Saturday, December 10, 2011

December Birds in a Chesapeake Yard

If you have birdfeeders in your yard and watch them day-to-day, you have already noticed the changes in bird species and populations from early to late autumn. Wintering sparrows like Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are regular visitors now, but were absent just a month or two ago. Regular year-round visitors like the Cardinals and the Blue Jays hung out in breeding pairs and with their offspring during the spring and summer months, but now they gather in larger communal groups. Most of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds left our region by the end of September, as did the swallows and Chimney Swifts that fill our skies during the summer.

So what can you expect to see in your yard right now? I kept tally of the birds I observed in my back yard one day a week or two ago, and came up with 27 different species, without even going outdoors! Winter doldrums and the transition to dark, gray days obviously do not mean a drop in bird life; in fact in many cases, you will find more bird activity as food sources become scarcer and birds concentrate at your feeders.

My favorite visitors right now are, without question, a group of Baltimore Orioles that have taken up residence at my hummingbird feeders (the photo above is of the adult male, who arrived on November 21). These brilliant birds do not breed here on the Virginia Coastal Plain, so we only see them in migration as they pass through on their way to somewhere else. But, as I’ve now learned, a few southbound birds will stop and spend the winter in our region, usually in small flocks, and I am lucky enough to be hosting one of these flocks now.

I optimistically keep my hummingbird feeders full during the fall months, long after our resident hummingbirds have left, hoping to attract a rare vagrant species from the western states. Baltimore Orioles also drink the sugar water from these feeders, and that is what brought them to my yard. My one male adult bird soon evolved into a flock of four, so I hung out a second hummingbird feeder, and also bought a special Oriole feeder that holds sugar water and has a place to put out grape jelly, one of their favorite foods. So my yard has become a virtual smorgasbord for these guys, and they’re sticking around, much to my delight. I plan to buy a few warming devices to place near the feeders so that the water doesn’t freeze when temperatures drop.

This is either a female Baltimore Oriole, or a first-year male that has not developed his bright adult plumage yet. The two are very similar in appearance. Three of the orioles in my yard are in this plumage.

(This is the adult male Baltimore Oriole again, being cute).

Here are a few photos I’ve taken of other avian visitors to the yard this week. Most should look familiar, but some might be new to you:

This is a Red-bellied Woodpecker; it is probably the woodpecker you are most likely to see in your suburban yard. In most people's opinions, it is one of the most mis-named of all bird species. In the breeding season, the male does have a flush of red color on his belly, which is the root of its name, but that is certainly not the bird's most conspicuous field mark. In this photo, the bird is eating my peanut butter/cornmeal mixture, which is pressed into the holes of a cedar log feeder; this is wildly popular with the birds, especially woodpeckers and titmice. The recipe is four parts cornmeal mixed with one part each of white flour, chunky peanut butter and Crisco.

The second most likely woodpecker to visit my yard is the Downy Woodpecker, above. He is more likely to nibble on the suet cakes that I buy at the store than eat the the peanut butter mix. This particular individual is a male Downy; you can tell by the red patch on the back of his head. Females are identical to males but do not have this red marking.

If you put out a peanut feeder you will attract even more species of birds, like this male Pine Warbler. Pine Warblers usually visit my feeders only in the colder months, and they like to nibble from the peanuts as well as the suet and the peanut butter mix; all are sources of protein in harsh winter weather. I've started mixing shelled sunflower seeds with the shelled peanuts, as it seems to be easier for some birds, especially the smaller ones, to extract and eat the smaller seeds. Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches and Finches are just a few of the birds that eat from this feeder.

Of course when peanuts from the feeder drop to the ground, there's always a Blue Jay ready to swoop in and help himself to some easy pickin's.

There's a pair of Mockingbirds on every Chesapeake corner, but despite their "common-ness" I'm very fond of these guys. They are smart, busy, and always seem to have a purpose in mind. The ones in my yard are also very fond of me, as I'm the "big thing" that brings them the peanut butter mixture.

The Mockingbird's cousin, the Brown Thrasher (above) is an uncommon winter visitor to the yard. In the spring and summer they are quite common and conspicuous; they usually build a nest in my honeysuckle, and raise one or two broods. But they migrate south by October. The birds I sometimes see in the winter months are birds that migrated here from farther north. As you can see, Brown Thrashers like the peanuts too.

Of course, one of the perils of having a popular birdfeeder yard is that predators find it too. One family of hawks in particular, the Accipiters, prey upon small birds for their survival. They will be attracted to any area where they see a lot of bird activity, including suburban yards. There are two species of accipiter that you might see in your yard, and they look almost identical in appearance. The photo above is of an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk; his cousin the Cooper's Hawk is generally larger and a bit bulkier. I understand that predators are only following the course that nature has set for them when they hunt their prey, and I try not to interfere -- but I must admit, I chased one "Sharpie" out of the yard last week because I was worried about "my" orioles.

The more types of birdfeeders and food you put out, the more different kinds of species will come to your yard. Don't expect instant results, or be disappointed if no birds come right after you put a new feeder out; it takes them a while to find you, scope you out, and decide whether they are comfortable with your offerings. Once they decide to stay, more birds will follow their lead and join them.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I’ve been birding and photographing birds for more than twenty-five years now, with a few breaks here and there for graduate school and other life-changing events. Like all avid birders, I’ve always kept track of what birds I’ve seen and where and when I’ve seen them; I have life lists, state lists, county lists, yard lists – you get the idea. Recently I decided I also wanted to know how many different species of birds I have photographed over the years. I went through all my old slides, picked out the best one of each species I could find, and did the same with my digital photos. I tallied them all up and have determined that as of last month, I’ve photographed 475 species; #475 was a hard-to-photograph Saltmarsh Sparrow at Ragged Island Wildlife Management Area in Isle of Wight (photo above). It’s not a great photo, but it’s the best I could do and it’s good enough to document that I saw the bird and can verify its ID.

475 species photos is a pretty darn good number. Some of these are really good photos that I’m proud of (usually the ones you’ll see on my blog…), but I also have a mountain of what we call “record shots.” These are pictures of questionable quality but they do serve to verify your siting and identification of the bird. Most of the time birds do not sit still in good lighting and allow you to take a picture, so you just have to do the best you can with what the bird gives you, usually a split second to raise and focus your handheld camera while the bird is moving away from you into the shadows. If a species is common to your area, you have multiple opportunities to get a better photo. But if it’s a rare or out-of-place bird you’re trying to document, you might only get one chance in your lifetime to grab a photo.

I think the photo below must be my all-time bad “record” photo. An extremely rare bird called a Smew showed up in the middle of the Columbia River in Central Oregon in 1991, likely the only Smew I will ever see unless I go to Alaska or Russia. The Columbia is a very wide river, so this is as close as I could get to the bird – but I got my “record” shot! The Smew is the white bird in the middle of the other ducks. Pretty bad, huh?

Here’s another example of a situation where I could not get a good photo and had to settle for a record shot . Long-eared Owls are extremely difficult to find, even in places where they are relatively numerous. They are totally nocturnal and roost during the day in trees with heavy cover, right next to the tree trunk – in fact, they even “elongate” themselves when they feel they are in danger, making themselves skinnier and moving in tighter to the tree trunk, hoping to be more invisible. I have only seen two of these owls in my life, in heavy cover and impossible to photograph – but I did get my record shot:

Here’s another one. The Buff-breasted Flycatcher is a bird that you’ll only see in extreme southeastern Arizona (in the U.S.). I remember driving for miles into the higher elevations of the desolate Chiricahua Mountains searching for this species, and finally spotting one on her nest WAY high up in a tree. I snapped the best photo I could under the circumstances, and to this day this is the only Buff-breasted Flycatcher I’ve seen, and likely the only one I’ll ever photograph:

Last weekend a Ross’s Goose was reported in Cary, N.C. I have seen a number of these rare geese over the years, but they have typically been in a flock with other kinds of geese at least 100 yards away from me. The only photo I ever got of one (below) is a truly terrible photo, taken in the rain in Oregon with old camera equipment twenty years ago.

Several people have posted amazing, up-close gorgeous photos of the Cary goose, and I wanted to replace my terrible photo with one like theirs, so on my day off, I made the drive to Cary, about 3 ½ hours from Chesapeake (each way). By the time I got there, it was raining, and as it turned out, there was no goose to be seen.

A very nice lady named Jennifer lives right by the pond where the goose showed up in mid-October, and she is the one who spread the word to other birders. She happened to see me walking pitifully around the pond where the goose had been just the day before. She came out in the rain to commiserate with me, and invited me into her home to wait for a while and hope for the bird’s return. It continued to rain and the goose flock did not return, so after a while Jennifer showed me the gorgeous photos she had taken of the bird, displayed on her big screen television. This was as close as I got to the Ross’s Goose – this time.

I could entertain you with bad photo after bad photo, but I believe I’ll stop right here. The bottom line is that the opportunity to get a photo of a species I have not photographed before, or the chance to get a better photo of a species that I have previously photographed motivates me to get out of the house and go birding. It’s easy to stay at home and sit in the comfortable chair if you don’t think you’re likely to see anything new or “interesting” – but the opportunity to get a new or better photo drives me. I really want to replace some of the bad old photos, and if that goose returns to the pond in Cary, I’ll probably have to give chase.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore

Chincoteague and the Eastern Shore hold a very special place in my heart, and not just because of the fantastic birding and wildlife watching. In September of 2001, my mother, who lives in Utah, was visiting me, and we decided to spend a night or two at Chincoteague. On the 11th we enjoyed a wonderful early morning of birding and then returned to our motel room to check out. The person at the service desk had her television on and told us that planes had crashed into each of the Twin Towers.

It took a while to make sense of that and make the connection in our brains that this was an act of terrorism, but once we did, we did what everyone in America was doing – listening intensely to every second of the news reports as if our lives depended on it. We sat there in my car at The Refuge Inn and listened to Peter Jennings on the radio as he told us live that the towers were collapsing. He talked about the Pentagon and said something about Pennsylvania; who could wrap their head around this stuff? You all know what I’m talking about; we all lived it and remember precisely where we were and who we were with on that day. I’m so glad I was with my mother.

I go to Chincoteague at least once or twice every autumn for the fall bird migration. Every time I drive through Onley I look at the motel where my Mom and I stayed the night of the 11th. Mom was afraid to cross the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to get back home, plus we were worried that it would be closed, so we stopped at the first motel we could find and planted ourselves in front of the television for the night. I look at the KFC when I drive through Onley because I remember we ate Kentucky Fried that night. And in Chincoteague I always give a nod to the Refuge Inn.

Last week, on September 29, I drove up the Eastern Shore to Chincoteague to see what migrant birds I could find. I spent the night in Chincoteague, a real splurge for me, so that I wouldn’t have to feel rushed. Here are just a few of the beautiful things I saw:

At the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge hawks were migrating south for the winter. The southernmost tip of the Delmarva Peninsula is one of the best places in the entire country to watch the hawk migration anytime between mid-September and the end of October. Thousands of hawks follow the coastline to navigate their way south during this time. The Delmarva Peninsula narrows from a wide body of land in the north to a small point at the southern tip, funneling these hawks into a concentrated area, where they are relatively numerous and easy for us to view. The hawks often stall here because they are reluctant to cross over the water to Virginia Beach, making for even better viewing for us.

The photos above are of Broad-winged Hawks. These migratory hawks breed to the north of us and in the mountains to the west of us, but not here in southeastern Virginia, so the only time we are likely to see them is during migration. These hawks migrate communally in “kettles” of anywhere from a handful of birds to many hundreds.

Other raptors that I saw that day included all three of “our” falcons (American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcons), both of the accipiters (Sharp-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk), many Osprey (photo above), Northern Harrier, and Bald Eagles among others.

At the back pond of the refuge, I saw about fifty Snowy Egrets gathered to feed before their flight south. Snowies are migratory waders, although I have seen a very few overwintering birds here. The individual in the photo above is of a juvenile Snowy Egret; you can tell this by the yellow "racing stripes" on the back of its legs. The adults have yellow feet but not this coloring on the legs.

Wintering sparrows have just started to return here. The Savannah Sparrow above is a somewhat plain little bird, but it was stunning in the morning light. One of the most useful field marks for this species is its yellow “lores,” the area right in front of the eye.

Common Green Darners, a large species of dragonfly, were everywhere, frantically breeding and laying their eggs before the temperatures drop. The adults will die very soon, but their eggs will survive to produce nymphs, which will emerge as adult dragonflies next year. The photo above is of a male; notice he has vivid green upperparts and a bright blue abdomen. Gorgeous!

I continued north to Chincoteague, and stopped at a little pullover along the causeway that is a reliable spot to see lots of American Oystercatchers at a low tide, when the oyster shoals are exposed. These stunning birds are true to their name, and use that enormous red bill to pry open oysters.

Everyone is familiar with the Great Blue Heron; less familiar is the Little Blue Heron (photo above). Little Blues are much smaller than the Great Blues, about the same size as the Snowy Egret. Their habitat preferences are in more secluded, less populated places, and you probably won’t see one at your neighborhood pond in the suburbs.

Many of the migrant tern species have already left Virginia by the end of September, but a walk on the beach south of Tom’s Cove produced Royal and Caspian Terns, our largest two terns. They are similar in appearance to new birders, but these photos show the differences between them in their winter plumages:

Note the Royal Tern's bright orange bill. The bill is slender when compared to the Caspian Tern's, below.

The Caspian Tern's bill is bright red, and heavier than the Royal Tern's. The bird is stockier and heavier looking overall than the more streamlined Royal Tern.

Chincoteague is where I remember most poignantly all the sadness and confusion of 9-11. But it’s also a place that is very healing. Nature is where I experience my version of spirituality, and even though the natural experience doesn't erase the evil and horror of that day, it serves as a balance or counterpoint to it that reminds me there is much that is good in the world.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Fall Bird Migration Is Underway! A Day at Bethel Beach

Migrant birds fly north in the spring and south for the winter, right? You might be surprised to learn that the southbound fall migration for some birds actually begins in July, in the heart of what we in North America call “summer.” Most of these July migrants are of the shorebird family of birds. These earliest migrants are actually the adult shorebirds that migrated north in the spring to Canada or the Arctic to breed. Almost immediately after their young fledge, these same adults abandon them and begin their southward migrations. The young birds are left behind to fend for themselves for a few weeks and figure out for themselves how to survive and how and where to migrate! Most of the shorebirds we see after mid-August are these hatch-year birds, riding the second “wave” of migration after their parents. How they know where to go and how to get there is one of those profound miracles of nature.

The shorebird family is a very diverse one that includes species that range from the 4-5” sandpipers (also known affectionately by birders as “peeps”) to the 26” Long-billed Curlew. The Long-billed Curlew is a western species that we do not see here on the east coast; the largest shorebird that we’re likely to see here is the 19" Marbled Godwit. The photograph at the beginning of this blog entry is a Marbled Godwit; contrast this bird with the tiny Semipalmated Sandpipers, below.

Also conspicuous on the Virginia beaches in August is the tern migration. Terns are in the same family of birds as gulls, but are generally more sleek and streamlined than gulls are. Many species sport a black cap or crest in breeding plumage that fades away as fall approaches; they are much less striking in their winter plumage. Terns are the white birds that you see flying over bodies of water with their heads down looking for small fish, then diving straight down, bill first, to catch that meal. Terns come in all sizes too, from the 9” Least Tern to the 21” Caspian Tern.

From left to right: Sandwich tern (with the yellow bill tip), Forster’s Tern, and the orange-billed Royal Tern, which is almost as big as the Caspian.

I went to Bethel Beach on August 18 in hopes of finding some of these early fall migrants, and I was not disappointed. Bethel Beach is near the town of Matthews, on the Middle Neck of Virginia, on the west side of the Chesapeake Bay. Once you get to Bethel Beach you can walk southbound along the beach until you reach a sandy "hook" where the beach ends. At the end of this hook I found five different species of terns, and several species of shorebirds. I took all the photos in this blog entry on that day; here are some more:

The shorebirds above and below are Short-billed Dowitchers, migrants along our waterways. There is a Long-billed Dowitcher too, very similar in appearance to the Short-billed and it's often impossible to tell the two apart; contrary to the implication in their names, the bill sizes overlap and cannot usually be relied upon as the only identifier. You'll find dowitchers probing the mudflats and shallow waters with their long bills, looking for food.

One of the subfamilies of shorebirds is the Plovers. They are usually easy to tell apart from other shorebirds by their smallish size, very rounded appearance and very short bills among other things. They hunt by sight, rather than by feel, as longer-billed shorebirds like dowitchers do. Below is a common migrant along our coast, the Semipalmated Plover. A plover that you might be more familiar with is its "cousin" the Killdeer, which is a permanent resident throughout North America. Killdeers are larger than semipalmated Plovers and have two dark chest stripes instead of one; they are also famous for their "broken wing" display, which they perform as a distraction if they believe their chicks are threatened.

Semipalmated Plover at Bethel Beach

Killdeer for comparison with the Semipalmated Plover.

Here are two Least Terns; as mentioned above, they are our smallest Tern, measuring about 9" from tail tip to bill tip. They are a threatened species, mostly due to loss of habitat. They nest on open beaches and sandy places, where they have to compete with humans in a mostly losing battle for habitat. Fortunately there are some nature preserves that block human access during their breeding season, which allows the terns to successfully reproduce.

The medium-sized Sandwich Terns, below, also migrate down the Atlantic coast in August. These two at Bethel Beach are mostly in their winter plumage. Note their yellow bill tips; if you can get close enough to them to see this field mark, you can make a positive identification of this species.

The Seaside Dragonlet (below) is our only saltwater species of dragonfly, and at this time of year they are abundant along the beaches. The individual below is a female; note the numerous tiny stripes on her thorax. The adult male is entirely dark blue, almost blackish in appearance.

Bethel Beach was also a fantastic spot to see Ospreys and Bald Eagles, roosting in the nearby scrub and trees or soaring as they hunted for prey.


This bird is not yet a fully-grown adult Bald Eagle; it takes eagles four years to acquire the all-white head and tail for which they are well known.

As we move into September, the numbers of shorebirds and terns will decrease as they continue south to their wintering grounds, but numbers of other kinds of birds will increase. One of the most anticipated times of year on the Virginia birder's calendar is September, when the bulk of songbirds migrate along our Atlantic Flyway. We will soon see orioles, tanagers, flycatchers, warblers, vireos and many others moving through, and one of the best places to witness this migration is along the southern tip of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Places like the Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge and Kiptopeke State Park are traditional hotspots where birders gather in the morning and hope for a "fallout" of these birds. By mid-September and well into October and even November, the hawk and eagle migrations will be at their peak. I will be out there for the next couple of months as often as my work schedule and my pocketbook allow, and I hope I will find a lot of good things to share with you. Until next time, take a little time to enjoy the bountiful nature and wildlife that we are so fortunate to have here, in and near Chesapeake.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes … and in your house, and your library, and….

(Note: This blog was written before Hurricane Irene visited Hampton Roads)

On August 4, lightning struck in the Dismal Swamp and sparked the largest fire there since it became a national wildlife refuge. Over 6000 acres have burned to date, all of Hampton Roads have felt the effects of the heavy smoke and poor air quality. At this point, the fire is only about 15% contained, so I’m afraid we’ll be feeling its effects for some time yet. (Photo, above, courtesy of

The fire in The Swamp is different from what most would picture to be a “typical” wildfire, in which furious flames rise upwards and spread outwards. Most of the current fire in The Swamp is a peat fire, which burns and smolders underground and creates a heavy, billowing yellow smoke. I read that some of the deepest peat fires burning right now are estimated to be six feet deep into the ground. And consider this: it takes 900 years for nature to create one single inch of peat! That’s a lot of centuries going up in smoke.

But this is the natural cycle, the way things are supposed to be. We all know that wildfires are a necessary element in the natural cycle of a healthy ecosystem, and somehow it makes me feel better that this fire started by natural means rather than by man’s carelessness or vandalism. (Knowing this does not, however, make the pervasive smoky air any easier to breathe.)

I did take a nature walk in The Swamp last week, along Washington Ditch. The air was smoky, but I still saw deer, birds, snakes and a few butterflies (photos of White-tailed Deer and Prothonotary Warbler, above). Of course I have no way of knowing if I would have seen more without the smoke, but I don’t think it had a large impact on the wildlife. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Catherine Hibbard was quoted in The Daily Press, saying “Wildlife at the 111,200-acre refuge, which includes bald eagles, deer, bobcats, rattlesnakes and at least 57 species of butterflies, should not be harmed.” Undoubtedly there are some casualties among the slower-moving creatures in places where the fire is in full flame or burns hot, but most wildlife is mobile enough to flee the most dangerous areas, and loss to overall populations should be minimal. This Spicebush Swallowtail (below) did not seem to be bothered by the smoke.

That is not the case, though, with the plant life. Until the 2008 fire, the Great Dismal Swamp was home to the largest population of the endangered Atlantic White Cedar trees (not the same as the common Red Cedars). After that fire, Fish and Wildlife teamed up with Christopher Newport University to replant 230,000 seedlings. All of those seedlings have been destroyed in the current fire. That makes me very sad, not only for the irreplaceable loss of the trees, but for the wildlife species that are biologically bound to these trees, like the rare Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly (photo courtesy of and Jeffrey Pippen). I have never seen one, and am not likely to away from the remaining stands of Atlantic White Cedars.

Everyone keeps saying that we need a good hurricane to extinguish this fire. I don’t care to go through another hurricane, so I don’t know which catastrophic natural event to pull for! I’ll just have to be reassured in the knowledge that Mother Nature is in charge and it’s her world; we’re just here for the short ride.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mid-summer in far southeastern Virginia is not my favorite time to go birding or butterflying, or to take nature walks. Oppressive temperatures and humidity become unbearable and biting insects, snakes and ticks become more troublesome. I’m willing to put up with these annoyances when there is a lot of bird activity to witness, but not so much when things are slower, as they generally are in the summer (compared to spring and fall). Last weekend I went on a butterfly walk at Back Bay, a place I love in the right season, but on a hot, stagnant day in mid-July there were lots of people but very few birds or butterflies, and all I came home with was a bad sunburn and a mediocre photo of a Cottonmouth (above)! Don’t get me wrong, there is wildlife to see, and the occasional summer rarity passes through, but at this time of year, I tend to do more critter-watching in my own yard than I do out in the wild places.

Over the last few years I have planted native plants in my yard that attract native wildlife, and honestly, I’m seeing more butterflies now visiting my yard than I see anywhere else. There are actually several species of Skippers that I have never seen anywhere except in my own yard. When you plant the right native plants in a concentrated area, you become an oasis in an otherwise biologically bare monoculture of lawns and non-native, exotic plants that do not sustain our native wildlife, and the critters will find you. And once they find you, they continue to return.

I like to raise and release butterflies. I find the caterpillars in my yard, house them in screen cages, and feed them until they go into chrysalis. They stay in the chrysalis stage in the cage until they emerge as adult butterflies; then I release them into my yard. In order to get caterpillars in your yard in the first place, you have to know which native plants the caterpillars eat; caterpillars of each species eat only certain kinds of plants. So if you learn what these plants are and plant them in your yard, you’re likely to attract egg-laying adults. Butterflies cannot reproduce in the absence of the host plant that they are biologically bound to; that’s why non-native plant species cannot support reproduction of our native butterflies.

So far I have raised and released well over 3000 individual butterflies. I have also had the pleasure in recent years of raising a few moths, which has been a real treat because the night-flying adults of most moth species are seldom seen by most of us and are therefore more “mysterious.” Some of them are also very striking, very large, and very fascinating to look at. Moths have the same requirement that butterflies do; they each have specific native host plants that they must seek out for egg-laying and caterpillar food. Planting native plants has brought moths to my yard that I wasn’t even aware of before.

The first moth I ever raised was a Pawpaw Sphinx Moth, a species obviously tied to the native Pawpaw tree. I planted one of these trees in my yard 7 or 8 years ago because it is the sole host plant for the gorgeous Zebra Swallowtail and I wanted Zebras to lay eggs in my yard. One day I was searching the tree for Zebra caterpillars, and was surprised to find this guy instead:

I searched through my library of field guides and was able to ID it as a Pawpaw Sphinx Moth caterpillar. I collected it, fed it Pawpaw leaves, watched it go into its cocoon, and a few weeks later successfully emerge as an adult moth with a beautiful, complicated brown, black and white pattern. Here it is on my own finger:

Last fall I was cleaning up my yard and stumbled upon two Io Moth caterpillars, the first I had ever seen. I did a little research and learned that they eat Wild Cherry, so I collected them and fed them from my Wild Cherry tree. (By the way, Io caterpillars are famous for their sting, so if you see one, do not touch it directly).

I also learned that this moth species burrows underground when it is ready to go into the pupae stage, so I put my caterpillars in an aquarium filled with several inches of dirt and dried leaves. Sure enough, when they were done feeding they burrowed into the dirt, went into the pupae phase and spent the winter there, in the aquarium on my front porch. And in June, they both emerged, on consecutive days, in their beautiful adult stage! Io Moths are known for the "eyes" on their upper hindwing; you can see why in the photo below. This one is a female (the male is even brighter!):

The incredible creature below is the caterpillar or larva stage of the Cecropia Moth, which is the largest North American moth, one of the Giant Silk Moths:

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit that I did not find this caterpillar in my own yard -- but I could have, because one of their host plants is Wild Cherry, which I have. A fellow raise-and-release enthusiast had several Cecropia cocoons in a cage, and she was not at home when they emerged into adults. By the time she came home and found them, they had already mated and laid "hundreds" of eggs. I obtained one of the tiny caterpillars when it was no more than a quarter of an inch long, and started to feed it the Wild Cherry. Here's its picture a few weeks later, when it was fatter and juicier; these guys get to be up to five inches long!

Caterpillars go through several "instars between molts; in other words, they shed their skin when they outgrow it several times as they mature. In this photo, you can actually see the caterpillar's shed skin in the upper right corner. What I found fascinating is that the shed skin includes the old spikes and colored balls that you see on the fresh caterpillar!

I have been feeding this caterpillar for almost two months now, and finally this week it stopped eating and started to spin its silk cocoon on the side of its screen cage. In a few weeks or maybe even next year, the moth should emerge, and will look like this (photo courtesy of Great Hill Horticultural Foundation):

Cecropias occur throughout eastern North America, west to the Rocky Mountains, but are seldom seen by most of us because they are active at night. I hope to find their caterpillars one day on my own Wild Cherry tree; I'll be looking.

I have raised and released around 150 butterflies so far this summer, but the peak months have not yet even begun. Moth and butterfly numbers will increase over the next two months or so, and I will be much busier finding and feeding voracious caterpillars, then experiencing the joy of releasing them as butterflies. Some will emerge this summer or fall, and some will actually overwinter as chrysalis in my cages and emerge next year. If you’re interested in knowing which native plants are hosts to which species, or would like any more details about the raise-and-release process, please don’t hesitate to contact me; I love sharing the knowledge!