I couldn’t believe I spotted this crew again after finding them over a week ago. Their numbers are significantly diminished; they’ve likely lost siblings to bird poaching over time. But there they are, relocated to a new leaf, over halfway through devouring it.
I’m not familiar with these caterpillars, so I don’t know how how many more skins they’ll shed as they grow out of their tight coats, how much longer they’ll live as larvae before pupating, when and who they’ll become as adults. But they’ll certainly grind through another whole leaf or two, and more of them will likely become bird bait.
Insects have always been incidental to my woods-walks, interesting but not exactly the point. This year they’ve drawn me so deeply into their world, I almost pay more attention to these, the tiny crawlers and winged things, than the big feathered ones. And there are so. many. of them. Eating. And being eaten. The sheer force of appetites—from the caterpillars’ frantic leaf-munching, to the birds scouring the branches for larvae and insects to feed their own chicks, to the giant, two-legged naturalist cleaning all the ripe blueberries off the bushes—drive the woods through the months of July and August. These months, the birds quiet down and the atmosphere simmers in silence.
But if you listen very closely, you may just hear the chomp and munch of those millions of tiny jaws.
For a few weeks at the beginning of summer, we share the beach with nesting birds: oystercatchers, piping plovers, and these least terns, falling out of the air to plop into the sea, pumping back out with silvery fish in their beaks.
Least terns, tiny little seabirds smaller than robins, nest in colonies of hundreds, even thousands of birds. The flock scares up at the smallest disturbance and wheels out over the waves to distract any threats, while nest-sitting females hunker down on their vulnerable eggs and pretend to be invisible.
I heard this weekend that a colony just east of us failed this year, possibly due to predators. So when I visited the colony that nests on my beach last night, I was looking for good news. And I found it.
The beach is popping with just-hatched chicks, tiny fluffballs camouflaged to blend in to the gravel. Their parents bring back fish after fish from the teeming waves. They only have a few weeks to grow and fledge.
Hatching is only the first step. These little guys still have to dodge all the predators who populate the island: gulls, black-crowned night herons, racoons and foxes, loose dogs, and clumsy humans. Their parents have to find enough fish to feed them to fledging. Once their feathers grow in, they must learn how to fly and forage in the waves here on Long Island. If all goes well, in no time at all they’ll light out for the open ocean, where they’ll hunt far and wide for another year or two before hopefully returning to this beach to raise their own chicks.
Good luck, little ones. I think you’ve got this.