I’ve Just Seen a Baby Hummingbird . . . NOT !

Notes from a Wildlife Garden Naturalist

Snowberry Clearwing in Wild Bergamot

As the naturalist at the Cape May Bird ObservatoryI fielded some pretty interesting phone calls over the years.  Quite a few involved callers reporting tiny baby hummingbirds in their garden.  I’d quickly clear up the confusion by first explaining that once young hummingbirds begin to fly they are the same size as the adults.  Probing for more details I’d often learn that their “baby hummingbird” had antennae (like a butterfly), a tongue (also like a butterfly), and NOT a long bill (like a hummingbird).

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Hummingbird Clearwing on Phlox

Mystery solved.  Their garden visitor was instead a day-flying moth, known as a hummingbird moth (one of the sphinx moths).  Most moths are nocturnal, active at night, but hummingbird moths are active by day and attracted to many of the same wildflowers that draw hummingbirds into our wildlife gardens.  Hummingbird moths hover like a hummingbird at favored flowers and uncoil their proboscis (or tongue) to drink the nectar.

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Snowberry Clearwing on Swamp Milkweed

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Hummingbird Clearwing on Texas Sage

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Hummingbird Clearwing on Ironweed

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Hummingbird Clearwing on Butterfly Bush

Some of their favorite nectar plants in my garden are Wild Bergamot, Bee Balm, Phlox, Ironweed, Swamp Milkweed, Zinnias, various salvias, and Verbena bonariensis.  Butterfly Bush also attracts them, hence the many phone calls over the years from beginning butterfly and hummingbird gardeners who hadn’t yet tuned in to using native plants.

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Snowberry Clearwing (perched, a rare sight)

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Snowberry Clearwing on Wild Bergamot

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Hummingbird Clearwing on Wild Bergamot

In the Northeast we have two hummingbird moths, the Snowberry Clearwing and the Hummingbird Clearwing.  Their wings are transparent, hence the name “clearwing,” and quite hard to see as they hover.  Snowberry Clearwings have black legs and the coloration of a bumblebee, yellow and black, which undoubtedly helps protect them from potential predators.  They also have a bold black line running from the eye down the side of the body. Hummingbird Clearwings are a  bit larger and greenish and burgundy in color with pale-colored legs.

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Hummingbird Clearwing egg on Arrowwood Viburnum leaf

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Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum

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My mystery caterpillar . . . ID’d as a Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar the following June when it emerged

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Snowberry Clearwing caterpillar

Twice over the years I’ve spotted Hummingbird Clearwings laying their eggs.  Each time they laid a single emerald-green egg on top of an Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum) leaf.  This natural history moment was quite a thrill for this naturalist.  I’ve also encountered half a dozen full-sized Hummingbird Clearwing and Snowberry Clearwing caterpillars on a “walkabout,” looking for a safe place to pupate.  The first one was a complete mystery; who would it become?  The horn at the caterpillar’s tail end narrowed it down to one of the sphinx moth caterpillars.  I drew it and sent my sketch around to other naturalists.  No one had a clue (this was prior to the internet and terrific websites like BugGuide).  So, I set up an empty terrarium, gently placed it inside, and prepared to wait and watch.  It was late August.  It rolled around and around until it became a pupa hidden within bits and pieces of debris.  No one emerged that fall, but the following June a lovely Snowberry Clearwing emerged.  In the wild the pupa survives on the forest floor under fallen leaves . . . a wonderful excuse NOT to rake leaves!

I’ve since learned that Hummingbird Clearwings will also lay their eggs on hawthornes, honeysuckles, Prunus species, and snowberry.  The Snowberry Clearwing lays it’s eggs on dogbane, honeysuckles, and snowberry.

So keep an eye out in your wildlife garden for these two lovely and entertaining visitors.  At first glance they may resemble a hummingbird, but at second glance they are entertaining day-flying moths that give us added inspiration to garden for wildlife with native plants like Arrowwood Viburnum, Coral Honeysuckle, Wild Bergamot, and all the other goodies they depend on.

© 2011 – 2012, Pat Sutton. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. Sue Sweeney says

    I just learned something new about a very wonderful creature — I’ll be on the look out for the eggs and make sure to not damage them by accident. thanks much for this.

  2. Kelvin Boyle says

    In our grden, the host plants are the Arrowwood Viburnum. But I also see them on the Nannyberry Viburnum(Lentago). I’ll keep an eye on the Nanny bushes to see what happens.

  3. says

    Loved this post with the wonderful photos of the “clearwing” and the great drawing and descriptions. The hummingbird moth is one I have yet to see in my PNW garden though I have plenty of nectar plants for them to feast on. So it seems my missing part of the quotient here is probably needing a Vibernum. Definitely on my list to add to the garden now.
    Patty Hicks recently posted..Gnome Villages???

  4. says

    My first encounter with a hummingbird moth was at our summer home on Long Island, NY. My dad spotted one at the phlox and called me over (I was young at the time). He wondered out loud what it was and soon we had our first butterfly/moth identification book (with illustrations as opposed to actual pictures). I guess this small encounter was another way that shaped my love of nature. It taught me to observe and to seek out identification of what was found. A valuable lesson!

    Thanks for the memory this article brought back! :)
    Loret recently posted..The Blur of the Butterfly — Missed Opportunity

  5. says

    I have seen many hummingbird/hawk moths this year in Minnesota and N. Wisconsin. They love my little blue stem and wild geranium. Do you think they would lay eggs in either of these?

  6. m.a.t. says

    Just took a photo of what I thought was a hummer, but it was a clearwing moth. Never saw one before. It was busy along with the bees getting nectar from the red flowers.

  7. Carol Riley says

    I saw today a snowberry clearwing nectaring from my Korean Spice viburnum. I wonder whether it might lay its eggs there also…?

  8. Cathy Pyle says

    I’ve had the Hummingbird Moths in my back yard for a few years now. I’m in the East Central/Southeast Ohio region. What drew them in were my butterfly bushes; last winter appears to have killed off the older growth, but I do see new growth coming from the ground. Here is my problem; I just found 2 pupae today while transplanting liatris and Shasta Daisy. I put them back, once I looked online to see what they were…but I’m worried the butterfly bushes won’t have blooms this year since they’re started from the ground up again. From the looks of the pupae, being a dark reddish-brown and shiny, I assume they’ll be emerging soon? I have bee balm but it’s not in bloom yet. What could be a good plant to help them survive until I can get the butterfly bushes re-established?

    • says

      Hi Cathy, neat that your habitat has drawn in Hummingbird Clearwings. When I did have Butterfly Bushes in my garden I always cut them back in the spring (to about 6-8″ high). All the flowers are on new growth, so this measure triggered more blooms. So, you should be fine and by all means cut off all the old dead growth. I no longer have butterfly bushes in my garden because they are native to China and have been found to be invasive. Instead I have a wealth of native perennials and native blooming trees, shrubs, & vines. My many Hummingbird and Snowberry Clearwings feast just fine without Butterfly Bush. As you look through the many posts I’ve written for Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens you’ll find that all the butterflies and other insects I’ve taken photos of are largely on blooming native plants . . . not a Butterfly Bush flower to be seen. I don’t miss Butterfly Bush in my garden and I realize that by planting native plants in my garden, that I’m also providing many of the plants my butterflies and moths need to lay their eggs on to create the next generation. Good luck with your gardens.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] my growing patch of Bee Balm pulled in so many different butterflies, plus hummingbirds, Oh, and Hummingbird Clearwings, not to mention all the cool bees and wasps.  And did I mention the predators?  Preying mantises, [...]

  2. [...] I’ve Just Seen a Baby Hummingbird . . . NOT ! “Probing for more details I’d often learn that their “baby hummingbird” had antennae (like a butterfly), a tongue (also like a butterfly), and NOT a long bill (like a hummingbird). Mystery solved.  Their garden visitor was instead a day-flying moth, known as a hummingbird moth(one of the sphinx moths).” by Pat Sutton [...]

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