The lady, the bear, and the elephant

The what? An elephant in Burnaby’s parks – a wild one? Has the circus come to town and there’s been escapees? And how come it’s not in the news? Well, read on to find out. I have an interesting miscellany of sightings made during August and September to report. And they’re all true!

The Lady

Let’s take a look at the lady first. In this case it’s a beautiful one: the painted lady butterfly.

Painted lady butterfly nectaring on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) in my yard

Painted ladies are summer migrants to British Columbia from the arid regions of the southwestern US. The first migrants arrive here in spring, lay their eggs and produce a second generation of adults, of which this beautiful specimen is certainly one.

These second generation adults, unlike monarch butterflies, do not return south to the country of their ancestors. Most just hang on here, to finally die when the colder weather arrives. However, some do occasionally hibernate and make it through our winter as adult butterflies, to reappear the following spring. So this one does have some chance at a very long life for a butterfly.

Click on the image for a closer look

Look at the opalescent eye, and at the proboscis coming from the head to suck nectar from the black-eyed Susan.

Even the underwing view of the butterfly presents a treat for the eyes. The mix of pink/orange, the various shades of brown and tans, and the blue-centred eyespots on the hindwing all add to the powerful effect of this little beauty.

The Bear

And now for the bear. There have been sightings in the cul-de-sac where I live, which backs on to Deer Lake Park, but I missed bruin’s visit. A number of the walkers I meet in the park have asked: “Have you seen the bear?” “No”, I reply. It seems I’ve missed bruin in the park too.

Finally, I got talking to regular park walker John Gerbrandt this week. “Seen the bear?” he asked. Quick on the uptake, I replied, “Have you?” “Yup,” he said, “just down around the corner on this trail we’re on now.” Bruin missed again, and right on my regular route around the park too!

“Get a photo?” “Yes,” says John “with my cell phone.” Deer Lake’s bruin finally sighted, albeit second hand via John’s photo. As I said earlier, it’s all true, and here’s the photo to prove it.

Black bear on Deer Lake trail. Photo: John Gerbrandt

I don’t know if the bear is still in the park, but by all accounts it’s not aggressive. Likely in the park to feed on blackberries, which are now coming to the end of their season, it may have moved on looking for food elsewhere. However, if you do have an encounter, the animal shouldn’t be approached; just back off slowly, and take another route, or wait for the animal to move on. Bears may look cuddly, but they are powerful animals and somewhat unpredictable. Utmost caution is called for.

In one of those surprising coincidences that happen sometimes, I hadn’t quite finished writing this post when I had a live bear encounter of my very own today (Sept 16) at Burnaby Lake.

On the sports fields at the west end of the park, with all the excitement of the weekend’s sports activities going on busily and loudly, this bear was spotted sauntering along the east side of the field along the trail that parallels Still Creek before it empties into the lake. It too did not appear aggressive, nor afraid of the athletes at play nearby.

Black bear, Burnaby Lake Regional Park

The Elephant

And now for what I expect many readers have been waiting for – the elephant. Well, actually this elephant is a lot smaller than the pachyderm variety; it’s the enormous caterpillar of the elephant hawk-moth. At about 7.5 centimetres (3 inches) in length and about 1 cm in diameter, this guy is truly elephantine for a caterpillar. The moth’s name, however, is not due to its size, but due another feature of the caterpillar.

The front or head end of the caterpillar has a trunk-like snout that to some looks like an elephant trunk. You can see it partially protruding in the photograph below. It’s the extendable part that includes the head, beyond the four false eye spots.

Besides the partially protruding “trunk”, note the horn on the tail.

 

Here, the “trunk” is withdrawn into the head-end segment of the caterpillar’s body to make it look snake-like.

And what about those striking false eyes? With the trunk withdrawn, as shown above, the animal resembles a snake with a large head and four large eyes. A caterpillar this size would be a prized food item for a bird or other predator. However, these potential predators are frightened away by the caterpillar looking like a snake displaying those dramatic eyes.

As I write, the caterpillar has now almost certainly burrowed into the soil to pupate below the fuchsia on which it was feeding. It will spend the winter as a pupa, and with luck next July the spectacular adult hawk-moth will emerge to be appreciated for its beauty.

Elephant hawk-moth adult. Photo: jean pierre Hamon. Licensed under creative commons

This beautiful animal is, however, not native to North America but to Europe and parts of Asia. Not considered a pest, it was apparently introduced into British Columbia in the 1990’s, and seems to be well established in and around Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Lucky us.

 

 

 

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Sphinx surprise

A lazy, summer Sunday afternoon – the garden is a familiar scene; flowers waving in the breeze, insects buzzing in the air, and birds singing from the forest behind. And then, in an instant, the scene changes. Something different was hovering and flying around the bright pink campion flowers growing in the back border. A small hummingbird, perhaps a rare visitor, it was definitely not one of our regular Rufous or Anna’s types. My birder brain went rapidly into full attention mode. What was this?

Hovering at each flower before rapidly moving on to the next, the new visitor was actually a sphinx moth or hawkmoth taking nectar from the blossoms. Not the rare hummingbird I first imagined, but nonetheless an animal that I haven’t seen for many years in the area. And just maybe as exciting. Also called a hummingbird moth because, as I just demonstrated, the species is frequently mistaken for a hummingbird.

Grabbing the camera, I headed out into the yard to see if I could get a picture. This was one fast-moving insect, and a real challenge to photograph as the picture below attests. The wing beats are so fast, I never did capture an unblurred picture of them.

Bedstraw or Gallium sphinx moth

However, it was captivating to watch the moth flying around the bright pink campions. Perhaps the pictures do indeed capture the action.

With its wings a constant blur, the moth presented the next challenge. Did I see and photograph enough detail of the moth to make a correct indentification? Now, as you know, I’m a birder so I had to do a little research on-line for this one. I knew enough to recognize it as a sphinx moth, but as to exactly which species. Well!

My first impressions led me to decide is was likely a white-lined sphinx moth. This is the common and widespread species in our area; the default sphinx moth so to speak. However, digging a little deeper, I found that there is another, less common, but very similar species, the bedstraw or gallium sphinx moth. Careful study of many on-line pictures and reading various descriptions led me to decide that our visitor was indeed the bedstraw species.

Like hummingbirds, sphinx moths hover at flowers to suck up and drink the nectar that they need for energy – a good example of the convergent evolution of two unrelated species. The hummingbird uses its extendable tongue, the sphinx moth uses its extendable proboscis to draw the nectar into its mouth. Here’s a close up of the sphinx moth’s specialized mouthpiece at work.

Bedstraw sphinx moth, nectaring

To see what’s going on here, click once on the photo above to enlarge it. The proboscis is the dark coloured, thin tube that extends a short distance horizontally from the head of the moth, and then makes a 90 degree downturn before entering the centre of the flower. When not in use, the long proboscis is carried coiled-up at the front of the head.

But why “bedstraw”? Adult sphinx moths feed exclusively on nectar of many flowers, but it’s the food plant of the caterpillar which gives the species its name. Both bedstraw and fireweed, another favourite larval-stage food plant, are common plants in Deer Lake Park, which is right behind my house, and I’m sure this is the place where this adult spent its early life as a caterpillar.

Bedstraw (Galium sp), Deer Lake Park

And here’s the other favourite food plant of the caterpillar.

Fireweed, Deer Lake Park

The visitor didn’t stay long. It flew along the forest edge, seemingly looking for more flowers for nectar, and then disappeared into the park.

July is the peak of the adults’ flight season, so keep your eyes open for this beautiful moth in our parks. Like most moths, the sphinx moth does fly at night, but this species also flies in the afternoons, and we then have the chance to see this hovering beauty.