Hot Holiday

It’s summer and time for wandering…

~Kellie Elmore

After I retired (you remember back when I was retired) I loved the fact that I could go to some of my favorite places on a week day when fewer people would be out and about in the wild places I love. I certainly didn’t want to go on a holiday weekend when even more people created crowded campgrounds and busy highways en route to my favorite destinations. Well, that was then and this is now, so off we went last weekend on a camping excursion. It was prompted, in part, by a visit from Melissa’s cousin, Kevin, from New York. He had not traveled much in these parts so she had given him tips on where to camp and hike in the mountains on the first part of his visit and now we were going to share a couple of our favorite things with him down east – paddling in a swamp and looking for bears.

The first day we drove to Pettigrew State Park where we had reserved a site, set up camp, and then headed to the nearby boat launch on the Scuppernong River just outside Creswell. We had debated whether to try the entire 12 miles to Columbia (something we both have always wanted to do) but we decided to go ahead, despite the threat of thunderstorms.

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Upper reaches of the Scuppernong River (click photos to enlarge)

We put in about 1:30 p.m. and headed toward Columbia (we shuttled one car down there at the take out point). Melissa and I have paddled portions of this river several times and have seen a bear each time, so we had high hopes. No sightings this trip, but we think we heard a couple splashing through the swamp as we paddled. We also saw many pileated woodpeckers, wood ducks, a barred owl, a bald eagle, and had a constant escort of dragonflies.

Paddling the Scuppernong

Paddling the tranquil Scuppernong. We saw lots of pileated woodpeckers and heard a couple of bears splashing in the swamp.

Scuppernong lower reaches

We were alone along the entire 12 miles of river until we got to Columbia

Scuppernong near Columbia at sunset

A tranquil ending to a beautiful day on the river

We managed to dodge the thunderstorms and ended the day with a slick-as-glass water surface at sunset.  After a delicious dinner in Columbia we headed back to camp where another storm stopped just short of the campground. The next morning we headed over to the Pungo Unit hoping to show Kevin a few bears and other critters in our favorite area of the state.

Young Eastern box turtle in road

Our first wildlife of the day – a young Eastern box turtle

We started kind of slow but did see 5 bears by mid-day. My favorite was one sacked out in a tree right next to the road.

Young black bear in tree

Melissa spotted this sleepy bear lounging head down in a tree right next to the road

Young black bear chillin' in tree alongside road

This is one sleepy bear

We took a break from Pungo and drove over to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. After observing some waders (including a nice little blue heron and a tri-colored heron), a tour of the visitor center, and a short hike along one of the boardwalks, we headed back to Pungo. Kevin was driving to Richmond that evening so we wanted to try to find as many bears as possible and maybe have a few opportunities for photos before he headed out. Pungo did not disappoint…

Black bear and cub

Momma bear and cub on “Bear Road”

We saw a couple more as we drove the refuge roads and then decided to head to one of my favorite places, “Bear Road”. It wasn’t long before we saw the first of 14 bears! The sow above had two cubs of the year hanging out with her (only one is visible in the pic above), and we saw several other individuals and another sow with cubs. But one bear provided the highlight of the day…

Black bear walking toward us

This young bear was hurrying toward dinner in the cornfield near where we sat

Black bear realizing something is not right

The moment when you realize – wait, what are those things?

A young, beautiful bear (probably a 2 or 3-year old) came out of the woods and headed down the road towards its evening meal of corn. We were sitting in the road near the corn field and the bear strolled along until, suddenly, it realized something was amiss. It did what we all have probably done at one time or another…trying to decide which course of action is the best…go back, continue on to where I was headed, but what about…then a hesitation, a look back and forth, and finally, what the heck, I’m going. So, the bear scurried into the canal and over into the corn and disappeared.

Black bear trying to decide what to do

Do I stay or do I go?

Black bear indecision

But the corn is just over there…

We ended the day with 25 bears, including a few with cubs of the year (always fun to observe), a couple of bears standing up to check their surroundings, and a bear in a tree. It turns out, if you pick your destination carefully, you can still go somewhere even on a holiday, and not experience the hassle of crowds (unless you count the bears). A great outing on a hot holiday weekend. Can’t wait for our next visit.

Mothing, Part 2

Look closely. The beautiful may be small.

~Immanuel Kant

The last post had some recognizable moths, some big ones, some brightly colored ones. But countless moths are frustratingly small (when you are trying to identify them), and many are, at least at first glance, LBT’s (little brown things). But the magic of a macro lens is that it brings out their beauty once you enlarge them on your screen, making it somewhat easier to flip through the pages of a field guide until you find one that is similar. Yet they are all beautiful in their own way and worthy of our attention and appreciation. Once again, if I have made an ID error, I welcome comments and corrections.

Here are some of the littler ones that came to the moth light. I love the variation in shape, colors, and patterns of these tiny night-time visitors.

Orange-tufted Oneidannn

Orange-tufted Oneida, Oneida lunulalis (click photos to enlarge)

Black-marked inga

Black-marked Inga, Inga sparsiciliella

Redbud leaffolder, Fascista cercerisella

Redbud leaffolder, Fascista cercerisella (the diminutive black and white larvae fold the leaves of redbud)

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Olive Arta, Arta olivalis (this little moth seems to be standing at attention)

Suzuki's Promalactis Moth, Promalactis suzukiella

Suzuki’s Promalactis Moth, Promalactis suzukiella (this tiny moth was not in my Peterson Field Guide to Moths of the SE U.S.; introduced from East Asia)

Bent-line carpet, Costaconvexa centrostrigaria

Bent-line Carpet, Costaconvexa centrostrigaria

Bent-line Gray, Iridopsis larvaria

Bent-line Gray, Iridopsis larvaria

Common angle

Common Angle, Macaria aemulataria (the description says this moth has dark markings on its forewings that resemble paw prints)

Brown panopoda

Brown Panopoda, Panopoda carneicosta

Curved-tooth geometer moth, Eutrapela clemataria

Curved-tooth Geometer Moth, Eutrapela clemataria

Dead wood borer moth

Dead-wood Borer Moth, Scolecocampa liburna (larvae bore into dead logs/stumps of hardwoods)

Deep yellow Euchlaena

Deep Yellow Euchlaena, Euchlaena amoenaria

Faint-spotted Palthis, Palthis asopialis

Faint-spotted Palthis, Palthis asopialis

Drexel's or Major Datana?

Major Datana, Datana major (this group is difficult for me to separate, so this may be one of the other Datana species – they all look very pettable)

Oblique-banded Leafroller, male  - Choristoneura rosaceana

Oblique-banded Leafroller, Choristoneura rosaceana (this one looks like a stocky person wearing a cape)

Garden Tortrix Moth, Clepsis peritana

Garden Tortrix Moth, Clepsis peritana (another “caped” moth)

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Planthopper, Flataloides scabrosus (this one fooled me, I thought it was related to the two moths above, but a closer look showed it did not have moth antennae and is instead a very weird planthopper – thanks to Steve Hall for the ID)

Changenable Grass Veneer?nn

Changeable Grass-Veneer, Fissicrambus mutabilis (one of the group that always rests head down)

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Beautiful Wood Nymph, Eudryas grata (Adults perch with their fuzzy forelegs splayed outward)

Beautiful wood-nymph

Beautiful Wood Nymph, Eudryas grata (A truly beautiful and unusual moth – when disturbed they drop to the ground as if dead)

Mothing, Part 1

…to understand something of the wonders of a world which becomes the more wonderful the more we know of it.

~W.J. Holland, in The Moth Book, 1903

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A sample of moths (and some other wee beast) attracted to my black light (click photos to enlarge)

I set out my moth light for two nights a little over a week ago to see what species might drop by here at the house. Melissa and I gave a moth program at work the week before that and, though we didn’t get a tremendous number of moths that night (in part, due to the early hours for families), it did reignite my moth fever. One night I put the sheet on the clothesline out the basement door. The second night I strung it up on the back deck outside the living room. Both nights I turned outside lights on in addition to having a black light set up next to a cotton sheet. I checked the lights from sunset until about 12:30 p.m. both nights. Things started slow and peaked between 11 p.m. and midnight.

The thing I find so fascinating about moths is their diversity and beauty when you actually take the time to look at them. Many are, at first glance, just brown nondescript bugs, seemingly impossible to tell apart. But a closer look, and their colors and patterns are incredible. I do find them very challenging to identify, but there are a host of online resources that can really help. Among my favorites are: Moths of North Carolina, Bug Guide, Butterflies and Moths of North America, and the North American Moth Photographers Group.

But the real game-changer for me was the publication last spring of the Peterson Field Guide to Moths of the Southeastern North America. I had purchased their guide to moths of the northeast when it came out a couple of years ago and it had been helpful, but, obviously, not comprehensive for our region. But my copy of the new guide is already showing signs of wear as I have flipped through its pages countless times searching for a species new to me at the lights at home or at work. The challenge in moth identification is looking for key characteristics. A look at the online resources for any one species reveals the amazing variation between individuals of some species. And, of course, the printed field guide has space for only the most common variety (generally only one picture is chosen to represent an entire species’ variability). So, having said that, I have done my best (along with Melissa’s help) to identify these to species, but there is a chance some may be misidentified. If anyone catches a mistake, please share in the comments section.

Below are some of the larger moths (those approximately an inch or more in length) that came to the lights. More of the smaller ones will be shared in my next post.

How many of these have you seen?

Banded or sycamore tussock moth

I love the pattern and colors of this moth. It is either a Banded Tussock or a Sycamore Tussock Moth (Halysidota tesselaris/harrisii). They are apparently very difficult to tell apart, and both caterpillar species are common here.

rosy maple moth

One of the more common species at the sheet was the beautiful Rosy Maple Moth, Dryocampa rubicunda.

Luna moth

Always happy to see a Luna Moth, Actias luna.

Angle-winged emerald, Chloropteryx tepperaria

There are other green guys out there – like this Angle-winged Emerald, Chloropteryx tepperaria.

Red-spotted emerald

Red-spotted Emerald, Nemoria saturiba.

Drab prominent?

Drab Prominent, Misogada unicolor.

Mottled prominent, Macrurocampa marthesia

Something appears to be wrong with the wings of this Mottled Prominent, Macrurocampa marthesia.

White-blotched heterocampa

White-blotched Heterocampa, Heterocampa umbrata.

Oval-based prominent

Love the shoulder pattern on this Oval-based Prominent, Peridea basitriens.

The Laugher, Charadra deridens

Moth common names are fascinating, like this one – The Laugher, Charadra deridens.

The Hebrew

The Hebrew, Polygrammate hebraeicum, so-named because the black markings somewhat resemble Hebrew script.

False Underwing - Allotria elonympha?

False Underwing, Allotria elonympha.

Stripes

These caterpillars come in brilliant green, pink and yellow, banded, and striped forms that often look nothing at all like each other.

~MOSI Outside blog post

If you are not a fan of bugs, then you may want to take a break from this blog for a bit because it is what is happening right now (oh, there may be something on bears or birds soon, but bugs rule this time of year). Yesterday at work I got an email and a voice mail from two staff about some cool caterpillars in our lower nursery. Comments ranged from do you know this guy, some sort of sphinx? to as big as a hot dog. Of course, I had to go see.

Banded sphinx larva reddish-green form

Banded sphinx moth (Eumorpha fasciatus) caterpillar (click photos to enlarge)

When I arrived, several staff were working in the nursery and pointed out the “hot dog” larva (it was about the size of my index finger). I recognized it as a banded sphinx. It was the characteristic shape of a sphinx moth larva, but lacked the true rear “horn” of most other hornworms. And the diagonal stripes are oriented in a different direction than those of most other sphinx species larvae (these slope from the abdomen upwards towards the head, whereas those in most species, like tobacco hornworms, go from the abdomen upwards toward the rear). But it soon became apparent that this beauty comes in many stripes…

Banded sphinx larva red form

A nearby banded sphinx with a different dress code

We found several more caterpillars, many with a more reddish color scheme.

Banded sphinx larva green form

And who is this guy?

Then, as I was walking out, I spotted another sphinx on the same host plant (Ludwigia sp.) but with a totally different pattern. I assumed it was a different species, but when I checked my field guide, I discovered that banded sphinx larvae come in two forms – a heavily striped one and a green one.

A close-up comparison of the three major color morphs of this species we found yesterday is shown above. Amazing variety for one species! And they are beautiful from every angle.

Banded sphinx larva reddish-green form dorsal view

Looking good from above…

Banded sphinx larva reddish-green form ventral view

…and below

Banded sphinx larva reddish-green form ventral view close up

You gotta love those “socks”

If you think these caterpillars are amazing, here is a look at the adult banded sphinx moth…

Banded sphinx moth

Adult banded sphinx moth

This moth was sitting at the front door of the Allen Education Center one morning earlier this summer. I took it out of harm’s way and snapped a couple of photos before releasing it. Perhaps some of those amazing caterpillars are descendants of this individual. Discovering several of these stunning caterpillars is one reason I find it so interesting working at the NC Botanical Garden. The diversity of native plant species makes for an incredible richness of fauna as well. Every day, a new discovery!

Caterpillar Clusters

Groups tend to be more extreme than individuals.

~Daniel Kahneman

In spite of the heat and humidity (or maybe because of it), this is one of my favorite times of year – caterpillar time. The period between mid-August and mid-September tends to be the best time to find the greatest variety of interesting caterpillars in this part of the world. Most species are nearing the end of their larval life and are getting larger, the amazing parasitoids and predators are reaching a peak, and many of the caterpillars are getting ready to pupate, which usually means they will be on the go looking for a suitable spot making them more likely to be encountered out in the open.

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Caterpillars clustered on an oak leaf (click photos to enlarge)

This past week I had a few nice encounters with a bizarre behavior – caterpillar aggregations (or clusters). The first was a group of Datana sp. (they can be tough to tell apart) larvae clustered on the back of an oak leaf in front of one of our buildings at work. Garden staff had alerted me to them so I walked over and grabbed a couple of quick pics in between what has been constant rain these past two weeks.

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Aggregation of walnut caterpillars on tree trunk

The next day, I checked on the oak leaf, and the cluster was still there, huddled together. I wasn’t sure whether it was the weather, or perhaps an impending molt, causing this behavior. When I got back to my office, another coworker texted me a photo of what looked like a blob of caterpillars on a tree trunk next to her car. This one was a bit more dramatic (as she said, it looked like a squirrel had been squashed on the side of the tree). This group looked like walnut caterpillars, Datana integerrima. They are hairier than the other species from earlier in the day, and this species feeds only on trees in the Juglandaceae family (black walnut, hickories, pecans, and butternut).

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The pile of larvae was huge and several caterpillars thick

This species is known to form large aggregations, often 2 or 3 caterpillars deep, on tree trunks (this larval pile was about 12 inches long and wrapped about 5 inches around the hickory trunk). It turns out this is a phenomenon called synchronous molting, and is fairly common in several species of Datana larvae. I looked online for information on how they manage to coordinate the timing of their molt, but was unable to find a definitive answer. I assume they are able to communicate with pheromones which may impact hormone levels that trigger the molt.

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A close-up view of the hairy mass

This process may take a couple of days before they finally shed and head back up into the tree to continue feeding. But why do these caterpillars cluster? Looking through several resources it seems there are a few theories: thermoregulation (clustering together increases body temperatures of the individuals); feeding advantages (feeding together in groups may help overwhelm plant defenses); and the most likely, anti-predator/parasitoid defense. Datana larvae typically display a defensive U-shape, raising the tip of the abdomen and arching the head and thorax back. They exude what is presumably distasteful liquid if the threat continues. They also exhibit synchronized head-flicking in response to an approaching flying predator or parasitoid. The time just before and after a molt is a very vulnerable one for caterpillars, so it makes some sense to aggregate and combine defenses, although it may also make them more vulnerable to being discovered by certain caterpillar-seekers like hungry birds or curious humans.

Walnut caterpillar sheds

Shed skins of walnut caterpillar cluster (compare to second photo above)

After work that day, I decided to go back out to the walnut caterpillar cluster for a few more photos. As I approached, I could see something was different. The cluster was not as noticeable as I approached their tree. They had all shed! The cluster now looked like a week-old squirrel carcass stuck to the tree, and almost all of the caterpillars were gone, presumably up in the canopy feeding. What a difference a few hours made. As I looked at the pile of shed skins, a slight movement caught my eye a few inches away from the heap of husks…a line of small caterpillars clinging to a green briar (Smilax sp.) vine,

Turbulent Phosphila early instars

Early instar turbulent phosphilas on Smilax sp.

These little guys are turbulent phosphilas, a favorite of mine, both for their odd name and their strange color patterns. I am more familiar with their latter instar where they are adorned in bold black and white stripes and more prominent fake eye spots that make it hard to discern which end is which. Learn more about them in an earlier blog post. I am glad to find these small larvae. Maybe a few will make it until BugFest (coming up September 15!).

I walked over to the other caterpillar cluster on the oak. They had also molted after at least two days of hanging out on that one leaf.

Datana on oak just after shedding wide view

Newly molted Datana sp. larvae on oak leaf (compare to first photo above)

I am still not quite sure which species of Datana these are…most likely either Contracted Datanas, D. contracta, or Yellow-necked caterpillars, D. ministra.

Datana on oak just after shedding side view

Arched defensive posture of Datana larvae

As I maneuvered the branch for a better photo, the cluster began to twitch and assumed the defensive U-posture common to this genus. Teamwork against a perceived threat.

Datana on oak just after shedding

Cozy caterpillars

Though they looked content all gathered together, I assume they eventually dispersed back up into the leafy regions of the tree. I am thankful to work in a place with such biodiversity and that these larval congregations were all in places so accessible that they allowed me to share a few moments of wonder with them.

Harvey

The larva of the Royal Walnut Moth is a striking object. With its curved horns and numerous spines it presents to the uninitiated a truly repellent aspect.

~W.J. Holland, in The Moth Book, 1968

Hickory Horned Devil

Hickory horned devil caterpillar (click photo to enlarge)

I must agree with Mr. Holland in that I have seen many “uninitiated” people react with horror on their first sighting of a hickory horned devil. But I, and many of my caterpillar-loving friends, think this gargantuan larva is one of the sweetest finds you can make on any summer walk in the woods. And that is exactly how I reacted a few weeks ago as we hiked out to Morgan Creek with our 16 summer campers for some creek dipping. As we neared the creek bottom, I spied some frass (caterpillar poop) in the trail. Anytime I find a cluster of frass on the ground (especially large ones like this), I look up in anticipation. After some searching, I found it, and was thrilled to see it was a hickory horned devil. It was feeding on sourwood, a host species I have never found one on before. I left it until we had finished with the creek sampling and then collected it on the way back to the classroom.

The kids were amazed at its size and further astonished that it still had some growing to do before it was done as a caterpillar. We named it Harvey (why not?) and they excitedly checked on it every day. On Friday, Harvey stopped feeding and hung under a branch, motionless. I decided to take it home for the weekend to watch it and provide fresh food, but the larva did not move until Sunday morning when I looked in and saw this…

hickory horned devil after shedding its skin

Hickory horned devil after shedding its skin

Harvey sat motionless for two entire days prior to this molt. He remained in that position much of that morning and then finally turned around and began to eat his shed skin, something I have seen these larvae do every time I have raised one.

Hickory horned devil starting to eat its shed skin

Eating the shed skin, horns first

Over the next couple of hours, I checked on its progress as the larva slowly consumed the shed skin, starting with the formidable spines.

Hickory horned devil eating its shed skin

Almost done

By the next morning, Harvey had acquired his new set of colors, the bold green with stripes and the orange “horns” that cause people to worry (unnecessarily) about their safety should they encounter this behemoth.

HHD

Final instar of a hickory horned devil

Harvey then did what caterpillars do best – he ate and ate and produced a lot of rabbit  scat sized frass. He did this for another week (with a new group of admiring summer campers) and then the final change began. It starts with a blue-ish tint appearing in the green background color. Then he stopped feeding and began crawling about the cage, a sure sign that the search is on for a place to pupate (this species burrows into the soil to form its pupa).

hickory horned devil shrinking for pupation

Harvey shrinking and getting ready for the long sleep

Over the next couple of days Harvey started to shrink. By week’s end, he was about 1/3 his original size, but would still wriggle if touched.

Hickory horned devil approaching pupation

The day before the pupa

The last morning of camp, I looked in the container and the final shed had occurred, his old skin lying next to the fresh pupa.

Hickory horned devil  fresh pupa

Shortly after the last shed, the beginnings of a pupa (it darkens over time)

The pupa took a couple of days to harden and darken. Harvey will now wait until at least next summer (some overwinter as pupa for 2 years I have read) before emerging as a beautiful Royal Walnut Moth. Thanks, Harvey, for allowing two groups of summer campers (and some astonished adults) a glimpse into part of your amazing life.

Royal walnut moth

The final product (a Royal Walnut Moth)…next year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprise Visitor

Surprise is the greatest gift which life can grant us.

~Boris Pasternak

Eastern tiger swallowtail female dark morph

Female Eastern black swallowtail, dark morph (click photos to enlarge)

I have been enjoying all the Eastern tiger swallowtails in the yard these past few weeks, along with the antics of the hummingbirds at the feeders and wildflowers. Living in a house of windows has its advantages as I can easily keep an eye on all the comings and goings in the yard as I walk from room to room.

Giant swallowtail nectaring

I saw a black-colored swallowtail with yellow under its wings

This morning, something caught my eye and my brain registered a flash of surprise. I saw a large, dark-colored butterfly, wavering at various flowers, at each one for just a second or two. But the undersides of its wings were mainly yellow, quite different from the dark morph Eastern tiger swallowtail females I usually see. From somewhere in my field guide memory banks, the ID came rushing out – a giant swallowtail in the yard! I have never seen one of these beauties in North Carolina (I vaguely remember seeing one in Florida, where they are much more common). I grabbed my camera and went outside to document it, but found it frustratingly elusive. It was in constant motion, visiting various flowers (mainly garden phlox, Joe-Pye weed, and ironweed) for only a few seconds before fluttering on. After my brief time with this species, I definitely agree with Jeff Pippen’s summary of giant swallowtails on his web siteGiant Swallowtails are notoriously challenging to photograph with a point-and-shoot style camera because they stay in constant motion while nectaring, fluttering their forewings for balance rather than perching.

Giant swallowtail resting

After fluttering around the yard for several minutes, it landed in the sun for a few seconds

After following it around the yard for a few minutes, I was delighted when it landed on a tall goldenrod and spread its wings to soak up some sun. I grabbed a couple of photos from afar (I had my macro lens on, so not much for telephoto shots), and then crept closer.

Giant swallowtail resting close up

A rare (and beautiful) butterfly here in the Piedmont

I finally managed a couple of pics from a few feet away, highlighting its bold yellow and black marking on its dorsal surface. And then, in an instant, it was gone. I had gone inside to walk through the house to get a closer view, but when we went out the front door, it was nowhere to be seen. I went inside to look it up on the Biodiversity Project of NC butterfly web site and saw that this species is uncommon and local along our coast and very rare and local in a few spots in our foothills and low mountains. It is considered extremely rare to very rare in the Piedmont.

The reason is that the host plants are in the rue family (Rutaceae). What this means for NC is prickly-ash along the coast and hoptree at scattered inland sites. It also will lay eggs on cultivated citrus plants in our state and is considered a pest in citrus-growing regions of Florida ad elsewhere. The records for Piedmont NC (and I think this may be a new record for Chatham County) are almost all believed to be migratory individuals or localized numbers associated with potted citrus plants. Whatever the reason, I am happy this one butterfly paid us a surprise visit this morning.

 

Discovering Diversity

Bringing nature into the classroom can kindle a fascination and passion for the diversity of life on earth and can motivate a sense of responsibility to safeguard it.

~David Attenborough

We are finishing up summer camps at work and the adult group tours are starting to ramp up. In a few weeks, our school field trips will begin. While I have always believed in the value of bringing the outdoors indoors for observation, I prefer taking the student outside the classroom to see the diversity of life that surrounds us, no matter where we live. There is so much happening in the Garden right now as we begin to wind down the summer season – fall wildflowers staring to bloom, butterflies and other pollinators abound, seeds and fruit are becoming more noticeable, and visitors seem anxious to stroll our trails and take it all in (especially after all the rains we have had). After work yesterday, I decided to take a stroll through this native plant wonderland before heading home, camera in hand, to see what I could see. There were plenty of things I did not photograph – the stunning stand of cardinal flower that is concentrating hummingbirds along our Piedmont trail; the snapping turtle awkwardly grazing on lizard’s tail leaves in our vernal pool surrounded by hundreds of gray treefrog tadpoles; or the flashes of yellow as goldfinches fly up from their dinner on the seed heads of yellow composites and purple coneflowers. But I did stop to observe and digitally capture a few things that caught my eye, and called me and my macro lens over for a closer look. The diversity of life in this Garden is amazing (and is something we can all do on our own property, at least in some small way, if we plant a variety of native plants).

Pandorus sphinx moth

A beautiful Pandorus Sphinx moth resting on a building wall (click photos to enlarge)

question mark butterfly

Right next to the moth was a Question Mark butterfly on a chair arm (see the mark on the underside of the wing for which it is named?)

Few-flowered milkweed seed pod

A seed pod of a Few-flowered Milkweed releasing its treasure

Hummingbird clearwing moth at garden phlox

Hummingbird Clearwing moth feeding at Garden Phlox

Pine lily

Pine lily (Lilium catesbaei) in our carnivorous plant collection

Green lynx spider malegg

A male Green Lynx spider

Green lynx spider with wasp prey

A female Green Lynx with a large wasp as dinner

Take a stroll and discover some of the diversity outside your own door. It will be worth it!

Zestful Zebras

Butterflies and zebras. And moonbeams and fairy tales. That’s all she ever thinks about. Riding with the wind.

~Lyrics from Little Wing by Jimi Hendrix

Zebra swallowtail nectaring

Zebra swallowtail butterfly on mountain mint (click photos to enlarge)

Zebra swallowtails (Eurytides marcellus) are surely one of North Carolina’s most beautiful butterflies. Their bold pattern of black and white stripes, long tails, and the bright red spots near the base of their hind wings never fail to delight me when I spy one flitting through the summer air. They are almost never found far from their host plants, pawpaw. The most I have ever seen were down at Pettigrew State Park and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, where pawpaw is the dominant tree in the understory. I have them occasionally at home (we have several pawpaw trees on our property) and have seen them frequently this summer at work. Last week was a particularly good one for spying these flitting beauties. I am working on a photo collection of the pollinators of the NC Botanical Garden and am trying to get out once a day for at least a few minutes to document the amazing abundance of species visiting our wildflowers. While stalking some wasps on a sunny afternoon after summer camp duty, a stunning butterfly zoomed by, quivering as it foraged on a couple of species of mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp.) in the roadside Piedmont habitat.

Zebra swallowtail nectaring showing blue in wing

No other local butterfly has this dramatic shape and color combination

There is no mistaking a zebra swallowtail – a rapid flyer, with bold markings and long tails. This one was particularly gorgeous, and fast. The summer generation is larger, bolder in color and has longer tails than the early spring one and this beauty looked fresh. The tails seemed particularly long and the red spots on the hind wings especially bright. There was even a hint of blue in the stripes at certain angles. It was a challenge getting close enough to attempt a photo, and quickly became a frustration as the butterfly never sat still while flitting among the clusters of tiny mountain mint flowers. One reference said that these swallowtails have a shorter proboscis than most, and are therefore more often seen on small flowers than are other species of swallowtails. I managed a couple of in-focus (mostly) pics before I had to head back inside, but was wishing for another chance.

Zebra swallowtail shortly after emergence

A lucky find – a freshly emerged zebra swallowtail drying its wings

On Friday, we explored the habitat gardens and, as happens on most walks, one of the campers hollered, “Mister Mike, come look at this”. I walked over and peered down into the grasses and saw a newly emerged zebra swallowtail climbing up to finish hardening off its wings. I gently let it climb onto my finger and placed it on a twig of a pawpaw sapling (most likely its dining hall as a larva). At last, a non-fluttering zebra swallowtail! I grabbed a few quick photos, and thanked our young camper for her sharp eyes and inquisitiveness. Hopefully, after a week of exploring the garden, they are all taking home the lesson of the value of planting native species and the rewards of observing the beautiful mysteries of the natural world.

 

 

Spider Hunter

…most will be murderesses, but they have brought murder to a fine art, an act of exquisite precision.

~John Crompton, introduction to his book, The Hunting Wasp

Spider Wasps (Pompilidae) - Damascus, VA; possibly Tachypompilu

Rusty spider hunter wasp with prey (click photo to enlarge)

As we were starting to get into the car last weekend at my folks’ place, I saw some movement on the driveway. A closer look reveled a large wasp dragging a spider rapidly across the surface. By the time I got the camera out of the car, the wasp had carried her load another few feet. As I leaned in for a photo, she dropped her prize and scurried toward the garage door, circling as if looking for something. I have seen this behavior many times with this group of wasps, the spider hunters in the family Pompilidae.

Adult spider hunters feed on nectar, but females provision their nest with a paralyzed spider for their young. The wasp precisely stings a spider (often one that is much larger than herself) to stun it, not kill it (the developing larva needs “fresh” food, not a rotting spider corpse). Grasping the spider by the pedipalps or chelicerae, she then walks backwards, dragging her prey to a nest cavity she has already dug. If disturbed, she may drop the spider and return later to continue her labors. She may also occasionally drop the spider and scout ahead for the exact location of her burrow, which, as she gets close, she hones in on based on visual landmarks near the entrance hole.

We watched as the wasp disappeared with the spider into a hole in a crack where the pavement met the building. This is a common location for burrows of this species, the rusty spider hunter, Tachypompilus ferrugineus. In most species of spider hunters, the single egg laid on the spiders’ abdomen will hatch in about 10 days. The wasp larva eats the non-vital tissues of the stunned spider first in order to keep its meal as fresh as possible while it feasts. After completing its meal, the wasp larva spins a cocoon and pupates. One researcher reported that the size of the spider may determine the resulting sex of the developing wasp larva, with larger prey leading to female wasps. Rumor has it that many of the spider hunters can inflict a painful sting if grabbed by a careless human, but this female was busy with her provisioning and paid us no mind. We felt lucky to witness one of nature’s classic scenes of life and death in the asphalt jungle of a driveway. You just never know when or where nature will reveal some of her mystery…