Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Buck Moths ride again

Last weekend was a whirlwind tour of the state. I was in northeast Ohio on Saturday to give a talk for Summit County Metro Parks (thanks for having me, Meghan!). Since that program wasn't until 7 pm, I headed up early to visit some iconic natural areas and make some images.

In the photo above, we're looking off the massive bluffs of Hach-Otis State Nature Preserve. Fall color was nearing peak. I only regret that it was a rainy, overcast day. A bright blue sky day would have made the leaf color sizzle, but one takes what one gets.

The following day, it was up early and off to southern Ohio at the other end of the state. This view is from the Copperhead Lookout fire tower in Shawnee State Forest, and it's evident that fall color is not quite as advanced down there.

If you would like a suggestion for a last hurrah fall field trip, I'd suggest Shawnee this weekend. The leaf color should be outstanding, and as you shall see if you forge on with this post, there are other interesting things to observe.

Colorful Sugar Maple leaves brighten the ground.

While tree leaves are changing hues and falling to the ground, one of our most interesting treelets is bursting into bloom. Witch-hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, was in flower in both northern and southern Ohio last weekend. The spindly yellow flowers are easy to overlook among the fading leaves.

Long confetti-like petals radiate from the Witch-hazel's corolla - an odd looking flower indeed.

But to the subject at hand, Buck Moths, Hemileuca maia. I picked up my friend Grace Cochran in Chillicothe bright and early Sunday morning, and we went down to Shawnee to hunt bucks. To me, this large and interestingly marked moth is as much a sign of autumn's closure as anything. But only in certain regions, at least in Ohio. Buck Moths are limited to the hill country of southern and southeastern Ohio, and another population occurs in the Oak Openings west of Toledo.

To pursue Buck Moths, you've got to head afield late, after most moths are done for the year. They begin flying in mid-October or thereabouts, and can be found into November.

This is the Buck Moth caterpillar, and it is a voracious consumer of oaks. They are said to favor the foliage of trees in the red oak group. In any event, you want to seek the adult moths in forests heavily populated with oaks.

Antennae at half mast, a male Buck Moth seemingly glares at the photographer. Note the dense hair, which is almost furlike. Such a coat benefits an insect that flies this late in the season, when air temperatures may only be in the 50's F.

Buck Moths do have the good manners to fly during the day, which makes finding them fairly easy. Slowly cruising the forest roads of Shawnee is probably the easiest way to find them. Wait until you spot a moth winging by, park, and start chasing. Problem is, most of the moths that you see will be males in rabid pursuit of females. They rarely stop in their relentless tracking of pheromones, and all too often shoot by and off into the woods never to be seen again.

Like a good geek, I suppose, I keep an insect net in the trunk. Using that, I was able to bag a few moths for closer inspection. All were released unharmed, and off they went, right back on the females' trail.

Here we can see the exceptionally well-furred abdomen of a male Buck Moth. We know it is a male by the bright orange tassel adorning the tip of the abdomen. When captured, the moth will wag and curl the abdomen, and that behavior along with the bright colors may be intimidating to potential predators.

It isn't every fall that I can get out and pursue big Buck Moths, but fall isn't quite the same without such a Lepidopteran hunt. Thanks to Grace for helping to wrangle the moths, and for participating in the hunt.


1 comment:

KirstenJL said...

I had the great good fortune to grow up with Hach Otis in my backyard. I wrote about it here: