Tag Archives: Chickweed Geometer Moth

August on the Prairie

“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher

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August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.

All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.

On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.

My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…

…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.

…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.

I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.

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At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.

A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.

In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.

It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.

Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.

And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.

Nearby, a chickweed geometer moth shows off his colors. I learn later that the antennae are “bipectinate” —feathery, or “toothed like a comb.” These bipectinate antennae are a male feature that has to do with detecting pheremones; the female’s antennae are more “threadlike.”

A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.

I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.

Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.

In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.

All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.

Great blue lobelia.

As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.

August is drawing to a close.

Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.

The prairie is waiting.

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Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsium discolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online”
Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

After Dark with Prairie Moths

“It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zig-zagging to show us the true nature of life.” –Virginia Woolf

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High winds. Rain. It’s 8:30 p.m., and we’re on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie, prepping our first-ever moth survey.  I’ve seen the Schulenberg Prairie in spring and summer, under snow, and rippling in the autumn winds. I’ve walked it at dawn and dusk. But in more than two decades of hiking and almost as many years in helping care for this prairie as volunteer or steward, I’ve not seen it at night.

We — me and my team of prairie volunteers— are looking for moths. Are they here after dark? If so, which ones? Moths are important prairie species; they are pollinators as well as food for birds and bats. I vaguely know the moths that come to my porch light in the evenings. I admired the occasional Luna moth when I ventured into northern Michigan. I’ve even seen the Haploa moths during the day here, resting in the foliage.WMLeconte'sHaploa Moth (Haploa lecontei) 61419TrevorEdmonson SPMA.jpg

But most of the moths here are a mystery.

Fortunately, Trevor Edmonson, a restoration project manager at the Wetland’s Initiative, is here to mentor our group in the fine art of mothing. A passionate “moth-er,” he has generously brought his generator and power lights tonight, as well as his ID skills to help us. He sets up a large sheet on a quilt frame, under the cover of our Prairie Visitor Station roof. Open on all sides, it will protect the mercury vapor light and the black light, both which might be ruined if they get too wet. We rig another sheet over one of our interpretive signs. It’s not what we planned – we had hoped to be under open sky — but it’s the best “Plan B” we come up with in the evening’s weather. Trevor tells us what to expect.

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After a short talk, a few members of the team paint a mushy mixture of old beer, ripe banana, brown sugar, and molasses on posts. This “nectar,” my Peterson’s Field Guide to Moths tells me, will attract moths who aren’t necessarily drawn to light.

Dark comes early because of the rain. Our ghostly sheets glare white in the lights. We drink hot coffee and snack on cookies, our chatter covering up  our disappointment over the rain blowing under the shelter where we’re clustered. All this planning. Will it come to nothing? The sheets ripple in the wind. It’s getting colder.

The first night insects land on the sheet. It’s something! We log them into our survey data, take a few photos. But where are the moths?

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Then. The first one lands. Isabella tiger moth Trevor calls out. We eagerly cluster around the sheet, oohing and ahhing.

WMIsabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella) 61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg It’s the adult stage of the woolly bear caterpillar—something we see crossing prairie trails at other times of the year—and it is quickly followed by more of the same.

A team member shines her flashlight on the wooden posts. Look over here! More moths are landing on the sweet stink of the nectar bait.mothsurvey61419WM.jpg

The Isabella tiger moth opens the floodgates. Moths arrive faster than we can count them. Moths in the air! Moths on the posts! Moths landing on the sheets.

Black-Dotted Glyph!

WMBlack-dotted Glyph (Maliattha synochitis) Trevor Edmonson 61419 SPMA

Moths land on the limestone pavers of the shelter. A Marbled-Green Leuconycta.

WMMarbled-green Leuconycta Moth (Leuconycta lepidula) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson (.jpg

“It looks like lichen,” says Karen, a volunteer, and yes, it does.

A collective sigh goes up from behind the largest sheet. A Harnessed Tiger Moth is wowing the group with its striking geometric patterns.

WMHarnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata) Trevor Edmonson61419SPMA.jpgNearby, an Orange Virbia moth lands on the pavers. Suddenly, we realize how many moths are literally under our feet. Navigating the area between the sheets is an exercise in patience and paying attention.

WMOrange Virbia Moth (Virbia aurantiaca) 61419 SPMA Trevor Edmonson.jpg

One volunteer gently holds a Walnut Sphinx, perched delicately on his fingers. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen; its soft feathery wings almost like fur; its chunky body striped with white. Cameras flash; we’ve become the prairie paparazzi, all of us on fire with excitement for moths.

WMWalnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg

Suddenly, Trevor yells “Cecrophia!” A moth larger than my hand hits the sheet, circles the light, then flaps off into the darkness. Come back! Come back! It’s an adrenaline rush, to see one of the giant silk moths here, tonight. So close! If only it would remain for a closer look. But it’s gone. We look at each other, awestruck. This. Is here!

We watch the moths, some hovering on the edges of the light, others landing on the limestone pavers and staying there for the evening. Others seem to fly in and out erratically; without rhyme or reason.

WMPale Beauty Moth (Campaea perlata) Trevor Edmunson 61419SPMA

Moths emit pheromones, I learned, when I read the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver a few years back. Kingsolver uses moths as a framework for the story of a young insect researcher named Lusa, derailed by her husband’s accidental death. She suddenly  inherits his family’s farm. In her grief and confusion, she finds solace in moths. Lusa reminds herself:

The spiraling flights of moths appear haphazard only because of the mechanisms of olfactory tracking are so different from our own. Using binocular vision, we judge the location of an object by comparing the images from two eyes and tracking directly toward the stimulus. But for species relying on the sense of smell, the organism compares points in space, moves in the direction of the greater concentration, then compares two more points successively, moving in zigzags toward the source. Using olfactory navigation the moth detects currents of scent in the air and, by small increments, discovers how to move upstream.”

Most of us know the old saying, “drawn to it like a moth to a flame.” In Death of a Moth, Virginia Woolf seems to see in the moth’s demise through its attraction to a candle her own eventual tragic death.  At least two well-known nature writers were inspired by Woolf’s essay to pen their own reflections on moths: Robert Michael Pyle’s The Death of a Moth: Rejoinder to Virginia Woolf (1976) and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Annie Dillard’s 1976 essay, “The Death of the Moth.” 

WMChickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopis grataria) SPMA61419TrevorEdmonson

Three very different essays on moths. Woolf’s “little hay-colored moth;” a metaphor for the brevity of life. In Dillard’s essay, which eventually became part of her book, Holy the Firm, the moth attracted to her candle while she’s camping is caught in the flame and the fat in its body burns as part of the flame for several hours. For Dillard, the moth-as-flame becomes an illustration of what writing life will demand of someone truly committed to it.

WMFeather-edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis) SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpgRobert Michael Pyle writes about his observations and enjoyment of caring for a female Cecropia, which he captures and then observes for more than three weeks (a very long life for a moth of this species, which usually survives only a few days as an adult, as they are without mouths and only live to reproduce). His observation, unlike either Woolf’s or Dillards, is devoid of any metaphor. Instead, he acts as recorder and even matchmaker, bringing her males of the species to mate with, counting the number of eggs she lays, noting how her pheromones attract dozens of males which flock to the windows of his house after dark in search of her.

At the end of his essay, when the moth dies, he simply notes: “As I packed her away into a paper envelope and wrote on it the dry facts that said little about her, a nighthawk called outside the hotel window. It struck me that the hunting bird would enjoy my moth no more than I had done.”

WMWhite-dotted Prominent Moth SPMA61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg

In three hours, Trevor photographs and identifies 49 species of moths. All this abundance, on an evening of cold, rain, and wind. We knew this prairie, said to be the fourth oldest planted prairie in the world, was special because of its rich diversity of unusual and high-quality native plants. But moths! Now we have a brief glimpse of the unknown treasures that are here after dark.

WMAmerican Idia Moth (Idia americalis) SPMW61419 Trevor Edmonson.jpg

One night. Three hours. 49 different kinds of moths. What other mysteries are out on the prairie, waiting to be discovered?

We’ll be on the prairie after dark again soon to find out.

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The opening quote is from Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), from The Death of a Moth and Other Essays. Woolf is best known for her essay, “A Room of One’s Own” (1929) in which she wrote: “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, and took her life at age 59. Robert Michael Pyle, who wrote the essay quoted above in this blogpost, also wrote Silk Moth of the Railroad Yards (1975), in which he ponders the effects of mercury vapor streetlights on these insects. Both of Pyle’s essays can be found in his collection, Green Thoughts.

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All photos generously contributed by Trevor Edmonson to this week’s blog, except where noted, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL on June 14 (top to bottom): Leconte’s Haploa Moth (Haploa lecontei); Trevor talks to the survey team about moths, photo Cindy Crosby; waiting for moths to arrive, photo Cindy Crosby;  Isabella tiger moth (Pyrrharctia isabella); moth survey team working the sheets, photo by Cindy Crosby; Black-Dotted Glyph (Maliattha synochitis); Marbled-Green Leuconycta (Leuconycta lepidula); Harnessed Tiger Moth (Apantesis phalerata); Orange Virbia Moth (Virbia aurantiaca); Walnut Sphinx (Amorpha juglandis); Pale Beauty Moth (Campaea parlata); Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopia grataria); Feather-Edged Petrophila Moth (Petrophila fulicalis); White-Dotted Prominent (Nadata gibbosa) American Idia Moth (Idia americalis).

Thanks to Trevor Edmonson for his mentoring of the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie team, and his generous gift of time and equipment. And thanks to our special guests Bronson, Vera, and Jeff who helped with identification. We’re grateful!