July 9, 2015
Hummingbird Clearwing Moth

Hummingbird Clearwing Moth
I caught the white flash out of the corner of my eye, assumed two Northern Mockingbirds were having territorial negotiations, and glanced up to follow the action.  It was, in fact, a single mockingbird flying erratically, swooping, banking, trying to match the desperate getaway path of some escaping winged prey.  The bird did a vertical touch-and-go against a windscreen on a fence, flipped over the top, then dropped precipitously out of sight.  Just at the height of this aerial pursuit I caught a brief glimpse of something small, white, and elusive just inches from becoming an avian meal.

For all the myriad reasons serious birdwatchers get hooked—the fascination with flight, the beauty of birdsong, the colorful plumage packages, the natural history research, and the travel—the single most overlooked or forgotten aspect of avian life is the most obvious reason for their existence.  Without birds the planet would be overrun with bugs.  Given the rising sun and the still cool dawn temperatures, I’m sure my frenetic mockingbird’s intended breakfast was some kind of moth.  Ah, yes.  Moths. 

When I set out to see and photograph all of North America’s birdlife, I thought 800 species, give or take, was the perfect number.  Though it would take years, it seemed definitely feasible, challenging enough without being overwhelming, and of course along the way were many great people, places, and memories.  Four years ago when I skipped butterflies, which is where many birders go next, and got into odonata, the numbers again seemed just right—550 give or take--because odes are much more localized than birds and I had fewer years left for the journey.

Early on a cool, humid morning, my birthday in 2014, I walked into the outdoor office at my workplace and noticed something out of place lying on the ground thirty yards from the gate.  Fifteen yards out I still couldn’t discern what I was seeing, an object three and a half to four inches long, not flat to the ground, dark brown with variegated white patches, probably a large lichened twig or dead leaf blown from one of the trees.  Standing directly over it, it still took me several moments to realize I was looking down at the dorsal surface of the largest moth I had ever seen!

It was a visceral realization for a lifelong but amateur naturalist who had always admired butterflies without taking the time to photograph them, and had never even considered there was a whole other side to the lepidoptera clan.  The size and beauty of the beast at my feet astonished me.  I picked it up and was astonished again at its heft in my hand.  I was hooked instantly.  And privately embarrassed.  There was another world out there that I had completely overlooked.  This moth was larger than some of our hummingbirds!  I needed to check this out. 

A little research told me this was Manduca rustica, a Rustic Sphinx Moth.  It also told me there are more than 11,000(!) moth species in North America.  It was the perfect birthday present, the perfect storm of elements from a life spent exploring the outdoors:  a return to macro which had initially hooked me on photography some fifty years ago; a jaded, been-there-done-that feeling with birding; a new subject category with possibilities so overwhelming (11,000!) I could enjoy it at my leisure with no thought of trying to see/record it all; and like my favorite birds, the owl family, moths are largely creatures of the night which leaves all manner of things to the imagination.

I am a small boy again, exploring the woods, looking for bugs.  I’ve seen moths half the size of my little fingernail cuticle with intricate patterns of black and gold.  I’ve seen plain gray moths with scarlet hindwings visible only in flight.  I’ve seen the “huge” sphinx moths my mother always mistook for hummingbirds, hovering over flowers.  This is my final photographic frontier.

Blinded Sphinx Moth