Waiting (and Rooting) for Mulberrywings
Photo: A Mulberrywing on Swamp Milkweed
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.
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.
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, 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.