Don’t Skip These

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.




Fox in the yard Thursday pm

Yard moth

from John Gerwin:

tulip treebeautyepimecishortaria 01 rw backyard johngerwin resize

Attached are photos of a moth I’ve seen a few times around the yard and house, over the years. I’m always struck by the beauty of zigzag and wavy lines I see on some moths and butterflies. And that beauty is captured in the name of this one: Tulip-tree Beauty (moth; Epimecis hortaria). Against better judgement, this one stood out by resting on the outside of one of my birdhouses. Normally one might find one, or rather, flush one, from the bark of a tree where it is very well-camouflaged.

I did some reading, and the larva feed not only on Tulip tree leaves, but also those of Sassafras and……Pawpaw – all of which are in our yard. Indeed, we now have a veritable Pawpaw grove in the backyard, where this one was hanging out.

As noted, I’ve seen it on our house walls before, and a quick search online clearly shows that this is one of those moths that is readily attracted to lights (lots of photos submitted by others). We are now into summer and lots of ‘bugs’ are out and about – and it won’t be long before we hit “moth week” in late July (with evening events at Prairie Ridge).

A fun thing to do (which I have not in a while but it’s about time) is to mix up a nice concoction as follows: coke classic, rum, brown sugar, orange juice, and let it sit a few days (outside, covered but not too tight). I don’t recall my proportions but then, I was probably sampling as I went along….. In any case, then paint it onto some trees (or, the outside of your house if you don’t mind) right about sunset. Wait an hour and go check it out. Come back repeatedly through the night and enjoy the visitors. If you make a double batch and have some ice cubes and a glass handy…….. well, you get the picture.


Wild West in the news

Raleigh’s Wild West Avent garden group promotes wildlife habitat

Linda Pearsall, center, was director of NC Natural Heritage Program and is part of Wild West Avent, a gardening-for-wildlife group in West Raleigh, that hosts events. an online blog and listserv for members.

photo: Jim Paumier


Front Porch Discoveries

from John Gerwin:

pinkthreadnest cachmaybe stephaniezuk

pinkthreadnest cachmaybe stephaniezuk

“Can you tell me what kind of bird nest this is?” Continue reading

GARDENING FOR WILDLIFE – April 15 – Raleigh, N.C.


· Friday, April 15, 2016

· 9:00 am – 1:00 pm


Prairie Ridge Ecostation

1671 Gold Star Drive

Raleigh, NC 27607 United States

Would you like to learn more about native plants and transform your yard into a haven for wildlife? This hands-on, four-hour session will focus on do-it-yourself features to provide shelter, water, and nesting places for birds and other animals and introduce you to native NC plants. Completion of this program gains Environmental Education certification credit in Criteria II or III. Participation includes native plants to get you started.

For more information or to register, contact Brian Hahn at Brian.Hahn or 919.707.8881. Please register at least one week before the program, and call as soon as possible if you are unable to attend so that we can contact the next person on the waitlist.

Killer Kitties? Cats Kill Billions Of Creatures Every Year : NPR 3 minute audio


Out For Lunch? Researchers estimate that billions of birds and small mammals are killed by cats in the U.S. annually.

Out For Lunch? Researchers estimate that billions of birds and small mammals are killed by cats in the U.S. annually.

Vishnevskiy Vasiliy/iStockphoto

The battle between cat lovers and bird lovers has been going on for a long time. Cats and birds just don’t mix. But trying to get a handle on how many birds and other animals are being killed by cats isn’t easy. Just figuring out how many cats there are is tough enough.

“Cats are really hard to count,” says Pete Marra, an animal ecologist at theSmithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. He and his colleagues actually got a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to try to estimate the number of animals being killed by people, including through the effects of human activities, buildings and pets. They looked at things like wind turbines, cars, pesticides and — domestic cats.

Marra says Americans own about 84 million of them. “And of those, about 40 to 70 percent are allowed to go outside,” Marra says. “And we estimate that about 50 to 80 percent of those are actually hunters.”

That means as many as 47 million pet cats are out there killing prey. Marra says they also looked at cats he calls “un-owned” — feral cats, barn cats and strays.Based on previous studies, he estimates there could be anywhere from 30 million to 80 million of those in the U.S., most of them out hunting.

The next challenge was to try to figure out how many birds and small animals all these cats were killing. They looked at all the available data, and when they finished crunching the numbers, Marra says, he was shocked by what they found.

Previous studies had suggested that cats kill about 500 million birds a year. Marra’s group came up with something very different. “We estimate that cats kill somewhere between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds a year,” Marra says. “For mammals, it’s upward of about 15 billion.”

Marra says based on those new figures, cat-caused mortality far exceeds deaths from other sources, like collisions with cars or wind turbines.

And even though the new numbers are much higher than anything calculated before, he thinks they’re in the right ballpark. “We’re pretty confident,” Marra says. “We felt like we only used the best studies out there. We eliminated studies that had small sample sizes or were only conducted for short durations. And we eliminated studies that had really, really high estimates, or really, really low estimates. So we tried to be as conservative as possible.”

Marra says most of the deaths are being caused by feral cats, but pet cats do play a role. According to his calculations, pet cats are responsible for about a tenth of the cat-related mammal deaths and close to a third of the bird deaths.

He says overall, the number of birds and small animals being killed are high enough that cats and their hunting could be causing some wildlife populations to decline in some areas. But he says it will take more work to figure out which species are being most affected. His study is published in the journal Nature Communications.


Here Kitty: New Zealand cricketer Kane Williamson looks on as a cat walks on the outfield during a test match between Sri Lanka and New Zealand.

New Zealand Environmentalist Wants To Eliminate Cats To Save Birds