On the lookout for gypsy/spongy moth caterpillars in Hague
By Tim Rowland
Dr. Janet Mihuc, a biologist at Paul Smith’s College and defender of all things moth, was speaking to the Adirondack Garden Club last week when a member — noting that caterpillars aren’t always a gardener’s best friend — asked if they might have some unappreciated redeeming horticultural value.
To begin with, the professor explained that a caterpillar’s manure was, technically, a helpful soil amendment. This brought chuckles all around — except for two women from Ticonderoga, where the gypsy/spongy moths were so thick last summer that falling guano drove people from their decks and sounded like rain on the leaves. For them, there was a dismal plausibility to the idea of caterpillar fertilizer.
I’d heard from Crown Point Supervisor Charlie Harrington that this looks to be another bad year for them in the Adirondack Coast, so, dedicated researcher that I am, I bundled up the dogs and pointed the car south for a hike.
In the interest of science, I stopped at the Wind Chill Factory south of Ticonderoga for a chocolate milkshake, and asked the attendant if the moths were bad again this year. Her answer was, “Yes.” The trail was heating up.
So we continued on to the beautiful hamlet of Hague and a little trail up Swede Mountain, which Warren County opened to the public last year. Swede, five miles west of Hague on Route 8, is 1,900 feet in elevation, and you will climb most of that in your car. The remaining 240-foot elevation gain is achieved in a tick under one mile, and, outside of a set of timber and stone stairs at the beginning of the hike, it is not steep.
The route is more interesting than it is attractive, having been pretty heavily logged in the recent past. The regenerating forest resembles a botanical Black Friday, as species frantically scramble for supremacy. A fair number of wildflowers are among the contestants, including the Canada violet — plain white on the face it shows to the public, but with a lovely shade of lavender on the underside of its petals.
Birders will find a fantastic array of species, and even non-experts such as myself will be enchanted by the serenade. My bird consultant, Derek Rogers of the Adirondack Land Trust, ID’d two songs I texted him as coming courtesy of the rose breasted grosbeak and mourning warbler. Because of the warbler’s presence, Rogers was able to guess the habitat — thick with raspberries — without being told.
The trail leads to a fire tower, meaning that as a destination included in the ADK Fire Tower Challenge, this route will not be a secret much longer. Curiously, the tower is 47 feet, while many of the trees around it are 50. That shuts off views to the east, but still allows for some grand views to the west, an unbroken carpet of green forest rolling past Brant Lake on to Crane and Gore mountains.
To a caterpillar, of course, this must look like the buffet at Golden Corral. And sure enough, spongy moth caterpillars were quite evident, munching on beech saplings in high numbers.
Mature trees, Mihuc said, have sufficient energy reserves to withstand a wave of moths, which generally only lasts a couple of years.
And don’t let your overall opinion of moths be colored by this one invasive outlaw. There are 5,400 species of mammals on earth, 11,000 species of birds and 18,000 species butterflies (essentially moths that fly during the day). There are 160,000 species of moths, and — as they eat plant matter and are in turn themselves eaten — they represent the primary link transferring sunlight energy from plants to carnivores.
We owe them other debts as well, said Mihuc, who this year expects to identify the 500th species of moth on the Paul Smith’s VIC campus this summer. Trees evolving to be less tasty to caterpillars have produced substances useful to the human race, including tannins and best of all, caffeine. God bless the moths.
- Elevation: 1,904 feet
- Distance: 0.9 mile (one way)
- Elevation gain: 240 feet