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Little Fat Red Caterpillar

On August 20, my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary with a hike at Dodge Point Reserve in Newcastle, ME.  Previously I blogged about this place, a wonderful spot for getting away from it all.  The land was once a tree farm and has an abundance of old growth oak trees.

As we walked along through the forest, we noticed that something was hitting the leaf litter on the floor.  It sounded like rain.  The weather was bright, sunny and around 85F, not a rain cloud in sight.  After searching for a while to find the cause of the pitter patter, I realized it must be droppings from caterpillars munching on the plethora of oak leaves above our heads.  We were both amazed at the vast number of insects that must be at work up there to produce a constant rain of droppings.

After walking a bit farther, I came across this bright, plump bug on the path.  I took photos since I’d never seen a caterpillar like this before.  After some poking around on the Butterflies and Moths of North America website, the identification was fairly certain.  The little blob is Heterocampa umbrata, or the White-Blotched Heterocampa.  Apparently they come in red or green versions.  The peculiar long face and funny beady eyes are the best identification.  This species feeds on–oak leaves.  I assume the pink spud dropped to the forest floor to prepare for pupation since it appears well grown.  It will hatch out as a rather drab moth.  All the looks are in the caterpillar stage, for sure.

Here’s a link to the butterflies and moths website:  https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Heterocampa-umbrata

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Cranes in Maine

Yesterday my husband and I were driving home from the coast.  We were between Sheepscot and Whitefield, towns well inland, when I saw a pair of big birds standing in a field of high grass near the road.  They were sandhill cranes.  We did not stop to take a photo so I borrowed one from Pixnio.  The cranes I saw looked quite similar to this pair.  I don’t know if they were greater or lesser sandhills.  It was extremely surprising to me to see these birds in Maine since I thought they only lived far west of us.

The birds were quite tall, over 3 feet, and a dusky brown color with some gray.  They were standing facing one another less than a foot apart, beaks lowered, like they were staring in each other’s eyes.  They may have been a mated pair or even rivals looking for a fight.  I wish now we had stopped and watched them for a bit.

A little research reveals that within the past twenty years, these cranes have moved into Maine during the summer to breed.  Last year I thought I saw a crane hunting at our pond one day, but it left quickly and I didn’t get a good look at it.  I figured it was really a great blue heron, although my eyes told me it looked like a crane.  Now I know I saw a crane!

The first sandhill cranes were spotted in Maine in 1999.  Since then sightings have increased and breeding pairs have been found.  The birds breed May-July.  The pair I saw could be summer residents or just passing through on the beginning of their long flight south to spend the winter in the southwestern US or Mexico.

It is unknown if the birds once populated Maine and just died off due to human pressure, or if sandhill cranes are moving into new territory.  There are no reliable historic records of sandhill cranes in Maine.  It may be that the global warming trend is making our chill northern state attractive to cranes.  In this state we do have lots of wetland and farmland, the birds preferred habitat.  I hope one or two or even a whole flock land here at our farm pond so I can get a good look at them and maybe even some pictures.

Big Day In The Barn

Today is a big day in the barn!  The baby barn swallows are leaving the nest.  Mom and dad swallow have been working their feathered butts off catching enough bugs to sustain themselves and five babies.  We have a lot of bugs.  They must catch tons of mosquitoes and black flies.  The birds did a good job because all the babies are grown and ready to spread their wings.  In the above photo, the nest, made of dried clay and lined with hay and chicken feathers, sits on a support just under the ceiling of our hay barn.  Two babies have flown about five feet to rest on an electric cord.  One baby is off the nest and sitting on the support.  Two babies peek from the nest.

Here are mom, dad and one baby.  The parents continuously fly in and out of the barn, bringing food for their huge babies and giving encouraging chirps to the young ones.  Probably telling them all about how to use their wings and what to watch out for.  The parents also screech and dive-bomb any threats to the nest, such as a farmer trying to do chores.

The barn swallows have nested in our barn for as long as it’s been there.  I recall climbing up to peek in their nests as a child.  Every spring we go through the exciting (and harrowing for the parents) day when the young ones leave the nest.  After this first brood is out, the pair will start another clutch of eggs.  They like to do two hatches each year.  The second one tends to run into haying season.  We have to use special care not to interfere with the birds as we bring the hay crop in the barn.

The parents will spend several days teaching the babies to fly and catch insects.  Then the babies disappear for hours on end, feeding themselves and exploring.  Mom and dad start the second hatch.  The first babies return regularly to visit and sleep around the barn area at night.  When the second hatch leaves the nest, all the barn swallows hang around for awhile.  There is a veritable swarm of birds swooping and chattering over the barnyard.  Before long the nip in the air at night signals time to fly south.  Usually by the beginning of September the barn swallows have left for lower latitudes.

This year we only have one pair nesting in the barn.  Sometimes we have two or more!  The daily scolding and swooping of the parents can really get on a person’s nerves when all they are trying to do is feed chickens and rabbits, not molest swallow nests.  But, we put up with their foolishness just to be able to share the excitement of a day like today.

Baby Nectarine

Anyone with an orchard full of nectarines, please have patience with me.  This is my first nectarine.  These trees are not common in the northern clime of central Maine.  My baby nectarine has now survived four winters and appears to be thriving.  This is the first year it’s had flowers.  The variety is from Stark Bros, a Stark Crimson Gold, self-pollinating, heat tolerant, cold hardy and ripening fruit in July.  I can hardly wait to eat them!

The tree is about eight to nine feet tall.  The branches are covered with blooms.  Not sure how many of these will turn to fruit.  I suspect the fruit may require thinning. It is especially hard on a young tree to have a heavy fruit burden.The blossoms are large and have a light musk scent.  I thought they’d smell like apple flowers, but no.  Such a gorgeous pink display for the orchard!  This tree is attracting ruby-throated hummingbirds.  Soon the pears, apples, cherries and blueberries will all be in full bloom, plenty of food for hummingbirds. I stopped providing sugar feeders for hummingbirds due to the threat of the feeders becoming infected with fungus that can kill the birds.  If feeders aren’t cleaned religiously they can get contaminated.  I realized I couldn’t keep up with the necessary cleaning schedule.  Luckily, there is a good natural food supply for the birds here at the farm.

Home For Phoebes

Phoebes are friendly song birds who like to nest close to humans.  Perhaps they discovered that they can take advantage of the fear we instill in other birds to protect their nests and young.  They risk choosing the wrong humans when they build so close, but it must work for them because they continue to do it.  This particular pair of phoebes has built a nest for several years on the yard light beside one of our doors.

While it was sweet to have baby phoebes so close, having the birds there became a problem.  The constant fluttering as they came and went from the nest to feed the young attracted the attention of our six house cats.  The cats would climb the screen door trying to catch the birds.  When I found the screen partially dislodged and within seconds of allowing the cats out, I knew we had to keep the door closed.  Then the cats proceeded to climb the curtain over the window in the door.  I had to take the curtain down.  Very aggravating, especially since I’d like to leave the door open on nice days to cool the house and catch the breeze.

Last fall I decided the nest had to move.  During the winter I searched until I found this solid aluminum shower shelf.  It was under $7 with shipping.   In March I secured it to the house under the eaves far enough from the door so the cats would no longer see the birds.  Then I blocked off the area over the lights to prevent the birds from building there.  Phoebes build a large, heavy nest using clay mud.  They line it with soft moss, grass, hair and feathers.  This complicated nest takes a lot of effort so the birds return every year to the same nest, repairing it when necessary.

I didn’t want to destroy all their work.  I moved the nest to the new shelf.  It would be interesting to see if the birds accepted the new location of their nest, built a new nest or went off somewhere else to live.  In early April the birds came back.  It seemed to ruffle their feathers to find the nest moved.  After a bit I noticed them hanging around the new location.  Then late last week I found  mother phoebe on the nest.

It’s wonderful to have the birds nearby and still be able to keep the door open.  Phoebes like to have two broods per year so they hang around for most of the summer.  I will enjoy watching the baby birds grow up without worrying about the cats tearing the door apart.

Monarch Chrysalises

This morning I was stacking wood from a large pile that was split during the summer. The pile was about five feet high before I started, and fifteen feet wide, at least.  It is made up mostly of oak and apple wood that has aged for a year.  I was just working along, grabbing pieces of firewood and stacking them in neat rows on top of pallets, when I turned over a stick of wood and nearly crushed a monarch butterfly chrysalis.

All summer I’ve been scouring milkweed plants in search of monarch caterpillars, eggs and chrysalises.  I’ve had plenty of luck with finding the caterpillars, but no eggs or pupae.  So I was greatly surprised to find this green case just lying in the woodpile!  Dumb luck saved the insect from destruction.  At any moment the stick of wood could have rolled or been jammed into other hunks of wood.

I checked the chrysalis carefully and found no evidence of damage.  Since the woodpile is not a safe place for baby caterpillars, I wedged the stick of wood in the branches of a crabapple tree.  There the butterfly will be out danger and protected from rain.  Then I returned to stacking wood, thinking what an unusual find I’d just made.

About ten minutes later it happened all over again!  I came much closer to squishing the second chrysalis.  Just a whim of fate lay between life and destruction for the baby caterpillar as I grabbed several sticks of wood and tossed them together to make an armload.  Once again I checked the pupa and found no damage.  So I carried the second over to join its brother in the crabapple.

Both caterpillars chose to pupate in close proximity within the woodpile.  For the rest of the morning I used greater care when moving the wood, especially in that area.  No more monarchs were found.  As I finish stacking the pile, I will be on the lookout for any more silly monarchs!

This species truly has the most beautiful chrysalis.  It really looks like metallic gold dotted around the ends.  Why nature expends energy to create a beautiful exoskeleton for a pupating insect is beyond me.  It must serve some evolutionary advantage or it wouldn’t exist.

The caterpillars in these chrysalises are still in the early stages of metamorphosis.  They need ten to fifteen days to change, depending on the weather.  The warmer it is, the quicker they develop.  Temperatures are forecast for the 60sF-70sF during the day and no cooler than the mid-40sF at night for the next ten days.  The baby insects should be able to grow.  They will need to move out of this region quickly and head south.  The frosts are on the way!

To form the chrysalis, a fully grown caterpillar seeks out a sheltered spot and hangs upside down by its two hind-most legs.  It spins a small anchor of silk to keep it hanging securely.  Then it sheds its skin to reveal the green exoskeleton.  As the butterfly develops, the chrysalis will turn transparent and the lovely colors of the monarch wings will be visible within.  Here is an adult monarch I saw recently in a butterfly garden on Mt. Desert Island.

I’m hoping the insects continue to develop and I’m able to get some photos of the transparent stage and of the emergence of the butterfly.  I’ve read they emerge mid-morning on a warm day.  So, I will keep a close eye on these baby butterflies.

 

A Couple of Caterpillars

This has been a good year for butterflies and moths in Maine.  I’ve seen over two dozen monarch butterflies or caterpillars so far.  Much better than a few years ago when there was a dismal year with no sightings!

The other day I found three monarch caterpillars on one well-eaten milkweed plant.  I moved two to a different area that wasn’t being fed on at all.  The little guy above is one of the relocated insects.  It is amazing how fast caterpillars grow!  This one has doubled its size in three days!  I hope to catch one in the chrysalis stage.  I think monarchs have such beautiful chrysalises with the gold colored detailing.

As I was searching for monarchs, I happened upon this beautiful caterpillar.  It is the brown hooded owlet moth.  With such a gorgeous immature stage, one would expect the adult to be stunning.  However, the adult is a fairly drab brown moth with a hump over its head, hence the “hooded” part of the name.  Looks like the species puts all the effort into the caterpillar.

This species is also frequently preyed upon by parasitic flies that lay eggs on the caterpillars.  The developing fly larvae consume the caterpillar.  I hope this caterpillar escapes that fate!  It was happily chomping a golden rod, good job little bug!  We have way too much goldenrod on the farm.