Sunday, October 23, 2011

Imperial Moth

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis

Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis
Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis
Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis
This awesomely beautiful moth was near a neighbor's front door one morning. What a treat!  Probably he had been attracted to and confused by her porch light.   Before I touched the neighbor's door, of course I had to go grab my camera.  This was a male Imperial Moth and the first of its kind I'd ever seen.  If it were a female, the wings would have had more yellow and fewer dark patches.  These moths are dimorphic which means there are two forms - one for male, one for female.   Adult Imperial Moths do not feed - their job is reproduction. Their larval host foods include oak, sweet gum, sassafras, maple and cedar.

My camera's clicking disturbed the moth and he dropped to the brick floor with a plop.  There he was in danger of being trod upon.  I gently offered my hand and he clung readily to my fingers.  I carefully transported him to a brick window ledge where he'd be sheltered during the day.  He rested on that ledge until sunset, when he vanished, off to take care of Imperial Moth business.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tersa Sphinx Moth and Caterpillar

Tersa Sphinx Moth, resting after a storm.

 Xylophanes tersa

Early Instar of Tersa Sphinx on Pentas

Tersa Sphinx:  Spiracles are circled with brown and white patches

Tersa Sphinx: Head tucked in and three pairs of thoracic legs are clasped together.

Xylophanes tersa got wet when I watered the Pentas

Tersa Sphinx Caterpillar:  Pentas' leaves will grow back.
I was able to identify this pretty caterpillar and the dramatic adult with the help of  I love learning the names of our neighbors.  Matching this week's garden caterpillar with a several-year-old moth photo was a treat.  I had figured that the dramatic, streamlined  moth was a Sphinx, but knew nothing else about it.   Now I know that it is  Xylophanes tersa.   Xylo- is a Greek root meaning "wood".  Doesn't the moth look as though it were made from wood?  Phanes is the primeval Greek god of new life.  His name means "Bring to Light".  Phanes is described as having a helmet and golden wings.  Tersa means clean or bright in Italian.  What a descriptive appellation for this moth.    The caterpillar appears to have large brown eyes.  (Its true eyespots are tiny and not easily seen). The adult moth actually does have huge brown eyes.  Sphinx moths are so cool.  You may spot an adult moth in the evening as it sips nectar from your flowers - just like a hummingbird.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Green Anole eating Monarch Butterfly

So sorry for the lapse in posts;  I was without a computer for a while.  

Yesterday, I spotted my first female Monarch Butterfly of the fall.  She was busily laying eggs on the leaves of each milkweed, A. curassavica, in my garden.   After about 5 minutes of egg laying, she rested on a milkweed flower.   For another first, I reported my sighting to Journey North:   

About an hour later, I was back in the garden with the dogs and was dismayed to see a female monarch becoming a meal for one of our green anoles, Anolis carolinensis.  Monarchs contain toxic cardiac glycosides so many creatures avoid eating them.  Unfortunately, with our drought, there are not many insects at all.  Anoles must eat what they can find.  I am glad the Monarch was able to deposit her eggs. 
This Texas drought has made food scarce for insectivores.
See the anole's ribs? He must have been hungry.
The Monarch is still fighting.  She stuck her foot in the lizard's ear.

The next day:  Lizard resting with a fat tummy.  Does he feel ill?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Frog in the Dog Dish

Is that a leaf in the water bowl?  Nope, it's a Rio Grande Chirping Frog.

Rio Grande Chirping Frog floating in dog's water dish - Just his nose above water.

Released onto moist soil, Rio Grand Chirping Frog is the brown spot in the center of the photo.
It was my turn to find a frog in the dog’s water bowl. (In my last post, I wrote that Tom B. found a Green Tree Frog in his kitchen, soaking in the dog’s water dish.)   A little Rio Grande Chirping Frog was in my dog’s water.  He hung below the water’s surface,  floating with only his nose sticking in the air.  I thought he was dead, but then I saw him kick one leg.  He did not move when I slid my hand underneath him.   The water bowl was deep and had steep, slippery sides.  I bet he couldn’t climb out after he’d enjoyed his swim.   I carried him outdoors and placed him on a seed starter tray.  The native green milkweed seeds I planted there are not doing much, but the chirping frogs like sitting in the moist soil cups.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Frogs in the Kitchen - and Other Thirsty Critters

Rio Grande Chirping Frog

This is the worst drought in Texas’s weather history.  Along with the drought comes record breaking heat.   During last week’s prairie restoration workday, the Master Naturalists encountered lots of thirsty critters.  Animals that were naturally shy, reclusive, or nocturnal exposed themselves for a chance to reach water. 

Because of the drought, our usual prairie planting activities have halted.  Instead, we water.   John S., Tom B. and I drove into Attwater’s Prairie Chicken territory with a 275 gallon water tank and a bunch of buckets to care for our spring transplants.   Tom B., with his raptor-like vision, noticed that when he poured a gallon of water on a Yellow Indian Grass, little cotton rats would scurry out from deep cracks in the clay.  The usually timid rats would try desperately to lap the water before it vanished into the parched ground. As we filled containers, water sloshed forming a small muddy spot.  Two little sulfur butterflies soon settled on the puddle to sip.  Back at the tractor barn, we saw Texas City Prairie Preserve’s resident family of Crested Caracaras  swooping in to dip their beaks in a cow’s water trough.   Tom observed a swarm of honey bees that clustered briefly on a dripping water tank so the colony could drink. 

In my home, twice this week, I have found frogs in the kitchen.  The tiny Rio Grande Chirping Frogs, Eleutherodactylus (Syrrhophus) cystignathoides,  have come inside searching for water.  This desperate survival measure must be something other local frogs are trying:  Tom B. said he also found a frog in his kitchen this week.  He discovered a Green Treefrog, Hyla cinerea, soaking in the dog’s water bowl. 
Like other folks, I try to help:  I keep four birdbaths filled.  One of those is a dish hanging against the trunk of a shrubby tree.  Hopping from a nearby fence line, the squirrels can reach this sheltered water source without ever touching the ground.   Green anoles climb to sip in the shade.    For frogs, toads and geckos, I put a pan on the ground, near a popular amphibian hang-out.  I placed smooth stones around and inside the pan, so little critters could get in and out easily.      
Using  a critter catcher, a Schwegler Naturschutz, I scooped him up and took him outside. Can you see him? (Rio Grande Chirping Frog.) 

Rio Grande Chirping Frog:  Notice the pointed nose and dark spots,

as well as the dark stripe from eye to nose - all identifying features.

The tangle of dog fuzz from my kitchen floor was quite a handicap.  This frog was tired and easy to rescue.

Eleutherodactylus (Syrrhophus) cystignathoides are tiny, fast and secretive.  They are hard for me to photograph.  Thus I had to get lots of pictures of this one.

Rio Grande Chirping Frog making his exit from the critter catcher

An early-rising anole darted after him here, so I intervened and scooped him up again. (Rio Grande Chirping Frog)

 I put him down near my amphibian watering bowl. (Rio Grande Chirping Frog)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Spearmint Tea and Carpenter Bees

Carpenter Bee on Salvia, Indigo Spires

Carpenter Bee on Salvia, Indigo Spires

The snake tragedy described in the previous entry left me discomfited and a little headachy.  I need some mint tea. Happily, despite the parching weather, my garden is verdant with spearmint.  

According to my herbal, besides being delicious, mint is useful for alleviating disturbed feelings and headaches, and in restoring strength -  an excellent remedy!  There is also a bit about mint’s relieving flatulence and aiding the flow of bile, but let’s move on.

We just had the hottest June on record and this drought, also a record-breaker, shows no sign of ending.  There have been no butterflies visiting.  Only a black and red milkweed bug crawls over the tall milkweed.  The activity this morning is among the salvias where carpenter bees are nuzzling the purple blossoms. 

I’m walking to the opposite side of the garden where we have a 3 ft x 7ft raised vegetable bed.  The golden cherry tomatoes have been a delight all month.  I can’t resist popping a few of those jewels in my mouth.  Here is the mint, growing in subterranean pots, untroubled by the heat.  I gather a basketful.

Back in the cool, shady house,  I stuff leaves into a pot, add boiling water, and let it steep for a while.  The fragrance of mint fills the house. The resulting brew is a lovely greenish-gold.  In this hot weather, iced tea is the way to go.  I decant my concoction over crushed ice and crunch in a straw.  Refreshing!  
Spearmint Tea steeping.

After posing for this picture, the mint tea was served over ice!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Snake Killed by Air Conditioner

Side of body and top of head:  Rat Snake killed by Air Conditioner

This is distressing.  I was working in the yard before it got dark.  Evening sounds included birds, cars, chirping frogs, barking dogs and the ubiquitous drone of air conditioners.  Suddenly there was a sharp clanging of rattling metal coming from my air conditioner.  Did my AC unit have a tin can trapped inside with the fan blade?   I was horrified to see that there was an ANIMAL inside the unit.  A snake was being tossed like a pizza by the whirling fan.  Each time the snake’s body slammed against the top of the housing, a flurry of scales and skin would blow out  before he fell back, banging among the spinning blades.  

Aaaaaaa!!!   Panicking, I ran into the house to turn off the electricity, then I raced back outside.  When I returned to the air conditioner, I saw that the poor, broken snake had somehow managed to climb to a metal lip above the blades.  He was curled up, dead.  Seeing his injuries, I cannot imagine how he achieved that final, excruciating climb.  With a coat hanger, I extricated him - like pulling a sad thread through a needle.

Why had he gone in there?  Was he looking for shade, moisture, food, or a rough place to shed skin?   A green anole ( Anolis carolinensis) hangs out in that AC unit.  Maybe the snake was after the anole.  I called our air conditioning service company and asked how this tragedy could be prevented in the future.   I was told that it could not be avoided.   I hate that answer.  The AC technician said that insects, bugs, lizards and shed snake skins are not unusual to find when they perform service on these units.  

I have looked my copy of A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, by Alan Tennant and I think this may be a rat snake, Elaphe spp.   Dear Readers, some of you are experts on Texas snakes.  Please look at the grim photos and identify this unfortunate young ‘un.  Post your identification in the comments for all to see. Thanks!
Dorsal view of his markings:  Rat Snake killed by the Air Conditioner
Ventral view of head and tail:  Rat Snake killed by the Air Conditioner
If his back had not been broken in two places, he might be about 29" long. Poor Snake:  killed by the Air Conditioner Fan.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Carolina Sphinx Moth Caterpillar

Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar, Manduca sexta.  Despite the scary-looking horn, this hawk moth larva is harmless.

His story could be a graphic novel.  

Our innocent protagonist is orphaned, unloved and shunned.   If you cast eyes upon him, you might describe him as interestingly attractive, but others look at him with fear, even loathing.  He’s marked for death, although he doesn’t know why.  In order to survive, he must hide and he must steal food.  This fellow has no weapons and will not fight.  Instinctively, he has an aptitude for disguise and stealth, but those abilities may not be enough to keep him alive.  Every moment, of every day or night, there is danger.  He can never relax. 
Food is so scarce, that if he loses his supply, he may starve.  There are people here that would battle him to the death for his food.  

He must avoid fearsome predators that that would literally devour him.  From his hiding place, he has watched as unfortunates have met their end. The ruthless raptors slash and dismember their victims’  bodies, then carry away the pieces.  It’s all too gruesome.  

There is yet another way to die that is slower and more dreadful.  He has seen a wasp that renders a violent sting, but it does not kill. At least, the victim does not die right away.  Those who have been stung develop ghastly, bulbous tumors all over their bodies.  As the growths swell, the tumors consume the victim who dies slowly, in terrible agony.

If by some amazing chance our hero can find enough food, avoid the competitors, and evade the predators, he will be in for a shock.  When he comes of age, he will undergo a bizarre, disfiguring mutation and gain a super power!  No one has warned him about this; he will have to suffer the pain of transformation and figure things out on his own. This is his family’s legacy.

Such is the secret identity of the Carolina Sphinx Moth caterpillar!  Despised by many gardeners, he is cursed with the epithet, "Tobacco Horn Worm".  Yet, as a beautiful and powerful adult, he is blessed with the sobriquet, "Hawk Moth" or perhaps, "Hummingbird Moth".  He is the size of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird.   We admire this lovely pollinator in the evenings as he hovers at flowers, extending his long proboscis to sip nectar.  

The super power?  Tune in next week to find out…  Just  kidding.  Ok, the Sphinx Moth is the most powerful flyer of the entire order!  That’s right!  No other Lepidopteran is faster.  That means there is not a moth or butterfly that can out-fly a Sphinx Moth.   Super!   

Early Instar of Manduca sexta on Tomato leaf
Carolina Sphinx Moth Larva on Cherry Tomato.  I have enough to share.

Abdominal Prolegs of Manduca sexta.  Note the crochets, little hooks on the prolegs, that help the caterpillar grip the plant stem.

Carolina Sphinx Moth Frass on cucumber leaf.  Frass is usually the first clue of a caterpillar's location. This Caterpillar was on the Cherry tomatoes just above the cucumbers.
Head of Manduca sextaSix Thoracic legs are tucked under mandible.  He looks like a thoughtful professor.
Manduca sexta, Carolina Sphinx Caterpillar.  Note the camouflage:  color, texture, even the fine hairs on the caterpillar mimic the fine hair-like features of the Cherry Tomato stem.