Notes from a Wildlife Garden Naturalist
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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