A Caterpillar Feast

In March, I journeyed back to the Anza-Borrego Desert in southern California. The big draw was an annual migration of Swainson’s hawks and the emergence of big colorful caterpillars, but as it happened, a third phenomenon blossomed simultaneously.

Big colorful caterpillars emerge every spring in Anza-Borrego.

They are the larvae of the white-lined sphinx moth and appear in various color combinations, from yellow with black stripes, to black with yellow stripes, to green with black stripes.

The caterpillars, sometimes called hornworms, feed on many types of flowers and plants, while the moths seek nectar.

The striking moths, also known as hummingbird moths, can be quite beautiful.

What I witnessed was the part of the life cycle when the larvae hatch and proceed to munch out on the desert flowers and plants.

It just so happened that this year the little guys were even luckier to hatch during a “superbloom,” a time when bountiful winter rains have produced carpets of wildflowers across the desert.

After eating nonstop and growing to 3-4 inches in length, the time comes for the next phase of their lives. The caterpillars burrow into the sand and pupate into a form that remains underground for 8-15 days. Then, the big transformation occurs and the moths emerge!

The moths spend their nights feeding and pollinating wildflowers, and then lay eggs on the undersides of flowers. The entire life cycle begins anew when the eggs hatch into very small caterpillars that begin to eat 24 hours a day on the flowers.

At the same time, Swainson’s hawks are making their way north from South America. They spend time in the desert around Borrego and have been known to feast on the caterpillars. Birders gather daily for the hawk watch. It was a gamble where or when they might be spotted. During my visit, I was disappointed to see that the hawks were in kettles a great distance away. Meer specks. I had expected to see them near the ground picking off the fat worms.

Unfortunately, I could not stick around long enough for the emergence of the moths, but I bet that’s something to see!

The superbloom, however, was a great treat.

Neither a Skunk Nor a Cabbage

Skunk Cabbage

Harbinger of Spring

This oddly named and odd-looking plant is one of the earliest to emerge in late winter/spring. It grows in wetlands, near streams and in wet areas in woods.

For some people, it’s a welcome sign of spring.
Henry David Thoreau saluted skunk cabbage for lifting our spirits:

“If you are afflicted with melancholy at this season, go to the swamp and see the brave spears of skunk-cabbage buds already advanced toward a new year… See those green cabbage buds lifting the dry leaves in that watery and muddy place. There is no can’t nor cant to them. They see over the brow of winter’s hill. They see another summer ahead.”

Western skunk cabbage

But Joseph Wood Krutch saw it another way:

“There are some optimists who search eagerly for the skunk cabbage which in February sometimes pushes itself up through the ice, and who call it a sign of spring. I wish that I could feel that way about it, but I do not. The truth of the matter, to me, is simply that skunk cabbage blooms in the winter time.”

Here’s a quirky fact about skunk cabbage: it has its own internal heater, which helps it melt the snow away so it can emerge. I was once told by a teacher that if you put a thermometer inside one, you can see how warm it is. I’ve never tried this, but I have always wanted to.

The “flowers” emerge before the leaves. If you miss the flower, you might know skunk cabbage by its large green leaves. The other quirky thing about the plant is, its “foul smelling” leaves. Again, I have never smelled it, but it is said that if you crush the leaves, you will!

There are two types of skunk cabbage: the western (Lysichiton americanus), with its yellow flower, and the eastern (Symplocarpus foetidus), with a purple one.

Eastern skunk cabbage

When I lived on the east coast, I used to like to visit Great Falls National Park in Virginia, where a trail led to a low spot with a wetland full of skunk cabbage.

 

 

At Great Falls National Park

There was something reassuring about seeing it emerge every year, and I liked the way the purple flowers looked like alien pods. I liked to photograph the bright green leaves against the blue-black water.