Moth marvels

Some of the large moths, like the polyphemus (Antheraea polyphemus) and cecropia (Hyalophora cecropia, below) moths, definitely rival butterflies in their beauty and splendor. Before launching into a series on some Central American wildlife, I thought I’d share a couple recent moth-related spottings that I had.

The luna moth (Actias luna) is a large lepidopteran that entrances people and I recently saw one along a path in the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. Unfortunately, the insect had died but the cause was not apparent. Perhaps it was a parasitic fly that was originally introduced to help control invasive gypsy moths or perhaps it had simply reached the end of its life span.

This past year, I was fortunate enough to see the cocoons of both the polyphemus (left) and cecropia moths but I had not seen the large caterpillars associated with some large moths.

 

Then, just a few days before departing for a trip to Costa Rica, it was my good fortune to visit a garden that had two species of large hornworms. The tobacco hornworm is the immature form of the Carolina sphinx moth (also known as the tobacco hawkmoth; Manduca sexta). The tomato hornworm, the caterpillar of the brown and gray five-spotted hawkmoth (Manduca quinquemaculata) looks very similar except that it has a black or dark blue horn instead of the orange one sported by the tobacco hornworm.

The tomato hornworm is distinguished by v-shaped marks (right) while the tobacco hornworm has beautiful black-bordered straight white lines on its body. I find both species attractive but particularly like the tobacco hornworm caterpillars.

                    

They are so cute with their rounded heads and little suction-cup-like feet.

Both species of caterpillar can be found on either tomato or tobacco plants as they consume the foliage of various plants in the nightshade family. The presence of frass (insect larvae poop) alerts you to which plants may be hosting the hornworms.

These moth species originated in Central America and are now considered by some people to be garden pests, especially when they eat tomatoes. It seems that planting marigolds next to the fruit can repel the caterpillars, who eventually pupate and then overwinter underground where they have fallen off plants.

 

There are parasitic wasps that also prey on the hornworms. One species attacks the tiny hornworm eggs, which are laid on leaves; another wasp lays its eggs in the body of the caterpillars.

 

The Kingsolver Lab at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is researching the hornworms among other insects, examining how environmental changes caused by humans (agro-ecosystems, introduction of invasive species, climate change) are evoking responses in the caterpillars. It was a treat to see lots of these caterpillars at different stages of their development.

                

Next up: a blog on one bird species I’ve watched frequently this summer in NC and then a virtual trip to Costa Rica. 🙂

 

Life on late winter-early spring farmlands

Although it’s taken me some time to process photos taken earlier this year, I’d still like to share what I was seeing in late winter and early spring when stopping at farm fields. These sometimes muddy and stubble-covered parcels of land can offer wildlife watchers nice views of birds and occasionally other animals, unobstructed by a lot of foliage. So visits to roadside farms and ponds were on my early 2019 nature-walk itineraries.

Farm fields are often bordered by stands of trees where animals can retreat if they become disturbed by humans standing around aiming long camera lenses at them. The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) above were browsing one morning and seemed unconcerned as I photographed nearby birds. When I turned to watch them specifically though, they decided to move back into the woods bordering the field.

Many farmers put out bird boxes on fences bordering their fields; in early March, the Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) were already checking out and starting to furnish potential nest sites. Here a male was flying away from a nest box while his mate was gathering pine needles.

The fences offer other birds a good vantage point for observation, too. A Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) perched on a fence post to look around and then flew to a branch high above me.

 

A bird present in large numbers was the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater). One morning, a friend and I counted some 200 birds in one small group of trees. Many people think they are an invasive species and dislike these birds intensely because they evolved a behavior that can endanger other birds. The cowbirds, who are native to America, were originally present in prairies where they followed the buffalo. This meant they did not stay in one place long enough to tend a nest, so they began laying their eggs in other birds’ nests. The young cowbirds hatch first and then may throw out the other eggs or hatchlings or they eat so ravenously that the other nest mates don’t get enough.

It certainly is disconcerting to see a small warbler feeding a large cowbird fledgling and a couple bird species have been endangered by the behavior. But I don’t dislike the cowbird because of this – they did not choose how to evolve and the behavior developed as an adaptation, not an “evil” practice. They are attractive birds. And the sounds they make are lovely, akin to water droplets falling into a pool.

 

The American robins (Turdus migratorius) were also present in abundance; they tend to flock together in the winter and early spring. One farm had a boggy area with some cyprus trees and the robins were busy looking for insects among the cyprus “knees” (Taxodium distichum). These woody structures that grow out of the roots may help stabilize the trees when they are standing in water but scientists have not yet definitively identified their purpose.

There were other trees near the cypresses; in one, the cocoon of a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus) was hanging high overhead. It also pays to look around to see who is flying u[ ahigh above those trees and fields. It’s not uncommon to see Canada geese (Branta canadensis) flying from one farm pond to another.

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) soared over different fields I visited.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) also made an appearance.

And one of my favorite raptors often eluded my efforts to capture a portrait. Only a couple times was I able to catch a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius) speeding by in flight.

The robins were feeding in the fields as were several other bird species.

 

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

A pair of Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) was taking advantage of numerous cow patties left behind on one farm field in their search for insects. They were flashing their wings repeatedly; I’m convinced that this was behavior designed to scare up bugs so they can catch them easily.

 

 

Other birds were following them around in the field, apparently taking advantage of the insect smorgasbord. Two of them were a song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) and a field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

This year, it was also my good fortune to see a bird new to me in one farm field, the lovely horned lark (Eremophila alpestris). Although these birds are not considered endangered, their numbers declined by 71% between 1966 and 2015.

I couldn’t get close to the larks but one day I did catch a bird taking a dust bath in a gravel and dirt road next to their preferred field. On a second visit to that farm, I again saw a lark in the road and then another lark joined it.

It turns out that female larks perform a courting display that looks very similar to actually taking a dust bath, so I got to see a mating behavior that I hadn’t expected!

Reading about the behavior, I discovered that if male larks see a female who is dust bathing, he may mistake what she’s doing and try to mate with her when she’s not ready.

So reproductive life is a bit difficult for those males, who look so adorable when they raise those head feathers to project two little black horns.I will leave you here with a few more views of a horned lark who was singing and foraging not too very far from the road.

 

Venturing forth on overcast days

Our area has been inundated with rain for 9 days straight now – not a big deal if you live in a region with monsoon seasons but it is not really usual for us. We also had two hurricanes and several severe storms the past 5.5 months as well as other rainy periods and the ground – much of it clay – is just not absorbing all the water anymore. My yard (which I am fortunate to have, don’t get me wrong!) currently has patches that are simply sodden mud and clay with no vegetation to be seen. Paths in the nature reserves are slick and slippery. Still, if you’re a person who gets “spiritual sustenance” by going out into nature, you venture forth on those days that might have a few overcast but rain-free hours to see what is out and about. Though I haven’t seen beavers lately, I did see their tracks in one reserve. A father had brought his children out and they made plaster casts of the tracks – a wonderful outdoor nature lesson.

Because we have also had some unusually warm days for this time of year, the flowers began budding a bit earlier than other years. Daffodils, hyacinths and crocuses are blooming profusely and a few of my neighbors have lovely flowering quince (Chaenomeles).

 

 

A winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) at one park had some lovely blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

At another reserve, an apple tree (Malus pumila) has lovely flowers emerging.

 

Unfortunately, the tree is right next to a grove of cedars that are laden with mature cedar apple rust galls (Gymnosporangium juniperi-virginianae). When they emit their spores, they will kill the apples. I used to have an apple tree in my yard but the nearby cedars also got apple rust and now the tree has died. I’ve planted a plum tree and hope that that one will thrive and survive.

With the leaves having fallen from most trees, it’s possible to see the cocoons of some of our larger moths. So far, I’ve found three cecropia moth cocoons, two polyphemus moth cocoons and several bagworm moth cocoons in three different places. The Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases are also showing up better with little foliage to hide them.

Getting nice shots of birds is not easy on those dull and gray days. Many of the smaller birds were huddled in bushes and trees, puffing themselves up to trap some body heat as a means of coping with the cold and wet conditions.

 

Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

I tried to get close to a beautiful kestrel (Falco sparverius), who kept flying just a bit further away when I slowly approached it. As I was walking back to my car, it suddenly turned and flew right by me – I swung up my camera and got one shot, which was not perfect but still a bit of a reward.

 

A gorgeous great blue heron (Ardea herodias), on the other hand, deigned to entertain me with a protracted grooming session at a local pond. S/he first perched above a couple turtles and watched them until they plopped down underwater.

Then the bird began picking at its feathers, showing off how its long neck can be twisted to enable that long beak to reach where it wants.

Note where the beak is peeking through in the photo above right! Flexible neck!

The preening activities gave me a chance to get what I considered to be a series of nice portraits.

 

The weather forecasters predicted that the rain would end, it would get very windy and the sun would shine this afternoon – they were right! They also say we will have a week of sunny days coming up – I certainly hope that that’s the case so I can exchange my muck boots for regular walking shoes again. Hope you are enjoying some pleasant weather!

 

Surprise gifts from Mother Nature in 2018 – part 2: non-avian wildlife!

Birding is an activity I enjoy, especially since I can usually spot at least one bird during my outdoor excursions. I’d prefer to call myself a “wildlifer” rather than a “birder”, however, since all kinds of other wildlife also fascinate me. Here is a selection of some wildlife surprises and new species I saw last year, including a new plant – the honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve).

 

This vine is sometimes described simply as a native plant that spreads by seed and long roots; other websites call it a noxious weed. It does perhaps spread quickly but it is also a food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars so it seems like a desirable plant to me.

This mushroom was another one of my favorite vegetation spottings last year – it looks to me as if it is an animal with large ears.

Mammals are favorites of mine but I only see a restricted number regularly – white-tailed deer, Eastern squirrels, raccoons, Eastern chipmunks. When I get to see an opossum (Didelphis virginiana) – like one who visited the yard at night during our early December snowstorm, it was a treat. It seems many people dislike North Carolina’s state marsupial (and the only marsupial in North America) but it is a valuable neighbor since it eats up to 4000 ticks a week. There likely weren’t many ticks around for it to eat but I hope it found something for a meal!

   

This past year was my “year of the beavers” as I had a chance to follow these nature landscape architects in three different places. And as mentioned in a previous blog, I was so thrilled to get a shot of the warning tail-slapping behavior.

  

2018 was a good year for seeing new insects. Some are so tiny that you can’t really see their body patterns without magnification. Here are a few of my “discoveries”. The flies can be very interesting.

Sunflower seed maggot fruit fly (Neotephritis finalis)


Parasitic fly (Archytas)

2018 was a year for learning about reproduction among the bugs; not only did I see caterpillars but also chrysalids and arthropod parents caring for offspring. The green lynx spider (Peucetia viridans) is a very attentive mother; she often hangs her egg sac from a grass stalk and then encircles it with her body to keep predators away.

One green lynx at the NC Botanical Garden placed her egg sac underneath the “lid” of a pitcher plant and then hung out on that and neighboring plants to keep an eye on the sac. I was lucky to see one of the babies after it hatched.

Another spider was not so lucky – it became a meal for one of North Carolina’s endemic “special plants”, the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula).

North Carolina has many species of grasshoppers; I saw several species this past year, including several mating pairs. Here is a young short-horned grasshopper.

It’s always nice to see some pollinators.

 

  

Brown-winged striped sweat bee                        Small carpenter bee                                (Agapostemon splendens)                                   (Ceratina)

 

I got to see the chrysalids of two fritillary butterfly species, the variegated fritillary (Euptoieta Claudia, left) and the gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanilla, below).

Sometimes, I think the moths get a bum rap, being seen as poor cousins to the “beautiful butterflies”. But there are many really beautiful moths, like the lunate zale moth (Zale lunata) and delicate cycnia moth (Cycnia tenera).

  

I got to see several moth caterpillars this year; the experts at BugGuide were very helpful in identifying them for me.

   

Common tan wave moth                           Gold moth caterpillar  (Basilodes pepita)          (Pleuroprucha insulsaria)

 
Turbulent phosphila moth caterpillar (Phosphila turbulenta)

For the first time, I got to see an evergreen bagworm moth (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis). There were several hanging out in trees next to a rural farm pond – they did not restrict themselves to an evergreen tree but hung themselves from a persimmon, privet and cedar tree. I think the last photo shows the caterpillar as it was completing the “bag” into which it would insert itself.

    

In the summer, I was lucky to see a cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia).

   

In December, I discovered two cecropia chrysalids, as well as the cup-like chrysalis of a polyphemus moth (Antheraea Polyphemus, which was empty).

  

Another discovery was that the larvae of soldier beetles look like some type of caterpillar as well.

There were lots of katydids around, including the slender straight-lanced katydid (Conocephalus strictus) and the stockier Scudderia bush katydid.

 

  

Some new bugs appeared in my yard, including a plant bug with muted colors (not yet identified to species) and some more colorful scentless plant bugs (Niesthrea louisianica) on my Rose of Sharon shrubs.

  

  

A seed bug on a seed pod and a head-on photo of a millipede (Narceus americanus-annularis-complex) were cool sightings, too.

   

2018 was a good year for my observations of reptiles, too. Seeing a Carolina anole (Anolis carolinensis) flash its red dewlap (also known as a throat fan) was not a new experience but the fact that it was only a foot away from me doing it was a surprise.

   

 

Seeing one of these anoles jump from one small flower twig to another in order to catch a bee for supper was a surprise – I didn’t know they eat bees. I felt a little sad that we lost a pollinator that way, but the anoles have to eat, too.

 

 

 

One day, when walking at the same wetlands where the anole hung out I came across some beautifully colored turtles. The yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta) had a beautiful pattern on its face.

 

 

 

The painted turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) with its long claws had some beautiful bright red striping. It had gotten a prime sunning spot on a log that another turtle wanted for itself; the first turtle held it off.

 

The second turtle circled around and tried to get on board from the other side but turtle No. 1 kept it at bay.

  

My snake encounters included seeing Northern water snakes and rat snakes. It was a beautiful red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster) that caught me by surprise when it suddenly veered off its course toward me. I backed up and the reptile stopped approaching, flicking its tongue out as it explored what was going on.

My final spotting to share with you today is another gorgeous snake – a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). It had been a long time since I had encountered one and this individual had quite vivid colors.

Next up – some beautiful raptors.