Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Moth Story

A few days ago I received a plea for help from a lady in Maryland. An interesting moth had landed outside her house, and she didn't know how to begin identifying it. Luckily she took some photos of it before it took off again. When she saw an item about the Central Park Mothers [rhymes with authors] on my website, she sent me the photos and a note:

Hi Marie

I saw this moth on the breezeway of my home in Chevy Chase, MD. ...Hopefully you or someone on your site can identify it for me. Thanks for any info you pass along to me.

Nan Brodsky

Nan sent along the following photos:

Instant puzzlement. Something about the moth in Nan's picture made me think it might be a member of the Sphinx family. But when I checked, all the Sphinx moths in The Field Guide to Eastern Moths had completely different markings. Unfortunately the Field Guide , the only one available, [and not very available since it's out of print], provides pictures of dead specimens only. Since these pictures rarely resemble the way living moths look-- the ones we encounter usually covering their hindwings with their forewings, or curling up both sets of wings, or assuming some other strange posture, I sent a request for more information:

Please tell me a bit more about this moth. Are your pictures of a living moth, or is it a specimen with slightly spread wings? How small was it, more or less? Is your first picture life size? Are the colors pretty accurate?

She replied:

He or she was definitely alive - in fact I was afraid it would be gone by the time I went inside to get my camera. . .The colors are as I remember them, so I guess they're accurate. Sort of lavender and brown. I didn't know what I was going to do with them until I saw the photos of the ILIA Underwing on your site. [7/15/05] My mystery moth was gone about 1/2 hour later. Hope this info helps. I have plenty of bird ID books, but nothing to help me find this moth. Thanks for getting back to me - I look forward to hearing from you again with any info you find out.

The chase was on! I was determined to find Nan's moth.

The Field Guide had flunked out, as it often does. So the Internet to the rescue. I have bookmarked several sites where mothophiles like me have posted photographs of living moths, moths in their natural resting positions. John Himmelman, the author of a very nice book called Discovering Moths, has a website I often resort to --- Moths in a Connecticut Yard. [There's a link for The Mulberry Wing on my Links page that includes a link to Connecticut Moths on its Home Page. That's the Himmelman site]

I went through a lot of pictures of moths on Himmelman's site -- Oh what a perfect way to procrastinate when you don't want to get to work--and suddenly, jackpot. There was Nan's moth.

It was, indeed, in the Sphinx Moth family, but no wonder I couldn't find it in the Field Guide. There was almost nothing about the Field Guide picture that looked like Nan's moth. This moth provides a perfect example of how frustrating that book is.

Here is the picture from John Himmelman's website of the living moth, in its usual resting position, looking quite like the one Nan photographed:

But here is a picture with the hind wing revealed , and the hind wing has a stunning feature that the moth hides when at rest -- a huge eye like the one on a peacock's tail. That is the dominating feature you see in the Field Guide. And note how the whole shape of the moth now looks different, because in its resting position a part of the hind wing pokes out from behind the forewing, making it seem very oddly shaped indeed. Once the moth opens its wings you can see that the forewing has a straight edge, while in the resting position...well have a look and you'll see :

Though I futzed away most of my day hunting through moth photos, I felt unusually gratified when I sent on the following information on to Nan Brodsky in Chevy Chase, MD:

OK, found it!

It's a Blinded Sphinx Moth - Paonias excaecatus. It looks quite different in my moth field guide, because they have pictures of dead, pinned moths there. The living moth often holds its wings in a way that covers its dramatic hindwing markings. I found it on a moth website, and I'll send you the picture. The website picture looks exactly like your moth.

PS It's probably called Blinded because of that resting position. The hind wing is obscured, or blinded, by the forewing.