by: John Gerwin
I went outside this week, on a couple afternoons, to check out the butterflies. A number of butterfly-attracting plants are now blooming nicely (New York Ironweed, Cup Plant, Smooth Oxeye, Green-headed Sneezeweed/Coneflower, Summer Phlox). And, as I’d expected/hoped, a number of Skipper butterflies have now appeared to feed at these flowers (I saw 4 Skipper species that day, in an hour of looking around).
The Skipper group of butterflies is a large, worldwide group. The common name derives from the flight of many of them, a flight during which they “skip” through the air. Species in this group have some of the strongest flight muscles and are some of the fastest flying Lepidoptera – they bounce erratically through the air, and are often tough to visually follow. Indeed, they appear to come and go in a flash. And some are territorial, so they attack anything that walks or flies by – anything.
In addition, as a group, Skippers are known as dull, drab, difficult to identify butterflies. Even when graced with some spots/blotches, there can be several species whose spots are so similar that they are still tough to ID. Many show sexual dimorphism (males and females look different) – so different you’d think they are two species. And to make matters more fun, the sex of one might look like one of the others. They are, in essence, the “sparrows, or gulls, of the butterfly world”. Few people subject themselves to what can be a torturous experience – identifying a Skipper.
But, there are in fact a number of species who are quite wonderfully marked, and/or show some fine coloration. So, to those trying to learn some new species out there, I say take a look for, and at, these more elaborately colored species. As always, I encourage anyone to go along with a simple point and shoot camera and take plenty of shots. You can then go home and put a name to your butterflies later (or you can ask some of us on this list).
For now, let me show case a few that I see in the yard, or nearby in some neighbor’s yard.
Zabulon, Clouded, Fiery Skippers
One of the brightest skippers I see out in the yard is the male Zabulon Skipper. But, in a slightly more subdued way, the female is no snoozer either. So the Zabulon show sexual dimorphism and “interestingly” enough, the Clouded Skipper (either sex as they are nearly identical) looks much like the female Zabulon. And as you’ll see from the pics, the two sexes of Zabulon are wildly different-looking. If you find one that looks like a female Zabulon, a great way to tell which species it is, is if you see the fine white line on the upper (leading) edge of the hindwing. You may think “I’ll never see that tiny bit of white! Gerwin’s crazy!” But in fact, it is pretty noticeable (notwithstanding that Gerwin can still be crazy).
I find the chestnut coloration of the female Zabulon quite beautiful – in this species, this color shows best when fresh and when the light hits it just right. I also appreciate the “dusty” or “frosted” appearance of the Clouded Skipper, which is on the underside of this species. I might have named this one “Foggy” Skipper, as that is how that marking appears to me, when I see it. Although grayish-white may not seem like an appealing coloration, it looks quite lovely to me, set against the dark background.
The Fiery Skipper is also fairly bright, as you can see. And it is a dimorphic species. The male is a brighter yellow-orange with small spots, whereas the female is a quieter yellow-orange, with larger brownish spots. Unfortunately, I somehow managed to photograph the undersides of only male Fiery’s. I will be on the lookout now! The Fiery Skipper is one of the most abundant skippers I see out there, and it is particularly fond of Lantana. I know Lantana is not native to these parts, but it produces some good nectar and I confess, I grow some in a pot or two around here, and many many butterflies are attracted to it. The butterflies have spoken.
Many Skipper larvae feed on a variety of grasses. Two of the kinds that the Zabulon will feed on are Poa and Eragrostis species. I am particularly fond of Eragrostis, one of which is the Purple Love Grass (I love purple so this circle is complete). I have planted some (Purple Love Grass) in the front yard. Poa’s are common everywhere and Poa annua is considered a real pest, and many folks spray a lot of herbicide to try and control it. Poa glauca is an ornamental Bluestem that is commonly planted.
Clouded and Fiery Skipper larvae feed on St. Augustine Grass, another common ornamental, and Fiery’s will also feed on Bermuda Grass, yet another non-native.
Take a walk around the neighborhood this month and enjoy the challenge of identifying some of these butterflies sipping and skipping into autumn.