Every so often, I disover that I've been looking at something for a long time, but never really seeing it. Cattails, for example. They're those tall fluffy stalks in the swamp that the redwing blackbirds perch on just until I get the camera focused. And that denote a place too wet to walk without boots. That's it.
Blind as a bat.
Six weeks ago, on The Marvelous in Nature, Seabrooke wrote about Shy Cosmet moth larvae that spend the winter cosily snuggled inside a cattail head. She had brought a couple home and shredded them into a tub. Sure enough, she found a larva.
According to BugGuide, the Shy Cosmet doesn't live here on the West Coast, but the moths are smart; cattail fluff does make wonderful insulation. I promised myself to see if anything was taking advantage of it in our marshes.
I brought home a cattail head the next time I found one I could reach. Seabrooke (and Gerry Wykes) write that these larvae make a net of fine threads around the head, so that when it blows open, the seeds and fluff stay put, making a lumpy "cotton candy" blob. I forgot all that, and picked a nice, neat head that wouldn't fall apart in the car.
At home, I propped it in a bottle on the table and left it for later. I glanced that way after a while, and saw a head poke out, briefly. Aha! It's alive!
I put the cattail in a Tupperware dish and cracked it open, gingerly. Nothing but packed fluff. I pinched a bit and pulled.
Mistake. The fluff exploded. Fine, baby-hair-fine, downy fibers flew all over my desk, over my keyboard, in the air around my head, in my hair, in my nose. I sneezed. I had to clean out the air intake on the computer, and dust off the screen.
I went at the rest more cautiously, holding the bowl inside a large plastic bag, which was soon filled with fluff. When I took my hands out, more fluff came with it. I pulled out the bowl, carefully, sealed the bag and left that for later.
With a sheet of glass over the bowl, I could look for larvae safely. And there were dozens, all very active, about 3 or 4 mm. long.
These look very much like the one Seabrooke found. And like Gerry's handful. Maybe the Shy Cosmet has found its way out here, after all.
I didn't know what to do with the larvae after I'd looked at them. I put most of them back in the fluff, but kept a few to look at later; they went outside, with a tight lid on the container. Life got busy around then, and I forgot about the bugs.
All that fluff; what to do with it? Maybe the birds would like it for insulating nests. An old, broken-down birdhouse hangs on the wall; the juncos used to use it as a perch and feeder until the snowstorm a year ago turned it upside-down, but since then, it has been empty. It would be dry and accessible. I stuffed it full of fluff, packing it in through the door.
This last Friday, a bushtit was collecting cattail fluff. For a baby blanket, I hope.
I went out tonight and brought in the dish of left-over fluff and larvae. Three of them are still there, very much alive. There aren't too many seeds left, though; tomorrow I'll give them a pinch of stuff from the bird house.
Come to think of it, the bird house is probably packed tight with larvae.