Cardinal and Pandora, Tortoise Beetle, and Annual Caterpillar Feast

Top Photo: Male cardinal wrestles with large green caterpillar.

The cardinal flopped to the ground no more than a dozen feet from us on the Dinosaur Trail. It had a large green caterpillar under its control. Two months earlier, just feet away from where we now stood, I photographed a male cardinal tearing apart two luna moths. May was a busy month for luna moths, mating and laying eggs. Could this big caterpillar which was now committed to being eaten by the cardinal in front of me be the results of luna moth coupling earlier in the season?

Northern cardinal attacks large green caterpillar.

I took as many photos as I could of the caterpillar and bird as the cardinal tossed and ripped at the moth larva. There are many large green caterpillars munching away above us in the trees and shrubs at this time of year. This could be any of several sphinx or silkworm moths. I knew I’d have to wait till I got back in front of my computer and could view the scene in larger scale in order to identify the caterpillar, if I could at all.

A clue to the identity of caterpillar is just visible in this shot.

Two features I saw on the caterpillar were helpful in identifying it. I could see large spots on the larva’s sides. Pandorus sphinx caterpillar has at least five large white or yellow spots surrounding the spiracles on its sides (spiracles are openings to the outside through which insects breathe). I could see two of those spots.

Two of the tell-tale spots surrounding spiracles can be seen within circle.

Problem solved, it was not a luna moth caterpillar after all, but a Pandorus sphinx moth (Eumorpha pandorus).

By the way, these caterpillars may be green, orange, pink, or deep brown. In any case, the white or yellow spots are present.

Next on the agenda, mottled tortoise beetles. Ranger Molly showed me the location she’s been seeing mottled tortoise beetles (Deloyala guttata), in a patch of morning glory in Into the Mist.

Mottled tortoise beetle on morning glory leaf.

Mottled tortoise beetles are one of two tortoise beetles likely to be seen here on campus. They’re small beetles uniquely evolved to have transparent elytra. Elytra are the hard forewings of beetles which serve as protective covering for their hind wings, the hind wings being used for flight.

There was even a mating pair.

Mating pair.

If you happen to come across a patch of morning glory, look for small rounded holes in the leaves, a sure sign tortoise beetles have been in the area. Look closely at the leaves. Turn one of the leaves over. You may get lucky and see one of these fascinating beetles.

Morning glory leaf with tortoise beetle damage.

Oh, in case you were wondering, that’s a golden tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata) in the photo above.

Every year around this time I notice chewed leaves on our oak trees in Catch the Wind, both scarlet oak and willow oak. Some years the trees are nearly stripped clean. The culprit? orange-stripped oakworms (Anisota senatoria). Supposedly, they arrive late enough in the season to not do great damage to the trees. I’ve been watching these trees go through the same routine for nearly 14 years. Our trees seem to be developing well despite the annual onslaught.

First instar orange-stripped oakworms on scarlet oak leaf.

At first, they’re not easily noticed, but if you know when they first appear each year, and you know what to look for, you might get to glimpse of them in their earliest stages, maybe even as they hatch from their eggs.

Orange-stripped oakworm eggs. Clear eggs have hatched. The darker eggs still contain caterpillars.

If you’ve ever been in Catch the Wind in late July and August you may have seen these large black and yellow caterpillars hoofing it across the path on their way to pupate in soil below or near the tree they were just feeding on. They emerge from pupation as adult moths the following year in late May or June.

Fully mature orange-stripped oakworm crawling off to pupate.

Keep your eyes open!

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