Blinded Sphinx

2009 November 28

Here’s another sphinx moth for you. S_ caught this one in the end of June, about a week after last week’s Modest Sphinx. It was also found hanging out near a porch light. It’s not quite as big as the Modest Sphinx, but it’s still quite a bruiser with a body considerably longer than the width of my finger.


This one looks like a Blinded Sphinx, Paonias excaecatus. I’m basing this on the size, the way that the hindwings project out from behind the forewings, and the scalloped rear margin of the forewings. I didn’t get a picture of the hindwings, so we can’t see whether it also has the eyespot with a purple “iris” but no black spot for a “pupil”[1].


The edges of the wings were a bit tattered, so it had probably been flying for at least one night. This is another one of those moth species that don’t feed as adults and depend on their fat reserves to see them through for a few days, which, of course, is why there were no obvious mouthparts. So, it was probably pretty close to the end of its life.


The abdomen has a rather pronounced upward curl. I’m not certain, but I think this is a trait of a male; his abdomen tip curls up so he can connect to the underside of the female abdomen.


He was pretty good about staying wherever I put him. It was almost as if the bright light turned off a switch in his brain, immobilizing him until it got dark. His main defense during the day was evidently to stand with his wings sticking up like dead leaves. This is different from the majority of moths I see, most of them plaster themselves flat onto a surface and try to blend in.


These are found all over North America. The larvae eat the leaves of a lot of kinds of trees, including several that are common here: apple[2], basswood, birch, cherry, hawthorn, poplar, roses, serviceberry[4], and willow. The caterpillars mature in late October or November, and overwinter as pupae buried underground.

[1] Kind of like Little Orphan Annie’s eyes.

[2] Apples are, of course, not native, but they have gotten pretty well established around here. One thing we’ve noticed wandering around the woods: if you suddenly start finding apple trees, just look around and there’s a good chance you’ll either find an old house foundation or stonepiles[3] that used to be field hedgerows. The trees with better-quality fruit tend to be associated with remains of houses, because they were planted on purpose as part of a small orchard. The more obviously feral ones came up from apple cores that were thrown into the hedgerows by field workers who’d brought some apples along for a snack. And the reason you find these in what appears to be virgin forest, is that it is not virgin forest. Most of this area used to be under cultivation (mainly potatoes, from what I understand talking to the neighbors). But, about 50 years ago the transportation infrastructure got good enough that it was cheaper and more convenient to bring in food from elsewhere rather than to deal with the kind of dodgy climate and grow it locally. So, there are a lot of former farms that are now abandoned and in varying stages of reverting back to forest land. The Larson Brothers down by Chassell still sell potatoes commercially (and we buy them, because they are very good potatoes), but for the most part we are what you might call “post-agricultural” in the Keeweenaw. Forest products make a lot more sense for us than regular field crops.

[3] One of the things, aside from the climate, that makes agriculture aggravating around here is the rocks. The soil is classic glacial till, which means that it is about 30-50% rocks bigger than a couple of inches, ranging in size up to random boulders a couple of feet across. Cultivating land like that is difficult, because the stones break plows, make it hard to dig in general, and on top of it all a lot of them are just about the same size as a potato. This means that somebody (usually the farmer’s kids) spent weeks and weeks every summer for decades going over the fields, picking up rocks, and dumping them in the hedgerows between fields. And it’s a never-ending job, because even after picking them off the surface, cultivation and frost-heaving is continually bringing up more of them. When I was a kid picking rocks out of our fields downstate, I used to grouse about how, even assuming that after a thousand years or so we did manage to get all the rocks out of the field, that would be about the time the glaciers would roll back south again to dump more. Then our descendants would just have to start all over. If it was only possible to arrange a good market for those nice, glacier-rounded stones, it would be practical to essentially “farm” for rocks for *decades*.

[4] Serviceberries are also known as Juneberries and Sugarplums, and probably a bunch of other names. They are a smallish tree (or largeish bush), with fruit that gets ripe usually around the end of June, and resembles blueberries as far as size, color, and taste. They are unfortunately kind of tedious to pick[5], I usually just pick them and eat them directly rather than trying to get enough together to make into something like pies or jams or what-have-you. We have hundreds of them in our piece of old potato field that is reverting back to woodland.

[5] Unlike our mulberry bushes, you can’t just put a sheet on the ground under a serviceberry tree and shake it to make the fruit fall off. The serviceberries have to be picked off one at a time, and the trees are usually *just* tall enough that it is hard to reach without a ladder.

2 Responses
  1. November 28, 2009

    Your third picture makes me wonder why you don’t see stuffed moth toys in the stores. It looks quite cuddly and adorable.

  2. November 30, 2009

    I’ve wondered about that, too. A nice plush moth, or a wooly bear, or any of a number of other potentially cuddly insects would probably make very nice children’s toys.

    (When I was a kid, I had a small foam-rubber pillow that I thought of as a pet caterpillar. Unfortunately, it disintegrated about the time I turned 5.)

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