Caddisflies, and moths

Photo submitted to Times Observer Caddisfly Larva in a shelter of sticks that it has created to protect itself. Photo by Jennifer Schlick.

It’s coming. The 60th Allegany Nature Pilgrimage weekend at Allegany State Park. Dates are June 1-3, when the Red House area of Allegany State Park comes alive with adults, children, nets, binoculars, buckets and professional nature instructors. They both educate and entertain those who wish to learn about what our earth contains. For detailed information on this event, please visit alleganynaturepilgrimage.com.

I have attended this event since the 1970s and have been a committee member for the past 20 years. Every year’s event holds something exciting. My memory especially highlights the pilgrimage a few years ago when we all got to experience a mating event on display all day on Saturday. Let me back up, set the stage and clarify a little bit.

I had some free time and wanted to go on a birding trip. I saw a group of people walking down a grassy trail and decided to follow them. I realized that I was on the Creek Monsters walk led by Wayne Gall, long-time pilgrimage leader. His real job was Curator of Entomology at the Museum of Science for 20 years, now Regulator of Entomology for the NYS Department of Health. His favorite walks focus on insects. This was not the bird walk I intended to find.

Standing on the shore, three of us watched as Wayne equipped each child with a net and bucket, and walked with them to help them find crayfish.

Most of the kids were 5 to 10 years old and not much bigger than the nets they were using to catch these rock-loving creatures. Upon catching the crayfish, the children would bring them to Gall to measure and determine sex and age. There must have been 100 of these prehistoric pinchers in the large bucket.

As soon as the kids left to find more crayfish, watchful Wayne splashed his way to the other side of the creek. We saw him bend down then crouch almost into the water near a large rock. He was there by himself as if meditating, then stood upright, almost falling. We were interested in what he had in his hand that was so important. He was smiling as if he had found a secret treasure. And to him it was.

Wet to his waist, he found his waterproof bag on the shore and looked up “caddisfly” on his phone so we could see its stages of growth. Opening his hand to us he displayed a tiny stick cabin or “case” as he called it.

“This is the home of the caddisfly larva,” he said excitedly. “They build these to protect themselves as they move along the creek bed eating leaf fragments. The case disguises them as they enter their pupa stage. These are the only insects who find wooden pieces to build such great protection for their larval and pupal stages. What predator would dig into this little house to find a meal?” He took it apart to show us the larva that was so tiny that I wondered what insect or amphibian would want to eat it. Gall studied these creatures and told us that they are useful creatures in determining the ecological health of freshwater streams.

Later that evening I, along with other spectators, saw the caddisfly as an adult during the “light show,” as I call it. The large, illuminated, white sheet held this small white moth with markings that identify it as a caddisfly. Every evening, weather permitting, Wayne and his insect-loving friends shine special lights on sheets to collect flying insects that are attracted to light. Using their competitiveness and expertise, they put on their own show, naming the perched moths and using books to look up these creatures and their pictures. The tiny white Mottled Caddisfly was one among many, including Mayfly, Rosy Maple Moth, Red Poplar Moth and larger sphinx moths that landed this Saturday evening.

We were in for a surprise this year. The most emphatically large moths, the Polyphemus and Cecropia, stirred much awe and excitement. This was when Steve Daniels, scientist and long-time pilgrimage leader, checked the sex of the Cecropia.

“We don’t get these every year,” Steve said. After informing us that this moth was a male, he headed to his room close by and returned with a female Cecropia moth he had caught the night before.

“She hasn’t laid any eggs yet,” he said, “but I will pair her up with this male and see if we can get her to lay some fertilized eggs.” He put her on the sheet next to the male, then rigged up a contraption that allowed the two to do their thing with the female sheltered while the male sat on the outside of her cage. They were at it all day Saturday.

Daniels set them up on the dining building porch for everyone to view. To me, this was a wonder of the world.

The next morning Steve gave some of us eggs to take home and help them mature. Mine went to Audubon Community Nature Center where the caterpillars could get their host foods and I could see their progress along with other visitors.

The mating display wasn’t inappropriate at all, more a window into the secret life of moths. As a long-time participant to this event, marked on the weekend after we celebrate Memorial Day, I have many memories of this caliber. You can add some memories to your own story by attending this gathering.

The pilgrimage is overseen by a committee of folks from Erie, Pa., Buffalo, Jamestown, and Rochester Audubon Societies, all of which have leaders and naturalists who give their expertise by leading walks at the pilgrimages through the years.

Judy Long is on the Allegany Nature Pilgrimage Committee.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown.

The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.

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