When Jemicy decided against having camp this summer due to the pandemic, I found myself searching for a new personal learning opportunity, preferably one that would keep me outdoors as much as possible. An online butterfly class caught my eye, and soon I was enrolled in a seminar that is traditionally field-based and taught in Vermont, but that fortunately expanded this year to include students from around the country. What especially attracted me, beyond the chance to spend hours in the field, was the use of photography and an iNaturalist project for sharing images and helping each other identify species.
Bryan, the instructor, asked about our individual goals for the course. “Skippers,” I answered, though not without misgivings. Referencing a birding term for a group of species whose similar appearance presents aggravating identification difficulty in the field, skippers are known as the “sparrows” of the butterfly world. Hesperiidae is a family of relatively small, often drab-colored butterflies that people sometimes mistake for day-flying moths. They have a plump thorax and large eyes, hooked clubs at the end of their antennae, and a characteristically darting flight.
For years, in spite of their prevalence, I had mostly avoided getting to know these tiny, triangular enigmas. Only a few in this region, like the silver-spotted skipper, are sizable, distinctly marked, and readily identifiable at a distance.
There just didn’t seem to be a way to reliably distinguish one little orange-brown speck from another. “At least sparrows have distinctive songs,” I sighed. But learning skippers, I decided, was a worthy summer challenge. And a good excuse to spend time in some of my favorite places, searching for and photographing a few of the 150 or so butterfly species found in Maryland.
From mid-June through July, I scoured the local parks and trails with a singular focus, finding new appreciation for the beauty of butterflies that I knew well and relishing the surprise of new discoveries. This rather worn, brown butterfly that I was about to dismiss as the ubiquitous little wood satyr? No, wait, there was something different about those spots and how it was flying. Turns out it was an Appalachian brown, a not uncommon species, but one new to me.
The urge to find new butterflies pulled me out of my immediate neighborhood a few times. Remembering a butterfly spotted a year ago at a distant park, I headed there again. Along the same edge of the same field in the same 90 degree heat, a flash of orange in the grass caught my eye – a silvery crescent nectaring on a dandelion, possibly a descendant of last year’s butterfly.
Another time, using the filters on iNaturalist to see where other people were finding certain species, I drove down to the Patuxent Research Refuge. Not only was I rewarded with zebra swallowtails in abundance, but I finally got to see the resident pair of trumpeter swans – two first sightings!
As the weeks went by and my vocabulary of butterfly characteristics expanded, it took little more than a glance to recognize and mentally note the low, flat glide of a buckeye, the frenetic dance of an eastern tailed blue, the bounce of a common wood nymph. I often paused not to capture, but to simply enjoy the show: an eastern tiger swallowtail uncurling its long proboscis, a red admiral slowly spreading its red-banded wings to the sun and then snapping them shut to reveal the incredible intricacy of their ventral pattern.
All this time, the skippers were darting about, teasing my ability to recognize them. Perched at one angle, a skipper could be a swarthy – at another, a dun. Field marks disappeared under both the sun’s harsh light and in dappled shade, and I tried every camera setting I could think of to capture something – anything – that would answer the nagging question, “Who ARE you? Sing to me!”
I read up on voltinism, or the different broods and flights of a species which caused them to show up in numbers, freshly emerged, for a week or two and then disappear. Little glassywings took over entire fields from the previously abundant but now abruptly vanishing zabulon skippers, only to disappear themselves after a few weeks, replaced by a fresh flight of Peck’s skippers and sachems. Meanwhile, there were the reliable constants: diminutive least skippers bobbing in and out of the grass in wetter places, and bold silver-spotted skippers that seemed to enjoy nothing better than zooming into a milkweed plant to spoil my shot of a monarch or great spangled fritillary.
The skippers flitted about and displayed their nature in ways that were at first incomprehensible. I had to learn which field marks were critical to note and photograph. Was it the ventral side? Dorsal? Under the head? Complicating matters were the differences between male and female of the same species, between freshly emerged and worn individuals, between an early brood and a later one. Some days I would return home with multiple images of the same skipper, try to identify it with a field guide, and then turn to iNaturalist for suggestions, only to have the app give me 3 or 4 different IDs. Obviously I was missing some essential characteristic – but which?
In mid-July, the unrelenting heat and voracious ticks forced me into a 10-day hiatus from butterflies. I worked on indoor projects, preparing for school’s imminent reopening, and tried to let images of all the butterflies I was missing settle into memory. Sometimes while taking the dog for a walk, a shadow would waft overhead, or a tiny orange shape would dart past my ankles and disappear in tall grass. The way that shadow seemed to simply float past – likely a swallowtail. The size, shape, and pattern of that skipper – probably a Peck’s. Not having a camera or binoculars along allowed me to simply observe, to appreciate subtle differences in behavior – how the butterfly moved, what kinds of plants it was using, whether it returned to the spot where I had disturbed it or was gone for good, how it interacted with other insects.
Eventually I was ready to return to hiking, whereupon I found a whole new community of butterflies hard at work nectaring, mating, laying eggs, avoiding predators.
Many were newly emerged individuals of species I had seen earlier in the summer. The skippers flitted between flowers, landed and nectared, scared each other off and sometimes simply held a pose, allowing me to approach within inches. Their identities occurred to me now more intuitively as I watched them in context, picking up a range of clues. That’s when I realized that skippers do, indeed, have a song. Not in an acoustic sense, but as a suite of qualities that included time, location, weather, behavior, relative size and shape and – for lack of a better word – personality. Bryan, who had spent much of the course assuring us that we would eventually get to the point of really knowing these creatures, captured the essence of a butterfly’s personality in his recent blog post on the mulberrywing skipper. It’s a species that I will likely never see in my neighborhood, but I am certain that his description of its “song” will allow instant recognition if I ever encounter it.
Having logged over 200 observations of 40+ butterfly species on iNaturalist, I find my motivation for learning has only increased. So, I’m already starting to think about next summer: Who are the sparrows of the dragonfly world, and what is their song?