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Moving Into Blue

Wednesday, October 26, 2022


Oh how swiftly recent memories become ancient history, especially in fall, when everything changes so fast from hour to hour. The common milkweed that was blooming like mad on September 1 has now dropped all its yellowed leaves, and I'm nursing along the very last chrysalis of summer, which should eclose any day now. Yes, those are the Three Graces in the background (thinking about how cool it would be to make a book of my photos of those trees over the years!) I like this one!

On September 1, I was pleased to find the American dittany blooming in the gasline cut t the back of the property. It's a dainty little thing with a wonderful sharp turpentiney smell when you rub the leaves. 

It won't be long before this plant will be making another kind of flower! After the first hard frost, when the tops are killed back, the plant's root's will continue pumping water through the shattered stems, making frostflowers!

Out in the meadow, the tall coreopsis was putting on an amazing show. It came up in places where I'd never seen it before, perhaps thanks to the abundant wet summer. I love how this meadow changes year to year. This year it was off the hook spectacular.

As I write on Oct. 26, it hasn't really frozen yet, which is amazing, considering how cold it got in the second week of October. I'm going to jump in the wayback machine now to show you the Hickory Horned Devil from September 1-4. 

Changes are its gargantuan size

and a notable increase in the intensity of turquoise blue in its anterior parts.

The devil is pretty implacable at this point. I'm trying to get it to open up its "eyes" by curling its head down, but fail to make it feel threatened enough to do that. It truly is a fearsome looking but utterly harmless creature, my own personal Beast.

On Sept. 2, I measured it with my hand. That's a 6.5" caterpillar, folks!

Shila came to see and photograph the beast. It dwarfs her largeish iPhone. 


Sept. 3 saw it still eating like there was no tomorrow. Still, it didn't make an appreciable dent on the young persimmon tree. I knew how big they could get, and was a bit worried, but I never had to move the nylon netting once it was installed. I probably could have raised a bunch on that same tree without compromising the tree. 

 I had fun looking at its legs, wrapped securely around the twig. 

Sept. 4: My hand for scale. 

Gripperdoodle/potholder clamped, check!
And look at those wonderfully ooky two-toned prolegs, all wrapped around the twig! 

Sept. 4--the turquoise is blooming! And we know what that means. The bluer it gets, the closer it is to its next phase of development--walkabout! 

I couldn't get enough of this otherworldly shade, especially in contrast to the orange horns.

Neither could Liam. We visited it daily. 

I'll leave you with a video that mesmerizes me: the caterpillar, turning on a twig. Look how careful it is. See how the gripperdoodle is its best insurance against falling; how it doesn't release the orange potholders until it has a firm grip with the true legs by its head. I had been wondering where the poop chute is: it's between the gripperdoodle potholders. So it must have to release the mechanism to poop. I wish I'd seen that. 
Enjoy the amazing coordination of its many legs, the surety of its movements. I sure did. 


The Devil and the Titmouse: Hickory Horned Devil, End of August

Saturday, October 15, 2022


This post is about feet, birds, and scary doo-dads.

Someone on Facebook (who may or may not like to sing about gnus) asked "Whatever happened to the Hickory Horned Devil?" which was her subtle way of pointing out that I hadn't posted about it in awhile. 
Life gets in the way, is all I have to say, but the Devil kept chugging along. And thank goodness I've already uploaded all my photos, so all I have to do is find time to sit down and write about them!

These photos date from Aug 28-30 when the caterpillar was busy assuming titanic proportions, despite periodic rain.

It was also producing huge frass pellets, in bulk. I shook them out of the sleeve every time I came to photograph the beast.
These are rain-swollen, but still!

Every once in awhile it's good to put your hand in the photo to show the thing's actual size.

The rarely seen frontal view of the real head and face--unassuming, caterpillary, unlike the "face" it presents to predators.

I've turned this photo right-side up, for the Alice-in-Wonderland hookah effect. HHD's spend their days hanging upside down along twigs, where they are practically impossible to see.

This, then, is the typical pose. Even though you're looking right at it, the cream and black bands along its velvety sides break up the form so you can barely see it amidst the sunlit leaves, and the countershaded pale back further flattens the form and makes it disappear. Its first and best defense is camouflage!

I am fascinated by its feet, which have Velcro-like surfaces and stick unbelievably well to branches, and to each other. There is so much to be learned from invertebrate architecture. See, this thing is so heavy and vulnerable that falling out of a tall tree could mean rupture and certain death. Not to mention giving it the uncertain job of finding the right tree to laboriously climb again...So it moves very, very slowly and makes sure it has a deathgrip with some part of its body before it makes a move. 

The hind section, shown here in closeup. It reminds me very much of a potholder. My aging brain spat out "Gripperdoodle" when I was trying to describe it, and Gripperdoodle it remained. Maybe entomologists have a better name, but probably not. Oh right. Modified anal prolegs. That thing is like a vise off the back of the big worm.

I'm not sure what the roughened pads on the three sides of the gripperdoodle are all about. Well, maybe that is keratin, to strengthen the structure. Yeah. You can't have an effective gripper if it's squishy! They feel like hard plastic, like a weatherproof car floormat.

Eatin' in the rain. Just eatin' in the rain...

The caterpillar's false face on Sept. 1. The actual head is the shiny orange beanie atop the devil's "head." I just love this view. But why be so ornate, so prongy, so freaky? 

Titmice and chickadees, that's why. They don't mind taking their food in oversized packages. I'll never forget seeing this Carolina chickadee rip into a silken cocoon in the Chute on our land and pull out a huge pupa. I don't know if my from-memory rendering of the pupa will suffice for ID (it looks pretty bad), but I suspect this would have been a luna, given that the cocoon was in a tree and not underground. It sure isn't going to be a luna moth now.

From my book,  The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds.

I will borrow here from a Facebook post by Cynthia Mullens on the Mountain State Birders page. This young tufted titmouse has found a most unfortunate imperial moth caterpillar and is pecking away at it. 

The green goo indicates that the enterprising titmouse has scored on the caterpillar and will probably end up eating it. Even if it judges the beast too big to grapple with, the caterpillar is done for. Imperial moth caterpillars are big and impressive, but they have nothing by way of defense--no stinging hairs, no pokey horns, no false eyes or scary faces.

photo by Cynthia Mullens, used by permission

The HHD has that all covered.

There's a lot of bird food in that sea-green tube, but there are also spines, and they're concentrated at the head end.

Any bird that comes at this beast from behind gets a dose of 

which is plenty enough to scare a pecking titmouse or chickadee away. Cuckoos and jays, I suspect, are unfazed by such things, or by lusty thrashing, which is why sleeving the branch was the way to go. The thing I was even more afraid of was parasitic wasps and flies, so a fine mesh sleeve just made sense any way I looked at it. It took the worry out of watching this marvelous being develop.

Knowing the HHD could hang in peace, and that it would be there the next time I came calling, meant the world to me, and gave me peace of mind.

Countershading and Caterpillars--Hickory Horned Devil, August 27-31

Sunday, October 2, 2022


I know it's been awhile since I posted a Hickory Horned Devil installment. Whoa it's been a busy fall! Thank goodness I took a few days to gather, edit, and upload all these photos so I could write the posts later. It takes forever to get them to load on my LTE-based Internet. Anyway, enough yangin'. I've got power and Internet, and that's a lot more than about a million Floridians have after that SOB Ian hit them.

This post covers a four-day span when the Devilworm was growing into its long silk stockings, getting more colorful by the day--even by the hour! 

27 August, 4:10 pm

Its face on 28 August. I love the little true legs clasped up under its chin like Dr. Evil!

The Alice in Wonderland comparison is apt. All this worm needs is a big amanita to sit on, and a hookah. Why didn't I arrange that?

People have been sending me newspaper clippings about people finding hickory horned devils. I love that. I think it reflects a growing awareness of caterpillars and just how cool they are. Would that have made the newspaper ten years ago? Doubting it. 

30 August--the dorsal zone is turning pale turquoise. This fifth instar is really a gas, with the psychedelic colors coming in. 
And here is where the Devil name comes from--the Ray-Bans on the dorsal surface of its thorax. The caterpillar has to be kind of annoyed to expose them. When it's feeling threatened, the caterpillar tucks its head against its underside, stretching the thorax to display the black "eyes." I love this look so much.

Just the best smile, don't you think? Or some say it's a Dali mustache. To me it looks like a devil with an orange crown, slightly askew. 

The caterpillar is so used to me I have a hard time getting it to expose the black spots I love to photograph. This is what the Ray-Ban's look like, closed up. I'm trying to get the bug to bow its head but nothing doing. Look how pale the dorsum, or back, of the animal is in this photo. Stay tuned for the reason.

Some mega-frass from the fifth instar devil. I open the sleeve and shake it to the ground daily to keep things clean in there. They look enough like grenades that I'm worried they'll blow up. The frass reflects the shape of the gut. That's a lot of absorptive surface!

Countershading is a fascinating natural phenomenon, and it is employed  by invertebrates and ungulates, fish and birds, to name a few. Check out the elegant countershading on these impala kids I photographed grooming each other in the Kruger of South Africa. Just where the belly starts to turn under and would be thrown into shadow in strong light, the local color of the animal lightens. And it goes to pure white on the underbelly. The net effect is that the animal's form loses its apparent shape and is flattened out, making the impala harder to see at a distance. They melt into the grass. 
This is called countershading, because the paler local color of the belly counteracts natural shadows. 

So when you've got a large, tasty caterpillar that habitually hangs upside down under twigs, the countershading is applied backward! With the HHD, its underside is darker than its dorsum, or top side. 
So it's hard to discern the creature as a rounded form--it dissolves into a patchwork of patterns, flattens out, and is really hard to see. The pale chevrons further break up its form. Perfect camouflage!

This is the sleeve. The caterpillar is about a third of the way down. Its camouflage is terrific. Sometimes I spent many minutes looking for it before I could see it. I knew it couldn't get out of the sleeve with the rope tightly wrapped at both ends, but I still sometimes concluded it had escaped before I finally saw it.

The pale chevrons on its flanks perfectly mimic the sun striking leaf edges, as you can see in this photo.
They and the countershading of the pale dorsum and dark underside make it simply disappear. Click on the photo to enlarge it for a better look--I'm going to bet you have a really hard time finding it in the small form.

And then there's the fascination of watching it demolish persimmon leaves. 

31 August,  7:22 pm . Enjoy your meal! 

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