July is here, so today I went out in the afternoon in search of two local hairstreak colonies. Most hairstreaks overwinter as eggs in our area, and as such, don’t metamorphose into butterflies until mid-summer. They often tend to be quite localized, and while some species are quite common and widespread, such as the Banded Hairstreak, many others are found in small, local colonies where their preferred larval foodplants are found. Over the past few years I have found colonies of three different species in my 5-mile radius (Banded, Acadian and Coral), and while the Coral Hairstreaks seem to have disappeared, I now check on the other two colonies every July.
I started with a visit to Bruce Pit to look for the Acadian Hairstreaks that I have seen regularly in the wildflowers at the base of the toboggan hill since 2014. I got my hopes up when I spotted a small, grayish gossamer-winged butterfly perched out in the open at a distance, but it turned out to be a worn Eastern Tailed Blue.
I spent some time walking around the flower patch, and eventually came up with two Acadian Hairstreaks. These large hairstreaks are grayish-blue in colour, and resemble Silvery Blues with its rounded, white-rimmed black spots. However, unlike Silvery Blues, they have two tails and a row of large orange spots along the margin of the hindwing. A large, glittery blue spot at the base of the hindwing (called a lunule) is capped with orange.
The Acadian Hairstreak is the only hairstreak in Ontario that has both a row of round black spots on the underside of its wings and an orange-capped lunule. They prefer open habitats close to water where willows (their larval foodplants) grow, including meadows, riverbanks, roadside ditches and wet fields. Males are often seen perching low in the vegetation waiting for females, or nectaring on a variety of flowers.
Two small brown skippers frequently tangled together, resting in the vegetation before one would dart out after the other. I suspect both were Dun Skippers, though I only got a photo of one for confirmation.
Milkweeds were in bloom, and I found a variety of interesting insects in the area. I was happy to see this large Monarch caterpillar busy feeding on the milkweed leaves:
While scanning the vegetation I was somewhat startled to see this face peering back at me. Fortunately it is much smaller than my photo suggests, and is one of the cuter spiders in my opinion – a jumping spider. They do not spin webs as others do, but wait for potential prey to venture within reach, then rapidly pounce on the unsuspecting prey.
There were several odonates flying around too, including many Sedge Sprites, a Sweetflag Spreadwing and a Slender Spreadwing, both caught by me.
From there I drove over to the Rideau Trail to check on the Banded Hairstreak colony there. I have been seeing them in the woods along the boardwalk just beyond the parking lot almost every year since 2013 – they perch on leaves in sunny openings and battle any hairstreak that flies too close. I found three on this visit, all of which were resting sedately on the vegetation. I usually locate them when I see them spiralling together in an epic battle carrying them up to the tree tops, but this time I was able to find them by scanning the sun-splashed leaves.
There wasn’t much to see in the woods other than a few Northern Pearly-eyes and a Mourning Cloak, so I checked the hydro cut in a futile effort to locate the Coral Hairstreak colony that once lived here. I did not find any hairstreaks, but a pair of mating green weevils caught my attention. This insect, which is actually a member of the beetle family, originally comes from Europe.
I also found a tiny Goldenrod Crab Spider hiding in a flower waiting for prey:
I made my way down the hydro cut and took a side trail to a small marshy area below the hydro towers. I spotted a few orange skippers flying by and waited for them to perch; eventually one did, and I identified it as a Peck’s Skipper! This is one our more unique skippers and is easily identified when its wings are closed – it has two irregular yellow patches joined together, taking up most of the hindwing.
I have only seen this species in the Burnt Lands and Marlborough Forest and had no idea they could be found this close to home. Thrilled, I kept walking through the waist-high vegetation and eventually found two or three more. Although these butterflies were flying around the edges of the marsh, they aren’t one of the sedge skippers whose larvae feed on marsh plants. They feed on grasses such as Kentucky bluegrass and Little Bluestem, as well as saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) and Rice Cutgrass. They live in open grassy habitats including meadows, roadsides, urban parks, forest clearings, lawns, marshes, landfills, roadsides, vacant lots, and hydro right-of-ways. It’s a wonder to me that I don’t run into these butterflies more often. Indeed, they seemed common enough along the open portion of the Cedar Grove Nature Trail and the roadside leading to the Burnt Lands Provincial Park.
From above the males and females appear different (like many skippers). The male shown above has a couple of orange spots on a brown background and appears similar to species such as Tawny-edged Skipper, Crossline Skipper, and Long Dash Skipper. If I hadn’t seen the underside of the wings I would not have been certain which species this is.
I spent a good 20 minutes watching these skippers flying around, following them and waiting for them to land. I was hoping to see some other species in the marsh, but only came across a really tattered-looking individual that looked to me like a Long Dash. When I had had my fill of Peck’s Skippers I returned the way I came and found my way back to the main trail. I scared up this boldly-patterned moth, along the way – the Toothed Somberwing is one of our more common moth species in grassy areas.
Near the entrance to the trail I found two skippers chasing each other. When they landed – which wasn’t for long – I identified one as a Dun Skipper. The other only gave me a top view, and was identified for me on iNaturalist as a Crossline Skipper. This is a species I hardly ever see. It prefers dry meadows and open areas with rocky or sandy clearings, so why I don’t see this species more often in places like the alvar at Jack Pine Trail or Bruce Pit is a mystery. Its larvae, too, feed on grasses, including Little Bluestem.
The Dun Skipper eventually landed nearby, and allowed me to get close enough for some macro photos. This plain brown skipper has a purplish sheen when very fresh, and females usually show a couple of white spots on the upper forewing. Its head is usually golden-bronze in colour compared to the brown body. This is one of the most common skippers I see later in the summer; it lives in many different open habitats, thought it is more common in wet areas. Its larvae eat a variety of sedges.
It was a more successful outing than I’d hoped for, and although it seems as though the Coral Hairstreaks are now extirpated from the hydro cut, it was thrilling to discover the Peck’s Skippers there in the marsh. It’s nice to know I don’t have to drive all the way out to Marlborough Forest to see this species, and it makes me wonder what other species are found much closer than I realize!