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They’re not hummingbirds, but giant sphinx moths appearing all around the Bay

They’re not hummingbirds, but giant sphinx moths appearing all around the Bay

Diane Winkler was hiking with her wife about a week ago at Point Reyes National Seashore when she spotted something that drew her up short.

“Along the Abbotts Lagoon Trail, we got to a boardwalk where there’s a marsh and beautiful flowers,” says Winkler, an amateur photographer from Oakland. “I noticed these little things zipping around and hovering next to the flowers, and at first I thought, ‘Aww, these are hummingbirds.’”

When she got closer she saw that, in fact, they were not birds. They were giant moths with wingspans of three-and-a-half inches, sucking sweet nectar from the flowers with long, snaking proboscises.

A white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata) seen at Point Reyes National Seashore in August, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Diane Winkler) 

“I do bird photography, so my radar was up for hummingbirds. But I’d recently seen photos from friends of mine who’d gone to the High Sierra that were these beautiful, white-lined sphinx moths,” says Winkler. “I just started taking a whole bunch of pictures, as they got closer and closer.”

White-lined sphinx moths are important pollinators — and in their caterpillar stage can be plant pests — that range through most of the U.S. down to Central America. They forage during the day and have wingbeats as fast as 70 beats per second, fooling predators into thinking they actually are birds. And they seem to be out in unusual abundance this summer, judging from reports from Marin and beyond.

“For reasons unknown to me, there seem to be many – more than ever — showing up this year in the Bay Area,” says Winkler.

The photographer shared her images with staff at the Point Reyes National Seashore, who published them on Facebook with immediate response from all over the Bay.

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“For the first time since I moved to my house in 2008, I walked outside at dusk and saw *three* of them making a feast of the native plant flowers in my yard,” said one person.

“I’ve lived in my home for 30 years and don’t think I’ve ever seen one. Now I see them every day. Unfortunately, my cats also see them,” said another from Santa Rosa. Added a third person: “One was just here in Oakland, hope he finds his friends more north.”

Getting these shots of the moths was a special moment for Winkler, who does nature photography for nonprofits including the Golden Gate Bird Alliance and the Yolo Basin Foundation’s “Ducks For Bucks” fundraiser.

“I had goosebumps seeing them, as they are so beautiful, and it’s hard to believe they were moths,” she says. “People have these preconceived beliefs that moths come out at night and are nocturnal, but these were just out there in broad daylight, flitting around in all the flowers.”