Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fall Fashion Update

What's fashionable this fall? The caterpillars' daring wardrobes scream color and texture.

First on the cat walk is an American Dagger Moth caterpillar (Acronicta americana) sporting a long, luxurious cream colored coat punctuated by five dramatically long black spikes.
Its friend, however, has decided to go with a striking pure white look.

Next up we have the Black Swallowtail caterpillar (Papilio polyxenes) choosing smooth over hairy. The bold black is highlighted by a stunning graphic pattern in the ever-popular eco-green.

For a splash of color and drama, this black swallowtail caterpillar shows off its osmetrium, orange projections which are meant to scare off predators.

Sporting a colorful coat of yellow, black and reddish-orange is the White-marked Tussock Moth caterpillar (Orgyia leucostigma). The pom-pom tufts along the back create a soft puffy look.

In stark contrast, this Geometrid moth caterpillar prefers neutral grey to enhance its twigginess.

Representing the plus-size models is the 3.5 inch Polyphemus moth caterpillar (Antheraea polyphemus), a member of the silk moth family. The bright green skin is dotted by bold red and metallic silver spots. Vertical yellow lines highlight the accordion-like segments.

Our next model is the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), affectionately known as the Woolly Bear. Just in time for Halloween, it dons a fuzzy black and orange coat.

Another caterpillar in the same family, the Giant Leopard Moth caterpillar (Ecpantheria scribonia), also showcases a thick woolly coat which opens to reveal brilliant flashes of red skin.

Model #9 is the Milkweed Tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle) attired in the casual tousled bristle-brush look.

Last, but definitely not least, the cheekiest outfit of all goes to the Brown hooded owlet moth caterpillar (Cucullia convexipennis) for its radical use of color and design. Hard to believe that this dazzling creature will pupate and emerge as a drab brown moth.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Summer Guests

I had guests this summer who stayed for four weeks, and I didn't mind a bit. They came and went at leisure, sometimes flitting to the back porch for less than two minutes. There was some squabbling, but it was amusing not annoying. My only regret was that they didn't stay longer. The visitors? Three ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris).

After seeing hummingbirds in my neighbor's garden during a morning walk, I decided I'd lure them into my own back yard with a feeder of sugar water. A good feeder isn't costly, but buy one that's easy to clean. The formula for sugar water is simple: just boil one part sugar and four parts water for a couple of minutes until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to cool before pouring into the feeder. I make a small amount that lasts just a couple of days so that I'm more apt to clean the feeder and replace the water solution often.

At first I hung the feeder from a shepherd's hook in the back yard, close to the trees where they might easily find it. Within a day, they were hooked. Once I had won them over, I moved the feeder to a hook on the back porch railing, hoping to get a closer view from our kitchen. The plan worked and we were rewarded with frequent daily visits by one ruby-throated male and two females who spent most of the time emitting high-pitched "chip, chip!" sounds and dive bombing each other.

The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they quickly become accustomed to human presence and will allow you to remain close by. There are even tiny feeder tubes for hand-feeding.

The flight of these tiny acrobats is mesmerizing to watch. At just 3-3.5 inches and weighing about 3 grams, they hover, twist and turn, beating their wings at about 52 times per second! In slow motion video, you can actually see that the hummingbird's wings are moving back and forth in a figure-8 motion, not up and down. As they got used to us sitting on the porch, our curious little guests would fly near our heads, their wings buzzing furiously.

Here are three photos of one of the females. Unlike the male, she has no red throat patch. Females are also larger than males. They alternated visits to the feeder.


In the video below, the colorful male is feeding and at one point turns and approaches to take a good look at the odd creature trying to steady the camera. Notice at the end of the video that his feeding session ends abruptly when he's attacked from above by one of the females.

Male hummingbirds arrive at their summer destinations and depart for their winter homes before the females do. This male hummingbird left for southern climes about two weeks ago. We have spied one female, however, just this past week, feeding from flowers in the garden. Then her visits to the feeder became less frequent. On cool evenings she would stay at the feeder longer and even perch on the top of the pole, sometimes zipping off for a moment to catch a passing insect, then returning to take her post.

I haven't seen her in two days. I suspect that she is headed on her long migration as well.

For more information about hummingbirds and migration in general including citizen science projects, see A great way to attract hummingbirds is by creating a garden. See a list of hummingbird friendly plants at

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another day at the pond

Going to the pond never gets old. Last week my nieces came to visit, providing the perfect excuse to head over for the umpteenth time this summer.

The fountain which had been off all summer, had now been turned on, spraying a showery rainbow across the surface of the pond.

How would this affect the creatures living in the pond? More critters seemed to shy away from the spray, prefering to keep close to the pond's edge. The whirligig beetles were spinning crazily just a couple of feet from shore and we noticed more frogs and salamanders crowded in the leaf litter and the duckweed.

There was also an abundance of interesting fungi growing on the mossy banks.

While I was busy taking photos, my son, daughter and two nieces were busy scooping muck from the rim of the pond, discovering spotted salamanders and frogs at all stages of development.

My 9-year-old niece managed to net a good-sized green frog with a bright yellow belly.

Here is one of many spotted salamanders they found, some still sporting gills.

This little frog had quite a bit of tail still left.

Below is a giant water bug nymph that was lurking on the pond bottom waiting for a tadpole lunch (or maybe a kid's finger). The best find, by far, was a den of Northern water snakes (Nerodia sipedon). I surprised an adult female basking on a sunny patch of moss and she quickly slid into the water. As I called the kids to watch her swimming just below the duckweed, they noticed little heads poking out and thin black bodies winding through the greenery. Babies!

Each child got a chance to catch a tiny snake. Northern water snakes bear live young from August through October, so these little ones were brand new. Everyone enjoyed showing off the snakes.

The babies looked so dark in our palms, but their reddish markings were clearer in the bright sunlight. We returned them to do their job keeping the pond population of leeches, tadpoles, and salamander larvae in check.

Another glorious day and a great way to end the summer. School starts tomorrow...