As I walked into the woods early last week, a heavy frost highlighted the intricate network of spiderwebs crisscrossing the forest floor. They had the appearance of a million, mini-laser beams guarding the woodland scene.
In the morning's light, their webs seemed to be connecting every bush, tree and fern in the woods. Obviously, the spiders had been busy.
As I took my usual morning watch, I caught a flicker of something white, out of the corner of my eye. Was it a whitetail?
My heart rate went up, but I remained calm. I was being careful not to startle a deer with the quick turn of my head, and I moved slowly to see what was there.
I saw no white, no movement, no whitetails, nothing but the woods. Again, I focused my attention on the edge of the swamp directly in front of my watch.
It was only a few minutes when the movement of something in the distance again captured my attention. I strained my eyes to see what it was, as I slowly raised my rifle.
Viewing through the 5X scope, I discovered what appeared to be a rabble of butterflies gathered on a large rock, located just at the edge of the swamp.
In my mind, I laughed at nature's trick, where the flight of white can be mistaken for the flick of a tail.
By the time the sun was up, the nearby woods came alive with them. They were little, white and grey or brown in color. And, they weren't butterflies - they were moths.
I was surprised to see them in the air, since it was such a cold morning and so late in the season. I also wondered how many other hunters had been fooled by the moth's endless forest flickers. They certainly caught my eye!
Butterflies vs Moths
My first call went out to Sue Grimm of Saranac Lake, the "Butterfly Lady" at the former Paul Smiths Visitors Center. I explained what I had seen and shared a photo of the specimen. I also told Sue the appearance of moths, flickering white in the deep, dark woods, might soon become the bane of deer hunters
She informed me moths belonged to the same family as butterflies - "Lepi doptera" - and continued, "Typically, moths are signaled to come out when both days and nights are warm. Perhaps they were tricked - it seems disastrous for them to come out now."
Although, moths outnumber butterflies by a 10:1 ratio, they are the black sheep of the family. Little is known about moths and they are not highly regarded.
Butterflies are beautiful and gather in groups known as rabbles. They come out to frolic on sunny days and provide a whimsical and colorful addition to the scene. Kids make rhymes about butterflies
Moths, on the other hand, are moth-eaten, and gather mostly at night around a back porch light. Moths are furry and dull, the overlooked cousins of the more popular butterfly. Spinning silk seems to be their only redeeming quality.
"But, why," I asked her, "Are moths flying around at this time of year?"
"Moths hibernate under the leaves, and because they are furry, they are able to survive colder temperatures better than butterflies," Sue explained. "The warmer air likely brought them out, or," she joked, "they must get paid by the deer."
More about moths
Moths are more abundant than butterflies due primarily to their ability to exist in a wider range of conditions, and occupy more diverse habitats. And, unlike most butterflies, moths overwinter by finding shelter in leaves, debris or in a convenient closet.
As a result, moths are present year-round, and when air temperatures approach around 40 degrees, they can take to the air. Obviously, even the warmth of the morning sun on the forest floor is enough to make them stir.
Another big advantage in moth survival is the early start their caterpillars get on the leaves and grasses as they emerge in the spring, when there are fewer birds around to eat them.
Additionally, many moths have developed the same defensive colorations as butterflies, with "eye spots" on their wings to make them look bigger to ward off predators. Several moth caterpillars have actually adapted coloration that resembles bird droppings, which serve to protect them from other winged predators seeking food.
Moths are highly adaptable survivors. Some species have even developed techniques that, in effect, help to jam the echolocation signals bats use to locate prey with radar-like precision.
Unfortunately, moths have not developed a natural technology to deal with more modern technology. Bug zappers, those big blue lights used to control mosquitoes and other flying pests, kill a lot of moths. According to experts, "Ninety-five percent of what they attract are moths."
Joe Hackett is a guide and sportsman residing in Ray Brook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.