On Saturday, I witnessed a murder.
The Hemaris moths are gone (presumed dead), and all that seemed to be left are the skippers and an occasional monarch. On Saturday, though, a hungry painted lady appeared. I spent an hour or more trying to take photos of this favorite of mine, but I’ve noticed they tend to turn their wide rumps toward me. I try not to take this personally, nor the apparent glare of the skipper that landed on my finger as I raised the phone.
At some point after the painted lady landed on an upper branch, I noticed that it began to beat its wings furiously. I looked and could see only a bit of yellow-green against the purple flowers, but the painted lady seemed stuck. I broke the sprig off with the butterfly still attached. The poor thing went still, its poor legs curled up. I discovered the yellow-green thing had legs. I later decided it was a kind of well-named “ambush bug”—a formidable garden predator that doesn’t discriminate between pests and pollinators.
This was one of the few times I’ve interfered with nature—something I’d normally not do and would not recommend. I can only plead that I was distraught over being deprived of my colorful little friend. I was reminded that the butterfly bush, so full of life in August, when dozens of moths, butterflies, and bees flitted about, can also be full of death. I have complicated feelings about the murder (anthropomorphism) of my new painted lady friend, but I won’t go into them here.
Now, on this last full day of summer, the one creature I saw, a painted lady, flew off when I approached and didn’t return. Another plant down the path that was crawling with a variety of bees only a couple of weeks ago is nearly motionless, with only a few stragglers lethargically tapping into its flowers. There wasn’t even the chatter of birds to relieve the loneliness of the garden past its seasonal prime.
And so summer ends and autumn begins.
During the first half of August last year, I was thrilled to discover not only butterflies at Perennial Garden, but also the little fairy moths known as snowberry clearwings (Hemaris diffinis). I’d seen one of their cousins, the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) in Ann Arbor a few years ago, but never expected to see anything like them here.
I found that great, Eastern tiger, and black swallowtails; red-spotted purples; painted ladies; silver-spotted and fiery skippers; bees; clearwings; and even a hummingbird or two love a particular butterfly bush at the garden. This bush, which had been cut down to the ground after last summer, didn’t bloom fully until early to mid-August—I started checking as early as May! On my brief visits, I never saw clearwings, so I braced myself for disappointment.
I started seeing a few a couple of weeks ago Thursday. When I pedaled over the Saturday before last at 3 p.m., the bush was swarming with life. I noticed that among the snowberry clearwings a few hummingbird clearwings, with their fuzzy green upper backs, were making an appearance. I was in heaven. I love these guys—even after I noticed they were buzzing one another and throwing each other off choice branches of blossoms.
By Saturday there were fewer of the hummingbird moths under the increasingly cloudy skies. I was happy to have seen so many the day before.
I’d made one of the photos I’d taken the background image on my iPhone screen. I’ve changed phones since then, but I haven’t changed the image. I took a closer look at it—and realized that particular photo from last year is of a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). How did I never notice that? It had the species’ distinctive fuzzy green upper back and lacks the light band near the skirt. While bemoaning that I hadn’t seen any Hemaris thysbe at this butterfly bush, I’d been staring at a photo of one I’d taken a year ago. Brilliant.
Last Tuesday I left work early for a doctor’s appointment and managed to get to the garden by 5 p.m. I was happy to have this unexpected opportunity to visit my little fairy moths—especially since they live only a few weeks.
The bush wasn’t buzzing like it’d been on Saturday, and there weren’t any large butterflies around—but there were enough moths for me to get a few photos and videos, including one in slow motion. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner, except I am still trying to get a sharp closeup photo.
While I was standing watching a handful of moths flitting around, I heard a “bzzzzzzzzt” behind my head. I turned to find myself face to face with a hummingbird, separated by only a foot and a half or two feet of space.
As I was trying to get myself together (“Where’s the phone? Where’s the camera app?”), she buzzed around me to take a couple of quick sips at the bush. I have only these mid-distance shots and a memory now.
Now there’s only about an hour between the time I get home, change, get my bike out, and ride over, and sunset. By that hour, the Hemaris moths are few if any. The other day I was watching a hummingbird clearwing when a snowberry clearwing attacked it and carried it away.
I wish I could tell them there are plenty of blossoms to go around for the little time they have left.
According to the plans for the new presidential library, Perennial Garden in Jackson Park (Hyde Park, Chicago) would be demolished to make way for a reflecting pool. I’m sad about this because Perennial Garden is home to butterflies, hawk moths, and even a hummingbird or two, which is what parks should be. Photos from a quick stop yesterday — click the photo for a few more on Flickr.
Autumn color lingers through early November, even at Wolf Lake in northwest Indiana.
A few years ago I did a search on my dad’s name and found this: An old auction for V-Mail (“Greetings from Britain”) from Private Ralph Schirf. I hadn’t known about the auction, long since over, in time to bid. Here are the clues that it’s from my dad:
- Ralph Schirf is a unique name. Schirf is rare, and we’re all related. Ralph Schirf is one of a kind.
- He was from the Altoona, Pennsylvania, area.
- He served as a private in the Army Air Forces during WWII in England (artillery, I believe, although he didn’t talk about it). He was honorably discharged as a corporal.
- That’s his block printing.
- His beloved sister Marjorie married a Way (Ellis G. in the obituary of one of their children).
- He once signed a birthday card to me “Father Ralph.” It’s not a stretch to imagine him signing “Brother Ralph” to his sister.
I would love if the buyer found this post and offered to sell me Dad’s V-Mail, but in lieu of the physical pieces I’ll have to be content with small digital photos.
Here’s more from the Postal Museum about V-Mail.
USPS PDF about the history and process of sending V-Mail.
And his grave in Bellwood, Pennsylvania, outside Altoona:
Autumn Sunday morning promenade around Promontory Point.
Enjoy it while you can. It’s about to get bare and gloomy out there.
While this snowberry clearwing was intent on seeking nectar, I was intent on photographing it. I couldn’t get crisp photos with an iPhone, but this is one of my favorites. It looks like it’s playing hide-and-seek with me, but I have no idea of how this little hovering moth perceives the world. Maybe I was just an annoying anomaly of movement, shadow, or strange colors. To me, they are like garden fairies. I haven’t seen one in a couple of weeks, and I miss them. So long to summer, and hope to see your progeny next year.