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  • Writer's pictureBethany Plonski

Can't Skip the Skippers

While I’m enjoying the late summer pollinator activity, I wanted to share some photos of one of the tiniest and most charming insects in this group: the skippers. Named for their quick, erratic flight patterns, skippers share characteristics with both butterflies and moths. Like butterflies, they have scaly wings and slim antennae, but their bodies are smaller, fuzzier, and stockier like moths. Skippers also have large, wide set compound eyes that give them a particularly adorable quality.

In North America there are over 200 skipper species, and many of those share similar orange to brown coloring. It can be difficult to identify skippers definitively, but some species are easier to recognize than others, like the silver-spotted skipper, which is one of the largest and most common North American skippers.

Silver-spotted skipper nectaring on lantana
Silver-spotted skipper

With a two-inch wingspan, silver-spotted skippers are noticeably smaller than large butterflies like swallowtails but still larger than most other skippers, which rarely exceed a one-inch wingspan. Their wings are rather pointed looking when held upright, with a distinctive silvery-white band on the underside and a line of orange spots on the top when they flatten their wings.

Silver-spotted skipper with wings open
Silver-spotted skipper, dorsal view

With two wispy tails extending from its hindwings, the long-tailed skipper has an easily recognizable silhouette. Long-tails are also on the large side for a skipper, though they are still not quite as big as the silver-spotted skipper.

Long-tailed skipper on zinnia
Long-tailed skipper

Another distinguishing characteristic of the long-tailed skipper is the iridescent turquoise coloring on its back. If you catch it in the sun, it is quite striking.

Long-tailed skipper on zinnia
Where's my tail?

Adult butterflies and skippers have short lifespans, usually a matter of days or weeks, and the longer they live, the more their wings show wear and tear. They may even lose entire pieces of their wings, as you can see in the photo above where the long-tailed skipper is missing its tails. But better to lose those than to become someone else's meal!

Duskywings are another common type of skipper with splotchy brown coloring. Although there are a lot of variations among duskywings, they are fairly easy to distinguish from other skippers because of their coloring and tendency to rest with their wings open.

Horace's duskywing
Horace's Duskywing, male

Female Horace's duskywing
The female duskywing has larger white spots and more contrast in its coloring

Over time I've learned that most ID apps will categorize pretty much any small, orange butterfly as a fiery skipper. Whether that reflects the limitations of ID apps or the actual amount of variation among fiery skippers, I can't say, but these little orange skippers are quite widespread and easy to find. I can usually count 10-12 of them on my lantana plants at any time of day.

Fiery skipper
Fiery skipper

Their wing spots can range from faint little dots to splotchy patches.

Fiery skippers are part of the subfamily of grass skippers, which depend on grasses as host plants for their young. The larva of fiery skippers have adapted to feed on Bermuda grass, which is widespread throughout the South and probably explains why they have such strong numbers here.

Fiery skipper resting on a blade of grass
Fiery skipper

It's interesting to look at members of the grass skipper family from above because of the unique way they hold their wings. Although they will sometimes close them vertically like larger butterflies do, grass skippers usually rest with their hindwings flat and their forewings folded in a V shape, making them look like little jet planes.

Clouded skipper on American sicklepod
Clouded skipper

It can be tempting to "skip" the skippers, especially when it comes to identification, but the more I learn about them, the more deserving I think they are of our attention. Now is a great time to see them, so I hope you'll keep an eye out for skippers the next time you're outside.


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