Mid-June is the prime time to look for skippers. These small butterflies have large eyes, relatively small wings, short, hooked antennae, and stout bodies that make them look more like moths than butterflies. Named for their rapid, skipping flight, there are over 3,000 species worldwide and approximately 275 species in North America. While some species, primarily the group known as spreadwing skippers, hold their wings in a single flat plane like the true butterflies, many others hold their wings in a “jet plane” position. In this position the hind wings are held flat while the forewings are at an angle; the pattern of both wings are visible.
Many skippers feed on grasses in their larval stage, and thus the adults are found chiefly in open meadows, hydro cuts, graass-lined forest paths, etc. Hurdman is a prime example of skipper habitat, and so I spent a few sunny days there in mid- and late June to look for and photograph skippers.
Skippers are often difficult to identify, as so many species look alike with only very subtle differences. However, there are some that are easier to identify than others, and some are so abundant and so widespread that these are the first species one should consider when trying to identify a skipper. One of these is the European Skipper, a non-native species accidentally introduced into Ontario in 1910.
This is one of the smaller skippers, and is mostly orange. It can be differentiated from the superficially similar Least Skipper by the thin black borders on the upperside of the wings and the orange fringes.
European Skipper on Red Clover
Almost all of the butterflies that I found at Hurdman each day were in fact European Skippers. They were quite wary; few would let me get close enough for a macro shot. Fortunately my new camera (the Sony Cybershot DSC-HX1) has a 20x optical zoom, which means that I didn’t always have to get close to them in order to get some decent photos. Because there were so many around, I started looking for opportunities to photograph them nectaring on different flowers. I found them primarily on Red Clover and Birdsfoot Trefoil.
European Skipper on Birdsfoot Trefoil
The Birdsfoot Trefoil is another non-native species, having been transported to Canada by early settlers. Today it is frequently found growing in poor, drought-prone soils such as waste places, along roadsides and even in lawns. This wildflower can actually be beneficial…as it is a member of the pea family, Birdsfoot Trefoil adds nitrogen to soil and is thus useful for improving poor pasture land.
One of the other species I managed to photograph was an Eastern Comma. I originally found it on the ground obtaining nutrients from some animal scat; it flew up into the waist-high grass when I approached it, and stayed there long enough for me to take a few photos. Eventually it fluttered off, circling the scat a few times before landing on the ground again.
Many different wildflowers also begin to bloom in June. One of these is chicory, a beautiful blue flower which can grow up to two metres in height. Chicory will grow almost anywhere, but is most often found growing in poorer sandy or rocky soils which do not contain a lot of moisture. The roots of this plant are often dried and used as a coffee substitute.
Another wildflower that appears in waste areas and roadside fields in June is bindweed, which is a member of the morning glory family. The flower is quite pretty, and comes in many shades of pink and white. However, this plant is invasive and can take over an entire lawn if left unchecked. Golden Tortoise Beetles feed on this plant.
Milkweeds grow abundantly in one particular area of the park. These plants are a favourite source of nectar for many insects, and they are famous for being the host plant of Monarch caterpillars. One can spend many hours searching among the milkweed blossoms for a delightful variety of butterflies, bees, wasps, and beetles; although I don’t have time to undertake such a study on my all-too-short lunch hours, I did see a crescent (likely a Northern Crescent) nectaring on the flowers.
Crescent sp. on Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriacea)
It’s hard to believe that June is almost over, the days are getting shorter, and that summer is here with all its heat and humidity. Several plant and insect species have already completed their reproductive cycle for the year; we won’t see any Henry’s Elfins, Spring Azures, Beaverpond Baskettails, trilliums and trout lilies again until next spring.