Two Gray Hairstreaks sipping nectar from antelope horn milkweed (Asclepias asperula)
(click image for greater clarity and detail)


One of the most common butterflies on the North American continent, the Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus) also ranges into Central and northern South America.

In their book Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, John and Gloria Tveten describe hairstreaks as “fast-flying butterflies that dart about so quickly and erratically that they are extremely difficult to follow.”  I’ve certainly been frustrated by that behavior, but this pair, intent on sips of nectar, were more than willing to tolerate my presence.

Found on a milkweed-covered  hillside along the west prong of the Medina River, very near The Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve, these hairstreaks were accompanied by Buckeye, Sulphur, and American Painted Lady butterflies: all enjoying the abundance of late spring flowers, and perfect flying conditions.


Comments always are welcome.

66 thoughts on “Tête-à-Tête

  1. Hairstreaks are showing up in numbers here too. Yesterday we photographed Acadian Hairstreak and saw Edward’s Hairstreak also but were never able to get a picture of it. And the heat has broken over the past few days and we are down to comfortable temperatures. When I read of the heat wave you are having in Texas, I have no idea how you live there. And the hurricane season is almost upon you!

    1. We like to refer to those storms as ‘tropical critters.’ Speaking the ‘h’ word aloud isn’t something that’s often done. Of course it’s sheer superstition, but we do what we can, especially since the Gulf of Mexico waters are up to 89F — well above what’s needed for those critters to thrive.

      I’m glad you’ve had a bit of a break, and have been able to enjoy being outdoors. I looked up your hairstreaks and was interested to see both the similarities and differences with this one. The Edward’s and Acadian look more similar to one another than either does to ours. The differences are slight, but still obvious.

    1. That is a wee bug, although I’m unsure of its identity. I didn’t notice it until I looked at the photo, but it looks as though it might be as interested in the butterflies as I was.

    1. I especially like the symmetry in the photo, with their antennae and proboscises almost perfectly mirroring one another. Do you know if those lowered antennae are a typical feeding posture?

      1. I am not sure about the relationship between those lowered antennae and feeding, but I have noted the behavior before. It is so hard to get a good shot with two subjects, whether it be humans, animals, or insects, because each individual is doing his/her own thing. That is part of what makes your image so special.

    1. When I was a kid, I called them flutterbys. It seems that’s a relatively recent construction; when I went to look for an explanation of the word, I found this article. I also found this in a Guardian comment section: “Is it true that butterflies used to be called flutterbys?” “Yes, and they start out life as patercillars.”

      1. That’s a classic example of folk etymology, which is to say false etymology. Some people love to make up explanations with no facts to back them up. (Come to think of it, that sounds like a lot of politicians.) I like the snide reply in the Guardian.

  2. What an elegant-looking butterfly. They may be common, but look pretty posh to me.
    Great shot!
    “Gray Hairstreak” sounds like one of those life markers, maybe significant to some people, when they look in the mirror and see a few gray hairs for the first time.

    1. The Tvetens say that hairstreaks get their name from “thin, hairlike lines crossing the under surfaces of the wings,” but I’ve read other explanation, including one that says the name came from the visible lines near the back of their wings. I smiled at your ‘life marker.’ My mother began to turn gray with a narrow white streak above her forehead that gradually expanded. Lo and behold, genetics had its way, and when that white streak appeared in my hair, I knew what was coming.

    1. I’ve been in places this year where there were clouds of butterflies, while in places where I’ve always seen species like the Gulf fritillary, there seem to be fewer. Of course, it makes sense that butterflies, like birds and flowers, have populations that fluctuate from year to year. Their absence isn’t necessarily a sign of a general decline.

    1. You have a couple of gray-colored hairstreaks that are very similar in appearance. I wouldn’t have known that, except another commenter mentioned the Acadian hairstreak and Edward’s hairstreak. The differences in the patterns are slight, but the colors are the same. They are small — about the size of a large thumbnail — so it’s easy to miss them.

  3. Such a beautiful crisp image. I was lucky enough to view a purple hairstreak in much the same way, silently standing still while he was taking a sip from a flower head. Hairstreaks and small moths are frustrating to photograph, so I’ve become intent on staring them down with my eyes instead!

    1. That’s not a bad technique, Shannon. I’ve never heard of the purple hairstreak, let alone seen one. Lucky you! I see they’re associated with oak trees, and that they often congregate in the crown; that certainly would add to the difficulty. Still — now I’ll keep my own eyes open when I’m out among the oaks.

    1. That’s exactly how I came up with the title, Debbie. I saw them as a couple of friends at an outdoor table at a café, just enjoying the afternoon while they sipped their favorite drink.

    1. To say I was pleased would be an understatement, Pit. I knew at the time I’d found two butterflies, but some of the details only emerged after I saw the image on the computer screen. Sometimes we do get lucky.

    1. Isn’t that just the truth? Sometimes I’ve had luck finding them motionless in the morning, before the dew dries, but otherwise? It’s much easier if they’ve found the butterfly equivalent of our own favorite sweet treats.

  4. I enjoy those little guys-n-gals in my garden! I often wonder what they discuss: the newest blooms to open–how tasty is it, well-priced, good service? Do they discuss the particular shrub or tree they live in? What, besides pollinating and sipping, do they have in common?

    Regardless, that’s a lovely shot!

    1. Without any evidence whatsoever, it seems to me that the hairstreaks are more social than some species. Of course other butterflies will cluster, especially when some of the ‘best’ plants are blooming, but still — I see clouds of hairstreaks more often than other species. I learned this morning that the purple hairstreak favors oaks, just as the juniper hairstreak hangs around the Ashe juniper in the hill country. I need to look up for these, as well as down.

    1. That tiny size is something, isn’t it? Compared to the hairstreaks, the skippers are much easier to see and photograph. Sometimes I’ve not even realized I’m looking at a hairstreak until after I have the photo, although I’m getting better at spotting them.

  5. You were lucky here to catch them!
    I think I mentioned before that a neighbor of mine has a butterfly plant and once a year we get a wave of small pale ones. By looking them up, the one they resemble is the White Morpho, but the the site says they are in Mexico and Central America – no mention of the U.S. Is it still possible?

    1. Anything’s possible, but I went nosing around and found this chart of the white butterflies that are native to Florida. You might find it among those. We have the Great Southern White that’s on that list, as it ranges across much of tropical America. When I see them, they’re often in large groups, and they do migrate. That would account for your once-a-year sighting.

      1. I checked them out, but no. I thought I had found it in the very pale-yellow category, but that really didn’t match either. It has to be common. I’m just going to have to manage to get a photo one of these days.
        Thanks for looking it up for me, Linda.

        1. I don’t have a smart phone, so I haven’t tried any of the identification apps, but I know people who’ve used them for flowers and birds, and like them. This one’s for butterflies. Just snap a photo with your phone, and the app gives you some suggestions — sometimes, it nails the ID first thing. It might be fun to play with, anyway.

  6. Beautiful shot and wonderful detail, especially in the enlarged image. It’s rare to feel like you’re looking a butterfly in the face and not just seeing its wings. I see you spotted these up in our neck of the woods. We see them in our yard on occasion but have never managed such a good photo – they seem to prefer fluttering and flittering to posing.

    1. I’ve always found that loop from Medina to Vanderpool to Hunt to be happy hunting grounds, especially in spring and fall. It was a little barren when I was up there in early July, but I did find yellow prairie clover, which I’d never seen.

      It is fun being eye-to-eye with an insect of any sort. It doesn’t happen for me very often, and it’s usually accidental, as it was here. It sure is easier with beetles than with butterflies!

    1. I certainly was pleased, Maria. It’s always fun to find a plant with enough nectar to satisfy several insects at the same time, and I’m glad I noticed these.

    1. Let’s put it this way: it takes a good bit to separate me from my bowl of ice cream, and I suspect the same dynamic was at play here. It was a good time for butterfly spotting. A whole assortment of flowers was in full bloom, and insects of all sorts were taking advantage of them.

    1. I was curious if you have hairstreaks, and found there are five species over there. The brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae) is especially lovely; I’m glad we share these.

  7. If they fly so fast, I wonder why it’s “HAIRstreak” and not “HAREstreak” because your average hare can cover some ground in a pretty short time, too. Then again, it could refer to that streak of grey that’s gone in a blinding flash of Clairol.

    1. The serious explanation for how they got their name is that they have “thin, hairlike lines crossing the under surfaces of the wings,” but you’re absolutely right that hairstreaks can seem to be the hares of the butterfly world. I’ve tried to keep up with them from time to time, and generally give up. It’s just as satisfying to come across one and take advantage of the encounter, especially since the slightest movement can send them flying again.

    1. Are you including plants that butterflies favor in your new garden, Gerard? I can see you indulging in your own sips of sweetness while you watch them flit from flower to flower.

    1. It truth, it’s more likely they were merely tolerating me: keeping one eye on the large, mysterious creature lurking around while they slurped up as much nectar as they could. They did remind me of Esther Williams — except they were synchronized slurpers rather than synchronized swimmers.

    1. Scenes like this are what make just roaming around so much fun. I never know what I’m going to see, and I’ve never once gone out without seeing something. What I find may appeal to me more than to others, but everyone likes butterflies!

  8. Lovely pair of nectar diners. I have been disappointed so far this year with few butterflies, hairstreaks or otherwise, coming to our milkweed. Finally had some monarch visits but not much else. These appear nice and fresh.

    1. I’ve heard other people either fussing about fewer butterflies or celebrating great masses of them. It’s always interesting to ponder which conditions are shaping their migrations and their development. I actually had stopped at this spot to photograph the antelope horns. I’d only recently figured out that our green milkweed and antelope horns are different, and when I spotted the nice milkweeds, I pulled over and stopped. It wasn’t long before I discovered I wasn’t the only one who’d done so.

    1. They are hard to photograph, and they’re so senstive to any movement, it’s quite amazing. Dragonflies at least will return to the same spot time and again, but butterflies seem to enjoy flitting on down the road — with photographers in hot pursuit.

      1. LOL, too true! I’ve been pursuing them around my garden. (Trying to get a good shot of the peacock butterflies sunning themselves on our brick path – as soon as my shadow comes near they’re off. So I try from a different direction – no shadow this time – and they’re off again!)

    1. I suspect you will. From what I can tell, butterflies feel about host plants and nectar the way I feel about ice cream. Dish it out, and I’ll come — and your butterflies will, too. Sometimes, they’ll even pose for photos, like this pair did.

    1. I don’t know — getting six or seven skunks to roam around looking cute and behaving themselves is pretty darned cool, too. Sometimes, it’s enough just to be hanging around at the right time.

      1. Seems like that’s the story of success in life – being in the right place at the right time, and being prepared to take advantage of it.

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