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Mulberrywing (Poanes massasoit) by Bryan Pfeiffer

Waiting (and Rooting) for Mulberrywings

Photo: A Mulberrywing on Swamp Milkweed

July 29, 2020  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  37 comments  | 

Among all the world’s butterflies, the skippers tend to come in for a certain degree of ridicule. Chubby and inornate, skippers lack the elegance of swallowtails, the fame of Monarchs or the glitter of metalmarks. It doesn’t help their cause any that skippers present some of butterflying’s greatest identification challenges — they’re basically the sparrows of butterflies.

And yet I scoff at any kind of scorn for skippers. (Sorry.) Among these jaunty butterflies you will find diversity, joy and meaning — perhaps even a propensity to evoke in you something akin to parental compassion. To wit, I bring you Mulberrywing (Poanes massasoit), a prosaic skipper that tugs at your heart. (Well, okay, it tugs at mine — and I hope yours as well someday.)

But before you can fully appreciate Mulberrywings, you need to know only a little more about skippers, which are in the family Hesperiidae. Yeah, it’s true — they’re different.* For one thing, they have stocky bodies, especially the thorax, where their flight muscles reside. As a result, skippers dart — rather than flutter like most butterflies. Perched for you in an instant, they’re gone the next, like the starship Enterprise shifting into warp drive.

Not a Mulberrywing, but rather a Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius) with a different underwing pattern.

Biologists divide skippers into various subfamilies and tribes, some of which can defy identification, most notably the duskywings in the genus Erynnis. (Basically, if skippers are the sparrows of butterflies then duskywings are the sparrows of skippers). Fair enough. But Mulberrywing belongs to a group called the “grass skippers.” Tiny and often orange, the grass skippers pose and dart like little flames moving across our grasslands and wetlands.

Not quite a Mulberrywing (but close — in the same genus). This is Hobomok Skipper (Poanes hobomok).

Better yet, grass skippers embody opportunity. Despite their abundance and diversity, few among us bother to notice them. One of the students in my online butterfly class this summer, when I expressed sympathy for the challenges of grass skipper identification, replied: “Hey, no complaints here: before this class started, I didn’t even know skippers existed!”

And exist they do — grass skippers all around us. Kind of like grass. My home state of Vermont, by no means a bastion of butterfly biodiversity, has nearly two dozen grass skipper species, none of them bigger than a postage stamp, and yet many of them identifiable by the patterns on the undersides of their hind wings, which they display folded up above their stocky bodies. But only if they sit still and strike that pose for us — rather than darting around to the chagrin of novice butterflyers, who might have previously passed them off as moths. (Well, butterflies are basically moths, but that’s a different story.)

Which brings us to the Mulberrywing (in the banner image above), whose underwing pattern resembles a yellow airplane. For nearly two hours last week, while on assignment in Maine, I sat beside a lone Swamp Milkweed plant in a sedgy wetland and waited for Mulberrywings. While Northern Broken-Dashes, Black Dashes and other skippers darted to and fro, fast and blurry, I could immediately recognize the Mulberrywings in flight. That’s because Mulberrywings in flight are among the most endearing of all butterflies. And I mean endearing in its literal translation: inspiring love or affection.

Mulberrywings float among the sedges, flapping hard and fast without getting very far for their efforts. They drift around like fledgling songbirds — clumsy and wayward on the wing and often oblivious to the likes of you standing there watching … and usually smiling. Mulberrywings are like our 10-year-old kids playing ice hockey: cute in their inefficient determination. As they waft among the sedges, I often find myself rooting for Mulberrywings, cheering them on toward their appointed destinations.

And for a few of them in the sedge wetland last week, their destination was the nectar reward from that lonely Swamp Milkweed. That plant, unlike any other I noticed in the wetland that day, allowed me to succeed in my photography mission. Among its varied visitors were only five Lepidoptera species (four of which I photographed): a Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) moth, a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), a Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyrus clarus), several Black Dashes (Euphyes conspicua) and, of course, my celebrated Mulberrywings.

All I had to do was sit (with my camera poised) and wait. For two hours, nothing more than a plant, some hope, and an endearing butterfly that might otherwise have been either overlooked or the subject of derision. Just that. Oh, plus with a grown man rooting for a tiny butterfly to flap just a bit harder so that it might find its way to a pink blossom … and into a few photographs for all of you.

* Taxonomists once relegated skippers to their own superfamily, Hesperioidea, excluded from the more elegant and showy “true butterflies” (in the Papilionoidea). No more, however. The skippers now reside among the paraphyletic group Papilionoidea.

  1. Doug Taron says:

    Bearutiful writing and photography. I think that skippers have soulful eyes.

  2. David Dodd says:

    No Mulberrywings here in north Alabama, but your description of Mulberrywing flight could apply to Broad-winged Skippers. They float about in the Giant Cutgrass (Zizaniopsis miliacea) instead of sedge, though. And their yellow airplane on the hindwing is not so bright. And you usually have to get your feet wet–or at least near the water.

  3. James Sherwonit says:

    Thanks Bryan that was inspiring. Birds are my passion but butterflies are second. The sitting and waiting part is hard for me 🙂

  4. Nancy Frass says:

    Loved the butterfly course and your blog. I’m motivated to learn the skippers! Butterflies have been slow for some reason here in Indiana this year, but I’ve seen 2 new skippers so am excited for that! Hope to see you in September! Thanks, Bryan, for inspiring me!

  5. Mark says:

    “ they’re basically the sparrows of butterflies”
    Perfect comparison, but I love sparrows, too.

  6. Ellen says:

    The thing I love about skippers is their friendliness – don’t you find that when you put out a finger they’ll often climb aboard? ( or is it just me?!) They are like the sturdy little ponies of the butterfly world.

  7. Sue Elliott says:

    Saw my first Mulberrywing at Half Moon Pond in Hubbardton a couple weeks ago. Sitting on a Swamp Milkweed. I have a glimmer of love in my heart for skippers now. Well, Arctic Skippers were always pretty cool.

  8. Susan Ritz says:

    Thanks for making me aware of all the little creatures I would pass by without your wonderful descriptions and photos!

  9. Great article and lovely photos! I have been getting into butterfly ID lately, spurred on by some fun sitings on the Cape and the time to sit, wait and watch, being on vaca. I miss VT — hope you are well, Bryan!

  10. Jill McKeon says:

    those little grass skippers never settle long enough for me to get a really good look at them. I wondered what they were flittering amongst my flowers and grass. I called them as little butterflies. Now I know what they are. Thank you.

  11. Sharon Glezen says:

    Bryan, now that I’ve been introduced to a few more members of the skipper clan (thank you) I am determined to begin my milkweed adventures….walking/watching/sitting?/smiling…… earlier next spring. Thanks so much for sharing your enthusiasm for these oft-maligned little ones with all of us. It’s contagious.

  12. Let’s hear it for all those creatures in the not-so-showy-elegant category. Thanks, Bryan.

  13. Let’s hear it for all those creatures in the not-so-showy-or-elegant category. Thanks, Bryan! Lynda Graham-Barber

  14. Judy Brook says:

    Dear Bryan,
    You always invite us to look with new eyes and see the unsung wonders around us. Thank you for doing it again so well. Be well.

  15. DEBORAH A LANNI says:

    Thank you, Bryan for this beautifully written article and photographs. I’m sure many of us are now inspired to slow down and seek a sweet encounter with this charming butterfly.

    • You’re most welcome, Deborah. Yes, indeed — slowing down, in every way possible — something I’m trying to practice more and more (as slow as possible). 🙂

  16. Sarah Cooper-Ellis says:

    Bryan—love this! We sisters have been watching butterflies a bit in our yards together.
    Your work keeps blossoming and impressing. The resolution of those photos stuns, the alliterating tongue wags, and the byways of phylogeny beckon!

  17. Mary Jane Krotzer says:

    Great narrative Bryan on a skipper that has won my heart without my having even seen it yet. Hopefully, one day soon I will get an opportunity to see and photograph the lovely Mulberrywing!

  18. Barbara Primmer says:

    Have puzzled from my living room, confused by either a Pecks or Mulberry Wing on our butterfly bush. It’s quite a treat how many skippers we have seen!

    Thank you for this wonderful blog.

    • Hi Barbara — you usually have to have wet feet to see Mulberrywings. Their host plants are wetland sedges. Sometimes they stray from wetlands to nectar plants on dry ground.

  19. Ruth Coppersmith says:

    As Milkweed earrings they certainly ARE elegant!

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