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The Family that Bathes Together...

Monday, August 21, 2023


On mornings when it's getting hot fast, I always give the WarblerFall a quick scrub. I change out the rocks to clean ones (all I have to do is leave them in the sun between cleanings, and its heat does my work for me!), scrub the basin with a Magic Eraser, and rinse and refill with clean water. It only takes a few minutes to make the bath fresh, clean and sparkling again. Thank you, Sun!

I knew there would be serious action today, August 21, with a humid high of 88.

Sure enough, along came a baby cardinal, a female. 

She still has the blackish bill she was born with. She's likely still being fed by her parents.

She had such fun in the cool bath it wasn't long before her parents came to join her!

I was thrilled to get the whole family in one shot. That doesn't happen often.

The 'rents look considerably less fresh-faced than she does. Well, they've probably been feeding her for 50 days. I know. I've done it. Baby cardinals beg for forever, and then add a few weeks. 

Mom Cardinal was down to the last two feathers in her crest. Maybe she pulled them out in frustration...

Anyway, I'm projecting. The little family was having a nice bath together, and it was Baby's idea.

Then someone new showed up, startling everyone!

It was a male scarlet tanager! Mom didn't mind. She was just happy to be able to take a bath without anyone clamoring at her for something.

Dad Cardinal made a classic dad move, rudely crowding the tanager, who protested with a little squeal.

The tanager, a juvenile male, held his own.

At length, the Cardinal family left, and the tanager was finally able to take a long soaker.

At one point a female American goldfinch joined him, looking like a mini-me!

Finally even the goldfinch left. Every time I looked out the window for the next ten minutes, the tanager was there, soaking. It was sweet to see him enjoy the bath so very much. 

The WarblerFall got a nice shoutout last week on the Martha Stewart website!
They called to interview me and I had to tell them about the WarblerFall.

I sent them photos, but they didn't use them. The WarblerFall beats all the bird baths featured in the article by a country mile. I'm not bragging here. It just does. It's the best bird bath you can get. I've had 28 species in mine just this summer. My friend Briana at The Hungry Little Birdie in Michigan hit 42 species for the summer today with a young Blackburnian warbler! I'm waiting for my friend and neighbor Laura to tally up her species. I think she'll blow us both out of the shallow pool. ***see end of post for an update!

                                              photo courtesy The Hungry Little Birdie

I got a SWEET pair of juvenile Kentucky warblers recently, though! The female arrived first and poked around the shade garden amid the ferns and pink Angelonia (a new favorite flower!)

And then she came to the WarblerFall!

soon to be joined by her splendid brother, here perched on a tomato cage. Oh man, I love this warbler. This pair were probably hatched and fledged just a few hundred yards away, in my orchard, where their handsome daddy scolded me every morning as I walked by their nest. I saw at least two fledglings being fed, and then along come these jewels on 27 July. My cup runneth over--KEWA was species #25 in the WarblerFall this summer. 

 The best part about the WarblerFall, after the ridiculous bird diversity it attracts, is that you make it yourself, and customize it to your liking. 
But please take close note of the type of rock and shallow depth of the water in our creations.

I'd recommend getting your WarblerFall built as soon as you can, because fall migration is coming into full swing. Just ask that young tanager! Migrating is thirsty work, and warblers, tanagers, vireos and finches are delighted to find cool running water to bathe in on these hot, hot August days. 
September is even better, and October holds such surprises! Kinglets, anyone?

See what the fuss is about at

Here's an update from my neighbor Laura, whose trail cameras capture the most outrageous things.
She's got two baths, one with a recirculating pump and one without. The classic WarblerFall with a pump has 43 species for this season, so she has edged me out by a long shot, and she has only one more than Briana in Michigan. 

We'll start you off easy. Here is a photo from August 8, 2023.
An older female Baltimore oriole and a two-year-old rose-breasted grosbeak bathe together.

Here is Laura's trailcam photo from early July 2023. Not one, but FIVE blue-winged warblers consider a bath. This has to be a pair with their three fledglings. Can you stand it? 

And the piece de resistance: SEVEN species at the bath at one time, 13 September 2022. From left, Laura identified them as common yellowthroat (male); scarlet tanager imm (big bird in front with pale bill); a bay-breasted warbler in the water behind the tanager; an imm. Tennessee warbler on the rim in back; an imm. chestnut-sided warbler in the water to the right; a tufted titmouse on the rock; and a song sparrow at the far right. I just squealed when I saw this. Thank you, Laura, for this insane clown posse of birds in your WarblerFall!

One Late July Morning

Sunday, August 13, 2023


Along about late May 2023, when it finally warmed up nicely, I went down to the basement and fetched the little plastic tub labeled HICKORY HORNED DEVIL SEPT 12 2023. I'd been periodically taking a sniff and gently squeezing the pupa, weighing it in my hand, to make sure it was still good and alive and ready to go. Yep, it still smelled like acrid chemicals, but without a hint of corruption. 

I buried it about 3" deep in moist potting soil in a heavy ceramic pot, and put that pot in a mesh laundry hamper, the same kind I use for my bats. (You can get them at Walmart for about $10. Make sure the whole thing zips closed.) I put the hamper, with the heavy pot inside to weight it  down, on my mouse- and chipmunk-proof plant table up against the north side of the house. There, it would get natural ambient temperatures, frequent watering, and the safety it needed to finish its metamorphosis. 

Hickory horned devil pupa on the left, imperial moth pupa on the right. I'm still waiting on the imperial moth to eclose! This was taken maybe four days before the devil dug its way out of the soil. I could see the pupal shell pulling away from the insect inside. I knew it would be soon! 

Look at the "drill" on the bottom of the imperial moth pupa, on the right. Tami says that's characteristic of the species. I'm not clear on what it's for--to dig into hard ground? 

I would wait, and wait. Tami's moths would all emerge and fly, and mine, many miles further south, still stayed a pupa. She warned me that it might be planning to go another year before emerging, but I had a good feeling about this. I usually don't see royal walnut moths before my birthday, which is July 24. A bad sample, admittedly because my friend Laura has come the last few years on my birthday to set up moth sheets, and we always get royal walnut moths on the sheets! I never see them otherwise.

On July 27, I walked out of the front door, checking the hamper as I had every durn morning since late May, and I saw this. THIS!! 

On the outside, two wild royal walnut moths, mating. On the inside, my splendid huge female, finally emerged!!!

but wait, there was more. Liam looked down and found this: 

and then I poked around and found this (and this is a pair hooked together, as well)

and this--another pair, but fresher than the former.

In total, FOUR MATING PAIRS of royal walnut moths had been attracted to the immediate vicinity of her hamper by the powerful pheromones of the one female I'd raised. Tami Gingrich, who has years upon years of experience raising gobs of this species and many others, said, "I've never seen that! I'm coming down to YOUR place!"

I guess we have a lot of royal walnut moths in Washington County! Or that was ONE SEXY GIRL I raised!

And she is. Oh, she is. Don't you love the color scheme of bright cinnabar, charcoal, and cream? As if the turquoise, emerald, orange and black caterpillar hadn't been enough.

As if to cheer on the royal walnut moth orgy, each of my Creole Lady trees put out a twin pair of flowers that morning. Yeah Yeah Yeah! Go Moths!

Now I had to wait until nightfall to let a male moth in with my freshly emerged female. I did not want to disturb the clasped-together pairs of moths, but I worried about them. They were on the nasty, well-worn Chipmunk Highway that runs beneath my chipmunk-proof table, and it looked like they planned to stay there. I knew if I tried to pick them up they might break apart before fertilization took place.

Sure enough, a couple hours later, I found this poor live moth and the wings of its mate. Thanks, chipmunk. Have I told you lately that I hate you? 

I gathered up the remaining moths, all of which seemed to have uncoupled, and put them in the hamper for the rest of the day, for safekeeping, atop the glass table. They aren't interested in mating until the female begins to "call" by emitting a pheromone after dark.

I got a fascinating look at what that crazy gripperdoodle on the back end becomes!
Just look at the furry claspers on this male!

Looking closely, there are also some sort of scary hard dark keratinaceous clasperclaws beside the soft furry bits. Yikes.
I got you, ain't gonna let you go. Unless, you know, a chipmunk comes between us. 

I was planning to drive to Indiana on the morning of July 28. But my moth guru Tami Gingrich told me that, to catch the best action from the moths, I should get up at 3 AM the morning of my trip, because they don't really get going until that witching hour. "I'm up with my moths every night this time of year," she said, as if that were the most natural thing in the world. (I LOVE this woman!) 

Well, OK, I said, I'm usually awake then anyway, for weird hormonal/psychological/cavewoman reasons beyond my ken. Unbroken hours of sleep? I dimly remember it. Sure enough, I woke up and looked at my clock. It said 2:53 AM, so I dragged myself out of bed, and went out with a flashlight to see what was happening. Sorry I'm so incoherent in this video, but nothing could have prepared me for the ruckus going on out there.

I could hear the clatter of their wings as I came up the stairs. Lordy dordy, those males wanted my female.
Nice to see the life force running so strong in these creatures. There were at least four, three clustered right next to her, and a fourth careening wildly just outside the hamper. And these moths were all brand new, fresh, unlike the heavily worn eight from the night before. All told, over two nights, my newly eclosed female had drawn a DOZEN other royal walnut moths out of the forest on my sanctuary. I was absolutely floored.

After my foggy brain was done taking it all in, I decided to catch two males and zip them up in the cage with my big female. That way, if one was a dud, the other would come through. 

I caught two, did that, marveled for a few more minutes at the absolute frenzy of it all, and went back to bed.

In the morning, it looked like one was coupling with my lady; another was hanging out, and two were still plastered to the outside of the hamper. 

Whoops, they aren't coupled. Female, with giant abdomen, male with claspers, behind. 

 Hmm. Now what? I leave for Indiana this morning...I consulted Tami, and she advised that Liam should open the cage and release all three at dusk that evening. That worked for me. If they didn't want to mate in the cage, my magic lady was more than capable of bringing in a male to mate in a place of their choosing. 

Happily, Liam said that later that morning, the two were hooked together. Hooray! They stayed that way until well after he opened the hamper that evening. And they were all gone the next morning. 

I loved how Tami described the female moth as "calling" when she put her abdomen in the air. Calling with chemicals, she was.

Yoo hooo!

And a very close look showed two white pearly eggs that had escaped her. These giant silkmoths, described by one of my college professors as "gonads with wings," are all about reproduction. They don't even have operable mouthparts. They don't eat as adults. All they want to do is mate. 
Oh, that. Yep, I remember that. It can get you in a lot of trouble, that life force; it can put you on the chipmunk highway, wings clipped, all chewed to bits.

But look at the eggs.

So ends the story of the hickory horned devil who was a GIRL all along, and underwent a stunning transformation into Miss Yvonne, the Most Beautiful Woman in Puppetland.

She's out there somewhere, probably having dropped her load of eggs on a persimmon or a hickory or a black walnut. I've got all of those.

I went crazy for this one caterpillar. I documented every step of its colorful, constantly changing life. And it's taken me three entire days to put together four posts about the experience, and I don't even know how many days to put together last summer's posts. But I know that, though I summoned the energy to document and share this creature's development as best I could,  I don't have it in me to become a real Crazy Caterpillar Lady. Raising them by the dozen, running the sleeves and gathering the food--I know what that's like, because I did it with a schtun of monarch caterpillars in 2022. It's WORK. 

 I love that there are people who do that all summer long. I know and deeply respect several. Let's see... I'm counting...I personally know FIVE Crazy Caterpillar Ladies, which goes to show you that I am attracted to people of passion, like a moth to the whiff of pheromone on the moonlit breeze. My friends are witches. They are tuned in to the beat of life in the day and in the night. This is the pageant going on all around us; this is the miracle going on in our woods and fields. If you've never seen it, haven't thought about it, now at least you know it is happening. 
And the more you know, the more you want to know. 
My deepest thanks to Tami Gingrich for guiding me gently, every step of the way. She had a real greenhorn on her hands and she couldn't have been kinder or more helpful. She told me I was a good caterpillar mom! 

I can't say what I'd do if I found a little prickly hickory horned devil now, in August of 2023. I have a feeling I'd sleeve it, just to protect it from the birds, just to be able to peek in on it. And yes, I'd put it in my fridge for the winter, and make it a hamper in the spring. Because I catch myself peering up into the persimmons on my morning rounds, thinking about August 11, 2022 when my friend Heather F (another one who's tuned in) looked up into a low-sweeping persimmon branch and asked, "Well, what's THIS?" and started this whole devilish ball rolling. 

Well, would you look at the's about that time. 

The twin flowers on my Creole Ladies turned violet and yellow, and rolled up closed that evening.

And the moths were flying free.

Magic, it is, to know they're out there, beating five-inch wingspans, seeking each other out, clattering against the leaves in their hurry to mate and leave more, ever more.

Long may the Royal Walnut Air Force fly. 

The Devil in My Refrigerator

Tuesday, August 8, 2023


 No, the devil in my fridge is not Whit's Frozen Custard, though that stuff is temptingly close. It's a honkin' big worm! Read on...

By September 6, 2022, the hickory horned devil was walking nonstop. In nature it would be seeking soft soil it could dig down into to shed its skin and pupate.  It was time to bring the caterpillar into the house, and give it a medium it could burrow in and pupate safely. I received detailed instruction from Tami on the proper substrate. Apparently putting the caterpillar in potting soil can cause issues when perlite and peat get lodged in the exoskeleton, so clean long-fiber sphagnum is the medium of choice. I dampened it a bit with water. The caterpillar made circuits around the big plastic footlocker, tunneling through the medium. 

It had shrunken from nearly 6" to only  4, and it would continue to shrink.

Once the caterpillar starts to walk, it does little else, pausing only to curl up and sleep, and probably dream (spiders have been proven to dream, so why not devils?), then resuming its ceaseless circuit of the bin. I don't know how much ground they must cover in nature, but it's probably considerable.
Here, I briefly lift it,  then it continues to walk. 

The caterpillar was undergoing big changes inside as it walked. 
It was shrinking more and more each day. 

Yes, this is the caterpillar that once spanned my entire hand end to end. 

Here's a  photo from Tami Gingrich that highlights the size change in devils who are ready to pupate. She's gone out and plucked some examples from her mystical caterpillar farm in northern Ohio. The huge green ones are still eating,  as evidenced by the leafy twigs they're on, and the little turquoise curled ones are ready to pupate. Isn't that crazy?

Finally, the caterpillar lay still. It was time to transfer it to the plastic lunch meat container that would be its home until sometime next summer.

I could hardly believe this was the same caterpillar! A quarter for size comparison. 

The shrinking happened because it was losing water weight, and there were little droplets all over it as if it were condensing moisture, like a cold glass of ice water.  In fact, it was excreting moisture through its skin, soaking the paper towels it rested in! I kept changing them, as if it had wet its bed. It let off a strong and characteristic acrid chemical smell, which perhaps would help to protect it from being eaten, if the prickly horns and fearsome size didn't work.  It certainly didn't smell like something I'd want to eat. Even when it pupated, it kept this chemical smell. 

Here you can see the droplets it's exuding. It's going wee from every pore.

ln this photo from Sept. 11, you can see that its fabulous silk-stockinged prolegs are now just empty socklets, bits of skin. This caterpillar couldn't go anywhere now if it wanted to. Again, I wondered what it feels like to metamorphose. Does it hurt? Is it awful? Or is it like a dream state? 

The whole animal is dissolving, changing, contracting.

 Tami told me to watch for the caterpillar to turn from turquoise to olive, which would indicate it was ready to shed. This didn't happen until September 11. It seemed as good a way as any to observe Bill's and my wedding anniversary--watching a caterpillar get ready to shed its skin.  I knew the change would come soon. I hoped it wouldn't happen while I slept! 

I am pretty proud of this next video, and thankful that Tami gave me the information I needed to set myself up to catch it. On the 12th of September, 2022, the caterpillar was nearly motionless and unresponsive, as one would be with one's insides turning to goo. I set up a time-lapse with my old iPhone 6 and captured the process of shedding the caterpillar skin so the new soft pupa can emerge. Note how you can see the huge black false eyespots become part of the pupa!

Some still photos from the shedding process:

When the shedding process was complete and the pupa had darkened to mahogany brown, becoming  hard-shelled, Tami instructed me to close the pupa in its plastic sandwich container, lying on clean paper towels, and put it in the cool basement. Then, when the weather finally turned cold, I was to put it in the refrigerator. And from November to mid-May, there it would stay. Once a month, I would check on it, put two drops of water on the paper towels, and put it back in the fridge. I know I checked on it more often than that. I didn't want to forget there was a miracle going on in my basement refrigerator.

The whole process seemed so bizarre to me, so apart from nature, and I was a little uncomfortable with keeping this magnificent beast in mesh netting, albeit outdoors on a live tree; and then in a footlocker; and then in a Hillshire Farms sliced ham container. I was afraid I'd mess up somewhere along the way and doom it. At the same time, I knew I was locking it away from any number of predators and parasitic wasps and flies. I had been chosen by Fate to be the keeper of this precious gem. This was to be my quest. I had taken the insect in on August 8, when its sibling was eaten by a bird,  and I realized this one would probably die, too, unless I did something. Kept fed and safe within a mesh sleeve on my persimmon tree until September 6; watched as it walked until it pupated on September 12...then stored in my basement fridge until mid May  2023... I felt so privileged to be able to witness the caterpillar's entire life cycle and even participate in it. One caterpillar--what a gift it was; nearly a whole year of watching and waiting.

And the reason I've waited to tell you what happened with the caterpillar is because I needed to know how it all worked out. I didn't want to have you fall in love with this magnificent creature, only to have to tell you it ended up as a puddle of goo in my refrigerator, oops, sorry, got you all worked up for nothing. I waited to see her through. Blogging about the life of something like this is like being a press agent to a large green and blue tubular celebrity, and I take that responsibility seriously. 

Next: we wait eight months, and hope eight months. But you won't have to wait that long.

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