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.