Archive for the ‘butterflies and moths’ Category

Fifty Shades of Grayness

July 16, 2012

Pandora Sphinx Caterpiller

Wooly Bear Caterpillar
(Isabella Tiger Moth)

I guess I should have realized that if I invested in fancy new lights, borrowed a cool and quiet generator and picked up a nifty pop-up white sheet contraption, it would rain on the night of my moth program, my favorite of the entire year. I’ve been the naturalist here at Hill-Stead for going on six years, and I’ve tried to offer programs that will excite, educate and entertain. And I’m shameless. I’d stand on my head in the center of Farmington, Ct (where we are located) if it would make people see how exquisite and vital nature is to us, and how much Hill-Stead offers in terms of natural beauty and value.

When I was a child I was scared senseless by moths. Something about their fluttery-ness, and their nighttime habit really blotted out all reason in me.  It was terrible-a naked, irrational phobia. And of course I had only seen the brown and gray jobs (talk about fifty shades of gray!) my mother referred to as “millers”.  “Don’t be afraid, its’ just a miller,” she’d say, as I freaked out.  What the heck is a “miller” anyway?

But later, as I grew as a naturalist I read of fantastic moths, pink and yellow, green, purple-and so important to the ecosystem.  I was hooked-and determined to get over my irrational horror. I bought a moderate set of UV lights, dragged a white sheet out of the closet and brewed up some sticky bait in a bucket. I pretty much try everything that I plan for the museum out in my backyard first, in case of glitches. It wasn’t easy.  The moths fly around your head when you bend near the sheet to examine things and for a while I had to wear one of those big hats with a veil. But in time I didn’t mind the moths brushing against me, and I felt kind of honored to be part of their soft yet scaly world. I taught myself everything I could using the old books that were around, Covell and Holland and a few others. I watched moth websites carefully. To me, it is a hard subject-there are twice as many moth species as butterflies. And as our resources become better we are likely to discover others. There is quite a bit to remember.  I don’t claim to be an expert, but I really want to spread enthusiasm about this wonderful topic.  Moths are as vital to the pollination of plants as bees are, for example.  But I don’t hear too many people extolling their virtues.  Yet.

Huge Geometer Moth I saw on vacation in the Caribbean

“Mothing” is growing in popularity these days, but it isn’t in the everyday vernacular right now. But National Moth Week is coming up soon,July 23-29 and I even have the T-shirt. People ask about it a lot (it has a really big silk moth silhouette on it) so it is a very good ambassador for the whole subject. Since my official Hill-Stead Moth Event was rained out, I’ve changed my plan for participating. I’m having a “Celebrate the Diversity of Life” party at my house. I’m putting up my lights and calling my friends on Wednesday July 25 from sundown until I can’t stand it anymore. You can come too if you want. Just contact the museum and they’ll put you in touch with me. Just don’t freak out when the moths.  You can borrow my hat with the veil.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


The Moth Post

June 18, 2012

I figured I could wait to visit the bathroom until after I went to the store for the tortillas.  It seemed wrong to ask my husband to go for them, in the interest of getting the dinner in the oven in a reasonable amount of time, since he would never find them but would instead return home to tell me that the Stop & Shop a half mile from our house doesn’t carry them. Aisle seven, by the way.

My light rig-UV light with a Mercury Vapor light attached to a tripod. The UV hangs from the top of the sheet.

After that I thought I better get out there and set up my new mothing rig while there was plenty of light to spare. Since it’s a new one, I could run into a few snags and I wanted to be able to see so I could sort them out. Emptying my bladder would have to wait.

I dashed to the store, finished the dinner and got started on that light set-up and it was all-systems-go by the time sundown came. I was pretty sure I wasn’t in renal failure yet, so I snapped some photos of a couple of moths I saw out by the front porch. Since I work as a mom, wife and naturalist I am, well, a whiz at putting off certain private functions in favor of activities that move the family ship of state forward. Somehow, moths have gotten be a feature on my “must do” list, seemingly ahead even of vital bodily functions. To say that I am a multi-tasker is putting it mildy.

But I am all excited about National Moth Week, a celebration of moths and biodiversity (July 23-29, 2012). It’s the first one ever, and since I discovered what fun “mothing” is, and how much there is to learn, I’ve been avidly trying to soak up as much as I can.  Moths are just beautiful-not at all the plain jane grey and brown things you find in old cereal. They come in every color of the rainbow and there are thousands more species than butterflies. In other countries like England there’s been an interest in moths for many years and there are numerous field guides about their native species. Here, the most recent (until this April) field guide to moths was a Peterson’s first issued in 1922.  The plates were black and white and in general all the moths looked the same.  You had, in my opinion, to be a genius to really identify anything, but some people did.

And now there is a terrific new field guide just published with beautiful plates and commentary.  Also published under the Peterson’s imprimatur, the authors are Seabrooke Leckie (who has a nifty blog The Marvelous in Nature on WordPress) and David Beadle. It’s great. So now anyone can figure out what those moths are that flutter against their back door at night.  And you can participate in National Moth Week. Really, anyone can do it. You don’t actually need any special equipment. Just leave an outside light on from dusk until you can’t stand it anymore and you have to go to bed. You may wish to dive in and get fancy lights-it’s up to you, and it is not only an important area of scientific inquiry, it’s fun!  You can photograph the moths, or just appreciate them. Or, you can go to one of hundreds of moth events that are being held all over the country. You can find out everything about this at the National Moth Week website, along with how-to’s if you want to start mothing on your own.  Take a look at for more information.  Our moth event at Hill-Stead in Farmington, CT is this Friday, June 22 at 8:30.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker

To New Beginnings

March 11, 2010

The pussy willows were in full bloom today, and life is waking up again throughout the estate. Today I even saw a butterfly -a tortoiseshell type, the earliest I’ve ever seen one.  A butterfly afficionado I know says it might be a record.  Along with Mourning Cloaks, tortoiseshell butterflies are seen in the earliest days of spring. I also spied jumping spiders in the meadow, and incredibly, a grasshopper. The Northern Water Snake that naps near the bridge down by the pump house is awake, and a turtle plopped into the water as I walked along the sunny side of the pond.  Bluebirds circle the newly-cleaned bird boxes. Skunk cabbage is well along now and woodcock are skulking in the woods surrounding the fields.  They rest and forage in the wet woods during the day and come out at dusk to do their bizarre dancing and calling.  Wood frogs are awake, too.

skunk cabbage

We’ll have cold, raw days yet before spring takes a real foothold, but the first sunny days of the season provide such relief even after an uneventful winter.  Today you could almost hear flowers pushing up earth and green shoots unfurling. Beginnings are so much fun.  First date, first dance, first day of school, first car, first love, first kiss, first flower, first caterpillar, first red-wing blackbirds, first phoebes. You might say that without endings, there wouldn’t be beginnings and in a limited sense this may be true.  Organically speaking, there is a cycle of birth and death that doesn’t vary.  But there are human beginnings that seemingly spring from nowhere, and, heaven knows, unforeseen conclusions. Beginnings are rarely bitter, even in plants this is true.  Dandelion salad, for example, is lovely when the leaves are small.

Circumstances and sentiment can all too often dictate endings, when bonds become in their own way overgrown and too big for the container. Last misunderstanding, last farewell, last regret.  At least nature’s endings are free of recrimination. The past melts away graciously and makes way for the new.  Last snowfall, first snowdrop.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

Woolly Bear Time

September 12, 2009



Spoiler Alert! Woolly Bear caterpillars are not indicators of a hard winter to come! Children educated on the American East Coast have been misled! Rural folklore says that if the reddish-brown band around the middle of the caterpillar is narrow, a harsh winter is coming. In reality, the size of the band reflects the age of the caterpillar, with the band growing wider as the larva ages.

It’s no surprise that this familiar creature has a little legend attached to it. The thing is adorable! And they are all over-in yards and pastures, crossing sidewalks, moving about in their determined, furry little way. Kids crow and coo over them. Something this cute and plentiful just has to have a sweet (albeit false) story to go with it.

Another fallacy is that the woolly bear shoots venom from its hairs which can cause injury and swelling. Sometimes those bristly hairs do produce a little contact dermatitis in people with sensitive skin. Still, having observed hundreds of children pick up these hairy wanderers, I have yet to know one who got much more than a tickle. What I have seen is children joyfully “helping” the caterpillar get from one place to another. Sometimes the poor thing is sent in the wrong direction no matter how many times it tries to turn around. While a dilemma for the caterpillar, it is a terrific thing for the children, who experience the excitement and pleasure that interaction with nature brings. Anyway, there is no Woolly Bear shortage. During a short walk on a warm Fall day you can find half a dozen woollies moseying around looking for a winter shelter. Let the children redirect the caterpillar. It does more good than damage.

The Woolly Bear is a moth larva as most caterpillars we find are likely to be. There are more moth species than butterfly, so odds are that caterpillars you see will become moths.

Isabella Tiger Moth

Isabella Tiger Moth

The Woolly Bear will grow into an Isabella Tiger Moth. The Tiger moth family is diverse, and known for their pretty colors. You don’t see them often as caterpillars, with the exception of the Woolly Bear, since many are ground dwellers or even burrow into wood. To make identification more complex, many change color dramatically as they mature.

The Woolly Bear may be plentiful because it will eat nearly anything including grass, dandelion and a variety of other vegetation. Becoming more active around the time of the first frosts, it pokes around for a good spot to sleep away the winter. In spring, woollies become active again, searching for a good feed before spinning a cocoon and maturing into a moth.

Take a lazy walk around the meadow one day between now and the hard frost. Count how many woolly bears you find. You can even let me know by leaving a message here or in the trail log.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

All the Yarn She Spun

July 24, 2009

All the yarn she spun on Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths

William Shakespeare, Coriolanus



Moths have a bad reputation.  They are like the homely sister constantly compared to her beautiful counterpart.  Thought to be a harbinger of war, pestilence, death, and even a symbol of insanity (think “The Silence of the Lambs), moths are possibly one of the most maligned creatures on earth.  “Moth-eaten” means drab, worn and useless.  Why should the moth have a reputation for eating our clothing and carpets, and infesting our breakfast cereals, while the butterfly is a cultural icon for loveliness and warm, care-free days?  Moth status is proof that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  People just don’t know enough about them.

moth arrayIf there was ever a group that needed a good lobbyist, it’s moths.  Along with bees, which (except honey bees) are also much-maligned, the moth does a lot of good.  Moths and bees are responsible for a substantial amount of plant pollination.  Because moths work under cover of night, they’ve acquired a shady imprimatur.  Yet we’d never get our “five a day” servings of fruit and vegetables without them.  And there’s nothing sinister about that!  

Closely related members of the lepidoptera family, butterfies are day-fliers and moths fly at night.  Or so it is widely thought.  In reality, there are a good number of day-flying moths.  They are frequently mistaken for butterflies, or even for other insects.  But almost no one pegs them for moths.  Most are just too beautiful for that, and we all “know” that moths are just plain-jane pests.  Conversely, there are quite a few drab butterflies out there, but they are probably confused for moths!

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

The day-flying grapevine epimenis moth

moth antennae

moth antennae

Moth versus butterfly identification is fairly simple.  The butterfly has  clubbed antennae with knobby ends.  The moth antennae are feathery, the better to recieve pheromones, those scent-filled billet-doux of the insect world.  The female sends out her perfumed message and the male receives it with those frondy antennae at distances of up to 8 kilometers away.  If people were so equipped, Marconi would have been a taxi driver!  And forget Facebook.

Many moths  look like body-builders.  Big and beefy, they seem to be covered with hair.  It’s just an illusion.  Those “hairs” are scales just like those found on the wings of both butterflies and moths.  The notion that a butterfly or moth is disabled from flying by the loss of scales is a fallacy.  They lose scales all the time in their every day life,and keep on going until they wear out or something eats them.  Lepidoptera lifespan is about two weeks, so if they loose a few scales brushing up against a twig or in a predator’s attempt on their life, no matter.  As adults the main job is to reproduce then make room for the next generation by expiring. 

Luna Moth

Luna Moth

There are moths who disguise themselves as bird droppings, moths who hover at flowers, moths who pitch a tent for their young, moths who make sound, moths whose caterpillar can shoot a spray of burning acid, moths who look like a twig, underwater moths, and moths who live at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal.  Moths come in every color of the rainbow.   The diversity, remarkable life cycle and adaptations of moths makes a darn good yarn.     

And the moths that  eat fabric?  They can digest keratin, making fur and other animal products fair game for them.  All told, the moth has it figured out from every angle.  

This weekend (July 25), we’ll be taking a close-up look at moths and their nighttime insect friends.  I’ve cooked up a slurry of irresitible (to moths) glop that I’ll paint on trees to attract the bugs.  I have special lights to bring them out, too.  We’ll see fireflies, beetles and all manner of infrequently enjoyed night creatures.  Join us!  Bring your bug spray and your curiosity, but no flashlight.  The fun starts at 8:45 PM.   We hope you can make it!

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

You Never Know

June 15, 2009

I never thought for a moment the cocoon I picked up off the ground last winter would be anything more than a curiousity to show school children.  In fact, I wondered why I was bothering since I already had one at home just like it.  But something about this homely thing got my attention, and it couldn’t just have been the guest on the walk with me who said, “Hey, what’s this thing?”  Sometimes we  follow an inner voice.  Apparently, this particular inner voice was saying, “Pick up the cocoon, bring it home, dig out a butterfly habitat from the basement, put the cocoon in there and pin it to the side, hang the whole shebang on a shepherd’s crook from the side of the deck, wait several months.”  It must have been saying so, since that’s what I did.

The other day I looked at that cocoon, and I said to it, “If something doesn’t happen with you by the end of June, you’re out of here.”  I had that location in mind for a hanging basket.  Evidently, the moth inside there heard me, because last night he hatched out!  This was no measly moth that jumps out of the way when you mow the lawn!  This was the North American granddaddy of them all, the Polyphemous Moth!  With a wingspan of up to five and a half inches, this moth is nothing short of astounding.  The polyphemous is the largest of the North American moths.   

polyphemous moth

It has “false eyes” on each of its four wings, the better to confuse preditors.  As an adult, it may live only a few days.  This stage of life is its’ prettiest and shortest.  It doesn’t even have mouthparts, as eating is unecessary.  The remaining task is to pass on some DNA and go gently into that good night, as only a moth can do.

It is thought that there may be more moth species than butterflies.  But as the butterfly is awake essentially during the same hours as humans, the moth may be artificially underepresented in the insect census.  If the polyphemous moth is any example, it may also be that the moths are equally or still more beautiful than their daylight cousins.  If there is anything that could make you fall in love with a “bug”, it is a look at this exquisite creature.  I’m not “off” butterflies or anything, but the polyphemous moth has made me into a dewey-eyed lover of the nighttime kind of butterfly.

It’s funny how things that happen on nature walks  turn out.  An offhand question about a little fuzzy thing hanging from a branch turns into the thrill of a lifetime!  Nature can fool you so often. 

Last saturday we had record crowds at our wildflower walk.  It was the “perfect storm” of nature events.  Connecticut Trails Day intersected with our usual weekend offering, which in turn met with the Great Park Pursuit (we didn’t realize it, but we were one of the “featured” walk locations and I guess the only one in Hartford County).  Let’s just  say it was crowded and leave it there.  Next year, we’ll have the logic worked out. 

The words “Hey, what’s this?”  are music to the ears of anyone leading a nature walk.  It means at least one person is paying attention! Last Saturday one of our guests came forward with a little thing no bigger than most pebbles saying, “What’s this?”.  The “pebble” had a tail and four legs.  The tail was wedged in as close as possible to the carapace (the top shell), and the legs were frozen stiff. The head was tucked deep inside the shell.  I thought it was dead.

But I grabbed that “teachable moment” and held fast, explaining how turtles come out of the water at this time of year, and lay eggs in the meadow.  This one was a Painted Turtle, having gotten its’ name from the pretty markings on its neck and shell, which look as though they have been painted on.  I figured it couldn’t hurt to put the little guy into the water.  He seemed so dried out.  And as Tony Soprano says, you never know.  So I put him in the stream.  He sank like a stone. 

Everyone feels a little sad when that kind of thing happens.  So once I saw that turtle head for the bottom with no little legs moving, I got out of there fast.  I scrambled up and away from the stream and was trying to find something else to show the group when I heard a shout go up.  It was alive!  I had given up too early.  The baby turtle was stunned, certainly, playing dead-maybe, but it was most definitely not dead.  And we watched it  swim away to what I think is likely to be an easy living at our pond.

baby painted turtle

Is there a moral to the story?  I don’t really think there are morals in nature, except the ones we artificially assign.  But it does show how wrong you can be.

See you on the trails,

Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

You Could Look (It) Up

June 2, 2009

peck's skippermagnolia warbler
I think I might just be relieved that the warbler season is coming to a close. My neck is worn out from looking way up into the tops of the trees. Bird-watchers or, birders for those in the know, work themselves into a frenzy each spring during migration to see these little birds as they pass through. When you do see one, the attraction becomes clear, since they are generally very pretty and have appealing mannerisms to boot. Warblers tend to be yellow, or yellow in combination with other colors. But there are other hues as well, and really quite a wide number of variations. Coupled with the fact that these birds tend to be about three inches long, they present an identification challenge to even sophisticated birder-types. Once your birding appetite is whetted, you can’t get enough of them. black-throated blue warbler

You can always tell if there is a warbler above if you see a group of people with binoculars (funny hats seem to go with this picture too, but that’s another story) looking straight up over head with their necks arched back as far as they will go. Since the target (the warbler) is prancing from branch to branch like the bouncing ball on televised lyrics, there is usually also some shouting to the effect of “I have it at three o’clock, no, it’s behind the branch sticking out from the left near the maples on the right”. As a rule, there are at least three or four people in the group shouting out similar hints. The warbler has spent the night flying through the dark and only a short while ago landed for some food and a break. He is in no mood to take the mooks down on the ground seriously, so he just goes on eating and popping around for all he’s worth. It’s great, good fun. Seriously.

Birders will sometimes stare into the trees like this, shouting, for a long, long time. Having done this many times myself I can tell you it’s rough on your arms. Though after the blood completely drains out of your hands it gets easier. But as far as I know, there is nothing you can do to mitigate the blinding pain you get from staring straight above yourself with your head resting between your shoulder blades for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. Over the course of a morning’s birding, you may do it countless times. To be honest, every time is completely worth it, except maybe the last fifteen or twenty. At that point, were there a heavenly delegation straight from the Lord hovering above me, I might be tempted just to hang my head and reach for the Advil.

common yellowthroatBut it’s an addiction. Birds grab you that way and they don’t let go. Before you know it, you’re buying the funny hat and your shelf is full of birding books. And there’s more. Once the migration has trickled away and the resident nesting birds are raising young, suddenly butterflies start flitting around everywhere. Birders who know their resident birds don’t spend much time hunting them down during the summer, but they still have a pricey pair of binoculars. Butterflies are beautiful, winged and fun to chase around. They’re outdoors. What could be better for the grounded birder?

Hill-Stead is a terrific butterflying location. Just ask the Connecticut Butterfly common ringletAssociation, who are coming out to do a walk here in July. Only yesterday on a short walk I counted Little Wood Satyr, Common Ringlet, Long Dash, Peck’s Skipper, Tiger Swallowtail, Pearl Crescent and Cabbage White. Earlier in the season were Mourning Cloaks and Tortoiseshells. As the weather progresses and different plants come out, the butterfly selection grows.pearl crescent Again, you’re going to need a bunch of books, because these guys are small and sometimes the distinguishing marks are a little obscure. Not unlike warblers, just smaller. If you are like me, you’ll sometimes have to settle for enjoying their lovely colors. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have a nice walk outside among wildflowers. And you can always set yourself down in the meadow and pour through your butterfly book in the sunshine and see if you can learn a new one. You can also join us on July 11 at 10 am for the butterfly walk. Personally, I can’t wait. And butterflies are so much easier on the neck.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist

There’s Hope!

April 29, 2009

“A syndrome that attacks hibernating bats is much more severe in Connecticut… will lead to a dramatic reduction in the size of the state’s bat population this summer, according to wildlife experts at the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)…DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy said, ‘While no one yet knows for sure what is causing WNS and why such large numbers of bats are dying, we will see the ramifications of this in just a few months. Far fewer bats will be out there working to consume mosquitoes and other flying insects that attack people as well as our forests and farmlands.'”

It’s depressing news. I don’t like to write of it. News stories like this one describing a mysterious disease affecting bats can make it seem hopeless. So why bother with healthy environmental practices? Why bother with outdoor pleasures that are so likely soon to disappear?

I took a great walk yesterday. One of my very favorite day-flying moths popped out of some bushes. Here it is:

grapevine epimenis moth

It’s a moth with alot of fashion sense, in my opinion. There are more day-flying moths than you would think, and they are often quite pretty. While butterflies confine themselves to daytime flight, moths run the gamut so keep your eyes open.

In spite of Emily Dickinson’s famous verse “Hope is the thing with feathers”, yesterday my hope came in a winged form with none.

I found a bat. It was healthy and sleeping. It hung, wings closed and upside down from a crabapple tree in the middle of the woods. It looked well-fed and the fur was clean (bats are fastidious) and sleek. It had tucked itself near some forming crab apples, and was reasonably well camouflaged. I could easily have walked by thinking it was a leaf, but something about the shape gave me pause.

I know the bat disease (White Nose Syndrome) is rampant. I don’t expect to see many flitting around the night sky this summer. But even in great epidemics there are those who remain mysteriously untouched. They form the nexus of a new beginning. Out of the ashes rises the pheonix. Or the bat, whichever you prefer.


See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist