Saturday, October 09, 2010

Skippers Are Hard

Skippers are hard. They are just plain hard.

First of all, the little dears often land with their wings folded into something called the "jet plane position," where the hind wings are held parallel to the surface they are resting on and the front wings are held perpendicular to it. This virtually guarantees that you can't see the front wings and the back wings at the same time, either on the top or the bottom wing surface, because they are facing in totally different directions.

Secondly, skippers are masters of three confusing color/pattern trends: 1) males and females of the same species often look somewhat different from each other, 2) there is a lot of color and pattern variability within each species, and 3) the species of skippers often look amazingly similar to each other.

Skippers are just plain hard.

Maybe I need to stop a minute and explain what a skipper is, for those of you who aren't familiar with them. Skippers are close cousins to the butterflies and moths; sometimes I think of them as an intermediate form between butterflies and moths. They are usually active during the day, they tend to be rather small, they tend to be fast fliers, and their colors tend to be orange to brown to tan, usually muddled looking with some sort of indistinct spotting. Because skipper bodies are stout and look hairy, while their wings often seem small in proportionate, they are not very graceful little insects and generally aren't considered "pretty." Interestingly, though, their eyes often seem extremely large and exceptionally black to me.

Skippers are just plain hard.

Because skippers are so hard and so often nondescript, I tend not to take a lot of photos of them. However, with my new determination to catalog the biodiversity of my little acreage, I didn't flinch on Thursday. Here are the skipper species that I've identified so far....

The easiest skipper to identify from Thursday's photo-shoot was the Common Checkered-Skipper (Pyrgus communis). (Why are so many of the butterflies and skippers that I'm finding called "common"?!) It's a very pretty little thing that conveniently holds its wings out while feeding, so I had no trouble seeing the pattern on the upper surface of its wings at all.

It almost looks like a small, stout butterfly. Common Checkered-Skippers use mallows as their larval food plants and are considered the most common and widespread skipper in all of North America. They are far from the most common skipper in my yard, but that certainly doesn't prove a thing. Common or not, their black & white checked pattern really appeals to me, and I love that touch of irridescent blue close to their body.

The next beauty contestant that I figured out was the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus), one of the orange, grass skippers. Fiery Skippers are fans of the jet-plane position while feeding, but I got a good enough photo to be fairly sure of my identification on this one. With the larval food plant listed as Bermuda grass and the depressingly large amount of Bermuda grass in my yard, my certainty level is pretty high.

This guy (above) is a male, based on the black "toothed," rear margin of the upper surface on his hind wing.

Evidently Bermuda grass was a brief theme in skipper identification for me; the next skipper I was able to identify was the Sachem (Atalopedes campestris), another orange, grass skipper whose caterpillars chow down on Bermuda grass, as well as on that gardening favorite, crab grass, and on other grasses.

Like the Fiery Skipper above, the Sachem in this photo, with its squarish black spot on the upper surface of the front wing, is a male. Note his long proboscis arching down to suck up the delicious aster nectar!
For the time being, these are the only skippers that I was able to identify from the photos that I took. I'm excited, though - I'm learning a bit more about a "new" group of living things, and that's always a fun proposition. I took a bunch of photos this afternoon of the butterflies, skippers and other insects feeding on the aromatic asters in the front gardens. I'm looking forward to seeing what images I was actually able to capture today!


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

You did good getting those photos.
I tried to take some photos of skippers on my salvia this afternoon and as you've said..."skippers are hard." They did not cooperate or I couldn't get them to pose!

Gaia Gardener: said...

The common checkered-skipper posed pretty nicely and I have several good shots of those, but the others are a lot tougher. This afternoon I tried to get some of the tan ones that were feeding on my (purple) aromatic asters - I got close enough several times, but they really look washed out. Skippers are tough!