Wednesday, August 06, 2008

What is that thing?

This blog is certainly lacking in the "Engineering" part of its title. While I hope to rectify that in the coming weeks, I don't want to miss a good topic when it comes along. And, once again, my topic is an insect! Of course I didn't realize it at first.

When I first saw this thing zipping around, hovering, visiting and (apparently) drinking nectar from flowers, I thought it was a hummingbird. But as I chased it around, it seemed to act more like a dragonfly. It was fast, agile and had clear wings. But dragonflies don't sip nectar. For a while, it looked like a flying crayfish but it didn't take long to change my mind about that - only because it seemed like such a ridiculous idea.

I was on one of my lunch walks in the woods behind our office. Here is one picture of "the flying thing". You'll probably recognize right away that it is neither a hummingbird or a dragonfly or even a crayfish. But would you guess that it is a moth? All the moths I'd seen previously were pretty bad fliers. They flop from place to place seeming to have a tough time steering. All the moths I'd seen previously had relatively large wings covered in scales. None of the moths I'd ever seen before actually fed on flowers (although I'm sure they do - I'd just never seen it). And the body of this thing was big! It seemed to be over a half-inch wide or more. While moths are more thick-bodied than the butterflies, I'd never seen one this big before.

When I got back from the walk and studied the pictures (during my afternoon break, of course), I saw a few clues to start a search on the Internet to find out this was a Hummingbird Clearwing Moth. These are in the same family, Sphingidae, as the Sphinx and Hawk Moths. They all seem to have the same, sleek shape to their wings that differs from the other moths. A lot of these moths only come out and feed at night but I was fortunate that these particular moths feed during the day. I was also fortunate that there were so many of them. I saw one earlier in the year but it was so fast that I only got a glimpse of it. Was that what I think it was? Do crayfish fly? Well, here's another shot that makes it look a little bit more like a crayfish. I'm not crazy, you know!

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