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Moths galore at Wahkeena

Wahkeena Preserve, located just south of Lancaster, Ohio. This place is a state treasure, and I hadn't been there in far too long. If you ever find yourself in this area, you'll definitely want to pay a visit to Wahkeena.

Last Tuesday night, I rolled through Wahkeena's gate just as the sun was setting. I was there for some serious nocturnal moth action, and boy did we have it! Dennis Profant, kneeling at right, organized the affair, and along with Roger Grossenbacher (left), set up two well-lit white sheets in the woods. These brightly illuminated set-ups pull the moths like you wouldn't believe, if you've not seen this sort of operation yourself.

In addition to Dennis (he's got a GREAT blog, HERE) and Roger, we were joined by Wahkeena naturalist Robyn Wright-Strauss, longtime Wahkeena manager Tom Shisler, Alex Webb, and Lisa & Steve Sells. Lisa pushes the envelope of macro photography and her skills are extraordinary. Be sure to check her blog, HERE.

Profant, and Alex, are exceptionally knowledgeable regarding night-flying lepidoptera and this was an excellent opportunity for your narrator to expand his mothing horizons in the company of experts. We certainly weren't disappointed in what we saw. Wahkeena is full of interesting and diverse habitats, and it follows that it would host moths galore. The blizzards of insects attracted to our lights is testimony to the place's lepidopteran diversity, and following is a pictorial whirl of some of our subjects.

You know it's going to be good when a blinded sphinx, Paonias excaecatus, is perched on your light stand! OK, so we set it there, but the moth was apparently pleased with our operation and remained for some time.

Some species of moths are far flightier than others, while some are quite tame and easy to handle. Even some of the initially jumpy species settle down after being at the lights for a while and can then be handled and better posed for photographs.

Here's a closeup of that blinded sphinx, cooperating well with the paparazzi. All of the sphinx moths are ornate and detailed in their markings, and most are large. The caterpillars of this species are polyphagous - they eat a wide variety of woody plant species.

A good identification guide is helpful when grappling with the potentially hundreds of moth species that are possible at a place such as Wahkeena. The newest, and most user-friendly, is the above (details HERE). Get a copy if you wish to advance your moth IQ. A modest sphinx (formerly big poplar sphinx), Pachysphinx modesta, poses obligingly by the field guide.

Here's that same modest sphinx, quite unmodestly flashing its underwings for the camera. Some species of moths that appear drab and brown when at rest with wings folded can suddenly flip the forewings open and reveal bright colors on the hindwings. At least in some cases, by suddenly revealing a bold jolt of color, the moth can startle and spook would-be predators such as birds that are getting a bit too inquisitive.

The same modest sphinx, seen from an angle that makes it appear quite eerie. I find moths to be endlessly fascinating subjects for the camera. Even the plainest of the lot will reveal stunning detail if viewed in the right way.

As the best conditions for moth photography are - duh - at night, this means it is necessary to hone one's skills with flash. For all of these photos, I was using my Panasonic FZ-50 point and shoot, with only its standard built-in flash unit. The trick is to use full manual settings, and greatly underexpose the camera settings, then let the flash compensate. It takes practice and experimentation, but can yield excellent results.

For camera buffs, I shot the above image at an f-stop of 5, at a shutter speed of 1/60 with the camera's ISO value at 100, and the camera's flash intensity at its weakest setting. Without the flash the image would have been black as coal.

This is an arched hooktip, Deprana arcuata, and it resembles a stealth bomber. The caterpillars of this one apparently depend on alder and birch, and there is plenty of those plants in this general area.

Dennis Profant was quite excited when this tiny moth fluttered in. He should have been - Dennis coauthored THIS BOOK, the Slug Caterpillar Moths and other Zygaenoidea of Ohio (Dennis really isn't a total geek, I swear!). It is a yellow-shouldered slug moth, Lithacodes fasciola, and with only a cursory glance the moth doesn't look like much. Upon inspection it reveals a complex pattern along with showy gold and bronze coloration. The rather unsavory-sounding "slug" part of its name stems from the caterpillars. This species and its ilk have tiny caterpillars termed slugs, although in reality many of the slug cats actually outshine the adult moths in the looks department.

Looking just about as cute as a moth can be is this beautiful wood-nymph, Eudryas grata, peeking coyly over a leaf. See what I mean about moths as art?

Viewed from another angle, the beautiful wood-nymph takes on quite another look. These moths are bird dropping mimics, and look astonishingly like the fresh expulsion of a chickadee or some other songbird. They even have a wet-looking sheen, to better create that just expelled appearance. Who wants to eat a bird dropping? The moth world is full of clever deception such as this.

All of our emeralds are beautiful, but this aptly named showy emerald, Dichorda iridaria, may win the pageant. Its caterpillar is a bizarre looking affair that resembles a tubular stegosaurus, and eats... brace yourself! - poison ivy! And other members of the sumac family, too.

Always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, the rosy maple moth, Dryocampa rubicundula. This species is surprisingly common, and is probably one of our most commented upon moths. Even people who wouldn't give most self-respecting moths the time of day will do a double take when they see one of these perched by the night light. We've not got a lot of organisms that are pink and yellow, after all.

This the adult of what is almost certainly the most widely known caterpillar in North America, the legendary woolly-bear, famed (alleged) predictor of the coming winter's severity. Show most, or at least many, people a fuzzy black and orange woolly-bear caterpillar and they'll know what it is.

However, very few folks would probably recognize the abundant and widespread insect in its adult form, as an Isabella tiger moth, Pyrrharctia isabella. I've got scads of good woolly-bear caterpillar images, and was pleased to finally make some decent photos of the adult.

I don't see much of horror here, but this is a horrid zale (zay-lee), Zale horrida. I'm not sure how it got saddled with the creepy name; the moth is quite beautiful and richly endowed with artistic detail. Some moths are not especially attracted to night lights, and this may be one of them. Roger Grossenbacher had painted moth attractant goop (rotten bananas, sugar, stale beer, that sort of thing all mixed up) on some trees and that's what lured in the zale.

Oh yeah! When one of these comes stumbling in, it's sort of like when the goshawk comes by the hawk watch tower. Great excitement ensues. This is one of our largest moths, the imperial moth, Eacles imperialis, and we had three of them come into one sheet. While the moth sticks out like a sore thumb when it alights on someone's sneaker, it blends beautifully with the mottled browns and yellows of fallen maple leaves where it would normally rest.

These jumbos look like bats when they flutter in, and they're every bit as big. Their appearance is  double-edged sword, though. On one hand, the imperials are big, showy, exciting, and wonderful photo subjects. On the debit side, they are like bulls in a china shop when they hit the sheets, bouncing and fluttering about maniacally and scaring off many of the lesser moths. More ominously, the conspicuous presence of these giants can attract the attention of predators such as flying squirrels, and if the sheets are left unattended for a while one may return to find lots of shucked wings laying about.

This hand provides scale to an imperial moth. Silkmoths such as this are essentially little more than flying gonads. They have no functional mouthparts, don't feed, and are lucky to last a week. Their sole purpose is to locate a member of the opposite sex, mate, and in the case of the female drop eggs, and then die.

Many other interesting night-flying bugs other than moths come into the brightly lit moth sheets. We were pleased to find this summer fishfly, Chauliodes pectinicornis, at one of the sheets. It's a whopper of a bug, some two inches in length and adorned with mothlike antennae.

Thanks to Tom and Robyn at Wahkeena for hosting us for this interesting evening, and to Dennis for setting things up and freely sharing his great expertise.


Bob(in Powell) B said…
As expected, the photos and accompanying text did NOT disappoint! Beautiful photos of some great insects that those of us who tend to be diurnal do not see! Thank you!
Robyn said…
Thank for a great post! We all had a great time that night. If folks want to see what else is going on at Wahkeena, check out our blog:
Jim McCormac said…
Thanks for the comments, and Robyn, thanks for having us down. Hope for a return visit soon!
Ron Gamble said…
Awesome photos and discussion! Thanks for the work putting this together.
Jared said…
Much enjoyed this post, Jim!

I have been using a cheap-o blacklight to attract moths to the yard. Numbers and diversity have been poor, but it is still loads of fun!

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