When is a hummingbird not a bird?
When it's a moth.
That was my response the first time I saw this little winged creature, flitting around the crimson bee balm flowers at Sunbury's Hogback Ridge Preserve. It was a couple of inches long and hovered around the flowers, sipping their sweet nectar.
I remember thinking, "What a different-looking hummingbird." I assumed it must be a rare visitor from another state, since the only breeding hummingbirds in Ohio are the ruby-throated variety. This "bird" did not have ruby throat, and on closer inspection, clearly was not even a bird.
I noticed it looked vaguely fuzzy, rather than feathery, and had translucent wings and antennae -- but it sure acted like a hummingbird. Hmmm.
There are times when my walk in the park takes me no farther than the native plant garden in front of my office at Hogback Ridge. This is fine with me, because it was there, in the patch of bee balm, that I first saw a hummingbird moth. And I was enthralled.
There are other magnificent moths (the lime-green luna, for example), but most fly and night and are a bit more elusive than the daytime butterflies. But the hummingbird moth (also called a sphinx or hawk moth) flits around during the day, among the bees, butterflies and, yes, actual hummingbirds.
The insect I see at Hogback Ridge is a hummingbird clearwing, one of four species of hummingbird moths in North America. The hummingbird clearwing is common in the eastern half of the United States; it has a reddish color and wings that have partly lost their scales -- hence the "clearwing" descriptive. With its greenish body "fur" and red scales along the edges of its wings, it's a beautiful insect.
This moth hovers near flowers, sipping nectar through its extended proboscis (tongue). Its tongue rolls up when not in use, and might not be apparent in a resting moth. The adults might starting flying in early spring, but become more active when the bee balm (monarda) is in bloom in the summer.
Although I see them mostly around the bee balm, hummingbird clearwings also are attracted to mint, dogwood, purple coneflower, blackberry, trumpet vine, various species of milkweed, and other flowering plants.
Here's an interesting fact: The hummingbird clearwing also likes to sip nectar from viburnum. Meanwhile, its caterpillar -- a really interesting-looking green hornworm -- likes to chew on viburnum leaves. So the larva of the moth actually causes damage to the plant that its future self (the moth) depends on for food. Strange how that works out.
Incidentally, the hornworm from the hummingbird clearwing is related to, but not the same as, the tomato hornworm that is such an aggravation to gardeners.
I remember picking off tomato hornworms in my mom's vegetable garden. "Disgusting," I thought, never knowing that this large, ugly caterpillar would grow up to be a fascinating hawk moth. More proof that things are not always what they seem.
It's not too late to come out to Hogback Ridge Preserve to look for hummingbird moths, although there is no guarantee they will be hovering about at a given moment. But they are worth waiting for; they're one of the coolest insects out there.
Hummingbird moths won't be present, but Preservation Parks will hold a (nighttime) moth program this weekend, Aug. 15 or 16, dependent on the weather. Because the naturalist will make a last-minute call on the "where and when" of the project, those interested may email email@example.com and ask to be notified when the program is finalized -- or they can watch our Facebook page, Preservation Parks of Delaware County. Just be aware that the decision might be made only 24 hours or so in advance.
Preservation Parks offers many free programs -- about butterflies, moths and many other nature topics -- all year round. Pick up a program guide at any of the parks or online at preservationparks.com.
Sue Hagan is marketing and communications manager for Preservation Parks of Delaware County.