Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cool Weather Cat...Banded Tussock Moth

The banded tussock moth is actually a tiger moth, Halysidota tesselleris

Go figure. 

Its common name derives from the "tussocks" of bristles growing at either end of the larvae which strongly resemble the features of the true tussock moth caterpillars.

Foraging among the not yet fallen leaves of the oak out front, this cool weather cat seemed in no hurry to stop feeding and take cover just yet.

Like its cousin the woolly worm, this banded tussock moth caterpillar seems adept at negotiating the dramatic temperature fluctuations of late fall in the southeastern U.S. 

While the bristles of many of the true tussock moth larvae can cause skin irritation if handled, my field guide indicated this was NOT true of the pale or banded tussock moth caterpillar.

Raised to be a skeptic, I devise a simple firsthand test of this assertion.

Seems that the field guide may have gotten this one right. Here's hoping it manages to cozy up in its cocoon before the real cold arrives. If so, perhaps we'll meet again as it takes to the wing in the warmth of next spring.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Nemesis Birds

Journeying to Johnsonville for our traditional Thanksgiving gathering with family from far and near, we were treated to an absolutely brilliant day for travel. Apparently the crystal clear skies and brisk temperatures were perfect for hunting as well, judging by the number of red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks we spotted during the relatively short drive. It seemed that every likely perch near an open area along the roadway was occupied by a large buteo. With laps full of sweet potato casseroles and baskets of piping hot biscuits, it was nigh unto impossible to stop for photos, so the handsome raptors, perching and in flight, went undocumented.

However, the experience reminded me of a few recent unshared encounters with smaller hawks, several of which are "nemesis birds" for me. While I am quite adept at identifying large raptors, I sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing the small woodland hawks which prey on the songbirds in our neighborhood. 

Much smaller, and occupying a different genus than the larger buteos, the accipiters are fearsome predators of the open woodlands in local neighborhoods and parks. The Cooper's hawk pictured above has captured a young gray squirrel, while its smaller lookalike, the sharp-shinned hawk, preys almost exclusively on birds, often ambushing them at backyard feeders. When Hunter recently spotted a small hawk across the street from our house, I assumed it was a probably a sharp-shinned. But it was not.

It was so small we decided it must be an American Kestrel, from genus Falco. But one clear glimpse of its coloration ruled that out. Finally, after taking a few pictures and consulting all our field guides, we've settled upon a tentative identification of Merlin, also from genus Falco, which would be a first for both Hunter and me. The Merlin is an occasional visitor to our area during the fall migration, and we count ourselves lucky to have finally met one. Most of the merlins should have passed through our area and moved further east and south by now, but should one pass our way again, hopefully we'll be quicker to recognize it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Possum problems again this morning. We get up on a chilly but glorious Thanksgiving morning only to find possums raiding the cat food bowl out back! Ever since we switched Seuss to this new high protein food, we just can't seem to keep the possums at bay. My field guide says that the Virginia Opossum can reach 10-15 pounds; but these appear to be a bit larger than that...
There was a time when banging on the cast iron skillet sent them shuffling back to the woods, but these days they don't pay it any mind. I generally enjoy seeing the wildlife around, but lately these guys have been uprooting the camellia bushes and scaring the neighbors' dogs. If anyone has any suggestions, I'd love to hear them. Special thanks to Jay Randolph for this dramatic image of our dilemma. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

After First Frost, A Brief Awakening...

The week or two since last we blogged has included a couple of very chilly nights, including one night of "hard frost," when temps dipped deep into the twenties (F). 

The chill seemed to trigger an outrageous burst of fall color lasting at least a week, followed by an outrageous burst of leaf-raking; although the occasional upward glance left us wondering just exactly whose leaves we were raking... and hinted at repeat performance with the rakes in the not-too-distant future.

Our much more frequent downward glances yielded a more pleasant surprise - a post-frost encore by one of our smallish "cold-blooded" neighbors.  

Little brown snake is a frequent visitor in the woods and garden throughout the spring and summer months, but rarely does it grace us with a visit this late in the year. 

Afternoon temperatures flirting with seventy seem to have lured it forth for a bit of basking and hunting before it burrows deep beneath the leaves for the winter. 

The west-facing trunk of the maple and the leaf-covered mulchy expanse at its feet appear to offer ample opportunities for both in what has turned out to be a perfectly pleasant afternoon for our little legless brown reptile.

Perhaps an insect lurking in shadowy recesses of loose bark will be as surprised to encounter this slithering autumn traveler as were we...

Then, as if drawn relentlessly southward by the setting sun, our intrepid ectotherm makes its way to the ground, where it will most likely pursue some familiar subterranean passage known only to it and its kin before the chill of night sets in...

Past the tiny green and crimson maple seedling and beyond the scarlet leaf of the oak, it travels with steadfast purpose, seeking something only guessed at by we warm-bloods.

Leaning on our rakes, rapt with curiosity, we watch it finally vanish into the shade of oak's cast-off summer raiment, perhaps for a moment, perhaps for good;

 while in the east, November moon hints it's not quite time for bed.

Happy hunting!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Fall Back

November 3, 2013.
With the return to standard time, Hunter had an extra hour to spend, and invited me to share. 
Beach sounded nice, but three hours in the car (each way), not so nice.
Nearby nature hike instead. 
White Pines Natural Area got the nod.

In hindsight, good choice...

Maple always greets November with flying colors, no surprises there. 

 Deep in the dappled shade of the majestic white pines, however, surprises abound.

Alone and apparently okay with it, Hermit thrush eyes Hunter's lens with alacrity.

Hunter pauses in the shadows of the riparian giants to consider the confluence of two proud rivers, now joined in their journey to Cape Fear.

In the damp of the floodplain's undergrowth, lungless red-backed salamander breathes through its miraculous skin, lying low to conserve precious energy as winter draws nigh.

 Pale tussock moth traverses a frost-bitten fern. Close cousin to the woolly worm, this tiger moth larvae most likely spent its extra hour dining on the deciduous leaves of this hardwood bottomland forest.

Nearby, the green of summer jumps out from the dark grays and browns of the loblolly bark.  

So much for camouflage. 
Luckily it's too cold for the reptiles to be out and about...

or not.
A hundred sun-drenched niches and brightly lit holes, and in each, there lurks a Carolina anole. Gone, for them, like the trees, June's cloak of green, don they now the brown and gray - bare bark of fall.

Now Hunter, armed with an extra hour, hunts the scaly-skinned hunters, cloaked in brown and motionless, drugged by the penetrating warmth of the sun.

On the trees, and underfoot, for the keen-eyed Hunter, no corner of the forest escapes his lens.

Detail below from just to the left of Hunter's shadow in the scene above. 
Look for the yellow leaf above and to the left of his elbow.

Keen-eyed hunter sees you too...

At shadow's edge, where focus falters, twins seek refuge...

But for the ectotherm, autumn sun is an irresistible lure.

For these diminutive masters of disguise, the tiniest sprig of lichen serves as shield and curtain.

Hunter's hour well spent, dozens of anoles bowing before his lens, most aware of his gaze, a few none the wiser...

Months will pass before the clock springs forward again, and many more adventures will befall our hunters in the meantime.

Perhaps then we'll venture back to this majestic wood and seek company once again with the lizard tribe.

What tales might they tell us then, of wintertime, and spring, of successful hunts and near misses, of missing kin and narrow escapes. 

Who knows; they might even break out their green again!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Waltzing With The Sun...

American Lady (Vanessa Virginiensis) is dancing in the mums out front today. 

For an hour or two, she and carpenter bee keep company. 

Seems bee and butterfly wing slower today; sun swings lower too...

Warm in the light; in the shadows, breeze bears witness of the coming chill.

Carpenter bee feels the rumors, drinking more deeply, savoring each draught as if it were the last.

Intoxicated by the bountiful nectar, Lady yields to the sun's warm embrace, leading her in a last languid waltz t'ward winter.