Monday, September 8, 2008

Oh no! Not another moth to feed!

This beauty showed-up last night just before midnight. According to Audubon, it's an Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis), a pretty common member of the giant silkmoth family.

It's about the same size as the Vine sphynx moth I wrote about earlier.

Some adult moths, such as sphynx moths, drink nectar. This one, in its adult stage, has only vestigal mouth parts and no digestive tract.

Males use their broad antennae to scent pheremones emitted by the females (sometimes a mile or more away). The adults breed, the females lay eggs on the underside of leaves, and then they die. It all happens in about a week.

Imperial moths, so-called for the purple splotches on their wings, are one of about 1,500 described species of the family Saturniidae. They're considered common below the Mason-Dixon line.

TPWD's invertebrate biologist, Mike Quinn, recently posted a photo of an almost identical moth at

It might be time to get a visible ultraviolet bulb -- a "blacklight" -- and sheet and hang 'em in the back yard. No telling what else might show-up.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tiny Bubbles

About six weeks ago my brother John bestowed upon us a rescued animal, a checkered garter snake (Thamnophis marcianus) my son Patrick promptly dubbed "Mr. Bubbles." John, in the course of his duties as a police officer, had plucked it from a terrified housewife's porch.

The snake readily gobbled goldfish (the $ .12 kind, bred to be fed), was nice to look at and seemed to be doing just fine in a cage in the garage.

I've always been fascinated by snakes; their colorful patterns and glossy keratin-coated skins, their behaviors too, but mostly just the fact that they're here at all.

More than 2,700 species of snakes burst out of the Paleocene about 60 million years ago. Today they range across every continent except Antarctica. Some are marine reptiles, some live in trees, some live nearly their entire lives underground. None have external limbs and that's what I find so fascinating: they're basically bellies with mouths and some highly specialized senses, and they've been incredibly successful.

I fed our newest snake four medium-size goldfish right before we left on vacation last week, checked on her with a cursory glance the night we returned and woke up yesterday to a snake cage crawling with miniature replicas. Fourteen tiny Bubbles, to be exact.

When he dropped her off weeks ago, John mentioned the snake might be gravid, thought she felt heavy. After seeing no eggs for weeks and weeks, I kind of forgot about the possibility.

Just like I forgot that garter snakes are viviparous, meaning they give live birth. Some of the newborns still have tiny threads of placenta attached to their belly buttons (I know, I know ... snakes with belly buttons; crazy, eh?).

What the heck do baby garter snakes eat? Smaller fish, says the man at PetSmart. So we load up on red comet minnows, some bigger fish for mom (Mrs. Bubbles, we now assume) and brought it all home. Bubbles devoured her five big goldfish, but the newborns didn't seem to know quite what to do.

Finally, the first one figured it out. Then another. Now only about six of the minnows are still swimming.

In the wild, checkered garter snakes eat all sorts of things -- amphibians and fish, worms and mice -- whatever they can get to hold still long enough to swallow. They can grow to as long as 4 feet, but 24-inch specimens are much more common. That's about Bubbles' size.

Mrs. Bubbles is still pretty skittish around human hands, and likely will never be entirely tame. The babies, though, have no fear of humans and are perfectly comfortably climbing onto a hand reaching into their enclosure.

Because they're relatively docile -- the captive-born animals, anyway -- and easy to keep, checkered garter snakes are common in the pet trade. A quick Internet search uncovered a handful for sale at $15-$30 apiece.

Patrick's not sure what he wants to do with the little ones. He thinks maybe his friend Spencer will take one, if Spencer's mom says okay. Some will probably be set free to patrol our backyard and greenbelt once they're past Blue jay snack-size.

That's going to leave a lot of tiny Bubbles ... anyone want a snake?

Things that fly at night

I've been hearing our resident screech owls more often lately, almost always between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. The whinnying "B" song seems to be the preferred call right now, though I sometimes hear the soft, trilling "A" song too.

I'll get my own audio of both sounds one of these nights to throw up here. Maybe even a photo, if I'm lucky.

Sometimes I hear owl sounds that are neither but seem to be from the same birds. Do Western and Eastern Screech Owls hybridize here?

I have no idea what the difference in sounds means, whether one is territorial and the other is a mating call or just what. And I'm too lazy to look it up at the moment.

As I sit and read on the back porch, another flying critter has just dropped in. I noticed because it threw a bat-sized shadow across my page.

It's a huge, resplendent moth that I initially identified as a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata), which I've seen here (and afield nearby) before and we call a "hummingbird moth" in these parts.

On second thought, though, I'm going to call this one a Vine sphinx (Eumorpha vitis), a related hawk moth common to the Gulf States. It really is quite striking. The caterpillars eat, well, the leaves of vines -- grape vines, as you might guess from the species name, but also Virginia creeper, seasonvine and grape and oak ivy.

This moth has huge eyes and looks quite fierce, though it's a twilight and night-time nectar feeder. When I approached it with the camera several times, it assumed a defensive stance on each occasion and put one foot forward, as if preparing to box.I like the little feller.

Pretty soon I'll turn that false moon off so he can navigate off into the night.