Woods Wandering

Forests are places where we can get back in touch with our inner selves, where we can walk on soft ground, breathe in natural cents, taste berries, listen to the leaves crackling – all the senses are awakened in the subdued light…

~Pierre Lieutaghi

I decided to wander away from the house one morning and stroll through the “back 14”. The bulk of our 14 acres of forest is on some steep terrain, with a ravine and an intermittent stream “valley” making up the lowlands. Earlier this spring I spent a lot of mornings down slope from the house cutting and painting Eleagnus shrubs to try to kill off some of this terrible invasive. I have let up on those pursuits with the onset of the sweltering heat and humidity of summer, but I thought it was time for a leisurely stroll to see what I might find. Spiders and snails dominated the scene and I found myself picking up a branch to wave in front as I walked (although I tried to step around any webs that I saw).

Arrowhead orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata
Arrowhead Orbweaver, Verrucosa arenata (click photos to enlarge)
Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum wrapping be
Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum, wrapping beetle in silk

Two spider species seemed to be the most abundant – the unusually-shaped (but accurately named) Arrowhead Orbweaver and various sizes of the more common Red-femured Spotted Orbweaver. The largest specimen I encountered was busy wrapping its overnight catch of a large May Beetle in silk.

Red-femured spotted orbweaver, Neoscona domiciliorum 1
The spider stopped spinning its prey and settled in for a meal

As I walked, I started paying more attention to tree leaves and what I might find on them. If I saw chewing, I flipped it over to see if I could discover the chewer. On one hickory tree, I found a cluster of neat little eggs underneath a leaf. I think these may be moth eggs of some sort, although a species of true bug eggs is also a possibility (stink bugs, etc.). But, they seem to lack the usual lid associated with eggs of the latter group.

eggs an parasitoid wasps
A cluster of insect eggs under a hickory leaf

I also noticed some other insects associated with this egg mass – tiny parasitoid wasps of some sort diligently laying their eggs. They were purposeful in their movements and spent some time with each egg they parasitized. I saw six of the wasps, so I wonder how many of these insect eggs will actually hatch out the species that originally laid the cluster.

eggs and parasitoid wasps
Parasitoid wasps laying eggs in the insect eggs

A Spicebush leaf yielded a member of one of my favorite groups of mini-creatures, a treehopper. These tiny jumpers are often adorned with strange appendages that help them mimic thorns or other features of their background, giving them both some armor-like protection and camouflage. As usual, I went to my go-to resource for this type of insect, Hoppers of North Carolina. There I learned that this is probably a female based on the long length of its horn (males have short horns). There are apparently several species in this group that look alike and may be separated primarily by host plant. Though Spicebush is not listed as a host plant, this one was next to a small Redbud tree, which is a known host plant. Right after I snapped this photo, this one leaped onto the Redbud. Another interesting tidbit is that these little hoppers can communicate by vibrating the substrate they are on. Research has shown that they communicate mating calls, food sources, and danger from predators using these vibrations (inaudible to the human ear).

Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex
Two-marked Treehopper, Enchenopa binotata complex

Chewed leaves on a maple branch caused me to stop and look, leading to this discovery – one of the twig mimic caterpillars. This fairly large larva is distinguished by the dark stripes on the head capsule, the dark line on the slight hump near the far end, and the first two pair of prolegs that are noticeably reduced in size. It is the caterpillar of a really cool-looking moth, the Maple Looper.

Maple looper caterpillar 1
Caterpillar of the Maple Looper Moth, Parallelia bistriaris

As always, there were plenty of other macro surprises and delights along the way…

land snail
These small land snails were everywhere on my walk
maple seed embedded in pawpaw leaf
A maple seed has pierced a Pawpaw leaf

As I neared the house, I spotted something new to me in a patch of Microstegium – a dark-colored stink bug with prominent spines. I leaned in and saw it was missing most of one antenna. Online information said little is known about the life history of this species although it appears to eat both plants and other insects, but is not an agricultural pest like some of its relatives. What struck me most was the stark beauty of this species and its textured exoskeleton. Once again, a close look at our surroundings yields many surprises.

Black Stink Bug, Proxys punctulatus

Walking Small, Part 2

Look slowly and hard at something subtle and small.

~Philip Pearlstein

Some more finds while wandering in the heat in our yard jungle. The first one was a challenge. I noticed missing leaves at the tip of a Virginia Creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Only the curved stems of the leaves remained. I looked closely, and gently pulled the vine up from the sapling it was climbing for a closer look. At first, nothing. Then, something I touched moved. I stared at it and realized it was not a leaf petiole…it was a caterpillar.

geometer moth larva

Tentative identification is the caterpillar of the Lesser Grapevine Looper moth, Eulithis diversilineata (click photo to enlarge)

geometer moth larva close up

A close up helps to find the well-camouflaged caterpillar

These petiole-mimic larvae often rest underneath a leaf (of wild grape or Virginia Creeper) in a curved position where they really do like like a leaf petiole!

Lacewing larva

Lacewing larva with fuzz from flatid planthopper nymphs (probable prey items) stuck to its back

I always stop to look at the fuzzy little blobs that crawl along the trees in the yard. They are usually the larvae of lacewings, armed with sickle-shaped jaws that pierce aphids and planthopper nymphs. These tiny predators then place the discarded remains on spines on the back to complete their wolf-in-sheeps-clothing disguise.

Large Milkweed Bug

A Large Milkweed Bug, Oncopeltus fasciatus, probing a milkweed seed pod

The milkweed patch continues to provide some nice finds. I spotted a Large Milkweed Bug in the typical dress of orange and black for a critter that is distasteful to potential predators due its toxic diet of milkweed. These are primarily seed feeders, piercing through a seed pod into developing milkweed seeds with their sharp proboscis. They then inject digestive enzymes which dissolve the nutrients within the seed, allowing the bug to suck it up through that long beak. One interesting tidbit about these bugs is that they undergo migrations every year with overwintering southern populations migrating northward in spring to colonize milkweed patches as far north as Canada. As day length shortens with accompanying cooler temperatures, they migrate back to warmer climes.

As always, any slow stroll around the yard leads to a variety of tiny discoveries that are part of the complex matrix that helps a system function. Here are a few more of the pieces that make the machine that is our yard’s machinery work. Be sure to get outside and check your yard’s or neighborhood’s engine and see what makes it click. If you have a variety of native plants, you’ll be amazed at all the parts.

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Banded Longhorn Beetle, Typocerus velutinus

Handsome trig nymph

Nymph of a Handsome Trig, Phyllopalpus pulchellus (missing one leg)

Preying mantis nymph

Nymph of a Praying Mantis

Scudder's bush katydid nymph on black-eyed Susan

Another colorful nymph of a Scudder’s Bush Katydid, Scudderia sp.

Leaf-footed bug nymph with parasitoid egg on  it

A more ominous-looking nymph of a Leaf-footed Bug, Acanthocephala sp. (notice the lwhite blob, a ikely parasitoid egg, on its thorax)

Wheelbug nymoh

A definitely ominous-looking nymph of an Assassin Bug (aka Wheel Bug), Arilus cristatus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider

Dorsal view of a tiny jumper – most likely Colonus puerperus

Colonus (puerperus)? jumping spider side view

Nice eyes

hummingbird at bee balm

I cheated a little on this one – a Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding on Bee Balm (Monarda didyma), shot through the glass in our sun room window

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

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.

First of Season

Camouflage is the most interesting of all the arts.

~Kris Saknussemm

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

IMG_8690

First Copperhead of the season (click photos to enlarge)

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

IMG_8691

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

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

Mulberry Moments

Green gives and red receives. Nature is colour coded!

~Sonali Mohan

Some of you may have known him, and, even if you didn’t, you may have one of his bluebird boxes in your yard. Jack Finch started a non-profit, Homes For Bluebirds, to help restore his beloved Eastern Bluebird to the skies of the southeast. He built thousands of quality bluebird nest boxes and was tireless in his efforts to promote ways to enhance bluebird populations. When I worked at the museum, I made frequent trips out to his farm to purchase nest boxes for schools and to talk about bluebirds. He was always experimenting with ways to provide more food for bluebirds from raising mealworms to selecting for late blooming dogwoods that would produce berries later into the season. For awhile, he promoted mulberry trees as a food source, and that is how I ended up with a sapling many years ago.¬† I planted it in what was then a sunny spot near my shop, and now, the tree produces berries every spring for the local wildlife. I hope Jack would not be disappointed that his tree has more green and red than blue.

It turns out that Scarlet Tanagers are frequent visitors and berry pickers in this tree every spring. This week, as I was going in and out of the shop while tinkering on some woodworking projects, I kept seeing tanagers feeding. So, I brought out the camera, set up the tripod at the door, got comfortable in a chair, and waited.

Male scarlet tanager with berry

Male Scarlet Tanager eating a mulberry (click photos to enlarge)

Scarlet tanager female reaching for berry

Female Scarlet Tanager reaching for a berry

Female scarlet tanager

Female Scarlet Tanager in a rare spot of sunlight in the branches

The tree leans out over the driveway and has one branch down low at eye level. There are only a few spots where a bird can perch that present a clear shot through the branches and leaves, but it was great fun watching them come and go. They are active feeders in that they often have to flutter their wings to maintain their balance while reaching out to the twig tips for berries, adding to the photography challenges.

male scarlet tanager 1

This male landed in spot where the green background provided a nice contrast to his brilliant red plumage

At first, I was usually seeing a pair, a male and female, coming together. On one visit, another male showed up! And a few seconds later, a male Summer Tanager flew in (but avoided having his picture taken), along with what I first thought was an immature male Summer Tanager. It had a lot of yellow coloration mixed with the red. In reading online, it seems that some older females may have a lot of red overtones (females are usually yellow), and this one’s colors are more blended than patchy. I’m not exactly sure which sex this one is, but now I’m leaning towards a female, as the immature males I have seen in the past were more splotchy.

Immature male tanager

A Summer Tanager with a lot of red and yellow coloration

That certainly was a highlight of my mulberry viewing – five tanagers at once! In between tanager feedings, I saw a lot of other species going about their daily routines.

female cardinal

This female Northern Cardinal stopped in for a quick visit

Swainson's thrush

A Swainson’s Thrush was feeding on the few remaining American Holly berries on a nearby tree

Wood thrush

A pair of Wood Thrush made regular foraging trips to the area just outside the shop

ovenbird

An Ovenbird calling nearby finally came for a quick visit

Chipmunk watching me

An Eastern Chipmunk, with both cheeks full, sat and watched me for about 5 minutes before deciding I was safe and moving on

A few notables that I saw but didn’t get photos for included Chipping Sparrows, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, the family of Carolina Wrens that fledged from inside my shop, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Blue Jays, a Red-tailed Hawk, and a Black-throated Blue Warbler. But, the stars of the show are definitely the male Scarlet Tanagers.

side view male scarlet tanager

The red is so intense on a male Scarlet Tanager that it makes a cardinal almost seem pale

I think Thoreau summed it up nicely in his description of a male Scarlet Tanager…

The tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.

 

 

Suet Sampler

I don’t feed the birds because they need me; I feed the birds because I need them.

~Kathi Hutton

Sunday was a gray, chilly day here in the woods and the birds were quite active at the feeders. One group of birds, in particular, had my attention, the gorgeous Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. The Rose-breasted Grosbeaks have been back about two weeks. They make a stop of a few weeks every spring on their way to their breeding grounds further north (and in our mountains), and then again in the fall as they head to their wintering grounds in Central and South America. I decided to set up the camera and tripod in our bedroom, open the door to the deck, and record who came to visit the suet feeder mounted on the deck rail. I did something similar a few years back and shared images in another post. This time, I sat for a little over an hour, and tried to take pictures of everything that came in to the feeder. Enjoy the view from our deck…

Rose-breasted grosbeak male

Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak (click photos to enlarge)

It started with a single male and we are now up to our usual number of 9 grosbeaks visiting the feeders – 7 males and 2 females. They tend to come in all at once and spread out between our two feeding stations. Their favorite treat seems to be the sunflower seeds at the platform feeders (they have trouble balancing on the tube feeder). But they are also frequent the suet feeders as well, especially the one on the deck which has a branch underneath where birds can perch and reach up to the suet. Because of our superabundance of squirrels, we use only hot pepper suet, which is a deterrent to mammals, but not birds.

Rose-breasted grosbeak males at feeder

Lining up at the suet.

Rose-breasted grosbeak female

Female Rose-breasted Grosbeaks are brown with striping and a bold eye stripe.

Blue jay

The undisputed piggies at the suet are the Blue Jays. They can quickly take chunks away, but they are a bit skittish, and flush easily if we are outside or walking near widows inside.

Red-bellied woodpecker female

A pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers (this is the female which lacks a full red head) are regular year-round visitors to the suet.

Downy and chippie

Downy woodpeckers are also regular visitors, but this spring we also have a pair of Chipping Sparrows feeding in the yard.

White-breasted nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch.

Tufted titmouse

We have a gang of Tufted Titmice that make regular rounds throughout the yard.

Carolina chickadee

Carolina Chickadees are with us all year.

Northern cardinal 1

A pair of Northern Cardinals visit the feeders every day, but it is mainly the male that feeds on suet.

Summer tanager

Another of our special suet visitors is a pair of Summer Tanagers (we have only seen the male thus far).

Pine warbler with caterpillar

Pine Warblers are common at our suet in winter but not this time of year. This one stopped by his old diner with a side dish of caterpillar.

I missed photos of two other birds that eat the suet this time of year – American Crows (who are too savvy to come in while I’m sitting there), and our local pair of Carolina Wrens. They are busy feeding their newly fledged young and don’t have time for an appearance.

There have been some other good bird finds this week away from the feeders as spring migration is in full swing and our newly arrived breeding birds are setting up territories or starting to nest. I stumbled across an Ovenbird nest with eggs down in our woods while clearing some invasive shrubs (the dreaded Eleagnus). She flew out of her dome-shaped ground nest doing the broken wing act to lure me away. And we have seen and heard a variety of migrants all week long, some that will stay with us through the summer…

Red-eyed vireo

A bonus visitor just off the deck – a Red-eyed Vireo, foraging for insects.

Scarlet tanager

This is the best I could do with one of my favorite summer species, the vibrant Scarlet Tanager. They tend to be up high in the canopy but should come down lower in a few weeks when the mulberries ripen (a treat for both species of tanagers in our woods).

Yellow-throated warbler in yard

Remember how excited we were to see the Yellow-throated Warbler down low along the Roanoke River? Well, the other day one was hopping around in our garden. While this was happening we saw and heard American Redstarts, a Black-and-white Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and Black-throated Blues. Ah, spring!

Keepin’ On, Goin’ On

No matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.

~Maya Angelou

There has been a lot of talk these past few weeks of the value of connecting with nature, especially during these stressful times where everything “normal” seems unattainable. There is definitely solace in knowing that nature continues on its march toward new life. By going outside and seeing the progression of spring, the greening of the forests, the blooming flowers, and the awakening of our fellow creatures, we feel reassured that life is continuing, that the planet is still breathing. One afternoon last week, I walked around the yard looking for signs of new beginnings. Here are a few highlights…

caterpillar after molting with shed skin

Caterpillar (a species of pinion moth, I believe) just after shedding its skin (click photos to enlarge)

It is a season of firsts…the first clutch of Carolina Wrens fledged this past week in their protected nest area inside my workshop. As I did last year, I removed a window screen so the little ones could get outside to join their anxious parents (the parents have learned to come and go through a small gap in the metal roof, but the young have a tough time finding that and just cluster at the window); the first Summer Tanager and first Rose-breasted Grosbeak appeared last week; the first Zebra Swallowtail of the season, and so much more.

zebra swallowtail laying egg

The first Zebra Swallowtail of the season was flitting around our Pawpaw trees (her host plant), laying eggs

zebra swallowtail resting

She would lay an egg or two and then go land in a sunny spot for a minute or so, and then return to lay more eggs

zebra swallowtail laying egg 1

She curls her abdomen and glues an egg to a Pawpaw leaf

eastern tiger swallowtail egg on tulip poplar

I also found a few Eastern Tiger Swallowtail eggs on Tulip Poplar leaves (Zebra Swallowtail eggs are similar in shape but lighter i color)

Sitting on the porch one afternoon, Melissa saw another Nessus Sphinx Moth hovering near the ground. Virginia Creeper is a host plant and we have an abundance of it scattered around the yard. We finally saw the moth touch down twice on a leaf over the span of a few minutes. We gently turned over the leaf and found 3 eggs (she or another moth had been there before).

Nessus sphinx eggs on VA creeper

Nessus Sphinx Moth eggs on the underside of a Virginia Creeper leaf

There’s a lot to look forward to with the new beginnings all around us. Stay safe.

Blue-gray Silk Snatcher

Its nest is composed of the frailest materials, and is light and small in proportion to the size of the bird.

~John James Audubon on the nest of what he called the Blue-grey Fly-catcher

A friend and co-worker of Melissa says the wispy call of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher¬† (Polioptila caerulea) sounds like a faint “Steve”. So, a couple of weeks ago, when I heard Melissa call out, “Steve”, while scanning the treetops, I knew the little dynamos had returned. Their faint song is pretty much out of my hearing range these days, so it wasn’t until a few days later that I spotted my first one, flitting around some tree branches, waving its seemingly too long of a tail back and forth as it snapped up insects too tiny for me to see through my binoculars. Then, last week, we spotted two together at a small Eastern Tent Caterpillar nest on a cherry tree off our deck. The gnatcatchers were pulling silk from the caterpillar nest for use in their own. In the past two weeks we have also seen Tufted Titmice and Carolina Chickadees at these caterpillar structures, although I only saw the chickadee pull out a couple of the larvae and then drop them (they may be too hairy for their tastes). Gnatcatchers make a beautiful nest similar in construction to that of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, but larger. I wrote about watching a nesting pair at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in an earlier post. Here is a photograph of that nest showing the cup-like structure made of lichens, lined with plant fibers, and held together with spider and insect silk.

Blue-gray gnatcatcher in nest 2

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher in nest from an earlier post (click photos to enlarge)

A couple of days ago, Melissa was working on a museum project out on our porch and told me she noticed that the gnatcatchers had been making regular visits to the caterpillar webbing closest to our deck. I grabbed the camera, my 300mm lens, and a tripod, and took up a position on the deck steps. I spent the next two hours waiting and watching. A few times I was rewarded with a frantic minute or so of trying to capture the quick movements of their behavior as they gathered silk.

Bg gnatcatchers at tent caterpillar nest

The tent caterpillar nest with both gnatcatchers collecting silk – the female at the main web, the male puling from the silk trails left on the branches by the foraging larvae

There were four silk-snatching visits during the time I sat there, mostly by the female. On two occasions, the male accompanied her and gathered some silk from nearby branches while she pulled from the main web structure.

BG gnatcatcher at tent caterpillar nest

Gnatcatcher snapping up strands of silk

BG gnatcatcher with silk in beak

This look reminded me of how I feel with a mouthful of gooey campfire-roasted marshmallows

BG gnatcatcher at tent caterpillar nest 2

She pulled at the webbing from different vantage points on different visits

BG gnatcatcher at tent caterpillar nest 3

She usually snapped at the silk rather than picking at it with just the tip of her bill

BG gnatcatcher at tent caterpillar nest 1

Then she would pull until the silk broke free

BG gnatcatcher at tent caterpillar nest 4

After several pulls, she would fly off with the “glue” that holds her delicate nest together

The birds flew off in the same direction each time, so we will be looking for their nest in the coming days. But, I’m afraid the ones we have found here in the past (up to 75 feet up in the treetops) have not been as cooperative for viewing as the one at the garden.