Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The uncooperative Sphinx moth May 14, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:06 AM
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The wings of the white-lined Sphinx moth beat non-stop in a blur of motion as it feeds on the nectar of Superbells.

IF I DIDN’T KNOW BETTER, I would have thought it a hummingbird, this rapid wing-beating insect that swooped into my yard Sunday afternoon, drinking the sweet nectar of the pink-striped Calibrachoa.

Often confused with a hummingbird, this white-lined Sphinx moth whips its wings at up to 85 beats per second.

No wonder I found photographing this fascinating creature an incredible challenge. Perched on a step ladder at near eye level with a hanging flower basket I’d gotten for Mother’s Day just hours earlier, I tried to focus my lens on the energetic moth. I mean, honestly, could the moth simply just hover in one spot for maybe a minute?

It didn’t help either that the wind swayed the basket and that I’m a teeny bit afraid of anything with flapping wings. When the moth circled my head and seemed to take an interest in the floral-patterned shirt I was wearing, I grew a little nervous.

And then the husband, unbeknown to me, grabbed at my pant leg. I screamed. He laughed. The moth zoomed away.

Later, I would read online that the Sphinx moth, since it has no ears, could not possibly have been frightened by my screech. Rather the quick jerk of my camera and my rapid descent from the ladder likely temporarily caused the moth to exit from the patio premises.

Apparently, though, the lure of that sweet nectar was too much as the moth returned. I climbed onto the ladder again and then tried some under the basket shots until the moth, seemingly intoxicated by all that drinking, zig zagged towards the woods.

Aiming up from under the flower basket, I captured the Sphinx moth zoning in on a blossom.

Another down under, looking up shot showing the moth’s proboscis dipping into the flower for a sip of nectar.

HAVE YOU EVER SEEN, or tried to photograph, a Sphinx moth?

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


29 Responses to “The uncooperative Sphinx moth”

  1. Those are phenomenal photos! I think I must have seen a Sphinx moth and confused it with a hummingbird because I remember thinking it seemed a little small for a hummingbird. Thank you for letting me know what these are.

    I saw your comment on Hotly Spiced, and am stopping by from there.

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you. Several years ago I also confused the Sphinx moth with a hummingbird. It’s an easy mistake to make. A hummingbird also occasionally sips nectar from flowers in my yard.

      Glad you stopped by via Charlie’s blog.

  2. ceciliag Says:

    Wow. You got the shot. Ours come with the tomatoes and I cannot keep up with them, they zoom about! That first image is a stunner.. c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks, C. I have never seen these moths by my tomatoes, only by the tubular flowers and the impatiens. They are apparently attracted to red/pink/orange flowers.

  3. Beautiful, crisp photos! I had similar difficulty photographing a Clearwing Hummingbird Moth. I probably took 30 shots, a few with the moth in focus, some with the moth out of focus, and several without the moth!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thank you, Mark. Ditto here on the number of shots, in and out of focus, and on several without the moth. To be honest, though, I’m still not totally satisfied with the results. A macro lens would be helpful.

  4. Julie Fakler Says:

    Great photos, not sure if I’ve ever seen one before. I love your photography!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Thanks, Julie. Maybe one of these years I’ll have to apply for a gallery show at the Paradise.

  5. Jackie Says:

    Yep, they are amazing. I first time I saw one I also thought it was a humming bird…act just like one. Nice shots of that quick moving guy 🙂

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, if anything, my images have provided a little nature lesson for today.

  6. jwils19 Says:

    She is beautiful!

  7. WOW – that is an amazing creature! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one…though I can see the confusion with a humingbird. Very cool and great pictures!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The Sphinx moth is fun to watch, but not quite so easy to photograph.

      • I seriously thought your pictures were great!!!

      • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

        Thank you. My husband kept telling me the same. But I wanted sharper images, to which he replied, “Well, the moth was moving so quickly…” It didn’t help either that the wind was whipping the flower basket and I was perched on a ladder.

  8. Jim W. Miller Says:

    We’re having thunderstorms tonight and I went to the front door to see what the sky looked like on the horizon (it was about 8:30). And then I caught a glimpse of something darting (in the air) among my blooming salvia (species May Nights). When it finally stopped and hovered, I thought it was a hummingbird, a small hummingbird, but a hummingbird none the less. However, it didn’t quite look like one (my sister has mastered the attraction of hummingbirds and I have never seen one like this with white stripes). I was a bit mesmerized by it and watched it for nearly 15 minutes before I thought to get the camera. By the time I got back, it had left. I came to the internet to look for “hummingbirds” and the first site I clicked on warned people who think they see hummingbirds may actually be seeing a type of moth. Sure enough the first picture was exactly what I saw….a white-lined Sphinx moth. I found your site searching for these moths in Minnesota (if only I could take photos like yours). I live near Southdale Shopping Center and have never seen one before. I will definitely keep an eye out for them from now on!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Welcome to Minnesota Prairie Roots, Jim. I’m so glad you had an opportunity to observe a white-lined Sphinx moth. It’s simply an incredible insect to watch, so fascinating. As you know, they can easily be confused with a hummingbird. Hopefully you will see more. They seem to like tubular flowers that are red.

      As for photography, I’d advise you to practice, practice, practice and, of course, patience is a requirement for photographing a Sphinx moth. Always look for the different perspective and/or angle or interesting way of seeing whatever you are shooting. Typically I do not shoot from a standing position, as most people do. You’ll find me on my knees, on the ground, shooting up, shooting down, occasionally climbing, moving close in, shooting snippets of something… I carry my camera with me nearly everywhere and when I don’t, I wish I had. That’s my basic photography 101 for today. Mostly, have fun.

  9. Barb Durham Says:

    Here are the ones we get in Mexico, Hawk Moth.

    I didn’t take that photo, found it online.

  10. Barb Peterson Says:

    I just saw the sphinx moth today. I originally thought it might be a small hummingbird. He was beautiful with red showing at base of his under wing. I hope I get the chance to photograph it next time. Your shots were great!!!!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Glad you enjoyed the photos, Barb. The first time I saw a sphinx moth, I also thought it was a hummingbird. But then I talked with a friend who taught science and knows a lot about nature and he identified the moth for me.

  11. Rosie Purrier Says:

    I just saw a Sphinx moth last evening. I thought it was a hummingbird, I have feeders for them.
    I did try to photograph it, but the photo wasn’t clear.
    Interesting species.

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