Black Capped Chickadee

 

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This morning after I returned from my early morning walk to the river I stood at the east window watching a few Black – Capped chickadees flying out of my adopted juniper to the bird feeder. Although there are other trees around, the thick cover provided by my arboreal friend is everyone’s favorite. I love to watch these birds delicately take one seed to eat or cache somewhere for the winter. There was so much activity around the juniper early this morning that I suspected that all the birds knew “a big wind” was coming, and were stocking up on seed early.

I tried to count the black-capped chickadees and reached the conclusion that I had about 4 – not exactly a flock. However, I am delighted to have even one pair here in Abiquiu. According to some sources there aren’t even supposed to be any in this area at all, but for three out of the four winters I have lived here I have always had a few.

Other sources say that Northern Mexico has a small population, and most remind us that Black capped chickadees are moving north because of Climate Change. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of Black-Capped chickadee extinction, so please enjoy these delightful little birds while we still have them. Even in Maine, those of us who are birdwatchers have been be –moaning the fact that we are seeing less and less of these iconic little birds each year. Most are moving north towards the boreal forests of Canadian Shield because there are still enough of the kinds of trees around to support healthy populations – for now.

This morning after watching the chickadees, sparrows and nuthatches flying in and out of my juniper I read some very disturbing information about junipers and sage in the Abiquiu News:

“A low-flying airplane will drop Tebuthiuron pellets*, a soil-applied herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis, on creosote bush and juniper trees. At the planned rate and timing of application, the herbicide will have minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because the herbicide is applied in pellet form, it will not drift from the treated areas (simply not true). When the pellets dissolve with favorable precipitation, (how do they know we will get it?) they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system, eventually reducing the sagebrush density. The pellets will not be dropped near waterways or on slopes greater than 10%. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s, and the benefits of its application are well documented.” (By whom, and what was their agenda?)

 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Soil Conservation folks believe that the objective of the treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, and result in an increase of native grasses, forbs and other herbaceous vegetation.”

 

Benefit Wildlife? I was aghast reading this information because it neglects to mention that the junipers and sages provide necessary cover/food for so many birds in the Southwest, or that junipers and sage are better adapted to the drying conditions that are associated with Climate Change in the Southwest.

 

Truly, one hand does not know what the other is doing.

 

But to return to chickadees…

 

In Maine, perhaps because I live in a mixed confider and deciduous forest chickadees visit my feeders all summer. However, I happen to know that their summer diet also relies heavily on insects (spiders, caterpillars, snails etc) and berries. As some are aware, chickadees also love to eat fat. Just yesterday I put out my first suet seed cake. During the winter, chickadees also feast on insect pupae.

Pairs typically form in fall and remain together as part of winter flock. Flocks break up in late winter, and both male and females defend their nesting territory. During courtship and afterwards the males feed the females. Less frequently these days nest sites are found in the holes of trees. Chickadees like to line their nests with mosses or animal hair. In Maine some use tufts of hair (from my brush) that I leave in a little basket in a nearby juniper. I still have many woodpecker excavated holes because I allow all trees to live out their natural lives on my property, but some of my chickadees also use nest boxes.

The literature is very confusing when it comes to migration. Some sources suggest that chickadees are permanent residents but that they also move south in fall and winter (!). I believe that some are permanent residents, at least in Maine, but for reasons that are unknown others do migrate. Another bird mystery. Those that do stay in northern climates must be able to withstand little sun and very cold temperatures during the winter. These chickadees are able to lower their body temperature at night to enter regulated hypothermia, which allows them to conserve energy. Chickadees also have exceptional spatial memory, which allows them to re locate cached food.

Despite its once vast range, as a species the chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Although I have been on the lookout I have yet to see one in Abiquiu this fall.

 

* Some information on Tebuthiuron

(Wikipedia/ Cornell are sources)

Tebuthiuron is a “non -selective broad spectrum” herbicide (read: it kills a lot of living things).

The Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have “great potential for groundwater contamination, due to its high water solubility, low absorption to soil particles, and high persistence in soil.”

In Europe this herbicide has been banned since 2002.

Weeds that are controlled by tebuthiuron include alfalfa, bluegrasses, chickweed, clover, dock, goldenrod, mullein, etc.

My commentary: all these plants are beneficial to bees and other insects and they provide food for birds and animals.

ACUTE TOXICITY

Skin, eye or clothing contact with the herbicide should be avoided. This herbicide is classified as moderately poisonous. Symptoms of Tebuthiuron poisoning in rodents include lack of energy, loss of appetite, muscular incoordination and death. Vomiting occurred in cats and dogs.

Who benefits? Ranchers and big business at everyone’s expense.

 

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Black Bear Requiem and Hope for the Future

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Photo credit Lynn Rogers

 

Before I begin this article I want to acknowledge that I am perhaps too biased against bear hunting. I also know as a black bear researcher and bear lover that I am too emotionally attached to these animals to feel any other way.

 

This year’s three plus month bear hunt begins earlier than ever with “youth day” kicking off the season which began August 24 when children in Maine were encouraged to shoot their first bear. The promise of a first kill inculcates in the next generation the rightness of continuing the “tradition” of hunting in a world where many non – human animals are threatened or facing extinction. Sport and trophy hunting, a million dollar enterprise brings in huge amounts of money to the state wildlife agency – the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife (MDF&W) and other special interest groups like the NRA. Privately owned “bear farms” flourish where one can’t help but kill a bear because all animals are held captive for the slaughter. For some there is the addictive “high” and the sense of “power” that comes with the kill and a snarling bearskin or head to hang on the wall. For others there is meat for the table.

 

Many bears, especially yearlings will be shot (most bears killed are between 1 -3 years old). Mothers have spent the summer teaching their cubs how to forage sometimes traveling 50 miles or more to areas rich in wild foods during this phase of hyperphagia, that is, the brief time during which all bears must eat enough to almost double their weight in order to survive the coming winter hibernation. Cubs are often treed by the mother before she comes to a bait site. Many cubs will die of slow starvation if the mother is shot.

 

Bear feeding frenzy peaks in August and September when the bears need as much as 20,000 calories a day to put on necessary fat. This is the time of year all bears are most vulnerable. Hunters take advantage of the bear’s desperate need for food by placing large unhealthy amounts of sugary food at bait sites as they ready their dogs for the hunt, and prepare their steel snare traps… They have plenty of time because in Maine the hunt will not end until November 30th.

 

This year having spent time in a community that lives peaceably with so many wild bears in Ely Minnesota I am, if possible, having a more difficult time than before attempting to accept a hunting tradition that refuses to acknowledge that it is possible to live with these gentle intelligent animals instead of slaughtering them. I am haunted by the question: how many cubs in Maine will be left to die after their mothers are shot this fall? How many adolescents? The yearly statistics from the Maine Department of Fish and Wildlife Agency indicate that almost as many female bears are shot as males. How many of those females are mothers?

 

I reject the two usual arguments for killing bears: One that hunting is a “tradition” that must be honored, regardless. The second is that bears have to be “managed” or they will take over the state.

 

Hunting was once necessary for survival. This is not the case today. Most hunting occurs because folks like to kill animals for sport – any animal – and bears in particular because they are almost universally feared.

 

When we examine why these intelligent shy animals appear so threatening we discover that there is no scientific basis behind human fear. Only one Black bear in a million kills someone; one is 32,000 times more likely to be murdered by a human.

 

However, individuals do fear bears and our state wildlife agency encourages people to foster that attitude so that folks will buy hunting licenses, shoot bears and bring in revenue. Hunting is economically based. The state agencies also warn the public not to befriend bears because they will become “nuisance animals,” and it is true that bears will visit backyards when hungry. Removing attractants like birdseed and garbage during the spring and summer reduces the number of visiting bears to almost zero. “A fed bear is a dead bear” is a hunter who baits bears to kill them.

 

The second argument is based on the belief that only humans know how to regulate bear populations. Again and again biologists have learned that animals have an ability to regulate their own numbers according to the availability of food resources. Left to their own devices, Black bears would eventually do the same. However, this would take time.

 

Unfortunately it is also true that in Northern Maine the natural foods that bears love – especially the fall beechnut crop which is cyclic to begin with – is disappearing because trees are being harvested too young to produce an abundance of beechnuts. In addition bear territories are disappearing because more and more people are moving to Maine. Black bears are appearing in people’s yards because there is not enough natural food to sustain them.

 

There is one biologist whose studies indicate that there may be a partial solution to this problem. Dr. Lynn Rogers is a bear biologist who has researched Black bears for more than 50 years. During his long and outstanding career he worked as a state biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Minnesota using both classic wildlife methodology (which involves sedating and collaring bears and mapping their movements by plane and by placing pins on a map) and later, developing his own “trust based” research methods. The latter allowed him to learn about Black bear behavior – what bears eat, their social structure, vocalizations, the problems they face in the forest, knowledge that cannot be acquired without actually observing individual bears in their natural habitat over an extensive period of time. No state agencies including the MDNR authorize actual bear behavior studies as far as I know.

 

At one point Dr. Rogers became deeply concerned because so many “nuisance” bears were being shot in a nearby campground near his research center. He began an eight year study for the Forest Service to answer the question of whether diversionary feeding, that is placing wild foods in the forest on a regular basis, would keep bears out of trouble. The results were astonishing. With supplementary feeding bear complaints in the area campground were reduced 88 percent.

 

During that same period Lynn began walking with bears into the forest. Not all bears would tolerate his presence but some did; these bears learned to ignore him after he had given them some treats (nuts). Within one year of following them Lynn said he learned more about Black bear behavior than he had during his entire career.

 

In 1996 after Lynn retired from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources he became one of the residents of Eagle’s Nest Township where people had been hand – feeding bears since 1961. Lynn began a study that focuses on diversionary feeding ‘habituated’ Black bears in this area. He learned that the bears visited the residents who fed the bears and they left those folks that didn’t want a bear to visit their homes alone.

 

In almost 60 years of hand feeding bears there has never been a black bear attack. With supplementary food stations set up in the forest Lynn also discovered that as long as the natural foods were abundant these habituated bears rarely visited these stations because they also preferred the diversity of foods found in the forest. However, during years of natural food shortage these feeding stations helped keep the bears healthy and reduced bear complaints 80 percent.

 

The conclusions are inescapable: It is possible to co -exist peacefully with bears if people choose to so. Equally important is the fact that diversionary or supplementary feeding works to keep bears out of people’s yards especially in times of food scarcity. A fed bear is a healthy bear.

 

In Maine, supplementary feeding might help reduce bear complaints especially in Northern Maine if we chose to implement it, but if this method was adopted by the MDF&W less revenue would come into the state and hunters would have less reason to kill bears, and that is not what hunters, special interest groups like the NRA, and the Maine State Fish and Wildlife agency want.

 

Although I am biased, I am not suggesting that hunting bears in Maine be totally eliminated. It may well be that some hunting has occur to deal with the current bear starvation scenario in Northern Maine. But is it really necessary to hunt bears throughout the rest of the state? For those of us who know and love these iconic wild animals this is an important question.

 

My hope is that Dr. Lynn Roger’s groundbreaking trust based research along with his tireless efforts to educate people about the true nature of bears may one day infiltrate the minds of the general public changing current attitudes towards these animals once and for all.

 

Let’s hope this shift will occur before the Black bear becomes endangered in Maine, one of the few states in which a healthy population still exists.

A Blaze of Fall Color, an Unsung Tree

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I am already missing the stand of staghorn sumac that was growing on the road near my house here in Maine. This time of year I look to the ornamental sumac groves for the first signs of fall. These small trees turn the most exquisite sun yellow, deep orange and flaming red as the season progresses as well as providing the birds with clusters of dark red berries that evening grosbeaks, northern cardinals, ruffed grouse, turkeys, robins, chickadees, woodpeckers, and others feast on throughout the coming winter and spring. Deer, elk, and moose browse on the leaves and twigs. Some butterflies use this food to feed their young and sumacs provide nectar for bees and other beneficial insects while providing great shelter for many more wild creatures.

 

In Maine many consider these small trees a nuisance but elsewhere, as in New Mexico, the plant is sold and grown for its vibrant color. I don’t know how many folks know that this plant is so beneficial to wildlife.

 

The staghorn sumac is just one of many sumacs that are found all over the world, and most look similar. This large shrub has compound leaves, meaning each leaf is composed of several leaflets. Eleven to thirty plus leaflets are arranged in opposite pairs along a stem which droops gracefully towards the ground. The leaves are toothed along the edges, the branches fuzzy. Clumps of small greenish flowers are inconspicuous but form an upright cone or steeple that yields red berries by late summer.

 

Sumacs are not fussy about growing requirements and thrive in open places, hillsides, along the edges of pine forests and country roads all throughout the northeast. There are some species that are well adapted to desert areas because they are particularly drought tolerant. Sumacs control erosion because they have shallow roots. They like to grow in groves to develop complex root systems that support the whole group.

 

One cousin is poisonous. This sumac can easily be identified even if it looks similar to other sumacs because of its penchant for swamps and other wet places. It likes to have its feet in water. This species has a thick trunk and sturdy branches; it produces sprays of drooping smooth white berries in the fall. The plant can cause an unpleasant rash.

 

Humans have enjoyed sumac berries, which have a zingy lemon taste when picked at their peak, typically in late summer or early fall. They are packed with vitamin C. Soak berries in hot or cold water and then strain to make a refreshing drink or a gargle for sore throats. If the drink is too sharp for your taste buds, add a little maple syrup.

 

Other sumac parts have been used in a variety of ways: fresh sumac stems have been used in basket weaving, the tannin-packed leaves and bark have been used for tanning leather and the roots have been made into teas that help stop bleeding. The leaves and berries are used to make dyes.

 

The trees have multiple trunks and pithy, hollow stems. The wood is good for many things, including whittling, making pipe stems and making a natural “tap” for collecting maple syrup from a tree. Unlike poison sumac, ornamental sumac brush can be safely burned, and the smoke can be used by beekeepers to calm the bees during hive maintenance.

 

Ornamental sumacs are highly adaptive, and there are different types for every region of the United States and Canada. Sumacs are also imported from other parts of the world and naturalized in North America. Another advantage is that they appear to be impervious to many plant diseases. Once established they spread easily.

 

It wasn’t until I lived in New Mexico that I thought of them as a garden addition because there are so many varieties growing wild around here. Now I am thinking about planting one around the casita.

The Not So Common Northern Grackle

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Does anyone remember the days when the arrival of thousands of blackbirds announced that spring was on the way? As a child I recall the bare decidious trees around my grandparents farm were peppered with redwings, cowbirds, starlings and grackles. Most farming people disliked these birds because grackles, especially, loved to feast on grains and corn.

 

Today, redwings still mark the change of the seasons but the clouds of mixed blackbirds are absent because humans have decimated their populations.

 

When a shimmering blue – black Northern grackle appeared at my birdfeeder in late May I was delighted and hoped, that like the Redwing couple, this blackbird would choose to stay. In all these years I have never had a grackle nest here.

 

Last winter I developed a fascination and a deep respect for the grackle as a result of making regular visits to a Walmart in New Mexico that was built near a marsh. I couldn’t resist feeding the Great Tailed grackles hunks of bread as I observed these clever characters hopping about on the ground, dodging people and automobiles while searching for tidbits. These birds had surely adapted to human habitation and this fact impressed me greatly. Adaptability is sign of intelligence. Some of these birds always hung out on the roof with the fake owls that were put there to scare them away.

 

When the pair nested here down by the brook (all grackles like to nest near water) I was delighted because I could continue to observe another related species; I also hoped to learn some of their complex calls.

 

Although I herd the two conversing, for the longest time I never saw the female who is not black but washed in chocolate brown. Two months later I have three young male grackles that visit my feeder along with both of their parents. Although they are omnivores – they eat insects, frogs berries etc. they love sunflower seeds too. If given a choice by the Mourning doves (who scatter seed indiscriminately) grackles prefer to forage on the ground. Common Grackles are resourceful foragers. They sometimes follow plows to catch invertebrates and mice, wade into water to catch small fish, pick leeches off the legs of turtles, steal worms from American Robins, and raid nests. Grackles have a hard keel on the inside of the upper mandible that they use for sawing open acorns. Typically they score the outside of the narrow end, then bite the acorn open.

 

Northern populations migrate; the rest remain in areas east of the Rockies year round. Along with some other species of grackles, the Northern grackle is known to practice “anting” – rubbing insects that contain formic acid on its feathers to deal with parasites. Though the exact mechanism is poorly understood, several studies have examined the ability of the Northern grackle to interpret the variability of the earth’s magnetic field.

 

I have yet to learn all of the Northern grackle calls, which are complicated by the birds’ uncanny ability to mimic other birds and sometimes even me! The grackles seem to enjoy my company, because whenever I am outside some members of the family join me usually perching high in a nearby pine. They peer down at me with bright yellow – rimmed eyes often making remarks that I have yet to comprehend.

 

Grackles radiate ‘brilliance’, and in fact, studies that have been done on these birds reveal how adept they are at problem solving. For example grackle intelligence was tested by posing glass cylinders full of water with bits of food floating just outside the birds reach. To grab the morsels, the birds had to drop in pebbles to raise the water levels. After a number of trials most of the grackles figured out that dropping pebbles into the water raised the water level so they could feed. They also learned that it was usually more efficient to use heavy pebbles to reach the snack, but if provided with too large stones the birds turned back to small pebbles to reach their goal.

 

Another test done had even more dramatic results. Silver and gold tubes of food were presented to the grackles but only the gold tubes had peanuts and bread in them. The grackles immediately chose the gold tubes, but when the food was placed in silver tubes the birds instantly chose them. These tests reveal not only problem solving ability but also the birds flexibility in terms of learning.

 

It’s important to note that grackles outperformed three species in the Corvid family.

 

Unfortunately the Northern grackle is listed as near threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature; the species may be approaching extinction. Indiscriminate overuse of pesticides is probably the primary cause. What disturbs me is that most of the literature doesn’t address the issue of Northern grackle decimation probably because it is considered a pest by humans. Many sites continue to suggest that the Northern grackle is widespread and common when just the opposite is the case.

 

In contrast, the Great Tailed grackle seems to be thriving in New Mexico and has expanded its range. At least in the western part of this country one species is not threatened so perhaps all is not lost.

The Monarch Butterfly

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(Author’s photo of first Monarch butterfly seen third week in July)

 

In late May a friend of mine in Abiquiu told me that he saw at least 10 Monarch butterflies clustered together in one group, a sighting that warmed my heart because the year before I had seen so few.

 

Last year I was fortunate enough to have a milkweed plant seed itself by the casita. When the seeds ripened in the fall I scattered the silky airborne parachutes under the original plant hoping that the milkweed would re –seed. This spring I was rewarded. Three new plants emerged in a place that would be watered as long as we had summer rains. When I left Abiquiu the plants were doing well, but summer would tell the tale…

 

Milkweed is the one plant that Monarchs love and the only plant on which they will lay their eggs. I hoped that a small cluster of these plants might provide sweet nectar that would entice a few more of these butterflies to visit the casita during the summer and during fall migration.

 

It should be mentioned that milkweed also provides an intriguing form of protection for this butterfly. The milkweed juices make the Monarch poisonous to predatory birds. Additionally, the deep orange color of the butterfly alerts predators to the fact that their intended meal might be toxic.

 

Here in Maine I have a field that is covered in milkweed from early July onward. I have raised many Monarch’s to adulthood over a period of thirty years because it has been relatively easy to find the eggs which are laid on the underside of the milkweed leaves beginning in late summer. The scent of the flower is, to me, intoxicating, and the clusters of tiny blossoms are so beautiful to look at in their myriad shades of pale pink salmon.

 

Ever since the milkweed started blooming this summer I have been on the lookout for Monarchs. I saw my first butterfly at Popham beach on the coast where Milkweed plants are plentiful growing amidst the sand dunes, and in wild coastal fields. I then glimpsed two around my house this week, and remain hopeful that I will see more…

 

Monarch butterflies are perhaps best known for their migrating habits. No other butterflies migrate as far; this insect flies up to three thousand miles each year. Millions of these butterflies will fly from Canada to Mexico this fall.

 

More astonishing, this entire trip will take four generations to complete. The Monarchs begin their southern migration September to October. Eastern and northeastern populations, originating in southern Canada and the United States, travel to overwintering sites in central Mexico. They arrive at their roosting trees in November. When the butterflies reach their destination in Mexico they return to the same trees that their forebearers did sometimes roosting deep in the forest. They remain in their roosts during the winter months and then begin their northern migration in March. No individual butterfly completes the entire round trip. Female monarchs lay eggs for a subsequent generation during the northward migration. Four generations are involved in the annual cycle.

 

Western populations, which would include the Monarchs in New Mexico, follow a similar pattern migrating annually from regions west of the Rocky Mountains to overwintering sites on the coast of California.

 

Many folks know that the Monarch butterfly population has dropped 90 percent over the past 20 years (Center for Biological Diversity). The species has become ‘functionally extinct’, meaning that the numbers are so low now that the Monarchs have little hope of long-term survival. Scientists look to Monarchs and other butterflies as indicators of environmental health, since they are easily affected by air and water pollution, severe weather, pesticides, the presence of other toxins and, of course, Climate Change. It breaks my heart to acknowledge that most folks have not paid attention to the decline of these beautiful insects. Globally we are paying a huge price for our blindness and indifference.

 

When it comes to Monarchs the present is what we have, and I encourage anyone that gardens to create a milkweed patch for these wanderers in the hopes that we might extend their collective lifetime a few more years. It’s important to note that milkweed needs adequate water. Refusing to use lethal backyard pesticides and planting milkweed are two things we can do to help these glorious orange insects in the short term.

Luna

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This morning when I took the dogs out around 6 AM I saw a beautiful Luna moth lying on emerald green moss covered ground. By the looks of its antenna I surmised this one was male because its ‘feathers’ were so long. In the past the sight of one of these deceased moths would have made me sad because I know that this moth in its present winged state is birthed without even a mouth to eat, and as soon as it mates it dies. But now I see Luna in a different light, as one whose time to die has come…Besides, I knew that the female that this male had mated with had laid eggs that would one day hatch…

 

When I bent down to pick up the pale green four inch wide insect with its double set of eyes, I noticed how torn and tattered its wings were, perhaps a result of a would be predator that discovered too late how unpleasant these moths can taste. Or perhaps it was just old age.

 

As defense mechanisms, larvae emit clicks as warnings. Surprisingly, they also regurgitate intestinal contents that have a deterrent effect on a variety of predators. The double sets of eyes on the lime green adult wings are believed to confuse predators as well. The elongated tails of the hind -wings are believed to jam echolocation used by predatory bats, although I hardly think bats are a problem around here. I am always amazed that insects have such sophisticated means of protecting themselves!

 

I brought the moth in the house to look at more closely wondering just where around here on the ground the larva had hatched into its adult form. Females lay 200–400 eggs, singly or in small groups, on the underside of leaves. Egg laying starts the evening after mating is completed and goes on for several days. Eggs hatch in about a week.

 

Each instar – the period between molts – generally takes about 4–10 days. There are five instars before cocooning occurs. At the end of each instar, a small amount of silk is placed on the major vein of a leaf and the larva molts leaving its green exoskeleton behind. After the final instar, larvae stay on the same tree where they hatched until it is time to descend to the ground to make a cocoon. At this point the caterpillar will spin its cocoon around a shriveled leaf that is lying on the ground. When females emerge from cocoons they fly to a tree, emit pheromones, and wait there for males to find them. Males can detect these molecules at a distance of several miles, flying in the direction the wind is coming from until reaching the female. Luna moth females mate with the first males to find them, a process that typically starts after midnight and takes several hours. The entire Luna Moth cycle usually occurs in the space of one year. In the North Country one generation of moths is produced.

Luna moths are what are known as giant silk moths – some have wingspans of seven inches. This moth was the first to be recorded in American insect literature. These most magnificent moths have a range that extends from Canada to Florida, and like every other insect this moth is succumbing to habitation loss, pesticides, logging, light pollution and other pressures associated with Climate Change.

There was a time when I used to see these moths each summer… I remember so well the year one fell out of the sky onto my head while I was standing on the porch of my camp… but these days, the sight of each one, living or dead, is a gift to be treasured and written about.

Firefly Night: A Language Made of Light

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My friend Iren from Abiquiu just wrote me that on the full moon some fireflies were lighting up the night down by the river’s edge. I was so happy to hear that news because last summer those diminutive lanterns were absent around the casita even though it is situated close to the river.

 

In my Maine backyard this summer some green and gold lights continue to flash their signals just before dark lasting into the night. I find myself looking for patterns, and counting firefly numbers obsessively, almost against my will, remembering what was…

 

When I first moved to the mountains 30 plus years ago I camped in the field next to the brook and couldn’t fall sleep at night, struck by “lightening bug” wonder. It seemed as if the field itself was on fire with thousands of these magical lights that blinked as they skimmed the tall grasses, glowing like emerald jewels from the ground. When my camp was built it was awash in firefly light, and each year I anxiously awaited magical, mystical summer nights when my nocturnal friends would appear. The first evening or so after they arrived, I couldn’t resist capturing a few to keep in a ventilated jar overnight, just as I had done as a child.

 

When it started I thought it was my imagination. Maybe it was a bad year for fireflies I rationalized, the first summer I noted the absence of an abundance of lights hovering over the field. But I was wrong. Year after year, journal entries confirmed my worst fears. The fireflies were disappearing and there was nothing I could do about it.

 

Even now that I know that our insects are experiencing a holocaust there is a child in me that cannot accept that fireflies are leaving us and that its just a matter of time before these insects disappear for good. I recently read that tourists flock to places where (synchronized) fireflies are still abundant.

 

The grief I feel is visceral.

 

Fireflies are winged beetles. When a chemical called luciferin inside their abdomen/tail combines with oxygen, calcium and adenosine triphosphate a chemical reaction occurs that results in bioluminescence. This ‘cool’ light is the most efficient in the world because almost 100 percent of the energy used is emitted as light and not heat.

 

A similar group of organisms are glowworms. The term “glowworm” can refer to firefly larva or wingless adult female fireflies—some of which are not in the firefly family Lampyridae. Both glowworms and fireflies are bioluminescent.

 

Each species uses it own pattern of lightening flashes to attract a mate, and most fascinating is that some fireflies synchronize their yellow, pale red, green, or orange lights. Several studies have shown that female fireflies choose mates depending upon specific male flash pattern characteristics. Higher male flash rates, as well as increased flash intensity, have been shown to be more attractive to females in two different firefly species.

 

Many would be predators are repelled by firefly blood that contains defensive steroids which apparently taste awful!

 

Some firefly larvae can emit light from underground, and in some species the eggs glow. The underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slimy slugs, worms and snails. Others live in the water, have gills and eat aquatic snails before coming ashore. Most adult fireflies feast on pollen and nectar.

 

Three main factors for firefly disappearance are habitat loss (when fields are paved over fireflies don’t migrate; they simply disappear – this fact may suggest that these insects may be tied to a particular place), logging, toxic chemicals like DEET (which tend to linger in aquatic environments where many fireflies start their lives), and light pollution.

 

Most species of fireflies thrive as larvae in rotting wood and forest litter at the margins of ponds and streams. And as they grow, they more or less stay where they were born. Some species are more aquatic than others, and a few are found in more arid areas—but most are found in fields, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind—ponds, streams and rivers, or even shallow depressions that retain water longer than the surrounding ground.

As previously mentioned both male and female fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate. All species speak a language of light.

Human induced artificial light pollution (including those cute little solar lights) may interrupt firefly flash patterns. Scientists have observed that synchronous fireflies get out of sync for a few minutes after a car’s headlights pass. Light from homes, cars, stores, and streetlights may make it difficult for fireflies to signal each other during mating—meaning fewer firefly larvae are born next season. Where fireflies once had uninterrupted forests and fields to live and mate, homes with landscaped lawns and lots of exterior lights (that some people leave on all night) are now the norm.

I find it distressing that so many folks are obsessed with the idea and the reality of ‘Light’ in all its manifestations and yet we are losing the very creatures who actually speak the language made of light.