I just came across a website that claims a native plant garden will starve pollinators of nectar because none of the natives bloom into fall. To that I say, “Poppycock!” We’re well into October now, and every day I watch incredible numbers of pollinators on the native goldenrods and asters blooming everywhere around me. I stand in my garden amidst a buzzing cloud of bumblebees feeding on the New England asters. I go to a park and see the goldenrods vibrating with butterflies and bees. I took a very short walk today and photographed a dozen species of butterflies, many of whom were feeding on asters. I present the beautiful proof here for your enjoyment. #PlantNativesForCryingOutLoud
I promised you some really cool pics recently, and then I got distracted and wrote about my dragonfly monitoring. But now I’m refocused and I think you’re going to enjoy this!
In July I wrote about how much fun I had staying out at night to look at moths in southern Ohio. Recently I’ve become hooked on another nighttime activity here in the opposite corner of the state. Along with a small group of friends, I’ve been going out to hunt caterpillars and other insects by flashlight. These night hikes have been hugely entertaining, and I think you’ll be amazed at the creatures I have to show you. Keep in mind as you look at these photos that thesearenot exotic animals from the rainforests of Central America or the outback of Australia. These are all local critters, living right here in northwest Ohio.
Many caterpillars are more active at night, so that’s a great time to go out with a UV flashlight to observe them. Believe it or not, some of them glow when you shine the black light on them. This makes it much easier to find them in the dark than when they’re camouflaged in vegetation during the day. So we start our outings as soon as it gets dark, and stay out until we’re too tired to keep going. There’s always so much to see that I hate to stop, even when I’m exhausted.
Notice the white circle in the photo above. The caterpillar (“cat” for short) in that shot is this one, which I think is a Waved Sphinx Moth cat. Here it is:
I’ve had some challenges trying to photograph these cats in the dark. On the first outing, I tried using an old ring flash unit on my 100mm macro lens, but didn’t get good results with that and was frustrated. Then I removed the ring flash and just used the built-in flash on my camera. The problem with that is that the camera can’t focus unless you also light the subject with additional light. So I was holding a flashlight in one hand and camera in the other. That was better, but awkward. My friend Jackie tried holding a small flashlight in her mouth! That worked but wasn’t optimal. So some of us took turns holding flashlights for each other, and that was much better, especially once I got my other camera settings adjusted properly.
Several of my friends have nice twin light flash units, and those seem to be the way to go for this type of photography. Those units have a flash on top, but also extra lights on each side that light the subject so you can focus before the flash goes off. I think I’m going to try to get one of those before our next outing so I can be more self-sufficient and not need someone else to hold a flashlight for me every time I want to take a photo.
Okay, that’s enough of the technical stuff. You wanna see some of the awesome things we found? Let’s start with one of the best ones, the Io moth caterpillar. Isn’t he gorgeous?!
During Mothapalooza back in July, an adult Io moth posed for photos on my friend Angie’s pant leg:
I find it fascinating that the caterpillar forms and the adult moth forms seem to have nothing in common in terms of color or pattern. In this case, the caterpillar is white with green spines and red stripes, and it turns into a yellow moth with black and orange markings.
This next one was the highlight of my night when we found it. I’d seen it online many times and hoped to see one for myself for a long time. This is the Saddleback caterpillar, and it has venomous spines that can cause severe burning and blistering if you touch it. So we didn’t. (In fact, there are many caterpillars with spines or long hairs, and most of them can can cause you varying levels of pain if you touch them.)
The first Saddleback we saw that night was on a leaf above our heads, and we had to contort ourselves to get photos of it. But I was amazed at how tiny it was. When you see pictures of caterpillars online or in a book, it’s hard to get perspective on their true sizes. From what I’d seen online, I guess I thought this thing would be four inches long, but it was less than an inch from end to end. Such a crazy-looking insect! And when it metamorphoses into its adult moth form, it will be so much less striking, just a dull brown with a couple of white spots.
This next one was much beefier, and we found a lot of them feeding on sassafras trees, one of their favorite host plants. This is the larval form of the Promethea moth:
I’ve never seen the adult form of this moth (yet), but it’s one of the large silk moths, with pretty patterning in shades of brown and white. I hope to see it at Mothapalooza next time.
Most of the cats we found were the larvae of moths, but here’s one of the butterfly larvae. This is the Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar, with fake eyes that are supposed to scare predators away.
Next up…hmm. Nothing to see here, just us sticks! Don’t be fooled by this stick mimic caterpillar, with his ingenious camouflage technique. There are lots of this type and I haven’t figured out which one this is, but I find these so fascinating.
As I write this, I’m having a hard time choosing which ones to show you…I have a hundred photos of caterpillars and other insects from these hikes. I should probably write a book called, “Creatures of the Night” so I can share all of them in one place. And I’m getting immense pleasure out of looking at these photos again, because it brings back the joy of discovery and being out in nature at night with nothing but a few flashlights to illuminate our surroundings. On the first outing I was surprised at how giddy I felt, like a kid being allowed to stay out after the streetlights come on. Think about it though, when is the last time you were outside after dark in the woods? Yeah, that’s what I thought. It’s just not something most of us do anymore, and that’s a shame because there’s so much out there to enjoy.
The sphinx moth caterpillars are distinctive, with their diagonal slashes and horns (some of them are also called hornworms). I just found out the reason they’re called sphinx moths; it’s because when they’re disturbed they often lift their heads up in a sphinx-like defensive posture.
And here’s another cool one, the White Furcula moth. (He’ll be white in his moth form.) Check out that long forked “tail” appendage!
That forked appendage is one of his primary defenses, as he can pump fluid into it to lengthen it enough that it can slap down in front of his head to (hopefully) deter a predator. Honestly, you can’t make this stuff up!
Did you know that birds need extremely high numbers of caterpillars to raise their babies? We think we’re helping the birds by providing seed in feeders, but that only helps the adult birds. Baby birds can’t eat seeds; they need soft food with a high protein content. And that usually means caterpillars. In fact, one pair of chickadees will need to deliver up to 9,000 caterpillars to their chicks before they can leave the nest. That’s just one pair! So if you really want to help the birds raise their families in your yard, you’ll want to grow as many native plants as possible. (That’s because native plants support many more caterpillars than non-native plants do; I need to write more about that soon too.)
Most caterpillars don’t survive to become adult moths or butterflies, in fact. That probably explains their many ingenious defensive adaptations, from poisonous spines to fake eyes to pretending to be a stick — anything to try and avoid becoming a bird’s next meal.
Okay, that’s probably enough to give you an idea of how much fun it can be to look for stuff in the woods at night. Oh, and as I mentioned above, it’s not just about caterpillars. We found lots of cool crickets, spiders, and frogs, like this adorable spring peeper!
And this last photo shows how excited I was to be out there in the dark, hunting tiny insects with my friends. What a dork! But I can’t wait for our next foray into the night.
This morning I participated in a Toledo Naturalists’ Association field trip to Wiregrass Lake Metropark. I joined this organization months before I moved to Toledo, but this was my first opportunity to join them on a field trip. The purpose of today’s outing was to find dragonflies, but we also looked at birds, butterflies, flowers, and moths.
And I found that I really enjoyed being with a group of people with such varied interests. When we found a wildflower, there was someone who knew exactly what it was and whether it was native or invasive. When we found a moth, someone else knew that one. And quite a few of us knew the birds as well. What a fun and educational morning!
Even without paying much attention to the birds, I recorded 26 species during our walk, including Veery, Wood Thrush, and Yellow-breasted Chat, all singing their beautiful songs.
This is an Eastern Tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas). This adorable little critter was less than an inch across. The identification key to this species are the orange spots on the hindwing, and the little tail spikes.
This is my first photo of a Fragile Forktail (Ischnura posita), and isn’t he a beauty? I call this photo “Green on Green” because of how the greens of the insect contrast nicely with the green foliage in the background. I find it very visually interesting. Can you see the green exclamation mark on his back?
And then we have one of my favorite damselflies, the Violet (Variable) Dancer (Argia fumipennis violacia). First of all, he’s purple! I mean, c’mon, how cool is that? And look at this guy — it looks like he’s taking a drink from a raindrop on the leaf. Seriously, this just makes me smile. (I don’t think they actually drink water like this, but still….)
I photographed another Variable Dancer perched on horsetail (above), an ancient plant that, to me at least, looks like a cross between bamboo and asparagus. It’s a very cool-looking plant, but you do not want it in your garden because it will spread everywhere, and it’s apparently a nightmare to eradicate.
This next picture was taken at the same location a couple days ago, and shows a Calico Pennant (Celithemiselisa) also perched on horsetail near a patch of Black-eyed Susans.
This last one is a photo I took of Wiregrass Lake a couple days ago when the water surface was calm enough to see the reflection of the clouds above. One of these days I’m going to get a kayak out on that lake and spend hours sneaking up on dragonflies….
I wish I could go on a hike like this every week, with a variety of subject-matter experts like we had today. Not only did my brain get what it needed, but my body got sunlight and fresh air, and my soul absorbed the sights and sounds of nature — a Gray Catbird chattering from the edge of the woods, a Green Heron flying high over the lake, a Comet Darner zipping back and forth along the shore as he patrolled his territory, and butterflies feeding on fragrant milkweed flowers. You know you’re getting some serious ecotherapy when you can feel your breathing slow as you turn your face to the sun and feel the gentle breeze across your cheeks. Yep, today reaffirmed what I’ve known for a long time: Nature Is (definitely) My Therapy.
Here in northwest Ohio we’re enjoying some very comfortable fall-like weather lately. After spending most of the summer with temperatures in the 80s and 90s, I’m very grateful for this change that makes me want to be outside all the time. I’ve been riding my bike a couple times a week, and going for more nature walks too. Today I had a bit of a false start when I drove an hour to one of the Toledo metroparks and hardly found any wildlife activity at all. Very few birds or butterflies, and far too many people. (I should have expected the people on this holiday weekend…oops.)
So after putting in a good effort for about 90 minutes, I headed back toward home feeling a bit frustrated. Then I decided to stop at Creek Bend Farm, a place that’s become one of my favorite local birding spots in the year since I moved here. I walked out through the meadow, moving slowly to lessen the chances of scaring off any interesting insects or birds.
I saw quite a few dragonflies but none of them landed anywhere so I couldn’t get photos. The butterflies were more cooperative though, and I saw a Silver-spotted Skipper, some Pearl Crescents, lots of Cabbage Whites and Sulphurs, and a nice Viceroy. And I think I saw a Monarch too, but it was too fast for me to confirm that.
There was a big flock of Tree Swallows moving over the meadow, and a couple times the flock came down low and swarmed all around me. It was a glorious experience! I took a short video of the wildflowers blowing in the breeze — I think this will help you imagine what it felt like out there today:
Oh, so you’re probably curious about my cannibal encounter, aren’t you? Okay, so the meadow paths eventually wrap around and intersect the path that borders the creek. This is the path I was walking on:
Soon after I turned onto the creek path, I heard the unmistakable buzz and squeak of a hummingbird. I turned around just in time to see this little one fly into a tree and begin a preening session.
I’m assuming this is a female, but it could be a young male. (At this time of year it’s hard to differentiate the two because the juvenile male won’t have his red throat yet.) I always get a thrill when I see a hummer out in “the wild” like this, away from a feeder. So I watched her for a few minutes, snapping photos as best I could manage through the leaves. I thought you might like to see this one because it shows her using her foot to scratch her throat, in a way that reminds me of how cats and dogs do it. I hope you can see it here…the photo isn’t the greatest.
I started to move on down the path but only got three steps away from the hummingbird’s location when I heard another loud buzzing. I looked up and saw a large insect land in a tree beside me. My first impression was that it was a cicada.
But as I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look, I saw that it was one of the coolest insects ever, a Red-footed Cannibal Fly. And it had a victim already clasped in its legs, a large bee. It had already begun injecting enzymes into the bee to liquify the insides so they could be sucked out. Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?
This is a type of Robber Fly in the genus Promachus. I’m not positive of the species, but it has red legs so that seems like it fits the Red-footed Cannibal Fly (Promachus rufipes). I was so excited to see this, but I had a heck of a time trying to get a photo in the depths of shade under the tree. Then the fly moved to another branch with better light and I got this one that shows more detail of this creature’s interesting body.
My first encounter with this fascinating insect was at Blue Heron Reserve last fall, where I took this photo of two of them resting on a boardwalk:
Late one evening a few days ago, realizing that I had a completely open schedule the next day, I decided I’d head out in the morning to Orion Oaks County Park to try to find some sparrows. In addition to lots of wooded trails, this park has a huge open meadow that always has lots of sparrows singing in the tall grasses. I’ve been frustrated by sparrows in the past, having trouble telling them apart by sight or by sound. So you’d think I would have listened to some songs of the likely species before I got out in the meadow, right? Nope. It didn’t even enter my mind. So, as poorly prepared as I was, it’s not surprising that I got frustrated again.
Sure, I heard plenty of birds singing. But the only ones I could identify were the Chipping, Field, and Grasshopper Sparrows. I could have used my Audubon app to listen to some songs while I was out there, but it’s so hard to see the menus on the screen in the sunlight that I didn’t even try. I’m going to spend some time doing the song quizzes on Larkwire before my next outing, and hopefully I’ll start making some progress toward mastering the sparrows. If you’ve never tried to find sparrows (other than the abundant House Sparrows at the fast food drive through), you might not appreciate how hard they can be to see. They have this maddening habit of singing while they’re hidden in the tall meadow grasses, only popping up briefly and usually too far away to see well. And even when you do see them, they all look like, well, “little brown jobs” (birders even refer to them as LBJs). Until you begin to learn the differences in body shape and size, and habitats, and songs, that is. Only then can you start to make sense of them all in the field. It’s a challenge that I considered not even bothering with two years ago, but as I slowly learn more and more birds I find that it’s not as daunting to add some of the harder ones to my knowledge base. I’m still not ready to tackle gulls though…talk about difficult birds!
Despite my lack of sparrow success, I had a very nice afternoon with lots of other interesting sightings. There were butterflies:
And this mama turkey with her six little poults (you can only see four of them here I think):
I just loved how the meadow looked with the vast expanse of purple and yellow. I tried to get some photos of a Mourning Dove on the grass with the flowers in the background, but the bird didn’t want to cooperate for that one.
And let’s not forget the curious Grasshopper Sparrow either. I really love the little bits of yellow above the eyes and on the leading edge of the wing (you can barely see that part in this photo).
The other birds I saw that day included Tree Swallows, Cooper’s Hawk, Baltimore Orioles, Indigo Bunting, Eastern Bluebirds, Eastern Kingbird, and a few more. And even a little garter snake that scared the bejeebers out of me when he slithered across the path in front of me. I’m always a bit on edge in that park because of all the signs warning about the Massasauga Rattlesnakes that breed there, so my brain was on high alert. I’d love to see one of those rattlesnakes, but just not too close up. Heck, I feel brave just walking past the warning signs!