What Is That?

Wildlife / Thursday, July 26th, 2018

We were looking at our raised vegetable beds last summer and noticed our large tomatoes were being eaten by an unknown pest. Big chunks had been bitten out of the green tomatoes with no evidence of who the culprit was. My wife then says, “That’s not a stem attached to the tomato.” She’s right. “What is that?” I respond. Upon a closer look it’s the largest, and scariest, caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

One of the pleasures of spending time in our yards is discovering new, unfamiliar creatures. It could be something that we’ve never seen before — a type of bird, insect or nest of some kind. Or, it could be a familiar animal with atypical coloration, or markings, making it hard to immediately identify.

Tomato Horned Caterpillar
A Tomato Horned Caterpillar munches on one of our large, green tomatoes.

As for this tomato-eating giant, it turned out to be a Tomato Horned Caterpillar. About five inches long and as thick as my finger, it’s a scary creature to find in your vegetable garden. Supposedly harmless to humans, these caterpillars become the large Tomato Horned Moth. Although an exciting find, I hope we don’t have to deal with one of these caterpillars again this summer. I like fresh tomatoes.

The Snowberry Clearwing Moth (the top photo shows two feeding on Bee Balm) is a variety of Hummingbird Moth and a common visitor to our gardens but an insect I was not initially familiar with. Sometimes mistaken for a Hummingbird, it flies from blossom to blossom feeding on nectar.

FACT: When the Snowberry Clearwing Moth caterpillars are fully-grown they drop to the ground, spin a loose cocoon and pupate, partially protected by leaf litter. That leaf litter provides a shelter for this beautiful pollinator.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service

I keep my bird books nearby to identify unfamiliar visitors to our yard. Once identified, I check my bird log to see if it’s been here before. Since the late 90’s I’ve kept a list of the different birds I’ve seen in our yard — about 70 to date. A Louisiana Water Thrush, Rough-legged Hawk, Blue Grosbeak and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are some of the birds that I’ve seen  just a couple of times throughout the years. This year, new visitors have included the Woodcock, Lesser Scaup, Tundra Swan and American Kestrel.

Occasionally, we see a familiar type of creature with an unusual appearance. I found a pure white American Toad hopping through the lawn. We once had a male Northern Cardinal, my wife named Rasputin, with no red tuft of feathers on his head. He was a frequent visitor to our black oil seed feeder that entire summer.


A bald Northern Cardinal, Rasputin as we named him, stayed in our yard for an entire summer.

Nature always provides us with new and interesting things to see and experience. An insect, bird or other creature we’ve never encountered before can appear at any time. So, keep your antennas up for new sightings. “What is that?” are the first words to learning something new.

OBSERVATION: We haven’t seen a Tomato Horned Caterpillar on our tomato plants this year. But an insect of some kind is munching on our basil plants which is a rarity. I’ve yet to find the culprit.