Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.

 

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

National Moth Week Favorites

My last post about National Moth Week!  Can you tell I really love this event?  It gets me outside looking at bugs both at work and at home each year, so it’s a ton of fun. However, this year’s fun was greater than usual thanks to a couple of things, a great insect find and a photo I’m really pleased with.

First, let’s discuss this awesome, amazing critter:

Pleasing lacewing

Pleasing lacewing

I saw it and started yelling, “Ooh, ooh, ooh!” and jumped around happily.  If my neighbors didn’t already worry about me, that little episode probably convinced them I am nuts.  However, I quickly came to my senses and took a whole bunch of photos of it. I knew it was something unusual, something I definitely haven’t ever seen before. Once I got a ton of photos, I ran inside and started looking through my field guides.  It wasn’t in any of them, but that didn’t surprise me.  It was so weird! I wasn’t even really sure what order it belonged to, but I thought Neuroptera (the net-winged insects) was the most likely.  So, I started randomly clicking through all of the Neuroptera photos on BugGuide to see if I could find it.  Happily I did!

Family Dilaridae, the pleasing lacewings.  Nallachius americanus specifically.  There are two species in the US (one is only found in Arizona) and about 70 species worldwide.

According to BugGuide, this group of insects does come to lights at night, but it’s rarely seen or collected.  The larvae are apparently thought to feed on beetles under bark, but there’s no mention of what the adults feed on.  I kinda felt like I should catch it and add it to my collection since it may be the only one I ever see, but I eventually decided against it.  I don’t have a scientific reason to collect any more, so I just watched it for a while and it eventually flew away.  I’m happy with just having photos of it.

This find totally made my entire National Moth Week!  If the pleasing lacewing had been the only thing I saw the entire week I still would have walked away happy.  Love getting to see/learn about new things, especially things that are entirely new.

A few days later, however, I got my favorite photo of the week:

Rosy maple moth

Rosy maple moth

I love rosy maple moths!  They’re super common in my area, but they’re so fuzzy and gaudily colored that it’s hard not to adore them.  This one had something weird going on on one of its wings (you can see the black markings on the hind wing on the left side of the photo – that’s not normal), but it let me handle it.  That meant I could get a good shot of its face, which I thoroughly enjoy doing. I snapped away and it eventually wiggled around into the position in the photo above, letting me get a dead on shot of its face.  Look at all that fuzz!  All that pink!  Those amazing antennae! This immediately became my favorite photo of NMW.  I spent the last few days of the event attempting to get similar head shots of other moths, but none of them worked out quite as well (i.e., didn’t amuse me as much) as this one.

And with that, I am done posting about National Moth Week!  I have so many other things I want to write about still, so I am hoping I can keep this momentum going a little while longer.  I still have an entire year’s worth of Dragonfly Swarm Project info/data to post too!  Look for more posts soon!

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

National Moth Week Bycatch

bycatch (n.): the accidental capture of non-target species.  This term originated in the marine fishing industry, but has expanded to include other non-target species captured in other forms of collecting or harvesting.

National Moth Week is, as you may have gathered from the name,  a celebration of moths that asks people to learn more about and observe moths during the last full week of July.  However, you never just get moths when you set up blacklights!  You get a ton of non-moth insects coming to the lights as well, and today I want to feature some of the great non-moth insects I found this year.  Let’s explore them by order and start with the…

Orthoptera (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets)

I find lots of field crickets and katydids at my lights, but I find a lot of these as well:

Common scaly cricket

Common scaly cricket

That’s a common scaly cricket immature (on my siding that’s clearly in need of a good powerwash to remove the algae!).  These are supposed to live on bushes or under debris near water, so I can only presume that they are taking advantage of the low spot in my yard that’s almost always sopping wet.  I love the shape of these crickets, just a little different from the standard cricket body plan.  This one is pretty dark compared to most of the scaly crickets I see too – the ones in my yard tend to be white and just a little translucent.

Dermaptera (earwigs)

Earwigs creep a lot of people out, but they’re harmless:

earwig

Earwig

Depending on the species, and I don’t know which one this is, earwigs can eat plants, decaying organic matter, or insect prey.  I didn’t see this one hunt at the lights as many other carnivorous insects and spiders do, so I suspect it might be a plant or humus eater rather than a predator.

Blattodea (cockroaches)

Cockroach

Cockroach

We all know and love (to hate) cockroaches!  I found loads of them near my lights this year.  I suspect they’re coming out of the storm sewer drain in front of my house.  This particular roach was looking down at me from the porch light by my front door, so I got a good look at its face for once.  Normally that’s tucked away below the plate-like front section of the thorax, the prothorax, where it’s hard to see.

Hemiptera (true bugs)

Most people don’t enjoy this species:

Brown marmorated stink bug

Brown marmorated stink bug

Brown marmorated stink bugs are invasive in the US and can invade homes in pretty large numbers.  As you might imagine, the scent of many stink bugs together in one place is none too pleasant!  These also feed on a variety of fruit and vegetable crops, so they’re not popular with farmers and gardeners either.  However, in spite of the problems they cause, I think they’re rather elegant looking bugs.  The coloration and pattern are subtle, but sort of pretty too.

This bug is a fun one:

Two lined spittle bug

Two lined spittle bug

That’s a two-lined spittle bug.  They get their name from the foamy secretions they excrete as they feed as immatures.  If you’ve ever seen something that looks like a wad of foamy spit hanging off a plant, you may be looking at spittle bug secretions!  They’re considered turfgrass pests, so people who care about their lawns often despise spittle bug nymphs.  Me, I’d rather have bugs than healthy grass, so I love having spittle bugs in my weedy lawn!

Coleoptera (beetles)

I get a lot of beetles at my lights, especially ground beetles in the family Carabidae, rove beetles in the family Staphylinidae, scarab beetles in the family Scarabaeidae, and click beetles in the family Elateridae.  I take loads of photos of the same species night after night, so it’s exciting to see something less common, like this gorgeous beetle:

Rustic borer

Rustic borer

That’s a rustic borer. It’s actually a common beetle at lights in North Carolina, but I rarely see them in my yard.  They a borer beetles, so their larvae grow inside of trees.  They’re not very picky – almost any hardwood tree will do for this species.

Hymenoptera (wasps, bee, and ants)

I am absolutely terrible at identifying wasps, but most of the ones I see at night look like the parasitic wasps in the Ichenumonidae and Braconidae families:

Wasp

Wasp

No idea what this one is, but I like the way it looks, thus I’m including it here.

Trichoptera (caddisflies)

Caddisflies start off life in water and emerge onto land as adults.  I have a large river that flows close to my house, so I suspect that’s the reason that I get so very many caddisflies at my lights.  I know this one is a longhorn caddisfly:

Longhorned cassisfly adult

Longhorned caddisfly

… but I’m not sure which family this one belongs to:

Caddisfly adult

Caddisfly

I can ID aquatic caddisfly larvae easily enough, but once they’re adults they honestly all look about the same to me…  Someday I’ll at least learn my caddisfly adults to family!

And finally, we come to the flies!

Diptera (flies)

These also have aquatic larvae, though they don’t live in the kinds of aquatic habitats you normally think of:

Moth fly

Moth fly

Moths flies are called drain flies as larvae as they are often found living in the water trapped in the U bends of drains in locker rooms, hospitals, bathrooms, and other places where skin cells and other human waste gets trapped in little nasty puddles of water.  The larvae are actually rather interesting looking, but the adults are downright adorable!  They’re tiny, but oh so fluffy.  I just love them!  I suspect these might be coming from the storm drain as I tend to see a lot of them at lights at night outside my house.  I don’t care how gross they are – I am always happy to see a moth fly!

I am going to post one more blog related to National Moth week, one that features my favorite insect find of the year and my favorite photo.  Look for that post coming soon! (And it’s already written, so this time I really mean it’s coming soon!)

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

National Moth Week, As Seen From My Backyard

Well, this is far out of date now, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway! I’ve made it an annual tradition to blacklight in my backyard every night of National Moth Week. I set up a blacklight in my yard, point it toward the white siding of my house, turn it on at dusk, and then head out to my yard to see what comes to the lights a few times each night, photographing every species that I find. This year, it was very warm and humid and it rained one night, so I got a pretty great diversity! Some of the species are the very common species I find every time I blacklight in my yard, such as this elegant grass veneer:

Elegant grass veneer moth

Elegant grass veneer

My yard is mostly grass with a few non-native trees and shrubs, so it’s not surprising to find a species that depends on grass for its survival.  I also see a lot of these Suzuki’s promalactis moths:

Suzuki's promalactis moth

Suzuki’s promalactis

This is a species that’s non-native in the US, but we don’t know much about it still.  It’s a very pretty moth though, if you can get a close enough look at its very small body!

Other common moths included the common tan wave (these have to fly in from some other location as I have none of its many host plants in my yard):

Common tan wave moth

the clemens grass tubeworm (larvae feed on red clover, which is abundant in my “lawn”):

Clemens grass tubeworm moth

and the green cutworm (feeds on grasses, among other things, as caterpillars):

Green cutworm moth

Green cutworm

None of these are particularly showy moths, but they are readily abundant in my yard and among the most common species I see.  You’ll notice that most of the common species I see feed on grasses as caterpillars.  Given the amount of grass in my yard, it probably explains why I see so very many of these species at my lights.

This year, I saw some things that I’ve added to my backyard moth list during past National Moth Weeks, but may have only seen once or twice altogether.  I love skiff moths:

Skiff moth

Skiff moth

They feed on a variety of trees and shrubs, though I’ve never seen one of their awesome, tank-like green caterpillars in my yard.  They could be coming in from somewhere else. This is the smoky tetanolita:

Smoky tetanolita moth

Smoky tetanolita

Their caterpillars feed on dead leaves.  And this is the variable reddish pyrausta:

Variable reddish pyrausta moth

Variable reddish pyrausta

I can’t find much information about this species, but it’s awfully pretty.  Some close relatives of this group of moths make up the majority of the aquatic moth species, so I wonder if these might not be taking advantage of plants in the soggy part of my yard.

I got to add several new moths to my list this year! I loved this crowned slug moth:

Crowned slug moth

Crowned slug moth

No idea why it was posed that way, but it did fly away at some point and was not in fact dead.  This species could be feeding on my maple trees and it has an awesome caterpillar that is covered in stinging hairs.  It’s fun that a nasty caterpillar turns into such a plush, cuddly moth!

Given that I live in North Carolina and there are still a relatively large number of tobacco farmers around, it’s not surprising to see a tobacco budworm moth:

Tobacco budworm moth

Tobacco budworm moth

No idea where this might have come from, but perhaps a neighbor’s garden where it can feed on a variety of crop plants (including tomatoes and squash) and ornamental flowers.  I loved the elegant, subtle patterns on its wings!

This species I haven’t IDed beyond wainscot moth in the genus Leucania:

Leucania sp. moth

Leucania sp.

There are 33 species in this genus in the US and almost all of them can be found in the eastern part of the US.   I was able to ID another similarly drab moth as a white speck moth:

White speck moth

White speck

These are also called armyworms, apparently based on their habit of eating plants down to the ground and then marching to another area to continue feeding.  They’re generalist feeders and can be pesty.

This was my favorite of the new additions this year:

Brown shaded gray moth

Brown shaded gray

It was bigger than it looks in the photo, and I loved the striped pattern on the wings.  No bright colors or anything, but still very pretty.

My best find, however, didn’t sit still long enough for me to get more than a glance at it before it flew off.  It was a five spotted hawkmoth, a giant, powerful beast of a moth.  I was taking a photo of something else when it slammed into the back of my head.  Scared me badly enough that I shrieked loudly (so embarrassing!) and then it fluttered around outside of the light for a good five minutes before it landed just long enough for me to see what it was.  I lifted my camera, but it flew right into my face, smacked my cheek with its wings a few times, and then flew away.  Wow, such a gorgeous moth! And so scary when you don’t expect to have something the size of a small bat silently fly into your head at a high speed in the middle of the night!

Of course, you don’t see only moths when you blacklight!  My next post will feature the “bycatch” from National Moth Week, the non-target insects that also came to my lights.  I got a bunch of the same old things I always get, but this year I also got a few exciting new things that I can’t wait to share!

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

My Kick-off to National Moth Week

Hey everyone!  Haven’t been able to spend much time on my computer at home for a long time, but I’ve been dying to share several things with you all.  The next few posts will feature my favorite insect-themed celebration of the year, National Moth Week. I LOVE Moth Week! I’ve hosted a big moth-themed open house at the museum field station where I work every year since National Moth Week started and then I go out every night that week and blacklight at home.  For my public event, I bring my blacklights, bait, and my brand new mercury vapor light (so, so happy to have it!) to attract moths.  Usually, there’s some freak storm the day of my public event that sends everyone running for cover, but we lucked out and got no rain at all this year.  About 55 people came, and they were a marvelous group!  It was a punishingly hot day and it stayed hot well into the evening, but those 55 people were enthusiastic and very excited about getting to see moths and other nighttime insects. No complaints at all. So. Much. Fun!!

I usually bring my Nikon DSLR camera with me to my public moth event and start taking pictures when things calm down after most of the visitors have left for the evening.  We never get many big moths, so this year I brought my Canon with my super close up MP-E 65 lens so I could get good photos of the smaller moths. I pulled it out about 10:30pm, got my flashes set up and the diffusers in place, strapped my headlamp onto my head, and was about to get started photographing our far-better-than-average moth haul for the evening when I realized my battery was dead – and my spare AND my charger were plugged into the wall at home.  Doh!  I ended up taking all my photos with my headlamp and phone this year.  However, given the large size of several of the moths that showed up, my camera choice was a mistake anyway.

I’ve shared my current blacklighting rig before, so I won’t go over it again here.  I set up four blacklights:

blacklight rig at night

One on each side of the building.  I kept things easy and just thumbtacked the sheets to two of the wooden walls of the building, and set a couple more up on the PVC frames I normally use.

The mercury vapor light is a new acquisition.  I’ve been dying to have one for years and was so very excited to actually get one.  I normally do my moth night with one of my coworkers, and we’ve used his mercury vapor lights in the past.  He wasn’t going to be at this year’s event though, so I just bought my own light.  It’s very bright and very hot:

mercury vapor light

I have had the very fortunate experience of blacklighting in southern Arizona during the monsoon, where this sheet would be absolutely packed with insects, including many very large moths.  However, this is a really good haul for this particular location, probably the most moths I’ve ever gotten on a sheet during National Moth Week.

The lights attracted a wide range of moths.  Some of them are very common at the field station, like this common tan wave:

common tan wave

and this Ailanthus webworm:

ailanthus webworm

These are both very common moths in my area, ones you would expect to see at any blacklight, or even a porchlight, on almost any summer night.  A few of the moths we saw certainly aren’t rare, but we don’t see nearly as many of them.   This rosy maple moth is one of my favorites (I call it the rainbow sherbet moth):

rosy maple moth

And we get these esther moths most years:

esther moth

Beautiful wood nymphs are not super common at my lights, but I’ve seen them at this event more than once:

beautiful wood nymph

Some much less common moths also decided to show up this year, like this Hebrew:

hebrew

This is the second time I’ve seen Hebrews at this event.  I just love them!

I gave a little talk about moths during the event that included photos of some moths we’ve seen in past years.  Conveniently, all the moths above were included, so it was a lot of fun listening to people exclaim over moths they recognized from the presentation!  People saying, “Ooh, look!  It’s an elegant grass veneer!” or “Oh, oh! It’s a rainbow sherbet moth.  What was the real name, rosy maple moth?”  I felt like people were walking away from the event knowing a few moth species they might not have known before because they saw them on a big screen and then immediately saw them in real life at the lights.  Very nice to be able to provide the moths I shared in the presentation on command!

We did see some new-to-the-event moths this year too!  There were several Virginia creeper sphinx moths:

virginia creeper sphinx

Everyone was really excited to see these!  They should be at the lights every year as their host plant is all over the place all around the building where I set up the lights, but for whatever reason they never appear.  We got 6 this time.  Another first was this tiger moth:

tiger moth

Very white, and high up on the wall so I never got a good look at it to get a good ID.  We got some new small moths, like this unidentified moth (I think it’s one of the leafrollers):

Archips leafroller

Might be an oblique banded leafroller?  I’m still learning my moths, and these little ones are definitely not easy.

And finally, my favorite moth of the night, a small-eyed sphinx moth:

small eyed sphinx

Everyone had left and I was just getting ready to take down my lights when this moth showed up.  I was thrilled!  Such a gorgeous moth.  Shiny, velvety, perfect.  I really regretted not bringing my Nikon DSLR so I could get better photos of this stunner.  The whole night was great, but this moth made the oppressive heat and having to take all my gear back down alone after midnight absolutely worth it.

This particular event takes a lot of setup and takedown on my part, but I absolutely love it!  Every year I get good people who are excited to learn about moths and other nighttime insects and every year I leave work around 1AM sweaty and exhausted and completely happy.  What’s better than hanging out at a light looking at bugs with interested people all night?

I’m going to post a few more posts about National Moth Week soon, so be on the lookout for those!  One will feature the moths I found in my yard that week and the other will be about the other insects I found while looking for moths.  Hope you’ll enjoy them!

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

Lestid Laying Eggs

A few weeks back, I was relaxing after a big science event I had hosted at the museum field station where I work and was taking some photos.  I was sitting on the platforms we have near the pond and watching green darners flying around, looking for some common whitetails and other early spring dragonflies.  I noticed a large spreadwing damselfly on a plant in a strange position and slowly approached so I could get a photo.  This is what I saw:

Spreadwing damselfly laying eggs

Spreadwing damselfly laying eggs

She was laying eggs!  You can see her egg laying tube, her ovipositor, protruding from her abdomen and stuck down into the plant in the photo.  It’s the black pointy bit just to the right of her abdomen just above the plant.  I watched for a little while and saw her pull her ovipositor out of the plant, move down a half a centimeter or so, and stick it back in several times.

Eventually I got distracted by a freshly emerged common whitetail and went over to take some photos of it.  When I went back over to the pond, the damselfly was gone. However, you could clearly see the evidence that she had been laying eggs inside the plant:

Punctures in the plant after the damselfly flew away

Punctures in the plant after the damselfly flew away

I’ve read about spreadwings laying their eggs in plants before, but hadn’t ever seen it. So exciting!  The nymphs that hatch inside plants eventually make their way to the water where they will spend the rest of their childhoods as long, relatively large and robust damselfly nymphs with funky mouthparts.  In this particular pond, few things get much bigger than the spreadwing nymphs, just the frogs, yellow-bellied sliders, and the three monster snapping turtles I saw sunning themselves last weekend.  Always good to know that a pond you regularly get into has multiple gigantic snapping turtles lurking in it…

I’ve got a long list of things I want to share, so hopefully I’ll be able to get another post up soon!

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

Smoky Mountain Insects

Oh wow, it’s been a month since I last posted anything.  Whoops!  Can only say that it’s been a REALLY busy month and work with a lot of long hours and evening programs. But things slow down for a little while and that means I have the time and energy to blog!

Last weekend I went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and helped one of my coworkers lead an educator trek.  At the museum where I work, educator treks are open to formal and informal educators (people who work at museums, zoos, environmental education centers, and the like) and take them out into the field for one to seven days to learn about nature and science firsthand.  For this particular three-day trip, we spent a day at the facility at Purchase Knob learning from the rangers about citizen science efforts that are being done at the park and getting some hands on experience.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful place:

We looked at the status of a bunch of trees for the Nature’s Notebook project and did a leaf litter arthropod study that the park oversees.  The latter involved putting leaf litter into a shaker box, shaking it vigorously, and then using an aspirator (also known as a pooter or, as our ranger calls them, “suckie upper thingies”) to transfer any animals to a vial for examination back in the classroom.  It was fun watching the teachers respond to the insects they caught once they were projected onto a big screen with a video microscope:

In the afternoon, we walked a very long way down a very steep mountain to get to a stream to check for salamanders along some transect lines the park has set up in the area.  I know next to nothing about salamanders, but apparently the pygmy salamanders we saw are very interesting and we saw 7 species altogether.  As the last group finished measuring the salamanders they’d caught and recorded their data, the rest of the group wandered down to the stream to look for more salamanders.  Now I love salamanders, but you all know I’m much more into stream insects than anything with  a backbone.  We found a bunch of flat-headed mayflies clinging to rocks and someone brought over this stonefly:


I think it’s a perlodid stonefly, but honestly I didn’t look at the mouthparts because I was partly in charge of the group.  One of the teachers was looking for salamanders in a little puddle between a big rock and the shore and found one of these:

A roach-like stonefly!!!  I did a little happy stonefly dance and may have yelled a little as I tried to get everyone else excited about it.  Sadly, most of the group was much more interested in the salamanders to care about this amazing stonefly, but it didn’t diminish my excitement over it.  The same teacher found another one too.  I’ve seen specimens, but never a live one, so it was very, very exciting for me.  It’s hard to describe the joy you get from seeing something in the wild that you’ve been hoping to see for a while. It’s a pretty amazing feeling.

After the long trek back up the hill, we went on a wildflower hike.  The Smokies are known for their amazing wildflowers and there were many species in bloom.  We had the group do some nature journaling so they could just sit and look at the flowers for a while. Totally by accident, the trillium that I chose to sketch had insects on it:

Two longhorn beetles that ended up getting frisky as I drew my flower and a teenie, tiny caterpillar was starting to make a tiny hole in the petal when I left.  Insects always improve flowers as far as I’m concerned, even one as awesome as a trillium.

It had apparently been unusually dry in the Smokies for a while, but it rained hard our second night there.  We went to Cataloochee Valley the last day to hike a bit, look for elk, and learn about human impacts in Great Smoky and everything smelled clean and bright.  When we arrived back at the vans, we were treated to a HUGE group of butterflies puddling in the damp dirt:

This photo doesn’t even begin to do justice to the number of swallowtails in the area!  I suspect that because it had been dry for a relatively long time, the butterflies may have been hard up for the salts and minerals that they usually suck out of the soil when they “puddle.”  Dry weather means dry soils and limited puddling opportunities, but the rain seems to have brought the butterflies out in force.  I have never seen so many large butterflies in one place at one time in the wild and they were swirling all around us.  It was amazing!  One of the teachers wandered off a bit and came across this:

That’s a big bunch of butterflies on a big pile of scat, happily sucking nutrients from the wet surface.  If you look closely, you’ll also see a burying beetle.  The butterflies were doing a pretty good job keeping it away from the scat as they fed, so at one point it climbed right over the top of their wings in an unsuccessful attempt to find a place where it could feed also.  The beetle made the whole amazing butterfly experience even better!

Even though I was with a group and didn’t get to spend nearly as much time poking around for insects as I would have if left to myself, the whole trip was just fabulous. The teachers we had with use were amazing and very excited to get out into the mountains and we saw a lot of really excellent wildlife.  The insects were just a happy bonus!  But they make me want to go back and explore more.  Planning another trip there this summer!

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