Walden West ~ October Fauna

Walden West in October

Attributed to everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Valerie Jarrett, the well-known phrase — “You can have it all: just not at the same time” — seems first to have appeared in print in Betty Friedan’s 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. In time, a corollary emerged: “You can do it all: just not at the same time.”

During the recent holiday season I continued to visit Walden West, but time dedicated to writing for The Task at Hand meant less time for sharing photos. Now, it’s time to play ‘catch-up,’ rounding out my year with a series of three Walden West posts from the end of 2022.

In October, fauna outshined flora as I wandered through the woods. Birdsong continued to be scarce, but a trio of Crested Caracaras perched among the trees. Because they tend to seek prey in more open areas, these may have been resting after a morning of foraging.

Crested Caracara ~ Caracara plancus

At the edge of the woods, one of the most widespread damselflies in North America was at rest: the Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile). The insect thrives in residential water gardens as well as near lakes, marshes, rivers, and wetlands.

The male displays two blue, tear-shaped eyespots on the top of its head, while its predominately blue abdomen is marked with matching small black areas on segments 3, 4, and 5.

Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile)

Despite the disappearance of orb-weaving spiders, a large web had been stretched along one edge of the pond. Known as a ‘mesh web,’ it’s typical of work done by spiders in the Dictynidae: a family known for webs made of tangled, irregular strands.

An untidy but typical mesh web

Large numbers of migrating butterflies in mid-October suggested I might find  some at the pond; what I didn’t expect was to find one in extremis.

When a fluttering caught my eye, I assumed a butterfly had become entangled in a spider’s web. Instead, a Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis) was being carried off by a scourge of fire ants. 

The smallest butterfly in North America, the Western Pygmy-Blue’s wingspan averages only a half-inch. Its coppery-brown wings, touched with iridescence and fringed with white, are especially attractive. Naturally the ants were less interested in the butterfly’s appearance than in its usefulness as food. While I watched, they carried their meal-to-be toward a hole in the surface of the ground, then pulled it out of sight. How long the entire process took I can’t say, but from the time I spotted the butterfly until it disappeared into the larder was only a minute or so.

Down the hatch, so to speak

In time, I found a variety of living butterflies, including some I’d never seen. The Question Mark, Little Yellow (or Little Yellow Sulphur), and Checkered Skipper were ones I recognized.

Question Mark ~ Polygonia interrogationis
Little Sulphur ~ Eurema lisa
Common Checkered Skipper ~ Burnsius communis

The Southern Emerald moth is less common. Years ago, I found one resting on a dock in a local marina; this was only the second I’ve seen. Small, with a wingspan of about an inch, its color evokes celadon. According to Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA), it flies from March to October, so this one was right on schedule.

Southern Emerald ~ Synchlora frondaria

Hackberry trees serve as a host plant for Hackberry Emperor butterflies, as well as for Tawny Emperors and American Snouts. The Hackberry Emperor prefers wooded streams, forests, and riparian corridors: just the sort of environment found at Walden West.

Hackberry Emperor ~ Asterocampa celtis

 The most unexpected sight of the day was this weirdly impressive Gulf Fritillary caterpillar.

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar ~ Agraulis vanillae

The fleshy knobs called tubercles on its body, together with the obvious black spikes protruding from them, help to provide protection from predators. Like most caterpillars, Gulf Fritillaries also have setae, or short hairs, on their bodies; their black spikes are covered in tiny setae.

Obviously, it had been a good year for Gulf Fritillaries; large numbers of them fluttered everywhere. Monarchs may be the most publicized, but I think these butterflies are equally lovely.

Numerous as the Gulf Fritillaries, Salt Marsh Caterpillars (Estigmene acrea) were everywhere. Named for a presumed preference for grasses in salt marshes near Boston, Salt Marsh Caterpillars actually prefer herbaceous and woody plants as hosts. Variable in color, their grayish larvae darken over time to yellow, brown, or black, with yellow markings and long black or reddish hairs.

Master defoliators, the young larvae feed close together on the lower side of leaves, skeletonizing them in the process. Older larvae are solitary, and eat large holes in leaf tissue.

Salt marsh Caterpillar

Salt Marsh Caterpillar

The day’s most unusual find was an Eight-spotted Forester Moth caterpillar (Alypia octomaculata). Its striking black, white, and orange rings are accented by small black tubercules, and it has a cute spotted orange head. When I noticed this one, it was patrolling an area filled with peppervine: one of its favored host plants.

Adult Forester Moths act much like butterflies: flying during the day, sipping nectar, and displaying antennae thickened at the tips. Primarily black, the moth’s wings are marked with pale yellow and white spots. Although I’ve never seen an adult, this photo makes clear its attractiveness.

Eight-spotted Forester Moth ~ Alypia octomaculata

The day’s final treat was this little fellow. After months of following raccoon tracks through sand and mud, one of Walden West’s four-footed furry ones decided to introduce himself. The Algonquian Indian word for the animal, arakun, meant ‘he scratches with his hands.’ During the 1700s, American colonists dropped the initial vowel, and the name became ‘raccoon.’

Raccoon ~ Procyon lotor

Almost exclusively nocturnal, raccoons live almost anywhere and eat almost anything. Intelligent and curious, they’re perfectly able to pull a crawfish from its hole or dislodge the lid on a suburban garbage can.

Anyone who’s lived around raccoons has stories. My personal favorite involves the raccoon who broke into a Parks & Wildlife building on Matagorda Island some years ago. After removing a screen from the kitchen window, the critter found peanut butter on the kitchen table, opened the jar, and happily scooped out pawsful of its treat until rangers discovered it and put an end to the shenanigans.

Even at Walden West, it’s a lesson worth remembering: never underestimate the cleverness or persistence of nature’s creatures.

 

Comments always are welcome.

80 thoughts on “Walden West ~ October Fauna

    1. The Fritillaries are beautiful, especially when the patterns in their wings are backlighted. They’re quite common, but I usually see only a few at a time. I found this on a University of Florida site:

      “The butterfly undergoes distinct seasonal movements each year. Adults move northward in spring and form temporarily breeding colonies throughout the southeast… Starting in late summer and continuing through fall, huge numbers of adults migrate southward into peninsular Florida. Adults overwinter in frost-free portions of their range.”

      A Texas Parks & Wildlife site adds that great flights of the butterfly have been spotted over the Gulf of Mexico. Migration may explain the numbers I saw.

  1. The Fritillaries are beautiful. Plenty of arakuns around here. Curious, clever, and capable describe them well. We had one as a pet of sorts when I was a kid. My older brothers took care of it.

    1. I’ve seen Gulf Fritillaries in the Kansas City area, but that’s about the northern edge of their range. The iNaturalist map shows no sightings in Iowa, and only one in Nebraska, near Omaha. Have you ever seen one?

      It’s easy to get attached to raccoons, despite their naughty ways. I’d not want one living in my house uninvited, but they’re great fun to have around. When I lived in a place that backed up to a strip of woods, I fed one; when she had babies, she brought them, one at a time, to show them off.

    1. This turned out to be a great year for them. It was especially fun to find the species I’d never seen before — and that crazy Fritillary caterpillar.

        1. Timing really does make a difference. We were afflicted with drought this year as well, but it seems not to have affected butterfly numbers: at least, for some species. The fact that we have spring and fall migrations probably influence the numbers that showed up in October, too.

    1. We have master carpenters and master plumbers, so why shouldn’t the caterpillars have master defoliators? The caterpillars’ apprenticeships are short, though; their life span doesn’t allow for lingering on those branches.

    1. Well, this was October. Believe me, post-freeze December wasn’t quite so colorful. I think your part of the world probably has become the most colorful at this point, although we have warmth again and lots of sunshine, so there’s no telling what will come.

        1. That’s good to hear. Ours are very, very sad, but some of them came back even after that serious Valentine’s Day freeze. Being in the ground with well-established root systems helped those. And some of our native species came back well this year, although (I assume) the drought led to smaller plants and flowers.

    1. Don’t you grow passionflower? I learned that it’s a host plant for the Fritillaries. On the other hand, you have such a nice variety of flowers, I’m sure any butterfly ‘tour guide’ would suggest a stop at your garden.

  2. Glad you played catch up! Lots of fluttering, creeping life where you live. This post reminded me what a transformation it is to go from caterpillar to moth or butterfly. A true metamorphosis. And, yes, that gulf fritillary is a beauty.

    1. It was especially fun to find these two ‘new’ caterpillars. Both of them evoked amazement of the ‘what in the world is that?’ sort. Even more amazing is that I’ve seen a bit of fluttering life since our mid-December freeze. Whether the butterflies have emerged or come up from the south I can’t say, but it’s wonderful to see them.

  3. Aww, lepidopterans! how I am ready for them again! I’ve seen a few small moths the last week, but butterflies, oh, I’m ready for them! It was definitely a banner year for gulf frits at my place! Hardly a monarch but plenty of gulfs!

    happy new year, Linda!

    1. I’ve seen some small yellow butterflies, but the freeze either took out the larger ones or sent them scooting. It’s interesting that you noticed lots of Fritillaries this year. It makes sense that they could have good years and slim years, just like wildflowers. It just occurred to me today that the time to begin wildflower-seeking isn’t far away. It’s January, and for the last three years I’ve found a few Indian Paintbrush in this month. I’d better get working, so I can take some time off to go botanizing!

      1. Spring ephemerals are already up, just not blooming yet. I have seen basal rosettes for Texas ragwort and corydalis! It’s out there…just biding its time! Soon!

        1. I went out looking for signs of Indian strawberry and Texas Tauschia last weekend, but couldn’t find any yet. The corydalis is a favorite, though I’ve never seen it around here: only in the hill country and at the Attwater refuge.

    1. I’m grinning. We’re good, but we’re not that good — these photos are from October. See the title? My goodness, if we had beauty like this right now, we’d be overrun with even more ‘snowbirds’ than we already are. Right now, we’re in our shades of brown and gray phase, although it’s warmed nicely, and the blue sky is glorious. Winter’s not over, but it’s nice to have a reprieve.

      1. (Shaking my head because I forgot your title) I realized your photos were from October after I commented and read the title of your post again. Duh! Yet even though you’re in what you call your “brown and gray phase,” I’d be tempted to travel you way just to see some blue skies. It’s been incredibly dreary, drab, overcast, and downright dull here for weeks now. SAD? I think I might have it.

        1. The past three days we’ve had the best blue skies ever, and nice temperatures to go with them — 60s and 70s. I wish I could box some up and send them to you. We’re in for rain again this weekend, but it’s not so gloomy when it comes and goes. We’ll no doubt have another stretch of cold and gloomy before we get out of January!

            1. I say I don’t mind such weather, but on the other hand — weeks of it could put me in a funk, too. There’s something about sunshine that lifts the soul, even if it’s cold! I hope you get some of that sunshine soon!

    1. Raccoons are so appealing — and occasionally appalling. As much as I enjoy birds and insects, I’d wondered if I’d ever find other forms of life around Walden West. Now I can add a mammal to this list.

    1. Isn’t that caterpillar cool? I was surprised by everything about it, especially the spikes. From what I’ve read, a whole variety of protuberances and hairs serve as defensive mechanisms for the creatures. The Fritillary’s appearance certainly would put me off.

      I didn’t think green was common among butterflies and moths, but it is. There are other emerald moths, and look at this green swallowtail. It would be easy to spot that one!

  4. That pale green fellow is most attention-getting! And naturally, I’m fascinated by that tangled “mess” of a web. I’ve never seen anything quite like that and am puzzled because most webs I’ve seen are works of art. Thanks for taking us back to Walden West and catching up with the critters living there.

    1. I knew about orb-weavers, the spiders who make those artful webs, and I knew there are spiders who make funnel webs or webs that look like sheets of silk spread over the grass, but I’d never seen a web like this one. I looked up “kinds of spider webs,” and that’s when I learned about the spiders who make mesh webs. It reminds me of a cast net for fishing. I hope the spider caught more than a pile of leaves for its trouble!

    1. It was one of the “liveliest” visits I’d made. Bees, flies, and beetles are great, but it was fun to see so many butterflies — and that amazing Fritillary caterpillar. The raccoon, of course, was pure lagniappe.

    1. This is why I had to divide my October post into two parts: one for flora and one for fauna. There was just so much to see — more than in any other month, even those in spring. So much is written about the Monarch migrations that I’d not really considered how many other butterfly species migrate, but there are a lot — like the Gulf Fritillary. I’d love to find an adult Eight Spotted Forester moth. Those are drop-dead gorgeous.

  5. I don’t think there are any unattractive butterflies, but I have to say that your Southern Emerald stands out to me. I love the light green color with the lacy wing pattern, and the wing margins look as though they are lined with hoar frost crystals. Splendid!

    1. I’d not thought of that little fringe on the Southern Emerald as hoarfrost, but it’s a perfect description. (Maybe if I saw more hoarfrost, it would have come to mind.) Its color reminds me of celadon-glazed pottery: understated, but elegant.

  6. Oh, I do love that flaming orange of the Fritillaries. Walden West’s denizens are as multicultural as they are multicolored.

    1. It’s been enjoyable and instructive to watch the changes through the year. In January, the pool held water; since then, it’s been dry — although the ground has grown spongy from our recent rains. And for a while, spiders were everywhere. Now, the spiders have mostly disappeared, but October was awash in butterflies. Like you, I enjoy those bright orange Fritillaries, and it was a real treat to see its caterpillar.

  7. Well, there may not have been as many flowers to photograph this trip but there were butterflies and that’s almost the same thing according to some folks. They certainly can be just as beautiful. “A scourge of fire ants” was new to me but knowing what a problem they are it’s not surprising to hear them described that way, I am sure that little Western Pygmy Blue would agree.

    1. I love creative collective nouns, like ‘a swarm of bees’ or a ‘herd of turtles.’ ‘Scourge of fire ants’ just popped into my mind; it seemed perfectly suited to those little demons. It was really interested to see the ‘absences’ on this trip. With the birds silent, and most spiders suddenly out of sight, it was change by subtraction. Now that I think about it, that makes sense. Spring is a season of addition, but in fall, nature subtracts her wonders from our sight: one at a time. That said, I’m looking forward to sharing November, which had a distinctly golden glow.

      1. Well, probably the most popular, for obvious reasons, is a “congress of baboons”. I love telling folks I just witnessed a murder. Of course that’s crows but many don’t know that.

        1. I didn’t know about the murder of crows until a few years ago. Just for grins, I looked at the Wiki glossary of collective nouns — there are hundreds. Some are common, and some fanciful. One I enjoyed was “a gulp of cormorants.”

    1. I was fairly well astonished by the variety I found in October. It’s always been my favorite month, and sometimes it can be awash in pretty flowers. This year, there weren’t so many flowers — at least, at Walden West — but the butterflies certainly made up for it. I’m glad they pleased your eye!

        1. It may well be. There was a lot of hand-wringing here about “no butterflies,” and then it seemed they were everywhere. So many variables affect them, but my fear that I wouldn’t see any at Walden West turned out to be baseless.

  8. A peanut butter eating raccoon. Now that makes sense and is charming for afar. I love the Hackberry Emperor photo. The pattern and colors on its wings look like they could be an interior designer’s suggestion for your living room. So put together, so soothing to my eye.

    1. I was charmed by the Hackberry Emperor as soon as I laid eyes on it. First encounters with a brand new creature always are fun, even if answering the ol’ “what is it?” question can take some time. It does amaze me how many different patterns have evolved over the years. Nature’s a heck of a decorator!

  9. Kid.
    Meet candy store.

    So much to gawk at! All but one are familiar friends. The Eight-spotted Forester Moth larva is fabulous! We have A. wittfeldii, Wittfeld’s Forester Moth, in Florida, but I have yet to spot one.

    One of many raccoon tales. Picnic under the palms at the beach. Gini tells me to stop pinching her bottom as there are guests at the table. I show her both my hands are busy holding a sandwich. Yep. Little masked beggar scratching at her, backed up and stood on its back legs. Not his first picnic rodeo! (No, I never got an apology.)

    It has been so fascinating to observe the transition of Walden West through the seasons. Truly feels like we are in the presence of the spirit of Thoreau.

    1. Our Forester Moths are nearly alike. BAMONA says that the “inner yellow spot on forewing narrower and more like a crossband” in your species. I’ll be sure and keep that in mind if I spot one of the adults. They’d be hard to miss. The orange thingies on their legs remind me of pollen packets on the legs of bees.

      That’s a delightful raccoon tale. They do figure us out, and make the most of their cuteness to get what they want. If ‘cute’ doesn’t do the trick? Well, there are other stories. They’re as determined as they are skilled, and they’re pretty darned skilled.

      I hardly can believe I’ve been visiting WW for a year. Two more posts, and this series will come to an end. Then? It’s time for another project!

  10. So many pretty butterfly and moth images, both adults and caterpillars, the salt marsh moth and forester moth caterpillars in particular. It’s hard to beat Gulf Fritillary for vivid color.
    By October, butterfly season is pretty much over here in Massachusetts: mainly a few whites and sulphurs. The exception is Bronze Copper, a butterfly I can usually find in mid-October.

    1. I was surprised to learn that the salt marsh moth got its name because of Boston. It never would have occurred to me that there are marshes in that area. Then again, if you gave me a blank map of Massachusetts and asked me to pinpoint where Boston is, I might not be able to do it. Boston Harbor probably would get me close, though. Your Bronze Copper is another lovely one. I’ve seen just a few yellows since our recent freeze, but I think the good times are over for them now.

      1. There certainly are – the marshes in the foreground of the sunset images I posted recently (from Ipswich Mass) are salt marshes. Cape Cod has salt marshes on the bay side (Brewster, Welfleet). Spartina spp. are the common salt marsh grasses on the Massachusetts shoreline. Although I’ve not seen the salt marsh moth caterpillar, I have seen the adult on Cape Cod.

  11. The mesh web helps remind me to carry my walking stick early AM. It waves in front of me when walking through trees and bushes. Oh, for Mr. Arachnid who has traveled about my face more than once.

    1. I’m not the most squeamish person in the world, but I do hate getting a faceful of web. It’s not quite as bad as discovering a big old millipede under a log, or a slug, but it’s right up there! Your stick’s a good idea, especially since spiders can rebuild pretty quickly.

  12. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing photos of Crested Caracara. Such a beautiful and distinctive bird. That’s quite a range of butterflies and caterpillars you found, some very colorful. I love the variety. And back to the spiderwebs, though it’s mostly too cold for them these days my father and I still sometimes walk into one draped right across the trail. And a raccoon! I don’t see them very often at all. The last one I photographed was up in the nook of a tree trying to sleep. It was funny watching it rolling around, one leg hanging out over the tree, then another as it rolled over, just like a little person trying to sleep.

    1. I love your description of the raccoon you found. It brought to mind what I often see with napping squirrels, laid out on a limb with legs hanging down on either side. It also brought to mind a short video I kept and watch from time to time, just because it’s so charming..

      After months of seeing the same butterflies, and rarely seeing a caterpillar, this month’s bounty was pleasing. The Gulf Fritillary caterpillar certainly stopped me in my tracks. I’ve always enjoyed photos of ‘odd’ caterpillars, but that one, and the Eight-spotted Forester Moth, were the first of the sort I’d ever seen. The Salt Marsh caterpillars, on the other hand, are quite common around here, even in ditches far from the marshes.

    1. Under normal circumstances, I’d have some admiration for the ants, but those fire ants are so nasty it’s hard to have sympathy or admiration for them. That said? It was quite something to watch the process. It’s entirely possible the butterfly already had perished, and the ants were taking advantage of the situation. Even ants have to eat!

    1. Well, as John Muir, one of the world’s most well-known naturalists once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” I started with an interest in flowers, but it didn’t take long to realize that where there are flowers, there are insects, and where there are insects, there are birds that enjoy eating them, and… Actually being able to see the interconnections is marvelous.

    1. Down here, spring seems to be getting impatient. Of course we still have some cold weather ahead of us, and perhaps even some ‘real’ winter, but once that’s over, it won’t take long for the wildflowers and trees to blossom. Tomorrow, some photos of a wildflower called Blue-eyed grass will be posted here — and the photos were taken on January 9!

  13. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was called “Rascal” which (as I recall) was about a family with a pet raccoon. I wanted one. I even had a friend who HAD one, in the house, co-habitating with cats and dogs. (The Aldriches always had quite the menagerie!) At dinner, it would stand on its hind legs with all the others.

    What a selection of beautiful butterflies and moths. I don’t think we have any of those up here — or if we do, I’ve never taken the time to really look so closely. What beauty you discover when you do!

    1. I’m not sure I’d be brave (or silly) enough to have an in-house raccoon, but I sure can see the appeal. They’re so smart and cute; putting a raccoon up against a squirrel would make for quite a contest.

      A quick glance through this list shows at least four of these in your area: the Question Mark, the Little Sulphur (or Little Yellow), the Hackberry Emperor, and the Gulf Fritillary. How common they are I can’t say, but in the case of butterflies like the Fritillary, there are several variations, and one of those might be around more often.

  14. Catching up with your posts after an illness… where (approximately) is Walden West? Of course, the gray-and-brown winter colors stretch for miles and miles along the coastal prairie and marshes, but as you found, look closely and see rich colors. Beautiful photos of the pristine Fritillaries, they look like they just hatched. Makes me wonder if their hatching is staged by the species throughout the season, to assure maximum survival? First butterfly I learned to identify as a child was the Silver Spangled Fritillary… and now I see I probably learned the wrong name. I think it was the Great Spangled Fritillary, which doesn’t have quite the same delicious alliteration.

    1. I’m sorry you’ve been ill. I’m glad to see you out and about again: at least in blogland, even if you’re not yet up to tromping our wilds.

      Walden West is at the San Bernard refuge. If you park at the first Bobcat woods spot and veer off to the right, through the wildflower garden, the maybe-yes-maybe-no vernal pool will be on your right before you get to the boardwalk. The last time I went, I was surprised to see so much field and ditch water, but none at the ‘pool.’ When I made my first visit a year ago, there was a good bit of water there, and it lasted for some time. Once it was gone, it never came back. I am going to keep an eye on it and see what happens with the water level.

      The spangled Fritillaries may be even more beautiful than these. I found my first ones in Kansas, and they were glorious.

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