Five Things I am Better At Thanks to Blogging (Friday 5)

It’s a new year and I like reflecting on where I’ve been and how far I’ve come over the last few years. I’ve been thinking recently about how my blog has impacted my life, and I can safely say that it has only improved it. Today, I’m going to tell you five things I’m better at thanks to blogging. Who knows? If any of you are considering starting a blog, maybe this will convince you to take the plunge!

Explaining Scientific Concepts

I’m sure I don’t always do this perfectly, but knowing that ANYONE can read what I post on my blog makes me think twice about how I explain things. I try to remember a phone conversation I had about a year into blogging with an 8-year-old who wanted to interview me for a school project. That kid was reading my blog – and understood it. That was a proud moment, and one that has stuck with me as a reminder that I have a very broad audience and shouldn’t talk (well, write) like a scientist. The best part: this has bled over into other parts of my life, which makes me a better teacher, a better speaker, and a better communicator overall.

Marketing

When you start a blog, you are REALLY excited when you get your first view that isn’t your significant other, a friend, or family. Eventually, and ever so slowly, your blog takes on a life of its own. At some point, I suspect most bloggers think, “Wow, I’m getting 100 views a day and that’s awesome! I wonder how I can get more…” That’s when you start exploring what’s out there and you start to try new things. Maybe you start a Facebook page. Twitter, of course! Google+, why not? You update the look of your blog, start looking for ways to self-host so you can fully customize your site. You reach out to people everywhere, learning what grabs attention in a variety of online audiences. You start learning how to link everything together.   You develop a brand and a voice for yourself.  Eventually you look around and realize that, in addition to writing a blog, you manage a little social media empire and you’ve learned some mad marketing skills! And I don’t know about the rest of you, but I actually have to use the marketing and social media skills I’ve acquired through my blog in my job almost every day, so I’m very happy to have them.

Writing

This one should be a no-brainer! The more you write, the better your writing becomes. It gets easier too! Now, I’ll admit that I wrote a LOT before I started my blog. I love writing. That love for writing is a big part of why I was interested in starting a blog in the first place! But, writing has become easier and even more enjoyable since I started my blog and it’s because I’m practicing all the time.

Identifying Insects Outside of my Focal Groups

I draw a lot of inspiration for my blog from the chance insect encounters I have, strange things I’ve observed insects doing, or photos of cool insects I’ve taken.  Most of my observations and photos aren’t that useful as blog posts if I don’t know what I’m looking at!  I’ve said it before and will say it again: I am not a taxonomist and while I’m certainly better than most non-entomologists at identifying random terrestrial insects, I would bet that most entomologists are better at identification than I am.  However, thanks to my blog and my desire to research the insects I want to write about, I have discovered many excellent online resources and books that have been a huge help.  I am still pretty slow at identifying unfamiliar things, but I am getting better because I practice a lot.  I wouldn’t do that if it weren’t for my blog.

And finally…

Photography

This is the first photo I posted on my blog:

palo verde beetle

My first blog photo!

At the time, I was terribly proud of it. I had, only shortly before, gotten my first DSLR camera and I was convinced I was going to take amazing photos with it right out of the box.  I had used a completely manual antique SLR film camera for years and had been taking a ton of macro insect photos with my first digital camera, so my Nikon D80 was going to revolutionize my photography! Yeah, not so much… at least at first. It took me ages to figure out how to make that stupid thing do what I wanted it to. I posted photos on my blog that I increasingly understood were mediocre, but they were the best I could do. I kept at it, but I eventually reached the limits of what I could teach myself and still wasn’t getting the shots I wanted. So I sought help by attending the first BugShot insect photography workshop in 2011. That one workshop did wonders! Then I attended two more and got a little better each time. I got to the point that I had to buy a better camera and lenses because the camera wasn’t good enough.  The first photo of a dragonfly nymph I posted on my blog in 2009 looked like this:

Dragonfly nymph

Green darner nymph

Now it might look like this:

Green darner nymph

Green darner nymph

I’ve seen a HUGE jump in my photography skills, and it’s largely because I was posting photos on my blog that just weren’t making me happy.  My blog pushed me out of my photography comfort zone early on and I am SO happy it did!

So those are 5 skills I’ve boosted significantly thanks to my blog. I’m curious: for the other bloggers out there who read this, what things have you gotten better at because of your blog? I’d love to hear some stories, so leave them in the comments below!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery Takes a Somewhat Sinister Turn!

After writing about the moths that congregate at the light on the trailer where I work, it occurred to me that I hadn’t tried to identify the moths that I was seeing.  I turned to the best moth ID resource I know of (at least if you have photos): Facebook!  The Facebook group “Moths of the eastern United States” includes several expert moth identifiers and I’ve never had to wait for more than a few minutes to get an answer to my moth queries.  So, I posted my moth photo on the group page, and voila!  A few minutes later I had and ID for my moth: male fall cankerworm.  Hmm…  That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I was a little disappointed, at least at first.

If you’re not familiar with fall cankerworms, allow me to enlighten you!  They’re native to the eastern US, but they are considered pests of elms, ashes, and maples (as well as several other trees) and are known to periodically defoliate large stands of trees.  In certain parts of the country, they cause huge problems.  In my own state, North Carolina, the population in the Charlotte area has been particularly problematic and a state approved aerial application of Bt pesticides has been put into effect in the area.  Bt is derived from a biological source, the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, and rather specifically targets caterpillars of butterflies and moths.  By using Bt during the early spring when pretty much only the caterpillars of the fall cankerworm are active, cities or forest managers can target the cankerworm caterpillars without harming most of the other species in the area.

So my little moths are a pest species!  I was hoping they were some sort of amazingly well adapted winter moths with a really interesting life history.  And they are!  Fall cankerworms might be pests, but they’re very interesting pests, so they’re still terribly exciting.

The image I posted recently of the moths at the lights was this:

Moth

Male fall cankerworm

That is a male.  How do I know?  Because the females look like this:

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworm

Female fall cankerworms are wingless and quite a bit smaller than the males, so they look completely different.  In fact, if you look on BugGuide.net at the images of female fall cankerworms, you’ll see that a lot of people who submitted photos of them had no idea what they were.  The females still have scales, which implies they’re a butterfly or moth, but the lack of wings really throws people.  I’ll admit that when I found the female in the image above when I went into work yesterday, I thought it was a leafhopper for a moment – and I had even read up on cankerworms the day before!  It’s really not obvious they’re moths on first glance.

Both male and female cankerworms are active in the late fall and early winter, which explains why I’ve been seeing so many of them recently.  The females climb way up into the trees to lay their eggs.  Presumably the adults die at some point in the winter, then the eggs hatch in early spring.  The adults are one of the last insect species active in the winter and the caterpillars are one of the first species to show up in the spring, so they apparently specialize on tolerating cooler weather.  The caterpillars are standard inchworm type caterpillars and feed on tree leaves.  They can cause some significant damage to the year’s early leaf crop, though rarely kill the trees they feed on.  They eventually lower themselves down onto the ground via a silken thread (I often see inchworms dangling from silk on trees here in the spring – now I’ll be looking to see if they’re cankerworms!), then pupate for several months in the soil.  The new adults emerge in the fall and the whole process starts over!

What this all means is that my boring looking little gray moths are actually pretty interesting.  You’re most likely to see them (as adults or caterpillars) in the colder months, which is strange for an insect.  Wingless female moths are always cool too!  And the fact that they’re a native pest species means that I probably don’t have to worry too much about them becoming a problem at the field station.  I do wonder if we might have a bit of leaf damage this year given that I’ve seen so many more adults than usual.  It will be interesting to see if we see a change in canopy density compared to last year as we continue to monitor the phenology of our trees for the National Phenology Network’s citizen science project, Nature’s Notebook.  I’ll certainly be on the lookout for those dangling inchworms in the spring as well!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Jumper in Winter (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Look what I found a few days ago!

Jumping spider

Jumping spider

An adorable little jumping spider!  Didn’t expect to see one with the cool weather we had last week, but there it was, cute as could be.  Naturally, I had to take photos, but then I released it back outside.  I just love that metallic green sheen on the mouthparts!  Jumpers are the best.

Really cold weather coming for a lot of people this week – hope everyone stays warm!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

My Mini Moth Mystery

It’s winter in North Carolina.  That’s not to say that it’s cold here everyday because that’s certainly not the case.  It was close to 75 degrees yesterday!  But, we have had some very cold days and several nights where the temps have dropped well below freezing.  It’s cold enough that there aren’t many insects out, so I’m always excited when I see one. Recently, however, there’s been one place that I know I can see live insects outdoors everyday, regardless of the weather or the temperature!  My main office is in this lovely trailer at the museum field station where I work:

Back of the office trailer

Back of the office trailer

Classy, eh?  As you can probably tell from looking at it, our little office building is not very weatherproof.  Cold seeps in during the winter, the AC seeps out in the summer, the doors don’t seal well, and the three rooms vary from too warm to too cold with no room in that perfect Goldilocks zone.  The trailer has two lights on the front, one by each door, and they come on at night.  Only one works.  For the last three weeks, a moth has been sitting in the exact same spot on the wall of the trailer when I’ve arrived at work each day, right next to the working light:

Moth

Moth

I wasn’t convinced it was even alive after a week and a half, so I poked it.  It moved a bit (though not much as it was a chilly day), so it has clearly chosen that spot.  It seems like a bad spot, right out there in the open on the white wall, but the moth apparently likes it.

I often leave work after dark, so I look for the moth every night when I leave to see if it’s still there.  I couldn’t say why exactly, but that little moth, hanging tenaciously to the side of the trailer day and night, amuses me.  Over the last few weeks, however, it’s been joined by other moths of the same species, one more every 2-3 nights.  Warm, cold – it doesn’t matter. Recently I counted 8 moths near the light when I left for the evening:

Moths at light

Moths at light – circles highlight the moths and the arrow points to one additional moth right next to the light that you can’t see in this image

Most of the moths are gone by morning; only that one moth I’ve been seeing for weeks in that one spot is left on the wall once it gets light.  I couldn’t say whether the rest have left under their own power or have been eaten by something, but the next night there will be just as many moths back by the light when I leave.  I suspect they’re hiding during the day and coming back to the light at night.

Now we all know moths are attracted to lights, so seeing moths near a porch light isn’t all that exciting.  What fascinates me about these particular moths at this particular time is how cold it sometimes is when they appear.  I don’t really expect to see insects out where they’re exposed to the cold and weather (these get rained on fairly often and got snowed on last week), plainly visible to predators, on days where the temperature barely gets above freezing.  But there they all are!  We had a few mornings with heavy frost last week and that little moth by the light was practically frozen solid, frosted over like everything else.  Yet it moved when I poked it after it had a chance to defrost.  It’s definitely still alive and is presumably capable of hiding during the day if it wanted to.

I’ve never seen moths on the wall of the trailer in the winter before, so this is a new experience – and one that I don’t know how to explain.  I’ve gone down to our outdoor classroom building to see if there are moths near the light on that building, but there never are.  The walls are brown, the light faces the forest instead of the prairie, and the building is largely unheated, so maybe it’s not as good a spot for the moths.  There are also no moths near the much larger lights in the parking lot, nor on the concrete building across the parking lot where the Musuem’s wet collections are stored (whitish, superior climate control).  There’s something about this particular spot on the trailer that these moths like.  My best guess: they like the light and the heat that oozes out of the walls.  The walls are still quite cold on the outside, but perhaps they are just enough warmer than the surrounding area that the moths can warm up a bit?

I might not understand why they’re there or how they are even capable of coming and going in such cold weather, but I enjoy my moths.  It’s nice to know that even on the coldest nights, I can go out and see a half-dozen little chilly insects hanging on the wall.  I might not live in a place that is warm enough to get lots of insects year around anymore, but at least I know those little moths are out there.  That’s good enough.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Best of 2014 and a Resolution

A lot of bloggers do best of the year compilations at the end of the year, and I focus mine on insect photos.  Because I haven’t gotten to be very active on my blog this year, you all haven’t even seen a lot of my favorite photos yet!  This year, rather than posting just my favorite photos from those posted on my blog in 2014, I created a best of album on Flickr that included all of my favorite shots of the year, whether I posted them here or not.  The collection includes these shots that were posted:

This year, I also included some things that aren’t insects in my best of the year album.  I, for example, spent a little over two weeks in Ireland in August and how can you resist including landscape photos from such a spectacular place?  I’ve also been practicing my bird photography this year, so I’ve included some photos of birds – even a couple of reptiles!  I hope you all enjoy the album. You can find it here:

Best of 2014

And now for my resolution: I will blog more often in 2015!  I think I am trying to force myself to stick to my self-inflicted blogging schedule, but because my work schedule and my blogging schedule don’t mesh currently, I don’t blog.  So, screw my blogging schedule!  I am going to come up with a new blogging schedule and try to stick with it all year.  I miss blogging and want to get back into it!

Just so you all know, I do blog about nature and citizen science regularly for the Museum where I work as part of my job, so you can always find me there.  My Museum posts aren’t all about insects, but almost all are about nature.  Please check out the museum blog if you’re interested in learning more about the wildlife of North Carolina!  You can find a list of all of my posts here:

http://ncmns.wordpress.com/author/christinegoforth/

Hope you all are looking forward to a great 2015!  I know I am.

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday: Giant Caterpillar of the Giant Leopard Moth

For the past two years, this has been the time of the fuzzy caterpillars. I’m used to seeing hundreds of furry little wormy guys hustling across the road at work and making their way through the grass.  This year, I’ve hardly seen any, but the best one was this impressive beast:

caterpillar

Giant leopard moth caterpillar, Hypercompe scribonia

That’s a giant leopard moth caterpillar, and they live up to the “giant” in their name!  That caterpillar was a good 3 inches long, and quite thick with all of those hairs circling its body.  Shortly after I took this shot, it curled up into a little ring in my hand, a defense mechanism they’re known for that tucks their soft underparts safely sway inside the stiff black hairs.  These caterpillars lack stinging hairs and don’t bite, so they rely on those hairs and the red bands between the hairs (warning coloration!) to deter predators.

Wish I’d seen more of these this year, but this has been a very strange year overall.  Here’s hoping things will be back to normal next year!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Swarm Sunday: 11/9/14 – 11/22/14

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

 

Just a few swarms to report from the last few weeks:

USA:

Tracy, CA

Spain:

Estepona

And here is the US map for the last two weeks:

Swarm map 11.8.14 to 11.22.14

Red pins are static swarms, yellow pins are migratory. Click the map to enlarge!

Only 2 swarms in two weeks, but both were migratory, including one international sighting in Spain.  At this point I’ll be surprised if we see any more swarming in the northern hemisphere before the end of the year, but please do report swarms if you see them!  Any northern swarms from here through March will be very exciting.

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth