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Moths flashing danger

The dark of night is underrated for fun in the field. It's black out there, true, and harder to see stuff. But there are ways around that; they're called flashlights. I think many people may shy away from roaming about after dark because people generally have an inherent fear of a night unlit by lots of artificial candlepower. Scratches, wheezes, snuffling and shuffling, and the occasional roar or howl build in our minds until they become the bogeyman or perhaps Bigfoot himself.

One way around the fear factor is to go out in bunches, as in the photo above. This was our nocturnal foray last Saturday night, as part of the same workshop that produced the incredible pink katydid. Led by Dr. Dave Horn - center, facing camera, white short - our primary quarry were moths. Some success was met with.

What a beauty! We were thrilled to dredge up this Virgin Tiger Moth, Grammia virgo. There are several species in this neck of the woods, and perhaps you've seen one. They are quite distinctive as a group, although some species can look very similar. This one is a jumbo; the biggest of the lot. When on greenery such as above, they stick out like sore thumbs. But, while at rest on more desirable dead vegetation they'll be pert nigh near impossible to detect.

But wait! The Virgin Tiger Moth has a trick up its scaly little sleeves, should a titmouse get wise to it. If poked or otherwise prodded, the moth flashes open its wings, quickly revealing the universal danger code: RED. Be off, ye foolish titmouse, it is flashing, and if all goes well, the feathered invader is repelled and the Virgin Tiger Moth lives to reproduce others of its ilk. How a virgin moth reproduces was not satisfactorily explained to the group by Dr. Horn.

Whoa! An Io Moth, Automeris io, one of my all time favs. This exquisite Saturniid moth flew in just as Dave was packing up his sheets and blacklights and we prepared to call it a night. The same theory as with the tiger moth is at play here. Predator invades Io's space, Io whips open those wings, predator is suddenly face to face with two terrible big glowing eyes, predator beats feet out of there.


Dave told us of observations where chickadees would encounter an Io and get the evil eye treatment. "EEK" and back they'd flutter, but eventually glancing back to see what the eyed giant is doing. Well, the moth isn't in pursuit, so the chickadee would muster its courage and hop back for another probe. Eyes. EEK! But, each time this happened, the chickadee would be less frightened until the fateful encounter when it finally learned that the moth with the spooky eyes couldn't eat it. Chickadee scores plump fuzzy meal - Io's evolutionary eyespot advantage fails.

I suspect that the Io eye flash does indeed work just fine and many instances, though, and startles would be moth-eaters enough that they back right off and get out of Dodge.

Had to throw in this spectacular flying lemon wedge of a butterfly, the Cloudless Sulphur, Phoebis sennae. The white one is a Cabbage White, Pieris rapae, and the comparison demonstrates just what a monster the sulphur is. I had seen one fly by on Friday while we set up for the workshop, but none were spotted on Saturday. But low and behold, our group walked out of the building on Sunday, and there were two sulphurs on the ground and uptaking nutrients at a spot of muddy soil. First photos I've gotten of this one in Ohio, as they hardly ever seem to land.

We're revising our opinion of the status of this largely tropical butterfly in Ohio. It was not long ago considered rather rare, and nearly absent some years. Not anymore. The last several years have seen many Cloudless Sulphurs appearing, sometimes in large numbers, and frequently attempting to reproduce. Steadily warming mean temperatures would seem to be a good hypothesis to explain their upward spike.

The sulphurs created a hubbub. When our group spotted them, we yelled to the other groups, and soon nearly everyone had assembled. In the video above, photographer David Fitzsimmons gets down to eye level with the beautiful butterflies. You can see one of the Cloudless Sulphurs take to the air at the very beginning of the video.


dAwN said… guys are always having too much fun! What sights what scenes..what bugs!

When I started reading your blog months ago..i would never guessed Ohio would be such a cool place!
What do I know...
well at least I have been enlighted.
Kerri said…
Wonderful post! Those moths are awesome! I came over via twitter .....Dawn had "tweeted" about your blog. I hope to be a regular visitor.
Jana said…
We left before the moths showed up, but we were there to hear the barred owl. Hearing that call come from the darkening woods was a bit unnerving. It was definitely a good thing to be with a group and a fearless leader.

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