Monday, July 9, 2018

Skippering around in the Prairie

I posted a photo of a butterfly on Facebook last week without really looking at it and a good birder from Minnesota responded.  “Ooh wow!  That is a Regal Fritillary!”  I looked at it again, yea, he was right.  The Regal Fritillary is one of North America’s vanishing butterflies, now only restricted to tall grass prairies and lush meadows on states that border South Dakota, local colonies are common here but in the eastern US now, extremely rare. Today, I saw probably 300.

Northern State University in Aberdeen SD writes, “Regal fritillary populations have declined in the Midwest mainly due to the conversion of tallgrass prairies into cropland. Pesticides have also contributed to the species' decline. Large tracts of native prairie with abundant wildflowers are needed  to protect this beautiful butterfly. One such area is the Samuel Ordway Prairie near Leola, S.D., managed by The Nature Conservancy. The regal fritillary is a candidate for listing as a federally threatened species.”   To be needs to get in line.

I’m lucky enough to have large tracts virgin prairie near my cabin on Enemy Swim lake.  As the blurb from Northern State explains, this butterfly is being decimated my farming and pesticides, every swath of marginal farmland plowed up on the Coteau brings this gorgeous insect closer to not being with us anymore.

I may be primarily a birder but there is much on the prairie to see, and as I get older, I am realizing that butterflies are really cool.  It isn’t that I’m not trained in entomology.  It was a fun diversion to got out and photograph butterflies this past week.  I though, became entranced with finding something really rare,

Currently, South Dakota does have two species listed as threatened or endangered.  One is the small butterfly the Dakota skipper, and the other is the Poweshiek skipperling.  The little skipperling has not been seen west of Wisconsin since one was found near Brookings in 2008, the last one seen at Waubay NWR two years earlier, and for all purposes now it is considered extirpated in the state, so its designation as endangered in 2014 was too late for these bugs.  It still hangs on in isolation in Wisconsin and Michigan.  In my opinion, its days are numbered.

The first of July is an important day around the prairie.  It is the central day for the emergence of the other endangered butterfly, the Dakota skipper.  They only live for a couple of weeks and if you miss the flight, you out of luck for a year.  But there are other skippers that are similar, at least 8 of them.  Skippers are small, shy, fly low to the grass and are direct.  If they are not perched up on a flower, they are impossible to find.  I find myself using bins to search the tops of the flowers for bugs that are waiting for females to mate with.  

I sent some emails to birders I the eastern Dakotas...I asked them if they new of skipper prairies.  "Skippers?  Like in the insect?'  "One had never even heard of it.  Here we are people who walk in the prairies every week and we do not even know about our local endangered butterfly.  

It is hard to get excited about this bug.  It has little PR, and it was hard to find on the internet if any had even been seen in the last decade.  With intel scarce we looked up prairies that were being managed for the insect and they are few and far between but one was 15 miles away.

I ended up our near Summit SD, looking in a small piece of virgin, native prairie, there is little untilled or not over grazed even up here on the Coteau.  Barry my bider buddy tagged along.  We found skippers, some looked suspicious for Dakotas, and another was small and we had no idea what it was.  Soon we learned this was not going to be easy.  We identified a couple....



Later, I brought my wife back to this prairie.  Then Silja finds a dead one standing on a flower later that evening.  I take it home, despite rules against collecting endangered insects without a permit.  In my eye it looks exactly like the insect on the Waubay NWR photo, 

So is it a long dash or a Dakota?  Eventually I take it to the biologist at the refuge who is unsure maybe a long dash, maybe a Dakota so she is sending it in.  She brought out their specimen collection and even then, identifying it seemed a bit hopeless, fritrating, or impossible.  I had added seeing a Dakota skipper to my lifelist and had called it, but now, I uncalled it.  

I also learn something, at least half of the photos of Dakota skippers on the internet are NOT Dakota skippers or at least not for certain Dakota skippers.  People reporting this bug are probably seeing long dashes.  I talk to a local bug expert on the telephone who says the prairie near my cabin might be the best one in the state for skippers so on July 9th, I went out for a last ditch effort next to my cabin.  The males should be dying off soon and so any longer and I will have to wait until late next June.

Two miles of hiking the prairie, I found ...another long dash skipper, the line on the wing is too long. 

then something entirely new

I could be wrong on this one but it looks like an Arogos skipper, a little smaller, yellow on underside and large bands on wings.  It also likes to keep its wings, was I out of luck?

It is yet another skipper becoming hard to find.  Possibly on the way out of this world.

No, I wasn't out of appeared on a cone flower, shorter line, clean edges

I'm calling it....Dakota Skipper, rarest South Dakota butterfly and 450 yards from my deck.  All I can say is too many skippers to sort out, they all look the same.  I will add, the bug listers are a crazed lot.  

I did see some cool stuff  The prairie right now is incredible.  There are butterflies and other cool insects everywhere.  One of the best long grass prairies in the state is adjacent to my cabin.  There are cone flowers everywhere.multiple species of colorful butterflies

It is loaded with life and diversity.  As I said, it is also one of the best Dakota skipper prairies left on earth
Here are some of the sights.... enjoy!















I do not think, though,  I could make a hobby out of butterfly photography.....skippers?  Next year, you need to come and try to see this bug, they may be gone soon.

1 comment:

  1. I hate to be a buzzkill, but your Dakota and Arogos Skippers look to be Tawny-edged. And your Melissa Blue is a Gray Copper. As they say, skippers are the gulls of the butterfly world.

    Keep an eye out for Poweshiek Skipperling though, you never know! A friend of mine recently made the trip out to Michigan to get one (and Kirtland's Warbler).


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