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Anita’s Blog – Insects, Bats and Bird Counts



Owl Moth, Thysania zenobia, with a six inch wingspan. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I wrote an article for the McAllen Monitor Texas Master Naturalist column this week about gardening for bats, an activity that includes attracting moths – and a moth bigger than a bat visited my front porch this week.


This is the Bat Garden article link: https://www.stbctmn.org/post/cooler-temps-it-s-time-to-plant – and before you ask, here’s our list of local native plant growers: https://www.stbctmn.org/post/valley-native-plant-growers-nurseries


I joined a Zoom Insect Appreciation training session Saturday, with great lectures about moths, beetles, ants, flies and dragonflies. The lecturers talked about a lot of Texas things that I’ve seen on my moth sheets this year. The workshop was put on by the North Texas Master Naturalists in conjunction with the Dallas-Fort Worth Texas Parks and Wildlife and their Urban Wildlife Biologist, Sam Kieschnick.


The guest speaker about beetles was Mike Quinn – that’s TPWD’s Invertebrate Biologist Mike Quinn – he of the nectar/host plant list fame – a list he compiled for the National Butterfly Center in Mission a number of years ago. Link to a pdf that can be downloaded: https://www.naba.org/chapters/nabast/plants_info.pdf . His list rates nectar in local native plants from poor to excellent. It also notes which plants are host plants to many of our local butterflies.


Back to my new beautiful big moth. It rested on the bricks for the better part of a day. I thought it was a white black witch moth – how lucky would that be, right? Instead, it identified as an owl moth, Thysania Zenobia – a new moth for me.


Owl moths have wingspans from four to six inches – my visitor was about six inches. The outer margins of their forewings and hindwings are scalloped; many zigzag lines run across the wings, a pattern distinctive to owl moths. The males have black streaks; the one in the photo is male. Owl moths fly in all months in southern Texas; their host plants are possibly legumes but BugGuide.net comments that larvae have been reported on Senna and Cassia species in Central and South America and also notes that T. Zenobia has not been recorded breeding in the United States. I did not discover any information as to adult food for the owl moth.


Compare the owl moth to a black witch moth, Ascalapha odorata, which is dark brown in color with iridescent pink and purple. These moths are described as bat-like, often mistaken for bats because of their size and shape. Their wings are scalloped on the outer edge, too.


Black Witch Moth at black light and moth sheet. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The black witch moth pictured is a male. The females have a distinct white or pale bar across their wings. The black witch moth is the largest moth, if not the largest insect, north of Mexico. It has a wingspan of up to seven inches, females being the larger and lighter color of the species.


Investigating websites about the black witch moth, in the hopes of finding information on the white witch moth, seemed to bring me full circle. One site (compiled by our TPWD Entomologist Mike Quinn), https://www.texasento.net/witch.htm , says, “see info on related large moths: Thysania Zenobia (owl moth) and White Witch: Thysania Agrippina.” I was in the genus, anyway.

The white witch moth might stray as far north as Texas, but mainly occurs from Uruguay to Mexico. Maximum wing length is listed at 12 inches, a record held by a Brazilian specimen. Their host plant seems to be the India rubber tree and possibly other woody species of Fabaceae, subfamily Caesalpiniodeae, and senna and or cassia.


Valley host plants for black witch moths include Texas Ebony, Ebenopsis ebano; Catclaw Acacia, Senegalia greggii; and Blackbrush Acacia, Vachellia rigidula.


Let me remind you about a new book I reported on this summer at this link:

https://rgvctmn.org/blog/theres-a-new-book-in-town/ (scroll down and click the down arrow for page 2).



Collectively, all this talk about moths, nectar ratings, host plants, insects and local native nurseries is because it’s planting time in the Valley. I’m just briefing you about where to look to help you with your winter planting selections that will bring in insects to attract bats at night and birds during the day. Moths and butterflies lay eggs that become caterpillars that ultimately feed baby birds.


Take note:

The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count is coming up as soon as next week for the Coastal Tip Circle, followed shortly by the Santa Ana Circle. Anyone can help with these counts. Check out the pertinent area and contact a compiler at the listed e-mail address but don’t delay:

Valley residents, Winter Texans, visitors, birders and those just getting interested in birding are invited to join a team. The CBC is a one day event per area within established count circles.


Participation in the counts are reportable volunteer hours for those Texas Master Naturalists who report in the VMS.


The local counts are listed below with contact information for those interested in joining a team.

December 14, Coastal Tip, naturalist@spibirding.com

December 17, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, jd.mckee@outlook.com

December 22, Weslaco, john.yochum@tpwd.texas.gov

December 27, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, txlacbc@flanwr.org

December 30, Anzalduas-Bentsen, roy.rodriguez@tpwd.texas.gov

December 31, Harlingen, hgtxcbc@gmail.com

January 1, 2023, Falcon Dam and State Park, idratherbebirding@gmail.com

January 4, 2023, Brownsville, karl.berg@utrgv.edu


The Coastal Tip encompasses Laguna Vista, Laguna Heights, Port Isabel, South Padre Island and south to the Rio Grande River.


McAllen, Hidalgo, Sharyland, Pharr, San Juan and Alamo are within the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge Circle.


Individuals can count birds in their own yard if it is within one of the designated areas, also for countable volunteer hours. Contact a team to find if your yard is within a designated area. A list of birds and information will be sent upon request. If you have a yard full of birds in a count area, invite a team; they may be able to visit on count day.


For a quick check to see the area of a count, go to the map at the following site and expand and drag the map to bring up the area within the specific circle.


https://audubon.maps.arcgis.com/apps/View/index.html?appid=ac275eeb01434cedb1c5dcd0fd3fc7b4


Alternately, go to this link and click on the highlighted link for the map view:

https://www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count

Novice birdwatchers are encouraged to join a team. Extra eyes help spot birds for the experienced birders to identify; the more novice birders get valuable experience in bird identification and habits.


In addition, there are other winter bird count events:


Project FeederWatch is an annual bird count opportunity for individuals to participate. It takes place November through April each year. It is a cooperative research project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada that tallies birds that visit backyards, nature centers, community areas and other locales in North America. Go to the link for more information: https://feederwatch.org/about/project-overview/


The Great Backyard Bird Count is another annual bird count now in its 26th year. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes, or as long as they wish, during the four-day event, February 17 – 20, 2023. Type GBBC into a search engine to learn more or visit https://www.birdcount.org/participate/


Many native trees provide shelter, cover, perching and resting places for birds as well as providing food in the form of fruit or seeds or the insects attracte to the trees, like our native anaqua, brasil, Texas ebony, granjeno, huisache, tepejuahe, potato tree and sugar hackberry.

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