Senior Naturalist and Education Facilitator Jan Aiels recently took some families on a nighttime adventure. Here’s her account:

Hot, humid nights are perfect for nighttime adventure in the woods hunting the big game of high summer mothing – catocala moths.  

There's a Catocala on this tree! Can you see it?

Catocala (kah-TOCK-ah-la) are impressive moths with 2-3 inch wingspans.  When wings are folded, the upper wings mimic tree bark. Upon opening the wings for flight, the lower wings or underwings, flash bold colors and striking patterns. When a predator approaches, the moth’s  flashing wing color is confusing and allows escape. 

As for all great adventures, a bit of advance preparation is necessary.  Days before the hunt,  I scavenged an overripe banana from a nature camper’s leftover lunch, found a soon-to-be decayed piece of cantaloupe in my refrigerator, added a pound of  brown sugar and a couple of cans of stale beer. The kitchen blender turned rotting fruit and stale beer into a slush. The sugar was added and the entire mess was gently heated  to dissolve the sugar. Yummm……well, fragrant might  be a better description. Now it just needed to ferment for a few days.

On the evening of the hunt,  Joe Zito and I made our way down woodland trails like a couple of vandals painting the gooey aromatic bait mix on tree trunks.  Each tree was then “marked” with a bright scrap of paper to help us find it later in the dark.  Now, if the sun would only go down!   

One of our families begins the mothing adventure

Twilight came. Visitors arrived.  We started out with eager kids dancing down the trail, flashlights in hand.  The first tree’s marker showed softly in the diminishing light.  Flashlight beams highlighted the bait to reveal large black ants feasting. We admired them and moved on. The next tree hosted a large wasp . She fled each time a light beam came near but immediately returned to feed on an unlit area of bait.    Subsequent  trees revealed more ants, some beetles, daddy long-legs, but no catocala moths!  

Our trail led to the prairie. There would be a different quest here. Sun-warmed grasses gently scented the air as patches of milkweed beckoned.   Milkweeds shelter a community of insects.  Milkweed beetles, daddy-long-legs,  tussock moth caterpillars, and  a mature female praying mantis were soon discovered! Squeals and shrieks filled the evening. 

Examining the praying mantis

Reassured by Joe that the mantis would not bite, the kids each timidly held her, then  returned her to the grass to continue her own hunting expedition as we continued ours.  Probing light beams revealed a crab spider hiding,  waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting meal.

Twilight faded into darkness as we re-entered the woods.  A timid little voice exclaimed, “It’s dark in here!”   Apprehension fled as the first baited tree was spotted .  No moths, but a small collection of other insects had been attracted to the bait.  Tree after tree was checked until we reached the Sac and Fox Trail. Hunting for catacolaWhere were the catocola? As excited children rushed up to the first  tree along Indian Creek,  a large moth fled from the bait to hide high in the leaves! Catocola are here! Tree after tree was checked.  The kids tired. There was less racing ahead of adults and we began to find more moths.  All were amazed as one moth stayed in place extending its long proboscis to probe cracks in the bark for a sugary treat. This moth didn’t seem to even  notice our flashlight beams. Orange spots glowed from higher on the tree. A second moth’s eyes were reflecting our flashlight beam.  If it were not for the glowing eyes , we’d never have noticed the second camouflaged moth.   Mission accomplished! Hunt completed.

Catocola moths will be out foraging in the nighttime woods during August and September.  Why not mix up a batch of bait and enjoy your own adventure?    

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