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That Ain't No Hummingbird: Life among the sphinx moths

HEy Baby!"No, maam, 'baby hummingbirds' do not have antenna, multicolored wings and three body parts; those are the sphinx moths," I told the woman over

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HEy Baby!"No, maam, 'baby hummingbirds' do not have antenna, multicolored wings and three body parts; those are the sphinx moths," I told the woman over the phone. Sure, sphinx moths hover like hummingbirds, poke their long "tongue" into flowers and slurp up nectar like hummingbirds, but they are insects, not birds.

 
Every summer about this time, phone calls and e-mails flood my home from people wondering about strange looking "baby hummingbirds" feeding in flowers, especially at night. As far as I know, there are no hummingbirds around here, or anywhere else, that feed at night. But "hummingbird 'moths'" do.

Moreover, we have a wonderful selection of these moths to watch and enjoy. The largest is the white-lined moth, and as I recently learned on a butterfly census at Big Summit Prairie in the Ochocos, the smallest may be Clark's Sphinx Moth.


The photo above, taken by 10-year-old Janelle Orsillo of Bend is the smallest sphinx moth I have ever seen. A few weeks back, I was in the Ochocos with my wife, Sue, and other butterfly enthusiasts, including Janelle and her family, conducting Sue's annual butterfly count. Suddenly, one of the children shouted, "Hey, Jim, come over and look at this baby hummingbird!" When I looked, I noticed Jannelle had already spotted it.

Jannelle is an exceptional child. She not only has an eye for shooting superb photos, but she is on her toes as well. I had loaned her my Canon Rebel, equipped with 28-200 IS macro lens, and she was zeroed in.

Now right here, Dear Readers, I used some very powerful self-control. It was immediately apparent that what the children had spotted was not a "baby hummingbird" at all, but the tiniest sphinx moth I have ever seen.

It took time, going through several insect books and field guides trying to find out what the moth was. I even contacted my old friend, Eric Eaton, co-author of the new Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America, but he wasn't sure what Janelle had photographed. I finally resorted to Googling and the USGS website to come up with what I think it is: Clark's Sphinx Moth, or as it is known among lepidopterists (moth and butterfly experts), Proserpinus clarkiae.

According to the USGS website, Clark's Sphinx Moth range all the way from BC, Canada to California, so that fits where we found it. The female lays her eggs on plants of the primrose family and in about 10 days, they hatch. The tiny larvae start out life by eating their own egg shells (nothing goes to waste in Mother Nature's world) and then they get down to serious growing.

It's during the growing phase that some sphinx moths, also known as hawk moths, get into trouble. The larger species, such as our common White-lined Hawk Moth, invade tomato gardens and eat leaves like there is no tomorrow. Such activities do not make tomato farmers very happy.

In domestic gardens they are known as "tomato horn worms" as they have a very noticeable "horn" on their back, and some caterpillars grow as large as your thumb when they mature. If you do find them in your garden, PLEASE! DO NOT USE CHEMICALS TO KILL THEM! All you have to do is drop them somewhere for a hungry robin or flicker to find. Remember nothing goes to waste in Nature; everything gets recycled one way or another.

The caterpillar that escapes your discovery, and the ones out in the wild, will slowly crawl away and dig down into the soil and start the process of metamorphosis inside a silken cocoon.

It is at this stage that moths and butterflies undergo what I consider one of Nature's major miracles. Within the silken cocoon, (chrysalids in butterflies) the caterpillar dissolves into a green genetic soup. Then the extraordinary "Spark of Life" assembles the contents into what will become a beautiful adult moth (or butterfly) the following summer.

Ahhh, the Wonders of Nature!

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