Creatures of the Night

Luna moth with frame and sig
Luna moth (Actias luna) – he’s about 4 inches across

It stands to reason that if you want to see things that are out in the dark, you need to become a creature of the night as well. And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend.

Basswood leafroller w sig
Basswood Leafroller

You’ve certainly heard of events celebrating birds and butterflies, but you may not have heard of Mothapalooza. It’s an event held in southern Ohio every other year, and the main activity at the weekend affair is gathering at lighted sheets in the middle of the night to look at moths. This was my first time to experience it, and I loved the geekiness of it all, and the chance to see so many stunning moths. The lodge at Shawnee State Park is the headquarters, and that’s where the talks and meals take place. Many attendees stay in the lodge and more fill the two dozen cabins behind the lodge. I stayed in a cabin with my friends George, Angie, and Jackie.

Most people don’t give moths a second thought unless they’re swatting them away from the porch light to keep them out of the house. Did you know that many moths are pollinators? Yep, butterflies and bees do this important work during the day, while moths work the night shift. It’s so cool to realize that the ecosystem doesn’t sleep when we do; there are critical interactions happening all night long!

Mothing sheets (4)
Typical mothing setup at Mothapalooza

I’ve tried setting up my own light system to attract moths here at home, but have had limited success with that so far. (I think it’s partly because I hesitate to use a bright enough light for fear my neighbors will complain about the crazy bug lady.)

Kim holding polyphemus moth
Nighttime selfie with Polyphemus moth

As you can see from this photo, some of the moths are huge, but there are also micromoths that are hard to see without a hand lens. I focused on photographing the larger ones this time, but maybe next time I’ll be calmed down enough to try the smaller ones. When I walked up to the first mothing sheet on Friday night, I was blown away by the beauty and variety of insects that had gathered there. I hope I can convey some of that excitement to you by sharing a few photos.

The sizes of these moths range from about 6 inches (wingspan) for the big silk moths, down to less than a tenth of an inch for the micromoths. I’d say most of the moths I photographed fall in the range of about 1-3″ wingspans.

So here’s how Mothapalooza works:

Regal moth w sig
Regal moth, another big one (Citheronia regalis)
Regal moth face view w sig
Face view of a Regal moth

Each evening the organizers set up lights and sheets around the lodge area, and we could go visit the sheets at our leisure, walking through the night with flashlights to get from one station to the next. I joked that I felt like I was going trick-or-treating as we walked through the cabin area in the dark, visiting the moth sheets of other people to see what they’d attracted. They also had a half dozen remote locations set up, and they offered a shuttle service to take us to those. Mothing was scheduled from 10 pm to 2 am each night, but I know quite a few people who stayed up much later than 2:00. I learned that the moths tend to come to the lights at different times, so there are apparently some that you won’t see unless you’re willing to check the lights all through the night. I barely made it until 1:00 the first night and 2:00 the second night, despite being a night owl in my normal life. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could sleep until noon the next day, but there’s so much cool wildlife to see down there that we all felt we should be awake and exploring for as many hours as possible. (Moths by night, dragonflies and butterflies by day!)

Beautiful Wood-nymph moth - Eudryas grata w sig
Beautiful Wood-nymph — yes, beautiful is in its name!
Kim photographing moths- by angie (2)
That’s me trying to get the moth face shots I love so much (Thanks to Angie Cole for this shot.)

Kim with polyphemus moth on shoe by angie cole with caption

Luna moth face shot w sig Kim Clair Smith
Face view of a Luna moth — those thick bipectinate antennae are characteristic of male moths

A couple years ago I got my first look at the spectacular caterpillar of the Pandorus Sphinx (Eumorpha pandorus), and this weekend I saw the adult form of the same animal. First the caterpillar:

Pandorus Sphinx Moth - Eumorpha pandorus - caterpillar w sig

And then the adult moth:

Pandorus sphinx - Eumorpha pandorus w sig.jpg

Is that not a marvelous creature?! The host plants for the caterpillar are grape and Virginia creeper, and when my friend and I found the caterpillar, it was indeed feeding on grape leaves. I was so enchanted by that caterpillar that I can’t resist scanning every grape leaf I pass on my walks, just in case I can find another one. And this moth is quite substantial, so when one of them crashes into your head, you definitely notice it.

I’m going to put a lot more photos on my blog’s Facebook page instead of posting them all here. So if you’re on Facebook, you can “Like” and “Follow” my page to see more cool photos than you can see here. (Here’s the link.)

I’m so glad I had this exciting experience! I got a change of scenery, met new friends, learned more about the natural world, and was inspired to share it with you here. I hope this might motivate some of you to hang a sheet outside and point a light at it and see what shows up. You just never know what surprises are out there in your own backyard!

Here’s a brief video to show what it’s like at a mothing station:

I took a couple extra days after Mothapalooza to drive around the southern counties of Ohio looking for dragonflies, so I’m still trying to get rested and get myself back on a normal schedule. I’ll have some fun dragon stories and photos to share next time, so I hope you’ll come back. 🙂

Hooked on Odes

Calico Pennant dragonfly in the hand
Calico Pennant (Celithemis elisa)

This past weekend was the long-awaited Odo-Con, the dragonfly conference of the Ohio Odonata Society. This was my second year to attend, and I was glad that this time I would know more people and not feel like such a newbie. I’d convinced my friend Ryan to go along this year and was looking forward to seeing his reaction to being around so many other odonata afficionados.

The location for this year’s conference was the Oakwoods Nature Preserve in Findlay, Ohio. It was nice to have the conference in our corner of the state this time, although our weather forecast was not very good for the weekend — we were supposed to have scattered thunderstorms and overcast skies Friday and Saturday.

We spent Friday evening indoors listening to a variety of presentations on topics like the ethics of collecting insects, identification tips, and photography techniques. Whereas birders can report their birds to eBird without photos, our dragonfly survey requires photographic evidence of each species, making it very important to  know the best ways to get those photos. The photography panel discussion included Judy Semroc and my  friends Rick Nirschl and Jim McCormac, each with their own expertise and suggestions for the equipment and techniques that work best for them. It was a great discussion and I came away with some good notes.

Two-banded Petrophila - Petrophila bifascialis
Two-banded Petrophila moth that came to our lights – click to see him larger

Friday night after dark, they hung out sheets and lights to attract moths, and I enjoyed seeing some new moths and poking around in the woods with flashlights trying to find caterpillars.

Saturday morning was also filled with more interesting presentations and time for socializing. And, in a stroke of good fortune, the weather cooperated for our afternoon field trips after all. My trip was to a spot that sounds unappealing — the Hancock County dump. But this property has some amazing ponds and meadows, and we couldn’t even see (or smell) the actual landfill part of it while we were there.

Mocha Emerald dragonfly
Mocha Emerald (Somatochlora linearis)

And my gosh, were there lots of great odes there! Our group of about ten people was led by Linda Gilbert and Jim McCormac, and they showed us a grand time for about four hours, turning up about two dozen species of odes. One of the best finds of the day happened in the first 20 minutes of our outing, but we didn’t know what it was until the end of the afternoon when we pulled out my field guide and looked it up. It was a Mocha Emerald, a brand new species for me, and a very impressively-sized one too. We watched it flying over our heads for several minutes, until it finally landed on some vegetation along the path and we were able to creep up slowly and get some photos.

Halloween Pennants in tandem ovipositing w sig
Halloween Pennants (Celithemis eponina) ovipositing in pond

A little while later we made our way to the first pond, where we found lots of species flying. There were many pairs of Halloween Pennants “in tandem,” which is how we describe their mating position when the male is clasping the female behind her head. In the photo above they’ve already fertilized the eggs and he’s holding on to her while she dips her abdomen in the pond to deposit them. His goal is to make sure no other male interrupts her before she’s finished the job.

We found this female baskettail species (below) hanging in the meadow as she began releasing fertilized eggs from the end of her abdomen. We watched as the egg clusters got bigger and bigger, and finally she flew off over the adjacent pond and deposited them in the water. We can’t be positive about her species because we can’t see the terminal appendages with all those eggs covering them, but most likely this was a Common Baskettail (Epitheca cynosura).

Baskettail species with eggs w sig
Baskettail female with eggs

We came to another pond that had just a narrow area of shoreline access, where our entire group couldn’t spread out at the same time. So our always-prepared leader went into the pond with a net to catch some specimens for us to examine on shore. I think he was having the most fun here, as the rest of us were getting eaten alive by mosquitoes in this particular area. But it was worth it, because he brought us some beautiful insects to see.

Jim McCormac with net in pond
Jim is really in his element here, wading in the pond to net some bugs for us to examine.

For example, here’s a damselfly he netted, being held by our other leader, Linda Gilbert. This one is an Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis). In case you’re wondering, all of the insects we netted today were released unharmed after only a couple minutes.

Elegant spreadwing held by Linda Gilbert
Elegant Spreadwing (Lestes inaequalis)

Spreadwings are a group of damselflies that are easy to distinguish from other damsels because of their habit of holding their wings partially outspread when perched. And many of them have beautiful metallic green coloration, like little winged jewels. I love them, even though many of them are frustratingly difficult to identify to the species level.

I’ll finish this installment with a few pics of an amorous pair of Stream Bluets that I photographed during a break between presentations at the Oakwoods Nature Preserve. First, the unsuspecting female just hanging out, minding her own business.

Stream Bluet female w sig

Next thing she knows, this guy grabs her by the back of her neck.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 1 - w sig

Not much she can do about it at this point, but it all seemed to work out, as seen below as they form the “heart” shape when she reaches her abdomen up to obtain a sperm packet from the male to fertilize her eggs. When they’re done with this part, she’ll oviposit into the vegetation in or near the water so their offspring can live in the water until they’re ready to emerge as these awesome winged creatures.

Stream bluet pair in tandem - step 2 - w sig

There’s much more to tell about our post-conference dragon hunting on Sunday, but I’ll save that for the next post. Suffice it to say that this was a fascinating weekend spent with naturalists and scientists, and I’m already looking forward to Odo-Con 2019. The only question is, how many more of my friends can I get hooked on odes before then?