I enjoyed myself so much the previous weekend at the South March Highlands that I returned to the milkweed patch today to see if I could find more Little Glassywing skippers to photograph. When I arrived just after 10:30 am it was warm but the sun was playing hide-and-seek among the clouds. I saw several Dun Skippers perching low among the vegetation, and every time I saw a dark brown female with white spots on her wings I stopped to see if it was a Little Glassywing instead. None of them were, and I continued my search. Then I found a pair of Dun Skippers, male and female, resting fairly close together and took a photograph to capture them in the same frame. A few shots later, my battery died. I decided to head home and charge the battery, and wait a while to see if the sun would come out. A few hours later it did, and I returned at 4:30.
The trail was much busier with hikers later that afternoon, but I was the only one investigating the milkweed patch so the activity didn’t bother me too much. When I resumed my exploration I was happy to see several butterfly species on the wing, and took as many pictures as I could. In this male Dun Skipper you can see a hint of the black stigma on the forewing furthest from the camera.
Another Dun Skipper on Purple Cow Vetch:
After abandoning my hopes of catching a glimpse of a Little Glassywing I turned my attention to the orange skippers flying about. There were several, and after a while I noticed that most of them were orange with a pale bar across the middle of the hindwing. There were lots of them, too, and unsure of what they were, I spent the next half hour following them about. When I reviewed my photos at home later, I realized there were two different species present! The first was a Broad-winged Skipper, a species I had only seen once before at Presqu’ile Provincial Park in August 2018. When I had seen it then, it had its wings open so I was able to see the upper side. I had never seen the underside before; the hindwing pattern consists of a pale orange ray extending out from the base, crossing a row of spots the same colour in what looks like a vague arrow shape.
I later came across one basking with its wings open, showing the spots on its upper side. This species is mostly restricted to broad-leaved sedge patches consisting of Carex species, but sometimes leaves the sedges to feed on the nectar of flowers as these ones were doing. They also breed along the edges of rivers, fens and other wetlands where its host species grow, and may even be found along roadsides.
The second skipper I found with a pale band across the hindwing lacked the spots that gives the Broad-winged Skipper’s hindwing an arrow-shaped pattern. This turned out to be a Dion Skipper, a completely new species for me! Unlike the Broad-winged Skipper, the Dion Skipper has a second faint horizontal line extending along the bottom edge of the hindwing.
Also like the Broad-winged Skipper, the Dion Skipper lives in marshes, bogs, fens and even roadside ditches where Carex sedges grow. It is often seen perching on top of the sedges or nectaring on milkweeds, thistles and other flowers. I ended up with more photos of Dion Skippers than Broad-winged Skippers, suggesting that the former outnumbered the latter in the milkweed field. Not only did I find them feeding on the Common Milkweed, but also the Purple Cow Vetch.
I started walking toward a second patch of milkweed further along and came across a pair of skippers mating on a milkweed leaf. They, too, were bright orange but lacked any markings on the undersides of their wings. These could only be Delaware Skippers, a species I have seen a handful of times, usually close to water although they feed on a number of different grasses and are not as dependent on Carex sedges as other marsh skippers are.
As I got closer to the milkweed flowers I saw more and more Delaware Skippers flying around. One blossom had three different individuals feeding on it! Although this species might be confused for the abundant European Skipper, the Delaware Skipper is larger and brighter golden-orange in colour, with more pointed wings.
The Delaware Skipper is another species whose range has expanded in the 21st century. Its Ontario range used to consist of the southwestern corner of the province, extending only as far north as Toronto. In 1998 it was discovered in eastern Ontario for the first time, in Burritt’s Rapids just south of Ottawa. In 2005 this species reached Algonquin Park and in 2012 it was seen just east of Sault Ste. Marie. While originally considered uncommon-to-rare in the province, today it is seen as uncommon in Ontario south of the Canadian Shield.
I found a female feeding with her wings partially open – the black markings forming an open orange square in the middle of the upper forewing are characteristic of females. Males have a few dark veins on their upper forewings but lack this square.
I spotted a butterfly flying low through the vegetation, and when it landed I was surprised to see that it had a strong yellow arrow-shaped marking on a dark orange background. This wasn’t another Broad-winged Skipper, and this time I recognized it: a Mulberry Wing! This is another marsh skipper whose larvae depend on narrow-leaved Carex sedges, and while they are normally found in wet meadows, marshes, fens and bogs, they may also be found along roadsides where the sedges grow in ditches. They rarely leave their sedge patches and tend to fly low among the vegetation, just as I had seen this one doing.
A few other skippers caught my attention, including a worn and tattered Long Dash Skipper and a probable Northern Broken Dash. I took two photos of what I believe are Northern Broken-Dashes, one from above and one from below. The first individual I photographed was seen from a distance, and I couldn’t get a clear shot of it. Still, the wings are fully visible and show the characteristic spot-band in the shape of a backwards “3”. It also has a bright orange forewing peeking out above the darker hindwing reminiscent of a Tawny-edged Skipper. That species, too, can show a pronounced band of spots on the hindwing, and as I didn’t know that the Northern Broken-Dash had an orange forewing, I thought this was a Tawny-edged Skipper when I first saw it.
Three minutes later I photographed this potential Northern Broken-Dash, although I can’t be sure whether it is the same individual. This is a female based on the pattern of spots on the forewing – there are two yellow rectangular spots in the middle of the wing arranged diagonally from each other. However, several other female skippers share similar markings, particularly those known as the “three witches”. These include the Northern Broken-Dash, the Little Glassywing, and the Dun Skipper. However, the spots on the other two species tend to be white rather than yellow, and larger in the Little Glassywing and smaller in the Dun Skipper.
I found a single Monarch and two hairstreaks in the milkweed patch, both of which were Banded Hairstreaks. The orange-capped black spot is the same size as the blue spot below it, and the inner-most band in the center of the hindwing is completely offset from the one above it. In addition, the spots seem to have only one white bar marking the outer edge; most Hickory Hairstreaks show white bars on both sides of the spots.
Two other insects caught my eye while I was there. The first was a large, conspicuous American Carrion Beetle. These beetles are named for the chief source of its food, namely decaying flesh, which it consumes in both its larval and adult forms. Fungi, rotting fruit, and even other insect larvae may also be consumed by these beetles. The vultures of the beetle world, they are able to find food through their sense of smell, and provide the beneficial role of recycling animal carcasses and returning nutrients back into the ecological food web. The American Carrion Beetle lives chiefly in moist habitats, and is active on warm days from spring through fall. It lays its eggs in the animal carcass itself, and after the larvae hatch, they continue to feed on the decaying flesh. Once mature, the larvae pupate beneath the soil, and emerge as adults about three months later. Only one generation hatches each year, and the beetle overwinters in the adult stage.
The second insect of interest was a fly. At first I thought it was a flower fly, or hover fly, but iNaturalist identified it as a bristle fly of the Tachinid Fly family. It appeared a metallic bluish-black in colour, with an elongated abdomen containing a red spot on the side.
However, it was all the butterflies that amazed me on that late afternoon visit. I have never seen such a diversity of skippers before, and now that I know where species such as the Little Glassywing (seen last week), Dion Skipper, Broad-winged Skipper, Northern Broken-Dash, Delaware Skipper, and Mulberry Wing can be found I hope to spend more time there are get to know them better.
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