Anybody Home?

Every night in the woods, when most humans are safely indoors, strange creatures emerge from their lairs and leap into the air, swooping silently among the trees.~Michael Farquhar

I was strolling the yard yesterday, looking for whatever small critters caught my eye, when I walked over to the front of the house where we have some shade-loving wildflowers planted. A couple of years ago I put up a new hollow log nest box in that bed, but have had no takers, so I assumed there was a design flaw of some sort or that perhaps bees or wasps had taken over.

IMG_9318

Hollow log nest box in the yard. The PVC pipe surrounding the pole is to help prevent snakes from climbing into the box (click photos to enlarge)

I periodically check all our boxes by gently tapping on the sides or looking inside (on the bluebird boxes with opening fronts) but had never seen anything in this particular nest cavity. So, as I walked by yesterday, I gently tapped the sides, but didn’t bother to look at the box as my gaze was on a fallen log just beyond where I thought I saw something move. After a few seconds, I turned and was pleasantly surprised to see something quietly staring back at me.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box

A calm Southern Flying Squirrel wondering why I woke it up

I was only about two feet away, so I slowly turned, pulled my phone out and snapped a pic. The little guy didn’t budge, so I stepped out in front of the box to get a more straight-on view. Again, I snapped a few images, and it just quietly stared back, not twitching even a whisker.

Southern flying squirrel at nest box front view

After snapping a few photos, I stepped away to let this cute little fur ball return to its afternoon nap

I didn’t want to startle the squirrel, so I walked away without looking back until I was about 20 feet from the pole. When I glanced back, the flying squirrel had pulled back into the hole but was still keeping an eye on the bipedal interloper.

I have reported before on the flying squirrels that visit our bird feeder out back and, though I have not seen them lately, I suspected they were back at it as the sunflower seed seems to be disappearing quicker than usual. Last night, I turned the porch lights on just before heading to bed, and there was a flying squirrel hanging on the tube feeder, stuffing itself. I guess I show my bias when I am happy to share with these smallest of NC’s tree squirrels and much less tolerant of their gray daytime cousins.

Rain Man (and Woman)

A rainy day is a perfect time for a walk in the woods.

~Rachel Carson

I am finally getting around to posting about our trip to one of our favorite backpacking spots, Mount Rogers, VA. My backpacking and camping queen (you know who I am talking about) has been chomping at the bit to get out on the trail since the pandemic has caused us to hole up at home. So, after spending a few days helping my mom in her home in southwest VA, we planned to do an overnight to the nearby high country of Mt. Rogers. Since it was a weekday (and there was a less than ideal forecast), we were able to secure a spot in the overnight backpackers lot at Grayson Highlands State Park without having made online advance reservations (definitely required for weekend trips). We hit the trail after lunch and planned to do a short 2.7 mile hike to an area just off the Appalachian Trail on Forest Service lands. The cool temperatures made for a pleasant hike, and the overcast skies enriched the colors of the woodland details. As is usually the case on our backpacking trips, I did not carry my camera gear, so all accompanying images were taken with an iPhone.

_-2

Frequent rains make for a lush forest floor in the highlands (click photos to enlarge)

_

Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)

_-5

A huge mushroom with a world of invertebrates in its gills

_-10

The highlands are home to numerous fruit-producing trees and shrubs like blueberries, blackberries, hawthorn, and mountain ash

It started raining about halfway on our journey, lightly at first, but then hard enough that we sought shelter under a spruce tree for a few minutes before marching on. Fortunately, we arrived at our campsite during a lull in the precipitation, so we were able to get the tent set up without much problem. But, as we started to put up the all-important tarp, the skies opened and our spirits dampened (along with everything we owned).

_-6

That look you get when you have been waiting to backpack for sooooo long, and it rains on your parade

_-7

The tarp is a life-saver on this kind of trip (once you manage to get it set up)

We finally got the tarp up and ate dinner, but dove into the tent as the torrential downpour began. It rained most of the night and continued past first light the next morning. It eventually eased up enough to encourage us out of our still dry tent and into the wet world. With the normally expansive vistas shrouded in low clouds, it encouraged us to focus more on the small beauties along the way. All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy couple of days.

Maple looper, Parallelia bistriaris

A Maple Looper, Parallelia bistriaris

_-11

The wild ponies help keep the meadows open

_-14

The highlands are home to amazing textures and colors of lichens…

_-13

…you just need to pause and look closely

_-22

The green colors of ferns, mosses, and lichens were richly saturated in the gray skies

_-8

Patterns and textures everywhere

_-15

The upright fertile shoots of the Fan Clubmoss contain the spores. In prehistoric times, some clubmosses reached the height of trees and often dominated the landscape.

Turk's Cap Lily

We spotted a single Turk’s Cap Lily ((Lillium superbum) on our hike

_-21

Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), as the name implies,  has been used to treat a variety of ailments in the past

_-20

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum sp.) were found scattered across the high balds

_-19

A view as the cloud bank started to lift (barely)

_-16

We lifted a few rocks in a tiny rivulet along the trail and found three salamanders

_-23

The highlands are home to an incredible variety of fungi. I believe this is a Pigskin Earthball, Scleroderma citrinum

Upright Coral Fungus, Ramaria stricta

This beauty was growing on a fallen log…probably the Upright Coral Fungus, Ramaria stricta

Eyelash Cup, Scutellinia scutellata

I love the names of this one – Eyelash Cup (Scutellinia scutellata) – also called the Molly Eye-winker, the Scarlet Elf Cap, and the Scarlet Pixie Cup. Look closely and you can see the fine fringe of filaments resembling eyelashes along the edge of each cup.

Ponies at Grayson Higlands SP

As we left the park, the weekend crowds were starting to arrive, the clouds were lifting, and the ponies were doing what they do, adding a touch of glamour to the most beautiful mountains in Virginia

 

 

 

 

National Moth Week Ends

I think that engaging with natural history – learning the identity and phenology of your neighbors by reading about their stories, and studying their lives alongside your own can give anyone a sense of rootedness.

~Henry Hershey

One reason I like National Moth Week so much is that it reminds me to make the effort to learn more about our little-known (and certainly under-appreciated) nocturnal neighbors. We were absent for much of this years’ event (plus evening thunderstorms hindered efforts) but we managed to set out a moth sheet and black light again last night. Visitors included several moth species new to me and a host of other night-flying insects, especially members of the beetle clan. Below are some highlights (as always, any species ID corrections are welcome)…

Common Spragueia Moth, Spragueia leo

Common Spragueia Moth, Spragueia leo, a small bird-dropping moth (click photos to enlarge)

Double-banded Grass-veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Another tiny moth, a Double-banded Grass-veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Crowned Slug Moth, Isa textula

The adult form of one of our favorite caterpillars, the Crowned Slug Moth, Isa textula

Common Pinkband, Ogdoconta cinereola

Common Pinkband, Ogdoconta cinereola

Sooty Lipocosmodes, Lipocosmodes fuliginosalis

A very small, but beautiful, Sooty Lipocosmodes, Lipocosmodes fuliginosalis

Striped Oak Webworm, Pococera expandens

A snappy dresser, a Striped Oak Webworm, Pococera expandens

Large Paectes Moth, paectes abrostoloides

Neutral colors are in this year – Large Paectes Moth, Paectes abrostoloides

Dusky Groundling, Condica vecors

Dusky Groundling, Condica vecors

Terrenella Bee Moth, Aphomia terrenella

Terrenella Bee Moth, Aphomia terrenella – not much is known about this species but larvae may feed on the honeycomb and/or larvae of bees

Bicolored Angle, Macaria bicolorata?

Though simialr in appearance to others in its group, I think this is a Bicolored Angle, Macaria bicolorata

Large Mossy Glyph, Prododeltote muscosula

Large Mossy Glyph, Protodeltote muscosula

Dimorphic Macalla Moth, Epipaschia superatalis

Dimorphic Macalla Moth, Epipaschia superatalis

Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Darapsa myron

The prize-winning moth of the night, a Virginia Creeper Sphinx, Darapsa myron (we both really love the sphinx moths for their beauty, patterns, and sleek design)

In addition to some cool moths, the light attracted many other critters. The most abundant (and smallest of the lot) were various species of caddisflies and the ubiquitous May Beetles (the ones that constantly pound on our windows at night). Here are some of the larger non-moth neighbors….

Cicada, Neotibicen sp

Several noisy cicadas (Neotibicen sp.) showed up last night

Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata

Grapevine Beetle, Pelidnota punctata

Brown Prionid Beetle, Orthosoma brunneum

The formidable-looking Brown Prionid Beetle, Orthosoma brunneum

Carolina Pine sawyer, Monochamus carolinensis

Several species of longhorned beetles showed up, including this Carolina Pine Sawyer, Monochamus carolinensis

White Oak Borer, Goes tiginus

A large White Oak Borer, Goes tigrinus

Eastern Hercules Beetle

Another huge Eastern Hercules Beetle, Dynastes tityus, male made an appearance. These guys are like small tanks!

Fiery Searcher Beetle, Calosoma scrutator

The fastest (and second largest) beetle of the night was this Fiery Searcher Beetle, Calosoma scrutator. These are in the caterpillar hunter group of beetles and can produce a strong musky odor and a painful bite if mishandled. Adults can live up to three years and can consume hundreds of caterpillars (including tent caterpillars and gypsy moth larvae) in their lifetime

Just because National Moth Week is over, don’t let that stop you from turning on a porch light or setting out a moth sheet to learn more about some of our amazing nocturnal neighbors.

 

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…

IMG_9216

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).

_

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.

Fall webworm close up 1

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

IMG_8970

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