The trip to the edge of the woods would be a quick one. The air had been steam sauna wet, and even now only recalled the tepid dampness of someone else’s towel. Worse, the yawn of days like this had produced a ravening hoard of mosquitoes that laughed openly at the casual wave of a hand.
My dog, Shadow, for whom this trip to the woods had been necessary, immediately found herself accompanied by a squadron of the pests. She loped about in search of a preferred toileting spot while I waited and swatted at the edge of the woods. I reached down to kill the next annoyance when I saw it.
Perched in the dark leaf litter was a moth of nearly absurd contrast. It was a bit longer than an inch, too small to be chosen first in a game of moth basketball, but it stood out because of its startling black and white pattern. With bars on the outer edge of its wings and circles of black on its back, it was easy to i.d. even for a novice lepidopterist like me: a Giant Leopard Moth. It can grow to a three inch wingspan, which leads me to believe that naturalists who named this creature were given to hyperbole. I ran to the house to get my camera. While hardly rare, it seemed especially generous of this one to pose for me during the daytime hours, and I would have been ungrateful not to take the opportunity to photograph it.
When I return armed with my camera, hypercombe scribonia still waits patiently. Like many moths and some butterflies, once the Leopard completes the chrysalis process from caterpillar to adult, its days of dining are over. It lives on stores of fats as it mates, lays eggs, and dies.
David L. Wagner’s field guide Caterpillars of Eastern North America says that the immature form of the Leopard Moth is a black, spiny looking creature. It is one of the few “hairy” caterpillars that can be safely handled without fear of being rewarded with an itchy rash, as its only defense is to roll itself in a ball.
It isn’t caterpillars that are giving me a rash at this moment, though, and after a few pictures I abandon the woods to the mosquitoes that cloud over me. Whatever exaggeration there may be in the superlative “Great”, this Leopard Moth is nonetheless distinctive, and I’m happy to have been granted an audience with this leopard of the forest.