The Inchworm That Looks Like a Spider

Anyone else experiencing the fun that is discovering wiggly squigglies all over you as you walk under the trees in spring? This weekend, my husband called to me to observe the oddity that decided to visit his T-shirt while he worked outside.

Nematocampa resistaria, Horned Spanworm Moth

Most of us are well familiar with inchworms. Some are green or brown or mixed colors, some look like twigs, and so on. This was the first time I’d seen one with filaments, and that warranted a photo opportunity.

Nematocampa resistaria, Horned Spanworm MothAs near as I can tell, this inchworm is one of just a few species that have filaments — in the United States, there are primarily three recognized species. Ours appears to be Nematocampa resistaria, or Horned Spanworm Moth.

Nematocampa resistaria, Horned Spanworm Moth

Some people feel the filaments help the inchworm mimic a dead flower with stamens, but as I watched the inchworm do its inching along, I was reminded of a spider. Do you see it? Frankly, I’m going with it — if you were a caterpillar, wouldn’t you rather wear the costume of a predator and keep some would-be foes away?

Nematocampa resistaria, Horned Spanworm MothThe length of the pale-tipped filaments on our little inchworm indicate that it was actually a little concerned by our presence (not that we were the ones invading its space this time, mind you — it was the other way around!). When relaxed, the inchworm’s filaments aren’t quite as long. When alarmed, it pumps hemolymph into them, which extends them — like spider legs, oooOOOoooh.

Horned Spanworms eat the foliage of a variety of hardwood and softwood trees. I suspect it started out on one of our cedar elm trees. Click the link above to see pics of the moth it will become — quite a pretty little thing.

Remember, these little guys and other caterpillars have an important role in the ecosystem as food sources for birds and other animals — don’t squish them!

It just so happens that yesterday I captured this picture of a Mama (or Papa?) Carolina Wren bringing an inchworm to her babies. It’s not the same inchworm, I promise — see, this one is yellow!

Not All Hornworms Eat Tomatoes

Despite the bad reputation of a couple of species, hawk moths generally go unnoticed. I get particularly excited to spot them, because there are some gorgeous species out there, both adult and larval forms. As larvae, they are known as hornworms, with many having a very pronounced horned tip at one end. Tomato gardeners fear the presence of a couple of varieties, the tomato hornworm (Manduca quinquemaculata, adult moth is the Five-Spotted Hawkmoth) and the tobacco hornworm (Manduca sexta, adult is the Carolina Sphinx), and it’s these two species that sometimes can give all hornworms a bad name. But it’s important to realize that hornworms are actually specialists, each species having their own food preferences, so most hornworms won’t care a thing about your tomatoes, and they couldn’t eat them if they tried. So turn a friendly eye toward other hornworms, because there are some very nifty ones out there!

Snowberry Clearwing

Snowberry Clearwing

If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird-like moth hovering for nectar in the daytime, you’re watching a diurnal hawkmoth. Here in my garden, I’ve seen the Snowberry Clearwing species (Hemaris diffinis). And of course, its larvae are hornworms, beautiful ones at that.

Snowberry Clearwing

Snowberry Clearwing

This Snowberry Clearwing is munching on our native White Honeysuckle shrub, but sometimes I spot it on our Coral Honeysuckle, also native to our area. I just love the vibrant green color. Once it becomes an adult, it might return to nectar at the very same plant.

The White-Lined Sphinx moth is another beauty. While frog-watching with fellow Master Naturalists, we spotted this one collecting nectar just as it turned dark. That of course presented a bit of a photographic challenge, but thank goodness for a flash.

White Lined Sphinx Moth

White-Lined Sphinx Moth (Hyles lineata)

On the wings, you can see the lines for which this moth earned its common name.

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata

You can also see how easily these moths can be mistaken for hummingbirds, because they can hover near a bloom.

Grapes, apples, elms, Evening Primrose — these are all favorites of the White-lined Sphinx– but in full disclosure they will occasionally feed on tomatoes, too. I suppose they are more generalists than some of their cousins. But they don’t have the reputation of Tobacco and Tomato hornworms, which is why I include them here.

Down in South Austin at a Master Naturalist class, we found a White-lined Sphinx caterpillar munching on grapevine.

White-lined Sphinx, Hyles lineata

White-lined Sphinx caterpillar

Another stunning larva.

Last year at the Wildflower Center fall plant sale, a very cool horn-tipped caterpillar was spotted (pun intended, because it itself was also spotted) among a plant (was it Partridge Pea?) in the shade section. My friend Jan bought it, whatever that plant was, simply so we could learn more about the caterpillar. Since I was raising caterpillars in my little caterpillar hotel, I took care of the caterpillar and plant until the caterpillar went to pupa stage, and the pupa overwintered in the backyard hotel. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to take a picture of the caterpillar before it went to cocoon, but I knew that at some point I’d at least see the adult, with luck.

Tersa Sphinx Moth

Sure enough, this past spring, a beautiful moth emerged in the mesh tent, and before I released it, I took a picture. Tersa Sphinxes, by the way, like Pentas, Catalpas, coffee, and other such plants.

The horn tip is a pretty big clue as to what kind of caterpillar you might be looking at — the plant species it is eating is another. Remember, each species has its own food preferences. Do you have any other hornworm favorites?

And I can’t help but point out that though a tomato-eating hornworm is perhaps doomed if you find it in your garden, it’s still a beautiful caterpillar.

Tomato Hornworm, Manduca Sexta

Tomato Hornworm, Manduca sexta


The New Caterpillar House

After an unintentional hiatus, I’m back. Things got rather hectic in my life as the school year transitioned to summer, and new schedules and projects kept my computer time to a ridiculous all-time low, something to rival the Stone Age. Plus, I didn’t want to blog until I’d migrated my platform away from Movable Type, and of course here I’m having to blog on MT anyway. But that will change soon! The good news is that the garden overall did not suffer for my busy schedule, thank goodness.

butterflyhousea06-30-12.jpgWe did complete one of my wish-list projects. For some time, I’d been wanting a more permanent structure for raising caterpillars; with the garden and backyard looking so nice, the caterpillar mesh laundry basket just didn’t cut it anymore. Welcome to our new caterpillar house!

butterflyhouseb06-30-12.jpgInitially I sketched a basic design, and then Michael built it, using primarily leftover materials from projects of old. We did buy window screen and a latch, so the caterpillar house cost us a whopping $5. For the paint, I used leftover environmentally-friendly exterior paint from when we painted our actual house. The caterpillar house is practically a Mini-Me!

butterflyhousec06-30-12.jpgHere’s a side view. The sloping roof is for rain, of course. But it doesn’t keep bird poop off the top! The sturdy post means that I no longer do I have to worry about the dogs knocking over the caterpillar tent. We (and by we, I mean Michael) also dug a 2-foot hole into the ground to make sure that post was going to stay good and stable.

butterflyhoused06-30-12.jpgGuess what — the house has proven to be wonderful. Caterpillars inside stay nicely protected from wasps and birds, and a simple pot with moist soil is enough to keep leaves relatively fresh and caterpillars safe from drowning. I’m going to be making an exterior-grade cloth rectangle for the bottom so that I can keep the bottom clean from caterpillar frass.

butterflyhousee06-30-12.jpgHere’s the little latch. Isn’t it just adorable?

polyphemuscat06-30-12.jpgRight now I’m raising Polyphemus moth caterpillars. They are already getting huge.


Fortunately, despite their enormous appetites, they are such easy guests. Among other things, they eat oak leaves, the most plentiful leaves on our property. But they’ll also eat leaves of citrus trees, trees of the Prunus and elm families, and more.


Just look at those itty bitty feet and little hairs. I think these caterpillars are absolutely gorgeous, itty bitty feet, hairs, color, and all.

polyphemusa03-04-12.jpgYou might recall the Polyphemus moth that joined us for a rather thrilling car ride home in the spring. Here’s one of the photos from that day. Big caterpillar = big moth! Wing span will be about 6 inches across.


Yep, the caterpillars are doing fine in their new house, though I brought them into our big house during the 107-degree weather we had recently.

In case you are wondering about the strap on the trees in the above pictures, they are used for this: Michael’s new hammock.

hammock06-25-12.jpgI guess he deserves a rest now and then! The mulch below is the remains of the last invasive plants we’d had on the property, two 50-foot Tree of Heavens. We finally were able to hire an arborist to bring them down, and what a relief that was! It’s been wonderful to get to plant new natives in their place. There — that was another big project we took care of during my blogging absence! More to come!

Garden Firsts

It’s a funny thing how nature works. Last year we had one of the worst droughts in recorded Texas history, and this year we have some of the best wildlife viewing. In fact, 2011 was so empty of caterpillars, butterflies, and other insects that I had great concern for many of our birds, spiders, reptiles, and other wildlife that are dependent on such invertebrates. But this year, after having a reasonable amount of fall and winter rain, we’ve seen an amazing number of caterpillars of all species and with them a tremendous explosion of butterflies and moths. What that means is that we’ll also have lots of baby birds this season, all things considered, and hopefully lots of other creatures. Needless to say, I’m having fun in the wildlife garden – so much to watch!

yellowwaterlilyb05-06-12.jpgYellow Water Lily

This spring has marked a number of firsts for our relatively young garden (I’m going to call it young until it has reached its fifth birthday). Our native Yellow Water Lily is blooming at last. I have waited such a long time for it to do so, though to be fair, it’s certainly possible that it has bloomed without me knowing it. My White Water Lily still hasn’t bloomed yet, as far as I know, but I shall remain hopeful!

opuntiabloomb05-07-12.jpgSpineless Prickly Pear

We were getting worried that our Spineless Prickly Pear would never bloom, but lo and behold, it’s in bloom right now. Sure enough, bees and flies and other insects are getting drunk on that delicious Opuntia nectar!



Horsemint, Coreopsis, Black-eyed Susan, and Pincushion  Daisy are all in bloom in the garden for the first time. Were those in seed mixes I’d spread around? Or did the birds deliver them? I’d think the first, except that Horsemint and Coreopsis also happen to be growing at the entrance to our subdivision. Hmmmm. The other two are probably just all me.


Sleepy Orange caterpillar — I love how it blends with the fuzzy Lindheimer’s Senna leaves

Caterpillars I’ve longed for but hadn’t yet seen munching on the plants we’d planted for them are at last here. With luck, they’ll return as adults to lay more eggs. Pipevine caterpillars, previously present only from eggs brought home on nursery plants, have officially appeared as the result of a visiting female Pipevine Swallowtail. Sleepy Orange caterpillars have been munching on our Lindheimer’s Senna, but with all the other Sulphur butterflies fluttering about, I expect there will be more.


Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar on White Honeysuckle

Butterfly caterpillars aren’t the only ones in great numbers. Snowberry Clearwing caterpillars, complete with the “horns” consistent with their family, have been happily grazing on the White Honeysuckle Shrub. Lots of unnamed but equally welcome moth caterpillars have been seen in trees, on shrubs, on grasses, on veggies, and perennials. That means it should be a good food year for bats and owls and swallows and the like!

The Monarchs and Queens have returned, as have the Black Swallowtails, I report with relief. I’ll feel much better once I see Giant Swallowtails and Tigers again, along with other Swallowtail species of which I am quite fond. And I think we’ve all been impressed by the showing of Red Admirals this year! Painted Ladies, Buckeyes, Question Marks, Checkerspots, Gulf Fritillaries – oh the list goes on.


Downy Woodpecker collecting insects

Our Mama Eastern Screech Owl returned to our backyard, and last night I saw an owlet shyly peering down at me from its nesting box. Baby birds are starting to fledge right and left, and we’re watching parent birds teaching  their young how to find food. The toads are singing their nightly mating calls. And today for the first time, I watched a Downy Woodpecker feed insects from an old limb to another Downy Woodpecker on a nearby branch. Cute as can be! It’s a good spring. Thank goodness!

Stop the Presses

The boys and I just returned from a truly fun-filled wildlife-a-plenty trip to Florida, and you’d think I’d jump right in and start showing you photos. But no — first I have to show off some of the gorgeous blooms that welcomed us home. But no again, because oh my gosh I found something cool in the backyard while wandering around looking at blossoms. This creature of such colossal awesomeness must be given absolute priority in wildlife garden blogging. And here it is.


Yes, I can already hear your response. Something, I’m sure, along the lines of “What the blazes is THAT?” And perhaps there’s a part of you also saying, “Geez, Meredith is so very weird.” But,my friends, I must introduce you to this amazing creature — it is known as a trashline orbweaver spider. Can you find the spider?

Take another look:


Lo and behold, a spider I only learned about just last Saturday is right here in our backyard!

A trashline orbweaver spider has a very unique way of camouflaging itself. It creates a line of insect remains and other debris stuck together with silk. Then it sits right in the center and blends in, making it hard for birds to notice it and also staying well hidden from unsuspecting but potentially tasty insect passersby.

It was incredibly windy outside, so it was near impossible to get a sharp image of a bobbing spider on a bobbing spider web, but here’s a zoom-in on the spider.


After such a treasure of a find, does it really matter that my Crossvines are producing the most spectacular display of color ever?

They are climbing up and over the shade sails, as they please.

whitehoneysuckle03-19-12.jpgDoes it really matter that the Texas native White Honeysuckle shrub, Lonicera albiflora, is covered in divinely fragrant blossoms?

coralhoneysuckle03-19-12.jpgOr that its cousin, the native Coral Honeysuckle, is perhaps at last displaying its full glory, climbing thickly to the top of the fence with its intense red blooms ever so vibrant against the dense green foliage?

frmimosa03-19-12.jpgWould one notice the pink and puffy blossoms of the Fragrant Mimosa?

And look at this:

pomegranatebud03-19-12.jpgA single Pomegranate bud waiting to open. Let’s hope that more buds will emerge very soon, else I won’t have much hope of Pomegranates this fall.

bfdaisies03-19-12.jpgWhat about the Blackfoot Daisies, twice as big as when I planted them before our trip?

Yes, of course — they all matter!

buckmothcat03-19-12.jpgEven this Buckmoth caterpillar, which thankfully I didn’t step on with my bare foot (I can still remember the painful sting from the caterpillar that found my foot last year), is a welcome sight in my yard. Though the caterpillar might be a stinging kind, it (or its flying adult form) is a potential food source for birds or bats or owls. Therefore, it matters, too!

Driving Home with a Giant Silk Moth

This weekend’s habitat event was helping install wildlife-friendly native plants to create a beginning wildlife garden at the Austin Groups for the Elderly building, known locally as the AGE building. This non-profit organization “empowers caregivers, the elderly and their families through education, advocacy, resources and support” and is a daytime care and resource facility for older members of our community.

Habitat volunteers from the City of Austin, Travis Audubon, and NWF, along with friends and family and AGE staff, got right to work. The first task was scraping out clover and grass from the future beds.

Next, volunteers watered the soil a bit, then placed a carefully arranged layer of cardboard, which also was made wet.


On top of that, we layered soil where necessary, and topped it all with single-shred mulch, kept thin under the trees. This method of lawn reduction is effective and remarkably simple.


The final step was adding plants, including Mexican Buckeye, Shrubby Boneset, Texas Mulberry, Evergreen Sumac, Turk’s Cap, Crossvine, and others. The plants were small, but small is all it takes!

AGEhabitat03-04-12.jpgThe garden is a favorite sitting area for many AGE members, and the new habitat will attract many butterflies and birds for visitors’ viewing pleasure. The building also houses our Travis Audubon office — so we’re extra glad to have a new habitat right outside!

polyphemusaa03-04-12.jpgAs we were getting ready to leave, my husband called me over to see a creature hanging upside-down from the car of a volunteer. It turned out to be a gorgeous Lepidopteran.

The volunteer was quite concerned, and to be honest, from a distance it really did look like a bat was hanging from his window. But I rushed right over to rescue it, and it proved to be a stunning, yet frail, Polyphemus moth. Those bushy antennae you see are an indication that this moth also happened to be male.


There are a number of threats to this beautiful species, but at least they have a variety of host plants, as well as those spectacular and “scary” eye spots, to give them a better chance at making it. The tiny little upper spots on the forewings are actually transparent. We checked.

polyphemusc03-04-12.jpgPolyphemus moths have an average wing span of about 6 inches. As adults, they also have reduced mouth parts, meaning that they can’t eat, so they have one job to focus on: reproduction. The feathery antennae of the males are used to detect the scent of unmated females. Whether the antennae also make the male moths look sexy to females, I cannot attest. But for this female, I think they look pretty cool. Not getting to eat means something else — the moths have a short lifespan of less than a week.

As it had trouble flying, It seemed to me that this little (big) moth was on its last wing, so to speak, so I gently kept it protected and decided to bring it home with us. As it turns out, the moth wasn’t as frail as we thought.

polyphemusd03-04-12.jpgPerhaps because it was darker in the car, the moth came to life once we got moving on the road. By the time we were on the highway, it was fluttering all about, making for quite an interesting drive home. At one point, the Polyphemus moth decorated my husband as a bowtie.

For its own safety, we didn’t want to release the moth until we actually arrived home to our wooded habitat, but in the meantime, it kept us busy in the car, as we had to make sure it stayed safe there, too.

polyphemusb03-04-12.jpgFor quite a bit of the drive, the moth seemed particularly fond of my husband (who was under strict orders not to react to the tickling sensation, nor to panic and cause a wreck). My husband replied, “Finally, there’s an animal who’s not afraid of me!” How my husband manages to seem fearsome in our happy zoo is beyond me, but our skittish cat Cricket in particular still gives him the wary eye. Not many men can boast that they’ve had a Polyphemus moth rest on their Adam’s Apple, but my husband can. Let me just add that driving in a car with a fluttering giant silk moth is perhaps a “Don’t Try This at Home in Your Car” scenario.

polyphemuse03-04-12.jpgUpon our return home, I carefully gathered up the Polyphemus moth, bid it a fond farewell and good luck, and opened my hands to the sky. The moth flew up to the ash tree above, where it rested for much of the afternoon. What an adventure we all had!

Happiness Is a Smiling Dragonfly

Ohhhhhh, I’m a zombie. Two days of hard physical labor, and one mortared limestone-block retaining wall later, my friend Richard and I hobbled to our respective homes, sore and broken. We built the wall, along with my husband’s help on Sunday, in preparation for the pending arrival of a 5,000-gallon rain tank at my son’s school. We also built and mortared two benches for the school’s butterfly-hummingbird garden. The results are wonderful, but we’re paying the price physically.


Today is the first day I’ve been able to think and move again. It seems like ages since I visited my own garden, camera in hand. But this morning I ventured out, and I was pleased to see a friendly face.


This little dragonfly smiled at me while it rested on the spent blooms of a Mexican sage. I can’t tell you what kind of dragonfly it is, other than a very sweet little flyer that warmed my heart as it warmed its wings.


Thanks for the smile, little dragonfly. I sure needed it!

Elsewhere in the garden, the frogs were busy doing happy frog things in the pond, and though I’m seeing fewer butterflies as fall progress, I was still happy to see fluttering skippers, fritillaries, Queens, and Monarchs this morning. I even found a large Giant Swallowtail caterpillar on my hop tree, about to go to chrysalis stage.

And this little guy — one of many all over my garden, the school garden, and Austin gardens everywhere — munched away on an Esperanza.

saltmarshcat11-10-10.jpgThis one is likely a Salt Marsh caterpillar, a type of Arctiid and as such commonly referred to as a Woolly Bear. I remember as a child seeing some of these caterpillars by the hundreds when I lived in Corpus Christi, and I remember as well that we kids looked out for one another, teaching our friends that you shouldn’t ever touch fuzzy caterpillars. In this particular caterpillar, the hairs have been known to irritate skin, even causing a rash.

I don’t see a smile on this caterpillar’s face, but it still gave me a warm and fuzzy greeting, all the same.  🙂

Nice to be back in the garden!  🙂

The Bewitching Black Witch Moth

First a tarantula, and now a Black Witch Moth (also called a Bat Moth). It’s not even October yet — way too early for Halloween!

blackwitcha09-26-10.jpgThis large noctuid beauty earned one of its names simply from its shape and size — the wing span is at least 5 inches across. I imagine at night it would be quite easy to mistake such a flying creature as a bat. The lovely irridescent “comma” is one of its strongest ID markers. From the pale stripes going through the center of the wings, this particular moth can also be identified as a female.


The Black Witch Moth, Ascalapha odorata,  has quite a bit of folklore about it… some consider its presence to be a curse– that the moth is a harbinger of death– particularly if it enters your house. Other people believe that if the moth flies over you, you will lose your hair. Fortunately, neither are the case here — phew! Yet another belief is that the moth is the embodiment of a lost soul, and still one more is that the moth is actually an indicator of good luck — as in winning the lottery. Well, I suppose I should have entered the lottery on the day I saw this lovely girl — I guess I blew it.

blackwitchc09-26-10.jpgEdit: Apparently the pupa of the Black Witch Moth was what killer Buffalo Bill put in his victims’ mouths in the novel “Silence of the Lambs” (the movie used a different species). Whoa. 

Our moth girl was missing a leg and seemed rather frail. It was clear that she wasn’t going to live much longer, so I can only hope that she enjoyed a full life. I’m glad I got to meet her.

Thinking about the full metamorphic life cycle of moths and butterflies — here’s the larval stage of another kind of moth. The dark horn is going to remind tomato growers of a moth they aren’t particularly fond of, but this hornworm is actually the caterpillar stage of the Snowberry Clearwing Hummingbird Moth, on Coral Honeysuckle. As with other hornworms, these caterpillars are very well camouflaged on the green leaves they feast upon.


My cat keeps turning on my printer and making pages print. Time to get her out of here — and me into the garden!

The Moth That Ate Texas

Ever have those moments you so very much wish you had your camera with you? If you are lucky, you might at least have your camera phone with you. And if you are really lucky, the picture you take might actually turn out okay. And then, if you are really, really lucky, the picture might even turn out pretty cool.

imperialmothb08-31-10.jpgThe power of window reflection — that’s our schoolyard habitat in the background.

imperialmothc08-31-10.jpgThis moth delighted kids and parents alike as it rested for hours on a school window. It appears to be an Imperial Moth, Eacles imperialis, but I prefer to call it Mothra. Now we just need Godzilla!


imperialmothd08-31-10.jpgI want to send out a thanks to my friend Richard for taking the time to identify the moth — it sure is one worth knowing.

We’ve got a busy habitat year ahead of us at the school already. My poor garden at home is already getting neglected… again!

And Then There Was One

So all those zillions of Bordered Patch caterpillars of mine suddenly up and disappeared. Gone, gone, gone. Just a total mystery.

I searched and searched for either caterpillar or chrysalis. After some time, I finally found this lone caterpillar on one of my pitiful remaining sunflowers, one pretty much decimated by all the other the now-absent munchers. I’m rooting for this little caterpillar to make it all the way through.

borderedpatch07-10-10.jpgI did find some chrysalises around, but they seemed too tiny to be the Bordered Patch caterpillars. I have no idea how far these guys roam to find their perfect chrysalis spot, but I’m hoping that’s what happened. Otherwise, I’m casting a suspicious eye at the mockingbirds. But could they have eaten that many, leaving not a trace? Perhaps the heavy rain a couple of days ago had something to do with the caterpillars’ disappearance? Who knows. I will just be hopeful that they are resting in a nice safe spot, doing their magic to become butterflies.

Besides our lone ranger, there’s another “one.” A beautiful yellow sunflower blooms off its rather raggedy stem and leaves. It sure toughed it out after all those caterpillars tried to steal its greenery.

sunflowerb07-10-10.jpgI found a Gulf Fritillary, brand new and still drying its wings, under a few Passionflower leaves. It’s the first Fritillary I’ve gotten to see emerge. Passionvines are so rewarding.


This flower looks like it’s sticking its tongue out at someone. But that’s no tongue on that Mexican sage… it’s a Southern Crimson Moth.

crimsonpatcha07-10-10.jpgThis next photo makes it look much darker than it really is — the moth is actually a very dainty pink. And dainty in size, too!

I guess time will solve the mystery of the Bordered Patch caterpillars for me. If they survived, I’m sure I’ll see them soon, fluttering about the garden.