Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Interview With Author and Naturalist John Himmelman

John Himmelman is a successful author, illustrator and naturalist living in Connecticut. He is the creative mind behind a number of ecologically-minded works for both children and adults, including  the children's books "Cricket Radio" and "Cows to the Rescue," and field guides including "Discovering Moths, Nighttime Jewels in Your Own Backyard" and "Discovering Amphibians, Frogs and Salamanders of the Northeast." Mr. Himmelman recently took some time to answer a few questions for New England Nature Notes about the butterflies and moths of Connecticut, his books, and what inspired him to become an author, educator and naturalist.

NENN: What are some of the major threats to butterflies and moths in New
England today ?

JH: Habitat destruction can tip the scales in the wrong direction for some borderline species – and that destruction doesn’t always come from people (at least directly). Deer have been known to wipe out food plants of some species of butterflies. Introduced predators such as parasitizing wasps have also brought down numbers of certain species of moths. A species brought in to deal with gypsy moths a while back, didn’t stop at the gypsy moths, but went after our larger silk moths (Luna, Promethea, Cecropia). I would imagine that light pollution cannot be good in the overall picture for night flying Lepidoptera. 
Habitat protection is crucial for the health and well-being of New England's butterflies and moths, which rely on open grasslands and meadows for to provide the resources they need.
NENN:  Where are some of the best places in southern New England to look for moths and
butterflies ?

JH: One of my favorite spots is at Bent-of-the-River in Southbury, CT. Lots and lots of fields at different stages of growth! There is also a great butterfly habitat area at Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven, CT. It was created by the CT Butterfly Association. It’s not only a good place to find butterflies, but you can see what plants seem to be working best for them. Technically not southern New England, but close enough, is Ward Pound Ridge in New York - another place with some great fields. Finally, the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet, MA, has a great butterfly garden by the gift shop.

NENN: What kind of plants should people place in their gardens or backyards to
attract moths and butterflies ?

JH: I tend to prefer native plants. I figure it’s native bugs I’m hoping to attract, so I should provide the food they evolved to eat. There is a wide selection of nectar and larval host plants out there. I suggest a person visit www.ctbutterfly.org to download the list of butterflies that can be found in our region along with the plants they feed and nectar upon. 

Also, have a look at what is already in your yard. What are they feeding upon? Could expanding what you already have improve the numbers and diversity of what you attract? A walk out at night will show you what plants are serving as nectar sources for certain moths, too.

Plants such as Milkweed provide food for a variety of different kinds of butterflies.
NENN: Your expertise extends beyond moths and butterflies and covers a wide range of natural history, what first inspired you to become a natural history author and educator ?

JH: I’m a wildly curious person and the pursuit of one creature inevitably leads to the pursuit of another. The connections in the natural world are forever leading me up new paths. Of course, the aesthetic qualities of much of my quarry helps to hold that interest – both visually and aurally. For me, it’s like a big, never-ending treasure hunt. I started when I was about 5, chasing bugs with a little net, and haven’t let up. When I see something new, I want to know more about it. When I learn something fascinating about that creature, I want to share it. That’s human nature – we like to share that which interests us. That very act adds to the experience.

NENN:  You are the author or illustrator of a number of different natural history books for children, can you tell us a little about some of your recent projects and perhaps give us a glimpse of something you might be working on right now ? Where can people go online to learn more about your work ?

JH: I mix my more whimsical children’s books with books on natural history – some for kids, some for adults. I always choose something about which I’d like to learn more. That’s the best way to learn, at least for me – researching and immersing yourself in a subject. I recently finished the illustrations for a book I wrote for Dawn Publications – “Noisy Bug Sing-a-long”, about the sounds insects make. It encourages the readers to learn how to listen for the songs that surround them outdoors.

I’m also at work on a field guide for kids called Basic Illustrated Frogs, Snakes, Bugs, and Slugs” for Globe Pequot/Falcon Guides. It’s a guide to the things in nature that are somewhat… unloved…

NENN:  Is there anything else you would like to add ?

JH: You can visit some of my websites for information on my programs and books. My main site’s at www.johnhimmelman.com. In addition, I have a blog called “Moths in a Connecticut Yard” – lots of pictures and stories of moths in my yard in Killingworth, CT – www.Connecticutmoths.com.  Lastly, there’s Connecticut Amphibians, which has photos of every species of amphibian in CT, as well as recordings of most of the frogs – www.ctamphibians.com.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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