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.

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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.

September Ends

I got out yesterday for a nice hike, nature walk, some naturalizing. I’m still not sure what to call these walks. With the weather changing somewhat precipitously I wanted to grab the opportunity to spend what the forecast indicated would be the last sunny day of my long weekend. As luck would have it, the clouds moved in before I got out. Consequently it was difficult to get decent photos, especially in the woods. Still, it was a nice, rejuvenating outing.

Despite there still being flowers in bloom there wasn’t a pollinator to be seen. The temperature was around 50°F/10°C. In the prairie there was a lot of bird activity but that and the occasional pile of coyote scat were the only signs of animal life. Seems I nearly always see something new and interesting on my walks and this time was no exception. It was very quiet out so a rhythmic tapping sound in the prairie caught my ear. A little searching revealed a downy woodpecker hunting on a tall forb’s woody stem. Makes sense but I haven’t seen that before.

September was kind of a disappointing month here for me. There was so much rain and then when we went north to do some camping there wasn’t much to see. Still, even though we came back a day early because of the cold and boredom, I did get some last-of-the-season observations of pollinators, a good, long look at an accommodating ovenbird, and an encounter with a wonderfully-disguised hemlock looper moth caterpillar. I also made some fungus and moss observations I’ll work through trying to identify before I post them to iNaturalist this winter to combat cabin fever. I’ve also got dozens of bumble bee observations there I want to add to Bumble Bee Watch, but their system isn’t as streamlined as iNaturalist’s, in my opinion.

As autumn turns into winter my walks are going to be more for exercise than nature observations so I’ll resume listening to podcasts while I’m out. My search for good natural history content hasn’t yielded much so I’m open to suggestions.

Pollinator Tour

I was vacillating about going on a pollinator tour yesterday at a local land conservancy. We had been to an opening/tour of a distillery on Friday and then Saturday we braved the heat again for the urban horticulture field day at the agricultural research station.  In the end I decided I’d probably regret it if I skipped it. I’m so glad I went!

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While the tour started with a general introduction to pollinators and their importance, the main focus of the event was bumble bees. We learned about their life cycle and got some helpful tips on how to photograph and identify them. The presenter encouraged us to submit our sightings to Bumble Bee Watch, a citizen science project I started looking at earlier this summer but hadn’t gotten around to submitting anything to. If you’re in North America I suggest you check it out and consider getting involved.

Bumble Bee on Echinacea

The weather has been on the dry side lately so there hasn’t been as much nectar available for bees. The purple coneflowers were popular. That’s where we saw this Brown-belted Bumble Bee, or at least that’s what I think it is. I’m not too sure of my identification skills at this point but hope with time and seeing more bees it will become easier. Bumble bees can be tricky to identify because the queens, males and worker females can all look different within a species and there are variations even within a sex.

Bees Gathering Pollen

The coneflowers also attracted these solitary bees who were busy collecting pollen for their brood.

Yellow Bumble Bee

In all we saw five species of bumble bees in the three hours we were there. This one in the jar is a Yellow Bumble Bee. Our guide was catching bees for us to see up close, first with a net, but then just by walking up to them and placing the jar over them. They were all released unharmed when we were done looking at them.

Monarch Caterpillar

Along with the bees we saw a few Monarch Butterfly caterpillars like this one. It seemed to be lost exploring a nodding onion stem rather than its usual milkweed host plants.

Solitary Bee on Mustard

It was cool to see so many people turn out for an event like this. There were even a couple of young boys in attendance who were really into it, asking good questions and having a great time finding bees. We all came away with information and suggestions of resources to help us continue our studies of bumble bees. Now I need to get out and see more bees before it’s too late. The flowers I associate with autumn, goldenrod and asters are starting to bloom and before we know it the bees will have tucked themselves away for winter.

Fun February Find

There was an exciting discovery in the back yard today.

Birdhouse

A couple of weeks ago I noticed something hanging on the back fence. It turned out to be a broken birdhouse packed full of mouse nest stuff. It’s not our birdhouse so I presume the previous neighbors found it and just hung it there.  I retrieved it intending to clean it out, put a new roof on it and hang it up somewhere this spring. Just now, as I started pulling out the nest I noticed what I thought were some discarded nut shells.

Coccoons

A closer look revealed something much more exciting. The birdhouse had become a beehouse. Those are old bumblebee cocoons!

Last year I put out an actual bumblebee house  hoping to attract a queen but didn’t have any luck. Now I’m wondering if this could be salvaged as a home attractive to bumblebees once again.

Nest Closeup

I’m going to consult with a couple of sources much more knowledgeable about such things on how to proceed. Having a  living bumblebee nest to observe in the yard would be the coolest.