I approached slowly as the hummingbird hovered from flower to flower. I’d been looking for a decent shot all morning, and it appeared my luck was about to change. As I closed in on the tiny bird, something wasn’t right. It was the way its body vibrated awkwardly with its wing beats. A few steps later, I realized the hummingbird wasn’t a hummingbird at all. It was a moth—a white-lined sphinx to be exact. I had to get a shot of this fascinating creature!
The white-lined sphinx (Hyles lineata) is common to abundant throughout Missouri and can be found in woodlands, fields, and gardens. It is distinguished from other sphinx moths by its olive-brown wings, each with a light tan center line and tan streaks. The hind wings, which immediately caught my eye, are black with a beautiful rose-colored center band. The white-lined sphinx has an impressive wingspan of up to 3.5 inches. A quick check of the literature revealed that I was not the first person to mistake one for a hummingbird.
Adults fly at night and can often be found near lights, but they also fly during the day. Larvae, which are bright yellow-green or bluish-black, feed on a variety of herbaceous plants, but purslane is a favorite in Missouri. Adults visit honeysuckle, columbine, lilac, petunia, and a variety of other plants.
I closed in on the sphinx and began shooting with my usual sense of urgency, but soon realized the moth wasn’t in a hurry to move on. As I watched through my lens as the moth fed, withdrawing nectar from each thistle with its long, reddish proboscis (a long, thin, tubular mouthpart), I had the sense that it was watching me back with its oversized, brown eyes. Later, I determined that even though the furry creature had a protruding head like a mammal, and eyes as large as those of a songbird, it was virtually unaware of my presence and only interested in extracting food from the surrounding flowers. I followed the sphinx for more than a half hour, and I never once saw it rest, even for a moment.
When it became obvious there would never be a lull in the action, I took a few minutes to review the images I had made. I began scrolling through the frames on the back of my camera and was dismayed to see so many blurry shots. The moth’s oscillating was apparently giving my camera fits! I made a few adjustments and began looking for the problematic insect so I could begin round two. I had a sinking feeling when I didn’t find the busy moth right away. I was crestfallen when I realized it was gone for good. I immediately plopped down on a trailside log and began reviewing the images again. After going through almost 65 frames, I found three that adequately captured my encounter with the impressive sphinx moth. This was my favorite.
—Story and photograph by Danny Brown
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