JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County, in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region

August 3, 2006

WAVY-LINED EMERALD CATERPILLAR ON THE ZINNIAS
A pretty row of pink and white Zinnias grows along a white shed next to the old farmhouse I'm in. The other day on one of those Zinnias I saw the amazing thing at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/caterpl4.jpg.

That image shows one of the best examples of a well- camouflaged caterpillar you'll ever see. The inset at the lower right shows a close-up of the caterpillar and I'll bet that some of you still can't figure out where the caterpillar is, even knowing that. In the inset, the caterpillar is arched like an upside-down U. On the arch's left side you can see six white caterpillar legs. This is the Wavy-lined Emerald Caterpillar, SYNCHLORA AERATA, an inchworm who camouflages himself by sticking pieces of the flower he's eating onto his back! The inchworm in the picture has attached old pollen-producing anthers from the Zinnia's disk flowers -- the tiny flowers forming the Zinnia's "eye."

Once you know you're looking at an inchworm you may be able to see it better. Remember how inchworms stretch themselves out, then arch their bodies to bring up their rear ends, plant their rear ends, and then stretch their bodies again, moving their front ends forward. In the picture the inchworm is in his arch form.

Being an inchworm, he's a member of the Geometer Moth Family, the GEOMETRIDAE. He'll metamorphose into an inch-across, greenish moth, which you can see here.

Sometimes inchworms are called measuring worms. Cankerworms are a kind of inchworm. The Wavy-lined Emerald Caterpillar on my Zinnia is about an inch long. The flower parts on its back easily come off if you pull on them.

*****

CATERPILLAR IDENTIFICATION
Until pretty recently it's been almost impossible for a regular person not having access to a university library to identify any but the more common caterpillars. Now some new field guides are out and we have the Internet's search engines. First, the books.

One new guide getting five stars from all reviewers at Amazon.com is "Caterpillars in the Field and Garden: A Field Guide to the Butterfly Caterpillars of North America." One drawback of this book is that it's restricted to butterfly caterpillars, and many of the most conspicuous and interesting ones, including our above Wavy-lined Emerald, are moth caterpillars. Another new guide is the paperback "Caterpillars of Eastern North America: A Guide to Identification and Natural History," which covers 700 species of caterpillars of both butterflies and moths.

Between now and the first frost is a good time to go looking for caterpillars. You can review the above books and others, including guides for beginners and such technical works as "Atlas of Adirondack caterpillars: With a Host List, Rearing Notes, and a Selected Bibliography of Works Depicting Caterpillars" on my "Caterpillar Books Page" at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/caterpil.htm.

I don't own any caterpillar books myself but I still got my Wavy-lined Emerald Caterpillar identified using Google's IMAGE Search at http://www.google.com/imghp.

First I typed into the keyword box the only two words I could think of appropriate for what I was seeing, and that was "caterpillar camouflaged," visualizing that someplace on the Internet someone would be posting a picture of my supremely camouflaged mystery.

Those two key words produced dozens of pages of thumbnail pictures to look at, and on about the third page I found a picture of my critter. That link led to a forum where someone had posted a picture asking what it was, and saying that it appeared to be camouflaged with parts of the flower it was eating. The naturalist in charge wasn't sure but said it looked like some kind of inchworm.

Now I Googled the keywords "inchworm camouflage flower parts," got just a few thumbnails this time, but one of them was my baby. I followed the link and this time the picture was labeled: Wavy-lined Emerald Caterpillar, SYNCHLORA AERATA.

What amazing tools these Internet search engines are!

*****

CREATE YOUR OWN HEIRLOOM SEEDS
The Zinnias in which I found this week's Wavy-lined Emerald Caterpillar are quite nice. Hundreds of them grow knee high along a shed near the old farmhouse I'm in and every time I step onto the porch they're there to greet me, such a gorgeous splattering of pink and white blossoms against the shed's white walls and the green lawn and landscape beyond...

Not only do these blossoms attract hummingbirds and a nice variety of pollinating insects, and are wonderful to see, but also they make me happy just reflecting on their origin.

In the October 5th, 2003 Newsletter I told about my busing trip from Natchez, Mississippi to my ancestral home in western Kentucky, during which I had a ten- hour layover in Nashville, Tennessee. During my layover I hiked all over town collecting seeds from people's flower gardens.

In 2004 I often mentioned the flowers that grew from those seeds, and told about the creatures who visited them. Last year I was in California and because of the water problem didn't put out my flowers. However, my Natchez friend Karen did, so when I passed through Natchez this spring she had me seeds. So, my Zinnias here are from the 2003 Nashville walk, the Sandy Creek garden, and Karen in Natchez.

My Zinnias, some marigolds, some Moonflowers, the crimson-blossomed, hummingbird-distracting Cypress Vines, and other plants I grow each year are acquiring their own histories. I look at them and I remember my walk in Nashville that pretty October day, I remember the wonderful garden they were part of at Sandy Creek, and I can visualize them growing at Karen's place last year. My Zinnias mean something to me and before I leave here I'll collect seeds from them and who knows where the next generation will blossom?

Therefore, I propose that you may want to do the same. As your garden flowers develop seed heads, every now and then go pick the dried heads of mature seeds, plop them into an envelope, and on the envelope write the flower's name, date of harvest, and other information you may have about their history. Share your seeds with others, and make sure they remember to plant them next spring.

All this feels good. This is a rooting experience for anyone who does it. It's something with no bad features at all, and how many things in life are like that?

*****

SOLDIER FLY LARVAE AMONG THE DUCKWEED
Down in the cinderblock watering-tank surrounding by purple-flowering Spearmint, that vivacious little aquatic ecosystem continues evolving and providing new discoveries at every visit. The pillars of matted filamentous alga I mentioned last time as rising up through the crystalline water's darkness have collapsed, largely decayed and disintegrated, and now the water's surface is about 90% covered with little duckweeds, like green confetti. Something was moving through the duckweed, so I took a closer look.

It was a slender, torpedo-shaped, brown, maggot-like thing about 5/6ths of an inch long (2 cm) and segmented like a centipede but with no legs. Its exoskeleton struck me as being like rigid, thin plastic. It kept its slender end stuck to the water's surface like a mosquito wiggletail taking air. The magnifying glass showed that where the tip touched the water eyelash-like hairs spread in a circle upon the water's surface, surface tension buoying them up, and in the middle of the hair circle the exoskeleton's tip split into a grin-like slit. The part at the water's surface looked like the smile by a bearded man.

The critter's heavy end, then, bore its head. The whole body was stiff, but not so stiff that the front one-quarter couldn't wave back and forth as the head sought food. Beneath the magnifying glass tiny mouthparts flicked in and out like a puppy's tongue lapping milk. Best I could see, the thing was eating diffuse coagulations of alga sticking to the duckweeds' bottoms.

The best field guide I have to identify such organisms is an old, falling apart, little Golden Guide, which cost me one dollar back in the 60s, called "Pond Life." I think it's still being published, but at a much higher price. What I saw matched the illustration for a Soldier Fly larva, a member of the insect family Stratiomyidae. You can see exactly what I saw -- though it's at a Russian website and thus a different species -- as well as an adult Soldier Fly at http://zooex.baikal.ru/diptera/stratiomyidae.htm.

The Soldier Fly looks a good bit like the much more common Syrphid Fly, but Syrphid abdomens are much smaller.

In the Soldier Fly Family the adults usually are found on flowers, so when I got back to the house I walked up my row of Zinnias until I saw an adult Soldier Fly. So, by golly, it all holds together...

A number of fly types produce aquatic, maggot-like larvae similar to what I saw, especially members of the Black Fly and Marsh Fly Families, and even the family of the Horse and Deer Flies. You may enjoy reviewing the different larva types at North Dakota's "Digital Key to Aquatic Insects" at http://www.waterbugkey.vcsu.edu/php/familylist.php?idnum=7&o=Diptera.

*****

TWO SPIDERS
Noticing a cobweb in an upper corner of my window I went looking for the spider. Sure enough, a tiny spider was suspended among the web's disarray of silk threads. Through my hand lens I saw that the little being -- less than -inch long -- bore a strikingly black-and-white-patterned abdomen, so I figured he'd be easy to identify, and he was. He was the Triangulate Cobweb Spider, STEATODA TRIANGULOSA, which you can see and read about at http://www.uark.edu/depts/entomolo/museum/steatoda.html.

One neat thing about this species is that it's been known to eat fire ants as well as venomous Brown Recluse Spiders! Interestingly, it's a Eurasian species, only fairly recently introduced into North America, but now common here in places just like the corner of my old farmhouse window. Ecologically, the Triangulate Cobweb Spider is like crabgrass, living only where humans make habitats for them.

For my next spider I went outside and looked into the dark-green yew bushes, where soon I espied a complex- looking web just like the one you can see at http://www.mrbig.com/cpg/displayimage.php?album=76&pos=1.

Even without seeing the spider I knew what species it was, for this kind of "bowl-covered-with-a-thread- maze" web, though unique, is common throughout eastern and central North America. Such webs are constructed by the Bowl and Doily Spider, FRONTINELLA COMMUNIS, a native species. Insects fly into the maze of threads, or "doily," above the bowl part, and the spider, who hangs bottom-up beneath the center of the bowl part of the web, pulls its prey down to the bowl and either sucks on it or wraps it up for future use.

Though the webs made by the spiders are profoundly different, Bowl-and-Doily spiders look a good bit like Triangulate Cobweb Spiders, both being about -inch long, and both with boldly black-and-white-patterned abdomens. Sometimes in spider watching, the web design is the best identification feature.

For spider identification I have the little Golden Nature Guide, also purchased back in the 60s, called "Spiders and Their Kin." This is still found in most good bookstores, and it's still a good introduction to the common species. You can review other spider- identification books available at Amazon.com at http://www.backyardnature.net/amazon/spiders~.htm.

*****

PLUMAGE CHANGES
Each afternoon as the sun sets I'm on the old farmhouse's eastern porch reading in a rocking chair. At that hour cottontails come out nibbling this and that, basically ignoring me and coming quite close. Sometimes it suddenly occurs to them that they're really too close, so then they thump the ground with their hind feet and spring away, but they only hop a few feet, then pause and look at me sideways, and before you know it they're back near me.

Birds put on a real show, too. There's a crabapple tree right in front of the porch so full of bright-red crabapples that the tree looks artificial, too crammed with perfect red fruits to be real. The crabapples are too large for birds to swallow and too hard to peck apart, but they seem to attract bugs. Sometimes a bird manages to peck out a tiny piece of fruit with mighty chisels of the beak, but mostly I think they just get a kick visiting the fruit-heavy branches -- like being inside an overdressed Christmas tree.

Especially the fledglings are a pleasure to watch. Mainly they are American Robins, Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers and House Finches, with one adult Prairie Warbler thrown in. The season's first crop of nestlings now are at that awkward stage when they're still somewhat attached to their parents and almost look like mature adults, but they have thinner necks and bonier-looking heads, and are just plain clumsy and awkward. Also, a few speckles or splotches are still left over from their juvenile plumage.

Using that term "juvenile plumage" actually opens a Pandora's box when you're around certain very serious birders. The problem is that there's a large vocabulary of words and terms associated with bird plumages, and some people are picky about the terms' meanings -- even though so far many of the terms don't have settled definitions yet.

"Basic," "alternate," "supplemental," "predefinitive" ... the terms just keep coming. With "juvenile" there's confusion between "juvenile" and "juvenal." As someone who still makes no distinction between the pronunciation of "pen" and "pin," I just try to not talk too much around real gung-ho birders.

However, if you're interested in getting all the various plumages straight in your head, and knowing the preferred terms for each of them, go to the Ontario Field Ornithologists Plumage & Molt page at http://www.ofo.ca/plumages.htm.

Whatever those teenager-birds around my porch at dusk are best called, I sure look forward to watching them playing in the crabapple tree as the sun goes down.

*****

GREG'S WHOOPING CRANE PHOTO
The other day Newsletter-reader Greg in Wisconsin sent me a picture of a Whooping Crane he'd taken near his home. Turns out that in his neighborhood biologists are trying to establish a Wisconsin flock of Whoopers, and to teach young Whoopers to migrate to overwintering grounds in Florida.

The Whooper in Greg's picture has small radios attached to her legs. I write "her" because they know exactly which bird this is and when she was hatched. In fact, her name is "Poe" and she has her own webpage.

You can see Greg's fine photo on my Bird Migration page at http://www.backyardnature.net/birdmgrt.htm.

On that page, in the sidebar beneath the photo, there's also a link to Poe's webpage, and a link to the program of which Poe is part.

*****

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL, RAGE & THE HUMAN CHARACTER
At Polly's Bend I am right beside eastern Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains. Years ago nothing pleased me more than wandering in those mountains, camping along streams, looking for rare ferns on sandstone cliffs, and hiking along ridges.

Mountaintop removal is when you blast the top off a mountain, take the coal that's exposed, then blast more off, then take the next seam -- and push all the rocky debris into the valley below, burying the stream. Eventually there's no valley and no hills, just a flat landscape of shattered rock. If you can't visualize mountaintop removal, take a look at http://www.ohvec.org/galleries/mountaintop_removal/index.html.

Maybe it's true that I spend so much time focusing on bugs and flowers because when I face obscenities like mountaintop removal I tend to lose it. Rage. I feel lots of rage. When I talk about nature study as therapy, I mean it. It's what keeps me together.

It's not good to feel rage. First, it's unhealthy. You lose sleep, your guts get tied in a knot, and the people behind what's enraging you go on enjoying life, maybe even becoming President.

Also, rage is usually misdirected. I see the vast, flat eastern Kentucky wastelands where once green mountains and sparkling streams bore witness to the glory of the Creator, and rage makes me want to attack the bulldozers and big shovels with my bare hands.

But, the bulldozer operators are just regular folks trying to make livings. The absentee business people getting their one-time shot of money from selling the coal are just providing a service demanded by the public. People buying electricity produced with the coal are just living the lives they've been taught to live, lives sanctioned by their religions and leaders.

Yet, someone is committing these atrocities.

It's just that there's something in the human character that enables us to easily turn a blind eye to the consequences of our behaviors. We claim that our nation is the beacon for world democracy, but let our voting patterns be focused on what we've called here "snake brain" issues. We get upset over a nestling tumbled from its nest, but let the house cat roam the neighborhood at will. We know that when we turn up the air conditioner we're sending an order to Peabody Coal in Pennsylvania to blow off the tops of more mountains and bulldoze them into the streams below, but we do it anyway.

When such a fault afflicts the human character, is there any hope for us?

I fear that the answer lies in these facts:

  • George Bush's administration redefined certain regulatory terms so there could be more mountaintop removal
  • Both houses of Congress support mountaintop removal
  • Federal and state agencies issue special permits when laws need to be broken for mountaintop removal to take place
  • The Environmental Protection Agency facilitates mountaintop removal
  • Nature is being attacked on so many fronts that not a single major environmental group considers mountaintop removal as one of its main issues.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net