Seeing What You Want to See

A few weeks ago I went up to Michigan with my friend Tracy to see the Sandhill Cranes during their annual migration. We spent two days in the Jackson area, roaming the rural roads around Haehnle Sanctuary. Many of the cranes roost in the sanctuary’s marsh each night, but during the day they can be found feeding in agricultural fields nearby.

Sandhill cranes in corn field - blogWe were armed with a map showing where the cranes had been spotted in recent days, and so it wasn’t hard to find them. The first group we found had about 125 birds in it, and we spent some time watching them interact with each other as smaller groups flew in and out. On the second morning we found a large flock of more than 500 cranes, and watched them dancing, feeding, and flying overhead, all with the background noise of their prehistoric, spine-tingling bugle calls. It was fantastic.

It was a cold, blustery weekend with a gray sky, and the scenery was classic farm country:

Red barns in crane country - Jackson Michigan w sig

Crane monkey collage v2

I refer to this as the flying monkey posture, because when they drop out of the sky in groups like this, they remind me of the simian army in the Wizard of Oz.

I’m not posting too many crane photos today because I’ve shared so many of them already in past posts, and I’ve got another story to tell here.

We were hoping to find the single Whooping Crane that had been reported in the area, but that didn’t happen. I was reminding myself that it would be all too easy to trick myself into seeing a Whooping Crane because that’s what I was looking for. In fact, that happens very often among birders; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people mistake one warbler for another one that they’re desperately hoping to see. Apparently your brain tries really hard to give you what you want.

And that’s an important preface to this next part of the story. As Tracy drove along one of the rural roads, I noticed two ducks as we approached a farm pond. I quickly pointed them out and as she pulled the car off onto the side of the road I could tell they were beautiful male Wood Ducks.  I rarely get a good view of this shy species, so I was very excited. The pond was on the driver’s side of the car, so I began shooting photos through the car from my position in the passenger seat. At first my view of the ducks was blocked by the angle of the bank, but I kept shooting photos while Tracy took shots from the driver’s seat.

Here are the first two shots I took:

Wood ducks - obstructed first view

It was raining and my view was obstructed…

Wood ducks - slightly better view 2

Starting to get a clearer view here…

Then she drove down the road a bit and turned around so I could be on the side closest to the pond. As I started shooting photos from my better vantage point, I was starting to get the feeling that something wasn’t right about this scene.

Wood duck decoy

Hmm, he looks much too perfect…

First of all, why were these two male ducks in full breeding plumage in October? And why were they sitting there calmly, out in the open, as we watched them from maybe fifty feet away? Usually when I come upon Wood Ducks, they hightail it in the opposite direction — either swimming or flying — before I can even lift the camera. But these two just floated lazily around…slowly spinning in a circle…wait, that’s weird…. Then I realized my mistake: these were decoys!

Wood duck decoy closer crop

How embarrassing — it’s fake!!

I almost died laughing as I understood that my brain had wanted to believe they were real, and that’s why it took me a while to figure out the truth. I mean, they might have been wooden ducks, but they were not Wood Ducks! I still smile when I think about that day. I feel foolish admitting that this happened, but I also remember how excited we both were when we thought we had the perfect view of these gorgeous ducks.  It wasn’t long, but it was fantastic while it lasted. I may not have gotten the shots I’d hoped for, but this story will entertain me for a long time to come.

And as I’m writing this, I’ve just remembered that this is the second time recently that this has happened to me. You may recall a post from June, when I mistook an Eastern Least Clubtail for a Riffle Snaketail in Hell Hollow (those are dragonflies).  In that post I linked to an article in Psychology Today about this phenomenon. I’ll quote a bit of it here, just to back up my assertion that I’m not a total fool:

The tendency to let expectation be our guide can cause even those of us who are intelligent, experienced, and well-trained to overlook some startlingly obvious things. One recent study asked a group of radiologists to examine a series of chest x-rays, just as they would if looking for lung cancer. Unknown to the radiologists, though, the researchers had inserted into the x-rays a picture of something no professional would ever expect to see: a gorilla. The picture of the gorilla wasn’t tiny; it was about 45 times the size of the average cancerous lung nodule – or about the size of a matchbook in your lung.

How many of the radiologists spotted the gorilla?

Very few. Some 83 percent of the radiologists missed the gorilla – even though eye-tracking showed that most of them had looked right at it. Just like Hitchcock, they had overlooked what was in front of their eyes. And just like the master, they had deceived themselves.

Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/kidding-ourselves/201404/we-see-what-we-want-see

Humbled by that encounter, I was a bit hesitant a few minutes later when I saw what I thought were two Eastern Meadowlarks fly into a field as we watched another group of cranes. Could I be fooled again so soon? But no, there’s no mistaking that bright yellow breast, and luckily I was able to get some photos as the meadowlarks foraged in the grasses. I discovered as I added these birds to my eBird report that they could have been either Western or Eastern Meadowlarks at that location at that time of year, but either way, they were gorgeous.

Eastern meadowlark in late October - Jackson County Michigan (6)

This whole idea that ‘we see what we expect to see’ can be used in a more positive, intentional way in our lives. I’ve found that I have the power to change my life experience, both positively or negatively, by the way I allow my expectations to develop before a particular event.  If I let myself believe that I’m going to have a bad time — the weather will suck, the food won’t be good, people won’t talk to me, whatever — then there’s an increased likelihood that I will have a bad time. On the other hand, if I intentionally expect to have a good experience — my friends will be there, I’ll see cool bugs, the fresh air will be good for me –– then it’s much more likely to be so.

I encourage you to experiment with this idea too. It has made a huge difference in my life in recent years. And if you ever see a duck that just doesn’t look quite right…take a closer look. 🙂

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Cocooning

The weather here in northwestern Ohio has turned colder and wetter as we enter the depths of autumn. Humans turn to furnaces and fireplaces for comfort and survival, and insects have their various methods of doing the same.

This year I’ve been raising a polyphemus moth caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus). I was given about a half dozen of the tiny early instar caterpillars back on August 23. They were feeding on maple leaves when I got them, but they can feed on a variety of tree species, so I was able to change them over to elm leaves. I have two maple trees but they’ve been trimmed so high that I can’t reach the leaves without a ladder. The elm tree has enough low-hanging branches that I could reach more fresh leaves each day.

I was excited to begin this adventure with a species I’d never raised before. Raising monarch butterfly caterpillars (cats) is a relatively quick and easy project, as they only feed for a couple weeks before going into their chrysalis form. I knew the polyphemus moth cats would take a bit longer, but I didn’t know much about what to expect along the way.

Polyphemus moth caterpillar eating elm leaf - Sept 10 2018 blog

The lone survivor eating an elm leaf – Sept 10

As it turned out, there were some surprises. The first was that I would only end up with one caterpillar. I’m not sure if the little guys somehow escaped the enclosure or if they ate each other, but after a couple weeks, there was only one left. You may remember that I wrote about my experience with milkweed tussock moth caterpillars back in August, in which I believe they cannibalized each other. You’d think that would have made me more cautious with this species, but I guess I assumed that the tussock moth cat behavior was some sort of anomaly. And besides that, these guys were so tiny and had enormous amounts of food available to them, I couldn’t imagine they would eat each other.  I don’t think they could have escaped from their enclosure either. But whatever happened, I ended up with just the single caterpillar after a couple weeks.

I fed him fresh elm leaves each day and waited  eagerly for signs of impending pupation. And waited. And waited.

Polyphemus caterpillar turning brownish - blog

Polyphemus moth caterpillar turning darker near the end of September

Near the end of September, he started to turn a darker olive green at the head end. I hoped that meant he was almost ready to make a cocoon, but it didn’t. I also wondered if he was sick or had been parasitized somehow. But after a couple weeks like that, he turned back to his bright green color and continued eating.

Before you go on, if you haven’t done it yet, I suggest clicking to enlarge one of these photos so you can fully appreciate the body structure of this fascinating insect. I just love the brown alien-looking face, and the colorful bumps that adorn much of the body. And the backside, which I’ve come to call the butt flap, where the relatively large pellets of waste are ejected. You can see one of the “pellets o’ poo” on a leaf in the background of this photo.

I took him out of his enclosure on Tuesday to take some more photos, and this turned out to be his very last photo shoot. Is he not amazing?! Look at those gripping feet!

Polyphemus caterpillar's last photoshoot Oct 30 2018 - blog

Take a look at the various dots of color along the abdomen in this photo. There are some with hairs (or setae) coming out of them, and then there’s a row of brownish spots without hairs; those are the spiracles. The caterpillar doesn’t have lungs like we do, but instead breathes through those spiracles. And by the way, if you’d like to read much more detail about the life cycle of this moth, check out this site from the University of Florida.

And it wasn’t until yesterday — finally — that he crawled into a dried elm leaf and began spinning silk to enclose himself. This photo was taken around 10:00 in the morning. Notice a few strands of silk on the left end of the leaf.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 10 am - blog

And this one was taken when I got home around 6:00 pm.

Polyphemus beginning cocoon 10-31-18 at 6 pm - blog

And I took this final photo this morning.

Polyphemus cocoon finished on Nov 1 2018 - blog

He’s tucked in there nice and cozy now, and will spend the winter and early spring “napping.” And it’s weird, but I don’t quite know how to think about him in this phase. With monarch butterflies spending such a short time in their chrysalis form, it’s easy to imagine that they’re actively transforming into butterflies each day. But with these guys, I have no idea what happens in that cocoon for so many months. Does he stay in this caterpillar form, only transforming into a moth right before emerging in the spring? Or does he begin the transformation as soon as he’s wrapped up? I’d like to know the answer to that, but I also love wondering about it, letting my imagination run with the possibilities.

I’ve now put him in the garage for the winter, along with the four black swallowtail chrysalises that are wintering in there. Both of these species need to be exposed to the cold of winter so that their emergence in the spring will be at the same time as the rest of their species. That’s important so that they can find mates. The polyphemus moth doesn’t even have mouth parts to feed, so it will live as an adult moth for less than a week, just long enough to reproduce the next generation.

I’m anxious to see the moth and the butterflies eclose from their winter abodes next year. It’s going to be so hard to wait. I can imagine trudging into the garage all bundled up in February to get the snow shovel and seeing this cocoon tucked in the corner, with the caterpillar doing whatever it’s doing in there. I think that will bring a smile to my face no matter how much I hate shoveling snow.  #FindingTheJoy

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Can You See Me Now?

While working in the garden between rain showers yesterday, I took a quick break to check on some monarch caterpillars in my native flower garden. I quickly saw that all four of them were accounted for, but worriedly noted that they’re running out of time to pupate before the weather turns too cold. I decided to let nature take its course with the monarchs this time, rather than bringing them indoors to raise. I hope they make it.

But as always, I couldn’t resist taking a few more minutes to peruse the brown-eyed susans in search of more cool insects. And my gosh, I’m so glad I did!

Here’s what caught my eye — can you see it?

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - before zooming in on it

Notice something in the center of the flower? I admit, I had the advantage of seeing that it was moving. Here’s another closer view as it climbed up on top of the disc flowers in the center of the brown-eyed susan:

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - Wavy-lined emerald moth larva - synchlora aerata

And one final closer crop before I tell you a bit about this fantastic creature:

Camouflaged looper caterpillar - Wavy-lined emerald moth larva v2 close crop

Camouflaged looper caterpillar (Synchlora aerata)

Ever since I learned of the existence of this fabulous creature, I’ve been hoping to find one, so my smile was a mile wide when I realized I’d finally discovered one in my own yard. This is the camouflaged looper caterpillar, the larva of a beautiful green moth called the Wavy-lined Emerald (Synchlora aerata).

What’s so fascinating about this caterpillar is, as you can see, it attaches flower parts to itself as camouflage. Is that not absolutely brilliant?!

I mean, think about it…it has no arms or hands, so how does it accomplish this feat of subterfuge? I would imagine it chews off pieces of the flower, then secretes some sort of adhesive substance, and then rolls over onto the plant parts. But that’s total conjecture. What do you think?

I’m just glad nobody was around to see me grinning like a goofball alone in the back yard. 🙂

Wavy-lined emerald moth from WikiCommons

Credit: Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via WikiCommons

This is the moth that funny caterpillar will become — the Wavy-lined Emerald moth. I can’t wait to see that in my yard!

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Nope, That’s Not a Bee

Eastern calligrapher fly - toxomerus geminatus - for blog

Eastern calligrapher fly (Toxomerus geminatus)

When I first started photographing insects, I noticed — but didn’t really look at — lots of little “bees.” I noted their brown and yellow abdomens and quickly dismissed them as uninteresting. But once I actually photographed one of them and looked at it, I was enchanted by the pretty patterns I saw, and wanted to study them further. As an example, notice the intricate designs on the one in that first photo above.

I learned that they aren’t bees at all; they’re a family of insects known as hover flies or flower flies. Many of them resemble not only bees, but wasps as well. It’s believed that this mimicry aids their survival by making potential predators think twice before attacking them. A simple way to distinguish flies from bees or wasps is the number of wings; flies only have two wings, whereas bees and wasps have four.

My familiarity with taxonomic structures is mostly limited to my high school memories of reciting “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species.” I’m doing the best I can to make sure I give accurate information about scientific classifications here, but keep in mind that I’m a real amateur in insect identification. I write these articles to educate myself as much as to entertain and educate my readers. 🙂 And, if you read something here that’s wrong, I’d really appreciate hearing from you so I can correct it.

taxonomic hierarchy graphic

So, within the Insecta class, there are further subdivisions called orders. For example, the order Odonata contains my beloved dragonflies and damselflies. The order Hymenoptera contains bees, ants, and wasps. These hover flies are in the order Diptera. And within that order, they’re in the family Syrphidae (and are thus also known as syrphid flies).

So whether you call them hover flies, flower flies, or syrphid flies, you should know that they are valuable pollinators in the garden.

Prairie gentian with American Hoverfly for blog

Hoverfly on Prairie Gentian (Gentiana puberulenta)

And if you have aphid problems, you’ll be happy to find out that the larvae of syrphid flies are little wormlike creatures that are ravenous consumers of aphids. If you see these lovely little flies in your yard, keep your fingers crossed that they like it enough to stick around and lay their eggs there. You can make it easier for them by not removing leaves from your garden in the fall because that’s where they spend the winter.

These flies really seem to love the ubiquitous asters that are blooming in the early fall, and that makes it easier for me to find and photograph them. I just walk up to a group of asters and wait until they show up. This is one of my favorite recent photos of a syrphid fly on asters:

Oblique Stripetail - Allograpta obliqua on aster

Oblique stripetail (Allograpta obliqua) on asters

Interestingly, hover flies share some extraordinary capabilities with dragonflies: they can hover, and fly forward, backward, sideways, up, and down.  Their flight abilities make them fascinating to watch; I can easily lose track of time when I’m focused on watching them zipping around a patch of flowers, feeding on the nutritious nectar and pollen.

Narrow-headed sunfly - Helophilus fasciatus w sig

Narrow-headed sunfly (Helophilus fasciatus)

Chrysotoxum sp of hover fly v2

This one is in the genus Chrysotoxum, but I don’t know which species

I plan to continue my study of these syrphid flies, and will hope to be able to write more about them in a future post.  If you get a chance, pull up a chair beside a group of asters or goldenrod soon and see if you can catch a glimpse of any of these charming flower visitors.

There’s a little bonus for you below, but I just want to share one more photo.  One day I was watching this Chinese mantis as it preyed upon bees from its perch on top of a cushion of goldenrod. In this photo, the mantis is eating a honeybee while a syrphid fly feeds only a couple inches from its head, seemingly unconcerned about the monster lurking beside him. Perhaps he realized the mantis was occupied and was no immediate danger to him.

Syrphid fly watches as Chinese mantis eats honeybee

Bonus Deep Dive Content: Okay, if you’re interested in watching a syrphid fly larva eat an aphid, you can spend 25 minutes watching this amazing video I found on YouTube by someone called “Insect Man.” I confess I fast-forwarded through some of it, but it’s way cool.

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Wordless Wednesday

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A Speeding Green Bullet!

Autumn has long been my favorite season of the year — colorful tree foliage, cooler air for comfortable hikes, clear cerulean skies, cozy sweaters…I could go on. But this is also a season tinged with sadness for the end of summer.  Lately I’ve been feeling a bit gloomy about the impending end of dragonfly season. It’s frustrating to have such a short time each year to watch these fascinating insect predators.

I’ve written before about the Ohio Dragonfly Survey and how you can contribute to it. I’ve submitted many records of my observations to the survey in the past two years, and look forward to adding more in the third and final survey year next summer.  A few weeks ago I got a message from one of the survey coordinators pointing out that they would like a few 2018 reports from Fulton County, and asking if I would keep that in mind while I was out and about.

I live in Lucas County, which has a few very active odonata observers, including one of Ohio’s experts. So there’s not much chance of me finding something here that hasn’t already been documented. But Fulton County is a rural county just to the west of Lucas County, and it has far fewer people reporting odonata sightings. So that means I can more easily make a meaningful contribution to the database with my sightings there.

So the other day, after doing some online location scouting and armed with a list of three target species, I drove west through the corn fields.

The three target species were all damselflies: blue-fronted dancer, fragile forktail, and stream bluet. I knew one good pond location from earlier visits in that area, but I knew that spot wouldn’t be likely to have the dancer or the bluet, both of which are usually found near rivers or streams rather than the pond that I was headed to first.

I was pleasantly surprised when the first bug I saw was one of my targets, the fragile forktail. He’s easy to identify because of the green exclamation mark on his thorax.

Fragile forktail - blog

Fragile forktail (Ischnura posita)

I spent about 45 minutes more at this pond location, documenting some other species, before heading off in search of flowing water.

I went to a place called Tiffin River Wildlife Area. I was optimistic about this location until I got there and found that there was virtually no access to the water. I found one small gravel parking lot with barely enough room to turn the car around, but it was surrounded with head-high vegetation and no paths. Hmmm. This would require some ingenuity.  I drove around a bit and found a dirt driveway that dipped down toward the water, but it had a chain across it about 75 yards down and a sign that said “No Trespassing.”

Blue-fronted dancer - blog

Blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis)

I figured, okay, I can walk on this first section as long as I don’t go past the chain and the sign. I wasn’t going to do any harm, and it didn’t look like anyone had driven that driveway in a long time; it was full of deep ruts and bordered by tall weedy vegetation. And amazingly, I found my second target species on that driveway: blue-fronted dancer. I almost did a happy dance after I got my photograph for documentation.

I also got this pretty picture of a viceroy butterfly nectaring on loosestrife.

Viceroy butterfly w sig - blog

So, two down, one to go. The only other spot I could find with the potential for running water was Harrison Lake State Park. From the map view I’d noticed there was a dam at one end of the lake, with potential access to the stream below it. So off I went further west.

I’m sure it had a lot to do with the beautiful weather on this day, but this park impressed me immediately. I saw that their campground was full of people on this late summer Friday, but somehow it wasn’t noisy. It felt peaceful and relaxing. And even better, there was access to the stream below the dam, just as I’d hoped. And this is where something exciting happened.

I’d found a couple interesting species (orange bluet and dusky dancer), and was taking photos of them and just quietly observing the water. I was looking down at something on the ground, and as I lifted my head I saw an enormous pair of green eyes speeding directly toward me, only a dozen feet away. I barely had time to think “River cruiser!” when it whizzed past me like a green bullet and went high up into the trees behind me. I spent a half hour searching for it, desperate to document it for this location. I had a hunch it could be a species that hadn’t been recorded there before. But, alas, I didn’t find it again.

I eventually gave up and walked back up the hill to the top of the dam, and then slowly toward the parking lot.  I was enjoying the beautiful day, but couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected after the close encounter with the river cruiser and then losing it.

I was in the parking lot, about 100 yards from my car, when –BZZZZZT! — something big flew past my head and perched in a tree 30 feet above me. I knew what it was before I saw it: River cruiser!

Wabash River Cruiser - Fulton County Record (2)

Wabash river cruiser (Macromia wabashensis)

I started taking photos immediately, not knowing how long it would stay there. My first impression was that it was a Wabash river cruiser, a hard-to-photograph hybrid species. And indeed, that’s what it was! I couldn’t believe my luck, and took probably 70 photos of it, even though it barely moved. I always try to get multiple views of any dragonfly, because sometimes you need to see multiple field marks to confirm an identity. The diagnostic field mark on this species is the moth-shaped yellow mark near the end of the abdomen.

And not only did I get a killer view of this dragonfly, I photographed a really interesting behavior: the transfer of a sperm packet.

Wabash River Cruiser transferring sperm packet

Wabash river cruiser transferring sperm packet prior to mating

Prior to mating, the male has to transfer sperm from his primary sexual organ to his secondary genitalia, where the female will have access to it when they link their bodies in the mating process. This photo shows him doing exactly that.  And this made me believe that I’d seen two different individuals; the first one I saw below the dam might have been the female.

I felt great that I’d gathered some valuable data for the Ohio Dragonfly Survey (the Wabash river cruiser did turn out to be a new species for Fulton County), and I left that park with a smile a mile wide.

something-to-look-forward-to-594x800I’m so glad I take the time to write about these nature experiences; not just to share them with you, but for myself too. They’re fantastic memory joggers as I reminisce in the winter, sitting beside a crackling fire counting down the days until the first ode sighting next spring. I’m also planning to do some hard-core studying this winter, as I’ve been enlisted to lead the annual dragonfly field trip for Toledo Naturalists’ Association in June. I don’t need to be an expert by then, but I’d like to be as prepared as possible so everyone has fun and learns something on our outing.

A couple years ago I wrote about this little reminder I kept on my refrigerator, and it’s still working well for me. As long as I keep making plans for interesting things to do, life is good. 🙂

 

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And Now We Wait

My friend Annie planted fennel in her garden this year with hopes of attracting Eastern Black Swallowtails to lay their eggs there. Fennel is one of their many host plants (things that their caterpillars can eat when they hatch), along with carrots, celery, parsley, dill and others.

And sure enough, she got a bumper crop of swallowtail caterpillars on her fennel, and offered to let me take some of them to raise. I was hesitant at first because I had my hands full with monarchs and a few new moth species, but eventually I couldn’t resist any longer and accepted four of them in various stages of growth.

Here’s one of the smaller ones, with its white saddle of uric acid deposits that are thought to help protect them from harmful chemicals in the diet.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - early instar - w sig - blog

They look very different as they molt into larger instars, as shown here:

Black swallowtail caterpillar and molted skin w sig - blog

You can see the shed skin behind this one; he’ll turn around and eat that skin. Yum.

So we were off and running on this new adventure. I kept them supplied with celery, parsley, and dill, and they continued the work of eating, pooping, and molting. Caterpillars generate a lot of frass (poo) as they get larger, and it’s a challenge to do the daily cleanings of their container without disturbing them too much, but I make my best effort.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - middle instar - w sig - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar on 9-3-18 w sig - blog

Finally, on September 10, one of them crawled up on a stick I’d provided and assumed the pre-pupa posture, hanging below the stick. I got excited and kept checking it throughout the day, but nothing happened other than a slight scrunching up, like a Slinky toy being pressed together.

Things started happening the next day though. This is how he looked at 3:30 in the afternoon:

Black swallowtail caterpillar beginning to pupate - w sig - blog

You can see he’s anchored the end of his abdomen to the stick and is spinning a loop of silk that will wrap around his upper body to support it. By 9:30 that night he’d completed his silk harness and looked like this:

Black swallowtail caterpillar chrysalis almost done - w sig - blog

In case you’re wondering, he didn’t change positions on the stick; I just took some of the photos from the other side.  I thought this stage was beautiful, with the subtle greens and browns, and the varying surface textures of the chrysalis.

And then the next day the chrysalis was in its final form, with gorgeous brown and white marbling.

Black swallowtail chrysalis - final form w sig - blog

The black swallowtail chrysalis can be green or brown, and all four of mine are brown like this one. I’ve read some suggestions that the color is determined by the surroundings, perhaps to blend in with foliage or something. But these guys were in a room with green walls, and they made brown chrysalises, so that theory doesn’t hold water in this case. Or I suppose it would be more likely that he’s brown because the stick is brown, in which case the theory holds. Ah, so many questions!

And now comes the big mystery: Will these guys emerge in a couple weeks, or will they stay in their chrysalises all winter long? I haven’t found any information that would tell me how to know what to expect, so my plan is to watch them closely for the next couple of weeks. I would love to see them emerge so I can release them before the weather gets too cold. But if they turn out to be the overwintering types, I’ll put them outside in a semi-sheltered spot and wait for the “big reveal” next spring. Either way, I’m looking forward to watching this amazing process unfold.

I was just talking to a friend today about the process of metamorphosis. It’s something we all learn as children. We grow up knowing that caterpillars turn into butterflies, but I’d guess that most of us don’t really and truly think about it too much. I know I never appreciated what an incredible thing it is, until I became intimately involved in their lives as I shared my home with them.

Since I’ve been raising butterflies over the past few years, I’ve had days where I just sit and watch them in utter amazement as I think about their lives. A butterfly lays a microscopic egg on a plant. The miniscule caterpillar hatches and begins feeding on the leaves. If she lives long enough, there comes a day when she turns into an unrecognizable mass of goo that hardens into a beautiful shell-like structure. Then, inside that structure her body somehow liquifies and gets reassembled into an animal with big, soft wings. My mind can’t even comprehend it, really, but it brings me so much joy every single time I see it happen.

I don’t like to use the word “miracle,” but sometimes I feel like that’s the word I need to describe a butterfly’s metamorphosis.

Black swallowtail female

Eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes)

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Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog

Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

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Just Call Me “Moth Mama”

In my previous post, I wrote about some yellow-striped armyworm caterpillars (Spodoptera ornithogalli) I’d brought home to raise.

Yellow-striped armyworm moth caterpillar Aug 22 2018

Giving him some fresh air one day while I was cleaning the container and adding food

Many caterpillars have beautiful markings, and this one was no exception. I didn’t notice this pretty geometric design on the dorsal side until the last instar.

Yellow-striped armyworm caterpillar - blog

There’s sometimes a bit of a challenge in identifying the species of a caterpillar because they can look very different depending on their life stage. Sometimes they’ll have completely different patterns in their early instars than they do in later instars, after molting several times. And my primary field guide doesn’t usually show more than one, or maybe two, instars for each species. So I have to consult multiple sources to confirm an identification; usually one or more of Mississippi State University’s “Moth Photographers Group,” BugGuide.net, or various Facebook groups like Mothing Ohio, Butterflying Ohio, or Caterpillars Ohio.

I didn’t know what to expect as far as how or when they would pupate, but it turned out I didn’t have to wait long to find out. On the morning of August 23, I discovered a little brown pellet lying on the bottom of the enclosure and a shriveled up exoskeleton beside it.

Yellow-striped armyworm in cocoon day one - blog

Pupa with molted exoskeleton lying on the left

It surprised me because I’d thought they would need to hang from a stick or dig under some soil or something.  I also thought a moth cocoon would be hairy or have a rough texture, so this smooth, shiny capsule intrigued me. (Correction: thanks to a kind reader I know that this isn’t a cocoon at all, but the actual pupal form of the moth.) I moved it into a separate little container, placed it on the kitchen counter, and waited for the others to pupate.

In the meantime, my research told me that this species would not overwinter in this form, but would instead emerge as an adult moth in only 9-22 days. That was exciting, because the idea of waiting all winter long to see its adult form seemed rather anticlimactic, after all the drama of finding it, identifying it, and then seeing it pupate.

So I marked September 1 as the first possible date of emergence. That day came and went. As did September 2. Then, at 7:00 on the morning of September 3, I was awakened by an unusual noise. My cat Sam and I both jumped out of bed and ran to the kitchen. We found Sophie on the counter pawing at the little container — which now had a moth fluttering around inside! So he only spent 11 days as a pupa.

The photos came out pretty dark, so I lightened this one to show his beautiful patterning:

Yellow-striped armyworm moth - blog

Newly-eclosed yellow-striped armyworm moth

I say this often, but it bears repeating: You will be amazed when you take the time to look closely at anything in nature. There’s so much hidden beauty right under our noses every day! My camera’s macro lens is one of my prized possessions; it changed my life by opening up a whole new world to me.

It may seem silly, but I was bursting with “parental pride” at having raised him from caterpillar to adult moth. It wasn’t quite as exciting as the first time I raised a monarch butterfly, but it was still enough to make me smile when I was barely awake enough to see what he looked like. This guy was quite agitated in his container and I had concerns that he would damage his wings, so I took a few photos as quickly as I could, and then placed his container in the garden under the sheltering leaves of a large hosta. I often find moths hiding there during the day, so I thought that would be a good place for him to hang out until he was ready to explore his new world.

Yellow-striped armyworm - underside view - blog

Underside view of newly-eclosed yellow armyworm moth

If there are any farmers reading this, they might be annoyed that I raised this insect because it’s considered an agricultural “pest” and is a frequent target of crop pesticides.  I guess that would be a fair point, but I also think that it was a great learning experience for me and it’s not like I’m raising bunches of them. In fact, only one of the armyworm caterpillars I found survived to adulthood.  And I’m sharing what I learned too, so the educational value of raising this single moth is multiplied.

Also, I read in Caterpillars of Eastern North America (Wagner, 2005) that the adult moths of this species migrate here from the southern U.S. in the spring. They can have several broods throughout the summer, but they can’t survive the winter up here. Wagner doesn’t mention the adults migrating south again in fall, so does that mean that any of them that are here in the winter will perish and our population will get replenished in the spring when new adults migrate here? I’d still like to know the answer to that.

Polyphemus caterpillar on 9-1-18 - blog

Polyphemus caterpillar on September 1, the day I adopted him (Antheraea polyphemus)

Having said all that, it’s been quite rewarding to successfully raise a moth for the first time.  The Speyer’s cucullia caterpillars I showed in my previous post have burrowed into the soil already; if all goes well they’ll emerge in the spring. I’m continuing to raise the polyphemus moth caterpillars I mentioned previously too. They seem to be growing much more slowly than I’m used to seeing with monarch caterpillars.

Black swallowtail caterpillar - blog

Black swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes)

And just a couple days ago my friend Annie gave me four black swallowtail caterpillars from her garden. That’s yet another new species for me, but I’ve already noticed that these butterfly caterpillars are growing much faster than the moth caterpillars. I wonder if it’s generally true that moth caterpillars grow slower than butterfly caterpillars; that sounds like something I should add to my list of winter research projects.

In the next couple of weeks I’ll have a few monarch butterflies emerging, and then I’ll look forward to releasing my very first black swallowtail butterflies. I can’t wait!

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Wordless Wednesday

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