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Grass Skippers (Hesperiinae sub-family)

Identifying Grass Skippers isn't easy, but it can be far more frustrating than necessary if you rely on sources that describe and picture clearly only wing patterns and stick with small pictures displaying only mint-condition individuals.   In addition, sources relying on photos of live skippers (or sketches copied from them) tend to display only two views: 1) the ventral side of the hind wing, and 2) the dorsal sides of one forewing and one hind wing.  Wings are subject to more damage, including fading, than any other part of the skipper, while antennae clubs retain their color and differ enough across species to offer key identification information.  

On the other hand, the best identification aids possible are useless when used to identify skippers in photos with certain problems.  The grass skipper pages on this site are intended to make the identification process easier, starting out by showing how not to do it: see Mystery Skippers.

Meske's Skipper (Hesperia meskei)

   
Female Meske's Skipper (Hesperia meskei), anomalous in not appearing on a flower.  Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, Moore County, NC, 10/6/11.  ID confirmed by Harry LeGrand. Meske's Skipper (dorsal view), Weymouth Woods-Sandhills Nature Preserve, Moore County, NC, 10/5/11.     

Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper (Amblyscirtes aesculapius)

Lace-winged Roadside Skipper, I'on Swamp, Francis Marion National Forest, Charleston County, SC, 3/29/06.  This skipper looked very much like a Carolina Satyr or a Gemmed Satyr in flight. Lace-winged Roadside Skipper, Riverbend Park, Catawba County, NC, 9/24/09

Peck's Skipper (Polites peckius)

   
Peck's Skipper, Boone, Watauga County, NC, 8/4/08    

Tawny-Edged Skipper (Polites themistocles)

North Carolina Botanical Garden, 8/26/05 Same skipper NC Botanical Garden, 8/26/05.  Photo taken by Karl Gottschalk.

Crossline Skippers (Polites origenes)

Although these skippers are considered to be common around here, I had to go to a Texas site at http://community.webshots.com/album/128770570tCAfnd/1 to be confident of some of my identifications.  I think this is the hardest grass skipper to identify because of its many variations.  Some commentary on identification problems is found at http://www.carolinanature.com/butterflies/polites.html.  

 

Crossline Skipper on a Common Buttonbush, Jordan Lake, Chatham County, NC, 9/3/06 Crossline Skipper, Ocracoke, Hyde County, NC, 5/11/06

Salt Marsh Skipper (Panoquina panoquin)

Will Cook and Harry LeGrand agree that this is a Salt Marsh Skipper.  The clincher was behavior: it feeds on marsh grass, close to the ground.  Compare Jeff Pippen's 2008 Salt Marsh Skipper photo Salt Marsh Skipper, Springer's Point Nature Preserve, Ocracoke, NC, 5/10/06 Salt Marsh Skipper, Ocracoke, Hyde County, NC, 5/13/07

Ocola Skippers (Panoquina ocola)

Ocola Skipper (Panoquina ocola), Durham, NC, 7/04/04, ventral view of right hind wing and part of forewing. Ocola Skippers seem to be relatively common in eastern North Carolina, although the butterfly books suggest otherwise.  Perhaps it's because that long forewing makes them hard to miss.  Ocola Skipper, Durham, 8/20/05. Ocola Skipper, the local swamp in Durham, 9/3/05.

Dion Skippers (Euphyes dion)

These large grass skippers are sparsely scattered through wetlands on the Eastern US and are resident in these wetlands, where their larval host plants are various sedges.  However, quite a few began to show up in Piedmont North Carolina September 2005 shortly after Hurricanes Katrina (landfall: Louisiana, August 29) and Ophelia (landfall: southern North Carolina, September 12) arrived.

This skipper has a G4 Nature Conservancy Global Rank, meaning it is "apparently secure globally."

Click on the thumbnails to see enlarged photos.

Dion Skipper, Duke Gardens, 9/17/05, on lantana. Dion Skipper, Durham, NC, 9/9/05 dorsal view of forewing.

Dun Skippers
(Euphyes vestris)

   
Dun Skipper, on Common Sneezeweed, discovered and IDed by Randy Emmitt at the Flat River Impoundment, Durham, NC on 8/15/10 Dun Skipper, Duke Gardens, Durham, NC, 8/18/07 Dun Skipper, Duke Gardens, Durham, NC, 8/26/07    

Palatka Skipper (Euphyes pilatka)

This skipper has a G3 Nature Conservancy Global Rank, meaning it is "very rare or local throughout its range or found locally within a restricted range" or "threatened throughout its range."  It appears to fall in the limited range category, i.e., swamps in a particular coastal area.

Palatka Skipper, Alligator National Wildlife Refuge, Dare County, 5/25/04.   Thanks to Jeff Pippen for ID. Dare County, NC, 10/6/05.  This skipper hid deep in tall marsh grass.  Thanks to Harry LeGrand for ID; Will Cook agrees. Same skipper.

Broad-winged Skipper (Poanes viator)

   
Broad-winged Skipper on marsh fleabane (camphorweed), Pluchea indica.  One of two seen together.  ID thanks to Harry LeGrand.    

Delaware Skipper (Anatrytone logan)

Delaware Skipper, Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Road access (Orange County, NC), 8/17/05. Delaware Skipper, same skipper.

 

Delaware Skipper caterpillar, Eno River State Park, Old Cole Mill Road access, 6/23/05, found in the same place as the adult pictured above.

Brazilian Skipper (Calpodes ethlius)

Carolina Beach, 9/30/04

Little Glassywings (Pompeius verna)

Little Glassywing (Pompeius verna), Durham, 7/19/04. Little Glassywing, Museum of Life & Science (outside), Durham, NC, 8/9/08 Little Glassywing, Durham, 8/6/05.  This skipper showed up on a butterfly bush in my front yard.  You can see a little purple on the hindwing. Female Little Glassywing, Durham, 8/24/05.  I tried some image processing on this one. Male Little Glassywing, Penny's Bend, Durham County, NC, 8/24/05 Little Glassywing, NC Botanical Garden, Orange County, NC, 8/26/05.  Taken by Karl Gottschalk. Little Glassywing, Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, NC, 6/10/07.  Photo taken by Karl D. Gottschalk.

 Eufala Skipper (Lerodea eufala)

Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Road access, 9/16/05.  A somewhat worn individual.  Thanks to Will Cook for ID.

Swarthy Skipper (Nastra Iherminier)

Penny's Bend, Durham County, NC, 9/10/05. Penny's Bend, Durham County, NC, 8/23/05. 

Fiery Skippers (Hylefila phyleus)

These skippers are very common in midsummer in North Carolina but are not resident here.  This species is sexually dimorphous, meaning that the male and female are different in appearance.  Wings markings become more complex in the fall.  Worn skippers look different.  Female Fiery Skippers show especially interesting variations from the norm.

We saw a lot of fiery skippers in 2003, especially in the North Carolina Botanical Garden, but few in 2004.  However, 2005 numbers were up this August.  These dramatic differences are probably typical of species that migrate through here but don't take up residence.

       
Female Fiery Skipper, unusually dark, though more wing pattern variation occurs in the fall.  Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, 9/27/07 Female Fiery Skipper, Duke Gardens, 7/24/05.  Male and female Fiery Skippers, Duke Gardens, Durham, NC, 10/20/07 Male Fiery Skipper, Durham, NC, 8/23/10 Male Fiery Skipper, Durham, 10/1/05.  Lots of autumn spots here! Male Fiery Skipper, Durham, 7/31/03.  A classic male Fiery Skipper in a dim light, probably a cloudy day .  This is the dorsal view of the left forewing and the right hind wing.  Note the big black "stigma" next to the abdomen and the T-shaped mark next to it. The abdomen is striped and the division between thorax and abdomen is clearly marked.        

Sachems (Atolopedes campestris)

         
Male Sachem, Durham, NC, 7/4/11 Male Sachem on smartweed, Durham, NC, 8/8/11 Female Sachem, Durham, NC, 8/23/10 Female Sachem, Boone Greenway, Watauga County, NC, 7/6/11 Female Sachem, Durham, NC, 7/4/11          

Zabulon Skippers (Poanes zabulon)

     
Female Zabulon Skipper (dorsal view), Cox Mountain, Eno River State Park, Fews Ford access, Orange County, NC, 5/6/07 Female Zabulon Skipper (ventral view), Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, NC, 8/31/07 Male Zabulon Skipper (dorsal view), Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 8/18/11 Male Zabulon Skipper (ventral view), Mason Farm Biological Reserve, Orange County, NC, 8/18/11      
       
         

Southern Broken-Dashes (Wallengrenia otho):

These are found most often in Florida and southern Texas (and Mexico), but are still more common in Durham than Northern Broken-dashes.

Female, Isla Verde (San Juan), Puerto Rico, 1/10/05.  This is a tentative identification: the dorsal sides of the hind wings and antennae don't quite match those in the books.  But when you consider the gray edge of the forewings and the tawny edge of the hind wings, as Glassberg (1999) points out, this is probably as close as you're going to get with a butterfly a thousand miles from NC. Female, Durham, NC, 8/1/04.  Again, note the gray-edged forewing and the tawny edged hind wing.  Unfortunately, the forewings partially block the view of the hind wings, especially on the right. Southern Broken-dash on chive flowers, Durham, NC, 8/26/10 Southern Broken-dash, on Swamp Milkweed at roadside in rural north Durham County, NC, 8/15/10 Male Southern Broken-dash, Durham, 8/13/05. Male, Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Road access (Orange County, NC), 8/17/05. Male, Eno River SP, Old Cole Mill Road access (Orange County, NC), 8/17/05..

Least Skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor)

Although rainy 2004 was a bad year for "true" butterflies, it was a good year for grass skippers and a great one for Least Skippers, the tiniest skippers I know of in North Carolina.  They thrive in humid environments and are rarely seen far from aquatic environments.  Spring of 2005 was very rainy, and it looked as though Least Skippers are hanging in there along with skippers in tall grasses and woods butterflies.  By September of 2005, there were dozens in the swamp and territorial battles all over.

Durham, 9/14/05.  This third skipper went to an awful lot of trouble to butt in, but mating proceeded nonetheless.

 

 
Durham, 6/29/05.  This skipper had strayed about a city block away from my neighborhood swamp and was visiting white clover blossoms. Durham, 6/23/05.  This is a foreshortened view.  Seen in tall grass at edge of swamp. Finally, a Least Skipper with a genuinely "weak" flight!  I caught up with it in the usual Durham swamp on 6/18/05.  

Clouded Skippers (Lerema accius)

 
Clouded Skipper (ventral (view), Flat River Impoundment, Durham County, NC, 8/5/11 Clouded Skipper (dorsal view), Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Orange County, NC, 8/18/11  

Puerto Rico mystery skippers

 
Byssus Skipper? (Problema byssus),  Isla Verde (San Juan), Puerto Rico, 1/11/05.  I think it's a Byssus, anyway.   It's also found throughout Florida and Missouri, so I'm not surprised I saw one this far away. Mystery Skipper, Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, 1/09/05.  This skipper seems similar to the one on the left, but the dorsal side of the hind wings is somewhat different.

 

Grass skippers are small and not very showy on the whole.  But they are a remarkable group, with more finely controlled flight maneuvers than any other butterflies or skippers.   They're real survivors, more likely to look faded than torn-up.  They migrate long distances and survive better in cold and/or wet environments than most "true" butterflies.  They show more obvious sexual dimorphism than the others do, too.

Hesperiinae skippers are notoriously hard to distinguish as a group.  They're not only small, but their four wings can seem to operate more or less independently when the skipper is resting.  Figure in orange/brown/gray iridescence and the huge proportion of these skippers that are dark brown with a few tiny light spots, and you have a dizzying identification experience.   Little wonder that the term "Little Brown Job" has found its way into the vernacular and onto over 400 webpages.  (OK, they're mostly referring to birds, but birders can't begin to know the trouble we skipper nuts have!)

The grass skippers are especially hard to identify because of the reason that they're also known as "folded-wing" skippers: they typically put their forewings together and fold their hind wings over them, greatly reducing visibility.   Sometimes it gets better, such as when they're waiting for a mate and put their hind wings down flat and open their forewings at a 45-degree angle.   If you manage to look straight down on the one forewing, you can get a view of the dorsal sides of both wings.  If you get down a little lower, you can get three unique wing views, i.e., the dorsal view of one hind wing, the ventral view of the forewing on the same side, and the dorsal view of the other forewing.  But it takes more than the standard dorsal/ventral paired views necessary for the "true" butterflies to provide enough visual information for grass skipper identification.    And when you can't get the ideal two or three views, you have to break down and go to the dead butterfly sites.

It's probably no coincidence that grass skippers sometimes seem to be posing for photographers, however.  Like us, other skippers may have to see all these views to make a positive identification.   From all the evidence I've seen, skippers have excellent vision and image processing (interpretation of what they see) capabilities, and when it seems that they're not paying attention to us they might well just be weighing the alternatives.  When they do decide that trouble is coming their way, they don't "skip" around the way Silver-Spotted Skippers do: they move deftly and rapidly, in a way houseflies should envy.   Still in all, the effects of wear and tear can disguise many normally identifying features of a skipper.

 

Copyright 2005-2011 Dorothy E. Pugh