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.