Anita’s Blog – Diversity in the Dark
It was 5 a.m. I’d just reached the courtyard gate on my way to check the moth sheet in the driveway when suddenly, snarling, growling, snuffling, snorting, scrambling noises caused me to pause midstep, like a deer in the headlights.
I saw the culprits 25 feet away.
My hesitation was whether I should dash back to the house for the camera and long lens or the shotgun – neither of which would have resulted in anything productive, as the critters would have scarpered before I could return to the scene of the activity, so I took my best shot with the phone camera.
Three raccoons had clambered up a mesquite tree (two of which are in the center of the above photo). Like the proverbial deer they, too, were frozen in place, caught in the light from my headlamp. Momma (I presume) raccoon had shot off the retaining wall and was stood up like a statue, paws draping in front of her like an apron, also frozen in time, but watchful, on the lower retaining wall.
But this isn’t about raccoons. I ignored the three young reprobates in the tree and checked the moth sheet, which was pretty exciting because a moth I had not been able to identify was back for the second night in a row. I took many more photos.
When I initially uploaded photos of the mystery moth for identification, iNaturalist.org’s first choice was Heiligbrodt’s mesquite moth, Syssphinx heiligbrodti, Family Saturnidae, which includes giant silkworm and royal moths. Its range is Southern Texas and southward. It uses honey mesquite and blackbrush acacia for larval food.
The second choice was Io moth, Automeris io, also Saturnidae family. A moth at home in much of the eastern two-thirds of North America; it uses numerous and varied plants and trees for larval food throughout its broad range, including roses, cotton, azaleas, palms, corn and willows.
My mystery moth photos didn’t resemble either of those suggestions from iNat. I searched through hundreds of iNat photos of moths in the Royal Moth family, to no avail.
A couple of days later, I opened the iNat app on my phone and someone had offered an ID: Syssphinx blanchardi. Like Heiligbrodt’s mesquite, it is in the subfamily, Royal Moths.
I’m happy with the identification, although iNaturalist requires one more identifier to agree for a research grade tag.
The range for Syssphinx blanchardi is southmost Texas in Cameron and Hidalgo counties and south; Texas ebony is likely the only natural host plant in the U.S., however larvae readily accept a variety of other legumes, according to information in BugGuide.net. The moth “is usually uncommon in the Valley and may sometimes appear in good numbers in places like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and the Sabal Palm Sanctuary.” iNaturalist has only 76 observations of this species.
Texas considers Syssphinx blanchardi a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). iNaturalist.org flags it as "critically imperiled” globally, citing the source at NatureServe. https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.119301/Syssphinx_blanchardi for those who like research statistics.
Interestingly, all three of these beautiful moths visited within days of each other – this after a negligible number of moths visiting the moth sheet for the three previous weeks.
The moth sheet attracts more than moths, as you know if you follow this blog. Seemingly with the cycle of the moon, if June is for June bugs, July for cicadas, August for dragonflies, then September is the month of the cricket. No matter the time, late night, or wee hours of the morning, I’m greeted with nearly a dozen black field crickets, Gryllus assimilus, basking in the glow of the black light on the sheet and many others going about their business on the ground and in the grass.
Crickets, like cicadas, are noise-makers – except when a human or predator is close, then they clam up. They are sensitive to vibration, no matter how soft. When it feels a predator or human approaching, it becomes silent, a way of hiding and confusing the predator. Flying is their first line of defense; however, they can only fly short distances. Jumping is another defense; they can jump about three feet. They sometimes jump on me but there’s no one around to hear me squeal.
Crickets are nocturnal, they hunt for food and a mate at night and sleep during the day. I hope the black light isn’t interfering with their circadian rhythm. According to research, they are attracted to lights at night and congregate on the ground under security lights – and there are hundreds in my yard, so they probably will go on to create future generations, regards the black light.
As for garden mates, crickets are beneficial to the ecosystem. They’re omnivores. Their diet consists of protein and grains, including insect larvae, flowers, seeds, leaves, fruit and grasses. They prey on eggs and pupae of pest insects in agricultural crops. Crickets eat aphids – this is good news! They also eat scale, consume weed seeds and help to break down dead leaves and other plant debris into organic matter. On the other hand, because crickets are small, they are prey to a majority of animals including larger insects, spiders, lizards, turtles, mice, bats, frogs, toads, small snakes, opossums and birds.
Field crickets can be as large as one inch or more in length. They have a black outer exoskeleton, a large head and thin antennae longer than their bodies that they use to sense things around them. Their eyes are made up of many hexagonal lenses which allow them to see in every direction.
Ground crickets (Genus Neonemobius) also are prevalent in the Valley. They are much smaller than field crickets, usually under three-eighths inch long and are dark brownish-red. Their sounds are weaker and higher pitched than field crickets.