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Feb 18, 2019 2:11 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

February Wildlife Sightings

Spring-like weather last week brought a woolly caterpillar out of hibernation and, along with high water levels, made for nice paddling on Long Pond. MIKE BOTTINI
Feb 18, 2019 3:11 PM

This past week’s warm weather may have been the impetus for several unusual wildlife sightings. Among them was the woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) seen wandering, surprisingly fast, across my deck. This large (mine was 1.5 inches in length) and conspicuous animal is covered with quarter-inch-long stiff hairs that are colored reddish brown in the middle and black at both ends.This is the larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth, a dull yellow-orange colored adult with a few small black spots scattered across its wings and thorax. It’s not very “tiger-looking.” As with many moths, the goal of the short-lived, adult stage is to find a mate and lay eggs. This is done in early summer.

Eggs are laid on host plants on which the larvae can feed. Unlike some other members of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)—for example, the monarch that lays its eggs only on species of milkweed—this species is a generalist and its larvae can feed on a wide variety of plants. Eggs hatch in less than one week. The larvae, or caterpillars, go through six instars, or molts, as they grow in size. Folklore has it that the relative proportion of black to reddish brown hairs can be used to forecast the severity of the next winter: a wide brown band means a mild winter and a narrow brown band indicates a harsh one. In reality, caterpillars from the same clutch of eggs will show wide variability in relative black and brown banding widths, and the brown band widens with each molt.

The caterpillar stage of its life cycle lasts from mid-summer through the fall, winter and spring. The woolly bear is most often encountered in the fall when it is fully grown and on the move seeking a suitable overwintering site. During this time it may be seen crossing roads and other cleared areas. When threatened, perhaps by someone trying to pick it up for a closer look, the caterpillar curls up into a tight ball.

I was careful not to touch it while photographing, as some larvae that are covered with similar stiff protective hairs release a chemical irritant when handled. But my references state that the woolly bear is safe to handle.

I’m not sure what it was doing on my deck last week. Did the warm weather entice it out of its overwintering site in search of a mid-winter meal, as seems to be the case of the bats overwintering here on Long Island? If so, the woolly bear will be hard-pressed to find palatable leaves to feed on in February.

Normally, the caterpillar remains dormant until spring, relying on its ability to withstand some degree of freezing. In fact, this species’ range includes the arctic where freeze tolerance is key to its survival. The arrival of warm weather in spring stimulates it to move in search of a last feeding before spinning its cocoon, made of its hairs held together with silk, and pupating. Pupation lasts about two weeks, after which the winged adult emerges to seek a mate.

Warm weather also seemed to trump the wild turkey’s day length cue, and had a number of toms strutting their stuff over a month before normal breeding season, which according to the DEC website takes place in early April. It didn’t seem that any of the dozen or so females showed interest.

The combination of warm weather and high water levels prompted me to head over to Long Pond with my kayak for an afternoon paddle. Other than a few mallards, very small flocks of Canada geese and buffleheads, and a lone great blue heron, I had the pond to myself. The high water levels enabled me paddling access to areas normally too shallow even for a kayak, a plus in terms of looking for otter resting sites among the cattails and phragmites marshes.

I didn’t find any, but did locate a new otter latrine, bringing the total on the pond to seven. I was also able to paddle right up to the non-functional concrete dam at the pond’s outlet, where I was able to check the condition of the upper stretch of Ligonee Brook, which was flowing well. It should be a good spring for alewives and American eel elvers to access the pond from the Sag Harbor Coves estuary.

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