Tuesday, September 23, 2008
It's never easy. Why do I always expect it to be easy?
Sometimes identifying a species that I don’t know turns out to be harder than I expect it to be. This was true years ago when I was just learning bird species, and it’s true today. For some reason, the field mark that always jumps out at me, and which I’m convinced is the one to focus on, never turns out to be the one I need to identify whatever critter or plant I’m looking at.
That was painfully obvious to me again two days ago. It was evening, just before bedtime, when I heard a noise at my bedroom window. At first, I didn’t even realize the sound was coming from my window. It sounded like a soft and fast rat-a-tat noise. I thought perhaps they were discharging unused paintballs over at the paintball field, but that was long dark. Then I thought my heat had come on, but I haven’t turned my heat on yet. Still, I went over to the heater under the window to feel the baseboard just to be sure. And then I saw it. My first thought was a bat. I thought I had a little fruit bat at my window. How cool! Then I looked again. It was a moth! And not just any moth. It was the biggest most I’ve ever seen in my life. This moth was easily 5+ inches across.
From inside, the underside of said moth was a typical mothy color—various shades of brown. So I rushed outside with the camera, determined to try for a photo. That’s when I got the one you see here. Still, as it was dark outside, and both the flash and interior light affected the moth’s color, I couldn’t really tell what markings it had or much about its colors.
I wasn’t overly concerned, though. I had a semi-decent photo, a good moth book, and really, how many giant moths this size can there be? Wrong. There’s lots of them.
After hours of investigation, my best tentative guess is that this is a Polyphemus moth, one of the largest of the giant silk moths. Here's a link to some nice info and a much better photo of one in daylight. My moth is probably a female, as its antenna isn’t very bushy. I had to lighten the photo somewhat to see the eyespots. What really threw me in the identification is that the edges of this moth’s wings are very worn and raggedy, which I thought was how they were supposed to be. So I was looking for photos of giant, raggedy-edge winged moths.
However, the Polyphemus moth’s flight begins in August and this being late-September, I guess that’s what happens after they’ve been out in the world for a month or so.
The size of my moth fits the size of the Polyphemus, as does the location, the timing of its appearance and the abundance of host plants such as oak, beech, sassafras, hickory and wild cherry. So that’s what I’m calling it—unless any of you have a better idea.