appetite

caterpillarsI 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.

least. most.

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.

fishingLeast 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.

least tern pair least tern feeding chick least tern chick

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.least terns in flight

least tern and chicksGood luck, little ones. I think you’ve got this.

the weight

image

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have noticed that I’ve recently taken up mothing as part of an(other) informal project: The Year of Insects. I’ve been dancing around the discipline for a while, kind’ve like I danced around painting: collecting equipment and instructional reading material and subscribing to blogs for years before I actually tried it for myself.

Out of all the esoteric entomological naturalist subjects—dragonflies, butterflies, beetles—I picked moths for some of the same reasons I enjoy birds. They’re relatively easy to find on any given outing, their paintjobs are stunning, and sometimes they hold still long enough for you to get a good look.

But mothing is not like birding.

For starters: to bird, you carry a pair of binoculars into bird habitat, look and listen for your quarry, and then watch to your heart’s content. To moth, you lure moths out of the darkness, with light or fermented (stinky) bait, and then you take photos or specimens before your visitors flit away.

To bird, you ordinarily go forth during the day. Mothing is a mostly nocturnal affair (to the chagrin of this morning glory).

With birds, what you see is what you get. There are about 900 species of birds in North America (daunting, but doable). Moths? Not so much. There are at least 12,000 moth species (and counting) on the continent. Even if you could remember the points of identification for all the local commoners (possibly thousands), there’s so much variation between individuals of the same species that I’m staring down years of moth-catching before I’ll get to moth-identifying.

On the plus side, this new hobby will hopefully exercise my ability to stay awake at late parties, even though my new idea of fun—swatting mosquitoes in the dark while I hang out with a cotton sheet and a headlamp in my front yard—may not yield thrilling party stories.

And yet, here is something that astonishes me: a bird in the hand feels like you’re holding nothing at all. Even a crow stands on your fist startlingly invisible to gravity. But a moth on your hand amplifies that same gravity—there’s no other explanation to how such a miniscule creature possesses such weight and warmth.

image

This moth clambered up almost on purpose, drawing my attention to its presence in the world, the fact that it’s taking up space and oxygen, that it has weight and exerts force and appetite and progeny.

For some of you, that thought is maybe a little terrifying, which was not exactly my intent. Though maybe I should consider whether this moth means to deliver a greeting or a warning…