Monthly Archives: June 2013

One of our Largest and Most Colorful Moths

Today when I was exploring Asheville, I found one of our most spectacular moths resting on the ground, in  the corner, against the cement near a pedestrian overpass over I-26.. I bent excitedly for  a closer look and was THRILLED to see it was a Polyphemus moth–one of our largest and most attractive moths. It rested quietly, looking for all the world like it was dead, but I knew it was only sleeping.

The Polyphemus moth has a wingspan of 6 inches and is just one of more than 300,000 species of what’s called Lepidoptera–meaning butterflies and moths. Amazingly, more than 90% of these are MOTHS, though this fact is unknown to most people. The Polypheus has  a distinctive yellow and blue eyespot on its hind wings–the reason for its name which comes from a one eyed giant in Greek mythology. I could see right away that this one was a female, as the male would have larger and more feathery antennae–in order to smell the pheromones that the female produces in order to attract a male for mating. I gently moved this sleeping female to the grass where I was sure no one would accidently step on her, took some pictures and then went on my way–happily, and filled with wonder at getting to see a creature most never even know exists.

What was the most colorful or cool moth you’ve ever seen?

Click HERE to read how you can attract moths to your yard so you can observe them closely.

Trust

at tunnel-
You cannot know what lies ahead, so you must trust that little voice inside yourself that knows the way.

Witnessing a Miracle of Nature

In 2008 when I was thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, I stumbled upon a mass cicada emergence…

aaaccc-0506There is such peace in the quiet moments of night and often I didn’t want to spoil the mood with the harsh light from my head lamp. Instead, I moved away from the fire, content to be swallowed by the blackness, to stand cuddled by the nothingness that veils the forest nightly. Away from the snap and crackle of the fire I stood for a moment in the darkness, slowly becoming aware that it wasn’t quiet. But what was it I was hearing? It wasn’t wind or rain. I  remained motionless, listening to the soft sounds of what sounded like tiny animals moving through the carpet of leaves. The crunching noises came from all directions, making me feel surrounded. Curious, I flicked on my headlamp, squatting to direct the beam onto the ground.

What I saw made me gasp in delight. Emerging from perfectly round holes the size of a quarter were inch-long creatures with beady red eyes, 6 amber-colored legs and pale yellow bodies.aaaccc-0762

I  recognized them as cicada larvae and knew they had spent the last 17 years underground feeding on the the sap in tree roots. Imagine what it would be like to live underground for 17 years!

And now under the cover of darkness, using their enlarged front legs as shovels they had dug their way out, preparing for their last and final molt that would transform them into winged adults.

I was witnessing a true miracle of nature.

aaaccc-0763In every direction that I flashed my light I saw them, saw the army of cicadas all moving towards the same goal: a safe place for their transformation. Slowly, but with persistence, the fat pasty creatures shuffled along the ground, crunching through the leaves and moving around obstacles. When they arrived at a bush, shrub, tree trunk, stick or even my leg their journey turned upward as they gripped the rough surface with their clawed feet. Up and up and up they crawled, making tiny noises as their feet moved higher. When satisfied, they stopped and became perfectly still.

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I watched as one rested motionless on a fat tree trunk in front of me. After a short time I noticed a line along the top of the creature’s back where it split and the exoskeleton cracked open.

And then! A tiny beast within the hard shell broke free and began to slide out, silently emerging like something in a science fiction movie.

Seconds ticked by and I watched, mesmerized by the amazing moment happening inches away. Out and out and out came the new creature until it seemed certain it would pop clear out of the old skin and fall to its death on the forest floor. With its back and deformed-looking wings aimed at the ground and its beady eyes facing the heavens above, its inch-long body was almost exactly perpendicular to the ground and it seemed at an impossible angle to save itself., But then, when I had no faith at all, it bent its odd pale body, reached forward with its strange legs and gripped the discarded skin of its former life.

aaaccc-0748I felt like cheering when it successfully completed the maneuver, freeing  itself completely from its nymphal skin, moving to position its pale body against the tree. And again, it rested, still and silent. What a bizarre looking creature! With beady red eyes, two tiny hair-like structures on its head I knew were antennae, a rectangular spot of black on its back behind each eye and pale body, thick, grub-like body and transparent wings lined with orange veins, it looked like a fictional creation from someone’s nightmare hanging there in the light of my flashlight.

Standing in the forest that night I was stunned by the activity going on around me, cicadas at every stage of their transformation process: crawling along the ground, up tree trunks, just starting to emerge as adults, in the middle of emerging, just finished emerging and even adults that were fully changed, their bodies no longer white, but black with red eyes and clear wings lined with orange veins.

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And, as is the way of the world, not all those who tunneled their way from the depths of the earth after 17 years of darkness were successful in their transformations. All around me was evidence of deformities and death.  They fell when climbing a tree or exiting their old skin. Their new delicate wings touched something before they could dry. They fell on their backs in the leaves and couldn’t right themselves… It was sad to realize cicadas that had lived all that time underground met with disaster before their final stage of life. But such is nature’s way and I knew many animals would feast on the insects’ remains and that nothing would go to waste.

aaaccc-0749Shed skins fell from the treetops, dislodged by the emerging adult. It sounded  like rain and everywhere I shined my light I spotlighted moments in the life cycle of a cicada. Tomorrow as I continued my long walk, all those adults that had emerged successfully would fly off in search of a mate. Males would vibrate the tiny drum-like organs on the sides of their bodies to produce a high-pitched buzz, the loudest noise of any insect in the entire insect world. Each cicada’s call would blend with the hundreds of others, creating a deafening swirl of noise in the treetops. Most hikers or visitors to the forest would surely hear the cacophony of song but few would know its source or of the amazing details of their transformations.aaaccc-0759

As sure as I know my own name I know such stories of insects in the night will inspire nightmares for some. And  others who might stumble upon this ordinary event– they might run wildly through the woods, shrieking and terrified of such madness. But in doing so they will miss out on a true miracle of nature. The cicadas are harmless creatures that don’t sting or bite or transmit disease.

Eventually, even amid the excitement of the evening, the weariness of  hiking all day set in and after a few minutes of relaxation by the fire, I retired to my tent, leaving the emerging cicadas in darkness again. My tent was set up on several inches of leaves and pine needles, making my bed a haven of comfort, soft as a mattress.

aaaccc-0743As I closed my eyes and prepared for the sweet relief of sleep, I listened to the songs of frogs at the pond and the call of a whip-poor-will from somewhere deep in the forest. I felt grateful to be lulled to sleep by the music of wild things.

For what more could a person ask?

To learn more about cicadas, click here.

Magic for your Soul

amoon-Several summers ago, I witnessed two of the most amazing natural phenomena that I have ever seen, though sadly, I must report that I have pictures from neither.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, but both events were a bit on the magical side and perhaps better left to be witnessed firsthand.

The first took place in Great Smoky Mountain National Park which is located in Tennessee and North Carolina. Seeing the display of a particular firefly there–called Synchronous fireflies– has been on my “bucket list” for a long time and when I relocated from New York to North Carolina in March of 2010, my proximity to GSMNP could not be ignored.

I am very much a spur-of-the-moment kind of girl and so headed north in my car one June afternoon, not knowing exactly what I would do about sleeping arrangements. An hour later I arrived in the park, beneath an overcast sky that threw a few raindrops on my windshield in a non-committal way. I made a bee-line for Elkmont Campground, knowing from research that this was the best base camp for seeing the fireflies. I also knew it was almost always full in the summer and reservations were definitely required. Even so, I stepped into the small room beside the road with my fingers crossed and smiled my best smile, asking if there has been any (miracle) cancellations for the evening. To my delight, the woman said that yes, there was one tent site available. Whoo hoo! Another example of things falling into place despite complete lack of thought and worry.

After setting up my tent and eating dinner, I packed my camera into a backpack and headed out towards the trailhead, aware that there was a steady stream of people heading in the same direction. I took a narrow path up through the woods to the main road and followed the crowd. The firefly display has become so popular in recent years that the park actually closes the road for two weeks at the peak of the firefly cycle which is usually around the middle of June. People who want to see the display and are not camped at Elkmont must ride one of the free shuttles from nearby parking lots.

At the end of the road, there was a crowd resembling that at a fourth of July fireworks display. People of all ages and from all walks of life were on the trail, beside the trail, ten feet off the trail. Some were comfortably resting on blankets, others lounged in lawn chairs, some had coolers and picnic baskets, radios and toys for the children. All were there to see the fireflies! Imagine! Such attention bestowed on an insect. (Perhaps there IS hope after all)

I quietly started down the trail, wanting to find my own spot of peace where I could sit with my book until dark. Wide and devoid of obstacles, the trail hugged a river decorated generously with rounded rocks and bubbling cascades. Soon I was alone, walking off trail to choose a flat rock near the edge of the river where I could sit until “the show.”

It was a long time until it was pitch dark but I can’t remember a time that I been so rewarded. The flashing of the fireflies is a bit like those Christmas lights that all flash on, then flash off, flash on… In one moment I was engulfed in utter blackness, not able to see anything, blanketed by dark. The sound of the river flowing was constant, soothing in the background. Then! All at once, the darkness was pierced in thousands of places by the tiny white lights of creatures we call fireflies. On! and then Off! On and then off!

It brought to mind music–a soundless music that gave me goosebumps and left me feeling like I was witnessing a most magical event. Perhaps the definition of music needs to be altered.

I stood rooted to the ground that night for a long time, not wanting to do anything but BE in the moment. On and then off! On and then off! Dark and then not, dark and then not. The flashes were in perfect synchronicity… on and then off! On and then off!  But how could it be? It truly boggles the mind, wondering how those tiny beetles barely the side of a dime can possibly know when is the right time.

I eventually used my tripod and camera to take some time exposures, but when I looked later, there was nothing in the frames but black. Only a square of black. I am disappointed, but there is a part of me that thinks perhaps it is just as well. Perhaps the magic is meant to be experienced firsthand.

The second phenomena I witnessed from a kayak in the San Juan Islands. Again, it was night. Pitch black and not a time most people venture outside, much less outside in a kayak on water! But for me, the thought of this was as thrilling as telling me I’d just won an all-expense paid trip to the destination of my choice. Kayaking at night? Where do I sign up!

Before the kayak trip I had heard of bioluminescence in the ocean. I had listened to a description from a friend who had seen it while in Costa Rica. It sounded a bit far-fetched–that the water “lights up” when you touch it or when you drag a hand or paddle through it. I had to see for myself!

West, my kayak guide, assured me that it was real, caused by millions of microscopic zooplankton in the water that emit light when disturbed. West assured me that I would see it. So while many from our group slept soundly in nearby tents, West, Joe and I stealthily moved through the darkness, carrying the kayaks down to the beach. In silence, we got in and headed out into the bay.

And immediately, it was obvious all of the hype WAS indeed true! It was pure magic! As the paddle moved through the black water, a swath of light followed. Dipping my hand in the cool water, I spread my fingers and watched in awe as five matching paths of light sped through the water. I arched my hand up and watched as the light followed. I curved back toward the boat and again, watched the light follow.

Exclaiming in total wonder, I scooped some water and tossed it, watching as pinpricks of light danced across the surface, like fireflies in the night.

Magic. I know it exists for I have seen it with my own eyes.

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in the magic will never find it. “ 

                                                                            -Roald Dahl, from the Minpins

What magical things have you witnessed lately?

 

One day of Many on the Appalachian Trail

aa-1223In 2008 I spent 5 months thru-hiking the AT from Georgia to Maine… here is an except from journal:

A day I have fond memories of came in Virginia, just north of Wayneboro. The Appalachian Trail crossed a section of Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, with wide swaths of grass lining the road and beyond that, a corridor of taller plants and what most people would call weeds. Milkweed was the dominant plant, mixed in with the orange blooms of butterfly weed, black-eyed-susans, queen anne’s lace and other tall grasses.

It was such a joy to capture the moments with my camera, freezing the creatures when they stopped on the fragrant blossoms. There were so many different insects it was hard to choose! Cars whizzed by behind me as I inched along the corridor, taking pictures of butterflies and moths, of bees and beetles, of flies and bugs and wasps, ants and spiders. Such variety!

So many different shapes and sizes and colors of insects, each more odd than the next with their feathery antennae and their iridescent eyes, their hooked feet and hairy legs. I loved them all! Couldn’t get enough of them. I felt addicted to the task of representing each one, a spot of beauty most wouldn’t even notice.

People in their air conditioned cars slowed down to check me out, likely wondering what I was photographing. A bear? Fawn? Fox?  I could feel their eyes, almost hear their thoughts wondering what I was talking pictures of. Something exciting? Their vehicles idled along behind me and I did my best to ignore them.

“What are you taking pictures of? Something exciting?” I knew they would ask.

My answer would be funny, as I would say “YES! It is something exciting! It’s a painted lady! A monarch! A tigerswallow tail! A milkweed beetle! A honeybee! A garden spider.” Most people don’t even think insects ARE animals.

But each one fascinated me and I longed to stay there all day and watch them, learn their habits, see how they interacted with the other visiting invertebrates. After a few seconds of watching me, the people would drive on down the road, probably wondering why on earth I was standing in the hot sun (it must be 95 degrees!), with a loaded backpack (that looked heavy!), photographing bugs(those bothersome pests!) Was I completely nuts?

Of course the answer to that would be yes, I am nuts. Only a nut would want to walk from Georgia all the way to Maine. But I was proud of my ambition, not embarrassed to stand beside the road in my grimy clothes and do what I love more than anything in the world: nature photography. I was in my element, prepared to enjoy the fruits of my labor and make time to smell the roses. Or in this case the milkweed.

I walked beside the road a while, enjoying the cushion of grass beneath my feet, the obvious lack of obstacles to step over and the plethora of photo opportunities right beside me at my fingertips. It was heavenly and I was powerless to step away and leave it behind to get back on the trail. Instead, for a while I inched along, snapping and snapping and snapping photograph after photograph.

fly-0091I captured the proboscis of the painted lady, a long thin, hollow coil that rolled up in a swirl of black when not being used. Like a straw it is used for sucking nectar from the flower’s center. I captured the brilliant green iridescent eyes of a type of fly and the transparent wings of a lacewing. I found a crab spider among the blooms, perfectly camouflaged amid the pink flowers. I knew if I stayed long enough I might see it grab an unsuspecting insect.

I spotted the smooth striped bodies of the monarch butterfly caterpillars fly-0267and the hairy bodies of bumblebees. Among the vegetation, when I looked really carefully, I could find the long narrow bodies of an insect called a walking stick and the green katydids whose songs would fill the night air on evenings in late summer. I saw spiders with bodies like marbles, hanging still and upside-down in their invisible webs, waiting for unsuspecting prey to flutter into their silken traps.fly-0594

Farther on down the road I found a gentle honeybee, her back legs loaded with pollen that she collects, sticking the tiny grains to her hairy legs, making giant bundles. Despite this new weight, she will fly back to her hive and once there, with a dance, she will show the other worker bees where the food is and they will leave the hive, flying there as though with a map. Amazingly, the dance will tell the other bees the quality, quantity and direction of the flowers. The bees will travel back and forth all day between flowers and hive, leaving their pollen baskets at the hive each time–food for the growing larvae. And though it was likely above 95 degrees that day, I knew the honeybee hive would be a constant 93 degrees. Amazingly, honeybees can control the temp in their hive, bringing water drops in to cool things on hot days and flapping their wings rapidly together on cold days. Such incredible little creatures!aa-7100342

As if the flowers and insects weren’t enough, there were berries too! So many ripe blackberries, perfect for picking. It was always a pleasure to pick them right off the plant, set them on my tongue and slowly enjoy their sweetness. Yum, nature’s perfect food, free of pesticides and chemicals, left to grow wild without pruning or weeding. And yet! Perfectly tasty, a delicious treat on a hot summer day.

I had lunch at a great overlook where I sat beneath a tree on warm rocks facing the valley. I could see the parkway below, winding like a snake through the tunnel of green, the cars silent from this distance. More than just food, my lunch on the trail was frequently an event, like a celebration of sorts, unhurried and relaxing, worth savoring. I had walked all the way from Georgia to get there, darned if I was going to be like other thru-hikers and shovel it in as I walked along so I wouldn’t “waste time.”aa-7120406

I sat back and stretched my legs out, relishing the air on my bare feet and the warmth of the rock, flat and decorated generously with lichen. That day I enjoyed my treat of grape kool-aid, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and combos. Then, like a soak in a hot bath on a cold day, I enjoyed a bit of dark chocolate, eating it slow and letting it melt in my mouth. The trail would wait! No one passed by and I reveled in the solitude, content with my rocky floor and ceiling of brilliant blue sky, dotted with clouds and the occasional turkey vulture soaring silently on invisible currents.

What Happens When a Young Bobcat Meets a Woodchuck?

Bobcat meets a WoodchuckLooks like he's never seen one beforeShould he eat her?Play with her? The woodchuck is nervous! Especially when the bobcat comes closer...And even taps her with his paw...The woodchuck just wants to get away!And so moves towards the high grassAnd disappears...Leaving the bobcat aloneAfter a moment he disappears too.
One summer day years ago when I was living in eastern New York state at a house on the edge of an immense wetland called The Great Swamp. This was a place that I was intimately familiar with, having spent many, many days in all seasons exploring. In my adventures I had seen mink, beaver, muskrat, deer, turkeys, fox, coyote, raccoon, opossum, skunk, more birds than I could count and lots of amphibians, insects and other invertebrates. I had never seen a bobcat, though I had followed bobcat tracks, especially in winter.

I had spent the day watching and photographing a family of woodchucks in the field in front of the house. The mama woodchuck–who could be distinguished from the male by her tail with half of its fur missing so that it resembled a broom, was keeping a close eye on her family of 5, who had one of their den entrances under the front deck.

At some point something made all of the young woodchucks rush to the safely of the den while the mother hurried down the slight dip of the yard to the gravel driveway. When I looked there to discover where she’d gone I was surprised to see what at first looked like an ordinary house cat, sitting on the driveway. But within a second, I recognized the animal as a BOBCAT and my heart began to pound in my chest. I was so excited I could hardly function, but managed to get my camera turned and aimed on the woodchuck and the bobcat, who were now only feet apart and facing each other suspiciously. The woodchuck had puffed herself up to seem bigger and she was hissing at the bobcat, who at this point appeared curious and even baffled by the noisy woodchuck.

They continued the stare-down for several more tense minutes. The bobcat sat down now and then, eyeing the woodchuck with mild interest. I was certain the bobcat would grab the woodchuck and make her lunch, but thankfully, this did not happen. Instead, the two circled each other, the bobcat even going so far as to bat the woodchuck with its front paw. This only made the woodchuck hiss more. Finally, the woodchuck backed away and disappeared into the tall weeds beside the driveway, leaving the bobcat alone.

More pictures for me as I shot the bobcat stretching, sitting down and then ambling across the driveway as if he had no where to be and no idea what to do. Several minutes went by until he too disappeared in the grass and I was left alone, my heartbeat just returning to normal.

What an amazing encounter! I was stunned at my good fortune of being in the right place at the exact right time. It will be remembered as one of the most amazing wildlife moments I have ever witnessed…and how great to get pictures!

Read more about Bobcats on my Weekly Creature Feature.