SCORES & OUTDOORS: The soothing and enjoyable songs of the Winter Wren and Hermit Thrush

Winter Wren

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

There are times at camp, especially when the weather is oppressingly hot, that my wife and I will retreat to our gazebo, that sits under shade trees, turn on the fan, and enjoy whatever is around us.

Recently, actually since the beginning of summer, we have noticed a Winter Wren that is hanging around our camp. Now, I don’t know if there are more than one, or just the one. We have not seen two together. It has a pretty little song and we enjoy listening to it in the morning.

Another recent visitor, that we don’t remember ever seeing before, is the Hermit Thrush. Another small, brownish bird with a melodious song.

While sitting in the gazebo, we started to talk about the two birds. So, to compare the two songs, we each took our respective cell phones, and Googled the birds. She the hermit thrush, I the winter wren.

To our surprise, when we played their respective songs, to compare them, we became surrounded by the two different birds, and they were answering our calls. We did it a couple of times, then decided that we were possibly confusing the real birds. So we stopped.

However, the birds in the trees continued to call out for quite some time.

The Winter Wren, Troglodytes hiemali, is a very small North American bird. It breeds in coniferous forests from British Columbia to the Atlantic Ocean. It migrates through and winters across southeastern Canada, the eastern half of the United States and (rarely) northeastern Mexico. Small numbers may exist in the western United States and Canada.

The scientific name is taken from the Greek word troglodytes (from “trogle,” a hole, and “dyein,” to creep), meaning “cave-dweller,” and refers to its habit of disappearing into cavities or crevices while hunting arthropods or to roost.

They have small tails often cocked above its back, and short neck which gives the appearance of a small brown ball. Rufous brown above, grayer below, barred with darker brown and gray, even on wings and tail. The bill is dark brown, the legs pale brown. Young birds are less distinctly barred. Most are identifiable by the pale “eyebrows” over their eyes.

The Winter Wren nests mostly in coniferous forests, especially those of spruce and fir, where it is often identified by its long and exuberant song. Although it is an insectivore, it can remain in moderately cold and even snowy climates by foraging for insects on bark and fallen logs.

Its movements as it creeps or climbs are incessant rather than rapid; its short flights swift and direct but not sustained, its tiny round wings whirring as it flies from bush to bush.

At night, usually in winter, it often roosts, true to its scientific name, in dark retreats, snug holes and even old nests. In hard weather it may do so in groups, either consisting of the family or of many individuals gathered together for warmth.

For the most part insects and spiders are its food, but in winter large pupae and some seeds are taken.

Hermit Thrush

The Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus, is a medium-sized North American thrush. It is more compact and stockier than other North American thrushes, with relatively longer wings. The hermit thrush has the white-dark-white underwing pattern characteristic of Catharus thrushes. Adults are mainly brown on the upperparts, with reddish tails. The underparts are white with dark spots on the breast and gray or brownish flanks. They have pink legs and a white eye ring. Birds in the east are more olive-brown on the upperparts; western birds are more gray-brown.

Hermit Thrushes breed in coniferous or mixed woods across Canada, southern Alaska, and the northeastern and western United States. They make a cup nest on the ground or relatively low in a tree.

While most hermit thrushes migrate to wintering grounds in the southern United States and south to Central America, some remain in northern coastal U.S. states and southern Ontario. They usually breed in forests, but will sometimes winter in parks and wooded suburban neighborhoods. They forage on the forest floor, also in trees or shrubs, mainly eating insects and berries.

The Hermit Thrush’s song has been described as “the finest sound in nature,” consisting of a beginning note, then several descending musical phrases in a minor key, repeated at different pitches. It often sings from a high open location. Analysis of the notes of its song indicates they are related by harmonic simple integer pitch ratios, like many kinds of human music and unlike the songs of other birds that have been similarly examined.

Walt Whitman construes the Hermit Thrush as a symbol of the American voice, poetic and otherwise, in his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” one of the fundamental texts in the American literary canon. A Hermit Thrush is the name of a poem by the American poet Amy Clampitt. A hermit thrush appears in the fifth section (What the Thunder Said) of the T. S. Eliot poem The Waste Land.

Former Canadian indie-rock band Thrush Hermit took its name from a reversal of the bird’s name. It is also shared by the American bands Hermit Thrushes and Hermit Thrush.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who are the three pitchers with 100 or more career losses with the Red Sox?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – How about something different: Let’s play a game!

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I have an idea: let’s play a game! Everybody likes a game. We’ll call it – get a load of this ingenious title – Fact or Fiction!

Many of us have pets, and we also like to watch animals. Let’s ask some questions and see if you can tell if it is fact or fiction.

Here are the questions. The answers follow:

  • Bats are blind.
  • Some bees sting only once.
  • An owl is a wise bird
  • A turtle can walk out of its shell.
  • Crickets tell the temperature with their chirps.
  • Goats eat almost anything.
  • Bulls get angry when they see red.
  • Camels store water in their humps.
  • Rats desert a sinking ship.

Here are the answers:

  • Bats are Blind: Fiction – In the night sky, they seem to be blind. They fly back and forth in odd ways. Bats use their ears as well as their eyes to find their way at night, flying in different patterns as they gather insects in flight. They emit high-pitched sounds that echo back to them from objects, similar to radar.
  • Some bees sting only once: Fact – many kinds of bees can sting only once. A honeybee’s stinger has barbs on it and when they catch, they hold fast. The stinger breaks off and stays behind. The bee will die after losing its stinger. Queens, however, can sting multiple times. Its stinger has no barbs. Male bees, called drones, have no stinger and cannot sting at all.
  • An owl is a wise bird: Fiction – Some people think owls look wise because of their eyes. But for a bird its size, the owl has a tiny brain. An owl never moves its eyes to look for prey, but, instead, moves its whole head from side to side.
  • A turtle can walk out of its shell: Fiction – When people find an empty turtle shell on the ground, they may think a turtle left it behind and moved into a new one. A turtle can no more walk out of its shell than you can walk away from your ribs. The empty shells you may find on the ground are the remains of turtles that have died.
  • Crickets tell the temperature with their chirps… Fact – Crickets are animals whose body temperatures change with the temperature around them. On a hot day, crickets chirp so rapidly that it is hard to count the number of chirps. But on a cool day, crickets chirp much more slowly. You can easily count the times they chirp.
  • Dogs talk with their tails: Fact – When a dog wags its tail from side to side, the dog is happy and playful. But when a dog wags its tail up and down, it may be because it has done something wrong and expects to be punished. If a dog keeps its tail straight up, be careful, that is the signal that it may attack. Don’t run, just back away slowly.
  • Goats will eat almost anything: Fact – Goats will eat almost anything they can find. They have been accused of eating tin cans. But they are not really eating the metal; they are chewing the label to get at the glue underneath. They will eat string and paper, but would rather eat fruit, vegetables, grass and leaves of plants.
  • Bulls get angry when they see red: Fiction – A bullfighter waves a red cape before a charging bull. There are many stories which tell us that bulls become angry when they see red. The trouble with these stories is that bulls are color blind. It’s the motion of an object in front of it that angers a bull. Bulls will get angry if you wave anything in front of them.
  • Camels store water in their humps: Fiction – Camels store fat in the humps. The stored fat is used for energy when the camel doesn’t get enough to eat. But camels can go for days or even weeks without drinking water. Their woolly coats keep out the heat of the direct sunlight. The wool also keeps them from sweating and losing water too rapidly.
  • Rats desert a sinking ship: Fact – Rats will jump overboard if a ship is sinking. But that is true of any animal that can swim. Rats sometimes desert a ship even if it isn’t sinking. In the days of sailing ships, it was a common sight to see packs of rats jumping overboard. The ships were slow and would be at sea for months. By the time they returned to port, there was little food left for the rats so when the ship came close to shore, they would dive overboard and swim to land in search of food.

So, how did you do?

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Name the only three players, who played left field, consecutively, for the same team their entire career, and all are in baseball’s hall of fame.

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Let’s continue our journey through the world of moths

The Polyphemus moth (left) and the Luna moth (right). (photos by Roland D. Hallee)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Over the last few weeks, we have had more moths show up at The Town Line office than visitors. The appearances continue. Following the moths we covered last time, this week we will cover the Polyphemus moth and the Luna moth. One other that has made its presence known more recently is the Brown-tail moth, which we covered a little while back, especially about the effects of the hairs from the caterpillar.

The hairs from the Brown-tail moth caterpillar continue to linger in the air as my wife and I have experienced several rashes (Me, 4; She 2).

The Polyphemus moth, Antheraea polyphemus, is a North American member of the giant silk moths family. It is a tan-colored moth, with an average wingspan of six inches. The most notable feature of the moth is its large, purplish eyespots on its two hindwings. The eyespots give it its name – from the Greek myth of the cyclops Polyphemus. The species was first described by Pieter Cramer in 1776. The species is widespread in continental North America, with local populations found throughout subarctic Canada and the United States. The caterpillar can eat 86,000 times its weight at emergence in a little less than two months.

The life cycle of the moth is much like that of any other giant silk moth species. It lays flat, light-brown eggs on the leaves of a number of host plants, including birch, oak, maple, hickory, beech, honey locust, walnut, cherry, elm, plum, peach and apricot trees.

Squirrels have been known to consume the pupae of Polyphemus moths, decreasing the population greatly. Pruning of trees and leaving outdoor lights on at night can also be detrimental to the moths.

The Polyphemus moth uses defense mechanisms to protect itself from predators. One of its most distinctive mechanisms is a distraction display that serves to confuse, or simply distract, predators. This involves the large eyespots on its hindwings, which give the moth its name (from the cyclops Polyphemus in Greek mythology). Eyespots are also startle patterns, a subform of distraction patterns, used for camouflage via deceptive and blending coloration. Most startle patterns are brightly colored areas on the outer body of already camouflaged animals. (Another example of the use of startle patterns is the gray tree frog, with its bright-yellow leggings. When it leaps, a flash of bright yellow appears on its hind legs, usually startling the predator away from its prey.) Distraction patterns are believed to be a form of mimicry, meant to misdirect predators by markings on the moths’ wings. The pattern on the hindwings of the Polyphemus moth resembles that on the head of the great horned owl.

The next moth is the unmistakeble Luna moth.

The Luna moth, Actias luna, is another moth of a group commonly known as giant silk moths. It has lime-green colored wings and a white body. The larvae (caterpillars) are also green. Typically, it has a wingspan of roughly 4.5 inches, but can exceed 7 inches, making it one of the larger moths in North America. Across Canada, it has one generation per year, with the winged adults appearing in late May or early June, whereas farther south it will have two or even three generations per year, the first appearance as early as March in southern parts of the United States.

As defense mechanisms, larvae emit clicks as a warning and also regurgitate intestinal contents, confirmed as having a deterrent effect on a variety of predators. The elongated tails of the hindwings are thought to confuse the echolocation detection used by predatory bats. A parasitic fly deliberately introduced to North America to be a biological control for the invasive species gypsy moth appears to have had a negative impact on Luna moths and other native moths.

Described and named by James Petiver in 1700, this was the first North American giant silk moth to be reported in the insect literature. The initial Latin name, which roughly translates to “brilliant, feather tail”, was replaced when Carl Linnaeus described the species in 1758 in the tenth edition of Systema Naturae, and renamed it with luna derived from Luna, the Roman moon goddess. The common name became “Luna moth”. Several other North American giant silk moths were also given species names after Roman or Greek mythology.

The Luna moth is found in North America, from east of the Great Plains in the United States – Florida to Maine, and from Saskatchewan eastward through central Québec to Nova Scotia in Canada. Luna moths are also rarely found in Western Europe as vagrants.

Based on the climate in which they live, Luna moths produce different numbers of generations per year. In Canada and northern regions of the United States they are univoltine, meaning one generation per year. Life stages are approximately two weeks as eggs, 6–7 weeks as larvae, nine months as pupae, finishing with one week as winged adults appearing in late May or early June. In the mid-Atlantic states the species is bivoltine, and farther south trivoltine, meaning respectively two and three generations per year. In the central states the first generation appears in April, second in July. Even farther south, first generation appears as early as March, with second and third spaced eight to ten weeks later.

The parasitic fly, Compsilura concinnata, native to Europe was deliberately introduced to the United States throughout much of the 20th century as a biological control for gypsy moths. Due to its flexible life cycle, it can parasitize more than 150 species of butterflies and moths in North America. Researchers reported that when Luna moth larvae were placed outside for about a week and then collected and returned to the laboratory, four parasitoid species emerged, the most common being C. concinnata. The researchers concluded that this parasitic fly causes collateral damage to Luna moth populations.

The larvae of Luna moths feed on several different species of broadleaf trees. The larvae do not reach population densities sufficient to cause significant damage to their host trees. Host trees include white birch, American persimmon and American sweet gum plus several species of hickory, walnut and sumac. Other tree species have been identified as suitable are black cherry, cottonwood, quaking aspen, white willow, red oak, white oak and tulip tree, but reported very poor survival on these seven tree species even though older literature had identified them as hosts. The host plant utilization may differ regionally, so that larvae collected from one region may not tolerate host plants readily consumed in another region.

In popular culture, the Luna moth appeared on a first class United States postage stamp issued in June 1987. Although more than two dozen butterflies have been so honored, as of 2019 this is the only moth.

The American rock band R.E.M. references Luna moths in their song You off their 1994 album Monster.

The band Big Thief references the Luna moth on their song Strange from the 2019 album U.F.O.F.

The Luna moth appeared in Livingstone Mouse, by Pamela Duncan Edwards.

The Luna moth has been used previously in advertisements for the insomnia medicine Lunesta.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

The Red Sox 1967 World Series 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, Jim Lonborg was the winning pitcher in two of the games. Who was the winning pitcher in the third win?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: We are entering the heart of moth season

Left to right: Virginia Ctenucha moth, Rosy Maple moth, Pink striped oakworm moth. (photos by Roland D. Hallee)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

As my battle with the brown tail moth caterpillars continues, I have seen a variety of other moths emerge over the last week. I was anxious for the brown tail moth caterpillar to turn into a moth so we can cut down on the floating hairs that have been irritating our skin.

While watering my garden on Saturday, I saw a brown tail moth in flight. What a relief to see that.

However, other moths have caught my attention, and here are three of them.

The first one is the Virginia Ctenucha (pronounced ten-oo-chah) … I think.

The Virginia Ctenucha, Ctenucha virginica, is an attractive moth. It is widespread and common and is a member of the Erebidae family which consists of a varied group of striking moths living in woodlands, fields, and gardens, as well as freshwater swamps, marshes, and bogs.

The Virginia Ctenucha is the largest and most broad-winged of wasp moths in North America. Its wingspan is 1-3/8 to 2 inches. This moth has a metallic blue body, which contrasts with the bright orange of its head and the sides of its collar. Its fore wing is a deep grayish brown, with some metallic blue at the base. Its hind-wing is black.

It is endemic to eastern North America, from Newfoundland south to Virginia. According to the University of Alberta, there has been a westward expansion in the last 60 years as it has reached the Canadian rockies and is now found in all Canadian provinces. Larvae feed on a variety of host plants including various grasses, irises, and sedges. Adults drink nectar from flowers including goldenrod.

The adult Virginia Ctenucha flies primarily during the day, but may also come to light at night. Adults feed on nectar at various flowers, such as goldenrod. The larva body surface is black, covered with tufts of cream-colored or black hairs. Caterpillar hosts include grasses, sedges, and irises.

Despite its name, this is a northern moth. The flight period for the Virginia Ctenucha throughout its range is from late spring to late summer, however sighting records suggest that it flies in July. The larva can usually be seen from April to September, but may be found any time of year, since they overwinter.

Another moth I have spotted is the Rosy Maple moth, Dryocampa rubicunda, a small North American moth also known as the great silk moth. It was first described by Johan Christian Fabricius in 1793. The species is known for its wooly body and pink and yellow coloration, which varies from cream or white to bright pink or yellow. Males have bushier antennae than females, which allow them to sense female pheromones for mating.

As the common name of the species implies, the preferred host trees are maple trees. They can also be found on oak trees. Adult females lay their yellow ovular eggs in groups of 10 to 40 on the underside of maple leaves. The emerging caterpillars, also known as the greenstriped mapleworm, mainly feed on the leaves of their host maple trees, particularly red maple, silver maple, and sugar maple. Since the caterpillars eat the entire leaf blade, in dense populations, caterpillars have been known to defoliate trees, resulting in aesthetic rather than permanent damage. However, like all other Saturniid moths, the adult moths do not eat.

The rosy maple moth is the smallest of the silk moths; males have a wingspan of 1.25 – 1.75 inches).

The rosy maple moth lives across the eastern United States and adjacent regions of Canada. Their northern-most range includes the southern regions of Canada, including Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island. Their range extends south along the Atlantic coast of North America to Dade County, Florida, and extends west from eastern Texas through Minnesota.

Caterpillars live and feed in groups until the fourth instar when they become solitary. Adult rosy maple moths are mostly solitary besides during mating.

Individual rosy maple moths typically live for about two to nine months. Between hatching and adulthood, the species undergoes five instars. For moths with longer life spans, much of this time is spent as a pupa over the winter months.

The predators of the rosy maple moth and larvae mostly consist of birds including blue jays, black-capped chickadees, and tufted titmice. The bright coloration of the wings may serve as a defense mechanism to trick predators into thinking they are poisonous and not tasty.

Adults become active in the warmer months of the year. In a study the rosy maple moth was found to vary with changes in temperature, with highest counts at the highest temperature. The recent warm weather may have contributed to its early arrival. Their small size, preventing more effective body temperature control, may also contribute to their preference for warm weather. Adult moths are generally nocturnal, preferentially flying throughout the first third of the night.

Finally, the pink-striped oakworm moth, another species of silk moth.

The female’s wings are purplish red with ochre-yellow. They have thin scales and are almost transparent. The male’s wings are purplish brown with a large transparent space in the middle. The female is larger than the male.

The moth can be found across Canada from Nova Scotia to southeastern Manitoba, and in the United States. It lives in deciduous woodlands and suburbs.

The males attract females by buzzing like a bee. Mating occurs during the morning. It is a rapid process. The male and female stay together for the rest of the day and then the female finds a place to lay eggs, usually under oak leaves.

The caterpillars are gray or greenish with dull brownish yellow or rosy stripes. There are scales on each segment and two long spines. The caterpillars pupate for a short time. They feed on the foliage of oak trees, maples, birches, and hazels. The caterpillar overwinters in the soil as a pupa. Caterpillars that are newly hatched or are in the middle of growing, feed in groups while those that are mature or nearly so feed separately. The caterpillar is about an eighth of an inch long. The head is large in proportion to the body. The inside of the mouth is yellow. The legs are semi-translucent.

Conservation regimes are not required for this species. It is considered a pest of forests because it defoliates trees.

These are all moths I have seen around the door to our office at The Town Line.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Red Sox player holds the team record for the most Gold Glove Awards with eight?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: Red foxes are abundant and widespread in all 16 Maine counties

A mother red fox with her kittens rambling through the grounds at the Togus VA. (photo by Gary Kennedy)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Over the last several weeks, I have been approached and told of numerous fox sightings. It seems they are becoming more abundant in our area. I have seen a few, on the roadways, from time to time, as they cross from one side to the other. They have also been spotted at camp, moving about from lot to lot.

Then, there is the sighting, by one of our supporters, of the somewhat rare gray fox.

Maine is fortunate to have two species of fox, the red fox, Vulpes vulpes, and gray fox Urocyon cinereoargenteus. Both species are similar in size, but there are some important differences in their appearance, behavior, and distribution.

Gray fox.

The red fox is abundant and widespread, occurring in all 16 counties in Maine. Adult red foxes weigh 7-15 pounds and have a distinct red/orange appearance, white chest, black legs, and bushy white-tipped tail. Silver or cross foxes are an abnormal development of dark pigmentation in the fur of the red fox; they appear black, silver or a combination of red/black/grey and are less common than the typical red ones. Red foxes have keen eyesight and hearing, and are very agile, jumping up to six feet high. Red foxes have a special method of hunting with impressive pounces on prey hidden under the snow or ground.

The gray fox is abundant in southern and mid-coast Maine, and continues to expand into western and central parts of Maine. Gray foxes weigh about 10 pounds and are distinguished by their grizzled coloration, a hint of red on the neck, ears, and lower legs, and a black stripe down their tail. Gray fox are the only member in the canid (dog) family in North America that can climb trees. Red foxes can climb, but not as well as gray foxes.

Foxes are omnivores and eat a wide variety of plants and animals, depending on the season. Small birds and mammals are consumed, including mice, voles, rats, rabbits, and bird eggs. Foxes also eat insects, snakes, carrion, berries, apples, corn, seeds, and nuts.

Foxes are primarily nocturnal, including hunting during dawn and dusk, but foxes are occasionally seen out during the day, particularly during the spring/summer, as is the case right now, when rearing pups.

Foxes are found in diverse habitats and are quite tolerant of living near people. Foxes are common in agricultural landscapes and tend to do well with a mix of forest and fields.

Coyotes are predators of foxes but tend to be more wary of people, so foxes avoid coyotes by living near people.

Research suggests that humans create the conditions for conflict by deliberately or inadvertently providing animals with food and shelter. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife urges you to use the following management strategies around your property to prevent or resolve conflicts and encourage your neighbors to do the same.

Seeing a fox out during the day is not a problem and does not mean the fox is sick! Never approach or handle wildlife. Enjoy watching the fox go about its business from a safe distance. Remember that fur coats are much thinner and patchier in the summer, especially for mother foxes who have put most of their energy into raising young.

Never feed wildlife. Once an animal is fed, it will return, lose its fear of people, and could become aggressive.

If you have had conflicts in the past and have a bird feeder, consider planting native plants instead. Bird feeding can create a chain of events that are not always obvious. Dropped seed attracts many wildlife species who feed on the seeds or predators who feed on the rodents that increase as a result of a bird feeder.

Store your trash inside buildings, use garbage cans with locking lids, and bring your garbage cans to the curb the morning of pick up.

Securely cover and fence compost piles or use a compost bin. Never throw dairy or animal matter into compost, since it can become smelly and attract animals. Regularly mixing in some dirt or leaves to your pile will also reduce the scent and allow the foods to break down more quickly into compost.

Foxes and other predators will kill free-ranging chickens and other small livestock that are not secured in a shelter. Protect your livestock from predation by using a predator-proof pen with well-fitted doors and locks and electric fencing.

Small livestock should be confined to their pens during vulnerable periods from dusk until dawn.

Foxes can carry diseases, but people can protect themselves by keeping a safe distance from wildlife and vaccinating their pets. Common fox diseases include mange, rabies, and canine distemper.

Foxes are very tolerant of people and will den in a variety of places, including near roads, in yards, or under buildings. In most cases, the fox family will move if there is a lot of disturbance. Be a responsible pet owner and never let your dog harass wildlife. If you want to encourage the foxes to move, simply pour some bleach or ammonia at the entrance of the den, leave a portable light on, or a radio on overnight. This will encourage them to move to an alternative den.

Prevent wildlife from denning under your porch, deck, or buildings by closing off holes during the fall. Close off these areas with quarter-inch hardware cloth, boards, metal flashing or other sturdy barriers.

In the rare case that there is an aggressive-acting animal, call the nearest dispatch center for help:

Augusta 1-800-452-4664; Bangor 1-800-432-7381; Houlton 1-800-924-2261.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Red Sox first baseman went 238 games without committing an error between 2006 and 2008?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: No need to panic about Asian Giant Hornets

The Asian Giant Hornet. Notice the long wing span.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

A couple of weeks ago, while driving into work, I heard over the radio about this giant Asian hornet that had made its way to the United States, and was first detected in Washington state. Haven’t we seen this movie before? Isn’t that where we were first introduced to the coronavirus Covid-19?

This hornet, from all reports, can reach a size of two inches in length. So, here is what we know.

Hornets are found in many parts of the world and play a vital role in the balance of natural ecosystems through pollination, biodiversity and natural pest control. Unfortunately dubbed the “murder hornet,” the Asian giant hornet (AGH), the world’s largest, was sighted for the first time in the United States in December 2019.

Do you suspect that coronavirus may have hitched a ride on this hornet, arriving in the United States at about the same time?

The Asian giant hornet, Vespa mandarinia, is the world’s largest hornet. It is native to temperate and tropical East Asia, South Asia, Mainland Southeast Asia, and parts of the Russian Far East. It was also found in the Pacific Northwest of North America in late 2019, with two additional sightings in 2020. They prefer to live in low mountains and forests, while almost completely avoiding plains and high-altitude climates. They create nests by digging, co-opting pre-existing tunnels dug by rodents, or occupying spaces near rotted pine roots. It feeds primarily on larger insects, colonies of other eusocial insects, tree sap, and honey from honey bee colonies. The hornet has a body length of 1.8 inches, a wingspan around three inches), and a stinger a quarter of an inch long, which injects a large amount of potent venom.

The Asian giant hornet is often confused with the yellow-legged hornet, also known as the Asian hornet, an invasive species of major concern across Europe, including the United Kingdom.

According to Dick Rogers, principal scientist and entomologist, at Bayer Bee Care Program, while the AGH is large in size and has a big stinger compared to other ­hornets, it is typically not aggressive with humans. As always, those allergic to bee or wasp stings should practice caution and avoid contact with hornets in general.

Rogers has been a professional entomologist for more than four decades and has been keeping and studying bees for over 40 years. He joined the Bayer Bee Care Program in 2009.

The down side is the Asian Giant Hornet can pose a risk to honey bee colonies because it feeds on large insects, including wasps and bees. So far, they’ve only appeared in the northwest part of the United States, and monitoring efforts by the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) are underway to better understand these hornets and help educate beekeepers on how to protect their colonies.

On top of this, a team at Bayer is being pro-active by organizing a first detection trapping program in North Carolina and Missouri, which will be deployed in early July. They will then share their results with the WSDA at the end of the season. While they do not expect to catch any AGH this year, early detection is vital to an effective effort to eradicate them.

You can be confident the early introduction of the AGH in the United States and Canada is being closely monitored by professionals who have management plans in place should there be any future sightings. There’s no need to worry about catching a glimpse of these hornets in your yards or gardens, as they are not yet established in the United States. In fact, the only hornet that is established in our country, the European hornet, has been around since the late 1800s.

As always, it is important to protect our bees. It’s not only researchers and entomologists who can help protect honeybees. Everyone can support bees by getting outside to plant pollinator-friendly gardens or flowers.

As pollinators play a vital role in our ecosystem, crop production and biodiversity, I recommend you stay calm and keep gardening to provide your fuzzy friends with the flowers and habitat they need to thrive.

Learn more about how to plant pollinator-friendly gardens that help bees, monarchs and other important pollinators by visiting https://beehealth.bayer.us/home.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Who was the first Boston Red Sox pitcher to win the American League Cy Young Award?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: My encounter with brown-tail moth caterpillar not a pleasant one

Brown-tail moth caterpillar, left, and the adult moth.

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

I have seen and been around brown-tail moth caterpillars before, but this past weekend was my first contact with one.

We’ve been doing some extensive outdoors renovations at camp this spring. With the tick population at record high numbers, we’ve been clearing and pushing back growth and decaying leaves further back into the woods, away from the camp. We have also torn down our old screened-in room, and preparing a new platform for the new one to be installed later. During all of this, we dress accordingly, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks and boots, to try to aleviate the possibility of ticks jumping on-board.

Apparently, there was another enemy out there. With the high, sustained winds over the weekend, I somehow came in contact with airborne hairs from the brown-tail moth caterpillar. Saturday found both my forearms, left shoulder and upper thigh on my left leg, covered with a pinkish rash, that itched like the dickens.

I have since dispatched three of the caterpillars I have found strolling along my deck.

They were accidentally introduced to the United States in the 1890s. During the early 20th century they were present from eastern Connecticut northward into New Brunswick, Canada, but a subsequent severe population collapse reduced the territory to parts of coastal Maine and Cape Cod, Massachusetts, by the late 20th century. One theory for the decline appeared to be a parasite introduced to combat gypsy moths. Starting in 2015 there has been a population spike and territory expansion in coastal Maine.

Hairs from the caterpillars are toxic for humans, causing a poison ivy-like itchy rash of up to weeks duration due to mechanical and chemical irritation. Direct contact with larvae is not necessary, as the hairs are shed and can become windblown. Toxins in the hairs remain potent for up to three years. Outdoor activities such as mowing a lawn or raking leaves in the fall can cause exposure.

The brown-tail moth is an invasive species in the United States and Canada, having arrived in Somerville, Massachusetts, circa 1890, and becoming widespread there and in neighboring Cambridge by 1897. Initial outbreaks were most evident in pear and apple trees. Doctors reported “poisonings” (skin rash) far worse than poison ivy rash. Within a few years it was seen as a serious, fast-spreading, horticultural and health problem – apparently, not enough though, to cause a complete shutdown of the country. Through the early parts of the 20th century it was present in much of New England from eastern Connecticut to Maine, and northward into New Brunswick, Canada, but the 1906 introduction of the parasitic fly Compsilura concinnata to counter gypsy moths collaterally impacted brown-tail moths. By the late 20th century the habitat was reduced to the coast and islands of Maine, and also parts of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Cold and wet weather hinders re-expansion of the population outside its current territories, although starting in 2015 there has been a population spike and territory expansion in coastal Maine, from Portland to Bar Harbor.

Photographs taken from aerial fly-overs are used to identify areas where the trees have been denuded of leaves, by the moth, and where the branch-tip tents are present. The white-winged adults are nocturnal and strongly attracted to light; a report from 1903 likened their appearance around streetlights as being akin to heavy snowfall.

The brown-tail moth produces one generation a year. Eggs are laid in July and hatch in August.

In the United States, many species of birds prey on the winged adults, including English house sparrows and blue jays (I wonder if that is what has led to an increased number of blue jays around our bird feeders at camp?)

How to control it? Branch-tip webs can be clipped in winter and very early spring, and either dropped into a bucket of soapy water or burned. Gloves should be worn. Appropriate pesticides should be applied before early May because that is when the larvae start to develop harmful hairs. For organic garden and farm situations there are sprays that use a strain of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).

A rash that will develop when contact is made with the hairs of a brown-tail moth caterpillar.

Cicely Blair wrote a paper about the rash caused by the brown-tail moth caterpillar in the British Isles. It, and other descriptions, confirmed that loose hairs can break off and cause very itchy rashes on contact with skin, as well as breathing difficulties similar to asthma if inhaled. Rashes can persist for weeks. The same symptoms have been reported as far back as 1903. The reactions are due to a combination of mechanical and chemical stimuli, the barbed hairs in effect becoming lodged in and physically irritating the skin.

The species should be handled using protective gloves at all stages of its life cycle. Shed hairs blow about, and can be brought indoors on clothing and shoes, so rashes can occur without the victim coming in direct contact with the caterpillars.

Brown-tail larvae have been reported as feeding on 26 genera of non-resinous trees and shrubs belonging to 13 different families. This is considered unusual. Non-specific host plant feeding combined with its tendency to reach extreme outbreak densities makes this species a major pest of fruit orchards, ornamental trees and hardwood forests. Partial list of plant species: apple, cherry, beach plum (Cape Cod, Massachusetts), beech, elm, grape, hops, maple, oak, pear, raspberry, rose and willow. An early description of the introduction to the United States in the 1890s identified pear and apple trees as most greatly afflicted, but mentioned that once trees were entirely bare of leaves, the larvae would descend to the ground in great numbers and move toward any leafy plant, including vegetable plants.

The hairs are almost like silent attackers. You may acquire the rash without even knowing it, as I did. All the precautions and protections I took were to no avail once the hairs became airborne.

I did find out, though, that baby powder will relieve the itching, but the best “antidote” I found was Benadryl spray. That completely took away the itching, though the rash remains. I’ll see how long it takes to go away.

Meanwhile, be on the lookout for the little irritating critters.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which outfielder made his debut for the Red Sox in 2016 despite never having appeared in Triple-A ball?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS – Slugs: what are they good for, and why are there so many?

The common slug

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Over last weekend, I prepared my garden bed for planting, at camp. After tilling the soil, adding some manure, and carefully working everything into the soil, I moved a few containers from one location to another, and there it was. A slug!

I can remember, about four years ago, when slugs were raising havoc with my sweet peppers and Brussels sprouts, and were having a field day with my Romaine lettuce. In 2015, they were responsible for the complete destruction of my cucumber, green peppers and marigold plantings at camp. There seems to be no end to them. That raised the question: what are slugs, what are their usefulness and how do we get rid of them?

First of all, let’s find out a little bit about them.

Slug is a common non-scientific word, which is often applied to any gastropod mollusc, and the word “slug” is more frequently encountered as applied to air-breathing land species, including a few agricultural and horticultural pest species.

Land slugs, like all other slow-moving gastropods, undergo torsion (a 180-degree twisting of the internal organs) during development. Internally, the anatomy of a slug clearly shows the effects of this rotation, but externally the bodies of slugs appear rather symmetrical.

The soft, slimy bodies of slugs are prone to dry up (desiccation), so land-living slugs are confined to moist environments and are forced to retreat to damp hiding places when the weather is dry.

Slugs macerate (soften or separate food in the digestive tract by soaking) food using their radula, a rough, tongue-like organ with many tiny tooth-like denticles.

Like other snails, a slug moves by rhythmic waves of muscular contraction on the underside of its foot. It simultaneously secretes a layer of mucus on which it travels, which helps prevent damage to the tissues of the foot.

Slugs produce two types of mucus: one which is thin and watery, and another which is thick and sticky. Both kinds of mucus are hygroscopic (absorb and retain moisture). The thin mucus is spread out from the center of the foot to the edges, whereas the thick mucus spreads out from front to back. They also produce thick mucus which coats the whole body of the critter.

Slugs’ bodies are made up mostly of water, and without a full-sized shell to retreat into, their soft tissues are prone to desiccation.

Slugs are hermaphrodites, having both female and male reproductive organs. After mating, the slugs lay around 30 eggs in a hole in the ground, or beneath the cover of objects such as fallen logs.

Mostly, slugs are harmless to humans and to their interests, except for a small number of species of slugs that are great pests of agriculture and horticulture. They feed on fruits and vegetables prior to harvest, making holes in the crop, which can make individual items unsuitable to sell for aesthetic reasons, and which can make the crop more susceptible to rot and disease.

The great gray slug

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but so far I haven’t mentioned any benefits to the ecosystem. Their only contribution seems to be the fact they eat dead leaves, fungus and decaying vegetable material. It has always been my belief that if you allowed those to decompose, they will turn to dirt. Why do the slugs have to eat them?

Frogs, toads, snakes, hedgehogs, salamanders, eastern box turtles and certain birds and beetles are slug predators. Birds include blackbirds, crows, ducks, jays, owls, robins, seagulls, starlings and thrushes. With the large number of crows we have around our camp, I can’t figure out why they haven’t wiped out the slug population.

I also have seen numerous frogs and toads in my garden which might be helping with the fact the slugs have not attacked my tomatoes. Snakes, which are a no-no as far as I’m concerned are allowed to stay. However, those sightings have been few and far in between, partly due, I think, to the large number of raptors in the area.

Just so you know there are different kinds of slugs, Around my garden, at home, especially near the wood pile, I have seen great gray slugs, which almost resemble a small snake. Snakes are something I tolerate, but for which I have no love.

So, as you can see, slugs are a pest, they are disgusting, and they serve very little purpose in our environs.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Which Red Sox slugger led the American League in home runs in 1977, 1978 and 1983?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: What are all those crazy worms jumping around?

The common earthworm, top, and the crazy worm, below. Note the difference in the clitellum (a raised band encircling the body of worms, made up of reproductive segments), and its location on the two species. (photo courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

Did you know there are no native earthworms in Maine? Here in the Northeast where glaciers scrubbed our bedrock bare a few years back we have no native earthworms. Non-native earthworms from Europe (such as nightcrawlers) have become well established here through early colonial trading. Though they are beneficial to our gardens, earthworms can have destructive effects on our forests.

Are you tired of hearing about new invasive species. Yeah – right there with you. Aside from the fact that there’s too much bad news around as it is, we’re still working on a solution for those good old-fashioned pests that rival the common cold in terms of eluding conquest. Japanese beetles, European chafers, buckthorn, wild parsnip, Japanese knotweed – enough already.

And now, there is another species of worms out there that are not so welcome.

Crazy worms are a type of earthworm native to East Asia. (Here we go with Asian invaders, again. It seems every invasive species, of any kind, originates in Asia). They are smaller than nightcrawlers, reproduce rapidly, are much more active, and have a more voracious appetite. This rapid life cycle and ability to reproduce asexually gives them a competitive edge over native organisms, and even over nightcrawlers. They mature twice as fast as European earthworms, completing two generations per season instead of just one. And their population density gets higher than other worms. And they can get to be eight inches in length, longer than a nightcrawler. When disturbed, crazy worms jump and thrash about, behaving like a threatened snake.

Crazy worms are known and sold for bait and composting under a variety of names including snake worms, Alabama jumper, jumping worms, Asian crazy worm. They are in the genus Amynthas, and distinguishing between the several species in the genus can be difficult. All species in this genus are considered invasive in Maine. It is illegal to import them into Maine (or to propagate or possess them) without a wildlife importation permit from the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW). For more information, visit MDIFW’s Fish & Wildlife in Captivity webpage.

Crazy worms are native to Korea and Japan, and are now found in the United States from Maine to South Carolina and west to Wisconsin. Crazy worms were first collected from a Maine greenhouse in 1899, though an established population of this active and damaging pest was not discovered here until about 2014 when two populations were discovered in Augusta (one at the Viles Arboretum) and two populations were found in Portland. They have also been found in a rhododendron display at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, in Boothbay. It is believed that crazy worms are not yet widespread in Maine, but they have been discovered in some new locations since 2014, including nursery settings. If allowed to spread, crazy worms could cause serious damage to horticultural crops and the forest ecosystem in Maine.

So, why are crazy worms a problem? Crazy worms change the soil by accelerating the decomposition of leaf litter on the forest floor. They turn good soil into grainy, dry worm castings (a/k/a poop) that cannot support the native understory plants of our forests. Other native plants, fungi, invertebrates, and vertebrates may decline because the forest and its soils can no longer support them. As native species decline, invasive plants may take their place and further exacerbate the loss of species diversity.

In nurseries and greenhouses, crazy worms reduce the functionality of soils and planting media and cause severe drought symptoms. After irrigating or rains, you may find these worms under pots. These worms may be inadvertently moved to new areas with nursery stock, or in soil, mulch, or compost.

Many of Maine’s forests are already under pressure from invasive insect pests, invasive plants, pathogens, and diseases. Crazy worms could cause long-term effects on our forests.

When handled, these worms act crazy, jump and thrash about, behaving more like a threatened snake than a nightcrawler. They may even shed their tail when handled. Annual species, tiny cocoons overwinter in the soil, and the best time to find them is late June to mid-October. In nurseries, they can often be found underneath pots that are sitting on the ground or on landscape fabric. In forests, they tend to be near the surface, just under accumulations of slash or duff.

There are precautions you can take.

Do not buy or use crazy worms for composting, vermicomposting, gardening, or bait. Do not discard live worms in the wild, but rather dispose of them (preferably dead) in the trash. Check your plantings – know what you are purchasing and look at the soil. Buy bare root stock when possible. Be careful when sharing or moving plantings, cocoons may be in the soil.

What ever happened to just having regular nightcrawlers or “trout worms”?

For more information call Gary Fish, 207-287-7545 or email gary.fish@maine.gov.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

In 2008, which Boston Red Sox rookie stole 50 bases?

Answer can be found here.

SCORES & OUTDOORS: What do woolly bear caterpillars do in the spring?

Woolly bear caterpillar that was seen in the parking lot at The Town Line newspaper on May 4. (photo by Roland D. Hallee)

Roland D. Halleeby Roland D. Hallee

When I arrived at work on Monday, on my way into the office, I noticed a woolly bear caterpillar walking along the ground.

Strange.

Woolly bears are most visible during September and October. Where did this one come from in May? It was a loner and obviously keepling it’s social distance from other woollies.

The woolly bear caterpillar—also called woolly worm or fuzzy worm – has the reputation of being able to forecast the coming winter weather. Whether this is fact or folklore, can be left up to the interpreter!

Here’s the legend: The Woolly Bear caterpillar has 13 distinct segments of either rusty brown or black. The wider the rusty brown sections (or the more brown segments there are), the milder the coming winter will be. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.

If you recall, woolly bears sighted last fall contained a much larger rust band than black, indicating a mild winter. That is exactly what we experienced. It just didn’t predict the length of the “winter,” which doesn’t seem to want to go away. But that is nothing.

Does anyone remember the blizzard of April 6 – 7, 1982? The unusual nor’easter pummeled the region, dropping up to 30 inches of snow in the central Maine area. There were high winds and numerous power outages throughout the state. I was a district manager for a daily newspaper at the time, and was forced to meet the storm head on, actually staring death in the face when I encountered a state snow plow, approaching from the opposite direction, nearly head on in white out conditions. Only my quick reflexes – I was much younger then (I was 34) – saved me. When people complain about the lateness of the last storm here, on April 9, I always point to April 6 – 7, 1982.

Anyway, I digress.

In the fall 1948, Dr. C. H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, took his wife 40 miles north of the city to Bear Mountain State Park to look at woolly bear caterpillars.

Dr. Curran collected as many caterpillars as he could in a day, determined the average number of reddish-brown segments, and forecast the coming winter weather through a reporter friend at The New York Herald Tribune.

Dr. Curran’s experiment, which he continued over the next eight years, attempted to prove scientifically a weather rule of thumb that was as old as the hills around Bear Mountain. The resulting publicity made the woolly one of the most recognizable caterpillars in North America (alongside the monarch caterpillar and tomato hornworm).

The caterpillar Curran studied, the banded woolly bear, is the larval form of Pyrrharctia isabella, the Isabella tiger moth.

If you find an all-black woolly caterpillar, don’t worry—this doesn’t mean that we’re in for a severe, endless winter! It’s just a caterpillar of a different species, and is not used for forecasting. The same is true for all-white woolly caterpillars.

Woolly bears, like other caterpillars, hatch during warm weather from eggs laid by a female moth.

Mature woolly bears search for overwintering sites under bark or inside cavities of rocks or logs. That’s why you see so many of them crossing roads in the fall.

When spring arrives, woolly bears spin fuzzy cocoons and transform inside them into full-grown moths.

Typically, the bands at the ends of the caterpillar are black, and the one in the middle is brown or orange, giving the woolly bear its distinctive striped appearance.

Between 1948 and 1956, Dr. Curran’s average brown-segment counts ranged from 5.3 to 5.6 out of the 13-segment total, meaning that the brown band took up more than a good third of the woolly bear’s body. The corresponding winters were milder than average, and Dr. Curran concluded that the folklore has some merit and might be true.

But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew his data samples were small. Although the experiments legitimized folklore to some, they were simply an excuse for having fun.

Thirty years later, the woolly bear brown-segment counts and winter forecasts were resurrected by the nature museum at Bear Mountain State Park. The annual counts have continued, more or less tongue in cheek, since then.

For the past 10 years, Banner Elk, North Carolina, has held an annual “Woolly Worm Festival” each October, highlighted by a caterpillar race. Retired mayor Charles Von Canon inspects the champion woolly bear and announces his winter forecast.

If the rusty band is wide, then it will be a mild winter. The more black there is, the more severe the winter.

Most scientists discount the folklore of woolly bear predictions as just that, folklore. Mike Peters, an entomologist at the University of Massachusetts, doesn’t disagree, but he says there could, in fact, be a link between winter severity and the brown band of a woolly bear caterpillar. “There’s evidence,” he says, “that the number of brown hairs has to do with the age of the caterpillar – in other words, how late it got going in the spring. The [band] does say something about a heavy winter or an early spring. The only thing is … it’s telling you about the previous year.”

Every year, the woolly worms do indeed look different – and it depends on their region. So, if you come across a local woolly bear, observe the colors of the bands and what they foretell about your winter weather.

So, what about seeing one in the spring. Woolly Bears nearly freeze solid during hibernation. Their body produces a chemical called a cryoprotectant that acts like an antifreeze which protects their organs and body tissues from being damaged from freezing. Once spring arrives and the outdoor temperatures begin to warm to the high 40s and 50s the caterpillar thaws and becomes active again. The Woolly Bear will soon spin a cocoon and pupate, eventually emerging as an adult Tiger Moth. When the caterpillar emerges as an adult it will have a short life span where it will need to find a mate and lay its eggs to complete the life cycle. The adult moth will only live for one to two weeks. They have no mouth parts so they essentially starve to death.

To watch the process evolve, you witness one of the true miracles of nature.

Roland’s trivia question of the week:

Before joining the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez spent seven years with which team?

Answer can be found here.