I've been focused on other things so far this year, so I haven't been working out in the garden nearly as much. And without being outside as much, I haven't encountered nearly as many animals as I normally do. This weekend, though, I was able to get out in the back yard for a little while, and I found a few insects flying around. One was a moth that I'd never seen before, Slosson's metalmark (Tortyra slossonia). Very flashy, quite small; it was walking around on a typically huge elderberry flower (technically an inflorescence, or collection of flowers) that was about six inches diameter. It was fairly quiescent, which normally makes for a good photographic subject, but the wind was blowing the plant around fairly frequently, making focusing a challenge. Unfortunately, right as the wind started to settle, the moth was flushed by an approaching butterfly, and I never saw it again. Here's the best image I was able to obtain: a brief write-up on the "little brown jobs" common to birding and butterflying.The plant was in shade, so I had to use flash, and the tone of the image is a bit muted compared to the brilliant metallic orange-red of the wing stripes, but the "face" of this little beast is so interesting I had to show a picture of it somehow. I can't wait to meet this guy again and get some more shots! And over on the sunny side of the house, I saw a pair of male little brown butterflies giving each other problems. Neither one wanted to allow the other a place to perch and bask and (perhaps) espy a passing female. But every now and then one would alight for a few seconds and allow a frame or two to be squeezed off. Here's one that worked, well enough to ID the guy as a Horace's Duskywing (Erynnis horatius): If you're curious, you can see a female E. horatius that I found a few years ago in the "courtyard"; that experience prompted
Over the years I've found some big moths on the property, both as larvae and as adults. When I say big, I mean big enough that people notice them, not the little tiny guys that are present by the hundreds in the grasses and flower beds. I'm talking sphinx moths, family Sphingidae, also known as hawk moths They're a bit more cryptic, and less spectacular, than their cousins in the family Saturniidae, the silk moths, but they make up for it with the impressive thickness of their bodies (their abdomens) and their ability to hover like a hummingbird (the "hummingbird moth" is a sphinx moth). They're large enough, for example, that one of Poe's characters mistakes one on his windowpane for a truly monstrous beast much farther away (although Poe, with characteristic sleight of hand, reduces the size of the moth in the punch line to this bagatelle, titled simply "The Sphinx," to 1/16 of an inch, far smaller than they really are). Here's a little gallery of these mysterious monsters that have visited my yard. Mournful Sphinx (Enyo lugubris) back in 2011. Pluto Sphinx (Xylophanes pluto) back in 2012: This first caterpillar was pink in color, feeding on the native firebush, Hamelia patens. The images below are either of a later instar or a different individual. They're nearly 3 weeks later than the picture above, and in addition to being substantially fatter, the caterpillar is brown instead of pink: The false eyespots of this species are particularly impressive: Carolina Sphinx in 2014: And finally, in 2015, I've come across the "default" moth that I'd thought each of those might be in the past: Erinnyis ello, the Ello Sphinx moth. So far, just the caterpillar, but isn't it a beauty? This caterpillar feeds on the leaves of many plants, but in my yard it prefers silver buttonwood (Conocarpus erectus) which, when not being ravaged by herbivorous insects, is a very attractive Florida native. I don't mind the feeding damage, though, since the caterpillar is so interesting to look at: Check out those mouthparts! There are two on this particular plant, and I speculate that they came from these two eggs: However, there's no real way to prove that. And after several days of feeding, I'm not entirely sure whether these caterpillars were picked off by the local birds or whether they did manage to pupate and emerge as moths. Whatever the case may be, I never did find the adult moths. And, sad story but true, I had to remove those buttonwoods this spring. This location was just too dry for this wetland species, so I traded them out for some more xeric plants: saw palmettos. Not to worry, though! In the adjacent side yard, I planted a willow bustic, which is one of the many food plants for the Ello sphinx moth. I'm hopeful that we'll see more of these little critters soon!
I have a new puzzle on my hands. I don't know of any places in the neighborhood with enough coontie to support the Atala Blue butterfly (Eumaeus atala), but I've got one "sleeping" on my pool deck: regal darner I "rescued" from the pool back in September didn't last four minutes. For more on the coontie plant and the butterfly it supports, read this information sheet from UF/IFAS. And have a Happy Thanksgiving!
Last year I found an adult sphinx moth, Enyo lugubris, on our pool fence. It was the first sphinx moth I'd found on our new property, and it sure brightened up my morning. The other evening, as I was fighting another skirmish in my never-ending war against the scale bugs on my firebush, I uncovered a moth caterpillar from a new (to me) sphinx moth species, Xylophanes pluto: Apparently these caterpillars come in three color forms: green, brown, and purple-brown. This one is purple-brown, which seems to be perfect camouflage for the plant it was foraging on, since firebush has brown stems and reddish/purple berries, and even the green leaves have a reddish/purplish cast. Amidships, the caterpillar has four prominent "legs"; these are actually known as the anterior prolegs, to distinguish them from the relatively tiny thoracic legs (you can just make them out on the ventral side of the body up above the eyespot, flying free, not touching the plant at all), while the anal proleg is pretty hard to distinguish; it's on the end that's scrunched up at the crotch of the plant, anchoring the beast as its front end wiggles in space. According to W.J. Holland, while the genus Xylophanes is "very large, containing fifty species and many subspecies," only two species are known within our territory,
though it is possible that a thorough exploration of southern Florida may show that one or two of the species which are found in the Antilles also occur in that State. The student will have no difficulty recognizing the species occurring within our borders by means of the figures which are given upon our plates.The two species Holland mentions are X. pluto and X. tersa, and I've now seen them both! (Although only one of them has been in my back yard; witness the poor cellphone snap of X. tersa that is my only record.) Unfortunately, I will have great trouble recognizing this species because I've never seen the adult form; I've seen only two individuals of the larval form. They're quite distinctive, but I hope to see the adult one of these days. Etymology: xylo- is wood, -phanes is from Greek phainomai, to appear or come into view. Pluto, of course, is the Roman god of the underworld (the Greek god of the underworld is Hades). The genus was named by Hubner in 1819, although this particular species was described earlier, by Fabricius (1777). After I first found this beast, I went out at different times of day and evening trying to find it again with no success. I wonder whether the ants that tend the scale bugs are responsible for its disappearance, or if it just crawled off searching for greener pastures? But a couple of weeks later, just as I was readying this post for publication, I found another individual, this one much more brown than purple, and right around lunchtime! It was nowhere near as active as the first one I found (since they're nocturnal feeders, it's not surprising that one found near noon would be sluggish). Having seen the beautiful photos posted to bugguide.net by photographers like Alan Chin-Lee (another Boca resident), I took care to get some nicer angles. I particularly wanted to show both "eyespots":
City code here in Boca requires that if you have a pool, you also have a fence to keep toddlers from toddling in. Actually, it requires two lines of defense: a fence to keep neighborhood people out of the pool, then another fence to keep residents out of the pool. This pool fence is usually a fine nylon mesh, like window screening only sturdier and much more extensive than most people's window screens. It also serves as an amazing insect magnet. I've found moths, katydids, butterflies, and all kinds of other insects on it. And just the other day, this fence was responsible for my first encounter with a sphinx moth (the common name for moths in the family Sphingidae). Now, this fence collects a lot of leaf litter in addition to the fauna it gathers in, and that morning as the sunlight slanted in from the southeast, I was sure that a particularly clumpy leaf had blown into the mesh. The outline simply didn't look anything like an animal, and the coloration was wrong too. This had to be a leaf. But as I went out to investigate, I got my first good look at it, and it was obvious right away that it was a moth, and from a family I'd always wanted to see: the Sphinx Moth family. Enyo lugubris, the "war-like mournful" moth (the Greek Ἐνυώ was a war goddess, female counterpart to Ares, while lugubris, of course, means mournful), showed up and stayed around just long enough for me to capture a few pictures. I'm intrigued by the "stabilizer" on the tail: I'm not sure what it does, but I believe it has something to do with its boy parts; females don't seem to have these structures. Plus, it looks pretty cool. This is a honkin' big moth. It's easy to tell, because the fence is a good measuring stick: every four squares is 1 cm. With wings folded, the wingspan is still 15 squares, or 3.75 cm (about 1.5 inches). And the body is the same size; fifteen squares long. Look at how big the eye is: Pepper Vine (Ampelopsis arborea)." I don't know of any of those vines in my immediate neighborhood, but I imagine there are some; otherwise, why would the adult moth be hanging around? In an unrelated bit of bad luck that reminds me why a naturalist should ALWAYS have a camera at hand, instead of just a cell phone camera, see the photo below: It's a sphinx moth caterpillar I encountered as I was riding my bike home after dropping the boys off at day care the other morning. It was a stunning, glorious caterpillar, which is why it caught me eye. And the picture above is the best record I could get of it; I simply couldn't tell from the cellphone screen how execrable the focus was. Rats!
I was cleaning the pool deck the other day and noticed a very odd moth flying around trying to get away from the concrete and glass of the built environment and back into the natural world where it would be much more at home. As you can see, it made it: Velvetleaf caterpillar moth. Its taxonomic name, Anticarsia gemmatalis is rather interesting. The specific epithet comes from the Latin gemma, bud, and talis, ankle. You can see how descriptive that name is in the detail shot here: leaf-footed bug, Chondrocera laticornis. The genus name, Anticarsia, is a bit more puzzling. Anti, of course, means "against," "opposed to," while carsios is Greek for "crosswise." I'm not sure whether we're really supposed to translate the genus name as "anti-crosswise," but it's interesting to think about... The cryptic coloration is pretty important to this moth because it's one of the most economically important soybean pests in Florida and the Southeast. According to the Featured Creatures website run by UF/IFAS,
Infestations of the caterpillar occur in the late summer months and can cause great damage to soybean and other legume crops if not managed. The caterpillar is able to strip fields of soybean foliage in five to seven daysSo I guess it's a good thing my little 1/4 acre doesn't rely too heavily on soybean exports for its modest income.
Back around Labor Day I wrote a couple of short pieces about the various egg-laying episodes I've seen on the hybrid passionvine in our back yard. This particular plant is a cross between our native Passiflora incarnata and a Mexican variety, thus explaining why our "3-lobed" native has 5-lobed leaves. The star of the September post was our state butterfly, the Zebra Heliconian (Heliconius charithonia); in that article I showed a few pictures of the adult form and the eggs. But I wasn't able to hit for the cycle—the life cycle, that is—meaning showing photos of egg, larva, chrysalis, and adult. I posted the pictures I had: the adult butterfly and the egg. While I still haven't got the complete cycle, I'm only missing the triple, because today I got the double: a good photo of the larval form, the caterpillar. While it's true that passionvines have developed some chemical defenses against herbivory, the heliconians have outsmarted the plants, incorporating those chemical defenses into their own chemical defenses against lepidivory (to coin a term). And now there are quite a few heliconian caterpillars (all Zebras) on the vine. Here's what initially attracted my attention: supplements its diet with pollen. Apparently this richer food source enables the Zebra to live for several months, rather than the days to weeks of other types of butterfly. Hooray for Heliconius! Hooray for Zebras! No, not that kind of zebra. This kind:
It's late October, and in South Florida that means it's going to be either windy, or hot, or both. Today we've got a bit of both: a steady 7–8 mph east wind, with gusts up to 14 mph, and a temperature of 83°F. Mercifully, the humidity is relatively low (under 60%), so the heat index isn't really an issue, but it sure feels hot after the traditional pre-Halloween cool spell we had last weekend. (And for some reason, the weather is never nice on Halloween day.) When the weather's this hot and the breeze is blowing, it gets harder and harder to get outside looking for things to take pictures of (nothing makes for blurry pictures like an unanticipated gust of wind through the field!). But I went outside anyway, because I had a few things I wanted to investigate. One of these is in the back yard, where we have one spindly stalk of milkweed (Asclepia curassavica) growing up near one of our beauty berries (Callicarpa americana). For weeks now I've been seeing milkweed butterflies, mostly Queens (Danaus gillipus) visiting that plant and nectaring and hovering as if considering laying eggs. But I've never seen an egg on it. Today, though, I decided to investigate yet again, and I'm glad I did. I may have missed the egg, but I did find a relatively early instar queen larva up in the flower head:
Last week while I was out taking pictures of the muhly grass that's just now beginning to flower (a sure sign of fall here in "seasonless" Florida), I ran across a flying beast that introduced me to a new lepidopteran family: the plume moths, Pterophoridae. These unusual little (and I mean little—these guys are tiny! The one I photographed has a wingspan of about 20mm [that's 3/4 inch to you and me in daily life]) guys have very cryptic body shapes to help them hide in the grasses where they thrive. Part of that camouflage consists of little bristly projections sticking out here and there on their bodies that helps to break up their body outline. But the modification that gives the group its name (in both English and taxonomic-speak) are the wispy, feathery "plumes" on most species' wings (that link takes you to the Moth Photographers' Group page devoted to unidentified pterophorideans). They also have a very characteristic T-shaped resting posture, as you can see in this photo I took last week (and almost all photos of pterophoridans): plumemoth.com,
While the family Pterophoridae is easily identified, species determinations are more challenging, often requiring dissection and preparation of genitalia slides. There are currently 159 described species known from North America north of the Mexican border. Descriptions of at least 10 new species are anticipated along with some fluctuation in the total number of species from changes in synonymies.Since I'm not really a dissection kind of guy, I'm content to have learned about a new component of my little patch of south Florida habitat. Here's a better shot of the bristles that cover this animal's body:
One great thing about working from home is that it's relatively easy to see wonderful things on your lunch break—that is, if you've planted the right backyard habitat. Last week I wrote about the butterfly-attracting qualities of Heliotropium angiospermum, or Scorpion's-Tail, which is conveniently located between my pool and the backyard fence. Back then, I was captivated by the sight of a Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) butterfly resting on one of the exquisitely sculpted leaves of this showy little flower. Today I went outside to see who else might have been visiting (before the Pearl Crescent there was the Mallow Scrub-Hairstreak), and as you can see from the photo below, today it was the turn of Leptotes cassius. This handsome little devil is the common and widespread (well, in Florida and Texas, anyway, although the two populations are geographically distant enough that they have been recognized as two separate subspecies, theonus in Florida, and striata in Texas) Cassius Blue butterfly: Wild-Tamarind (Lysiloma latisiliquum):
Wild-tamarind plays an extremely important role in the ecology of South Florida hammocks. It is a fast-growing pioneer species. Seedlings establish themselves in open, sunny areas and quickly grow into large shade trees that serve as "nurse" trees for a wide array of hammock species needing such a canopy to become established. [In fact, it's doing that for my Pearlberry shrub right now!]If I ever find a caterpillar in this tree, I'll be sure to post about it. The branches are pretty far above the ground, though, so it's not too likely anytime soon.