesterday about the crazy shenanigans that Mary Ann got us all involved in over the years.

MAB

“Laugh often”, a life lesson she shared

She was a woman of vision (my nickname for her was “The Force”) and worked tirelessly to make good ideas into reality. Her background in social work helped shape her amazing abilities at bringing groups of people together for a common purpose, be it reaching across social barriers, or helping you get outside of your comfort zone to see the world with a new set of eyes. All of her former museum co-workers smiled as we entered the church yesterday and saw a flip chart with instructions to make a name tag for the service. As our friend, Liz, mentioned in her tribute to Mary Ann yesterday, if only the pews could have been arranged in a circle…the classic arrangement for seating a group of people and classic Mary Ann.

UTOTES school

Habitat components at a UTOTES school

When I started at the museum, I went with Mary Ann all over the state for 3-hour workshops that took teachers outside the classroom walls to get them excited about using plants and animals to teach all sorts of subjects. She lamented the fact that 3 hours just wasn’t enough time to make a real difference, so she came up with the idea for a program to provide teachers with workshops at their schools over the course of many months. After convincing some people in the state’s education department of the value of such a plan, the successful UTOTES (Using The Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science) program was born with a huge NSF grant. Thousands of teachers have now been through the program, helping to introduce tens of thousands of NC students to the wonders of nature with the simple idea of exploring and teaching outdoors. I like to think that it has helped shift the views of a lot of people for the need to learn about, care about, and help conserve the world we live in. The signs shown below went up at UTOTES schools after teachers took their students outdoors to learn about some common schoolyard critters we had shared in the workshops. To me, it is just one example of how powerful direct experience with nature can be. When observed closely, even the sometimes unloved wild creatures can be beautiful and fascinating, and those experiences can foster an understanding and appreciation for the entire natural world.

dirt dauber preserve

Perhaps the only mud dauber preserve in the state

spider sanctuary

This sign went up after sharing a math activity involving spritzing  (with water) the spider webs in the bushes around the school. The kids fell in love with the diversity of spiders they found.

Years before UTOTES, she had started taking educators to amazing natural areas from NC to Belize to get them turned on to the natural world. She believed that sometimes it requires taking people to far-away places to help them understand the beauty in their own backyards.

early Belize

Mary Ann, with the first museum educator group to go to Belize, 1987

The Educators of Excellence program has profoundly influenced hundreds of teachers across the state and still lives on at the Museum, over 30 years after it began.

ynp

Wolf-watching at sunrise, Yellowstone (another Educator of Excellence program that continues to influence teachers and their students)

Several years ago, after her husband, Bill, died, she decided to write some words for her own eventual obituary. Here is a selection of those powerful words shared at the service yesterday…

The purpose of life is not to be happy but to make a difference – to have it matter that you lived at all.

You only have to do your part to help with the overwhelming need and hurt on this planet; and you do not have to live wracked with guilt that you cannot do more.

Be full of gladness, and cherish your deep connection to all living things from bugs to bears.

Great words from a great person. As I reflected (something she always encouraged everyone to do) on what I learned from Mary Ann over the years, I realized how hard it is to pay tribute to someone that is larger than life. But, the Mary Ann I knew was always helping people see the world around them in new ways, turning them on to the mysteries and beauty of nature. That is how we first connected. I think back to one of my favorite snippets from a Mary Oliver poem. Mary Ann embodied the spirit of these words…

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

And tell about it she did, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Thank you, Mary Ann, for helping me (and so many others) find ways to tell about it too, to follow our passion to share the wonders of nature with others, and for being such a tremendous role model and friend. And to all those who knew her, and will miss her, I truly believe she will continue to inspire and shape us. Remember, she never gives up on anything…

May “The Force” be with you.

Mary Ann on sunrise canoe trip on Turner River, FL

Mary Ann on a sunrise paddle on the Turner River, Florida

 

 

Anticipation

The sun’s summons will not be answered overnight, but the answer is inevitable. The first hungry bee at the first crocus hums of June, and the first green leaf forecast cool summer shade. All is in order. Spring is the earth’s commitment to the year.

~Hal Borland

I have been extra busy this year at work and have not had much chance to get out and take pictures (plus the rainy weather has not been too conducive to such ventures). Today was glorious in its sunshine, though the ground still squishes as I walked the yard. But I saw signs of spring everywhere. I was at work for awhile this morning, prepping for a program tomorrow on vernal pools. In a quick walk to check on the nesting red-shouldered hawks, I also found a pileated woodpecker excavating a nest cavity (after a tip from a volunteer). Spring ephemerals have been blooming for a week or so at the Garden (trout lily, hepatica, windflower, some bloodroot). At home, on our north-facing slope, there hasn’t been much action as yet. But today showed me that spring is just around the corner…

Spotted salamander egg masses in water garden

Spotted salamander egg masses in one of our water gardens (click photos to enlarge)

I saw several spotted salamander egg masses one morning a few weeks ago following a couple of nights of particularly heavy downpours. And again, this past week, new egg masses appeared. When I reached down into the water at one of our water gardens, I could feel an almost solid blob of egg jelly reaching several inches below the water. At least something has liked all this rain!

Redbud buds

Redbud buds about to open

I carefully picked my way through the muddy mess that is our yard and found several species of plants ready to explode.

Wild columbine buds

Wild columbines have flower stalks with enlarged buds

Trout lily buds

Trout lilies will soon be blooming

Spicebush flowers opening

Spicebush has just started to bloom

Spring beauty

A single spring beauty is blooming

After a walk around the house, I sat and watched and listened for a few minutes. A male bluebird was serenading nearby and I caught a glimpse of a chickadee checking out one of the nest boxes. I remembered hearing spring peepers in last night’s rain. Melissa found a spotted salamander crossing the road toward a vernal pool last night as she was coming home. It seems as though everything is alive with anticipation for the season. I decided to check the weather for the next couple of days…more rain is forecast for tomorrow, and then a significant drop in temperatures. So much for anticipation. I think I’ll split some firewood.

Into the Interior – Day 1

Winter is not a season, it’s a celebration.

~Anamika Mishra

A trip into the interior of Yellowstone in winter is truly magical. Most of the extensive road system is closed in winter to all but over-snow travel via snowmobiles or snow coaches. We had chartered a snow coach for our group so we could travel in comfort and have more control of our route and stops. We set off early in the morning with a first stop at Swan Lake Flats, a vast, flat expanse surrounded by high peaks.

Sunrise at Swan Lake FDlats

Sunrise at Swan Lake Flats (click photos to enlarge)

Cold temperatures and our first full sun morning made for beautiful conditions, including sun dogs at sunrise.

Mountains at Swan Lake

Snowy mountains surrounding Swan Lake Flats

Ice crystals on grass

Ice-encrusted grasses greeted us on our first stop

Moon setting at Swan Lake Flats

Full moon setting at sunrise

Driving toward Canyon, you soon realize the interior of the park receives much more snowfall than much of the northern range. There are meadows covered by an untouched blanket of deep snow with only hints of what lies beneath – a sinuous line shows a creek channel and tips of tree branches reveal a partially buried conifer.

Meadow and creek near Canyon

A carpet of deep snow lies throughout the interior

When we drove into the parking lot at Artist Point at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the main reasons for my love of winter in Yellowstone became obvious – there was no one else there. In summer, this lot would be at capacity with hundreds of visitors crowding the trail and summit of the overlook. Today, our own private viewing of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the geological wonders that helped convince Congress to set this area aside as the world’s first national park.

Lower Falls and ice mountain

Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (308 ft)

If you take a closer look at Lower Falls in winter, you notice a huge dome-shaped mound in front of the falls. This is “ice mountain”, a large pile of frozen mist, water, and snow that accumulates every winter at the base of the falls, sometimes reaching heights of well over a hundred feet. One source I read said that it tends to vanish quickly in the spring, often collapsing on itself in just a few hours as temperatures warm.

Rolling hillside of untouched snow

Undisturbed snow field at Canyon

Tree top sticking out of snow at Canyon

Backlit conifer peeking above snow

Yellowstone River at Chittenden Bridge

Yellowstone River viewed from the Chittenden Memorial Bridge

Heading out of the Canyon area, we stopped and walked out onto the Chittenden Memorial Bridge that crosses the Yellowstone River just above the Upper Falls. In summer, this is a tranquil-looking area, with small rapids giving just a hint of the watery chaos that occurs just downstream as the river thunders over 100 feet at the Upper Falls and plunges another 308 feet at the Lower Falls. In winter, it is a great place to see signs of river otter hunting the open waters. The trails in the snow along the water’s edge you can see in the photo above were made by otter.

Trumpeter swans on ice

Trumpeter swans relaxing on the ice

Just upstream, we encountered our first trumpeter swans of the trip, a pair resting quietly on the edge of the ice.

Trumpeter swan in river

Trumpeter swan in the Yellowstone River

They were soon joined by another pair that flew in and landed near them, but that stayed out in the open water of the river. Trumpeters gather in the park in winter to take advantage of the many waterways kept open by thermal activity.

Tree in Hayden Valley

The majesty of Hayden Valley in winter

The trip down through Hayden Valley is always my favorite part of a winter journey and I was so glad that it had turned out to be a clear day for it. Massive snow-covered hills, many devoid of any visible vegetation, give a seemingly horizon-less world view. Here and there, isolated trees give perspective and some scale to the immensity of this windswept terrain.

Steam and ice at Mud Volcano

Frozen steam coats the trees at Mud Volcano

Mud Volcano provides a hint of things to come with our first major thermal features along the route. Cold temperatures enhance the steam production and nearby trees are coated with thick cushions of ice. Wildlife often congregate in these thermal areas to avoid the bitter cold and deep snow elsewhere.

Coyote at Mud Volcano

A coyote warily eyes our group

Ice crystals in parking lot

Ice crystals at thermal spots in the parking lot

West Thumb pool

Hot spring at West Thumb Geyser Basin

By the time we reached West Thumb Geyser Basin, a thick cloud cover had helped create a world of stark contrasts of black and white with occasional tinges of thermally induced color. I wish it wasn’t so expensive to charter a snow coach, as this trip is something more people need to experience. Being surrounded by a seemingly endless landscape of cold and ice, punctuated by otherworldly thermal activity, and having the opportunity to observe how wildlife adapts and survives in such a hostile place, gives one pause to consider the meaning of wildness, of beauty, and of life itself.

West Thumb trees

Overcast skies help paint this frigid world in tones of black and white

 

 

Moths in a Storm

Intimate connection allows recognition in an all-too-often anonymous world… Intimacy gives us a different way of seeing.

~Robin Wall Kimmerer

As the rains continue to pour down from what was the hurricane that mercifully just glanced by us here in the woods, we are both reading and pursuing some indoor activities. I decided to look back at some recent photos of moths and try to learn a few more names using our Peterson Field Guide to Moths of Southeastern North America and a few of my favorite online resources (I mentioned some of these in a recent post on moths). This thing with moths has grabbed me for some reason in recent months. Certainly, the availability of a great field guide has helped (I am known, and sometimes mocked, for my tendency to browse field guides as my reading entertainment). But it is as if I have also just discovered this amazing variety of life that is so readily available just outside (literally sometimes) our door. For me, naming things is a way to feel connected to them. And naming moths is a challenge! For one thing, there are so many – over 2200 species in North Carolina, according to one of my go-to sites, Moths of NC (compare that to 177 species of butterflies recorded in the state). Plus, their differences are often quite subtle and variable. But, it is a great way to learn to appreciate them. As usual, there are many amazing and bizarre life histories. There is also the relationship to their larvae, which, for someone that is as fascinated by caterpillars as me, is reason enough to learn moths so I can make those life cycle connections. So, on a weekend when I normally would be surrounded by caterpillar cages for BugFest, I present a few of the adults of my larval friends that I have recently learned. As usual, if anyone finds an error in my ID, please drop me a note.

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria

Confused Eusarca, Eusarca packardaria. This little beauty fluttered up from some grass the day before Florence appeared.

Packard's wave, Cyclophora packardi

Packard’s Wave, Cyclophora packardi. Many of the Waves have a flattened appearance, often with a straight-edge line to the fore-wings.

Yellow-fringed hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Yellow-fringed Hypsopygia, Hypsopygia olinalis

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata

Little white lichen moth, Clemensia albata, one of a group of moths whose larvae feed on lichens.

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis

Richard's Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi

Richard’s Fungus Moth (lower left), Metalectra richardsi– perhaps a Uniform lichen moth, Crambidia uniformis, above

Robinson's underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Robinson’s underwing, Catocala robinsonii, wings spread

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella, dorsal view

Root collar borer, Euzophera ostricolorella

Next are a few species seen on the buildings at work before the storm…

Variable oakleaf caterpilar moth, Lochmaeus manteo?

Variable oakleaf caterpillar moth, Lochmaeus manteo – this faded individual was a tough call, but this is one of the most common species of caterpillars I find in this area

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Delicate Cycnia, Cycnia tenera

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults cannot be separated  to

Crocus geometer, Xanthotype sp. (adults apparently cannot easily be separated to species without dissection) – note the distinctive spread-wing resting posture

Below is a series of species from a couple of years ago that I never got around to naming (this was before the publication of the new field guide)…

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Dimorphic Tosale, Tosale oviplagalis

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria

Light-ribboned Wave, Leptostales ferruminaria – another straight-edge fore-wing

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria

Pale-winged Gray, Iridopsis ephyraria, a tree bark mimic

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola – the slug caterpillars are one of my favorite groups, so it is nice to learn what the adults look like

This last one was, by far, the most difficult to try to identify (not that we got all of the other ones correct). Still not sure if this is right, but it is the closest thing I could find (which is odd since it seems to be such a distinctive pattern)…

_-18

George’s Midget, Elaphria georgei

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

_-2

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.

 

 

An Unexpected Love Song

“If you would win my heart, sing me a love song.”

~Jane Griner in the song “Sing Me to Heaven” by Daniel E. Gawthrop

Given the title of this blog, you might think it’s going to be about all the riotous birdsong that is happening out in our woods right now as temperatures warm and spring seems to be slinking up the south-facing slope across the road and into our north-facing yard. But that’s not the love song Mike and I heard last weekend when we took our hammocks out to the ravine behind our house (another south-facing slope).

IMG_5860

A perfect day for hammock-lounging

As I was laying in my hammock soaking up the sun like a lizard, I noticed a repetitive sound like two very short, quiet snare drum rolls followed by four to six slower beats that almost sounded like an extra-rapid secondhand on a clock. At first I thought it was just the straps of my hammock rubbing on the tree. But as I paid attention to the rhythm of the hammock’s movement, I realized the timing wasn’t right. I started looking around to try to pinpoint the source, and I noticed a wolf spider moving through the dry leaves on the forest floor. Amazingly, the sounds corresponded exactly to its movements – the snare drum rolls when it was paused, the tick-tock of the clock while it was moving. Whenever the breeze was still, I could hear it… first in one place, then another, and another. At one point, there were three wolf spiders moving around me, all making the same sound sequence. I’d heard that you’re never further than 4 feet from a spider – even while indoors – but it seemed more real as I realized just how many spiders there were surrounding my hammock!

wolf spider.jpg

Wolf spider paused on leaves – click to enlarge

I watched the spiders for a long time trying to figure out just what was going on. Finally, two of them, one after the other, walked right below the edge of my hammock and I got a good view. Whenever they stopped and made the snare drum sound, they were moving their pedipalps (two front appendages, shorter than legs) up and down, vibrating on the dry leaves. It was incredibly fast, but when one of the spiders was close, I could actually see the movement. I was amazed! And as it walked through the leaves, I noticed it tapping its abdomen, which seemed to be producing the tick-tock sound. After that, I was hooked and probably spent more than an hour stalking these spiders with my iPhone, trying to capture their behavior.

I enhanced the volume on this video so that you can clearly hear the sounds the spider is making. I promise it’s the spider and not me shifting around in the leaf litter! But I still wasn’t satisfied that I understood what was going on… so I switched my phone over to slo-mo mode and tried to catch the movement of the spider again…

It’s subtle, and the sound is different because it’s slowed down, but you can definitely see the pedipalps moving as the faster rhythm is played. And you can hear the louder, more separated beats as it taps its abdomen.

Here’s another slow motion video. In this one, you can see how the presence of dry leaves amplifies the sound – when the spider is on the log, there isn’t much sound produced at all. But if you watch closely, you can still see its body vibrating as it makes the sound.

Knowing a little bit about spider mating rituals, I figured that the sounds I was hearing had something to do with that. In fact, just a week ago, on Valentine’s Day, I attended a talk on “spider love” put on the NC Office of Environmental Education. Dr. Eleanor Spicer Rice, author of Dr. Eleanor’s Book of Common Spiders, came to talk about the fascinating stories of spider mating. She was quite funny – her categories for male spiders interested in mating with a (almost always larger) female were: “how not to get eaten” and “well, let’s just make the most of it.” This is because it’s not uncommon for a male spider to be attacked and eaten by a female when he comes seeking something entirely different. For many orb-weaving spider species, the male will pluck the strands of the female’s web in a particular way to indicate that he is a potential mate and not just a fly that’s stuck in the web (aka, dinner). Other species like the green magnolia jumping spider will wave their legs around in something like a dance to show off for a female. A few species know it’s a lost cause and just go for it… and some even die in the act of copulation so as to leave their carcass attached to the female, effectively blocking access for other suitors. The world of spider courtship is dangerous!

Spider sex is fairly complicated as well. The female’s epigynum is located on the bottom of her abdomen, so rather than try to arrange himself upside-down underneath her, males go through a bit of preparation for mating. They produce sperm in their abdomen (from a gonopore about midway down on the bottom side, as you might expect), but they have to transfer it to the specialized “boxing glove” (cymbium) at the end of their pedipalps (via what’s called a sperm web) in order to mate. At least that way he has a chance to keep his many eyes on her chelicerae (jaws) while in the act.

So, back to my drum-playing spiders in the woods… a quick Google search turned up a bunch of articles about the so-called “purring wolf spider” or Gladiclosa gulosa. Apparently, wolf spiders are known for producing vibrations to attract a mate, and most early naturalists thought the sounds were caused by exactly the same thing I did – the spider tapping its pedipalps on a surface like a leaf. But in 1975 a researcher used high speed video to check this out in detail – and it turns out that spiders actually have what’s called a “stridulatory organ” on their pedipalps. Basically, this means that they are able to rub one part of their body against another to create a sound. Other insects are known to do this: the sounds made by grasshoppers and crickets are stridulations, and Mike included information about stridulation in horned passalus beetles in a previous post. But spiders don’t have ears… so it’s long been assumed that the vibrations are what is really important in communicating with a potential mate. However, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have been studying vibration- and sound-making in spiders, and for Gladicosa gulosa they discovered that not only does a female spider respond to the vibration produced by the male, she also responds to the sound (but males only respond to the vibrations).

Most of the studies that I could find describe spider behaviors when males are in the presence of females. And most of those on the sounds of wolf spiders focus on the snare drum rattle of the pedipalps and not the abdomen tapping. No one described the behavior we saw in the woods – namely, that a bunch of spiders were wandering around making sounds without another spider nearby.  I’m not sure what was going on, but my assumption is that they were literally trying to drum up a mate!

I’m also not sure what species Mike and I spent time observing in our woods, though I’m fairly certain it is a species of wolf spider (family Lycosidae). I’m not even entirely sure that they were males, because it’s hard to tell in my iPhone pics if the pedipalps have those distinctive “boxing gloves,” though their behavior makes me think they are males. After an exhaustive search of Bugguide.net and the 4 spider field guides in our house (yes, we have 4 spider field guides), I’m still not sure, though it’s possible these are Gladicosa gulosa – please let me know if you can identify them!

wolf spider-2

Wolf spider – can you help ID? – click to enlarge

 

Whatever species they are, they exhibit an incredibly fascinating behavior, so if you’re a super nature nerd, it’s time to head out into the woods with a hammock on a warm, still spring day and listen for some spiders!

 

 

Winter in the Woods

There is nothing in the world more beautiful than the forest clothed to its very hollows in snow. It is the still ecstasy of nature, wherein every spray, every blade of grass, every spire of reed, every intricacy of twig, is clad with radiance.

~William Sharp

Road out front

Our road during the snow on Wednesday (click photos to enlarge)

The quiet beauty of a winter snow storm…this is one of the true blessings of living in the woods (and of loving cold weather, since you don’t mind getting out in it…in fact, you can’t wait!).

Under the branches close view

The view from beneath a snow-covered branch

I love the winter quiet of a snow storm…and the simple beauty it imparts on everything it touches. The patterns of branches, the trails of woodland creatures, the shapes of trees covered in white…all mesmerizing, magical. This snow lasted all day. Toward the end of the storm we went for a walk in the gray stillness of our woods, and felt lucky to live in such surroundings.

The house in snow

The house the morning after the storm

A brilliant blue sky greeted us the next morning, with a chilly 14 degrees on the thermometer. A walk in the woods seemed the thing to do (after filling the bird feeders, of course).

Road with diamond dust

The road out front with the air glistening with falling ice crystals

What had been a gray sky and a black and white landscape of patterns and shapes was now a glistening white, with the air full of tiny diamonds every time a breeze shook the snow-covered branches.

View through the woods to house

A view of the house through our woods

We walked the property boundary, taking in the scenes of a forest transformed by a sculptor working with powdery white clay.

Wind dust

Snow falling from limbs

Sunburst

Snow burst

The wind started blowing and the tree branches began to shake their white blankets, releasing a snow burst of crystals that sparkled as they fell.

Beech strains

A beech hunched over with its burden of snow

Our woods

Melissa walking through the winter wonderland

We ended the day with a perhaps too late attempt at sledding the big hill just down the road. The sun was already melting the lone tire track down to gravel, making for a few scrapes down the hill. Not as fast as previous snows, but still not bad.

Snow bear

Snow bear

This morning we went out and decided to make some wildlife in the yard. If only we had the time and could get to Pungo and see some real snow bears!

Crow pattern in snow

Snow crow in black and white

The real wildlife, especially the birds, have been very active since the storm. A group of American crows stopped by this morning, no doubt looking for some of the scattered seed. They are wary, so when I walked by the window they all took off, including the one that was brave enough to land in the yard. We checked out the track trail and tried to decipher what had happened. Look at it and decide for yourself before reading further to see if you agree with our conclusion.

I think the crow landed on the left side of the image, leaving a deep imprint of its body when it hit the snow (and a wing tip print on the far left). It then hopped up and turned to the right, leaving some wing tips seen at the top of the image. It took off from a position facing the right edge of the image, leaving two deep footprints and a sweep of its wings on both sides as it leapt off the snow. Let me know if you conclude something else.

 

 

 

Big Jaws

The naturalist suffers a pleasant nuisance – not being able to walk 100 yards without being tied to the spot by some new and wondrous creature.

~Charles Darwin

I’m afraid this applies to me and is often why it takes so long to hike (saunter is probably a better term for what I usually do) along a trail or get some task done here in the yard. And so it was last week when I was out doing some weeding and mowing. As I walked by a mulberry tree near the shed, I caught a glimpse of a green object hovering near the tree trunk. I tried to prop up this particular tree years ago using a stake and attached rope that ran through some plastic tubing. The tree had leaned over in a storm and I was hoping to help straighten it, while still protecting the bark. The rope rotted away, but the tube remained, captured by the tree bark. The green object hovered for an instant near one end of that tubing, and then disappeared inside.

green blob going into tube

Mystery green blob disappearing into tube (click photos to enlarge)

I caught just enough of a glimpse to have an idea of what was happening, and I was thrilled. It looked like the work of a leafcutter bee, a native bee whose handiwork (or should I say, jawiwork) I see every spring.

Leafcutter bee cuts on redbud leaves

Tell-tale sign of the presence of leafcutter bees

You may have seen this where you live, small round holes in the edges of leaves. In my yard, the leafcutter bees are particularly fond of redbud leaves. It appears they favor thin leaves that lack a lot of thick venation. The result of the all this activity looks like an overly-ambitious person with a hole-punch has a grudge against your redbud trees. These bees cut circles of leaf material to use in making a nest chamber in some sort of hollow tube or in the ground (more on that in a minute).

I ran in and got my camera and was disappointed to see the bee leaving just as I got back. I had no idea how long it might be before she returned, so I squatted next to the tree and waited. Turns out, the entry into the nest chamber is quick, so I missed my photo opportunity on her next visit as I just could not focus fast enough. Her exit was equally quick, so I knew I had to come up with a plan B (or is it Plan Bee?). I set the camera up on a tripod and grabbed a twig and laid it gently into the tube entrance. I then pre-focused the lens on the twig just outside the tube, removed the twig, and waited again.

leafcutter bee bringing in leaf fragment

Leafcutter bee bringing in a leaf fragment to her nest chamber

It worked. I heard her buzzing toward me, and pressed the shutter just as she approached the entrance. The camera caught her carrying a folded piece of redbud leaf as she approached the entrance to the tubing. She quickly went inside (I could see her movement inside the translucent tube) and took the leaf fragment to a mass of other greenery that was visible a couple of inches inside the tube entrance. She stayed a little over a minute and quickly departed. Within two minutes, she was back with another, smaller piece of leaf and repeated the sequence. But on her next visit, she was not carrying anything green.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen

Leafcutter bee carrying pollen into nest chamber

This time, it was a load of pollen. This group of bees has an unusual feature compared to most bees – they carry their pollen on specialized hairs on their abdomen.

Bumblebee and pollen basket

A bumblebee with a full pollen basket on the hind leg

Bumblebees and honeybees have special structures on their legs, called pollen baskets, where they carry the pollen they gather.

leafcutter bee bringing in pollen 2

Pollen can be seen on underside of abdomen of this leafcutter bee

Some speculate that by carrying pollen on the hairs of their abdomen, leafcutter bees may be more effective pollinators than many other types of bees. As they crawl around on flowers, it may be easier to transfer pollen to receptive flower parts if it is carried underneath their body instead of being packed into specialized structures on their legs.

leafcutter bee leaving after bringing in pollen

Female bee as she leaves the nest chamber, minus the pollen

I started timing the comings and goings of this industrious female and it turns out she was very efficient at gathering and depositing pollen into the nest. It generally took about 1 to 2 minutes to gather the pollen, and then another 1 to 3 minutes to deposit it inside the tube. I could see the green nest chamber through the walls of the tubing. When I worked at the museum, I photographed a nest chamber that had been exposed in a block of wood so you could see the details of their handiwork.

Leafcutter bee nest in hollow

Nest chamber of leafcutter bee exposed by cutting open a block of wood

They construct cigar-like nests made of wrapped together leaf fragments. Each nest contains several cells. The female stocks each cell with a ball or loaf of stored pollen and then lays a single egg in each (each cell will produce a single bee). Nests are constructed in soil, in holes (usually made by other insects) in wood, and in hollow plant stems. They will also use a variety of human-made structures and readily take to artificial bee homes containing hollow tubes.

Leafcutter bee nest chamber

Individual cell cut open to view pupa and bee bread

The museum’s collection also had one cell that was cut open to show the pupa and the “loaf” of bee bread (a mixture of pollen and nectar) that the female stocks as provisions for the developing young. Most leafcutter bees overwinter in the nest chamber as newly formed adults and then chew their way out next spring. One source stated that the last egg laid (that one closest to the entrance of the entrance hole) is the first to hatch, and so on, down the line.

Leafcutter bee

Be thankful to the “big jaws” in your yard

The activity at the nest was complete by the next day. I will now keep an eye on this tubing to see if produces some new leafcutter adults next spring. The genus name, Megachile, literally means big lip, or big jaws, in Greek. Here’s wishing these big jaws a successful birth and hatching. Now that I know more about the cause, I’m starting to like those hole-punched redbud leaves.