Flightless and no doubt doomed
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