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Autumn Warbler Incidents, part 3 – An Insect Feast.

October 5, 2013

Woolly Aphids

Tennessee Warbler

This autumn, a certain insect has been evident on some of the beech trees in the central Ohio area.  At first glance, it doesn’t look like an insect at all.

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These look like lots of tiny cotton balls on a tree branch.  But if you look closely, you can see some of them moving…

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These are Woolly Aphids:

The woolly aphid is a sucking insect that lives on plant fluids and produces a filamentous waxy white covering which resembles cotton or wool. The adults are winged and move to new locations where they lay egg masses. The larvae often form large cottony masses on twigs, for protection from predators. They come from Japan.

Woolly aphids feed by inserting their needle-like mouthparts into plant tissue to withdraw sap. They are able to feed on leaves, buds, bark, and even the roots of the plant. As a result of feeding on the sap, woolly aphids produce a sticky substance known as honeydew, which can lead to sooty mold on the plant.

Woolly aphids generally are not much cause for alarm, although they can cause rather unsightly damage to plants, which is particularly a problem for growers of ornamentals.

I’d never seen these insects before; apparently there are specialized types that feed on various other plant species- for example, Asian Hackberry.  But these particular aphids fed upon Beech Trees.

As interested as I was to see these tiny creatures, the migrating autumn warblers that I had also been watching were even more interested.  This was food for them, and migration is hungry work.

One September day, a certain Tennessee Warbler took a fancy to a particular branch full of these little fuzzballs that I was looking at.  Last week you may have seen another such bird taking a bath in a stream on this blog.  But this bird was famished.

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Watch as our bird finds a banquet…

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The bird started eating.

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Talk about an acrobat, eating upside down- but warblers are used to doing this while searching for bugs on leaves.

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Here’s another angle on our hungry friend.

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This bird did not mind me getting pretty getting close to it while it ate.  Yet even this hungry migrant didn’t make a dent in the aphid population.  Scientifically speaking, this is an example of what used to be called R-selection, which meant that aphids have a huge number of offspring that they spend very little effort on- most of them are eaten, but that doesn’t matter to the aphids because enough survive to reproduce and continue on.  Nature is often like that.

I was quite happy to be in the right place at the right time to photograph all of this.  Personally, it’s been a pretty good warbler autumn for me- though that time is now drawing to a close as the seasons flow on.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. October 6, 2013 4:37 am

    A stunning sequence of shots! I am very glad that this warbler found such a feast – but it does look too much for a single bird, as you say – however hungry!

  2. October 6, 2013 5:51 am

    Great post. I saw a similar formation of aphids a while back and thought it was some type of moss. Maybe if a bird would of been there dinning to light bulb might have went on.

    • October 6, 2013 9:03 am

      It does look like some kind of growth, Robert- I only noticed some of them moving by watching them a while!

  3. October 6, 2013 6:47 am

    Another wonderful series of photos!

    There are still great numbers of warblers headed your way. I saw large flocks of them two weeks ago in Michigan’s UP, and I’m seeing a few everyday around home here. Most were yellow rumped and pine warblers, but there are still a few black throated blues and greens as well as others.

    • October 6, 2013 9:05 am

      That’s great news! I’ll be out there looking for them, hoping to get some more photos. For whatever reason, I’ve had better luck this autumn getting pictures of them than I did last spring (when they admittedly looked much flashier).

  4. October 6, 2013 9:09 am

    What a great set of photos, Tracy! I never spray anything in my garden; the birds and beneficial insects generally do the work for me and if I intervened, I would be depriving them of a meal. This is a great example of balance in nature.

  5. October 6, 2013 4:49 pm

    Awesome shots, I’ve never seen so many bugs in one spot. What a lucky little warbler…

    • October 7, 2013 9:23 am

      It was truly an epic swarm, Joleen! The ‘fuzzy cotton balls’ that these aphids wear make them especially visible. Imagine all of the species without such a visible feature that we don’t notice…

  6. October 6, 2013 5:07 pm

    Being in the right place at the right time is the mark of a good photographer.

  7. October 6, 2013 6:20 pm

    Yum! I stripped some birch not too long ago to make a small arbour for my vines. There were aphids by the millions. Didn’t crawl on me at all, just made a beeline for the ground. Jane

  8. October 7, 2013 10:20 pm

    What a feast for that little bird!

  9. October 8, 2013 10:00 am

    I saw thousands of wooly aphids on an alder limb a while ago but no warblers showed up to eat them while I was there. Too bad-it would have been quite a meal.

    • October 8, 2013 3:32 pm

      I talked to a naturalist at a park today- apparently these woolies are coming up from the south and since we’ve had a couple of mild winters in a row here, their numbers have increased. The naturalist thought that a cold winter would knock their numbers back. So maybe we in the northern states won’t see as many of them in the long run!

  10. October 8, 2013 3:39 pm

    Hi Seasons, Great pictures of the TN Warbler feasting on the Aphids. Yes, the birds do get hungry. Happily, I am seeing many more small birds here in my own neighborhood in Marion County, FL in the last week! Have a wonderful Wednesday tomorrow!

  11. October 8, 2013 7:13 pm

    Thank you for identifying the insects for us! I was hiking with my parents the other day and we noticed those, but had no idea what they were. I took video of them and then forgot until Mom saw this blog post. Very cool, and glad the warbler got a good meal!

    • October 8, 2013 8:41 pm

      Glad to help out, Stephanie- this was my first time seeing them, too. We may be seeing more of them in the future (depending on how far north one lives, and how cold the winters are).

  12. October 9, 2013 9:43 am

    That little warbler hit the jackpot! Nicely photographed series.

  13. April 24, 2018 12:44 pm

    Hi Tracy,
    Many thanks once again for permission to reproduce some of your images of birds eating woolly beech aphids.

    We have just uploaded the page in question.


    I hope you enjoy the page, and that we have credited you appropriately.

    Best wishes,



  1. Ohio Trees – American Beech. | Seasons Flow

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