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I was asked a question last week about what white-lined sphinx moth caterpillars eat. I had read that they eat wild relatives of the four-o'clock, a garden plant. A few weeks ago we visited Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park and I got some great first-hand information about what kind of plants the caterpillars feed on.

At the arboretum we found caterpillars on a native plant that is being used as a landscape perennial called pink guara (Guara lindeimeri). I noticed, however, the caterpillars were only eating the flowers. Often the flowers lack toxins or feeding deterrents found in the leaves or stems, although I don’t know for sure this is the case here.

whitelined sphinx moth

Some of the caterpillars were working on a plant called white ratany (Krameria grayi).

whitelined sphinx moth

whitelined sphinx moth

I needed a friend’s help to identify that one. The plant has pretty purplish-pink flowers, but they are inconspicuous. She said the plant is a partial parasite that takes food from the roots of fellow desert plants like bursage or creosote bush. I also found out that the flowers produce an oily substance rather than nectar (weird!), but that some native bees will take it to mix with pollen.

whitelined sphinx moth

Finally, we cheered the caterpillars when we found this batch eating the noxious weed, spotted spurge. Go white-lined caterpillars, go! (Sorry, the photo isn't all that great).

For more information about white-lined sphinx moths and their caterpillars, check these previous posts:

Raising Caterpillars, which also has a photo of the adult

More About White-lined Sphinx Moth Caterpillars

Bug of the Week:  White-lined Sphinx Caterpillars

Continuing with the bird theme, let’s build a bird nest. But not just a small one, how about building a child-sized bird nest?

Growing With Science Nest

Building a nest is a fun activity for this time of year because there are usually a lot of leaves and branches around. I’ve done this activity with six-year-old children, but it is appropriate for almost any age. It would be best if you could do it outdoors, although some of the materials could be used inside if necessary.

First gather materials to create nests. I recommend using items you can recycle or compost. Here are some suggestions:

  • Cardboard strips
  • Hay or straw (pet supply or craft stores)
  • Grapevines (craft stores)
  • Shredded paper
  • Fallen leaves
  • Branches

The first year I did this activity I was lucky to find two actual nests that had blown out of a tree. Of course you know not to take bird nests out of trees, because birds sometimes reuse their nests. I always leave the nests outside near where I found them so birds can reuse the materials. Gather pictures of bird nests from books and magazines, too. Birds and Blooms magazine often has pictures of bird nests.

bird nest

I showed the nests to the children and talked about some of the reasons birds build nests.

  • Place to raise young
  • Shelter from adverse weather
  • Place to rest

You can also read a great book about nests (see below).

Now have the children build their own human-sized nest. They can work in groups, too. Be prepared for messy fun.

Note:  If you are working with a number of children, they may remove materials from the nests of others. Decide how you want to deal with this in advance. I told them that birds in nature really do take materials from other birds’ nests. Eventually they decided to leave one member of a group in the nest while the others went to gather supplies, just how birds sometimes handle the problem.

Make sure you have your camera ready. You will find there are many creative ways to make nests. Take pictures of your “birds” sitting in their nests.

Reward your “birds” with some bird-themed treats. Easy snack nests can be made by melting butterscotch chips in the microwave (see package for instructions) and mixing with crispy chow mien noodles. After it is cool enough to handle, shape into nests.

Related Books (Contain affiliate links to Amazon):

Birds Build Nests
by Yvonne Winer is our absolute favorite book about birds and bird nests. It has fabulous illustrations of many different birds and their nests.

How and Why Birds Build Nests (How and Why Series) by Elaine Pascoe, Joel Kupperstein, Editor and Dwight Kuhn, Photographer

Birds & Blooms

Ever heard of a sharpshooter insect? Sharpshooter is the common name of a group of large leafhoppers. They are elongate, shaped like a torpedo, and feed on plants by sucking the juices.

Sharpshooters may have gotten their name from the fact these insects slip to the underside of a twig whenever someone approaches, in order to hide. They have relatively large eyes, and in the past I have had no luck getting one to sit still long enough for a photograph. I would spot one, and then -shuffle, shuffle- it was on the far side of the twig.

For some reason, this morning I found a whole group feeding who were more than willing to pose for me. Maybe because it was slightly windy and they knew I’d have trouble getting a good focus. ☺

smoke tree sharpshooter

These are adults and nymphs of the smoke tree sharpshooter, Homalodisca lacerta.

The nymphs are beige and lack wings.

smoke tree sharpshooter

The adults have bright red splotches on their wings and wild wavy patterns on their head.

smoke tree sharpshooter

Check out those eyes.

smoke tree sharpshooter

And as for shooting, these insects eject a stream of honeydew while they are feeding. If there are quite a few in a tree, it actually can look like a fine mist of rain on a sunny day.

These are both males. The females create prominent white spots on the sides of their wings. No one knows for sure why they do this.