Thursday, September 28, 2017

What's That Caterpillar?

By Anna Autilio
Lead, Environmental Educator

If you’ve been seeing as many caterpillars lately as we have, you’re probably curious about who they are and what they’re up to. Below you’ll find a peek into the life history of five common caterpillars seen around the VINS campus this September. How many of these have you spotted? 

Red-humped Oakworm Moth (Symmerista canicosta)

Red-humped Oakworm Moth by Kyle Jones.
You may have seen this striking, striped, orange-headed caterpillar making its way through the leaf litter underfoot. In late September, the larvae of the Red-humped Oakworm Moth drop to the ground after feeding for a few weeks on beech, chestnut, and oak leaves. Once on the ground, they find a rolled up leaf in which to form a cocoon, and overwinter in this pre-pupal stage. Next June, they will emerge as an inch-long, ashen gray moth that lives only for 2 weeks, long enough to deposit 50 creamy-white eggs on the underside of an oak leaf, and start the cycle again. Although Red-humped Oakworm Moths are native, they are known to defoliate entire sections of forest during peak population years.

Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella)

Isabella Tiger Moth by Erika Mitchell.
This objectively adorable caterpillar is so well-known that many eastern US towns hold “Woolly Bear” festivals each summer. In fact, quite a bit of mystique follows the Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar: they are believed to predict the severity of winter by the width of the brown stripe in the middle of their fuzzy body. This is not true, as the width of the band is only related to how old the caterpillar is. Despite being so fuzzy, these caterpillars are not venomous, and the hairs are not “urticating” or prickling, though they can cause a mild allergic reaction in some people. Picking them up is not recommended for this reason, and because when frightened, the caterpillars may “play possum” by rolling into a ball. The caterpillars are generalists, feeding on a variety of plants including plantains, dandelions, and nettles. After overwintering as caterpillars (they can survive being frozen solid), they emerge in the summer as a tiny yellow moth speckled with black dots.

Tussock Moths – Banded, Hickory, White-marked & Spotted (Family: Erebidae)

Hickory Tussock Moth by Susan Elliott
The bold and brazen tussock moths at VINS are seen confidently inching their way across parking lots, pathways, and trails. This may be because unlike the woolly caterpillar above, they are venomous (stinging), have urticating hairs, and are chemically protected—they are inedible because of alkaloids built up in their body from the plants they eat. They display this to would-be predators by being brightly colored, and sporting long, black tufts of setae called “hair pencils”. Tussock moths are late-season feeders on a wide variety of trees, including deciduous and coniferous species. Some, like the White-marked Tussock Moth, actually overwinter in the egg stage. When a female emerges from her cocoon, she sports reduced wings compared to the male, and does not leave the vicinity of her cocoon, laying the eggs right on top of it once she is fertilized.

Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail by Grae O'Toole.
The first known drawing of a butterfly in North America was of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. They are conspicuous butterflies, as they are large and relatively long-lived, producing two or three broods of eggs between spring and fall each year. But perhaps even more alluring than the butterfly is the caterpillar. Green-brown and pudgy, this caterpillar sports two perfect eyespots on the back of its thorax after its third molt. These eyes, combined with a pair of orange osmeteria near its head that produce a foul smell, make the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail caterpillar seem like a tiny snake. They even sway back and forth to complete the illusion, which is effective at deterring bird predators. Vermont is the northern edge of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail’s range although we routinely see Canadian Tiger Swallowtails here, and the caterpillars spend the summer munching away at cherry, magnolia, and tulip leaves.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Monarch by Judy Welna
Finally, the state insect of Vermont—the Monarch! This gorgeous animal is well-known as one of the milkweed butterflies, because of its reliance on the normally toxic plant. Just like the tussock moths, these caterpillars (and the butterflies they become) are aposematic, or brightly colored as a warning to predators against toxicity. A female butterfly may lay 300 to 1200 eggs on a milkweed leaf, which hatch into black, yellow, and white-striped caterpillars than can grow to be several centimeters long. Famed for their long migration to Mexico, due to habitat loss and herbicide use, Monarchs have been experiencing a long-term downward population trend. Many conservation societies are studying this worrisome development, and are pushing for government protection for these important pollinators.

Have we missed any of your favorites? Send us photos of the caterpillars you have seen this fall!

Friday, September 15, 2017

How Do You Talk With Owls: Flustered

by aJbishop
CWBR Volunteer

I have the keys to their enclosures. The raptors. I open them, one at a time, and do service for owls and hawks and eagles and falcons. I rake and clean and water while they, wild talon shod birds, study my every move. As I work, I can’t help but ask: how do you talk to Owls?

#5 Flustered

by Allegra Boverman
We’re supposed to check the birds, make sure they seem okay. I’m not a specialist, but I can usually count to one or two or three birds. And all of them seem to have a favorite hang out. Snowy is always on the ground diametrically opposite from the door through which I enter. Louis, the Great Grey Owl, has a square post where he stares down on me, and a corner he flies to, making silent treks from one to the other when he’s a little disturbed. One of the Peregrines is always on the floor and will jump up to the rock to be fed, right next to the front where people can watch. A natural performer. And the screech owls are practically like live gargoyles as they occupy a fixed location in nap mode.

But one day, I can’t find the second screech.  I climb on the stool to be able to search into higher places, nooks and crannies, the little nesting box, craning my neck to get at different angles. The enclosure isn’t very big and I circle around without success, re-visiting the same places to look again.

As I search for it, I find it hard to believe that it is in the cage with me. It has entirely disappeared. Yes, I am panicked a little. Well, maybe not quite that serious: but I’m confounded and disturbed. I actually consider calling for help on the walkie-talkie I don’t know how to use.

Once, when all the birds were receiving their semi-annual check ups, I had the privilege of seeing one of the screech owls held in the palm of someone’s hand. When it’s perched on a limb, it’s the size of a kitten. Not exactly large, but it’s a substantially round puffy cutie. However, in hand, its feathers gathered, it shrinks to the size of a small rat or a bat. It is almost non-existent it is so small.

I know in the wild I could probably never see a screech, not even with a lot of determination, but I pride myself on having some observational skills. I once counted nine hawks in nine separate instances while driving all day along a boring highway. Which isn’t entirely interesting in itself except that a friend of mine, who that same day traveled the same stretch of highway, also counted nine hawks. I thought cool! My hunter gatherer skills are not entirely dead. Also, I take it as a good sign when I see a bird of prey in the wild  – like in Homer’s literature, the eagle descending is a thick omen. They – those seer guys who were professional interpreters –  used to be able to give pretty specific instructions about the meaning of the omen.  I know that nine has magical abilities:  have you ever noticed that every integer of every multiple of nine adds up to nine? That’s math magic.

by Allegra Boverman
So: what does it mean that there were nine hawks? I have no idea. I want to call on Homer’s dude, but there aren’t many of those prophet types around. I think:  Screech owl absence isn’t an omen; it’s an oversight. It’s an anomaly. It’s a test.

I decide I will not call for back-up. I can handle this. And reason convinces me that it has to be in the cage.  I stand in the middle of the enclosure for a few seconds to gather my thoughts. A friend of mine calls on St Christopher when she loses something and it often works. I don’t do that, but the effect of pausing calms me.

And then I start looking again, this time not for the owl, but for the places I haven’t looked. It’s not exactly as if it comes out of hiding, but I suddenly see where it could be. And when I look, there it is: in a place that I could not have imagined possible. Hiding and completely camouflaged in a crack between its favorite post and the enclosure frame, a slit that would barely allow my fingers to reach in. It is squished with its wings spread wide, like it is embracing the post. Its little head is hidden in the flurry of feathers. I wonder if it is trapped. I worry that maybe it has fallen down into a trap.

I say a few soft words to it and it turns to look at me. Just a little movement and I back away. When I check on it again, it’s back up on its post. Sound asleep. Unflustered.

aJbishop recently moved to New Hampshire from Montreal. She is a poet, business manager, mother and facilitator of sacred wilderness events. She also volunteers at VINS and occasionally posts vignettes about her experiences with the raptors. Her blog can be found at