Winter Night Flyers

When we purchased a trail camera earlier this year we were expecting to see the night wildlife we knew were in the neighborhood like rabbits and raccoons. We weren’t disappointed. As soon as we started recording the nighttime activity in the yard we captured all of these as well as mice, Virginia opossums and illegally roaming cats. What we really are hoping for is to record one of the neighborhood foxes visiting our yard but that hasn’t happened yet.

What has been a surprise and has gotten me intrigued is the repeat appearance of night-flying insects well after what I thought was the normal season for them. They’re too small to set off the camera themselves, but I’ve seen them frequently when an animal has triggered the video.

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Here’s one where the raccoon waddling away at the top of the steps has started the recording. The critter can be seen swooping down and up at the top of the frame. The first image is at normal speed and the second is slowed down to one quarter speed. Sorry I had to resort to animated gif images, but I can’t figure out how to put videos into a post without subjecting you to more advertisements. The temperature at the time this video was taken was about 15°F/-9°C.

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Here’s a one-quarter-speed shot of another sighting the following night, this time flying from the lawn area at the top of the steps in over the deck. The temperature at this time was around 25°F/-4°C.

So what’s flying around in the middle of the night, in below-freezing temperatures, when all the plants are dormant and there sure as heck isn’t any nectar out there to dine on? One of my BFFs is an actual entomologist. He suggested what I was leaning toward—that these are moths, probably in the family Noctuidae.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and I may have observed a suspect in the case.

I spotted this beauty hanging on the screen of the kitchen window around 8 PM when the temperature was a balmy 37°F/3°C. I’ve tentatively identified it as Eupsilia morrisoni, Morrison’s Sallow, using iNaturalist’s computer vision identification application. Over several recent evenings I’ve deployed a primitive light trap I cobbled together in the back yard. It hasn’t accomplished anything but perhaps annoying or puzzling the neighbors. The weather has turned wet so I’m going to put off trapping attempts for a while. I was kicking around the idea of creating a better setup using UV light next year but maybe I’ll move that project up a bit and see if I can capture any other winter night flyers.

Have you ever encountered critters in winter you assumed wouldn’t be out? I’d like to hear about them in the comments.

Encore Appearance

I’m not a big fan of winter, to say the least. If autumn just graded back into spring I wouldn’t dread its coming so much. But as the situation is where I live, it signals the end of the lively summer and ushers in the comparatively lifeless season of cold and snow. This was on my mind when I went for a walk a few weeks ago.  I wasn’t expecting to see any more insect life to speak of this season when I came across dozens of these beautiful Virginia Ctenucha Moth (Ctenucha virginica) caterpillars on a trail in the Biocore Prairie.

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It was already the first week of November and I had it in my head that as far as invertebrates go, 2018 was a wrap and in the can. I guess that warmish day was enough to entice them out for some last-minute feeding before they bedded down for the winter.

Different species of butterflies and moths overwinter in different stages of development depending on the species. Some hide out in the adult form, some form a pupa to while away the seasons. Still others, like this species of day-flying moth overwinter in the larval stage huddled under leaf litter or another safe place. When the weather is amenable they will become mobile again.

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The well-known Wooly Bear caterpillar like this one I found near the trail full of  Ctenuchas is another species that spends winter as a caterpillar. It’s the larva of the Isabella Tiger Moth and, no, the width of its brown stripe has nothing to do with predicting the severity or length of the coming winter. Sorry. I’ve found them running around at the end of December and if I remember correctly it didn’t feel particularly warm when I did.

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The adult Virginia Ctenucha moth is quite eye-catching and a treat to find flying around the prairie. It has beautiful dark wings that set off its golden orange head and metallic blue body.

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I photographed the individual above hanging upside down on common milkweed for a while before I realized it was dead, possibly the victim of an ambush bug that had already fled the scene of the crime. It did give me the opportunity to see that stunning blue body better.

I returned to the same location of the caterpillar party the next day and again found the multitude of yellow-and-black beauties crawling around and munching on grass, but the day after that I could only locate one. Still, the whole experience was a good reminder that despite some appearances, there is still life out there, just waiting for the right time to get busy again carrying on.

I Changed My Mind

One of the benefits of time and experience is that you can change your mind about things and change your actions relative to your new perspective. When I began creating the gardens at Brakewynde nearly three decades ago I knew little to nothing of native plants and their value in the landscape. I undertook a “Me vs. The World” approach of planting and nurturing what I liked and ruthlessly weeding out what I hadn’t planted myself or didn’t recognize as contributing to my efforts.

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For years I waged a futile battle against the blue wave of Scilla that bloomed every spring, choking out the smaller plants I was trying to nurture. Then, when I began to appreciate the value of these obnoxious aliens to pollinators, I softened my view of them. Now they provide a reliable attractant for stalking bees in my own back yard. I no longer waste time trying to eradicate them or to grow plants I know they’ll outcompete. But I don’t feel particularly bad when I unearth and probably kill their abundant bulbs when I’m digging and planting as I was last weekend.

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Another plant I tore out every time it dared to pop up was White Snakeroot, Ageratina altissima. The leaves are boring, the flowers are small, white and boring, and most importantly, I hadn’t planted it. Then, this year I did a little project. I made a chart of all the flowering plants in the gardens at least to genus level and dutifully checked off which ones were in bloom each week of the growing season. I wanted to see where the flowering gaps were that I could fill to make my garden more pollinator friendly. The first revelation was that after the riot of spring bloom there wasn’t much going on until the Hosta kicked in later in the summer. The second revelation was that there were only a few species that trooped on blooming through October, Ageratina being the most conspicuous one.

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The Snakeroot first got my attention when the Monarchs we were rearing in the house started to emerge and I looked for flowers to place them on outdoors in case they needed a nectar snack before heading off to Mexico. They were the tallest plants still in bloom and seemed like a logical choice. It was then that I decided that in the future instead of ripping them out when they appeared where I didn’t want them I will transplant them to more appropriate spots and cultivate them as valuable members of the pollinator garden.

Curious about the ecology of Ageratina altissima I turned to one of my new favorite resources, HOSTS. It’s a database of lepidopteran caterpillar host plants around the world.

In HOSTS I found that the caterpillars of the Clymene Moth, Haploa clymene, live on Ageratina. Above is a pretty specimen of that species I found in the garden. I’m going to keep my eyes open now for caterpillars on the plants and perhaps try to rear some if I discover any.

Another resource I consulted was the list of insect visitors to this species at Illinois Wildflowers. It’s extensive! I’ll be staking out its blooms in coming seasons as I work to add to the list of pollinators in the garden.

Finally, the grim side of White Snakeroot—it’s poisonous to grazing animals. What’s more, the toxin can be passed on through milk and meat to humans who consume it and it’s even suspected to be what killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother! Good thing I’m not planning on pasturing cattle in the gardens any time soon.

Parasitoids to the Rescue!

Sorry if you’re a little squeamish, but this is too cool to share. Although, I don’t suppose the caterpillar shares my enthusiasm. Last week I found a tobacco hornworm feeding on the leaves of one of my tomato plants. Today I spotted another one. This this one had a problem—a serious problem.

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See those white things riding on its back? Those are cocoons of a braconid wasp. The Braconidae is a large group of parasitoid wasps. There is at least one that uses tomato and tobacco hornworms as a host for it’s little babies. It injects its eggs under the skin of the caterpillar. When they hatch, the larvae burrow around inside the poor sucker munching as they go until they’re big enough to pupate. Then they pop through the skin, spin a white cocoon of silk and transform into adult wasps that can go on and do that same to more hornworm caterpillars. Isn’t Nature wonderful! The infestation usually kills the host earning the wasps the parasitoid label rather than calling them parasites. I didn’t dispose of this caterpillar like I did with the other one. Here is an opportunity to practice some completely organic pest control. I left them to go about the next stage in their lifecycle protecting the tomato plants of the community garden.

Trouble in the Onion Patch

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I pulled the first onion today! It’s a good size and the top had definitely fallen down which is what I take as a signal to harvest. Lots of onion leaves are toppling.  Whether that’s a good thing, I’m in the process of looking up right now.

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There’s something that looks like a fungus attacking the leaves of the onions. It seems to be spreading from one area making me think it’s something that’s spreading by spores helped out by the near-daily showers we had in June and the cool weather that’s been hanging around. Preliminary investigations are leading me to believe we’re not going to be eating our own onions for a full year like we have been until now.

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I also took a leek in the garden Winking smile Every year I’ve been ignoring them until they’re big monsters so I’m making an effort to eat them as the season goes along. Fingers are crossed that this disease won’t attack them, too.

There was insect activity today, as usual. I’m slowly working at learning what some of them are and, more importantly, who’s a friend and who’s a fiend.

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An obvious friend was this bumble bee hard at work pollinating the tomatoes. Look at that load of pollen!

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This little solitary bee was one of the critters feasting on the cilantro flowers. First, I hadn’t realized how pretty cilantro flowers were until I started looking at these pictures. Second, see her cute little tongue probing the bloom?

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Here’s another angle so you can see how she carries pollen on her leg hairs, not all packed in a ball like the bumble bees and honey bees do.

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This fly was visiting the abundant cilantro flowers, too. I can tell it’s a fly and not a bee because its eyes meet at the top of its head.

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I almost didn’t notice this bug on the plants nestled between unopened buds. There were several of them just hanging out. I saw one on a pole bean tee-pee, too.

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This little grasshopper, on the other hand, was easy to spot on a squash leaf.

I’m really enjoying observing and trying to photograph the insects that I’m encountering in the garden. Discovering the burst mode on my phone’s camera has helped a bit in photographing them. It also means I have dozens more images to sort through to see if anything is in focus. There was an amazing fly with a ridiculously long nose working the cilantro blooms that I just couldn’t get because it was moving around so fast. That will be the next challenge to overcome.

For the time being I’m back to researching onion diseases. My fear is that they won’t keep as long as they would have otherwise or, even worse, they’ll need to be discarded right away. Wish me luck!

Pet Sitting

A good friend of mine had to leave town for a while and I agreed to care for his critters while he was gone. The thing is, there are dozens of them. Really. I’m now hosting three species of very hungry caterpillars! One is a single tiger swallowtail, Papilio glaucus. It is a beautiful green and if you look closely you can see a tiny red bindi between its crossed false eyes on its sixth chakra.

The other two species are are giant silkworm moths, a group of large moths with beautifully patterned wings often with large eye spots. Some are polyphemus moths, Antherae polyphemus. These are housed in a converted aquarium so I wasn’t able to get a decent picture and I didn’t want to disturb one by dragging it out. Maybe when they’re larger. And they do get large. By the time they’re ready to spin cocoons they’ll be at least as big as my thumb.

The other species is the promethea moth, Callosamia promethea. These are sort of blue-green right now but will be much greener with red knobs when they’re big.

Last summer I took hosted some promethea cocoons for the same friend and got to see several of them emerge over a period of a few days. I hung them on a little potted tree while they finished drying and expanding their wings. This species displays sexual dimorphism, meaning the males and females look different. The males are the dark ones.

Raising butterfly or moth caterpillars is really pretty simple. You need some sort of container or cage that allows air exchange but doesn’t let the caterpillars escape. Put a layer of paper towels or newspaper in the bottom to make it easier to clean out the droppings. Provide them with whatever leaves they like to eat. To keep the leaves fresh you can use those little water vials florists use for corsages if you’ve got just one or two small caterpillars. For larger numbers, cut Xs in the lid of a deli container and use it like a vase for stems of the food plant. The key is to make it so the caterpillars can’t crawl into the water and drown. Replace the food in fresh water when it’s skeletonized or when it gets stale. Toward the end of their larval stage you’re going to be doing this pretty much daily. They will eat a lot of leaves so have a reliable source. Once they’ve spun their cocoons or formed a crysalis you just wait until the adults emerge either this season or next year after overwintering them outdoors in a rodent-proof container.

I’ll try to keep posting pix of the kids as they grow up. The transformation in size and coloration is a remarkable thing to watch.