Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Flightless and no doubt doomed

with 18 comments

Click for larger size and greater detail.

On May 17, for the second morning in a row, I set out to explore a piece of prairie in far northeast Austin where, two evenings earlier, Eve and I had noticed a lot of wildflowers when we were on our way to the graduation of a friend of ours. And for the second morning in a row I didn’t make it to that piece of prairie, because as I was driving on the straight northern stretch of Burnet Rd. between Shoreline Dr. and Merrilltown Dr. I saw a colony of basket-flowers in the ditch by the side of the road, the first good group of them I’d seen this season. Just up ahead on the right was the old Merrilltown Cemetery, where I conveniently pulled in and parked. It turned out that the land adjacent to the cemetery also had a colony of basket-flowers on it, plus one of Texas thistles, both of which I did my best to photograph from the top of a portable step-ladder that I placed against the fence separating the cemetery from the other property (it was fenced but the cemetery wasn’t). Then it was time to walk back around to Burnet Rd. and the ditch with the basket-flowers in it that had caught my attention in the first place. A dense colony of coreopsis had sprung up there as well, so I had plenty to photograph.

Near the end of my session I spotted a fairly large moth on the lower portion of the stalk of a Texas thistle. It was a kind of moth I was happy to see because I don’t often encounter it: Hyles lineata, known as a white-lined sphinx and also as a hummingbird moth. That second name is especially apt because this moth beats its wings so fast that it darts about like a hummingbird and often even hovers in mid-air. Some years ago in San Antonio I found one visiting a colony of basket-flowers that I was photographing and I watched as it went from flower to flower, hovering each time while it reached out its long tongue and extended it down into the flower to gather nectar.

In contrast to that memory, this hummingbird moth on the Texas thistle stalk was motionless and let me get within inches of it, something it wouldn’t normally allow, so I began to wonder if it was dead. But no, eventually it moved, though not in its usual way: it fluttered and fell into the low vegetation on the ground, where it fluttered some more but couldn’t manage to fly away. I noticed that its right wing looked unnatural and didn’t match its left wing; whatever the deformation was, it apparently robbed the moth of its ability to fly.

An idea came to me: I broke off a nearby basket-flower and reached it down through the undergrowth to the place where the moth was. Eventually I got the moth to climb onto the flower, and I lifted it away from the ground and turned the flower upright. The moth held on, and I had the impression that once it was on top of the flower it felt at home, even if it couldn’t hover in its usual way. Still, over the next few minutes the moth fell off onto the ground several times, and several times I reached the flower down to the ground for it to climb back up on. Eventually the moth fell into some greenery where I couldn’t see it any more, and I left it to fend for itself in a life that probably wasn’t going to last a lot longer.


Back in the less dramatic and mundane world of identifying things, I’ll add that all the yellow daubs in the background of the photograph were from coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria, and the white ones in the upper right from basket-flowers, Centaurea americana. If I was correct in identifying the rotund green eating machine that caught your fancy in a recent post, then this is the moth that that kind of caterpillar eventually turns into, and you’ve gotten to see two stages in yet another cycle.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 5, 2012 at 5:42 AM

18 Responses

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  1. I have seen the sphinx moth before. It was just at dusk and at first glance, I thought it was a hummingbird – a fascinating insect! It’s always sad to see a creature of nature in distress or injured, but most often there is nothing we can do except let it go in peace.

    Jo Ann Abell

    June 5, 2012 at 6:27 AM

    • I think almost everyone who sees one of these moths for the first time thinks it’s a hummingbird. This was the first distressed one I’d ever seen.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 5, 2012 at 6:35 AM

  2. I certainly assumed “hummingbird” the first time I saw one of these moths. What a delight to know the link between this and my favorite caterpillar.

    I come across occasional ladybugs and such on boat decks – I often carry them away from the fiberglass desert and up to the grass and flowers. Bees I leave alone, as they’re generally leaf-cutters, solitary creatures who like to build their nests in places like tiny protected vents in the sides of boats. I always assume they’re just resting before getting back to work.


    June 5, 2012 at 7:40 AM

    • I, too, was surprised by the link between that caterpillar and this moth: there’s no hint (to me, at least) of the one in the other.

      It sounds like your boat-to-shore rescues have been more successful than my attempt with this hummingbird moth.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 5, 2012 at 8:27 AM

  3. I had a similar encounter yesterday. I found a type, haven’t identified it yet, of sphinx moth in my home and also thought it had died. Started taking pictures of it and the moth began to flutter so I took it outside and put it on a sage plant. Unfortunately it didn’t fly away during a heavy downpour. I will be posting the photos next week.

    Bonnie Michelle

    June 5, 2012 at 8:05 AM

  4. What an awesome shot!!!

    H2O by Joanna

    June 5, 2012 at 12:51 PM

  5. Fantastic picture! 😀 So sad it was probably about to die. We occasionally see Hummingbird Hawk Moths (Macroglossum stellatarum), which are fascinating to watch.


    June 5, 2012 at 1:25 PM

    • I looked at some pictures of your species, which hovers in the same way as ours, so here’s one phenomenon you don’t have to come to Texas to see.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 5, 2012 at 1:30 PM

  6. This is wonderful – thank-you for sharing!

    Cathy G

    June 5, 2012 at 7:21 PM

    • You’re welcome. I don’t usually write so much, but I felt I needed to tell the story behind the picture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 5, 2012 at 7:53 PM

  7. […] And now I’m reminded that I found a different (and most would say more attractive and unusual) insect in the same place last year. You’re welcome to climb into the Portraits of Wildflowers time machine and go back to see it. […]

  8. What a great story. Sounds exactly like something I would do. Interesting info on the moth. Might have to do a post on it. 🙂

    Lisa Vankula-Donovan

    June 15, 2013 at 6:33 AM

    • There are plenty of little dramas out there in nature, and I’m always glad when I stumble on one. By all means, follow up on this.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 15, 2013 at 6:39 AM

  9. I would love to see (and photograph) one of these!


    June 16, 2013 at 2:54 PM

  10. […] few of you may remember the forlorn Hyles lineata moth that appeared here in […]

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