14 October 2009

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

No, it's a moth. A couple of days ago, Susan of Days on the Claise posted a couple of pictures of the Hummingbird Hawk Moth, a moth that behaves and even looks a lot like an American hummingbird, but is smaller. We see them here in Saint-Aignan when the weather is hot in July, August, and September.

These are moths that are active in the daytime, feeding on summer flowers. They seem to like bright sunshine, and they certainly like the geraniums we have in planter boxes on our front terrace. Hummingbird Hawk Moths are native to the Old World, but similar moths live in the Americas.

This looks a lot like a hummingbird, don't you think?
But it's not one — it's a diurnal moth.

Like many people, when I first saw a hummingbird moth in summer 2004, I believed it was a tiny hummingbird. We had hummingbirds in abundance in California, and used to watch and photograph them whenever we could. Our good friend Cheryl had (maybe still has) hummingbird feeders outside her big living room window, and there was always a bird or two hovering there, feeding.

Here's a video that gives you at least some idea of what
it's like to see a hummingbird moth in summertime.

Five years ago, when I noticed my first hummingbird moth, called a moro sphinx or sphinx colibri in French — colibri is the French word for hummingbird — I did what seemed natural back then. I went and asked our neighbors if there were hummingbirds in the Loire Valley. They had heard of hummingbirds they said, but had never seen one and didn't think they lived here. I was seeing something else.

July 4, 2004 — time flies as fast as a hummingbird moth,
and in a blur it's gone...

Then I did what I would do today without a second thought: I looked up hummingbirds on the Internet, probably on Wikipedia. I learned that hummingbirds are American and aren't present elsewhere. That was news to me, and maybe it is to you. There are no hummingbirds in Europe or Africa, for example. But there are Hummingbird Hawk Moths from Spain to Japan. They are migratory too, spending winters in the south where it's warmer.

Thanks to Susan for reminding me of these photos
and the video I took back then.

The way these moths dart around, it's hard to get a good look at them. Mostly you see their movement — their wings are a blur — and you see them hovering in front of a flower of some kind. They have a long proboscis that they use to sip nectar out of tubular flowers. There are a lot of good pictures of them on Wikipedia under their scientific name, Macroglossum stellatarum.

I took the pictures in this post on July 4, 2004. That was more than a year before I started this blog, and as far as I can tell by searching through my 1,250 blog posts, I've never put them on the blog before. We have gotten used to seeing hummingbird moths darting around our geraniums and petunias on hot summer days in Saint-Aignan.


  1. The first (and only) time I saw one of these was in the Piazza della Repubblica in Florence about 10 years ago. We were sitting in a cafe in late September and there was a geranium plant next to us. We heard a buzzing and turned and saw this incredible creature! We had no idea what it was - as you say, it resembles a hummingbird - but it also looks like a moth. I e-mailed my dad, describing what we had seen, and he knew what it was.

    So fun to read your post about it!

    Donna in SF

  2. Thanks Donna. Different weather in my pictures from what you had yesterday. Was it a big storm with lots of wind and rain?

  3. we have both hummies & the moths in western nc in summer....since they come to same bushes, it is hard to tell em apart.....the moth mimics the hummies so birds won't eat it i think?

  4. I don't recall seeing them when I was a young girl but have seen pictures of them on my "french" blogs.
    It is raining in LA. Yesterday was not heavy but it is constant today.
    To answer your question of yesterday, it is not that polluted on the coast but have you read about those polluted clouds that stretch all the way from China to California (passing over Hawaii)?
    We all had a good laugh at work yesterday when I asked what MDR ment. I thought it was an english text abbreviation.

  5. I saw one many years ago in Giverny, and until reading your blog today, have always believed it was an itsy-bitsy hummingbird. Whatdya know! Merci for setting me straight!

    Yes, it rained 10 inches in the Santa Cruz Mountains yesterday--apparently the worst storm in this region in October in 47 years.

  6. Hi Ken, As I mentioned on Susan and Simon's blog, I saw my first 'sphinx' in the Lorraine last September. It was a cute little insect, but not as pretty as the one in your picture. Must have been the 'ugly duckling' of the family! Martine

  7. Hello Leslie, thanks for the comment and the information about the storm. That's a lot of rain, but I know it can rain a lot up in the Santa Cruz mountains. And that moth must have been in heaven at Giverny, with all Monet's flowers. I'm going to enjoy reading through your blog.

    Martine, maybe the Touraine moths are just cuter than the Lorraine moths!

    Nadège, I've been looking at the LA Times to see about the storm. Looks like LA got less rain than SF. Maybe that's the way it usually is. So when you found out what MDR meant, were you MDR?

  8. I was reading along, thinking that this was an example of one creature Europe assuming the ecological position of one in America with similar requirements, and then Melinda eliminated that theory...

    Thanks for writing about this; it was really interesting.

    I ended up being very happy that we had nailed down everything in the yard; the wind blew very hard in the afternoon, and il pleut a cordes all day (hope I spelled that right, minus the accent).


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