The European Skipper, Easier to Swallow – Annie Pang

Well, after the thriller that Terry just wrote I am not quite sure how to follow up!  We will just have to see what comes to me, what thoughts it has inspired.  Clearly he has shown the cycle of life that goes on beneath the water.  Clearly he has demonstrated how Nature works… when not interfered with.

And clearly that is not what I am about to do!

The fact is that Nature has been grotesquely interfered with and by solely one species.  I will not toy with your intelligence about which species this is.  Almost every week I hear some new concern about invasive species and how they will impact man.  I hear about how it is necessary to cull native species like wolves, deer, bears, and cougars that have wandered into “residential neighborhoods”.   As well, we have sprayed toxic chemicals for Gypsy moth and, by doing so, nearly wiped out the local butterfly populations, and all so we could sell lumber that “might otherwise be infested by the Gypsy Moth”

The truth is that it is we who have invaded and continue to invade the neighborhoods of these creatures.  This isn’t news, this is not original thought, but it has to be dealt with and it will be dealt with – and it is already being dealt with by Nature Herself.  Our weather is going hog wild and we are actually wondering why?  The wrath of Nature is turning on us as we continue to allow our leaders to turn a blind eye to what we have done to this planet and continue to do.  In the meantime, oceans are rising as the polar ice melts, eroding coastlines and low lying islands, we are having flash floods, tornado and hurricane “disasters”, extreme weather change; all are killing people. There is drought, famine and disease and these will only increase in severity as we plunder the earth for the sake of our greed and extravagant life styles.

If every human dropped off the face of this planet in an instant, the Earth would survive just fine and within a few hundred years, without us, Nature would completely overgrow and restore Herself and the Earth back to an equilibrium far superior to anything human beings could do or would even be willing to do.  Once again the planet would be graced with old-growth forests, meadows of wildflowers and/or glaciers that would completely cover most, if not all traces of our existence.  And wildlife would probably sort itself out just fine.

So let us remember that every invasive species got here by the hand of man, and that we are the single most destructively invasive species of all.

With that somewhat less than lovely and charming opening, I would like to introduce an “introduced” (polite way of saying “it doesn’t really belong here and some feel it is invasive”) species of butterfly, Thymelicus lineola, or more commonly known as the European Skipper (also called the Essex Skipper), which has now emerged in certain grasslands in Victoria.  To give you a little background on the European Skipper I shall paraphrase what I read from John Acorn’s book “Butterflies of British Columbia”:

This little butterfly was introduced in 1910 in Ontario from Europe accidentally.  It appears to have adapted very well to Canada as it spread all across the country right out to the West Coast.  Although it is not found everywhere on the island, it is found for a few weeks here in Victoria in several areas.  It has not crowded out any of our other indigenous skippers here in Victoria – it emerges several weeks to a month earlier than our native Woodland Skipper and Branded Skipper, and is gone before these two other Skippers do emerge.  This beautiful little butterfly exemplifies the fact that not all introduced species are invasive.

Our other local skippers are rarely, if ever, sighted now and any shortage of them appears to have nothing to do with this little butterfly and a lot more to do with habitat destruction.  I myself do not pretend to be an expert – I am living in a period when our butterflies are disappearing and so I am very glad to see any butterflies at this point.

Getting back to the European Skipper, I have been observing them and photographing them since 2007 witnessing an enormous number of them emerge at Swan Lake in 2009 with back-to-more-normal emergence numbers in subsequent years.  They have in no way affected the large numbers of Woodland Skippers that we see each year that emerge a number of weeks after I have seen the last of the European Skipper.

The first year that I was photographing butterflies, or anything else for that matter, we were walking along the trail circumventing Swan Lake and I saw a number of these tiny little butterflies with their sweet faces through the lens of a camera.  Coppery orange in color with black margins on the upper wings, I saw them “skip” from flowering weed to grass to thistle and to clover.  I took lots of pictures because there were lots of butterflies and I was in Nature for this first time surrounded by little butterflies.  What could be more healing?  Well…I can tell you what could be more healing and that was to find them in a variety of colors as well.  At the time, I just took for granted that somebody had the answer for this variation of color but have recently discovered this is not necessarily the case

The two colors I most often see are the coppery orange as described in all the books I have read, and another color quite different: it is not orange, but more of a pale, creamy color sometimes even lighter, but with the same black  outer margins on the upper wings.  It was during my first year I happened to stumble on a real find which was just plain dumb luck.  It was a pure white European Skipper with the same black margins.  I was told by an amateur “expert” to name it Thymelicus lineola, variation: “pallida” (translation: a pale European Skipper).  This person basically tossed it off as nothing to be overly bothered with, but I disagree.  I think that when a butterfly changes colors, there is a reason.  As our seasons of drought occur earlier and earlier and the grasses dry out, this very adaptable butterfly might very well be adapting.

The lighter variation becomes practically invisible on white clover or dried grass whereas the normal coppery orange color sticks out and attracts the attention of predatory birds like the fast, swooping swallow, who is feeding its young this time of year.  This I can honestly say I have seen, and when at Glendale Gardens last week, I was blessed with the opportunity of seeing and photographing two baby swallows in a bird box being fed by their parent(s).  Swallows are great at catching insects in flight and are so fast that unless they are perched, they are nearly impossible to photograph, especially with my little camera.  So I am very thankful I saw these sweet little darlings (how very unscientific of me) so close.  They were Violet-green Swallows, as it turns out, and the parents are lovely to behold….when they are still enough to behold, that is!

But I digress.  It was only a few days later, after seeing the swallows at Glendale Gardens (Horticultural Centre of the Pacific) that I went to a section of the Swan Lake trail looking for any sign of the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell, yet another butterfly I hope to photograph this summer, when John spotted a tiny butterfly or “moth”.  Without even looking I knew it must be the European Skipper and it was.  The timing was about right.  I found what I consider to be the common copper color and the light or “pallida” variation.  I may be imagining this but what I want to point out is that each year there seems to be a higher number of the lighter variation although still not as easily found as the coppery orange shade.  As well, I have seen the copper ones chasing off the paler ones.  Discrimination?  Could be.  One Lepidopterist told me that not a lot of research had been done on “T.  lineola”    (yes, you guessed it; the short form of the scientific name).

It gives me great comfort to know how adaptable butterflies can be. The Western Tiger Swallowtail, although not out in the numbers I used to see, has survived our cool, damp spring and early summer in sufficient numbers to procreate.  At Knockan Hill, we saw no fewer than six of them and that was only in the sections of Knockan Hill Park where we went.  Another day a friend of mine reported seeing 10 Western Tigers at Government House in another area of Victoria.

And after first sighting them, I found the European Skipper on Christmas Hill, otherwise devoid of all butterfly life with the exception of a solitary Western Tiger Swallowtail; and also at Islandview Beach where the only other species we found was the Lorquin’s Admiral, and in good numbers.  I know they have been seen in other areas as well and where I do see them, I usually find Swallows as well, but don’t expect to find the European Skipper in your garden unless you live right near a bog or grasslands, for they are not nearly as widespread as the Woodland Skipper that seems to pop up everywhere in August.

Having perhaps given you a bit of a jolt with my opening, I hope you enjoyed this little story about a little European butterfly that came here long after we invaded North America and who has really done us no harm from what I have heard, read and seen.  I am glad it is here and for the next few weeks it will tide me and the swallows over while I wait for the few other butterflies we get these days to come out.  I am grateful to this little butterfly for being so photogenic. It provides food for the swallows and food for the soul of this particular homo sapient “specimen”.

Having said this, I heard some alarming but not surprising statistics on the news as well: the insect-eating bird population across Canadais down by 15%, but in Southern B.C. alone, it is down by a whopping 35%!!  The Barn Swallow was featured as one species that was showing a decline in numbers but I am sure there are many more.  It seems that this would be consistent with the declining insect population, for at Islandview Beach there was not a single mosquito, and it is usually filled with them by now.  Only a few darners, one of which I’ve enclosed a shot of (a Blue-eyed Darner), were evident and they too prey on insects, even on other dragonflies.  It would seem the entire food chain has been disrupted and we are seeing the results.

If we are to continue and survive we might learn something about adapting to our environment so that we are less apparent, rather than more so. We should follow the example of my little “pallida” and try to blend into the environment rather than exploiting it.

In one of my next blogs I, hopefully, will get around to the subject I have wanted to write about for a while now; how as Canadians, and particularly islanders, we can provide food for ourselves and learn how we can transform our wasteful land resources into places of biodiversity, as Terry blogged about before, and as sources of food both for ourselves and the environment.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with another poem.

Song to the European Skipper

Little creature you must know

why I’ve come to love you so.

From your home you traveled far

by hand of man—now here you are.

Darting here and darting there;

closer look, a face so fair,

tiny wings and body hair.

How can I begrudge you space?

You, I welcome to this place

with your tiny elvish face.

Beauty has each butterfly,

beauty that can teach the eye

that this place we have to save

for the butterfly so brave.

Nature holds us in Her hand

and She makes her own demand

not caring if we understand.

We may cause our own demise

if we callously despise

all the balance that once was

because we could, or just…because.

Little creature you must know

why I’ve come to love you so,

though some claim that you invade

causing other ones to fade.

Man continues to encroach

worse than any wanton roach,

and what’s worse, it’s not from need!

No! It’s fuelled by our greed

for the dollar, for the buck,

for a better car or truck.

What do we care what we harm,

then we cry out in alarm

from the flooding or the quakes

never owning our mistakes!

Listen to the screams She makes;

Nature comes, now it’s her turn!

Will we listen? Will we learn?

Or keep drilling for black gold,

and let the leaders have us sold.

Blame a little butterfly?

“It’s invasive” so they cry.

No! I greet you with a smile,

hoping you will stay awhile;

take a picture while you pose

in the sunshine where you doze,

or darting here and darting there,

little butterfly so fair…

© Annie Pang July 7, 2012.

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About annieandterry

This is a blog shared by two friends who have never met in person, Annie Pang and Terry Thormin. We both live on Vancouver Island, Annie in Victoria and Terry in Comox. All communication to date has been either by email or telephone. We are both passionate about nature and conservation and we are both nature photographers. Annie is also a very fine poet and was a concert violinist, while Terry worked as an entomologist for the Royal Alberta Museum until he retired in 2005. We hope you enjoy this joint effort to share our nature musings with anyone who is interested.

Posted on July 13, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Yes, Humans have become a super-species! We are so hard on the planet! Thank you Annie, great work! I adore the violet-green swallows and I’ve missed them in my yard this year and I never thought the decline in insect populations could be the cause! Love all your photos, especially the hungry birds!

  2. What beautiful images and words… I adore your goal to speak for Nature and her critters; we are definitely kindred spirits. And you’re living in my *favorite* place on the planet!! 🙂

    • Yes, the west coast, whether in Canada or the U.S. is the place to be, and in Canada there is no better place, in my opinion, than Vancouver Island. I just hope that we do not screw it up entirely.

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