Work on Thursday found me hiking up a steep trail in the North Fork Umatilla Wilderness (part of the Umatilla National Forest) in the company of a pair of teenage boys. We were supposed to be collecting data on campsites within the wilderness area, but we didn’t find any campsites. Instead we found a pair of colorful moths engaged in the all-important pastime of making more moths.

I pointed them out to the boys (I’m experienced enough with adolescent males at this point to know that “things having sex” is a pretty surefire way to get them to pay attention to nature, as is “things you can eat,” which is why I also introduced them to thimbleberries). I also took a couple photos with my new toy, the iPhone I finally broke down and bought when I learned what happens when you accidentally set a hot frying pan down on top of the cord for your phone charger, and then learned that my old flip phone was so old they didn’t make new chargers for it anymore.

I’ve been posting spottings to Project Noah via the website for a few months now, but now that I had a smartphone I was eager to try out the app and cut out the step of having to download photos from my camera onto my computer before posting them. I’m determined not to become one of those people who constantly has her nose buried in her phone, but when we stopped for a break at the top of a ridge and I realized I had a couple bars of service, I started filling in the required information about our horny mystery moths on the app. “You have service up here? What are you doing?” the boys asked, curious.

“Well, there’s an app for, uh, people like me who are nerds about nature stuff, where you can post your photos of bugs and plants and whatever. So I’m posting those moths. Maybe someone can tell us what they are.”

“What, and you get likes and stuff? It’s Instagram for plants!” crowed one of them. “It’s Plantstagram!”

“Well, sort of, but it’s more than that – I mean, scientists can see what species have been seen where and–”  Their eyes were already glazing over. “Sure. Planstagram. Exactly.”

By the time we got home a helpful Project Noah user had already identified the moths as Gnophaela vermiculata, with the charming and descriptive common name Police Car Moth. The timing was perfect, too, since this was National Moth Week.

Anyway, I think I like my toy. And if you’re a Project Noah user yourself (and if you’re not, you probably should be), you can follow me here.

First Lep of the Year!

(Lep = Lepidopteran = butterfly or moth. Come on, you knew that, right?)

There is hope for spring yet! In the past week we’ve had more and more migratory birds – sapsuckers, sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers – arriving back on campus, and yesterday afternoon I was out in the woods in just a t-shirt, though admittedly at the time I was slogging through a couple feet of slushy snow in my snowshoes. At this time of year, insects that normally might not catch my eye become cause for celebration. Case in point? This tiny, drab moth.

013 (1024x767)These little critters, each one about a centimeter long, were fluttering over the surface of the snow in the bog. I haven’t had much luck identifying them – there are many, many species of tiny drab moth, and I posted photos on BugGuide and Twitter but people suggested, like, three different possible families – but finding any moth at all feels like cause for celebration after this endless winter. Hooray!

Shall we take bets on what my first butterfly of the year will be? Mourning Cloak, Eastern Comma, Spring Azure?

The Other Lepidopterans

I’ve been giving a lot of love to the butterflies this spring and summer, and not much attention to that other group of lepidopterans, the moths. I admit that I usually only pay attention to moths if they’re big, colorful, or both, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t taken any moth photos lately. Here’s a taste of what I’ve been seeing.

The only giant silk moth I’ve been able to find was a Polyphemus Moth, the same species I found in a Motel 6 parking lot in West Virginia last summer. I love its eye spots. You can see how a bird or other predator might mistake it for a big face looking at them!

I’ve seen several Virginia Ctenuchas around – they fly during the day, unlike giant silk moths – but the only one that held still long enough for me to get a photo was this one, which held still because it was dead. I didn’t know what it was at first, but this was one of those cases where Googling “blue moth with orange head” actually led me straight to the ID.

Another day-flying moth. This one is called the White-spotted Sable. They seem to have a habit of perching on the undersides of leaves where it’s nearly impossible to get a photo of them, so I was happy when this one landed on this clover blossom instead.

I don’t have a moth field guide of any sort – I rely on the internet, with my Kaufman insect guide to point me in the right direction. I’ve heard great things about the new Peterson guide to the moths of Northeastern North America, but unfortunately I don’t live in the Northeast!

Good Omens

While I was out west, most of my possessions, including my car, remained in Georgia. So when it came time to head to Wisconsin to begin my graduate assistantship, I had to first fly back to the Georgia coast and then road trip north. The first night (I stretched out the trip to a week, visiting old friends and former homes) I stayed in a Motel 6 in Charleston, West Virginia. When I checked in the man behind the counter handed me a form on which to fill in my address, and I hesitated. Should I put my address in Georgia, which I had just vacated? My address in Wisconsin, where I had never actually been yet? My parents’ address in Arizona, where I have never actually lived, only visited? It can get disconcerting to not have a permanent home.

The next morning I got up and carried my luggage down to my car in preparation for checking out. As I stepped into the parking lot something on the ground caught my eye. It was definitely not something I’d expect to find in a motel parking lot in a fairly urban place – a Saturniid moth the size of my hand, dead. Being the huge nerd that I am I scooped it up and carried it back to my room to take a photo. I was thankful to have the elevator to myself on the trip up, because I imagine I would have gotten some odd looks from strangers, a young woman in an elevator with an enormous dead insect in her hands.

Later I used my computer to identify it specifically as a Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus. Long-time readers may be familiar with my ongoing fascination with moths (click on the “moth” tag in the cloud in the sidebar for evidence), and encounters with the huge, colorful, seldom-seen Saturniids, the family that also includes such spectaculars as Lunas, Emperors and Prometheas, always seem fraught with magic and meaning. I’d never seen a Polyphemus before, and what were the chances of finding a creature with such personal significance to me in a Motel 6 parking lot on the edge of a fairly substantial city? The edge of the nearest Appalachian mountain was just on the other side of the freeway, but still. Most of the time I am a rational, objective-minded person, giving little credence to signs and portents and the idea of fate, and yet… it’s hard not to interpret something like this as a good omen.

A Life Cycle, Completed

From caterpillar to cocoon to moth!  After posting photos of Fir Tussock Moth larvae and cocoons, I thought for completion’s sake I should post the photo I took of the adult.  This photo is from a couple weeks ago but I’ve been holding off on posting it.  My coworker who first found the caterpillar I photographed put it in a terrarium to observe its metamorphosis and eventually added a second one, and even though the first one eclosed around the beginning of the month I was waiting to see what was going to happen to the second.

Turned out the second one was a victim of a parasitic tachinid fly!  I did my best to get a photo of the fly that emerged from the cocoon, but even though I popped the container in the fridge to slow it down it still got away before I could snap a picture.  Still, cool!

Anyway, here’s what a normal non-parasitized adult tussock moth looks like.  This is a male – the female have no wings.  (Moths without wings, who knew?)

It’s too bad that the moth only stood still when he was on this unnatural, non-contrasting background, but I’m lucky I got a photo at all considering what happened with the fly.  And I would just like to point out that even though I’ve posted a ton of insect-related stuff this spring, prior to this there have been four consecutive non-insect posts!  I can only resist for so long…

Another Lovely Little Moth

Yes, things have been getting very moth-y on this blog lately, but what can I say?  They’re everywhere and they’re photogenic.

This one is less than an inch long.  Thanks to my favorite website on the internet, BugGuide, I’ve tentatively identified it as Pygarctia abdominalis, the Yellow-edged Pygarctia.  I can’t seem to find much information on it, like what its larval food plant is; maybe no one knows.  Its range seems to be limited mostly to the South – Butterflies and Moths of North America has confirmed records in Florida, South Carolina, and Texas, plus one out-of-the-way one in Iowa.  (None in Georgia, so I’ll be emailing them this photo.)  It turned up Monday afternoon on the front wall of the dormitory.  I love its antennae.

Later today I’m off to Hilton Head to visit an old friend.  Have a great weekend!


There is more Okefenokee magic to come (at least two posts… possibly more), but first, a piece of what passes for breaking news on a blog such as this.  On Saturday I wrote about a Fir Tussock Moth caterpillar that one of my coworkers had tucked into a container with some leaves in hopes of seeing it spin its cocoon there.  This morning the caterpillar seemed to have vanished, and finally, clinging to the inside of the container’s lid, we found this.

Holding it up to the sun reveals the ghostly silhouette of the changing creature within.

No matter how well we understand the process of metamorphosis, it still seems a little like magic.