The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 3, Chapter 6: Skippers & Wood Nymphs in the Long Grasses

Dear Wood Folk,

Strolling through the grasses here in the summertime you’ll likely see these small butterflies:

Hobomok skipper (lon hobomok)
Hobomok skipper (lon hobomok)

The hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok) is the most common skipper in the Haliburton Highlands. And the majority of our skippers look something like a hobomok, being similarly orangey and paper airplane winged. Skippers are mostly recognizable due to their unique wings, but specific species can be tricky to differentiate at times, let alone sex male or female.

We have a couple dozen species. The blue-black duskywings and cloudywings have a different look and different plant preferences; they will be covered in another diary. (For a visual, almost all the skippers I have observed here are on iNat or alternatively in this Instagram post of ours. I’ve only spotted half of them! Too see all 24 species in our area as recorded on iNat click here.)

Back in the day, experts weren’t sure whether to call these butterflies or moths! Butterfly seems to have won mostly due to their daytime activity. The skippers come out around the end of May and are a common sight throughout our cottage country summer days.

Hobomok Plant Allies

Hobomok caterpillars prefer grasses as host plants, with a preference for native switchgrasses (panicum spp.) and meadowgrasses (poa spp.). In our area, adults will readily host their cats on clump-forming little bluestem (schizachyrium scoparium). Although as I understand it, little bluestem, while popular for Ontario native planting, is only nominally native in cottage country.

Adult Hobomok butterflies eat nectar from our various allium like wild ramps, blackberry flowers, dogbanes, hawkweeds, honeysuckle, Labrador tea, milkweed, strawberries, and vervain. They aren’t picky and will frequent many nonnative plants too like gill-over-the-ground, lilacs, and viper’s bugloss, to name a few. The familiar dandelions and red clover too. Even that vetch that sometimes takes over roadsides and other invasive plants. They also lick up minerals, not just from mud, but from delicious(?) bird poop. The world is the adult Hobomok butterfly’s buffet. No wonder they are so easy to find.

More Grasses, More Skippers

Imported grasses are super aggressive; crab, quack and even the go-to Kentucky blue grass will take over and choke out all competition. I appreciate the anti-lawn sentiment seen going around social networks, because these basic Western lawns are mostly eco-dead zones. For wildlife, including beneficial insects, native meadowscaping or prairiescaping beats the western manicured lawn by hundreds to zero (picture 100s of pollinators vs. next to nil). It’s no contest on which benefits the environment.

Are you onboard? It’s a good idea to check your bylaws first and push to change them beforehand if need be. It’s also often recommended to put up a sign so passersby know your wild looking lawn is intentional and to relay how it serves Nature. Native landscaping is thankfully gaining ground. And native grasses will eventually get more of a spotlight.

Other skippers also prefer various native grasses. An easy way to help the lot of them would be to plant a variety of native grasses in your lawn. They look great mixed in with native wildflowers.

Big bluesteam (andropogon gerardi) is an oft recommended native tallgrass for prairiescaping and hosts skippers like the Delaware, Indian and Leonard’s. The fiery skipper feeds on a wide variety of grasses. The Delaware skipper will also use switchgrass (panicum virgatum) and wooly beard grass (erianthus divaricatus). Tawny-edged skippers and northern broken dash like panic and switch grasses. However, dun skippers prefer sedges (carex spp.). Sedges look like grass but they are different. (BTW, We’re covering dun skippers and sedges in next month’s pollinator diary!)

Other pollinator all star flowers recommended various skipper species to nectar on as adults include our native asters, black-eyed susan, prairie blazing star, and purple coneflower.

The Wood Nymph

Another native grass loving butterfly is the common wood-nymph (cercyonis pegala) which comes in dark and light morphs. I have been lucky to spot and get a picture of both morphs:

(Dark) Wood Nymph
(Dark) Wood Nymph
(Light) Wood Nymph
(Light) Wood Nymph

The nymphs fly around from end of June to early September. Like our spring butterflies, they feed on tree sap and decaying organic matter like rotting fungi. But they frequent flowers for nectar far more often. I usually spot them on woodland edges. “Eye” butterflies are look-a-likes and they will take some familiarity to differentiate in the field.

Common Wood-Nymph Plant Allies

Wood nymph caterpillars eat a wide variety of grasses, including bluestem grasses (andropogon spp.), purpletop (tridens flavus), and others.

Adults aren’t too picky about plant nectar either. Some native favorites for them include black-eyed Susan, dogbane, echinacea, fleabane, milkweed, mints like bee balm, steeplebush and sunflowers.

Related butterflies also love grasses, and may even be a little more particular. The northern-pearly-eye prefers long-awned wood grass (brachyelytrum erectum). The common ringlet and little wood satyrs love native meadowgrasses (poa spp.).

Brown eyes and duns will come up next time, in the sedges! I am hoping these two posts will inspire some locals to use clumpy native sedges and grasses in their landscaping. Trees are also, perhaps surprisingly, important for butterflies and moths. In fact, numbers wise the top plants for moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera) are all trees/shrubs; the top 5 are oaks, willows, cherry/prunus spp., pines and populus spp. like aspens. From trees to grasses, it just shows landscaping for wildlife can go above and beyond the token planting a few flowers.

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