White-Lined Sphinx

September 19, 2013

My plan for Sunday morning was a trip to a spring branch on the Meramec River, about an hour away, but when the alarm sounded I was immobilized by the crisp autumn breeze drifting through the window and over me like magic dust. I made a half-hearted attempt to rise from my nest but finally succumbed to blissful torpor and sunk deeper under the quilt. My new plan, which included another hour of sleep, was to visit Shaw Nature Reserve just a few miles down the road.

I arrived at Shaw about 15 minutes before shooting time and began a slow walk down the wetland trail. By the time I made it to the wetland, light was ample and soft and I found the surrounding trees full of migrating warblers, or “confusing fall warblers” as they are described in my Peterson Field Guide to Birds. They had arrived ahead of a cold front and I watched as they gorged themselves on tiny insects among the oak and walnut leaves. I also enjoyed watching a hummingbird catching insects in the same trees. It was the fattest hummingbird I’d ever seen, readying itself for its own migration.

After I made some nice images of a common yellowthroat I started the walk back to my truck, the sun still low in the sky and now at my back. About half way down the trail I saw what I thought was a hummingbird but as I drew closer, I realized it was a huge moth, almost as big as a hummer. I assumed it was either a hummingbird clearwing or maybe a snowberry clearwing but when I brought it into focus, I knew it was something else.

For the next hour, I photographed the beautiful and formidable moth as it fed exclusively on thistle. Its entire body vibrated intensely as it fed, making it nearly impossible to freeze in an image. It never stopped flying for the entire hour, all the time its head vibrating up and down in rhythm with its beating wings. I was carrying my 500mm lens, not my typical insect glass, due to its 15-foot minimum focus distance, so I started with a 2x converter, then a 1.4x converter, and finally the bare lens for the fastest shutter speed. I found my shutter speed too slow with the 2x and my focal length too short with the bare lens. Fortunately, the 1.4x combo was just right.

Eventually, I made about 150 images of the giant moth as it flew from thistle to thistle and when I reviewed them at home a few hours later, I only found about five to be sharp enough, especially around the critter’s eye, to share on Nature Frames. The featured image shows the detail around the head of the moth and the bonus image shows more of the rest of its body. If you didn’t notice from the title, the moth is a white-lined sphinx, which I identified as soon as I got home from my copy of Butterflies and Moths of Missouri, by Heitzman and Heitzman.


I found it amusing that the account of the moth in my reference included the anecdote that Indians used it as a food source. Just before I read that interesting tidbit, I had emailed a friend to tell him that the moth I’d photographed looked fat enough to provide sustenance for the entire day if you were ever in a survival pinch.

I sure was happy when I ran across the busy sphinx moth during my hike at Shaw Nature Reserve. I was yet again reminded that if you put the time in, you will be rewarded by Missouri’s natural wonders. Oh, and I’m glad I slept that extra hour or I’d never seen the magnificent moth.

Thanks for looking,


P.S.  Just a reminder to click on the bonus image each week to see it in a larger format.


White-lined Sphinx (Feature):  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Extender; 1/2000 @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod with Wimberley II; Converted and Processed in Canon DPP

White-lined Sphinx (Bonus):  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Extender; 1/1000 @ f/5.6; ISO 400; RAW Capture; Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod with Wimberley II; Converted and Processed in Canon DPP

11 comments on “White-Lined Sphinx”

  1. Hi Danny, what a interesting creature. It looks like he carries his on built straw. What an incredible shot. Thanks for sharing. I too got the chance’ to commune with nature this week. I went Trout fishing on Monday, in the rain. It was quite an experience in the stream that morning. I practicality had the whole stream to myself, at Maramec Springs . I had just moved from the spillway, of my favorite whole, when 5 Deer, two big Doe’s. and two smaller ones, plus a young fawn emerged from the woods. They crossed the stream right in front of me, over the spot where I was just standing. Then a huge Crane flew right over me, as I was reeling in a Trout. What a neat day, that turned out to be. Lots of Carmen.


    • Hey Art — It sounds like you had a great day indeed. I wish I would have been by your side documenting those wonderful events. Have a great weekend.

  2. Great capture, Danny. I know how hard you worked at taking these images after watching you take pictures of the Hummingbird and Snowberry Clearwings at Shaw Nature Reserve. Great detail for something that never landed. Thanks for the great story too.

  3. Absolutely awesome, Danny! I have friends who have a 10+ year old Moonflower Bush… which attracts those huge ‘hummingbird moths’ … reminiscent of this beauty! I love your blog!!

    • Thank you Andrea. I’ll have to consider the moonflower in our prairie plantings around the house to get the same results. Wonderful to hear that you are enjoying Nature Frames. Take care.

  4. Thank you for the beautiful images! I appreciate all your work to get such fine photos. I was recently up in Door County, Wisconsin with family where we saw a sphinx moth feeding on potted petunias outside a restaurant, but he moved so fast and frequently that I sure couldn’t see it as clearly as I can see him in your photo! .

    • You are right, Vivia. This guy was just a vibrating blur to the naked eye but the camera froze it in motion so I could actually see what it looked like. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Have a great week.

  5. By coincidence, I also featured a large moth (Hummingbird Hawk Moth) in my fortnightly column that I write…so this post resonates with me even more than usual! Thank you for the lovely images. Here’s my post, with pics by Dhiraj Gaurh:


  6. […] decent flight shot of the hummingbird version. Actually, the white-lined sphinx (see previous post here) fools more people with its hummingbird appearance than the actual hummingbird clearwing. The […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: