Bill of the Birds was off to one side, peering up into the pawpaw branchtes, looking for fruit. Suddenly he hollered, three words, three times in a row, at the top of his considerable lungs. It sounded like this:
We peered up where he was pointing and saw something that looked like a thorny hot dog hanging, backlit...how he ever saw it much less identified it in a nanosecond, I still don't know.
By this time, the caterpillar--for a hickory horned devil is a caterpillar, though it looks more like the hero of a planet-destroying Japanese horror flick--had composed itself into its most fearsome persona, compressing and drawing itself up into a sigmoid shape. It drew all its kabuki spines and swords--schwinnng! and made itself ready for whatever terrifying battle it might have to fight.
Dig those crazy black eyespots! Devil, indeed! I can't get over them, nor its enormous, leg-like claspers. (The caterpillar's real head is the little orange unit above the fearsome black eyespots). It was making short work of the hickory's leaves, eating each leaflet entirely before moving onto the next, then presumably backing up the petiole to go destroy another.
This is the larva of the royal walnut moth, or regal moth, as it's sometimes called. Latin: Citheronia regalis. We'd found it in its last growth instar, when it turns from brown to green.
We'd found it on a hickory tree, but they're also found on ash, butternut, cherry, lilac(!!), pecan, persimmon, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore, walnut, and other trees, according to David L. Wagner's WONDERFUL Caterpillars of Eastern North America.
This is a book you simply must have on your shelf. It changed my life.
Grab a Bic or a Flair pen off your desk. That's how long this monster is. And it's as big around as Winston Churchill's fattest stogie. You'd have to use two hands to contain it. And, despite its fearsome appearance, you'd come out unscathed.
For the Hickory Horned Devil is harmless: not poisonous, not even itchy. All he's got to defend himself is
You've got to figure he's delicious, or why would he be so thoroughly frightening?
So we photographed him in situ--Bill of the Birds holding the Canon G-11 waay up over his head while I held the end of the branch down enough to get our frightened quarry in range. But for Bill's long arms, we'd have not much to show for our first-ever encounter with the most coveted caterpillar in North America--on our pawpaw hunting grounds, on our land, no less! Not long from now, he'll climb down to the ground, wander about for awhile, and dig in and pupate underground in a silk-lined earthen cell, resting for the winter like an enormous brown seed before emerging next year as a glorious royal walnut moth.
From Wikipedia. Wish it were mine! This huge moth more than covers your hand. This is a very fresh one, probably still drying its soft, limp wings after emerging from the pupal case.
Being a Science Chimp, I didn't get very far down the trail before I smacked my forehead and said, "I've got to go back and find some horned devil frass!" I'd read that one way to find devils is to see their poop and then look up--a neat trick in deep leaf litter, but still...most of us look down in the woods, and I'm likely to spot something like that someday. I wanted to find the poop so I'd know it the next time I saw it. Now Bill of the Birds--he's always lookin' up.
So I went right back under that horned devil and got down on all fours and muttered and rummaged around for a long time while my family kind of chuckled and rolled their eyes and darned if I didn't find me a very nice bit of fresh devilpoop, a little grenade of compressed used up hickory chaw. It was big enough to completely cover my wedding ring which I can assure you after 17 years is still in situ.
And it's all FREE.
All photos in this post by Bill of the Birds