Wednesday, June 3, 2020

A Cinnabar Moth, and Operation Highjump

Big news in the garden!

Remember last summer, how we had the orange-and-black caterpillars of the cinnabar moth colonizing our ragwort plants? I was very excited about them, having left the ragwort -- which is their food plant -- specifically for them to live on. I mentioned at the time that although I'd seen the caterpillars before, I'd never laid eyes on an adult moth.

Well, guess what showed up yesterday?

I was sitting on the bench reading when I saw a flash of red in a sunny patch on the lawn. The cinnabar moth has red underwings, so when it flies, red is the predominant color you see. (Much like burnets, similar moths from another family that I've seen many times.) I ran like a madman to get the camera, and the obliging cinnabar moth stayed still long enough for me to shoot 111 pictures, from various positions and with various lenses. (Of course, most of those pictures will be deleted. I'm keeping only a handful.)

Obviously I don't know whether this moth was one of last year's caterpillars, or whether it was simply passing through to lay eggs on the ragwort (which we've allowed to grow again). Either way, I was glad to finally see one. They're not rare, but apparently they're usually nocturnal fliers.

In the morning I went through a box of old letters and other papers that I've saved over the years. I was looking for a particular old postcard from my great-grandmother -- don't ask me why -- and although I didn't find it, I came across some other interesting stuff.

As I think I've mentioned, my maternal grandfather was a scientist for the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. In 1947 he went on an expedition called Operation Highjump to Antarctica, and sent home special postal envelopes like this one for himself, my grandmother, and their two kids (including, obviously, my mom).

I've never known much about Operation Highjump, but now, through the wonders of the Interwebs, the information is at our fingertips! Apparently it was a pretty large expedition, meant to test equipment and extend American influence in Antarctica, as well as establish a research base called Little America IV.

I never heard anything about it first-hand. My grandfather died when I was 10, and he seldom talked about his work at home, so my mom doesn't know much about it either. All we have now are these postal souvenirs -- which, by the way, are apparently abundant and not at all valuable, but are at least interesting.


  1. Last year I watched with interest as the cinnabar caterpillars decimated the ragwort in one of my regular dog walking fields . All of a sudden the plants were stripped and no sign of the caterpillars......where do they go? They do make beautiful moths.

  2. Cinnabar moths are a beautiful sight, and such a contrast to their stripy ("look I tast awful, I am poisonous"!!) caterpillars.

    Such beautiful handwriting.

  3. What do you mean by "LIKE a madman"? I think there can be little doubt when a guy takes no less than 111 pictures of a cinnabar moth!

  4. I think the moth stopped by to thank you for last year. I have at times downloaded 100s of pix of one thing. You are a great photographer. So, I feel like I’m in good company!

  5. What a beautiful little creature that moth is. I hope you see many more.
    Never heard of Operation High Jump. Makes me wonder just what else our government has been/is up to.

  6. Your moth is a very beautiful critter. It was very cooperative to let you take 111 photos. that will give you a whole day's work to sort them out.

  7. That Operation High Jump information is fascinating to me. I'm always fascinated by early explorations and how tough it must have been to do that kind of work back then.
    Fantastic photo of that beautiful moth. I'm glad you were able to get some great photos.

  8. What a beautiful moth. As for Operation High Jump, I don't know anything either. I'd hang on to the postcard and any information I could find about it to save for future generations. I hope you get some rain. Enjoy your day, hugs, Edna .

  9. I love that you have Cinnabar Moths there. I've only seen them when we were living up on the Olympic Peninsula in Port Townsend, WA. Such beautiful moths.
    Very interesting that your grandfather was in Antarctica on Operation High Jump. I'm definitely going to read more about that!

  10. Great to have the reminder of your grandfather's work. Nothing to do with the expedition, but your talk of NRL reminds me of time I spent there. They use to have a theatre group (surprising, yes? some wild scientists there). Used to help with productions...including Little Shop of Horrors. This was back in the late 80s, early 90s.

  11. That's really a beautiful moth. We usually think of moths as drab cousins to butterflies, but this one has lovely colours.

    How interesting about your grandfather's work!

  12. "Operation Highjump" is so quaint. These days it would get a name to evoke supremacy and to cast fear in the hearts of lesser nations who dare claims piece of Antarctica for their own.

    Operation Frozen Destiny

    Operation Gondwana Glacial Decree

    Operation Final Frost

    Operation Absolute Zero Chance You're Getting Any of This

  13. 111 pictures? and I thought I was excessive when I take 8 or so of the same thing. but it' always exciting to spot something new in the yard.

  14. You have inspired us to remove the lawn and plant ragweed!

  15. The return of the cinnabar moth! I've been waiting for this moment, hopefully there are will be more in the ground waiting to hatch.
    The Antarctic envelope is a find. The stamp ( not the postage stamp) sends a message that America was there to firmly anchor its place on the continent.

  16. Frances: Apparently a lot of the caterpillars starve in the wild because they eat the food plants down to nothing before they're ready to pupate. I guess it's nature's way of keeping the population in check! As I understand it, the pupae overwinter in the soil and the moths emerge in spring.

    GZ: People had good penmanship back then, didn't they?

    YP: You'd be surprised how easy it is to do, when you start moving around and changing lenses. Every shot seems better than the last!

    Mitchell: Sometimes it takes a lot of shooting to get just what you want. This isn't unusual -- when you look at pro photographers' contact sheets, they sometimes take a while to get just the right shot.

    Ms Moon: I don't know how consequential Highjump was in the long-term.

    Red: Actually, it wasn't that hard to sort them. I could tell right away which ones were my faves.

    Sharon: The thought of my grandfather in (or near) Antarctica back then is mind-blowing to me. I wonder if he had to buy a new coat before he went?!

    Edna: Oh yes, I'm keeping it! I have my grandmother's too.

    Robin: I didn't realize they were common enough to see in the wild in the states. Apparently they've been introduced in North America (and other places) to help control ragwort.

    Mary: Ha! I wonder if they had a theater group when my grandfather was there? He retired in the early '70s. I can't see him getting on stage.

    Jenny-O: Aren't they pretty? I was so excited to see one.

    Vivian: Ha! Yes, sad to say, we've become a more forbidding presence on the global stage.

    Ellen: I routinely take at least two of everything, but yeah, 111 was a lot even for me.

    Linda Sue: Not ragweed! RagWORT! Totally different plant. Don't plant it on purpose -- it's invasive and not native to North America, and also poisonous to livestock. Apparently it has gotten loose in the wild there, and cinnabar moths have been brought in to help control it. Or so I read online.

    Alphie: Yeah, that rubber stamp definitely conveys a message, doesn't it?