One Skipper, Three Views

To be honest, I’m sure this isn’t ‘one skipper.’ ‘One species’ would be a more accurate title, since on December 24, Long-tailed Skippers (Urbanus proteus) were abundant at the nearby Dudney Nature Center.

I’d first seen a Long-tailed Skipper at Bastrop State park in October, and wondered at the time whether they frequented my area. On this day at least, the answer was ‘yes,’ and I was pleased to capture some of the details that had evaded me at Bastrop: particularly, their lovely blue accents and at least a bit of the split in their tails.

In their book Butterflies of Houston, John and Gloria Tveten note that pristine examples of this skipper can be hard to find, since lizards and birds often relieve them of their long tails, but in this case no damage was apparent.

Sometimes called ‘bean rollers,’ Long-tailed Skippers utilize members of the bean family as host plants; newly hatched caterpillars roll themselves into leaves for protection as they develop. Adults feed on a variety of plants, including Lantana, Bougainvillea, and various Bidens species.

In late December, these still-blooming stems of Porterweed provided nectar. A native Porterweed (Stachytarpheta jamaicensis) can be found in south Florida, but many local butterfly gardens include Porterweed cultivars because of the flowers’ attractiveness to butterflies and other insects.


Comments always are welcome.

65 thoughts on “One Skipper, Three Views

    1. I don’t know. I did a bit of exploring, but couldn’t find even a mention of the reason for the scientific name; one site suggested that Urbanus might be rooted in the skipper’s presence in city gardens. Perhaps Proteus is a reference to its changed appearance when it spreads its wings and reveals that lovely blue; that’s the only thing I could come up with.

    1. The ones I saw at Bastrop were nectaring at liatris; it seems they’re not picky and will visit any number of small, open flowers. They’re a little larger than most skippers, so even if their tails are missing, they’re relatively easy to identify — especially if you can get a glimpse of that feathery blue. These apparently were more hungry than the ones in Bastrop and they lingered longer at each flower, making it easier to get some decent images.

  1. That Skipper does have some beautiful colors. Sometimes they are easier to see in a photo, as in your excellent shot. I have Skippers in my garden, but I haven’t taken the time to identify them. There was a rather large one feeding before the cold weather. I will try to take a closer look if I see it.

    1. Your larger one might have been this species, with its tails nibbled away. Apparently they lose their tails quite often, like the swallowtails. The ones I saw in Bastrop held their wings closed, so I never saw the blue. It’s quite lovely, and an unmistakable identifying mark.

    1. Like you, I saw a bird-like quality to this one’s body, Lavinia. I’m accustomed to seeing the feathery antennae of the moths, but I was surprised to see a ‘feathery’ skipper — or furry. In the first photo, I noticed that its legs have a bit of ‘fur’ as well; it’s really an appealing creature.

    1. When I first saw them in Bastrop, I didn’t have a clue that the color was there. Those kept their wings folded, so the pretty colored body never was visible. It was a real surprise when I put these photos up on the computer and found that strip of color; I never would have predicted that it would be so vibrant.

    1. Have you seen one in your gardens, Eliza? I see on the BAMONA map they’ve been reported in Springfield, Northhampton, and Deerfield, even though that’s at the far northern edge of their range. They’re a more southerly skipper; their range is “Argentina north through Central America, the West Indies, and Mexico to peninsular Florida and South Texas. Occasionally strays and colonizes north to Connecticut, southern Illinois, eastern Kansas, southern Arizona, and southern California.”

      1. That’s definitely my area of the state, but I’ve never seen one. I mostly see silver-spotted and fiery ones, though last summer seemed to have fewer. I’m hoping it was just an off-year.

    1. The atmosphere was great, and the menu wasn’t too bad, either. At this time of year, any still-blooming plants will attract a good number of butterflies and bees, and there was a line for seating at these tables!

    1. The skippers as a group are sort of moth-like and sort of butterfly like, but they all have the same rapid, erratic, almost ‘bouncy’ flight pattern that gives them their name. It’s easy to see at least some resemblance between these butterflies and young children skipping down a street — although the butterflies are faster.

    1. And look at the furry legs in that first photo! I really get a kick out of skippers generally, but this one is something special: partly because of that great color.

    1. It wasn’t. Most of December we were in the 70s — sometimes the upper 70s — and the day I took these photos was windy and warm. The little garden where the flowers were blooming was a bit protected, so shutter speeds of 1/320 or 1/400 were sufficient.

  2. I have to admit: When I saw that middle picture with the “overhead” view, I thought “drag queen in a teal feather boa.” Then I was abashed at having made a prejudicial comment and deleted it; although what sort of “?-ist” comment it might be, I couldn’t have said. But then I thought, “Would a drag queen mind being compared to a butterfly?” Don’t think so.

    1. I don’t think so, either. Lifetimes ago, I had two drag queens as neighbors when I was working in Kansas City, and I know they wouldn’t have minded the comparison. I was so naive. They worked at a place on Troost called The Jewel Box. I thought it was a jewelry store. Eventually, I figured it out.

      Oddly, I ended up doing an online search for “feather boa” recently; somehow, it was related to the scarf imagery in the Updike poem. I’ll have to go back see if I can figure out what I was thinking, or if the boa even made it into the comments.

    1. I was amazed by the skippers’ cooperativeness. There were some native bees buzzing around, too, but they weren’t nearly so willing to pause for a klutzy human photographer. They had things to do!

    1. Isn’t that great? I didn’t realize how colorful the bodies were until I got home and looked at the photos on the computer; the color didn’t seem so vibrant on my camera’s small LCD screen. That’s one reason I never delete a photo ‘in camera.’ Who knows what details could be missed?

    1. I’m fond of skippers generally, but this one surprised me with its long tail and that beautiful color. I’m glad you enjoyed seeing the photos; I certainly was glad to be able to make them.

    1. When I checked to see how far north they’d roamed and found Northampton, it tickled me that I knew exactly where that was: your back yard, more or less. It’s not impossible that you’ll get to see one in the future. They’re just a bit larger than many skippers, so I imagine that even without their tails they would be easier to spot. They like to feed higher than some, too.

      1. I am sure we have them here and many of my butterfly enthusiast friends must have them on their life lists. We get just a few species of skipper in the yard but maybe someday one of these will wander in.

        1. From what I’ve read, ‘being there’ isn’t the same as ‘common’ in this case. I think I saw three reports in MA on the BAMONA site, although I didn’t check iNaturalist. In any event, I do hope you get to see one. The color’s beautiful.

  3. Skippers are among the most challenging of butterflies to identify. Long-tailed Skipper occurs in Ontario, in the Carolinian zone, and quite rarely. I suspect it would be easy to identify for that reason alone. It would stand out as being quite different from other skippers – hopefully it would still have its tail!

    1. When I checked to see if the Long-tailed Skipper had been spotted in Massachusetts, I noticed several sightings around Waterloo and Toronto. That surprised me, but all of the sites I visited said it sometimes appeared in the north as a vagrant. Even without its tail, its somewhat larger size and that beautiful color probably would help with identification — at least, for those who managed to get a look at it when it was resting.

    1. And don’t forget to add patience to that mix of luck and skill — not to mention a willingness to look the perfect fool while chasing them around! It is beautiful, and the color surprised me. I especially like the way the ‘fringe’ on the ends of its tails mimics the feathery appearance of the body.

      1. Nature is amazing and so many people stop looking at it when they grow up. Yes, patience. I have stalked different birds, butterflies and bees for a good photo, too.

    1. I always enjoy finding something new, and this new little butterfly was a real gem. I’m so glad I got a chance to see them a second time this year; otherwise, I wouldn’t have had a clue about that beautiful blue body hidden by those wings. I got educated, too!

    1. I’ve been pondering whether that tropical color is related to the fact that their native regions are tropical: Central and South America. They migrate north, and then south again. Apparently they’ve been moving farther north over time, so it may be that they’ll become more common in your area.

  4. I’m not aware of ever having seen a long-tailed skipper. And you’re right about their blue accents. Incredible. I wonder what benefits the long tail might provide, whether it’s more a visual thing perhaps for attracting mates, or if perhaps it improves their maneuverability in flight. Whatever the case, it’s fascinating.

    1. I often look at something in nature and wonder, “Now, why in the world did that develop?” There’s a hilarious passage in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek where she ponders deciduous trees:

      “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”

      Maybe the long-tailed skipper is just nature trying one more thing!

  5. Fabulous photographs! They’re such beauties – and it’s amazing how feathery the hairs on the body look. They must have been delightful to ‘meet’.

    1. I certainly was surprised to see that color, and I was happy that so many were flitting around. It made getting some photos much easier. It makes sense to me now that so many butterfly gardens include Porterweed. I need to check, but I think that plant’s native to the same areas which are ‘home base’ for this skipper.

  6. I can get dizzy in a hurry trying to follow a skipper for photo op! Very nice photographs!

    That “furry” green patch is always a surprise. Very “un-butterfly-like”.

    A similar-looking skipper is the Dorantes Longtail (Urbanus dorantes), but it does not have the blue-green color above.

    1. Well, now I’m perplexed, and wondering if I might have encountered U. dorantes in Bastrop, or if I found another species entirely. I couldn’t find anything online showing the white stripe on this one, but it sure doesn’t look like U. proteus. I wonder if the stripe is a natural variation of the ‘blocks’ of white that show up on other species. Do you recognize it?

        1. Oh, yes! Absolutely! I noticed that first photo’s from Barton Springs in Austin; that’s maybe 30 or 40 miles from where I found mine at Bastrop State park. Thanks!

  7. This is not the same as the longwings butterfly or is it? They migrated through a while back. I have that butterfly book and I used to be far more knowledgeable. I’ve forgotten a lot as life focuses change. I do wish I could get here on my desktop. I’m sure I had more to say.

    1. I know there are longwing butterflies, like the Zebra Longwing. But these Long-tailed skippers are a different genus. I did find out a couple of days ago there are several Long-tailed skipper species. I’ll be posting one of those shortly. I do know that the Long-tailed skippers adore your Porterweed!

    1. I suspect that tail’s a bit of protection. When a predator makes off with the tail, the skipper’s still free to flutter away! A little bite beats a big munch any time!

    1. Now and then I say, “The more I see, the more I see.” To some degree, ‘seeing’ is a skill, and that means it can be cultivated. I certainly spot more beauties now than I did when I first started looking around; I’m glad for that, and glad you’re enjoying what I find.

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