Grass skippers are small orange or brown butterflies that perch with their wings fully closed or partially open in a characteristic fighter jet position. To non-butterfly enthusiasts they tend to look a lot alike, and can be difficult to identify even with good photos. When I started visiting Marlborough Forest I did not realize it would contain so many amazing butterfly species, let alone skippers. These small butterflies have a rapid, fluttering, ‘skipping’ flight style that is difficult to follow, though luckily they often perch on the vegetation, and can be found sipping nectar from flowers or moisture from mud puddles. On my July 1, 2020 visit I found seven different species, though it took me a while to identify them all once I got home!
I had arrived early, so I didn’t see my first one until I got to the sedge marsh two kilometers from the E6 parking area. A small orange skipper was feeding busily on the Common Milkweed flowers, and at first I thought it was a European Skipper, even though these orange skippers are usually quite abundant when they are present and there was only one individual here. It wasn’t until I uploaded it to iNaturalist that I learned what it was; I was told by Rick Cavasin that it was a Two-spotted Skipper, though it was pretty worn for the date. This is one I’d heard of, but had never given much thought to as I figured if I saw a skipper with just two spots on its wings it would be obvious it was something new. It turns out that only the males have the two spots, and that they are on the upper side of the forewing. However, this species has a distinctive white edge along the bottom of the hindwing that is visible here:
It was a lifer for me, and now that I knew what it was and how to recognize it, I went back and checked a few other skipper photos I’d been having difficulty identifying. It turns out that I got my lifer Two-Spotted Skipper on June 21, 2020 at the open pond area of Trail E4 in Marlborough Forest! Its caterpillars feed on sedges, though adults can be found outside of marshy areas feeding on milkweeds and other flowers, including Blue Flag Irises.
The first skipper turned out to be the best skipper of the day, but there were others present as well. I found a familiar friend when I came upon this Hobomok Skipper just south of the sedge marsh.
The best part of the trail for skippers, however, turned out to be the small clearing just beyond the parking area. I counted several skippers flying around, including a Tawny-edged Skipper. It can be identified by the plain tan-coloured hindwing with a bright orange leading edge on the forewing. They like open, grassy habitats and I used to see them in Stony Swamp from time to time, though not recently.
The other skipper turned out to be something more unusual: a Crossline Skipper! I hardly ever see these orange skippers, and thought it was a bright, fresh Tawny-edged Skipper until I saw the faint line of spots on the wings in my photos. Northern Broken-Dash and Dun Skippers can also show a faint line of spots on the hindwing, so I was glad when Rick Cavasin identified this for me on iNaturalist. The larvae feed on grasses (Poaceae sp.) while adults inhabit dry meadows and rocky or sandy clearings. Ottawa seems to be at the northern-most point of its range, though, which could explain why it’s not more common here given the excellent habitat in our region. The ROM field guide further notes that this species is usually seen “on its own”. I am not sure if that means if Crossline Skippers don’t associate with other members of its species, or if individuals shun the company of all other butterflies, but given that at least three individual skippers were attempting to share the same blossom I suspect the former.
I left the trail to take a quick look at the culvert on Trail E4, and found three additional skipper species. The first was a Common Roadside Skipper resting in the middle of the trail. Since I first discovered this species here on June 21st I’ve been hoping to run into more. This individual posed nicely on a rock for me:
The next skipper I saw was a worn Dreamy Duskywing perched at the end of a branch with its wings spread. It looked so pale that I couldn’t immediately identify it, and thought it might be something unusual. Dreamy Duskywings typically fly earlier in the season, and are more common in mid-June than in early July. It is a member of the spread-winged skippers, which perch with their wings fully open (unlike the grass skippers).
The last skipper I saw was also brown, perching on a leaf in the sun. It had a faint golden band in the middle of the hindwing, but the golden head helped me to identify it as a very fresh Dun Skipper. This common species often flies later than most other skippers.
I knew that Marlborough Forest was a great place for butterflies, but I didn’t realize it had such a fantastic variety of skippers as well. It has now given me two lifers, as well as the difficult-to-find Crossline Skipper. Who knows what will turn up next!