Northland Nature: Cold Weather Moth Watching

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I expect that when I walk in the woods at this time, I see a lot of still green mosses, lycopods and ferns among the fallen brown leaves. While a few trees – ironwood and some sugar maples and red oaks – have not shed their brown leaves, almost all of the others have. A few willows in the swamps and evergreen larches have retained their yellow, but what I mainly see during my walk today are bare trees and a snowy scene.

The day is cloudy and calm with cool temperatures in the twenties. Instead of looking at the forest floor and seeing greens, I watch the traces of local creatures that tell of their activity, mainly at night.

The deer tracks and trails reveal tales of their wandering and in many places they have dug among the fallen leaves in search of acorns so abundant this year. They are joined by local turkeys who also scratch the leaves. Fox and coyote tracks also roam the woods in search of prey. Squirrels, hares, and mice that might become their prey moved actively.

The raccoons and bears that will sleep in the deepest cold are always on the move, trying to satisfy omnivorous diets. Their tracks show trips to a variety of places, one of which is near a beaver pond where the lodge owner comes ashore for more twigs before the frost. We usually don’t see beaver tracks in the snow. It’s a bit of a surprising discovery, but not like the one I see next.

As I walk around on one of the walks in the woods, I see some flying in the air. I stop to look and realize that I am observing the flight of a moth. After a bit of a cold we had, a blanket of snow and ice on a nearby pond, it seems almost surreal to see this creature. Upon closer inspection, I recognize this insect as a “winter butterfly”. This theft is not that of a confused or displaced individual. This is their regular flight time.

Looper - a predominantly gray winter moth - are attracted to light and often seen on windows and headlights of homes.  (Photo by Larry Weber)

Looper – a predominantly gray winter moth – are attracted to light and often seen on windows and headlights of homes. (Photo by Larry Weber)

The name “winter moth” can be applied to some late season moths. Two in particular that I often see in late October or early November are the Linden Looper and Linden Looper. Both are small with a wingspan of less than 1.5 inches. The looper are mostly gray; the surveyors are brown. Everyone can be very cryptic among the trees present.

They are common in late season woods, but also frequently seen on the windows of our homes, attracted to interior lights, or perhaps noticed in the headlights of our cars when we drive home. I see the looper today.

Flying on a late date is a bit strange for these moths, but they have adapted. With little food available, they don’t eat. After seeking refuge under the bark, they shiver to warm the body temperature in order to fly. With fewer predatory birds in early November, flying males can locate females. This flight time is a little unusual, but the looper that I observed on this cold day, is also part of the woodland community.

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Larry Weber

Larry Weber

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