Friday, August 26, 2011

LOOK FOR: Sphinx Moths (aka Hummingbird or Hawk Moths)

It's another world out there after dark.

We were out along the Potomac River last week, from afternoon until just past sunset, enjoying the bald eagles and ospreys across the river and a yellow billed cuckoo right overhead. Along with some gorgeous rose mallow and green coneflowers, there's a lot of jimson weed growing along the river there.

Jimson weed (a member of the nightshade family, which also includes tomatoes and tobacco) has large, tubular flowers that only open as the sun starts going down. (Exactly opposite of the rose mallow, which was closing up at the end of the day.)

Jimson Weed
Photo credit: flat-outcrazy

Just before sunset, we noticed a big sphinx moth flying all the way into the jimson weed flowers. It flew from flower to flower so fast I could never get a picture of it, until Matt just grabbed an entire flower with the moth inside. I think it's a Pandorus Sphinx (Eumphora pandorus).

After sunset, as it was starting to get darker, we started seeing another beautiful sphinx -- this one we identified as a Carolina Sphinx moth (Manduca sexta). Except this one, instead of going inside the flowers, hovered over them and stuck its inconceivably long proboscis in. If it's reaching the bottom of the flower, the extended proboscis might be twice as long as the moth!

Isn't that amazing? Wayne Armstrong has some much better pictures of the extended and coiled proboscis.

Butterflies and Moths of North America lists over 125 species of sphinx moths. Our Pandorus sphinx lays its eggs on grapes and Virginia creeper, which are certainly abundant along the Potomac. And the Carolina sphinx? Its caterpillars grow up on nightshades -- jimson weed, tobacco, and tomatoes. In fact, its caterpillars are known as tobacco hornworm, a close relative of the tomato hornworm. Next time we find one of those big green monsters on our tomato plants, we may leave it be. These moths are amazing.