The Famous Woolly Bear – and Other Seasonal Caterpillars

On almost any extended walk in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year, I come across caterpillars.

The best known moth caterpillar is also probably the most common in September: the Banded Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar).

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Woolly Bears are famous because their appearance in the Fall has long been used to try to predict the severity of the coming winter: the wider the middle rust-color band, the milder the winter, according to folklore.

They are now leaving the plants where they have been feeding and are on the move to find the right location to spend the winter. They remain in caterpillar form all winter long (surviving actual freezing) and go through the pulpa stage in the spring before emerging as adult moths. Isabella Tiger Moths are tan-colored and active at night; the caterpillar is much better known than the adult.

Here are a few seen recently.

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There are other fuzzy moth caterpillars in EHP these days. In the collage below, the two on the left are, if I have correctly identified them, two differently colored Virginian Tiger Moth caterpillars. On the right is a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

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I am including no photos of the adult moths here, but I do have some photos of adult butterflies that can be paired with pictures of their caterpillars.

Most Monarchs had already migrated when this caterpillar (below) was still feeding on milkweed leaves recently. I do not know if it will be able to complete metamorphosis in time to fly south. The picture of the adult was taken earlier in the year.

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Black Swallowtails are also common in Eliza Howell, though they are not as well-known as Monarchs. They lay their eggs on plants of the carrot family and I found this one in August on Queen Anne’s Lace (“wild carrot”).

Black Swallowtails are sexually dimorphic (differences in appearance between the sexes). The female is on the upper right; the male on the lower right.

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I don’t know how many people would show up for an advertised “Caterpillar Walk,” but if someone wanted to offer one, September would be a good time. There are more varieties present than are included here.

Caterpillars can be viewed and admired even when it is not always easy to connect them with the adult moths or butterflies they will become.

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A November Walk: Reflections

Walking in the woods of Eliza Howell Park recently, I was noting how far advanced the trees are in acquiring their winter bare-branches look. It is November and trees are becoming dormant for the winter.

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Walking in the woods alone can be a time for reflection. As I approached the log of a tree that had fallen at least 10 years ago (one that I have watched slowly returning to earth over that decade), I focused on the fact that trees not only go dormant for the winter but they also die. Over the 14 years that this park has been my nature study area, I have seen many trees die and fall.

The tree in the next picture fell fairly recently and is now beginning to decompose.

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Long-lived species can live many years, but they do die. Perhaps we could say that they reach the November of their lives when they about 5/6 of their life expectancy.

Perhaps this maple is in the November of its life?

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If we were to live to be 90 (a long life), 75 is the beginning of our November. This would put me in the November of my life.

Humans are a long-lived species, but we have a limited lifetime. While we do not live indefinitely, life goes on. As we age, many of us think of the legacy, the contribution to future generations, we are leaving.

In another location in Eliza Howell Park, there is a young tree growing out of a rotting stump, a new tree of a different species from the stump.

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This might be a good image to reflect upon in terms of the legacy that we can leave: a place for others to grow and thrive, whoever they may be.

There is much to be observed and learned on nature walks in Eliza Howell Park. At times, this leads to reflections about our own lives. This is one such occasion.

On Fallen Logs: Lovely Decomposers

As I was walking in Eliza Howell Park the other day, I met one of the regular park walkers. He greeted me – “What are you watching today?” – and I gave a one- word response – “Mushrooms.” He laughed and we continued on our separate routes.

As I reflected later on that day’s walk, I thought that a more complete answer would have been that I was “checking fallen logs to see some of the mushrooms involved in the decomposition of wood, the first stage in the recycling of the nutrients.” But that is not exactly a casual response to a greeting.

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In an earlier post (October 4, 2018), I noted some of the ground mushrooms that grow in Eliza Howell Park. This essay is about some of the wood mushrooms. While wood-growing mushrooms are sometimes called fungi, any fleshy fungus can be called a mushroom, as I do here.

In the first couple years after trees/limbs fall, while the logs still have bark, the mushrooms appear, often in large numbers.

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Sometimes the rows of mushrooms remind me of rows of garden flowers or vegetables. One fallen tree, 70 feet long, was covered.

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These mushrooms are agents of decay, contributing to the process of breaking down the wood. This decay is needed to get the nutrients that the trees used back into the ground for other plants to use.

I am more an admirer of nature than someone who focuses on how things work. I want to know what is going on, but even more I am simply fascinated by what I see. These log gardens have some interesting “flowers.”

To me they are lovely decomposers.

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Most live in groups, but some are singletons.

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Three years ago, a large white oak tree at the edge of the woods split in two, right down the trunk. The standing half has continued to thrive, this year again producing many large acorns.

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The fallen limbs have now been colonized by mushrooms.

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Half of the tree lives on. Half is in the process of being recycled, aided by the lovely decomposers. Both are good fates.

 

 

A World of Mushrooms

With most of my attention on birds, wildflowers, butterflies and other insects, I did not always look carefully at mushrooms during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. This has changed. I now stop for mushrooms, especially in September and October when they are most abundant, both in numbers and in variety.

Mushrooms, in different shapes and sizes and colors, can be found pushing up from the ground in almost any section of the park, often but not always near trees. Some have the familiar umbrella shape.

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The majority are white. This collage of white mushrooms includes examples that do not have the stereotypical umbrella shape.

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A mushroom is a fungus (but not all fungi are mushrooms); fungus is its own kingdom in the classification system, separate from plants. The part that rises from the ground is the fruiting body, only a small part of the much larger organism that lives underground.

I sometimes think of mushrooms as non-plant flowers, especially the colorful ones.

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Mushrooms have long been hunted as food and some varieties are cultivated. Selecting naturally growing mushrooms for dinner can be risky if one does not know them extremely well; some poisonous ones look very similar to edible ones.

When I stop and look, my interest is observation, not eating. I have to admit, however, that this one, about 6 inches across, reminds me of a loaf of bread!

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Most mushrooms are soft and short-lived. They are the reproductive stage of the organism; they sprout, open up, and drop their spores.

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Many mushrooms have gills from which the thousands of spores (reproductive cells) drop and disperse. Picking or cutting a mushroom (which does not harm the larger organism) provides an opportunity to take a look at the gills on the underside of the cap.

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Some mushrooms grow from the soil and some grow from (often decaying) wood. Those shown above are ground mushrooms. Just as fascinating are the wood mushrooms, including bracket or shelf fungus.

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A look at varieties of bracket fungi in Eliza Howell is a project for another time. It was difficult enough to select/limit the pictures of the ground mushrooms here. There is a whole world of mushrooms out there!

Praying Mantis Egg Laying

Since my previous post on Praying Mantises in the park (“Praying and Preying,” September 4, 2018), I have found several more mantises and have watched them in different activities. I have seen a pair mating and two different females laying eggs. Their egg laying is fascinating.

Praying Mantis females produce both the eggs and the egg case. The case, called ootheca, looks a little like styrofoam. It is securely attached to plant stems and is about an inch long. The female fills the case with, perhaps, 100 to 200 eggs. In both egg layings I observed, the female had assumed a head-down position and the case was attached to the plant about four feet from the ground.

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When finished, she leaves the case in place, where, if all goes well, the eggs will survive the winter and the young will emerge in the warmth of spring. It will be more than 6 months before these young emerge. When they do, they will look like tiny versions of the adult. And they will have the same indiscriminate carnivorous habits – their first meal may be a sibling.

In the next picture, the female is just pulling away from the case, egg laying complete.

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It was hot when I watched these two females, but Fall is coming and the first frost is not that far away. Females usually die around the first frost. They are completing the life cycle – and starting the life cycle.

The ootheca hardens and turns a little darker shade. The next picture was taken 4 days after egg laying.

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Laying the eggs is lengthy process, which is not surprising when we realize that not only does the case have to be made for housing the eggs, but each egg is placed in a different chamber in the ootheca.

A few days after the observed egg laying, I spotted a third Praying Mantis egg case on a shrub. I do not know how old this one is, so do not know if the eggs had hatched, but the case had been broken into, perhaps by a bird.

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Since it was no longer functioning as a protective environment for eggs, I cut the ootheca open to get a better sense of its structure. Though the details are hard to see in this picture, it might provide some sense of the way the case is structured.

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Praying Mantis egg laying is not a simple process of laying eggs on a plant. As I observe what happens to the egg cases over the next months, I will likely learn more about the life cycle.

As I noted in my first post last December (“A Sense of Wonder”), Eliza Howell Park “provides an excellent opportunity for me to experience the natural world in its wonder and excitement and beauty, right in the heart of a major urban area. I continue to be excited by what nature presents in season after season.”

Recently, the Praying Mantis has been the latest “critter” to contribute to my sense of wonder and excitement.

 

 

Five Climbing Vines: Watching the Fruit Develop

In late August and the first part of September, I often find myself visiting five different large perennial climbing vines that are found in Eliza Howell. I am watching the fruit develop and ripen.

1.Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper berries have just recently completed the transition from green to blue.

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These berries are eaten by many birds and some mammals, but humans are warned against eating them because of their toxicity.

Virginia Creeper is a woody vine, native to North America, and is found in forests and on the borders of clearings. The next picture is of a vine growing on a dead tree by the river.

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2. Porcelain-berry

Many people are surprised when they first see the fruit of Porcelain-berry; we do not expect fruit to be multicolored.

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These berries are reported to be safe to eat, but not very palatable. I have not yet done my own taste test.

Porcelain-berry was first imported from East Asia as an ornamental about 1870. The vines grow vigorously (apparently spread by birds dropping seeds) and can choke out other plants, including trees. It is becoming widespread in Eliza Howell, blanketing sections along open areas.

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3.Oriental Bittersweet

The fruit of this vine ripens later in the year than that of the others here. Currently, it looks like this.

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Also brought to the U. S. in the 1800s, Oriental Bittersweet also has the capacity to spread rapidly and to smother other species. It is not as widespread in the park as Porcelain-berry, but it is common.

Later in the Fall, the yellowish outer skin of the fruit opens to reveal the red seeds. They often hang on the vines well into the winter, when they can be an attractive addition to an after-the-snowfall scene. This picture is from early last November, not too long after they began to open.

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4.Poison Ivy

Poison Ivy is, of course, best known for causing a painful itchy rash for most people who touch the plant. Since getting close to the plant is usually avoided, many do not know what the fruit looks like. I have been (carefully) observing how it progresses and this is what it looks like now.

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Poison Ivy vines grow high on a number of large trees in the park, with the foliage turning red in the Fall, often while the leaves of the host tree are still green. Some red is already starting to appear.

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5.Wild Grape

I earlier did a post on the grapes of Eliza Howell (“Vinland,” August 9, 2018), so will not repeat that information now, but simply point out that this is what the grapes look like now.

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Three of these large woody vines are native to North America; two were imported for gardens and “escaped” to the wild. Together, these five cover significant sections of the edges of wooded areas and climb many trees in the park. I find that this is a good time of the year to get to know them better, when their fruit clearly identifies them.

Praying and Preying: Those Two Front Legs

I hadn’t seen a Praying Mantis all year in Eliza Howell Park until last week. Now I have found three. The species is Chinese Praying Mantis, the larger of the two species found in Michigan, about 3 and ½ inches long.

It often takes careful searching – or just happening to look in the right place at the right time – to find the camouflaged insect.

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They are called “praying” because of their habit of holding their front legs together in front of them, similar to a praying position some humans assume. This posture can be seen in the next picture, taken from the front.

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The Chinese Praying Mantis was introduced in this country in the late 1800s to help control unwanted insects, having long been recognized as very effective in catching and consuming many different insects.

The mantis is an ambush predator. Part of the feeding strategy is camouflage. The shape and color make them difficult to see when they climb small limbs. This one was positioned head down.

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Its “praying” position is also part of its hunting strategy. It can remain motionless for hours, if necessary, until prey comes close. Then it strikes with great speed. The same front legs that remind people of praying are extremely effective in preying.

Note the differences between the front legs and the other four.

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Mantises are carnivores. They eat insects (all kinds) and spiders, and sometimes small frogs and birds. They even eat other mantises. At times, the female eats the male that mates with her!

The front legs have spines (spikes) that assist in grasping prey, which they then eat alive.

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Mantises usually mate in September or early October and the female lays eggs which, as an egg mass in a case, survive the winter and hatch in the spring (May or June). The adults I saw these last few days have probably only recently reached full maturity. That fact, and the need to find a mate, may account for them being more visible at this time of the year.

It is always exciting to find a Praying Mantis in a park or garden. It is attractive, a little exotic, and has a very interesting life history. They can even look somewhat harmless…

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…but those front legs are deadly to other insects.