Montana Public Radio

'Field Notes:' All About Skippers

Aug 13, 2018

Out on a run on a spring day only a stone’s throw from the Flathead River on the watery outskirts of the town of Hungry Horse, I have stopped for a moment and listen to the river. With its rustling it seems to applaud my efforts. And as I go back and forth between stretching and sauntering, my glance roves over the landscape. A sudden fluttering at my feet catches my eye. Alerted to something, now not my legs but my curious eyes give chase and follow a meandering path through the air. Is it a leaf caught in the breeze? For a moment the leafiness lingers rocking back and forth, and I know it’s not a leaf, but a butterfly. Or is it?

A skipper is a lot like a butterfly. It belongs to the order of Lepidoptera, meaning “scaled wings.” All skippers, butterflies, and the third member of this order, moths, are distinguished from other insects by their four scaled wings. Under a microscope the distinctive wings of lepidoptera look like they’re covered in fish scales or shingles. If you touch the wing of a skipper, the powder that covers your fingers is actually made of these delicate, shingle-like scales.

While skippers are similar to butterflies and moths, they differ slightly in appearance and habit. Butterflies are usually colorful and have clubbed antennae. They’re also typically diurnal, or active during the day, and when at rest whether on a flower or by a puddle they tend to hold their wings vertically over their back.

Moths, by contrast, are less often flamboyantly colored and their antennae are not clubbed but taper to a fine point and are often broad, flat, and feathery in appearance. Unlike butterflies, moths are typically nocturnal and, when at rest, hold their wings not vertically like a sail but lay them flat over a generally stockier body.

Skippers, on the other hand, are usually more colorful than moths, but less colorful than most butterflies. Still, they never fail to surprise and delight. The antennae of this lesser known member of the Lepidoptera order are clubbed like butterfly antennae, but they’re also hooked like a shepard’s crook. And unlike butterflies and moths, when not in flight, skippers often turn their wings toward the sunlight. Their wings are therefore held neither vertically over their back like butterflies nor tent-like over their bodies like moths, but somewhere in between. As well known lepidopterist and author Robert Michael Pyle describes, they appear rather like a folded paper airplane. This behavioral peculiarity is called solar orientation, and enables the skipper to reenergize itself just as those other scaled creatures, reptiles, reenergize themselves by sunning.

But perhaps the most distinctive trait of skippers is the skipping pattern of their flight from which their name derives. As they fly from one place to another they continuously dip down and rise back up like the waves of sunlight they relish. And while this flight pattern resembles that of some woodpecker species, the skipper seems never to fly as the crow flies.

In Montana we have perhaps a couple dozen species of common skippers and because of the range of temperatures and varied conditions of precipitation and sunshine common to our state, many of these species are subject to great variation.

While I’m far enough north to realize that I could be encountering an Arctic skipper, a skipper also found in higher elevation environments, the wingspan of this one is a little larger, probably two inches, and rather than golden flecks across the upper surface of its wings, the mostly dark brown triangles are bisected by simpler golden bands.

Fortunately for me, this skipper has taken a hiatus from its frenzied flight. Now resting beside a puddle on this gumbo road, I can see that it is indeed the golden-banded skipper (Autochton cellus). He is probably feeding. Skippers get their salts from dried up puddles, their protein from scat, and their sugars from the nectar of flowers.

And just as salt is leached from the ground as water evaporates, when we sweat, salt is leached from our bodies. Keenly aware of the nourishment we can offer, skippers, like logging jays, will sometimes land on the resting jogger’s patiently outstretched hand. Sometimes they’ll even land on your nose.

But this time the skipper flutters away like a leaf over the rustling river and, ready for a few more miles, I scamper off as well.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.