Pretty in Pink: Tales of a Drunken Moth

Primrose Moth on, what else, a primrose.

Primrose Moth on, what else, a primrose.

i can talk about butterflies all day long, but unfortunately my knowledge of moths is rather scant.  therefore,  when i discovered this lovely pink moth along the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville, NC, i was eager to use the opportunity to increase my moth knowledge.  i don’t have any comprehensive field guides for moths so i opted for the lazy person’s identification method–i googled “pink moth.”  there were only a couple choices, one being the Primrose Moth.  considering this delightful insect was buried within a primrose, i felt confident that i had positively identified my quarry.  (i particularly like the fringe along the wing edges and the cream colored fur hat.  this moth reminds me of a 1920’s flapper.  any fashion designers out there?  i think this gorgeous moth could be the inspiration for a really great dress!).  Anyway, i started reading a blog post about the primrose moth (Schinia florida) and learned some interesting tidbits.  Apparently the primrose blossom only opens at night when the primrose moth is active.  the moth dives into the open flower, extending its proboscis (tube-like mouth part) to extract nectar from the depths of the bloom.  sometimes, however, the moth gets caught nectaring a little too late and the flower closes on him as the sun rises.  (think nightclubbing moth passed out at the bar at dawn when the doors are locked.)  that’s exactly what happened to my moth.  when i found him, only the fringes of his hind wings were visible and i had to peel back the flower petals to reveal the entire moth.  the moth was mostly unresponsive.  he moved slightly then went back to sleep (moth: “oh my god, where am i?  who turned on the friggin’ lights?  what time is it?  i need to get home, my wife is going to KILL me.  i just need a minute to get it together…hold on a sec…zzzzzzzzzzz.”).  what was really interesting was that his proboscis was still extended as if he was still trying to drink in his sleep!  my foray into the secret lives of moths has been very fascinating!  there are 12,000 moths in North America…one down, 11,999 to go.

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The Devil’s Courthouse

i wanted to share one of our special weekend adventures as we camped and hiked the Mt. Pisgah region along the Blue Ridge Parkway in western NC.  it was approaching 8pm and we were scouting a place to watch the sunset.  passing an overlook we had seen before but had yet to hike, ominously named the Devil’s Courthouse, we decided now was the time.

View of the Devil's Courthouse from the parking area.

View of the Devil’s Courthouse from the parking area.

From the parking area, the jagged rock outcropping looks majestic and foreboding.  the little dots you see on the rocks are people…and that’s where we were headed!  the hike is short–about a half mile–but it’s pretty much straight up so you will get a workout.  watch out for a low heavy branch near the top–my peripheral vision was obscured by my hat and i whacked my head hard enough to see stars (the serene quiet of alpine dusk was shattered by my exclamations of profanity).  the elevation at the top is 5720 ft, and the view was incredible!  there is an enclosed viewing area, but we wanted to feel the wildness of the summit by climbing out onto the rocks.  i am generally not squeamish about exploring high places, but i did choose to kind of wedge myself under the rocky overhang so i felt secure enough to use both hands to take photos.  (those teenagers further down on the cliffs were obviously at that age where one has yet to comprehend one’s own mortality).

From atop the Devil's Courthouse.

From atop the Devil’s Courthouse.

we didn’t have long to wait as the sun sank lower towards the horizon, and the sky provided us with it’s own version of Fourth of July pyrotechnics.  sitting under the rocky overhang created almost amphitheater-like acoustics, and the evening song of the alpine birds was a lovely mountain music.  sometimes it just feels good to be alive.  we stayed long enough to watch the sun disappear, the moon rise, and the stars to wink on one by one.

Sunset from the Devil's Courthouse.

Sunset from the Devil’s Courthouse.

this wonderful destination is located at milepost 422.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway southwest of Asheville.  it was so named because of a supposed cave in the center of the mountain where the devil holds court.  apparently he took the holiday weekend off because i found only beauty, serenity, and peace in this true gem of the Blue Ridge.  i can’t wait to go back during the daylight hours–there are supposed to be several populations of rare alpine plants and the occasional visit by hunting peregrine falcons!  the Devil’s Courthouse makes my list of Magical Places of the Southeast.  a must-visit!

The Green Prince

Fat-n-friendly green frog.

Fat-n-friendly green frog.

we have several ponds at Dearness Gardens, fairly bursting with a delightful assortment of creatures including goldfish, koi, minnows, a northern water snake, bullfrogs, green frogs, toads, tadpoles, dragonflies, and some type of large fish (bluegill maybe?) that was rescued from a customer’s pond that was being drained.  in the early morning, Myrtle (the cat) and i enjoy a stroll around the ponds for a drink of water (the cat) and to see what aquatic residents we might spy.  this morning, as most of the frogs made their usual quick escape dive as we approached, this one green frog seemed unconcerned by my presence and remained comfortably perched on his rock.  his composure remained intact as i slowly circled with my camera, shooting him from various angles.  i like to think it was my “frog whisperer” status that allowed me this unusual access, but rather i fear this frog might be the pond resident destined to be weeded out by natural selection and end up in the belly of a rogue heron.  such are the thoughts of a biologist.  here’s your cocktail party conversation starter for the week:  you can tell a green frog from a bullfrog by the dorsolateral fold, the fold of skin that begins at the eye and extends all the way down the back.  bullfrogs lack this extended fold.  green frogs are known to migrate from their natal ponds to nearby ponds, traveling up to three miles!  that is a whole lot of hopping going on.  the call of the green frog is often described as “c’tunk,” or the plucking of a banjo string.  to hear the call of a green frog (so you can impress your friends the next time you are sipping wine in a bog) click here. (Courtesy of the herpetology department of Davidson College).  tomorrow i look forward to again seeing my princely amphibious friend…and if not, well, circle-of-life and all that, i suppose.

“The Love Story That Feeds the Earth”

Happy bumblebee showered in passionflower pollen.

Happy bumblebee showered in passionflower pollen.

i recently underwent Habitat Steward Training through the North Carolina Wildlife Federation and HAWK (Habitat and Wildlife Keepers), an intensive 3 day affair involving various environmental, ecological, and wildlife conservation-oriented seminars and activities .  out of all the seminars, my favorite by far was about the relationship between flowers and their pollinators, presented by Dr. Larry Mellichamp, botanist, professor, and author of an amazing new book Native Plants of the Southeast.  Dr. Mellichamp discussed the many specific flower traits and adaptations that have coevolved over millions of years so that each flower attracts and is perfectly suited to its most perfect pollinator.  did you know that bees buzz in order to shake pollen loose?  did you know orchids have fringe so butterflies have a secure foothold as they probe the debths of the complex flower?  did you know some flowers are only fragrant in the evening so they can attract beetles and then close their petals around them in order to trap them overnight to ensure they are covered in pollen before they are released the next morning?  another one of the examples discussed was the passionflower and how it coevolved to be effectively pollinated by the bumblebee.  the nectar is buried deep within the center of the flower, and the stamens are arranged around the center like pollen-laden shower heads at just the right height to plaster each bee with a liberal coating of pollen.  i was trespassing in somebody’s field on friday (if it’s in the name of education and conservation is it really wrong?) and there they were–passionflowers everywhere and bumblebees galore!  i watched, fascinated, as i witnessed the product of millions of years of evolution right before my eyes.  the bees were so covered in pollen they had a neon yellow stripe that glowed on an otherwise overcast day.  i know that you all “know” about pollination, but do you ever really think about it and how unbelievably important it is?  i got the title of this blog post from the renowned filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg and his TED Talk about pollinators.  when describing the relationship between insects and flowers, Louie describes it as “a love story that feeds the earth.”  i love that.  his film “Wings of Life” showcases an assortment of pollinators in some of the most dramatic and stunning high speed nature cinematography to date.  to hear Mr. Schwartzberg speak briefly and see an brilliant excerpt of his film click here.  (NOTE:  pay close attention to the segment on bats…one of the bats is a female with a baby (batlet?) attached.  oh, and the monarch butterfly migration segment made me cry).  i’ll end this post with more eloquent and wise words from Mr. Schwartzberg.  “Beauty and seduction, i believe, are nature’s tools for survival…because we will protect what we fall in love with.”  well said, Louie, well said.

My Rapturous Raptor

This photo gives me chills.

This photo gives me chills.

Today was Day 2 of my intensive Habitat Steward Training which is basically a “National Wildlife Federation program which educates individuals on multiple aspects of the environment with an intense focus on creating wildlife habitat in various landscapes.”  so far we’ve had seminars on topics ranging from wetlands ecology, herpetology, invasive plants, beneficial insects, backyard birding, native plants, and the evolution of the plant-pollinator relationship.  many of you may be recoiling in horror at the thought of choosing to partake in this program of my own volition.  for me and my brain that demands constant inputs of quality data, it’s been a wonderful cerebral balm.  anyway, the classes are almost an hour from my home and begin promptly at 8:30 am.  so i’m leaving my home early this morning, and i saw a most unusual sight:  a great blue heron majestically flying overhead…a sight i don’t think i’ve ever seen in my neighborhood, as there is no large body of water nearby.  now this is a another story completely, but i believe a heron flying overhead unexpectedly is a wonderful good omen.  i hoped for an amazing day ahead. and it was:  my classmates were great, the guest lecturers were impressive and passionate about their fields of expertise, and we were scheduled for a short hike to the local nature park to look for a pair of barred owls who are tending to several owlets. well, due to guest speaker delays and inclement weather, we didn’t get to go on the owl hike.  so i thought, i’ll just visit the park after classes let out at 4:30.  i get there and emerge from my car to the glorious sounds of a screeching hawk.  he was way up in a tree, but the contrast was too harsh for a decent shot.  i wandered around the park, cursing myself for not asking where the owl nest was.  in desperation i asked a local fisherman at the pond if he knew anything about the owls.  he’s like, “oh, you should have been here five minutes ago.  one of the parents just snatched the fish off my hook to take back to the nest.”  seriously?  i just missed that by 5 minutes?  i was crushed.  in dejection i headed back to my car and there was my hawk on the ground in the leaf litter just staring at me.  he (or she) let me approach without fanfare, allowing me to change my camera settings and just shoot away.  then he hopped up into a low tree and positioned himself so beautifully between two branches, i could have cried.  i always considered myself an “animal whisperer” but this was ridiculous.  when i took the final shot, i was probably about 8 feet away from this hawk…and staring him right in the eye.  i checked the final photo (the one seen here) in the display and thought, “yup, this is the one.”  with that, my hawk met my eyes once more and gracefully disappeared into the forest.  thank you dear raptor for the photo shoot, i will never forget it.  i am not a bird photographer by any means, having not the equipment, skill, or expertise for that level of challenging photography.  however, i believe this is the finest bird image i have ever captured…but i’ll let you be the judge…just look into that beautiful and regal face…stunning.

Update:  i showed my photo to my instructor, and she told me this raptor is a red shouldered hawk and is one of this year’s fledglings–so he or she is a youngster, hatched earlier this spring:)

National Pollinator Week Series: Priceless Perennial Pollinator Plants

Hairstreak Butterfly on Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed.

Hairstreak Butterfly on Asclepias syriaca, or Common Milkweed.

it’s Day 5 of National Pollinator Week, and i want to talk again about a very important native wildflower, Asclepias.  there are at least 13 different species of this plant here in North Carolina, and although i love them all, i have recently renewed my appreciation for the common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca.  i discovered a patch of this priceless pollinator plant growing along the side of I-77 not far from my home, and i couldn’t wait to stop and check it out.  it’s a tall, rangy plant covered in spheres of small pink fragrant flowers–and it was covered with a delightful assortment of various pollinators.  honey bees, bumblebees, butterflies, skippers, beetles–lots of diversity.  even a pretty scarlet lady bug was out stalking aphids, her shell covered in pollen.  although the sun was a hot blaze and the endless traffic was at a constant roar, once i stepped into this world of blooms and buzzing, everything else disappeared.  i got so caught up in photographing the lovely hairstreak butterfly seen above, i barely noticed the heat, traffic, or briars in which i stepped.  (this is the sign, by the way, that you have found your true passion.  you become completely immersed in the moment).  the hairstreaks are cool little butterflies, especially because of their little “tails” that mimic antennae and confuse potential predators.  they often rub these little tails slowly back and forth in a way that is mesmerizing.  notice right along with the hairstreak is a chunky bumblebee happily gorging itself.  this is why Asclepias is so special–not only is it the only host plant for Monarch butterflies, it is a truly fantastic pollen/nectar plant for so many different insect species.  that’s why Asclepias is at the top of my “most awesome plant list.”  easy-to-grow native wildflowers (considered to be weeds by the unenlightened), that help maintain Monarch butterfly populations while feeding our many valuable pollinators.  motto of the month:  GOT MILKWEED?

National Pollinator Week Series: the Magnificent Monarch

Monarch butterfly on heirloom zinnia.

Monarch butterfly on heirloom zinnia.

It is Day 4 of National Pollinator Week, and today’s featured pollinator is a butterfly that makes my heart sing, the Magnificent Monarch.  i am including a recent article i wrote for a local newspaper which outlines the challenges facing the Monarch butterfly and its epic migratory journey.  For those of you who have already read it, please forgive the repetition, but use this opportunity to share this post on facebook and twitter and spread the word!

The Magnificent Migration:  Monarch populations are plummeting, but we can still make a difference, one garden at a time.

Yes, it’s bad news. The annual migration of Monarch butterflies from the U.S. and Canada to the forested mountains of Mexico has declined precipitously this past December to the lowest level ever recorded since records have been kept. Once blanketing almost 45 acres of forest, the overwintering Monarchs in 2013 dwindled to a shocking 1.65 acres, roughly the equivalent of a little over a football field. The overwintering population is now estimated to be composed of about 35 million butterflies, which sounds like a lot until you realize that at its highest levels, the population was closer to 450 million. That is a lot of missing butterflies. The New York Times put the dreadful news into harsh perspective: “The migrating population has become so small that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.” So what is going on here? There are several factors working against the Monarch butterflies including two years of extreme weather events as well as illegal logging activities in the Monarch overwintering grounds in the Sierra Madres. The primary culprit, however, involves a single genus of plant called Asclepias. Commonly known as Milkweed or Butterfly Weed, this plant plays a pivotal role in the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly. The female Monarch will only lay her eggs on Asclepias, and therefore, it is the only food source for the hungry Monarch caterpillars that emerge from those eggs. This hardy native wildflower once flourished all across the North American continent in cornfields, roadsides, and grasslands. However, increased demand for crops of corn and soybeans has resulted in the plowing under of more than a million acres of American grassland. For the Monarchs, the final straw was the advent of “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans, genetically modified seeds designed to withstand repeated applications of the Monsanto company’s popular Round Up herbicide. The corn and soybeans flourish while all weeds are extirpated, including the Monarch’s precious Asclepias. So there you have it…no Asclepias means no Monarchs. Now for some better news. President Obama recently visited Mexico for a NAFTA summit meeting with the Mexican President and the Prime Minister of Canada. At the end of the summit, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto stated, “We have also agreed to work on the preservation of the Monarch buytterfly as an emblematic species of North America which unites our three countries.” This single statement has created a historical and unprecedented opportunity to raise awareness for the plight of the Monarch butterfly and for all beneficial pollinators and has inspired me to kickstart my own Save-the-Monarchs campaign right here in the Charlotte/Lake Norman area of North Carolina. I have been planting Asclepias for over a decade, and I can assure you, if you plant it they will come! I will use this opportunity to implore you the reader to join me in taking action: plant some Asclepias or create a Monarch Waystation (visit monarchwatch for details) in your garden, churchyard or at your child’s school. In doing so you will be helping many other essential pollinators, including honeybees, native bees, a myriad of butterfly and moth species, and even hummingbirds. In the words of Chip Taylor, founder and director of Monarch Watch, “People perhaps do not grasp…that it’s the pollinators that keep everything knitted together out there…there’s a fabric of life out there that maintains these ecosystems, and it’s the pollinators that are critical.” The North American Monarch is the only butterfly species on earth to make such a massive migratory journey—let’s not give up this extraordinary piece of our natural heritage without a fight.