Monday, July 13, 2015

Hummingbird Clearwings!

I was recently shown a very interesting road in Wayne National Forest. Big Bailey Run Road is a gravel road that winds through the Athens County section of Wayne National Forest. Just outside of Chauncey, this road has wetlands, forests, young scrubby bushland, and much more. It's easy to get 60 bird species here during the summer, see Box Turtles, and find tons of colorful wildflowers. It is in a stretch of roadside wildflowers along Big Bailey Run Road that this post takes place.

Wild Bergamot Ohio
This roadside was what I could only describe as a Lepidopteran paradise. The Lepidopterans are the moths and butterflies. This roadside, as you can see, has a huge population of wildflowers. By far the majority was Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa. Tall Bellflower, Campanula americana, was also present in smaller numbers. Silver-Spotted Skippers, Spicebush Swallowtails, Pearl Crescents, and other Lepidopterans abounded. This finally brings us to the main subject.

Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe
Meet the Hummingbird Clearwing, Hemaris thysbe. The moths in the genus Hemaris are also known as the Hummingbird Moths, and if you ever see one you will know why. Zipping erratically from flower to flower, this good-sized moth is often mistake for the similarly-sized and similarly-acting Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. They even hum like a hummingbird! It isn't surprising to learn that this species is actually a hummingbird mimic. Why mimic a hummingbird though? It's all in avoiding predation! Birds prey heavily on moths, and a day-flying moth is a big target for lunch. However, insectivorous birds aren't going to feed on another bird species. By mimicking a hummingbird, the Hemaris sp. hummingbird moths can avoid predation by the birds seeking to eat moths.

Take notice of the pale-creamy legs that are characteristic of this species. You can also see that the wings are blurred in this photo. This photo was taken at 1/400 of a second, which means that those wings are moving very quickly.

Hummingbird Clearwing Ohio
This patch of flowers had dozens of Hummingbird Clearwings present. I had only seen this species once before (it is by no means rare though), and I was thoroughly excited, to put it mildly. These moths are just so wonderful. The Hummingbird Clearwing is in the family Sphingidae, better known as the Sphinx Moths. Unlike most moths, which are nocturnal, this species is diurnal, meaning it is out and about during the day. It likes clear, sunny days and can be found in open areas such as meadows, forest clearings, gardens, and the likes. 

Hummingbird Clearwing
Hummingbird Clearwings have a long proboscis (the black tube mouthpart pictured above) that they use to reach into long-necked flowers. Long-necked flowers make it hard for normal pollinators to reach the nectar, but pollinators with a proboscis can easily reach the nectar. The individual pictured above is in the middle of accessing the nectar in a Bergamot flower. Hummingbirds can also reach deep flowers due to their long beaks and even longer tongues. (You can see a photo of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird's long tongue here.)

As I mentioned before, it was very hard to get a somewhat decent photo of these guys as they quickly flew around flowers which were already blowing in the wind. Most of the photos turned out like the one above. When I and other bloggers put photos up online, you're only seeing a small percentage of the ones we actually took out in the field. In this case, I took 45 photos of the Hummingbird Clearwings, but only 3 turned out okay. That's about a 7% success rate. For every "good" photo you see from people, there's at least 10 bad ones that just don't cut it and that the public will never see.

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