BLACK WITCH MOTH: HARBINGER OF DEATH OR LOTTERY BANKER?


Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Charles J Sharp)

BLACK WITCH MOTH: HARBINGER OF DEATH OR LOTTERY BANKER?

Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata are seriously bad news. Or wonderfully good news, depending where you are and who you talk to. First, lets look at some of the local names for the creature, from which you will get a pretty clear idea of its somewhat negative folklore status, as well as its area of distribution. I do this not to demonstrate how effortlessly I can ‘borrow’ from Wiki, but rather to show how a simple moth can give rise to widespread superstition and even fear. 

12 SCARY NAMES FOR ONE MOTH

  • Mariposa de la muerte (butterfly of death) – Mexico / Costa Rica
  • Pirpinto de la Yeta (something like ‘jinxing butterfly’) – Argentina
  • Tara Bruja (witch moth) – Venezuela)
  • Miquipapalotl (black death moth) – Mexico
  • Taparaco (something like ‘messenger in black’) – Peru
  • X-mahan-nah (‘borrows your house’ [eh? Ed]) – Mayan
  • Duppy Bat (lost soul / ghost /malevolent spirit) – Jamaica, Caribbean
  • Money Moth, Money Bat – Jamaica, Caribbean (including Bahamas)
  • Other names include Papillion-devil, La Sorcière Noire, Mourning moth, Sorrow moth.

These large moths (wingspan up to 7″)  are nocturnal, with females larger than the males. The diagnostic marking is a spot on each forewing shaped like a number nine or a comma (or maybe even ying / yang symbols?). This spot is often green with orange highlights (seen in the header image). The stripey larval caterpillar can grow up to 7 cm in length.

Black Witch moth larva - Ascalapha odorata - wiki

The moth is a migratory species, flying from (roughly speaking) South America as far north as Florida and Texas. The worst luck is believed to come from having one flutter into your house. It will either bring bad luck to the house – or if there is already misfortune there, it will make it worse. There are variations on this belief – e.g. that the more corners of a room the moth visits, the more doomed the household.

Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Julia Gotz)

IS THERE ANY GOOD NEWS ABOUT THIS CREATURE?

Fortunately yes, and it’s high time to dispel the gloom. In some places (e.g. Hawaii), it is believed than when a loved one has died and an Ascalapha odorata is seen soon after, it is the person’s soul returning to say farewell.

More promisingly still, in the Bahamas a far more positive and practical attitude is shown. If a Money Moth (or Money Bat) lands on you, you will receive some money. Or so it is said. Texas, thinking big, takes this several steps further to the prediction that you will win the lottery (I have a feeling this is a very modern theory).

WHY ARE YOU SCARING US WITH THIS THING?

Because until last month I had never heard of these moths, let alone seen one. Then one balmy Delphi evening, at dusk, someone pointed out a large dark smudge on the door-frame. I only had a cellphone, and I had to use the flash. Here is the moth, with its evil little eyes shining in the flash. Luckily, it was outside not inside the building, which I hope diluted the malevolence radiation level (though I didn’t realise that at the time of course, until I’d looked it up in Sibley’s indispensible ‘Compendium of Evil Moths‘). It’s a terrible photo, but it was useful for ID and I feel that taking a quick shot helped to ward off the worst of the unpleasantness. Though now I think of it I did fish badly (even for me) the following day…

        A poor photo but mine own… 

CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE IN LITERATURE

Remember Silence of the Lambs? Well in the book, pupae of the Black Witch moth were placed in the mouths of victims by serial killer ‘Buffalo Bill’ as his calling card – though for the film, the moth species was changed to a Death’s-head Hawkmoth, as featured on the poster.

You can read about Hannibal Lecter’s link to moths, and learn how for the film the pupae were were made from sweets (Gummi Bears ™) so as to be harmless if swallowed, HERE

SO ARE THEY HARMFUL IN ANY WAY AND / OR WILL ONE MAKE ME RICH?

No

Taking one’s life in one’s hands…?Black Witch moths Ascalapha odorata (Charles J Sharp)

Photo credits: Charles J Sharp (1, 5); Wiki (2); Julia Gotz (‘juliatrees’) (3)*; Keith Salvesen (4)   Sources: Julia Gotz (‘juliatrees’), Terry Sovil, , Texasbutterflyranch.com, Wiki, Sibley’s ‘Compendium of Evil Moths

*Julie closed her blog, from which photo 3 comes, in 2010. I’m hoping she won’t mind my resurrection of her image to illustrate the species… Black Witch moth photos are quite rare online

SPANISH MOTHS & CONVICT CATERPILLARS ON ABACO


xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-2

SPANISH MOTHS & CONVICT CATERPILLARS ON ABACO

I start confidently enough by using plurals in the headline, but in truth I have only ever seen one Spanish Moth on Abaco. It was sunning itself on the wooden stairs leading up to the Delphi Club verandah. I might have trodden on it, except that I usually check out the treads for insects or curly tails (and the surrounding foliage for small birds). They like the warmth of the wood, and also moisture from overnight rain or from plant watering. I took 3 quick photos, but I was on a mission. Breakfast beckoned…

xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-3

Spanish Moths (Xanthopastis timais) and their ‘Convict Caterpillars’, as they are known, are generally found in South and Central America, and in the Caribbean. There is a similar moth recorded for North America, but it is a different subspecies. However ‘our’ moth is apparently quite commonly found in Florida. 

xanthopastis_timais_cramer_feeding_on_amaryllis-shiras-wc

When I tried to ID this creature, I was surprised to find how few images of it are to be found online – and of those that are, most are either strictly © or are pinned into Pinterest.** So I’m grateful to the person who uploaded these cool convict caterpillars  above to a wiki-site. They are certainly worthy of admiration, and should be easy to identify. These colourful larvae feed on the leaves and bulbs of their host plants, mainly amaryllis, iris and lily species.

spanish-moth-robert-siegel-stanford-edu

I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who has seen these moths – or the caterpillars – on Abaco. Maybe they are everywhere, all the time, and I just haven’t noticed them. Or maybe it’s just that I am an occasional blow-in interloper, not a resident. Anyway, reports, observations and photos welcome (for the usual imaginary Kalik reward).

xanthopastis-spanish-moth-abaco-bahamas-1

**I’m never quite sure about the status of Pinterest images. Are they reusable with (where possible) an attribution, on the basis that they have been ‘put out there’ in the public domain, as on Facebook? Or does one risk a getting stroppy comments for recycling images that pinners have themselves borrowed in the first place? 

Credits: unknown Wiki benefactor (3); R. Siegel / Stanford.edu (4); moi (1, 2, 5)

BELLA MOTHS: COLOURFUL, POISONOUS & PROMISCUOUS


Day-flying_Bella_Moth_(Utetheisa_ornatrix) on Rattlebox Blossom (Bob Peterson, Florida)

BELLA MOTHS: COLOURFUL, POISONOUS & PROMISCUOUS

Today’s offering is a creature I have never seen before on Abaco, or anywhere else for that matter. We saw it at the Neem Farm when we were looking for birds, butterflies and Spring flowers. I didn’t have moths in mind at all until I saw this one. For a start, moths are considered creatures of the night, so midday would not be an auspicious time for moth-hunting. As it turns out, the moth we found is, most unusually, active in day-time (‘diurnal’). 

Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

The BELLA MOTH Utetheisa ornatrix is also known as the ‘ornate moth’ or ‘rattlebox moth’ (after its favourite plant Crotalaria  – me neither). The one we saw was pink, with bright pink showing on the wings in flight. However these moths come in other vivid colours ranging from pink to red or orange, and yellow to white. Their black wing markings have many patterns.

Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 2

The bright coloration is, as in many species, nature’s way of saying ‘leave me alone’ and in particular, ‘I am very unpleasant to eat’. It is called APOSEMATISM.  Quite simply, the larvae feed on plants that contain poisonous alkaloids – in particular the yellow rattlebox plant Crotalaria, rendering them, as adult moths, extremely unpalatable. Bella adults may cannibalise eggs, pupae or larvae to counter alkaloid deficiency. Bella Moth, Neem Farm, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 4

BELLA MOTH SEX LIVES: “IT’S COMPLICATED”

  • Sexual encounters are dictated by females, who compete with other females for males
  • Females seeking to mate always outnumber available males
  • A female bella will release powerful pheromones at dusk to lure males
  • Related females uniquely engage in collective pheromone release
  • This is termed “female pheromonal chorusing”
  • Several males will give the female chemical ‘nuptial gifts’ of poison and sperm
  • The female chooses the best of her suitors, and copulates with 4 or 5 of them
  • The whole process of copulation may take up to 12 hours…
  • In some way I don’t understand, she is then able to select her preferred sperm
  • Humans: do not try any of this at home, in the office, in Maccy Ds or when driving

Ornate_moth_(Utetheisa_ornatrix) Charles J Sharp wiki

Utetheisa_ornatrix (Dumi, Jamaica)

Credits: Header (on rattlebox blossom Crotalaria), Bob Peterson; 3 frankly rather feeble photos RH & Mrs RH; sharp photo by Charles J Sharp; open wings by Dumi

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER


Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 1

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (7): LONG-TAILED SKIPPER 

The Abaco Neem Farm is run by Nick Miaoulis with a passion and commitment to the environment matched by few. The farm products can be found in the excellent Abaco Neem shop in Marsh Harbour. This is wonderful place for birding. Besides fruit trees of many kinds, there is a perfect mix of coppice and pine-forest to satisfy the most habitat-pedantic species. 

Long-tailed Skipper Butterfly, Abaco (Keith Salvesen) 3

Around the fruit trees, wildflowers are encouraged to thrive. These attract bees (Nick also has hives) and of course butterflies – not forgetting moths. Amongst the fluttery creatures, we found a long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus), a butterfly found in tropical and subtropical areas. It is a striking creature, with iridescent blues on the body and two long tails extending from the hindwings. The caterpillar is said to be a crop and ornamental plant pest; the butterfly is described as uncommon (maybe for the Bahamas, anyway).

Urbanus proteus: the caterpillarUrbanus_proteus4 (Mike Boone Bug Guide)

Urbanus proteus on Man-o-War CayLong-tailed Skipper - Abaco Butterfly (Charmaine Albury)

Two non-Abaco examplesLong-tailed_Skipper_Butterfly_(Urbanus_proteus)_1 (Jonathan Zander Wiki)Common_longtailed_skipper_(Urbanus_proteus_domingo)_female (Charles Sharp)

Abaco Neem Farm (with beehive)Bee Hive, Neem Farm, Abaco (Mrs RH)

Credits: Keith Salvesen (1, 2); Wiki-pillar (3); Charmaine Albury (4); Non-Abaco Wiki-Skippers Jonathan Zander (5) and Charles Sharp (6); Mrs RH (7)

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (3): COMMON BUCKEYE


220px-Buckeye_Butterfly_(Junonia_coenia)

BUTTERFLIES ON ABACO (3): COMMON BUCKEYE

At first glance the Common Buckeye Butterfly Junonia coenia looks unpromisingly drab. However, like many butterfly species, the outside appearance is only one side of the story, a facade to enable it to blend in with the scenery. As the header image suggests, this creature has a more more flamboyant and colourful side to it – a feature not confined to butterflies, and extending even to humans…

Charlie Skinner DSC_7818

As it feeds, or as the sun warms its wings, the buckeye will start to reveal itself DSC_7831DSC_7825DSC_7817 DSC_7823

The bright eye-spots of the buckeye, for which it is named, are designed to deter predators, as much as for decorative purposes. Birds, in particular, are thought to be put off by a creature apparently possessing 3 pairs of eyes.DSC_7829DSC_7822DSC_7830DSC_7832

The caterpillars and chrysalis of this species look like thisCommon_Buckeye_larva_variation,_Megan_McCarty42Common_Buckeye_chrysalis,_Megan_McCarty43

This rather charming illustration of the buckeye species is by Jacob Hübner from his Sammlung exotischer Schmetterlinge Vol. 2 ([1819] – [1827] (Plate32)442px-Hubner1821SammlExotSchmett2Plate32

Also in this series: ZEBRA HELICONIANS and GULF FRITILLARIES

Photo Credits: Butterflies by Charlie Skinner (except header, Wiki); Caterpillars & Chrysalis by Megan McCarty via Common Licence

HUMMINGBIRD MOTHS AT THE DELPHI CLUB, ABACO


HUMMINGBIRD MOTHS Hemaris Thysbe

Apart from the plentiful bird species to found all around the Delphi Club, there’s the strange half-way house between insect and bird that is the HUMMINGBIRD MOTH Hemaris Thysbe, also known as Hummingbird Clearwings. These can be seen – and heard – especially at dusk hovering around the flowers in the garden, sipping nectar. In the half-light they are sometimes confused for tiny birds. I have seen them most clearly when they are busy among the flowers in the beds on either side of the lit main staircase. So far I have not managed to get a reasonable photo of one – a situation I hope to put right in May. Meanwhile, I have found some wonderful pictures, not from Abaco, on a website related to a Research Program at Miami University . They were taken by Dr Hays Cummins, to whom thanks for use permission. These and other outstanding images can be found at his comprehensive website, for which CLICK===>>> HERE  

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A WANDER ROUND THE DRIVE CIRCUIT – DELPHI CLUB ABACO


THE DELPHI CLUB DRIVE CIRCUIT

This very pleasant walk somehow seems more satisfactory taken clockwise, turning left at the front gateway and wandering along the guest drive. The straight service drive is less interesting and feels less ‘in the coppice’. The distance is about 2 miles. You can walk the circuit briskly in about half an hour. The birds will see you, but you won’t see them… So preferably take it easy. Here is a fantastic aerial view of the drives (courtesy of DCB)

The start of the route – trees as far as the eye can see

From a birding point of view, as you walk down to the gateway, keep an eye out on both sides. There are plenty of birds in the bushes and trees, though they are not always easy to see. You might see a western spindalis, bananaquits, black-faced grassquits, warblers, northern parulas, loggerhead kingbirds, vireos, cuban emerald hummingbirds or a bahama woodstar if you are lucky, amongst many others. When you get to the main drives, have a look straight ahead into the coppice – in fact anywhere along the guest drive is worth pausing to investigate.

This cuban emerald was just opposite the drive gateway  (credit Xeno-canto.org)
 

The gumbo limbo trees are very popular with many birds, including the Abaco Parrots, so it’s good to check them out as you pass by (and if you have unfortunately touched a poison-wood tree, they provide the antidote – conveniently the two trees tend to grow next to each other). Here are a couple of Thick-billed Vireos proving the point. And their song, which you will hear a lot around the Club itself.  (credit Xeno-canto.org)

Hairy Woodpeckers seem to favour dead trees for drilling practice – and perhaps for feeding on the sort of bugs attracted to dead wood. Here’s what they sound like (a call and response with 2 birds) (credit Xeno-canto.org)

There are plenty of small birds all along the way, some more vivid than others…Black-faced grassquit (not a warbler, as earlier suggested. Thanks CN)

Prairie Warbler

Antillean Bullfinch (not, as previously alleged, an American Redstart. Thanks CN)

If you look at the base of the trees in certain places, especially on the the left hand side of the guest drive (facing the highway), there are some small but deep holes in the limestone. If you drop a stone in, you can hear it splash in water – and the ferns growing inside them suggest a continuously moist environment.

As you progress, you move from the hardwood coppice to the pine forest.This photograph was taken just as the forest fires in March were petering out. The theory was that the fires that raged through the pine forest would stop where the coppice began, and not sweep on to engulf Delphi… and so this photo shows. The thick pine forest with its flammable vegetation and undergrowth gives way here to damper and less combustible coppice-wood which has halted the progress of the flames. The pines you can see are the last few outliers of the pine forest.

Here is an example of the drive having acted as a partial firebreak.

The pines, even burnt ones, are a good place to see West Indian Woodpeckers

When you reach the top of the guest drive it is worth carrying on to the highway. For a start you can admire Sandy’s gardening effort on the south side of the ‘white rock’, and maybe do some weeding. You are quite likely to see Turkey Vultures on the telegraph posts and wires, as here. You may also see Bahama Swallows on the wires, and perhaps an American Kestrel on a post. 

20110727-064435.jpgSmooth-Billed Ani (wiki-ani)

I have seen a raucous flock of Smooth-billed Anis in this area, but it is hard to get close to them. Listen out for this unmistakable noise (credit Xeno-canto.org)

Returning from the road to the fork, to your right is the way you have come – seen here as the fires burnt out. There had been thick, indeed impenetrable, bright green undergrowth all along only 3 or 4 days earlier.

To the left is the service drive and your route home

Because this route is more open, there seem to be fewer birds. Again, you may see kestrels on the posts. Halfway along we heard the loud and very melodious singing of a Northern Mockingbird some distance away. CLICK on image (as you can with all, or most, of these photos) and you can see it singing!CLICK BUTTON to hear song of a Northern Mockingbird (credit http://www.bird-friends.com)

On either drive you will see butterflies. They seem to like the vegetation around the piles of stone and rubble.
GULF FRITILLARY Agraulis vanillae

It is also worth looking out on either drive for epiphytes, or air-plants, growing on their host trees. They are so-called because unlike say, mistletoe, they are non-parasitic and do not feed off their hosts.

And so back to Delphi, a well-earned swim… and an ice-cold Kalik in the hammock…

For another angle on the circuit walk, have a look at a proper professional-looking blog by Craig Nash, already trailed in the BLOGROLL. This link will take you specifically to his fourth Delphi post, featuring this stroll. At the risk of stitching myself up here, I should say that you’ll get plenty of seriously good photos… PEREGRINE’S BLOG 4