Sarah’s Birthday Caterpillar Hunt – 2022

Sarah and I traditionally conduct a caterpillar hunt on the weekend of her birthday in mid-September and 2022 was no different. This year we headed to Meramec State Park. I had recently heard of a short trail that covered the lush river bottom and contained hundreds of pawpaw trees. My hope was to find caterpillars of zebra longwing butterflies – a cat that has been elusive despite my many attempts at finding a late instar to photograph. We wound up short of this goal again, but we did find quite a few interesting species. I know Sarah will want me to mention that she did indeed win the day by finding more cats than I did. πŸ™‚

Ceratomia undulosa (waved sphinx) in the family Sphingidae. This impressive cat was found feeding on an ash (Fraxinus sp.).
Although we strike out on the zebra longwings, searching through pawpaws still yield results with other specialist feeders, such as this lovely Dolba hyloeus (pawpaw sphinx).
Perhaps because they are so conspicuous, we often have luck finding the cats of the beautiful Apatelodes torrefacta (spotted apatelodes moth) in the Apatelodidae family. These come in two flavors – vanilla white and the more pleasing lemon chiffon pictured here.
Perhaps my favorite find of the day was this husk of an unknown caterpillar species having been preyed upon by larvae of an Eulophid wasp, likely an Euplectrus species. These wasps are ectoparasitoids that ride on the backs of their caterpillar hosts. When reaching their final stages in development, they spin webs and pupate within, using the remains of the caterpillar and their webs as cover.
Getting the lighting just right on these was challenging. Here, I tried my best to position the flash to illuminate the number of pupae residing beneath the remains of this poor deceased caterpillar.
Of course we are always on the lookout for larval members of the Limacodidae, or “slug moth” caterpillars. We found lots of saddlebacks (Acharia stimulea), including the two seen here. I’ve come to see how widely generalist this species is, having found them not only on numerous woody plant species, but in completely different environments, from dry upland woods to corn fields to humid bottomland forests like the one we were in on this day.
The monkey slug (Phobetron pithecium), purposed to be a mimic of tarantula exuvia, never ceases to fascinate me. Like the saddlebacks pictured above, the monkey slug also contains spines that deliver a toxic punch upon contact.
Here you can see the monkey slug’s appendages rising above the leaf it is feeding upon. The problem with being a generalist caterpillar is that these species need to be able to deal with a variety different toxins that reside in the mature leaves of their many host species. This is believed to be the reason it takes the larvae of the Limacodids so much longer to develop compared to similarly-sized caterpillars of other taxa. This comparatively longer development time may also be the selective force that helped drive the development of the stinging spines that are used to defend against parasitoids and other predators.

2022 Kansas Trip – Blue-winged Teal

It’s about time I begin posting more from our Kansas trip from last April. The Blue-winged Teal is one species that is easy to find at Quivera NWR and Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. Dave and I had some great light on this evening. We set up low and waited for the Teal and Shovelers to drift by.

Mississippi Kite Nest – Summer 2022

Many thanks to Chris Brown and his family! They had the incredible fortune of having a Mississippi Kite nest in their front yard this summer. The nest wasn’t really viewable from their house but with great luck, the chick after having left the nest, picked a branch right outside Chris’s son’s window to sit and wait for the parents to bring in food. At this point Chris invited me over on a couple of occasions to watch and photograph. Thanks for the use of your room, Avery! Unfortunately, these couple of days I began coming down with Covid-19 symptoms, inadvertently exposing the Browns and cutting off my time there. Thankfully, none of them picked it up during my visits. Here are some of my favorites of the parents bringing in cicadas and dragonflies.

A parent bringing a cicada to the always eager chick. In this image, the hooded or otherwise maldeveloped left eye of the chick is obvious.
The awkward chick has his next bite.
Another handoff of a cicada from one of the parents.
The chick getting to work on the latest cicada.
Here, one of the parents brings in a dragonfly.
Dropping of a cicada and heading out to bring another.
Probably my favorite shot of the kites – A parent brings in a cicada shortly after the other parent dropped one off. After a few failed attempts at passing it off to the chick, the parent left the tree, presumably to eat the prey itself.

Leps from the Prairie Garden Trust

I’m finally getting around to posting photos of some Leps that were taken during the WGNSS Nature Photography Group’s quite enjoyable visit to Prairie Garden Trust located in Calloway County, MO. I can’t express how much I appreciate this location and the people that manage it. Lorna and Henry Domke gave our group a personal walking tour around much of their fabulously managed naturescapes – in my opinion the perfect exemplar of how and why to manage natural areas. I thought I would have been back by now, but time has a way of moving too fast and there’s only so many weekends in the year.

Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)

Text from their website:

Vision

What the PGT will become

The PGT is a gem of a nature garden in central Missouri where people enjoy strolling by woods with large old trees, prairies filled with a mix of native wildflowers, and ponds and streams rich in native aquatic life. It is free of exotic, invasive plants and animals. Visitors are inspired there to learn about and take better care of nature.

Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

Mission

What we do

The Mission of the PGT is to inspire people by letting them experience the beauty of nature found in a variety of enhanced native habitats on the PGT property.

Values

What we believe

Native plants are good for healthy habitats, while invasive, non-native plants are detrimental and should be removed.

We believe that knowing what plants and animals exist here and how they change over time is valuable. We want to avoid harvesting natural resources on the property for income so mature habitats can develop here.

We support removing plants (using fire, herbicides and mechanical means) and animals (by trapping or hunting) as needed for the management of a beautiful habitat and to maintain the balance of nature, but not as a source of income or recreation.

We believe that quiet personal experiences in nature enhance well-being and that crowds detract from that.

Hummingbird Clearwing (Hemaris thysbe)

We believe that unmanaged habitats tend to be messy, but they can be made more visually appealing by following an artistic landscape design. By having some areas of the PGT less tended and other areas along trails more tended, we offer a nature garden within a natural area.

We believe that knowing the natural, geologic and cultural history of the PGT property is of value. It’s where a coral reef developed 360 million years ago, where the Ozark hills meet the glaciated plains, where native Americans hunted 2000 years ago and where settlers built a thriving pottery almost 200 years ago.

Clouded Sulphur (Colias philodice)
Northern Broken-Dash (Wallengrenia egeremet)
Wild Indigo Duskywing (Erynnis baptisiae)

From the Garden – Skippers and Bees

As the wildflower bed in the front yard begins to mature, the pollinators have come in droves. I really enjoyed getting to know the members of the Hesperiidae (skipper butterflies) this year. Although suburbia seems to support only a few species, their numbers were great in my yard. Most of these are considered “grass skippers” due to their host plant needs. It makes sense that these species would do well in a suburban area with plenty of flowering natives. Most grass skippers will use zoysia and Bermuda grass as host plants. I hate to think how many larvae get destroyed in the neighborhood each season with the relentless lawn mowing.

These first three photos are the sachem (Atalopedes campestris). This is a very common species in the yard and they seem to have a very long flight season. I noticed they come in a variety of shades and patterns that can make identifying them a bit troublesome.

Next up is the overlooked beauty but common Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius). Along with the sachem, this guy was common for most of the flowering season.

The final skipper from the yard is a favorite among anyone who cares to notice skippers. The brilliant fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Although I found a scattered few in May, June and July, they seem to have a little later season than the others. I found them in the tens in August and September.

If you want to have lots of skippers, I highly recommend planting asters in the genus Symphyotrichum. This will attract skippers and many other insect pollinators who need these plants.

Finally, I found a very interesting solitary bee that was feeding on the Asclepias tuberosa that was blooming in the glade garden that installed around our mailbox this past May. This is a male carpenter-mimic leafcutter bee (Megachile xylocopoides).

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 4

Unfortunately, the story of the family in this nesting season has an unfortunate, and uncertain ending. At least, I do not know the final outcome of everyone. In early June, we had heard that the father was struck and killed by a vehicle on the River Road, within a few hours after Miguel and I left for the day. Our next opportunity to visit was a few days later. This was devastating news, obviously. In this species, both parents are critical in providing for the chicks and ensuring the best chances of successfully raising the entire brood. Still, with mom being a great provider and at least one, or potentially two, chicks capable of flight, we had good hopes that she could finish raising 1-3 of the chicks successfully. Once fledged, the parents still need to provide for the chicks for another 6-8 weeks until they are capable hunters. It would be a long hard struggle, but we had high hopes she would do her best.

Then more unfortunate news found its way to us. Another male had moved into the territory. At first this seemed like it might be good news, potentially someone to help mom complete the job of raising the brood. But as time went on, he seemed to be getting very aggressive with both mom and the chicks. He thwarted the mother’s attempts at bringing in food and harassed the chicks relentlessly every time they took to the air. Miguel and I visited for a number of hours over a few day period during this time and the number of successful feedings we observed were pitifully few – seemingly not enough for the chicks to complete their growth and perhaps move with mom to a different territory. We ended our observations around this time. I have heard through second hand accounts that mom was seen with two or three chicks flying away from the territory, so maybe there was a happy ending but I do not know.

Peregrine Falcons 2022 Season – Part 3

In this post, mom continues to provision the chicks with freshly caught birds. The chicks are beginning to try out their wings and are on the verge of fledging.