Thursday, August 27, 2015


I've turned into a bit of a moth nut in the past couple years, but particularly recently. It all started when I attended a Moth Night event at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences facility at Prairie Ridge EcoStation in July two summers ago (2013). The 8 p.m. to midnight event exposed me to so many moths out there that I did not know existed. There are so many thousands of moth species and I only knew a few.  

Last summer I bought a Mercury Vapor Lamp (MVL) security light fixture online and then found the MVL lamps (bulbs) at a local big box hardware store.  I did a little wiring to make this broad spectrum lighting unit portable enough for me to set up on the spur of the moment.  And I bought a black light to add another moth attracting dimension.  I first tried it out in July last year when our grandsons were in town.  We saw several moths and some beetles.  Nearly a year passed before I hung up the white bed sheets again and got the lights set up. I've been checking the sheets for moths since late May.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar 
(Malacosoma americana)

At work I found this moth on the sidewalk near the front entrance.  It has a very fuzzy/furry head, is light brown in color with two creamy white lines that cross its wings from side to side.  So this turns out to be a very common moth that I had not taken notice of before.  This is the adult form of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar that builds its web-like nest in early summer in the limbs of cherry trees and other trees of the Rose family. The fuzzy caterpillar has lovely blue, black, orange and white markings along its sides and a creamy colored line along its back.  

The first night I had the lights going, I found another Eastern Tent Caterpillar Moth on one of the sheets. Its feathery antennae lets us know that this is definitely a male moth. The wings are a little darker brown than the one I found at work, but there is some variation in color in many species of moths.

Lesser Maple Spanworm Moth 
(Speranza pustularia)

Some of the first moths I saw at both the porch lights and the mercury vapor lamp were these white moths.  I did not notice the markings at first until I looked at the digital photos I had taken. Some individuals had very pale lines that were hard to detect in the bright light.  I used Google to try and identify this moth but was not certain I had the right species.  So I requested an identification check on the Facebook group I joined called "Moths of the Eastern US".  This group is very helpful and guided me to the correct moth species which belongs to the geometer family. There are about 1400 species of geometer moths in North America according to Wikipedia. The name "geometer" comes from the Greek for "measure the earth". 

Here is a well marked individual of what I learned was a Lesser Maple Spanworm Moth. Its caterpillar form is one of the "inch worms" or "measuring worms" and is about 3/4" long.  The larvae feed mostly on maple leaves.     

Yellow-fringed Dolichomia Moth 
(Hypsopygia olinalis)

Another early moth that showed up on many nights in late May and continuing into June was this Yellow-fringed Dolichomia Moth.  It does have a yellow fringe along the trailing edge of its wings as well as a pair of yellow triangles on the leading edge (costal margin) of its wings.  Its overall color is rather purplish.   I used and the Moth Photographers Group websites to identify it.  I learned through that the caterpillar of this moth feeds on oak leaves.  Well, we live in a wooded neighborhood with many, many oak trees!

Rosy Maple Moth 
(Dryocampa rubicunda)

One of the moths that I learned about two years ago at the Moth Night event is the delightfully colored Rosy Maple Moth. 
This is the first one I found at home near the mercury vapor lamp.  The caterpillars of this moth feed on the leaves of maple trees, but also beech, sycamore, and oaks.  This is actually a very common moth in our area, but its beautiful pink and creamy yellow color gives me a bit of a thrill each time I find one.

A few nights later I found three more Rosy Maple moths. Although smaller, they are related to the Giant Silkworms moths like the Luna Moth and the Polyphemus Moth. This male moth crawled right up on my thumb for a photo.  He has the large feathery antennae of male moths.

Painted Lichen Moth 
(Hypoprepia fucosa)

I've have seen several of these moths over the last week of May and into the early weeks of June. The colors of this Painted Lichen Moth seemed quite fashionable to me.  The wing color starts as yellow at its head and transitions to deep orange at the tips. There are broad gray stripes that run the length of the wings. The caterpillars of these pretty moths are found feeding on trees where patches of lichen and moss have established colonies.

Red-headed Inchworm Moth 
(Macaria bisignata)

This moth showed up on the painted siding away from the lights in late May.  From the feedback I received from the folks at Bugguide and the Facebook moth group, I am pretty sure this is the Red-headed Inchworm Moth.   At first it seemed to me to be an older worn individual, but the guides say that the lines that extend from the dark marks along the leading edge of the wings are often faded.  The caterpillars of this species feed on pine.

Decorated Owlet Moth 
(Pangrapta decoralis)

Another moth from late May was this Decorated Owlet Moth which has a wingspan of about an inch.  Its scalloped wings are indeed decorated with yellows, browns, and purples.  The caterpillars are thought to feed on the leaves of blueberries.

This is a close-up of the same Decorated Owlet Moth.


Besides putting up lights to attract moths, I also decided to try sugaring for these night-flying insects.  I read about making "moth sugar" which has varying recipes, but often included a few very overripe bananas, brown sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc.  I blended the ingredients together and sat the lightly covered container in the sun for a few hours.  Just before sunset, I used a paint brush to spread the moth sugar on the trunks of two trees about three to four feet above the ground.  I also painted a few leaves with this concoction.  So far I have not had a lot of visitors.  With much help from the Facebook group I was able to identify two of the species that I was able to photograph.

Rotund Idia Moth 
(Idia rotundalis)

The first visitor that I found coming to the "moth sugar" was this Rotund Idia Moth that landed on a mulberry leaf.  It was identified for me by friends on the Facebook group, Moths of the Eastern US. describes this moth as having a "shiny, sooty black forewing with obscure dusky lines".  Its larvae feed on dead leaves and coral fungus.

Morbid Owlet Moth 
(Chytolita morbidalis)

The other "moth sugar" visitor was also identified for me by the Facebook group.  This light brown moth with brownish-orange lines is a Morbid Owlet Moth.  It was feeding on the "bait" on the trunk of a Winged Elm Tree. Bugguide indicates that the caterpillar of this species feeds on the dead leaves of deciduous trees.

It has been a busy summer taking photos of moths and other insects as well as the White-tailed Deer that have been visiting the backyard.  I hope to catch up soon with posts that share the other summer treasures I've found.  I have posted a number of these on Facebook each week, but I hope to give more detail here in the coming weeks.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

An American Lady, a Green Lacewing, a Crane Fly with "Guests", and a Scutigera

I have gotten way behind on the blogging side of life.  I have to attribute much of that to falling under the spell of Facebook's two-toned notification alert telling me that someone is "liking" or "commenting on" some photo I posted there (like this).  I guess I have been grabbed by that instant gratification, however brief, that comes with knowing that someone has responded to a photo that I took.  That's the way we amateurs roll!

Added to this distraction was my wife's departure for the United Kingdom for a month long adventure as an instructor for a Campbell University student who was taking a British Children's Literature summer course.  More on that in a later post.

As I left the lab to pick up my American Lady and deliver her to the airport that day, I came across another American Lady.  Of course, in order to realize this, I had to search Google first for an identification.  It seemed appropriate that this butterfly presented itself on my wife's travel day.

American Lady Butterfly 
(Vanessa virginiensis)

The American Lady Butterfly (also called American Lady Painted Butterfly) is found across much of the US, but this one individual was a first for me.  The underside of the hind-wing has two large eye spots (or ocelli).  There is a large patch of orange and an overall feel of looking at a stained glass window.  The antennae have ends that remind me of cotton swabs.  The upper wings of this butterfly look much different as you can see in this (link) to Wikipedia.

I further learned from Bugguide that the caterpillars of this species feed in a weblike nest that they construct on just a few plant species which includes Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia(link).  

Green Lacewing 
(Family: Chrysopidae)

Shortly after my wife's departure for the United Kingdom, I began taking photos of insects at night by the porch lights. One of the first photos I took was of this Green Lacewing.  Its delicate and transparent wings reveal its abdomen underneath.  So this insect might look delicate, but its larvae are voracious predators that feed on the eggs and nymphs of insects like aphids, whitefly, mealybugs, and leaf-hoppers as well as spider mites. 

Large Crane Fly 
(Family: Tipulidae)

Another visitor to the porch light was this individual from a species of Large Crane Fly.  As I zoomed in on the digital photo in preparation to crop it, I noticed tiny red objects around the crane fly's head and thorax.

As I zoomed in closer I could see that this crane fly was carrying at least seven mites.  I read that most of these mites are phoretic, that is, they hitch a ride on the winged insect to get to an area where their preferred meal is located and do no harm to their flying limousine service.  There are a few mite species that actually do feed on the host.

Scutigera or European House Centipede 
(Scutigera coleoptrata)

One evening I found a Scutigera scuttling about on the foundation outside.  More commonly known as the European House Centipede, this species was formerly native to areas around the Mediterranean Sea.  I have seen several of these fascinating creatures in the past couple years at the new public health laboratory where I work.  A hatchling Scutigera reaches adulthood after several molts.  By that time these centipedes have 15 pairs of legs, the rear pair resembling their antennae so that it is difficult to tell which is the front and which is the back of this arthropod. The pairs of legs are shorter at the front of the body and get progressively longer toward the back.  This enables the centipede to run swiftly without "tripping over its own 30 feet"!  I read recently on Wikipedia that these centipedes can live for three to seven years. They are ferocious insect and spider predators. I once saw a video of a Scutigera catching and eating two Brown Recluse Spiders!  

Saturday, May 23, 2015


We continue to get regular visits from White-Tailed Deer to the feed block and salt lick in the backyard.  I liked this pairing from early May when this odd couple of a raccoon and a deer shared a late night snack of corn, grain, and molasses.

This photo from a couple weeks ago shows the antler growth of one of the bucks.  I am looking forward to seeing the progression of this process of antler development.

This is a photo of the same male deer in profile a few minutes later.

A few nights later this trio visited the food block.  The White-Tailed Deer in the center appears to be a pregnant doe.  I will be hoping to see a fawn or two later in the summer.  On her right is a young buck.  I consulted a friend from the lab who is a fellow naturalist as well as a deer enthusiast.  He told me this may be the doe's young one from last year.  He says that she will probably drive him off before she delivers her fawn(s). I read that does generally drop their fawns in May or June, so this could be soon.  The buck on the left appears to be an older deer, but my friend says, perhaps no older than three years old.

A couple days later the pregnant doe is back to feed. She is looking fairly plump. I've got fresh batteries in the camera.  I need to put out another food block as this one is going fast.

Monday, May 18, 2015


This has been a busy week in the nest boxes at home and at the lab.  A total of 12 young Eastern Bluebirds successfully flew out of their dark and protective nest boxes into a big bright new world.  Here is the recap.


I checked on the nest in Lab Box #1 twice this week and found either the mother on the nest or one of the adults calling from the tall Loblolly pines nearby.  I am hoping to find hatchlings when I monitor the nest box on Monday (May 18th).


Lab Box #2 had an eventful day on May 12th.  When I removed the plastic nesting cup from the box about 10 a.m. to check the 19 day old nestlings (16 to 21 days is typical age for fledging), one of the three young birds looked up at me and immediately flew strongly straight out from the nest and curved slightly to the left down the hill about 200 feet before landing in a 20 foot maple tree, one of a few young trees that line the drive leading to the lab parking lots.  Within just a few seconds one of its nest mates took off and followed almost an identical flight path. Not long later I could hear the parent birds calling to these first two fliers. The third young bluebird spent a minute or two tucking its head into the bottom of the nest in an effort to hide.  Here you can see the last nestling peeking at me with one of the two eggs from the clutch that did not hatch.  I placed the nesting cup back in the box and checked the box again that evening to find that the third young bluebird had fledged as well. These were my first three fledgling birds of 2015.  I removed the old nesting cup, washed out the inside of the nest box itself, and placed a fresh nesting cup inside in the event this bluebird pair decides to nest again this summer.  Later in the afternoon I opened the unhatched eggs and found nothing but yolk in one egg and just the tiniest amount of tissue in the other.  


The Carolina Chickadees in Lab Box #4 have developed their characteristic black cap.  The five of them seem to be keeping the same arrangement in the nest as they did last week, looking a bit like wedges of pie.  Notice the feathers expanding from their feather sheaths on the nestling nearest my fingers.  They look rather like makeup brushes that I've seen in my wife's makeup kit.  This visit was on May 13th.


The Carolina Chickadees in Lab Box #6 are just a day older than the chickadees in Lab Box #4.  You can see that their wing feathers have emerged even further from their feather sheaths.  This nest of five chickadees seem to arrange themselves in more of a disorganized pile than the orderly circle that their colleagues on the other side of the lab have chosen.


The most recent nest at the lab also belongs to a pair of Carolina Chickadees and is located in Lab Box #7. On May 13th there were still five eggs being incubated.  This box is at the end of a section of parking lot near the lab and may offer a chance for me to share a view of the little chickadees to a few lab mates late next week.


I checked on the Eastern Bluebirds in Home Box #1 on the morning of May 12th before heading to work.  All five young 18 day old birds looked healthy and fully feathered.  That evening, I put several live mealworms in the driveway and sat in my car hoping to get a few photos of parent birds taking food to their young charges. After sitting for a while and not seeing any activity, I got out of the car and checked the nest box.  It was EMPTY!!!  So these were bluebirds 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 to fledge on this day!


In Home Box #2 the little 15 day old Brown-Headed Nuthatches are fully feathered on May 12th.  The characteristic white patch on the nape of their necks is quite evident.

I lifted one of the young nuthatches out of the nest for a closeup photo. It promptly made a deposit!  Its dagger-like beak will be put to good use in just a week or two as these tiny birds are fond of fishing out insects from behind bark as well as splitting open sunflower and safflower seeds.  I read somewhere recently that some nuthatches have been seen using a piece of bark to wedge behind the bark of trees to expose deeper insect hiding places.


On May 13th the elevated Home Box #5 still holds six little Tufted Titmice.  They are feathering out nicely and I've enjoyed watching from the window as both parent birds busily carry food to their young.


I checked in on Home Box #6 on daily from May 13th (photo) through May 15th. The father bird nearly brushed my shoulder on one dive bombing run.  Early in the morning of May 15th these four nestlings became Bluebirds 9, 10, 11, and 12 to fledge from the nest boxes I've been monitoring.


In the late afternoon of May 12th as I began to ready the Moth Pit for luring in various nighttime visitors in the next week or so, I stumbled upon a mass of wheat straw, grasses, small twigs and thin pieces of plant roots in the bottom of a nearly empty light blue Rubbermaid trash can.  Upon closer inspection, I found four whitish eggs speckled with tiny flecks of reddish brown.  This is the nest of a Carolina Wren, but was it active?  I waited until after 9 p.m. and slipped out to take a peek.  I could no longer see the eggs, but could barely make out the beak of the mother wren.  The wrens are such a resourceful bunch!  The next evening there was a fifth egg and the mother bird seems to have set about incubating.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Last Saturday I spent a sometime watching birds from our bird room and the deck. Our first visitor was this male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.  Like all hummingbirds he was quite busy.  So far this is the best photo I've been able to get.  His gorget appears black in this photo because the sun's rays were obscured by the mature White Oak trees on the south side of the deck.

Eastern Bluebird

This male Eastern Bluebird was checking the terracotta saucer for live mealworms. His four young nestlings are just five days from fledging and he is as active as his mate in feeding them.

Back inside the bird room, I left the windows open again with a plastic tub of live mealworms on the table nearest one of the windows.  It wasn't long before the female of this pair showed up. She gave me a cautionary glance as I sat quietly with the camera on the other side of the room.  

She gave a few quick wing beats to balance herself as she picked out the one she wanted.  I just love the soft beauty of these female Bluebirds.

She secured the mealworm before flying back out of the window to the nest box that holds her four nestlings.

Carolina Wren

One of the bravest birds is the Carolina Wren.  For such a small bird they have a huge voice.  They creep and skulk around, often close to the ground before darting inside.   The wren's tail is characteristically held in a jaunty position and is rusty brown and marked with dark brown bars.  Their throats and bellies are buff in color and they have pink feet.

Two other characteristics of Carolina Wrens are the long white stripe over the eye and the longish, slightly downward curving beak.  I have been wondering where this bird might have nested.  The pair usually exits the window and then dives down under the deck to some remote location.  I had been looking around to see if I could find their nest, but was very surprised this week when I found a Carolina Wren nest in the bottom of a large Rubbermaid trashcan in the corner of the Moth Pit.  I could see four eggs in the nest around 6 pm that evening.  I returned after dark and peeked over the edge of the trashcan to see just the beak of the mother bird protruding form the nest's opening.  Two mornings later when she was away from the nest, I counted five eggs.  I have a new nest to monitor!

Carolina Chickadee

At least one Carolina Chickadee visited the indoor mealworm feeder.  These little birds are also brave around humans.  They have a soft gray back, a whitish belly and cheeks, and a black cap and throat patch.  We had a nest of chickadees in the yard last year, but this chickadee seems to fly into a neighbor's yard with its mealworms.  At the lab there are currently three active chickadee nests.

In this photo you can see how small the chickadee is using the mealworm for comparison.  They are probably two-thirds the size of the bluebirds.

Tufted Titmouse

The final visitor for the morning was this Tufted Titmouse.  This relative of the little chickadees has a soft gray back and head with a crest  that it sometimes lays close to its head.  Its undersides are whitish with a touch of orange under its wings.  

 Last May we had a nest of titmice that failed about a week after the babies hatched. Something apparently happened to the mother bird.  This year there is a nest of six babies that are now well feathered.  I watched today as both parent birds made frequent trips to the nest with food.


Spring is in the air with bluebirds, chickadees, and nuthatches incubating their first nests of the season.  But for me, nature's bounty extends beyond the birds to six-legged creatures.  

(Cicindela sexguttata)

On April 20th I came across this fabulous metallic green Six-Spotted Tiger Beetle ambling over and around some dead vegetation that was strewn across large granite stones at the mouth of a retention pond that captures storm water run-off from the lab's large parking area.  Each shell-like outer wing often has three (but as many as five) white spots for a total of six (but as many as ten). This insect mostly ran along the rocks but occasionally took short low flights from spot to spot.  These guys are voracious hunters of other insects and have a magnificent set of jaws.

A couple weeks later I found another Six-spotted Tiger Beetle on a cloudier day, so its appearance is not quite as iridescent as the previous one.  This individual has an additional small pair of white spots toward the middle of it back.

(Tipulidae/Tipula spp)

A few days earlier I found this pair of crane flies affixed to a second floor window along the connector between the two wings of the lab.  The mated female will lay her eggs in wet soil nearby or perhaps in water.  The larval crane flies often feed on decaying plant material, but the adults do not eat and live just long enough to mate and lay eggs. Crane flies are called by many other names like; mosquito eater (skeeter eater) or mosquito hawk (they do not eat mosquitoes), giant mosquito (they are not related to mosquitoes), gallinipper (though this name actually refers to a species of mosquito), and in Europe they are called "daddy long-legs" (the name we use for the spider-like harvest-men).  I read on that there are more than 1500 species of crane fly in North America.  I have no clue what species this is!

One feature that all Crane Fly species share with flies, gnats and mosquitoes is a pair of "halteres" that are located behind the fore-wings.  I read that these structures are a modified set of hind wings that act as a sort of gyroscope and aid in the crane fly's balance as it flies along with its long dangly legs hanging from its light weight body.  In this enlargement of the upper crane fly you can see the spherical "knobs" of the halteres just behind the third pair of legs.  

I learned from further reading that the development of halteres in flies, gnats,and mosquitoes, is controlled by a specific gene (the Ubx gene).  If this gene in these insects is "turned off" in an experimental laboratory setting, the young fly (or gnat or mosquito) will grow a fully developed second pair of wings instead of halteres.  This is an example of how one mutation in one specific gene can make a significant change in the anatomy of a species. 

This is another species of crane fly that I found in March. The halteres are the "straight pin" shaped structures between the second and third pairs of legs.  

(Erythemis simplicicolis)

As I was checking the nest boxes at the lab one day in early May I noticed this green dragonfly hovering about.  It would land on vegetation and then move away from me as I got closer.  Since I did not have my long lens with me, this is the best photo I could capture.  It is a bit fuzzy from serious cropping.  From studying this appears to be an Eastern Pondhawk.  It is either a female or more likely a young male based on the pair of white claspers at the tip of the tail.  I read that as a male pondhawk ages, he develops a waxy covering on the abdomen and eventually the thorax which causes his coloration to become a powdery blue.  This species of dragonflies is an aggressive hunter of other insects, not only as an aquatic larva at the bottom of ponds, but also as an adult that zooms around over ponds and habitat nearby. They are not harmful to humans.

(Pyromorpha dimidiata)

Wednesday morning May 13th I went to check on the Bluebirds nesting in our backyard.  On the side of the nest box I found this pair of orange and black moths.  It first I thought they might be beetles, but they had feathered antennae.  I have recently join the "Moths of the Eastern United States" Facebook group, so I posted my first moth ID check.  From looking at I had guessed that these might be Black and Yellow Lichen Moths (Lycomorpha pholus).  Within a few minutes I had a response that gently suggested that these were Orange-Patched Smoky Moths.  A quick visit to confirmed this identification.  I read more about this moth today and discovered two items of interest.  The larvae of this moth are leaf skeletonizers.  The caterpillars eat the material between the leaf veins which leaves a skeleton of the original leaf.  Instead of feeding on live leaves like many skeletonizers, this species appears to feed mostly on leaf litter, especially oak.  The other interesting point is that the adult insect is a color mimic of a toxic orange and black beetle.  In fact, this moth is also thought to be toxic as well, actually manufacturing its own cyanide compound to ward off creatures that would attempt to dine on it.

(Chrysopilus thoracicus)

Later the same day as I returned to the lab's back door I came upon this beautiful fly on the concrete patio.  After consulting, I learned that this is a Golden-Backed Snipe Fly.  I was able to identify this as a female fly from her thicker abdomen and the fact that her eyes do not touch each other as do the eyes of male flies.  This fly is thought to be predatory on other insects.  Though there are similar species that live in the western states of the US that bite humans, this species apparently does not.