My favorite insect further endears itself to me

Longtime readers of this blog might know that my favorite insect is the camouflaged looper (which turns into the wavy-lined emerald moth). This tiny inchworm disguises itself by gluing bits of flower to its back while it feeds on the same flower. It’s a brilliant strategy, and one that has probably kept me from many seeing more individuals of this species when I’m out and around.

Last week, I was driving slowly along a two-track trail road at the Niobrara Valley Preserve, scanning for interesting insects as I drove. I’d just spent a couple hours on my belly, photographing dung beetles, wasps, robber flies, and other insects in a sand blowout and I was tired and ready to take a break. However, the light was still nice. I compromised by driving toward headquarters while still staying alert for potential photo opportunities.

As I drove past one particular sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris), something caught my eye and I stopped and backed the truck up for a second look. Hopping out, I took a few steps over to the flower, bent down to inspect it, and immediately grabbed my camera bag out of the truck. I spent the next 10 minutes or so photographing my favorite insect.

The camouflaged looper on plains sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).
Here’s a closer look. You can see it chewing on a a black anther full of pollen. You can also see the bits of flower on its back. It looks to me like a combination of sunflower (dark) and some other flower I can’t identify (lighter).

It was a little breezy for photography, so I had to hold the sunflower stem with one hand and click the shutter with the other. Because of that, I wasn’t absolutely sure I was getting perfect shots. When I was done, I took both the sunflower and the caterpillar with me. I figured I might keep it in the cabin with me for a few days and watch it, maybe photograph it some more, and give some other people a chance to see it too.

I put the sunflower in a glass jar of water and put a clear drinking glass over the to create a makeshift caterpillar apartment. Later, I added a couple hoary vervain flowers in case the caterpillar wanted to change diet/costumes. I also put a piece of paper towel across the top of the jar to keep the caterpillar from falling into the water. That turned out to be a more significant decision than I’d anticipated.

Here is my makeshift caterpillar apartment with the top drinking glass removed for the photo. Note the paper towel I used to keep the caterpillar from falling into the water.

When I woke up the next morning and checked the caterpillar, it was doing great. It had also changed its costume, though not as I’d expected. Instead of sunflower anthers or vervain petals, the little bugger had ripped up the paper towel and stuck pieces of paper to its back! It was taking advantage of its surroundings and blending in with what was there. I love it even more now.

Paper towel caterpillar!

I ended up bringing the inchworm back home with me because I figured it would be fun for the whole family to watch it for a while. As I write this, it is happily munching on a stiff sunflower on my dining room table. I used clear plastic wrap instead of a paper towel to seal up the top of the jar. I wondered if might grab some of that clear plastic (wouldn’t that be something?) but it seems to be more predictably changing out its paper towel costume for one made of stiff sunflower parts. That’s pretty cool too.

Photos of the Week – July 23, 2021

I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve much of this week. One morning, I wandered up into the bison pasture to photograph some bugs and flowers. About the time the sun was getting a little intense for macro photos, I decided to drive up the hill to see if any bison were nearby. Sure enough, a small group of 50 or so was quietly grazing a couple hills to the south.

Based on the way the bison were situated and acting, I figured my best chance for photos would come if I went around to the west of them. They were very slowly moving in that direction, and often, I can get way out in front of them and sit still while they calmly work their way past me. The position of the sun meant I was going to be shooting them with backlighting, which is tricky, but can create some really interesting images if I do it right.

Bison cresting the hill at a fast walk before galloping down toward me. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec. (Click for a larger version of the images)
Coming down… Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.

Just when I start to think I understand bison and the way they think, they make me feel like a complete fool. I pulled around to the west of the herd, shut off the engine and got out my camera. I glanced up, expecting to see them sauntering over the crest of the hill between us, but instead saw the lead animals thundering down the slope right at me. Wha??

I was in a vehicle, so not in danger, but it was still a little unnerving. I also had very little time to get my shots in. I missed the first wave, but as a second and third portions of the group hit the top of the hill, I was ready. I even managed to get some of them in focus. For you photographers, I was shooting a little dark (the images looked awfully dark on my LCD screen), knowing I’d open up those shadows later in Photoshop. I knew I needed to avoid letting too much light in because I’d lose a lot of details in the background. I’m really happy with the results.

At the bottom of the hill – and the flies caught up with them. Nikon 18-300mm lens @230mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.

After that crazy 10 or 20 seconds of action, the animals immediately settled down and grazed calmly around me as I caught my breath and took a few more photos. Then they wandered slowly off into the hills again. Just like I knew they would…

Bison cow, front lit. Nikon 18-300mm lens @135mm. ISO 500, f/9, 1/640 sec.
Calf with momma. Nikon 18-300mm lens @210mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/640 sec.
Wandering off to the hills (toward some recently-sprayed sumac plants). Nikon 18-300mm lens @240mm. ISO 500, f/8, 1/1250 sec.