Nighthawks and Silk Moths

Text, reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal: October sunset fires cool down to a dusky blue smoke of clouds, smoldering over the twilight land. It’s the hour of shadows, no longer day, not yet night. The crimson ball of sun is gone under purple mountains. Soon Venus will be gleaming through the dead limbs of the old Ash tree. I put on a long-sleeved shirt and relish the cool twilight air of early fall.

In falling light, the tall pear tree in the lower garden glows soft gold against the coming dark. I fondly recall planting it there with my younger daughter twelve autumns ago, when she was a fair blonde child of eight. The pear was barely a thin twig of sapling then, thirsting in a black plastic Home Depot bucket. We took it home and put it in the ground, with water and prayers. A sweet, daddy-daughter moment. Now the tree’s limbs bend with the summer’s weight of ripened pears. It’s high yellowing leaves live thirty feet above the ground, flickering gold in the auburn dusk.

The pale autumn skies are noisy with Nighthawks, soaring high over the open fields, with large open mouths vacuuming insects in flight. Members of the Nightjar family, they are first cousins of the Whip-poor-will. Nighthawks are commonly called ‘Bullbats’ from the bellowing non-vocal buzz their wings make in rapidly falling flight. They also vocalize Peeent! frequently during erratic forays of insect-foraging. From high-school days, I remember shooting at them with my Remington twelve-guage, as they flew over stubble fields of cut corn where we waited for doves to fly in and feed. Five decades later, I don’t remember killing a single Nighthawk in their noisy autumn crossings.

Nights of late summer into early autumn are winged with moths, fluttering the warm darkness, silently. Until they bump against the window screen near the lamp beside my bed. As if wanting to fly inside and have me read to them. As if wanting to whisper to me night secrets I will never read in books…..

Two mornings ago I was treated to an overnight visit by a large Polyphemus moth, one of the giant silk moths. I knew he was male by the fully plumed antennae, designed to catch female moth pheromones---biochemicals that yearn for mating. That morning he had settled on the underside of a cedar bench. His cinnamon, rose-tinged wings spanned almost six inches, eerie purplish eye-spots ‘staring’ from the two hind wings. After a few closeup photos, I left him alone to rest. Later that morning he had flown.