Mega Moth Festival

Over the long Labor Day weekend Rick Parker (@rdparker) and I took a long road trip down to the southern tip of Texas to the National Butterfly Center (NBC) in Mission, Texas for the inaugural Mega Moth Festival. This festival is centered around nighttime observations of moths at 15 different lit sheets around the property, but also included some fun daytime activities, talks, and meals. One of the highlights of the trip for me was getting to meet and visit other naturalists and moth enthusiasts, several of whom I had been corresponding with for years. I got to spend some quality time with all of these great folks: NBC Assistant Director Lori Malloy (@lorimalloy), NBC Director of Operations Stephanie Lopez (@rgvbirdingallnature), keynote speaker Chuck Sexton (@gcwarbler), organizer and speaker Jack Cochran (@jcochran706), caterpillar expert and speaker Kate Farkas (@k8thegr8), Annika Lindqvist (@annikaml), Tom Langschied (@tomlang88), and @spyingnaturalist. The NBC staff did a great job of organizing this event and put in long hours each day. They all seemed really invested in the mission of the NBC and enthusiastic about the festival.

There is a collection project for all of the attendees' observations from the official locations over the weekend, which you can see here.
Mega Moth Mission 2023 project
Typical of iNat devotees, in just a 4-day weekend, this small group observed more than 500 species of living things.

As a fun personal note, I logged more than 200 species during the weekend. More than 100 species (including insects, birds, plants, and other) were new to my iNat life list and I surpassed 5,000 species on iNat!

The Venue

The National Butterfly Center is a 100 acre property in Hidalgo County, Texas. The property includes many carefully-curated gardens of native plants, including butterfly host plants and nectar plants. The property has had some natural disaster setbacks over the years - tropical storms and wind storms have taken out some of the larger, more mature hackberry trees, leaving the once-shady Hackberry trail much more sun exposed. With time this trail will become shady once more. During the host plants talk by Stephanie Lopez, she noted that many times the general public finds the garden area to be untidy and doesn't understand that this is by design. All of the plants that are growing there have their role in the ecosystem, as well as the piles of leaves that collect under trees. This place is meant to be a haven for native wildlife and it cannot fully function in that capacity if "weeds" are pulled and leaves are removed. Therefore it is intentionally a little "wild." Common trees growing on the property are Spiny Hackberries (Celtis pallida), Anacua (Ehretia anacua), Anacahuita / Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri), and Vasey's Wild Lime (Adelia vaseyi).

The trails are mostly dense packed soil or, in a few areas, paving stones, so it should be easily accessed to those using wheelchairs. There are some new features, including a birding (or butterfly spotting) blind, and a stream. The stream, fountains, and numerous hummingbird feeders are all great places to sit and watch for birds. There is even an area where birds are fed daily and the swarm of Green Jays and Plain Chachalacas is overwhelming. It's at this location where Luciano photographed a Bobcat hunting birds last year. He has some amazing captures of that experience!

The lower half of the property is more wild and runs right up to the Rio Grande. We were able to access this portion of the property and even stand on the dock over the Rio Grande, looking across the water to Mexico. It was at this location that Rick and I heard a Ringed Kingfisher calling and got a brief glimpse of it as it flew away from us.

Planned Activities

The festival included a bird walk and a butterfly walk, both led by NBC photographer Luciano Guerra. There was also a nighttime UV caterpillar hunt led by Kate. There were scheduled talks on moths of the lower Rio Grande Valley, nighttime photography, building your own mothing rig, native host plants for moths, caterpillar identification, and the keynote "A Birder Gone Bad: My Journey to Moths."


The coolest caterpillar I saw on the trip - Wilson's Wood-nymph (Xerociris wilsonii)

Mothing

The mothing consisted of ~15 different light/sheet setups around the property of the NBC, as well as two auxilary sites: the nearby Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park and the new NBC property Pixie Preserve (which was previously known as Chihuahua Woods when owned by The Nature Conservancy). Despite the nearly full moon, we had pretty good numbers of moths at the sheets each of the first two nights. The third and final night was pretty breezy, so there were few moths on any of the sheets. Planning any outdoor event months ahead of time always has the potential for weather complications, so I was pleased that we had two great nights of observations. When we were at Pixie Preserve on the last night and the wind was preventing moths from staying on the sheets several of us switched over to looking for tiger beetles and we located two species.

Moth Highlights

Many of the moths at this location were new to me, since we were so far south and in a different ecoregion. However, some of these new-to-me moths can be found throughout a good portion of Texas. Other species are really regional specialties of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV). Some of these regional specialties include: Elousa albicans, Micrathetis tecnion, Silvered Prominent (Didugua argentilinea), Hemeroplanis reversalis, Tripudia goyanensis, Antaeotricha haesitans, Satellite Sphinx (Eumorpha satellitia), and an undescribed Hypsopygia.

I believe that the lifers outnumbered the species I had previously seen. Probably the most charismatic moth species seen was the Heiligbrodt's Mesquite Moth (Syssphinx heiligbrodti), which we saw in abundance. This large speckled gray silk moth has beautiful pink underwings that are usually covered, but can be seen in flight or if you gently nudge the moth.


Heiligbrodt's Mesquite Moth (Syssphinx heiligbrodti)

One of my favorite new moths of the trip was Ofatulena luminosa, which really should be given a common name. I vote for the easy translation "Luminous Ofatulena." I really like these little Eucosmini moths, in general, and this one is quite attractive.


Ofatulena luminosa

I was happy to encounter 5 species of Sphingidae:
Clavipe's Sphinx (Aellopos clavipes)
Satellite Sphinx (Eumorpha satellitia)
Vine Sphinx (Eumorpha vitis) (adult and larvae)
Obscure Sphinx (Erinnyis obscura) (larva)
Carolina Sphinx (Manducta sexta)

Before going on this trip I was watching Jack Cochran's observations while he was scouting the area. The Beautiful Pseudopyrausta observations jumped out at me and I was really hoping I would see one. Well, I got to see a lot, as that is a very common moth for this time of year in the area. Here is one of my observations of the species. They usually have their forewings spread, revealing the hindwings, but occasionally they will have their wings closed and you can be fooled into thinking you're seeing a different moth at first.


Beautiful Pseudopyrausta (Pseudopyrausta santatalis)

There was a tiny Sesiidae that showed up to the sheet the first night. This was one of my favorite moths due to the unusually small size and the fact that I have never seen a clearwing moth attracted to a lit sheet before. I believe this is Carmenta subaerea, but I'm awaiting confirmation from one of the Sesiidae experts. I actually brought my Sesiidae pheromone lure on the trip, but forgot to use it during the daylight hours. I put it out during dinner a little before sunset the last evening but we didn't see any moths attracted to it.


Carmenta subaerea?

We saw a lot of Graphic moths (Melipotini) each night, including at least 6 species: Royal Poinciana Graphic (Melipotis acontioides), Indomitable Graphic (Melipotis indomita), Melipotis agrotoides, Deduced Graphic (Bulia deducta), Cellar Graphic (Melipotis cellaris), and Forsebia cinis.

I just became aware of an undescribed species of Aristotelia earlier this year after photographing one in my backyard in Norman, Oklahoma. Several of us photographed the same species during Mega Moth. Here are my observations of it. This must be a fairly widespread species and it is pretty easy to distinguish from other Aristotelia. I'm surprised it has not yet been described and named.


undescribed Aristotelia

There were also a couple of new-to-me undescribed species, including a neat looking like Polyhymno moth and a Hayworm (Hypsopygia).


undescribed Polyhymno only known to occur in south Texas


undescribed Hypsopygia only known to occur in the LRGV

There were many observations of Bagisara moths over the weekend and there is some debate ongoing regarding the identification of these moths. There could be observations of both B. buxea and B. oula, but the identifying characteristics are not really clear at this point.

Birding

Personally this was only my second visit to the area. My previous trip was a single day of birding back in 2019. There was a guided bird walk on Saturday morning at the NBC and also some free time in the schedule when Rick and I roamed around looking for more birds. (Rick has never really birded seriously before and might be taking up the hobby soon. This was a fun way for him to get started with all of these cool birds we don't see in central Oklahoma.) I got several lifers and target birds on my first trip to this area, but still managed to see 7 more on this trip. I was only expecting 2 or 3. My new lifers included: Audubon's Oriole, Hooded Oriole, Groove-billed Ani, Common Ground Dove, Canada Warbler, Lesser Nighthawk, Rose-throated Becard (biggest surprise). In addition to the lifers, I really enjoyed getting to see these regional birds again: Olive Sparrows, Plain Chachalacas, Green Jays, Buff-bellied Hummingbirds, Clay-colored Thrushes, White-tipped Doves, Great Kiskadees, Harris's Hawks, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and Cactus Wrens. I dipped on seeing or hearing a Common Pauraque, but oddly ended up finding feathers of this bird. So I have a record on iNat, but not my official eBird life list.


surprise sighting of Rose-throated Becard (Pachyramphus aglaiae)


feather of Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

Butterflies

There's a reason they call this place the National Butterfly Center. According to iNat there have been 225 species of butterflies recorded on the property. While I didn't see nearly that many, I did see several that were new to me. Mexican Bluewings were numerous, although difficult to photograph with their wings open. The next most numerous species was Queen, which I have seen several times before. But there was one Soldier among these Queens, easily overlooked if you're not paying close attention. The Soldier was new for me. Lyside Sulphurs were also around in pretty good numbers and were new to me. I saw several Tropical Checkered-Skippers, a single Lantana Scrub-Hairstreak, a single Southern Skipperling, a couple of Brown Longtails, a few Large Orange Sulphurs, and a Celia Roadside-Skipper. Maybe my favorite photo of the weekend was a single Western Pygmy-Blue that was spotted at the NBC's Pixie Preserve.


Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis)

Other Critters of Note

On our last night we spotted a very cute Couch's Spadefoot hopping across the path. This was a new species for me, even though they can be found in southwestern Oklahoma.

We saw a really cool mantis which I had not been aware of prior to this trip, the Texas Unicorn Mantis, which is aptly named after the protrusion from the forehead. This is actually two knobs, but they are so close together that they appear to be a single horn.


Texas Unicorn Mantis (Pseudovates chlorophaea)

I'm a beetle lover and gravitate towards Longhorn (Cerambycidae) and Tiger Beetles (Cicindelinae). I recorded at least 8 species of longhorn beetles over the weekend.

As I mentioned above, we found two species of Tiger Beetles at the Pixie Preserve. Saltmarsh Tiger Beetles were in abundance, and I found a single White-cloaked Tiger Beetle, which was new for me. At Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park I spotted another species which I have seen many times back in Oklahoma, Carolina Metallic Tiger Beetle.


White-cloaked Tiger Beetle (Eunota togata ssp. togata)

On the NBC property we found several tortoise beetles which specialize on a regional tree, the Anacua Tortoise Beetle. If you ever wanted to raise these beetles in captivity you could try feeding them sandpaper. The leaves of Anacua are rough.


Anacua Tortoise Beetle (Coptocycla texana)

I also saw a few really nice jumping spiders on the trip, Habronattus mexicanus and Three-lined Maevia (Paramaevia poultoni) - both new to me - and a Gray Wall Jumping Spider (Menemerus bivittatus), which I have seen before. This last one is not native to the Americas. It has a pantropical distribution after having been introduced many places. It is thought to have originated in Africa. I photographed one back in February in India.


Three-lined Maevia (Paramaevia poultoni)

הועלה ב-ספטמבר 13, 2023 06:43 אחה"צ על ידי zdufran zdufran

תגובות

It was great to spend time with you, Rick, and everyone at this event!

פורסם על-ידי gcwarbler לפני 10 חודשים

Great write-up, Zach! It was a real pleasure to meet you and Rick, and many thanks for driving all that way to support Mega Moth. Glad you found the tiger beetles. I recorded those, too, and one at the NBC that I'm sure you will get on your next visit given your keen spotting skills.

https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/182717822

פורסם על-ידי jcochran706 לפני 10 חודשים

Nice summary of that hot but fun weekend! Always great to meet up with old friends and to make new ones while being immersed in beautiful nature and nature activities. Looking forward to next years festival!

פורסם על-ידי annikaml לפני 10 חודשים

@leahn19 We missed having you with us. Our trio was not complete. Next time!

פורסם על-ידי zdufran לפני 10 חודשים

@jcochran706 - Dang, I need to see that tiger beetle! I went and checked my Carolina observation real quick to make sure I hadn't misidentified it, but nope, it's a Carolina.

פורסם על-ידי zdufran לפני 10 חודשים

So much fun! Jealous of your bird finds, but maybe not enough to get up early. =D

פורסם על-ידי k8thegr8 לפני 10 חודשים

Thank you, Zach, for coming and for the kind words and comprehensive write-up on your experience at the National Butterfly Center. We hope you will continue to come, as there is always more to be seen! Thanks you, also , for your contributions to the iNat project for the center and the event. We truly appreciate you.

פורסם על-ידי mtwrighter לפני 10 חודשים

I made an iNaturalist project for moths only seen during the festival and scouting dates. I think we did quite well, especially with so many excellent observers hitting the rigs!

https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/2023-moths-of-mega-moth

פורסם על-ידי jcochran706 לפני 10 חודשים

הוספת תגובה

כניסה או הרשמה להוספת הערות