Love my yard!

scarlet-mallow-i77a6509-maria-de-bruyn-res2016 began with distress for me, having just been admitted to hospital in considerable pain and worried about expenses. So when I was able to get home again and find diversion from the necessity of self-administering an IV medication twice daily by admiring what nature has to offer in my yard, it was a more-than-welcome event.

Even when my mood is down, walks in nature soothe my spirit since my mind becomes totally absorbed by what I’m observing and there’s no space for any other thoughts. Even aches and pains recede to the background so when I can’t get out to a reserve or park, taking advantage of the little plot of land I call my own is a real delight.

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The yard has everything – plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, which is very cool indeed. Spring and summer are especially lovely with the blooming flowers and I’ve taken care to include many native vegetative species among the plantings.

 

honey-bee-morning-calisthenics-i77a5676-maria-de-bruyn-resThe flowers and shrubs not only attract birds but many species of insects, too, and give me plenty of chances to practice photographing bees in flight and butterflies nectaring. The Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica), and European honey bees (Apis mellifera) were good models, as were the Eastern tiger swallowtails (Papilio glaucus) and American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) butterflies.

eastern-carpenter-bee-2-i77a7906-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-carpenter-bee-i77a8678-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-tiger-swallowtail-i77a8669-maria-de-bruyn-res  american-lady-img_0069-maria-de-bruyn-res

blue-pickerel-weed-i77a3947-maria-de-bruyn-resThe front yard has one small pond with blue pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata) and the back yard has two ponds and a heated bird bath in winter. Deer, raccoons and birds, like this American robin (Turdus migratorius) use these as watering holes.

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bullfrog-i77a9694-maria-de-bruyn-resFish live in one pond along with green and/or bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus). Occasionally, I’ve had to rescue an adventurous Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) that didn’t seem able to climb out again on the logs provided as bridges out of the water. Other turtles trundle around in other parts of the yard.

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Raquel raccoon (Procyon lotor) and members of her family usually appear at night, as do the local opossums, of whom I have few photos. When Raquel is expecting another brood or in nursing mode, she gets more adventurous and comes round in the daytime.

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The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) come by all months of the year and provide opportunities to see how the fawns learn about the other creatures sharing their space.

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It’s interesting to see how button bucks are followed by yearlings with nubby antlers and eventually grow up to become handsome 5- or more point bucks.

white-tailed-deeri77a4099-maria-de-bruyn-res      white-tailed-deer-i77a4097-maria-de-bruyn-res

white-tailed-deer-i77a1367-maria-de-bruyn-res  white-tailed-deer-i77a1366-maria-de-bruyn-res

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white-tailed-deer-antler-img_1211-maria-de-bruyn-resThis past year, one of the bucks was kind enough to drop one of his antlers in my yard as a souvenir.

The Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) provide endless amusement – one way is by investigating various techniques to find a way onto the bird feeders. These are largely unsuccessful, even when they climb up on the roof to see if they can launch themselves far enough to reach a feeder pole. This year, however, one enterprising squirrel managed to finally get onto a feeder by climbing up a rather large sunflower stem that held his/her weight until it bent over close to a pole.

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a5492-maria-de-bruyn-res   eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a7478-maria-de-bruyn-res

Their antics as they chase one another in play and for amorous purposes, too, are also quite entertaining.

eastern-gray-squirrel-i77a1104-maria-de-bruyn-res      eastern-gray-squirrel-77a0929-maria-de-bruyn

It’s fun to watch them caching seeds as well; sometimes, they decide a spot in the middle of the lawn is the best hiding place!

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They often will chase non-family members away from the food I put out on the ground – seeds, bits of bread and apples for the birds (crows and catbirds are especially fond of apples). They are usually (not always!) willing to tolerate the Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) who come to get some goodies, too.

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eastern-chipmunk-i77a8790-maria-de-bruyn-res  eastern-chipmunk-i77a3418-maria-de-bruyn-res

eastern-cottontail-i77a9747-maria-de-bruyn-resThe Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) don’t often go for the bird food but prefer to munch on the grasses and other plants growing on the “lawn”.

I was surprised this summer when I discovered that the beautiful neighborhood gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) was fond of bread.

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Her presence in the yard reinforced my resolve to no longer let my former indoor-outdoor cat, Jonahay, out by himself anymore. He has almost reached the ripe old age of 18 years and is going strong despite suffering arthritis, mild kidney disease, mild dementia and deafness. But all the years of having roamed outside have preserved a strong will to go outdoors so I take him for walks around the yard, which give him opportunities to mark his territory anew. (My other two cats are strictly indoor felines, although one of them likes to escape now and again.)

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Two years running now, my yard has served as a venue for a citizen-science bird banding exercise and it’s always a pleasure to see banded birds returning to the feeders, like Corey catbird (Dumetella carolinensis) who enjoys American beautyberries. They also include my intrepid Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis), Chantal, who unfortunately lost a leg (I think because she had scaly leg when she was banded and the bands were too tight but I don’t know this for sure). She is a feisty little bird and manages to balance remarkably well on her remaining leg; her daily return is always a joyous sight for me.

gray-catbird-corey-i77a4763-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-chantal-i77a7263-maria-de-bruyn-res

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2016 was an exciting year as far as caterpillars went since a large sphinx moth caterpillar (Paonias) graced the yard for the first time (at least that I had noticed).  Cute little jumping spiders (Salticidae) climb onto bird nest boxes and Eastern eyed click beetles (Alaus oculatus) are found in the leaf litter.

 

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Unfortunately, some of the stink bugs (Halyomorpha) make their way into the house so that I have to take them back outside. One of my cats made the mistake of eating one that I hadn’t got in time and she ended up quite sick, even foaming at the mouth!

mouse-img_2726-maria-de-bruyn-resOccasionally, mice (Mus) get into the house. The cats don’t eat them and aren’t out to kill them but if they catch one at night and I don’t awaken, the rodent will be dead in the morning. Otherwise, I manage to get hold of the animal (sometimes with a lot of effort) and let it go outside again.

The snowberry (Hemaris diffinis) & hummingbird clearwing moths (Hemaris thysbe) are delightful.

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And so were various birds that visited my yard for the first time this year (or at least as far as I had noticed)! They included the black and white warbler, chestnut-sided warbler and Northern parula. Here are three more, plus the beautiful great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus, left), which I’d seen before but not well.

 

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Red-eyed vireo (Vireo olivaceus)

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Scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea)

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Yellow-billed cuckoo (Coccyzus americanus)

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I’m so pleased to begin this year in my home and really hope that circumstances in 2017 will allow me to continue enjoying nature, especially in my yard as I work to make it ever more welcoming to the local wildlife. And I hope all of you who read my blog will have many opportunities to get out and appreciate our beautiful natural world, too! Happy New Year to you!

 

Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together.
All things connect.

~ Chief Seattle, 1854 ~

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See anything good?

Sandy Creek path IMG_4981© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s a common question I get when I am out on one of my nature walks. Since I carry a camera with a large zoom lens and often a smaller camera, too, it’s obvious to passersby that I’m out observing nature. And I realize that when they ask the question, what they really want to know is whether I saw anything unusual or spectacular.

A recent walk at Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC, was a case in point. I told one couple who posed the question that my most memorable sighting so far had been a male ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) – the iridescence of its body and wings in the sunlight was wonderful. They smiled a bit uncertainly and the lady of the pair admitted that she didn’t know anything about damselflies as they walked on.

ebony jewelwing I77A0417© Maria de Bruyn res   ebony jewelwing I77A0469© Maria de Bruyn res

Fragile Forktail damselfly I77A0648© Maria de Bruyn resAn hour or so later, another couple asked if I had “seen any good ones?” I repeated my delight in seeing the male damselfly, adding that the female is not as striking with her brown color and white spots. “Yes,” said the man, “that is often the case with other species. In our species, though, it’s the females who shine.” That may be the case some of the time, but my day was made by seeing a female damselfly that was a member of a new species for me – the fragile forktail (Ischnura posita).

 

My experience is that I find some beauty in almost all the wildlife I see (ticks and chiggers are an exception). So I want to share a few of those “good things” I saw at Sandy Creek Park last month in a two-part blog “tour”. In this first part, I’ll continue on with the insects.

Identifying dragonflies is not easy since the females and males can look quite different. The great blue skimmer (Libellula vibrans) provides an example – the male lives up to his name with a blue hue and large size, but the female shows off her beauty with a brown and yellow abdomen.

great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0715© Maria de Bruyn res    great blue skimmer dragonfly I77A0741© Maria de Bruyn res

The Eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) has distinctively different appearances as a male and female. The adult male is a blue individual, sometimes with a bit of greenish tint; the female – and the immature males! – is brilliant with different shades of green. I remember being excited when I first spotted a female as their green color is so striking.

Eastern pondhawk I77A0721© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern pondhawk I77A0749© Maria de Bruyn res

blue dasher I77A0172©Maria de Bruyn resThe blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) has some stripes, as do some of the bumble bees. The brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) lives up to its name with a brown stripe, while this American bumble bee (Bombus pensylvanicus) feeding on a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) has white bands. Like honey bees, the latter bee has pollen baskets (corbicula) on its hind legs in which it stores pollen. I enjoyed watching this individual – s/he would dip down into the flower, back up a bit, and then plunge forward again, almost always keeping the pollen basket above the tip of the flower.

Brown-belted bumble bee I77A0218©Maria de Bruyn res   American bumble bee I77A0763© Maria de Bruyn2 res

Bumble bee I77A6297© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The pollen gatherers were numerous during both visits and willing to share the sources of their bounty – here you see a bumble bee (Bombus), syrphid fly (Toxomerus marginatus) and sweat bee (Halictus) feeding peacefully together on a coneflower (Echinacea).

 

 

Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0768© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The milkweed plants were attracting many species of pollinators; here an Eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) was enjoying a meal.

 

 

common buckeye I77A0237© Maria de Bruyn res

 

While there were many, many bees the days of my visits, there were fewer butterflies but the common buckeye (Junonia coenia) was stunning!

 

 

The little wood satyr (Megisto cymela) and dun skipper (Euphyes vestris, to the lower right on the milkweed) were not as colorful, and some people might even call them dull, but they are still nice to see and the Eusarca moth (Eusarca confusaria) was also an evenly colored beauty. I had grown up thinking moths usually fly at night, attracted by lights so it still draws my attention when I see them in the daytime.

Little wood satyr I77A0584© Maria de Bruyn res         Eastern carpenter bee IMG_0804© Maria de Bruyn 2 res

Confused Eusarca moth Eusarca confusaria I77A5701© Maria de Bruyn

Even a somewhat tattered American lady (Vanessa virginiensis) offered a pretty view.

American lady I77A6238© Maria de Bruyn res

The broad-headed sharpshooter (Oncometopia orbona), a leaf hopper, and the spotted pink lady beetle (Coleomegilla maculata) are tiny but such colorful insects that close perusal of the vegetation helps you spot them (and presumably makes it easier for birds to see them, too?).

broad-headed sharpshooter Oncometopia orbona I77A0592© Maria de Bruyn      Spotted pink lady beetle I77A0081©Maria de Bruyn bg

Emerald ash borer trap I77A0719© Maria de Bruyn res

 

One beetle that we don’t really want to see is the emerald ash borer (Agrilus planipennis), an invasive species that came to the USA from Asia. The larvae of these beetles kill ash trees and the park administrators have hung a trap box for them to determine whether this species has reached the park.

 

 

Spotting mammals is not always easy at the park but one day fellow birder Jim was kind enough to alert me to an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) in a tree when we met on a walking path. He told me approximately where it was and I spotted that one and another in a nearby tree; I thought it might be a mother and grown offspring but that was a guess and I certainly couldn’t confirm it. As these are nocturnal animals, it was pretty cool for me to see two in broad daylight. The only marsupial found in the United States and Canada is a beneficial animal for us humans (and other wildlife) as they could eat up to 4000 ticks in a week! 

opossum IMG_0605© Maria de Bruyn res     opossum I77A5788© Maria de Bruyn res

One of the pair demonstrated that they can open their jaws widely – watching him/her slowly stretch that mouth offered me a surprise; I would think it couldn’t go any further and the animal continued to show that s/he could really please a dentist who would like lots of space to investigate those teeth.

opossum I77A5897© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern cottontail rabbitI77A5578© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

The Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) was not so lucky, carrying a fat tick in its ear. Too bad the opossums couldn’t come by and groom him/her and remove that pesky arachnid!

 

The park is not only attractive for the entomologists. Reptile enthusiasts can spot turtles fairly easily, especially in the spring when they are looking for places to lay their eggs. A large painted turtle was crossing a field looking for a spot, while an Eastern mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) was trundling down a paved path one morning, not far from a pond which often has many painted turtles and red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), like this one – who must have been a bit bothered by a bird feather caught in its shell.

Eastern mud turtle IMG_0741© Maria de Bruyn res    Red-eared slider I77A5941© Maria de Bruyn2

Which bird could it have been? I’m thinking a swallow – see part 2 of the tour for a view of the species and more of the wonderful biodiversity that can be seen in the park.

 

It’s a bird! No, it’s not! It’s an insect??!!

Clearwing moth first photo©Maria de BruynSeveral years ago, as I was beginning to photograph wildlife more seriously, I became quite excited at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Buzzing around some profusely blooming flowers was what I thought might be the smallest hummingbird I had ever seen. I was not used to taking shots of something that was in almost constant motion, but I persisted until I got photos that made it at least a little recognizable. I lost the original photo when both my computer and my back-up hard drive crashed at almost the same time, but I “rescued” one of those first photos from a Word document.

Hummingbird clearwing moth brown IMG_2701 M de Bruyn resizedI soon learned that what I had seen was actually an insect – a hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) to be precise. This is likely one of the first insects that I ever got enthusiastic about.

I have seen a second, similar, species called the snowberry clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), seen below.

 

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_8436dddd nr MdBSnowberry Clearwing moth IMG_8492

So, how do you tell the species apart? The snowberry clearwing has a dark band running from its eye down its throat and thorax and its legs are black, while the hummingbird clearwing lacks the thick dark band and has yellowish or paler legs.

snowberry and hummingbird clearwing moths IMG_7461©Maria de BruynresSome people identify these moths as bumblebee mimics, which also makes sense since they are similar in size to bumblebees. Here you see a hummingbird clearwing moth next to a silver-spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus, one of the smaller butterflies).

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_8252dnr MdBAnd here you see a snowberry clearwing next to a large milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). The adult moths are about 1.25-2 inches (3.18-5 cm) long.

Large milkweed bug and snowberry clearwing moth IMG_6290©Maria de Bruynres

The clearwings have an upper body color that ranges from tan to green. They are quite “furry” and have cute little tufts at their posteriors. Underneath they are pale, whitish or yellowish.

Hummingbird clearwing moth brown IMG_1822 MdBHummingbird clearwing moth green IMG_2200 MdB

Both species have dark abdomens. The juvenile moths have dark wings but scales fall away as they mature leaving clear, transparent, panels in their wings. They would make good subjects for a stained glass artist!

Hummingbird clearwing moth IMG_0027 MdB

Like butterflies, these moths have a long proboscis (tongue) that they can curl up when resting or during flight. The adult moths sip nectar from a variety of plants including Japanese honeysuckle, beebalm, red clover, lilacs, phlox and thistles. In my yard, they are especially fond of the butterfly bushes (Buddleja davidii), which I just discovered can be an invasive plant (so I have to keep them trimmed and make sure to lop off the dried flowers before seeds spread).

Hummingbird clearwing moth IMG_9982 MdBHummingbird clearwing moth green IMG_1955 MdB

Snowberry clearwing moth IMG_4435©Maria de Bruyn resTheir caterpillars are called hornworms as they have a horn at the rear; I have not seen one yet but they must be around somewhere. They pupate in leaf litter and on the ground; since I leave the fallen leaves around, I’ve been providing them with a childhood and adolescent home! And that’s good as I really look forward now to welcoming them to my yard each year!

 

Moths to rival butterflies!

Friendly probole moth IMG_9681©Maria de BruynresThe past week has been incredibly busy with work and the next couple weeks will be so as well. But I hope to stick somewhat to my weekly schedule of (hopefully) entertaining and perhaps educating you a bit on the wonderful wildlife around us!

Today, I was pleasantly surprised to find that a fellow Project Noah member, Jacob Gorneau, had mentioned me in his article about National Moth Week (http://nationalmothweek.org/2014/02/23/project-noah-hosts-the-second-annual-national-moth-week/), What he quoted me as saying – “I really did think of butterflies as being the beauties and moths as the plain cousins. It’s great to have learned so much about the beauty of moths!” – was  a result of having participated in that annual week. Just like birders do bird counts, “moth-ers” do moth counts. And it was through my joining in on that activity that I learned to appreciate just how gorgeous moths can be – like that Friendly Probole Moth (Probole amicaria) at the top of this blog! Here are a few more beauties I’ve seen over time.

Polka-dot wasp moth IMG_0107VThis polka dot wasp moth (Syntomeida epimoth, Cream-striped owl IMG_6548© Maria de Bruynlais) was visiting a plant in Mexico. And this is a cream-striped owl moth (Cyligramma latona), which was a welcome surprise in Namibia.

Zale moth IMG_4866©Maria de BruynMy backyard also reveals some interesting specimens. Moth Week induced me to go outside at night with a flashlight and I found these beauties on my crepe myrtle trees. Left is a Zale moth and below a black bit moth (Celiptera frustulum).

Black bit moth IMG_4867©Maria de Bruyn2

Splendid palpita moth IMG_4696©Maria de BruynThis splendid palpita moth (Palpita magniferalis) was on the ceiling of the roof overhanging my front porch. Gorgeous pattern, don’t you think?

Next week, I’ll share a few more of these beauties!

Caterpillars with fuzzy hair-dos

This past year, I was having trouble getting good shots of birds hidden in foliage so, inspired by fellTiger moth caterpillar 3 IMG_8012©Maria de Bruynow contributors to Project Noah, I tried my hand at photographing more insects. This opened up another fascinating wildlife world to me and I’ve been learning about different species of flies, bees, hoppers, and moths.

I had always thought of butterflies as the “beauties” of the insect kingdom but found out that the moths can be simply stunning (another blog to come). Moth caterpillars are really interesting, too – and there are so many kinds with fuzzy bodies. At an early stage, their hairs or bristles (setae) may be short, as seen in this Tiger moth IMG_0332©Maria de Bruynpale tiger moth; as they grow, the setae become longer like those in the dark tiger moth.

TheSycamore tussock moth IMG_0144©Maria de Bruyn Sycamore tussock moth caterpillar (Halysidota harrisii) is a fancy variety, with hairs  that give its face a bit of an “old man” look (droopy mustaches). Though not considered one of the stinging caterpillars (read on to find out about them), the hairs have been known to cause hives if a person touches them. If one lands on you, use a twig or leaf to remove it gently.

The BandeBanded tussock moth IMG_3930©Maria de Bruynd tussock moth (Halysidota tessellaris) shown below also has a beautiful caterpillar with long tufts on its head and posterior.

Two caterpillars have been nicknamed woolly bears. The Virginia tiger moth (Spilosoma virginica) caterpillar, which can vary widely in color, is known as the yellow woolly bear in its pale color variation.

Virginia tiger moth caterpillar IMG_0917©Maria de BruynVirginia tiger moth IMG_9202©Maria de Bruyn res

The banded woolly bear caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia Isabella) even has whole festivals devoted to it in places like Banner Elk, a mountain town in North Carolina. There is a myth that if this caterpillar has a thick brown stripe, the winter will be mild; if the brown stripe is narrow, we will have a severe winter. This year, I saw caterpillars with narrow and wide stripes, so I wonder what it will be.

Isabella tiger moth IMG_8604©Maria de Bruyn

The Fall webworm moth caterpillar (Hyphantria cunea) is especially well-known for the communal webbed nests that they create on shrubs and in trees. They can vary in color from yellow to gray with two light stripes along their sides. The adult moth is a beauty; in the northern states, it is mostly white but in the South it can have dark spots on its fore-wings.

Fall webworm moth IMG_9141©Maria de Bruyn resFall webworm moth Hyphantria IMG_6582 ©Maria de Bruyn signed

Some of the hairy caterpillars are known as “stinging caterpillars”. They do not inject venom like bees and wasps but their hollow hairs contain toxins, which are designed to protect them from predators. When another being – including humans – brushes against the hairs, they break away and release the toxin. This can cause varying reactions, including mild to intense burning, stinging pain and itching. Depending on the species, a person might also experience rashes, swelling and inflammation, numbness and even fever and nausea. The reactions can be especially serious for people with sensitive skin and allergies.

Saddleback caterpillar moth IMG_2647©Maria de BruynresI didn’t know about this until this year; fortunately, I did not pick up any of the stinging caterpillars since I try not to disturb the creatures I photograph. That was a good decision when I came across the Saddleback moth caterpillar  (Acharia stimulea), which is quite an eye-catching individual. This slug-type caterpillar isn’t quite as hairy as some other species but causes some of the more severe reactions. I hope to find some new hairy caterpillars next year!

Next blog: Weaver bird nests