Tuesday, July 15, 2008

They Will Come

I'm so excited I have to share a non-bird, but nature-oriented, surprise. We've reached a new benchmark of success with our landscaping endeavors, specifically our addition of a Spicebush to our yard three years ago. Spicebush was one of the species that topped the list of "must have" plants, as their ripe-in-the-fall berries have that high lipid content migrant birds crave. And, widening my bird-centric view of nature, the spicebush is a larval host plant of the Spicebush Swallowtail, one of my favorite butterflies.

Our spicebush is part of a larger garden that is
protected by deer netting to keep out the varmints.
We decide who gets to nibble on the leaves!

During a recent after dinner, after-the-rain walk through the yard my daughter and I were surveying the Japanese Beetle damage to various plants. The spicebush appeared fairly untouched, except for two rather large bird poops, er, excreta, on a couple of leaves. Not overly surprising as our nesting phoebes frequently perch in that area. Surely they poop, er, evacuate, while stalking the insect population.

Brown-and-white blotches on the leaves,
probably left by an inconsiderate yardbird.

Upon closer inspection (a phrase I probably use more often than I should when discussing poop, but everything is a teaching moment with a four-year old) we discovered it wasn't excrement at all. They were caterpillars.

What appears to be the tongue emerging from the mouth is really
the caterpillar's head. If I were a predator, I'd think twice!

Caterpillars? Looking like bird droppings? On a spicebush? That all adds up to what we've been hoping for over the past three years: Spicebush Swallowtail larvae! Eating our spicebush! A feeling of euphoria settled in when I realized our plans worked, we attracted what we were hoping for. A grove of dreams, if you will: plant it, and they will come. Now I get what Kevin Costner's character felt like when Shoeless Joe Jackson walked out of the corn field to play ball.

All told, we counted three caterpillars. Butterfly Gardening and Conservation.com showed the two poop-mimics were likely fourth instars, judged by the size and the prominent eye spots. Second and third instars, while similarly patterned, are smaller and lack such obvious eye spots.

The third was a fifth instar, boldly patterned and gaudy, admittedly a bit frightening. My rudimentary knowledge of caterpillar anatomy didn't convince me it wouldn't lock its jaws on my finger, but I pretended to be brave in front of my daughter.

Possibly shedding the green skin for the
prepupal, bright yellow-orange coloration?

We're hoping to find the bright yellowish-orange prepupal caterpillar (check The Hawk Owl's Nest for Patrick's beautiful image from a recent trip), and then a chrysalis. Apparently we were lucky, as the caterpillars spend the day hidden by folding over a leaf, then emerging to forage after dark. Perhaps the rain brought them out early? We did find several folded over leaves, which we'll be investigating as we continue to check the spicebush daily!



slybird said...

That's great! I've always appreciated spicebush for its scent, I've never connected it with the butterfly (which I saw for the first time last month). I hope your landscaping efforts continue to bear fruit.

~ Nick

Anonymous said...

What a great shot of the catipiller.

Apparently birds don't flush.

noflickster said...

Nick - I also learned spicebush first for its fragrant leaves and only later for the "side benefits" of caterpiller host and bird attractant. As my wife, the botanist, constantly reminds me, the world is green!

Scienceguy288 - thanks, I'm always psyched when one of my macro shots turns out in focus! The only birds I ever see flush are when I'm trying to identify them.


Nuthatch said...

We are still eagerly awaiting our first spicebush caterpillars. But we did get giant swallowtail larvae on our garden rue this year.

noflickster said...

Hi Nuthatch,

Thanks for dropping by! I'm blowing an upcoming post by asking this: how long does a Spicebush Swallowtail pupate? We've been keeping one in a jar and we're wondering about the timing; my Internet searches haven't turned up anything useful.

More caterpillar/butterfly posts to come!

deejbrown said...

Just recently picked up your blog from Musings On Nature. Love your writing and your sense of wonder--I already have you on my Blogroll!

noflickster said...

Hi deejbrown,

As an Arkansas friend used to say, "Shoot, y'all 're gonna make me blush!" Glad you dropped by, and I can give a reciprocal compliment: I'm a regular reader of your writing, too.

Thanks for dropping by and especially for taking the time to comment!

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