In Praise of the Small: Swallows, Dune Toads, and Caterpillars

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Purple Martins courtesy of Rick Leche on Flickr

Today I checked off a longstanding item on my bucket list of local endeavors. I jumped into my jeans and hurried out of the house to be in Madison by 7:50, where I met with fellow bird lovers in The Audubon Shop parking lot. I met author/illustrator Patrick J. Lynch, and he autographed my new copy of A Field Guide to the Long Island Sound. I’ve lived on both sides of the Sound, traversing many of its rocky beaches, and it seems only fitting that I should, at long last, own a detailed manual about its non-human inhabitants. The group formed a caravan at Hammonasset Beach State Park, driving short stints to favorite bird haunts in the park and learning from Lynch and shop owner Jerry Connolly.

The Purple Martins filled my heart. The sheen on the males caught the light, and the couples seemed to be performing a musical for our benefit, flying to and fro as we stood with our “opera glasses” and took in the spectacle. I learned that they winter in South America and come back to the exact same “condo” bird houses every spring, where they nest in great colonies. When I looked them up later on All About Birds, I learned that man-made Martin houses used to be really abundant. John James Audubon used them as a gauge for his lodging prospects when traveling, noting: “Almost every country tavern has a martin box on the upper part of its sign-board; and I have observed that the handsomer the box, the better does the inn generally prove to be.” Should we start a movement to bring back the universal Martin box, especially at inns? Wouldn’t looking for the birdhouses be infinitely more fun than hotel ratings Web sites?

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Beach bum Fowler’s toad courtesy of USFWS on Flickr

I was taken with a modest, marshy pool adjacent to the pavilion’s parking lot. Although we only spotted a few tadpoles, Lynch gave us a lesson on Fowler’s toads, which, unlike the better-known American toads, like to hang out in sand dunes. His book says that they bury themselves in the sand to escape the heat. How many Fowler’s toads did I unknowingly step over as I roamed around Jones Beach and Point Lookout and Caumsett and Welwyn Preserve in my youth? As we learned about the toads, a flurry of bright blue tree swallows stole center stage, appearing to perform for us but in actuality chasing insects. The morning brought more finds, including Least Terns (endangered) and American Oystercatchers and Brants. I couldn’t work my phone camera by the end of the walk, as my hands were surprisingly numb from the wet chill. But it was worth the temporary paralysis.

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Embarrassment of tree swallows courtesy of Michael Mulqueen on Flickr

On the way home on Route 9, warming alternate hands over the heating vents, I once again noticed a particular, still quite bare, tree, which boasts the most tent caterpillar abodes I’ve ever seen in one place. I looked up the Eastern Tent Caterpillar, and found what I expected on a college entomology site: Malacosoma americanum is described as a pest with “unsightly silken nests” that feeds on (but doesn’t usually defoliate) trees, going on to say that “they are a nuisance and can create a mess when they are squashed on driveways, sidewalks, and patios.” Those lucky enough to survive our feet and cars and predators (which I bet they consider a nuisance, at the very least!) transform into rather ordinary-looking moths.

The tree caterpillars reminded me of gypsy moth caterpillars, another one of God’s “creatures great and small” often viewed as an outcast, despite the fact that ominous sounding “outbreaks” are very often limited by nature, such as the fungus that counters the gypsies. (I wrote more about gypsies here).  Both tree and gypsy moth caterpillar eggs overwinter under ingenious protective coatings, and it seems miraculous to me that they make it to spring at all. In The Book of Noticing (officially launching Tuesday!) I wrote about peering and tracking and researching “even the common gypsy moth,” and this reminds me that, despite my generally sympathetic attitude, I don’t necessarily fully value the lives of the moths who lay their eggs and flutter to the ground to die each summer, at least not on par with other, usually bigger and more visually pleasing creatures. This is something for me to think about. Can I cut off the branch of my neighbor’s tent caterpillared-tree and bring the innocents, just doing what they were born to do, off into the woods somewhere, far away from the garden, sparing them from destruction?

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New life amid new life

Caterpillars are not pretty in the same way that Purple Martins are. But they fascinated me when I was a child, their suction-cuppy feet traversing my arm, tickling its tiny hairs. Can we make more room in the world even for creatures who don’t make us want to cuddle? Even for those creatures, like many-eyed or hairy-legged spiders, who sometimes make us want to run? They are living their lives, too, and have their place. They, like us, can be so misunderstood. Could they teach us more about compassion?

As I wrote this I kept hearing a small vibrating noise and assumed it was rapid raindrops riding the edge of the gutter. But my eye caught a white moth here inside, fluttering her wings at an impossible speed. Was she trying to dry off? She rode my forearm for a while, then lifted off to the windowsill. Another small creature who so often goes unnoticed, and this one has already been through several stages of her life, like me. She catches the light beautifully. She craves it just like I do.

Fallen Gypsies

Sunday morning I walked near the Connecticut River, and the ground was dotted with soft, white, female gypsy moths who had reproduced and then fluttered downward to die. Later Tom and I walked at Machimoodus State Park and saw scores more white bodies. We watched one female who was busy producing her egg sac on a tree trunk. A brown male hovered nearby, and it was hard not to anthropomorphize, imagining him akin to a pacing, proud, and concerned new human father. This guy had up to 1000 offspring to be proud of!

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Gypsy nursery

 I remembered my writing residency at Trail Wood last August, when the female gypsy moths, dead and dying, peppered many trails. I had time to watch them and think about them, and I felt compassion for these much-maligned creatures.

I understand that this year is considered an “outbreak” year, as was 2015, and that these insects can wreak some serious defoliation. I’m sure this prospect would bother me more if I was an arborist. But it does sound like nature has its own tools for keeping this prolific population in check, at least partially. There’s a fungus that kills many of the caterpillars.  And small mammals love to eat the moths! I’ve heard other nature writers say that often these overruns of nature have a way of limiting themselves.

It seems unfair to me sometimes that we decide to like, or not like, creatures, based on their appearance, or sometimes on their volume. I’ve met plenty of people who are just creeped out by the hordes of gypsy moth caterpillars, and not because the creatures are consuming leaves. I even got a little spooked when I walked through a particular grove and could actually hear them chewing the green leaves, en masse (someone told me I might also have been hearing them relieve themselves, an even ickier thought).

Still, I have liked the fuzzy caterpillars with their impressive spikes and jewel-colored dots since I was little. They molt 5 times, shedding their skin as they grow and finally curling up and becoming pupae (in cocoons). They only get to live as moths for 2 weeks or less, and reproduction is their final task.

I admire how the egg sacs, which are coated with hair from the female’s abdomen, are sometimes moth shaped. My viewpoint may be unpopular, but I find myself rooting for those tiny lives contained in the sacs. They will overwinter within the hard cases, cozy against the bark of their nursery trees. I want these creatures to make it to their next phase of life, next spring. Many are born because only a fraction will escape predation or illness, or in the case of the caterpillar carcass-littered parking lot at my job, the frequent comings and goings of mankind.

It makes me sad to see the continuing rain of white moth bodies on the ground. I don’t know what the moths think or feel, of course, but I hope they enjoyed their short lives. They have made mine more interesting.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today I picked up a book called Saving Graces: Sojourns of a  Backyard Biologist, by Roger B. Swain. In the essay I read, he was talking about wasps (as well as wolves), but I can apply the same sentiment to these not-always-loved moths:

If we can forget the few times we were stung, ignore the fearful warnings of friends, we can watch wasps catching flies and small caterpillars to feed their young. We can watch as they scrape up wood fibers into pulpy balls to carry back and add to the nest. In the fall…we can cut the big bald-faced hornets’ nest out of the lilac. Slicing open its many-layered paper envelope, we will find level upon level of comb, intricate architecture built without blueprints or a foreman.

Wolves howl in the boreal forests, but few of us will ever hear them. Wasps, on the other hand, still come to every picnic. Make room for them. We shouldn’t have to enjoy wilderness at a distance.