Saturday, November 08, 2008

Speaking of Change...

I think I'm ready to write about something other than politics today. It's Saturday, and I'm still basking in the euphoria of Obama's victory on Tuesday. Let's let things rest for a couple of days.

This actually happened last weekend when the weather was nicer than it is today, and DH was out mowing the lawn and I was indoors on the computer:

The phone rang as I sat at the computer, feverishly looking at every blog and polling website trying to piece together a feeling of certainty about the upcoming election.

"Hello?" I said impatiently.

It was DH, calling on his cell phone from the back yard. He said, "Come look at this caterpillar."

Most people would have said "What? Don't bother me about some stupid caterpillar when I'm busy trying to figure out who's going to win the election!" (Well, that's what you might expect ME to say, anyway, based on my usual reaction to interruptions from DH during a blogging session).

Instead, I said, "OK!" and hung up the phone, running down the stairs.

This is because I had suddenly become nine years old. When I was that age, we had just moved to upstate New York to a more rural area, and I had become fascinated with all of the wildlife in the area, which consisted of many more types of birds than I was familiar with, strange creatures in the back yard (groundhogs), and yes, caterpillars.

There was not a caterpillar that didn't fascinate me. I'd find them on bushes, trees, and shrubs, let them crawl onto my fingers, and I'd bring them home, along with a good supply of leaves, and put them in a jar with airholes in the cover. I'd watch as they spun their cocoons, and then wait while a miracle took place inside their little homespun houses. Then one day, a butterfly (or moth in some cases) would emerge, and I'd bring the open jar outside and let it go free to start the cycle all over again.

Naturally I had a Peterson Guide to Insects, similar to my bird guidebook, to identify the creatures I was finding.

We had a lot of milkweed in our back yard so I was always looking for the Monarch Butterfly larva, which is a colorful striped caterpillar that loves to chow down on milkweed. I did find one once. Another time I found two caterpillars that turned out to be Mourning Cloak Butterflies once they hatched.

Hearing the words, "Come look at this caterpillar" made me immediately start wondering what kind of caterpillar it was. The first one that came to mind was the Wooly Bear, since they are relatively common in this area.

Sure enough, when I found DH, halted in mid-mow so as not to cut up the caterpillar, there crawling obliviously in front of the mower was a nice Wooly Bear with the distinctive three colored bands - black at either end and a rusty brown in the middle.

I put my finger in front of him and he obligingly crawled onto it. Then I picked him up and took him over to the garden at the side of the yard, and tried to get him off my finger. He finally fell into the weeds and grass (luckily we don't weed our garden much!) and rolled tightly into a little ball of fuzz, as Wooly Bears are wont to do when feeling nervous.

Wooly Bears are known for supposedly predicting the severity of the upcoming winter weather. This one had a fairly even distribution of color, with the middle brown band taking up about a third of his length. This probably means a relatively average winter as I found pictures of Wooly Bears with much wider brown bands.

According to the Old Farmer's Almanac, a long-term study was done at Bear Mountain, New York, to determine if there is any truth in this old wive's tale, and apparently there is a certain amount of accuracy to it, although it certainly wasn't very scientific:

"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 third of the woolly bear's body. As those relatively high numbers suggested, the corresponding winters were milder than average. But Curran was under no scientific illusion: He knew that his data samples were small. Although the experiments popularized and, to some people, legitimized folklore, they were simply an excuse for having fun. Curran, his wife, and their group of friends, who called themselves The Original Society of the Friends of the Woolly Bear, escaped New York each fall for the glorious foliage and the meals at the posh Bear Mountain Inn."

In 1988, the annual Wooly Bear collection was resurrected at Bear Mountain, conducted by the nature museum at Bear Mountain State Park. According to the Almanac,

"This fall, museum director Jack Focht will gather a dozen or so caterpillars, as he has done since 1988, and spread them out on the kitchen table of his "folklore consultant," Clarence Conkling. The two men will count the brown segments, average them, and declare another forecast from Woolly Bear Mountain. 'We're about 80 percent accurate,' he says."

Eighty percent? Pretty good for an old wive's tale!

(Actually, according to Mike Peters at the University of Massachusetts, it is more likely that the width of the bands is reflective of the previous season's weather rather than the upcoming winter's severity. But that's no fun.)

The Almanac is apparently a bit out of date, because the Times Record-Herald up in New York State says that Mr. Focht retired in the 90s and the counts stopped for awhile.

However, the Hudson Highlands Nature Preserve has apparently continued the tradition of collecting the caterpillars as a children's event. The prediction for this winter? Mild!

We'll take it!

(Photo courtesy of Cold Spring School.)


Deb said...

Oh, honey, you live in upstate NY...define "mild"? LOL...I'm sure it is nothing short of what us Southerns consider mild!!! But for your sake, I hope that mild means you only get 3 feet of snow and it never falls below -10 degrees!

Mauigirl said...

LOL, I know - actually I live full-time in New Jersey now but we just bought a weekend place in the Adirondacks. So if it is "mild" there it might mean we could hike in to our cabin and check on it in high boots, rather than snowshoeing in! (They don't plow the road it's on).

Here in NJ our winters have been quite mild the last few years. I'm hoping for another one like that - not like down South though!

Dave Dubya said...

Oh, no. The one I saw was mostly black!

Glad I got a new shovel.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I don't think I've ever seen a caterpillar like that. I can see where it gets it's name.

I hope you do get an average winter.

splord said...

Speaking of "down South", 'round these here parts, they're called Wolly Worms, and they are indeed used to predict the winter.

The Town of Banner Elk, NC has a Festival each October, wherein the "official" prognosticator for winter is chosen. IIRC, a study at Appalachian State University, in Boone, found that over the last 50 years or so the Wooly Worms are correct more often than the National Weather Service.

The ones I've seen in the woods around the Secret Lair (aka '73 Winnebago) are almost totally black this year, so I'm expecting a cold and wet winter.

Sue J said...

What a great picture -- I haven't seen any woolies here on Maryland yet.

Mauigirl said...

Dave, sorry to hear that! The one I saw in New Jersey (not the one pictured) had plenty of black too. So maybe it will just be mild up near Bear Mountain!

Ruth, thanks - or even warmer than average like last year's! ;-) We had hardly any snow!

Bob, sounds like a fun festival. I am not surprised to hear that the Woolies are accurate! Sometimes Nature works in mysterious ways. Remember, you can't count the ones you see, only the official prognosticator can declare the future! (Much like the dueling groundhogs in our area on Groundhog Day - we go by Puncsatawney Phil (spelling?) in Pennsylvania, although there is another one named Chuck out on Long Island that is also consulted.)

Sue J, thanks but I can't claim credit for the picture - I nabbed it off the 'net to illustrate what a mild winter looks like. (I just added the credit to the post!) This is the first time I've seen a wooly bear here in NJ since I was a teenager - suburban/urban environments probably are not that favorable to them. I was quite excited to see one.

Christopher said...

All I know is if I don't ever have to rake leaves again I will consider myself the luckiest man on earth!

My back hurts, my legs hurt and my asthma has kicked in and I'm wheezing something terrible.

In the future, I think I have to hire someone to do it.

Mauigirl said...

Christopher, I was in the city today and came home to find my husband had raked large piles of leaves - which he now wants me to put in bags because our town won't pick them up loose at the curb. I'm with you - let's hire someone!

Sue J said...

Here's an even better idea for the leaves: I have an electric blower/vacuum shredder toy that I use to suck up and shred all the leaves, which I then put in my flower beds as mulch for the winter.

Still tedious, but not as back-breaking and also puts the leaves to good use!

Anonymous said...

MG.. I used to go to Bear Mountain as a kid all the time. In fact, I used to go to summer camp in Harriman State Park in the 1970s. My best memories of Bear Mountain was when we used to take our annual winter trip with the BBR to go sleigh riding there. I also loved their zoo.

Mauigirl said...

Sue, good idea with the leaf shredder. Maybe we'll try that next year.

Spartacus, that sounds like fun. I'm thinking our place in the Adirondacks may inspire us to do some winter sports, which is something I haven't done since I was a kid. Will have to check out the zoo up there at Bear Mountain sometime.