Background Switcher (Hidden)

A Naturalist’s Rosetta Stone

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

“Look! There are caterpillars on every rock! Think they’re eating the lichens?”

“Ehhh. I doubt it.” The words floated down from Keith Corliss, my co-leader on the Prairie Ramble at the Potholes and Prairies Birding Festival near Chase Lake in east-central North Dakota. Though the prairie grass was soaked, I was prepared with a full rainsuit, and Keith’s playful skepticism was all the impetus I needed to get personal with some larvae, to get on down and ground-truth my growing suspicion. The unplowed prairie we were exploring under heavy skies and spitting rain was dotted with boulders large and small, and on each rock I had spotted some interesting caterpillars, army green and chartreuse chevrons running up their backs. Given that caterpillars are eating machines, I suspected that they must have been consuming the lichens that covered the rocks, and had expressed as much to the group. But now I had to be sure.

I took off my glasses and went nose-to-nose with two caterpillars. I held my breath and gazed, trying not to interrupt their caterpillary doings. Sure enough, there was a small avenue of rock, grazed almost clean of lichens, in front of each one. Behind them, small brown pellets of frass. I crowed with delight and struggled back to my feet. “They ARE eating the lichens! Look! You can see where they’ve grazed the rock clean!” No one else got down on their stomach to see. I think they believed me. Either that or kneeling in wet grass wasn’t their cup of tea.

Delight at this discovery led only to more questions. What kind of moth or butterfly would these lichen-eating caterpillars become? I was burning to know. And it was at this juncture that, only a handful of years ago, my inquiry would have stalled and stopped. Books that could have addressed the question simply didn’t exist. Stephen Ingraham whipped out his iPhone. Out here in the middle of nowhere, he somehow picked up a signal. Well, there wasn’t much to stop it.

“See what you get with ‘lichen-eating caterpillar!”
Everyone crowded around.
“There’s a painted lichen moth caterpillar, but I don’t have enough bars to get an image just yet.”
My heart was racing. Just the thought that we’d turned the key and opened the door with nothing more than curiosity, an iPhone and the wide North Dakota sky above us electrified me.

Back on the bus, Stephen unearthed an iPad from his pack and handed it forward. There on the screen was a stunningly beautiful salmon and orange moth, its wings folded tentlike over its back: the painted lichen moth. Ooh’s and aah’s hung in the air. Curiosity and gratification came full circle and collided in cyberspace, somewhere far above my head. As someone who spends much of every day and most of my life wondering about natural phenomena I observe around me, I felt like a cave man presented with fire for the first time. We can walk around with a computer in our pocket, one that can tell us if there exists a caterpillar that eats lichens, (Yes! There is!) then tell us its range (Yep, central North Dakota!) and then show us in vivid color what it grows up to be (A glorious orangey pink moth, zigzagged in black). We have a portable Rosetta Stone.


 Rick Bohn, a Carrington photographer, naturalist and Prairie Ramble leader, said he’d seen that moth before, but had never known what its caterpillar looked like. At the Chase Lake Nature Center, Rick produced a gorgeous photo of gray coneflower, with a gaudy painted lichen moth clinging to its stem. We’d guessed right on what this caterpillar would become. The last piece of the puzzle fell into perfect place.
photo by Rick Bohn

There has never been a better time to be a naturalist. Social media have spawned what are essentially support groups for bird, butterfly, plant, mammal, arachnid and dragonfly enthusiasts, to name just a few. Every day, I peruse posted photos of butterflies and birds and help identify them where I can, bringing each observer just a little closer to conversance with Ohio’s fauna. In my turn, I’ll “tag” friends on photos to ask for ID’s on flowers and insects and often get them within minutes.

So many people have digital cameras now, and it’s so easy to upload and share photos, that there is an unpaid army of observers out there, reporting to Central Command in the form of such social media sites. The Ohio Lepidopterist’s Society is in the process of teaming with Facebook’s Butterflying Ohio page to expand the horizons of its knowledge, using photos submitted by experts and beginners alike to fatten county and state checklists, and to get a better grasp of what’s flying when. Rare bird record committees are receiving better, faster documentation of strays than ever before. News flies out about the latest discovery and up-to-the-minute coordinates of a rare bird’s location are shared even as birders drive to the scene.

Just a couple of weeks before the Potholes festival, Bill and I had been hot on the trail of nesting northern hawk-owls in Soldotna, Alaska, where we were working at the Kenai Birding Festival. We had a reliable report of a hawk-owl nest on the edge of a golf course right in town, and we stole a few moments from our festival work to see if we could find it. It would be a lusted-after life bird for me. Arriving at the scene, we found the nest tree, but there was no sign of the hawk-owls. A woman pulled up in an enormous black SUV as we walked down the street in front of her house. Seeing our scope and binoculars, she asked us what we were searching for.
“We received a report of nesting owls here, and we were hoping to see them.”
“Oh, THOSE THINGS! Are you here to get rid of them for me? I hope so! Because I keep calling the Fish and Wildlife Service! Those things are so NOISY!!”
It developed that she had had an owl family in her backyard all spring, and the begging calls of the juveniles had “driven her crazy”  for several weeks. She said she’d called the state wildlife department and the Fish and Wildlife Service, asking someone to come remove the birds.

The effort not to roll my eyes became intense, then supreme. I tried to appear sympathetic, all the while wondering how she and I could both be members of the species Homo sapiens. Wondering how someone with so little appreciation for nature wound up on the Kenai Peninsula, where you must regularly stop to let moose and caribou cross the roads in the subdivisions; where bald eagles are more common than robins in my neighborhood.  An incredibly cool owl, the most unusual North American owl; a streamlined, hard-feathered day-flying owl I want so desperately just to see for a moment. And here she is, with northern hawk-owls feeding young in her yard, and she is not enthralled but annoyed? Then came the final blow. She took a cellphone out of her purse and scrolled to a photo of a hawk-owl sitting atop a spruce in her yard. It wasn’t a very good photo, but it was a northern hawk-owl all right, long tail, barred belly and all. Arrggh.

“Yes, that’s the bird we’re looking for. You’re a very lucky person to have them nesting in your yard. They’re extremely rare.”

“Well, you can HAVE them!! And the Fish and Wildlife people won’t do ANYTHING about it!”

Well, I should hope they wouldn’t. Last I checked, the services offered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service did not include removing threatened owls from backyards. This anecdote may seem incidental to my story, but hang with me for a moment. Practically everyone has technology now. A person who doesn’t know a hawk-owl from a handsaw can now take a tiny cellphone camera out of her pocket and produce a recognizable photo of one of North America’s most sought after birds. And she can use that photo to torture a couple from Ohio (who went back home without seeing said bird).


Take it a step further, and someone who is mildly interested in nature can find out with a few clicks what a strange bug on the window screen might be. Now give the same tools to avid naturalists, and they can find out what sort of caterpillar eats lichens on a boulder in the middle of literally nowhere in North Dakota, and then what kind of beautiful moth it grows up to be. Technology supplies answers, but it isn’t an answer in itself, and it certainly can’t make us smarter or more appreciative of nature. Rather, it’s been successfully argued that it competes with nature for our full attention, to our detriment. Technology is a tool, and in the right hands it has awesome power. The catch? You still have to be interested and informed enough to ask the right questions. Curiosity is the hot-burning engine that propels a good naturalist, and it can’t be replaced or supplanted by any gizmo, no matter how powerful. It’s not how, or how quickly, the question gets answered. It’s asking it in the first place.

Julie Zickefoose, author of The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, got an iPhone from Bill for her last birthday. She held out as long as she could, but the Lichen Moth Incident tipped her over the edge.

If you liked this piece, you can read my column, "True Nature," in every issue of Bird Watcher's Digest. Click HERE to subscribe. And you can hear me read the piece (Episode 29) HERE.


Sort of like folks who come in and cut down trees and beautiful flowers, don't want to fool with it. I say go live in a condo somewhee in the concrete jungle. Ugh....

Posted by Anonymous March 5, 2013 at 6:17 AM

Thank you for the very easy click to get Bird Watcher's Digest. : )

We saw a Northern Hawk Owl Saturday and it was very exciting. It's been hanging around all winter up in Door County. Some people just can't be believed.

Thanks also for the daily Chet Baker pictures on Facebook.

Great story. So what turns us into curious appreciator preservationists vs low-sensibility destroyers? In my case, I had an appreciator mother. I suspect most of us learned it from someone dear to us during our childhoods. Can a destroyer change to become a preserver? Did this woman show any sensitivity when you told her the hawk owl was rare?

No, dkm, she didn't. Suspect she'd been told that by the USFWS. However...I always give people the benefit of the doubt, and seeing two very avid naturalists being so interested in "her" owls can't have hurt. After all, she did have a photo of it saved on her phone, and there was a slight element of braggadocio about the way she complained. I try to lead by example in cases like this, rather than chastise, and I figured it would be best to just show our respect and awe for this phenomenon happening in her yard, and leave it to her to come to her own conclusion about whether it was really a pest species fit only to be "removed." I didn't get the feeling she was going to try to have them shot.

Love this story and love that you have come around to the i-phone! I remember once, maybe 5 years ago, having a similar conversation with you about Facebook. The trick is making this things become your slave rather than the other way around. Some days I am master and others - not so much!

Julie, your post made me think of this cartoon. So much knowledge available so easily! I feel like I'm living in a miracle-time.

Oh man. Now I want an i-phone too.

I was just over at the blog Nature Calling, catching up with Stephen Lyn Bales, and found this appreciation of your book:

He's another fan!

I'm so torn about this. I LOVE that we can get these amazing details so easily, but it makes me sad that folks were crowding around the iphone to see pictures of the caterpillars that were RIGHT THERE.

Nahh, nothing to be sad about here, Goosegirl--what we were crowding around the iPad to see were pictures of the MOTH that the caterpillars everyone examined in real life would become! Definitely worth oohing and ahhing over. :)

[Back to Top]