Tag Archives: Isabella tiger moth

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

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The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

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The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

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Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

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In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

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Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

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Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

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Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

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They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

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According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

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Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

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When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

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Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

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As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

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Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

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We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

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The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

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The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

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Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

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The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

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Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

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Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

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Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

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!

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.” 

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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.”

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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.

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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!