New Jersey Moths: Buck Hunting (Buck Moths That Is)

Photos courtesy of David Moskowitz

By David Moskowitz 

I don’t hunt, at least not for anything with less than 6 legs. My weapons of choice are a camera and a net. Since I was a kid paging through my Golden Field Guide to the Butterflies and Moths (I still keep one of these awesome little field guides around), I’ve always wanted to see a buck moth, so over the past few weeks I finally went buck moth hunting. Unlike some of my friends and colleagues that have recently been pheasant hunting and have been skunked, my hunting excursion was successful. It did take me four trips to the woods, but the persistence paid off when I finally held my first buck moth this past weekend. I owe a huge thank you to Harry Zirlin for helping me find my first buck moths and to Wade Wander for his help with the ecology of the species and directions to some northern New Jersey sites.  

Buck moths fly during the day in late fall. In New Jersey there are two species, the relatively widespread (in appropriate habitat) Barrens buck moth (Hemileuca maia) and the rare Schweitzer’s buck moth, an as yet undescribed species that is known from only 6 locations in New Jersey. The Barrens buck moth occurs in both the Pine Barrens and on ridgetops where scrub oak, the caterpillar host plant, is abundant. Schweitzer’s buck moth is restricted to limestone fens in northern New Jersey where the caterpillar food plant, shrubby cinquefoil occurs. Both buck moths are really beautiful with grayish-black and white wings and bright red spots between the legs and on the abdomen. The males also sport a bright red tip on their abdomen. The one I was able to catch was a bit worn, but it likely survived both Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent snowstorm and worn or not, it was no less exciting for me to finally see one.   

Buck moths are often described as big and fast. I can now attest to this first hand. I can only say that if anyone had been watching me at Brendan Byrne State Forest this weekend, net in hand, running as fast as I could and swinging wildly, they would probably still be on the ground laughing uncontrollably. I was lucky to catch one with a wild lunging swing for a close-up look. I called my wife right after getting it in the net to tell her the exciting news, but I was so out of breath I think her first thoughts were probably that I was having some kind of medical emergency.

The male buck moths patrol their habitats in a fast and erratic flight in search of females that rest on shrubs and release pheromones to attract them. Harry and Wade have told me that females are best found by watching a male buck moth “dive bomb” a shrub and then looking for her. I haven’t been lucky enough yet to find a calling female (“calling” is the term used to describe a female that is releasing pheromones into the air), but that will have to wait until next year when the buck moths fly again.

Merrill Lynch, an absolutely phenomenal moth’er from North Carolina described the buck moth “as one of the coolest moths on the planet” and after finally seeing one, I couldn’t agree more!   

Dave Moskowitz is Senior Vice President with EcolSciences, Inc., President of the Non-Profit Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission and Co-founder of National Moth Week. 

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  • 11/20/2012 1:05 PM Christine wrote:
    Enjoyed educational writing. What purpose, if any that we know, does red spot serve? And do females have samw?
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    1. 11/21/2012 1:41 PM WILDNEWJERSEY wrote:
      Thank you! We can post it on our facebook page, and see if anyone knows!
      Reply to this
  • 11/25/2012 8:06 PM biobabbler wrote:
    I LOVE those guys. We have different species out here, but I completely randomly happened upon one at a windy ridge in Joshua Tree NP and almost lost my mind. Here's some (not fabulous but good enough to see how STUNNING this thing is) shots I got while scrambling after it. It completely made my WEEK.

    Those things can give you a heart attack. SO jazzy & boldly colored. Glad you survived, and congratulations! =)
    Reply to this
  • 12/22/2012 4:13 AM MAM wrote:
    Help! I need a moth expert! Seriously! I live in the woods of Northwest NJ and I believe we have a moth infestation, except it doesn't appear to be the common clothes moth. I think it's an "outside" moth that found its way indoors -- or rather, its larvae did! Eeeeeekkkkkkkkkk!
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