Critter love: Harry and the night visitors

Five years ago, Asheville sculptor Harry McDaniel began paying attention to moths. They would flit by his Montford home each night during the warmer months, circle the porch light, and occasionally linger well past dawn.

Many of them were small and unremarkable — the sort of specimens bird-watchers like to refer to as “LBJs,” short for “little brown jobs.” Others had striking patterns, or feathery antennae, or were clad in vivid colors. A few others were just plain enormous.

“I just became intrigued with them, and wanted to see how many different kinds there were,” McDaniel says. He started by taking their pictures with a digital camera, and then printed out each image and Scotch-taped it to the walls of his family’s sitting room. In time, McDaniel’s moth gallery grew to include more than one hundred species.

“At a glance, a lot of them look alike,” says McDaniel. “But you start comparing bigger pictures and you see that they have all sorts of variations in their patterns and their shapes their antennae and the way they hold their wings. There’s a lot of variety.”

In the first, heady days of his moth project, McDaniel was keen on identifying his nocturnal guests and learning their common names and their scientific names, both of which he’d jot onto the margins of the photos with a pencil.

It didn’t last.

“I realized very quickly that first of all, they’re very hard to identify. I also learned that there are a lot of them. Someone told me that there are something like 4,000 species of moths in North Carolina.”

McDaniel is in good company; a glance at a website devoted to moths of Virginia and North Carolina seems to show the same trend: the list is well annotated near the top, with common names (“tiger moths,” “crambid snout moths,” “false owlet moths,” for starters) and scientific names, but trails away into a knot of hundreds of unidentified species. McDaniel’s quest for knowledge had led him onto difficult terrain. “I kind of gave up on that,” he says. “I started to photograph them more for the visual interest.”

Few have been more interesting than the leopard moth. One day McDaniels and his daughter were in the yard when they came across a finger-sized caterpillar with sharp black bristles and an abdomen girded with red lines. They brought it inside, put it in a terrarium, and promptly forgot about it.

“And then a few months later my son walked by it and noticed a little bit of movement,” says McDaniel. “And as he watched, a leopard moth emerged from the cocoon.” The moth had a wingspan of nearly 3 inches. Its bulky frame was covered with black rings and dots against a ground of snowy white. It was a moth to remember. 

“When I first started taking pictures of moths, it didn’t occur to me that they would be interesting to other people,” says McDaniel. “As it has turned out, most people who walk into our living room are interested in the pictures. It sort of turned into an accidental art project.”

The lesson in all this? “There’s a lot right at our doorstep that we can easily overlook,” McDaniel says. “If we take the time to notice, it can be quite interesting.”

— Kent Priestley, staff reporter

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One thought on “Critter love: Harry and the night visitors

  1. Beautiful!

    National Geographic ran a story last year about a photographer of moths. The photos were stunning.

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