Mountain Mothing

It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.

~ Vincent van Gogh

If Van Gogh is correct, then I am ripe and have found deeper meaning, at least as far as mothing is concerned. On the final night of National Moth Week, 2015, I set up the moth light on a farm gate at my parents’ home in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The habitat is very different from where I live. Besides being near the mountains and a river running out back, there is a lot more open ground than I have in my Chatham County woods. In fact, it is mostly open pasture that Dad mows for hay twice each summer. I set the UV light and sheet up along a line of trees that separates their lawn from the pasture. I really wasn’t expecting the kind of diversity I saw in my wooded yard, but wasn’t really sure what might attend the moth party.

Mayfly dun

Mayfly (click photos to enlarge)

As I had anticipated, the nearby river provided plenty of insects that spend part (or most) of their lives in the river. Several Caddisflies and numerous white Mayflies were early arrivals at the party. I was hoping for some Dobsonflies, but they were no-shows. The first couple of visits to the light showed that I was probably correct – the moth diversity, at least of those large enough for me to even attempt to identify, was much less than in the woods at home. But, there were some beetles and lots of tiny flies, and what looked like very small wasps.

Double-banded Grass Veneer, Crambus agitatellus

Double-banded Grass-veneer – Crambus agitatellus

There were also plenty of small moths, some of which turned out to be quite beautiful  (or strange, depending on your perspective I suppose) when you take a closer look. Not surprisingly, almost all the ones I could identify are found primarily in grassy habitats, and their larvae feed on grasses. The name of one group reflects that – the Grass-veneer moths. I suppose the veneer part of the name comes from their habit of tightly clinging to grasses (usually the underside) during the day, making them tough to find unless you flush them out as you walk.

Elegant Grass-veneer - Microcrambus elegans

Elegant Grass-veneer – Microcrambus elegans

One Elegant Grass-veneer perched on my tripod next to one of the small bolts. That bolt is probably less than a half inch across so that gives you some idea of the small size of this individual. They are also distinctive in that this group tends to have long labial pals, giving them a snout-like appearance. The palps presumably function as sensory receptors of some sort.

Below are a few other species I was able to tentatively identify by flipping through my field guide and online resources. As always, any confirmations or corrections are welcome as this beginning moth-er finds it challenging.

Snowy Urola - Urola nivalis

Snowy Urola – Urola nivalis

Clover Looper - Caenurgina crassiuscula

Clover Looper – Caenurgina crassiuscula

Common Gray - Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Common Gray – Anavitrinella pampinaria?

Delicate Cycnia (Cycnia tenera)

Delicate Cycnia – Cycnia tenera  – with a hitchhiker (a small midge perhaps?)

On my last check of the sheet that night, there was a new grou of moths represented – the Tiger Moths. There were at least 6 of these boldly pattered, medium-sized moths on the sheet. I recognized the group but when I started to try to identify to species i was amazed at how similar some of them are. So much so that Bug Guide let me off the hook in trying to nail down a species identification with this statement about the difficulty of identifying some related species in this group…The only full-proof method is dissection and examination of genitalia.

Nais Tiger Moth - Apantesis nais ?

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais ?

Tiger Moth - Apantesis sp.

Nais Tiger Moth – Apantesis nais – showing underwings that help in identification

Well, then, Vincent, time to call it a night I suppose. I am not sure I am that ripe or looking for that deep of a meaning quite yet.

Mothing

I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.

~Vincent Van Gogh

This week is National Moth Week, an annual celebration of the incredibly diverse and beautiful world of moths. Wednesday was a busy day out in the yard, testing some different diffusion materials for my twin lites and spending a crazy amount of time photographing the Eastern Dobsonfly I discovered resting on a tree branch. In researching the dobsonfly, I read that they are often attracted to lights at night, so it reminded me of the need to go ahead and inaugurate my new moth light. Yep, you know you are a nature nerd when you have a special light for attracting moths and other night-flying insects. The light is an ultraviolet light, since it seems, for reasons no one is quite sure about, that moths are very attracted to UV light.

moth light set up

Moth light set up (click photos to enlarge)

The set up is simple: I stretched a cotton sheet between two step ladders (most people hang a line between two trees), clamped the sheet to the ladders, hung the light on a tripod handle, and placed the tripod in front of the sheet. I then went inside and checked on the sheet periodically over the next couple of hours.

moth sheet

The moth light and sheet in action

As I expected, when I went out to check, there were an incredible number of insects on the sheet. There were two male Eastern Dobsonflies, maybe one being the same guy I photographed earlier in daylight. Then there were twenty or more decent-sized moths, the largest having about a two inch wing span. But for every moth over a half inch in size, there were probably twenty or more smaller ones. It is no wonder. There are over 2600 recognized species of moths in North Carolina, well over 15 times the number of butterflies in our state. And many of that number are very small in size, making them more difficult (for me at least) to identify. I learned a few things from those few hours of moth-watching: there are a lot of moths and a lot of different species in these woods; photographs on a moth sheet are not the most natural-looking photos; I can spend hours trying to identify moths and still not figure them all out. Luckily, there are now many excellent resources for moth-ers. The ones I found most useful for this region are:

Peterson Field Guide to Northeastern North America, David Beadle and Seabrooke Leckie; North Carolina and Virginia Moth Photos (part of Will Cook’s excellent Carolina Nature web site); Moths of North Carolina (part of the excellent series of web sites hosted by NC State Parks and the NC Natural Heritage Program); Bug Guide; and the North American Moth Photographer’s Group.

The field guide has a series of moth silhouettes that can help beginners get to major groups of moths to begin the search. Once you find something similar, you can use the various web sites to help narrow it down. I am amazed at how variable some of the species can be. But, it is a whole new world out there, and these critters are all playing various important roles in the ecosystem, from devouring the leaves and flowers of many plants, to pollinating many of our flowers, to providing food for many other species from insects and spiders to birds and bats. And many are visually stunning, so it is a pleasure to discover them just outside your door. You don’t need specialized equipment to enjoy the world of the night, just the motivation to move away from whatever screen occupies your thoughts and open the door. Look around the porch light, your windows, or simply shine a flashlight amongst your plants and you can enjoy the magical world of moths.

Here are a just a few of the species that showed up at the moth light (confirmations and/or assistance with identifications are welcome):

Brown Panopoda - Panopoda carneicosta

Brown Panopoda – Panopoda carneicosta

Hypagyrtis esther – Esther Moth

Esther Moth – Hypagyrtis esther

Polygrammate hebraeicum - The Hebrew on left; Iridopsis larvaria

The Hebrew – Polygrammate hebraeicum (left; Bent Line Gray – Iridopsis larvaria (right)

Red-fringed Emerald, Nemoria bistriaria

Red-fringed Emerald – Nemoria bistriari

Tulip-tree Beauty - Epimecis hortaria

Tulip-tree Beauty – Epimecis hortaria

Splendid Palpita Moth - Palpita magniferalis ???

Tentatively identified as Splendid Palpita Moth – Palpita magniferalis

Straight-lined Plagodis Moth - Plagodis phlogosaria??

Tentatively identified as Straight-lined Plagodis Moth – Plagodis phlogosaria

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola. Several of the lug moths have the strange habit of pointing their abdomen skyward when at rest.

Rosy Maple Moth

One of my favorite woodland moths, a Rosy Maple Moth – Dryocampa rubicunda

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth - Anisota virginiensis - female

Pink-striped Oakworm Moth – Anisota virginiensis. This female is a little over an inch long and is surrounded by some of the tiny moths I have yet to try to identify.

Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris

One of the slug moths, the Smaller Parasa, Parasa chloris, on a nearby window screen.

Unidentified - perhaps Genus Acronicta - Dagger Moths???

Unidentified – perhaps Genus Acronicta – a Dagger Moth

In addition to the many moths, a few other critters were attracted to the light:

Cixiid Planthopper

Never seen one of these before, a species of Cixiid Planthopper (I think)

Dobsonfly on moth sheet

One of the two Eastern Dobsonflies that showed up (both males)

Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper - Melanoplus punctulatus - male

A striking grasshopper, the Pine Tree Spurthroat Grasshopper – Melanoplus punctulatus – male

Monday Moths

The more you know, the more beautiful everything is.

~George Santayana

I awoke early this morning, too early. What to do? I looked out and saw a moth at the lighted kitchen window. My brain drifts to my recent sightings of moths and their seemingly endless variety. Perhaps I will learn a new one today. I know something about some groups of moths, especially their caterpillars, but have never taken the time to get to know many of the adults. So, I sat down and looked at some moth images taken last week when I left the porch light on all night in hopes of attracting a few to the screen. Some of them stood out for their odd posture – they were perched with their abdomens curved up over their backs. I have seen this on many occasions, but never took the time to try to identify them. I have always assumed this has something to do with releasing pheromones for mate attraction. But, In researching this online, there doesn’t seem to be a clear explanation for this behavior. I was, however, able to learn a bit about the identity of my odd visitors.

Red-crossed Button Slug?

Slug Moths often perch with their butts pointed skyward – this rather plain one is most likely a Red-crossed Button Slug Moth, Tortricidia pallida (click photo to enlarge)

This “moth mooning” is common in several families of moths, but one, in particular, seems to make it a habit – the Slug Caterpillar Moths (or just Slug Moths), Family Limacodidae.

Nason's Slug

Nason’s Slug larva

The group is named for their larvae, the so-called slug caterpillars. They are a fascinating and bizarre bunch which lack the usual paired prolegs found on most caterpillars, and, instead, move about in a slug-like gliding motion. They are one of my favorite groups of insects, as many of the larvae have odd shapes, colors, and armaments (several species have urticating spines which can inflict a painful “sting” if handled carelessly). But, I know relatively little about the adult moths of this group, so I dove into a few online resources this morning to try to figure them out.

Shagreened Slug Moth

Shagreened Slug Moth, Apoda biguttata

The North American Moth Photographer’s Group has a set of color plates that let beginners “walk through the moth families” as a way to get started on moth identification. You can scroll through the plates until you find a moth that resembles the one you have and then click on it for more species. I did that and quickly found that these moths belonged to the Slug Moth family. I then turned to my favorite online invertebrate resource, Bug Guide, and began to scroll through the images of Limacodid moths. I found what I think were all of the species resting on my screens that morning. The oddball name winner was the Shagreened Slug Moth. Shagreen is a name for untanned leather and must refer to the rough texture and color of this little beauty. Another common name is the Two-spotted Apoda. The genus name, Apoda, means lacking feet (the slug-like larvae); biguttata means two spots.

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth

Yellow-shouldered Slug Moth, Lithacodes fasciola

I quickly identified the other species and then noticed that not all of the online images had these moths in that pointy-butt pose. So, I took a look at one moth I had found that seemded similar in size and shape, but that was apparently more demure and kept its derriere covered on my screen.

Inverted Y Slug Moth

Inverted Y Slug Moth, Apoda Y-iversum

If I identified it correctly, it is another one with a strange name – the Inverted Y Slug Moth. It turns out that most of these species may rest with their abdomen tip curved up or tucked beneath the wings. The exposed abdomen tip posture may be an adaptation to avoid detection by predators that use sight to find food. The odd posture makes for an odd outline that may resemble a broken twig or piece of vegetation more than a moth. Whatever the reason, it did help me get started on a quest to learn more about the night-time visitors at my windows. Now that I know a little more about them, I look forward to seeing them and their kin on a more regular basis.

 

Blinded Sphinx

…wings large and splendid, which were designed to bear a precious burden through the upper air.

~Henry David Thoreau commenting on a pair of moth wings floating down as a bird ate the moth

As National Moth Week comes to a close, I found a moth that I definitely wanted to share. I found it in a most unglamorous place – the window screen of a campground restroom in the mountains of Virginia. But the moth was a large and striking one, with an unusual set of wings.

Blinded Sphinx 1

A Blinded Sphinx moth blends well with tree bark (click photos to enlarge)

As soon as I saw it, I gently placed my finger under it to allow it ti climb up so I could move it back to camp for some photographs. The moth cooperated and I admired its unusual scalloped wing edges as we walked back to the car and my camera. I placed it on a tree trunk and was impressed by how well its striking pattern suddenly blended in with the textures of tree bark. Looking in the moth field guide I had conveniently brought along showed this specimen to be the Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecata.

Blinded Sphinx, side view

Blinded Sphinx perched with upturned abdomen

These are large, somewhat common, moths of open deciduous woodlands and are found throughout much of the United States and Canada. But, this was my first, so I spent several minutes photographing it from several angles. Its abdomen curled upward when viewed from the side, a pose I have seen in many other species.

Blinded Sphinx

The moth was patterned in various shades of brown with a slight purplish cast in some areas

Key features for identification include the black stripe down the middle, the wavy edge on the hind part of the fore-wings, the purplish cast to the upper portions of the body, and a black area on the hind wings containing a blue spot with no black spot in it. This blue spot on each hind wing is said to resemble an eye iris. The lack of a black spot (or pupil) in that iris makes this a “blind” sphinx (hence the common name), when compared to other species that contain a black spot. But, my moth was apparently shy, and I was having trouble getting it to show me its “eyes”.

Blinded Sphinx  with underwings

It gave me a partial glimpse of its hind wings before zooming off

I touched it a few times on the edge of its wings, blew on it, and all I got was it starting to climb the tree trunk and then the characteristic shaking that moths often do before taking off. Apparently, when they have been still for quite some time as was the case with my moth, they need to warm their flight muscles a bit before taking wing. The moth quivered (akin to us shivering when cold to warm up our muscles) for about a minute, and then zoomed off into the forest at the high rate of speed typical of Sphinx Moths, the fighter jets of the moth world. I got a quick shot of a bit of its beautiful eye spots, and you can see the blurring in the wings from the quivering. I’d say that was a fitting way to end National Moth Week. And I will continue to watch for and photograph them in the coming weeks, as they are an incredibly diverse and interesting group of organisms.

National Moth Week

There’s mothing to do.

~from Nature Conservancy promotional article on National Moth Week

It is, indeed, the third annual National Moth Week (July 19-27, 2014). National Moth Week’s main goal is to promote awareness of moths, and to encourage people to observe and report their findings on this fascinating and little known (to most of us) group of insects. More information can be found on their web site at http://nationalmothweek.org/. So, in honor of this event, I thought I would do a couple of posts this week on moths and their caterpillars.

C arpentorworm Moth with finger for size comparison

Carpenterworm Moth on oak stump (click photos to enlarge)

A few weeks ago, a large oak out front had to be taken down because it was showing signs of imminent death – the bark splitting off, a large dead limb hanging out over the driveway, and sap oozing from some cracks near the base. One evening as I walked by the stump, I saw a large gray moth sitting on top. I wasn’t sure what it was, but then noticed something laying on the ground below.

C arpentorworm Moth pupal skin

Carpenterworm Moth pupal skin

It was a large brown pupal skin that I recognized. I had seen these once before, but instead of lying on the ground, they were sticking out of holes at right angles to the trunk of a large oak. I had identified them then as the pupal sheds of a Carpenterworm Moth, and now I had found a live adult.

C arpentorworm Moth on bark

A Carpenterworm Moth blends in with the colors of tree bark

It was probably lucky that this moth had crawled up to the recently cut surface of the stump, as I might otherwise have missed it. Their camouflaged coloration helps them blend nicely with the patterns of tree bark.

C arpentorworm Moth head on

Carpenterworm Moth view head on

I believe this specimen was a female – they are larger than the males and lighter gray in color overall. She was close to 2 inches in length and must have just recently emerged as she allowed me to pick her up without taking flight.

C arpentorworm Moth on finger

Female Carpenterworm Moth

These moths are quite large, despite being members of the so-called Micromoth family. After looking in some field guides and online, I think this one is called Robin’s Carpenterworm, Prionoxystus robiniae.

C arpentorworm Moth and pupal skin

Carpenterworm Moth and pupal skin

The larvae bore into the trunks of various hardwoods, creating large tunnels. They require up to 4 years to complete their life cycle. I still have never seen a larvae, but they must be quite large given the size of the pupal case and the resulting moth.

This is just one of the thousands of fascinating species of moths you might encounter here in North Carolina. Leave a porch light on or look for National Moth Week events in your area, and get outside to learn about this amazing and beautiful group of insects.