So far, 2020 is proving to be a year of great upheaval. Positives seem to be few and far between. However, for butterfly enthusiasts, locally 2020 is the year of the hairstreak.
Some weeks ago, fellow outdoors columnist Dallas Hudson told me he was finally seeing some hairstreaks after noticeable years of their absence. Since his observations have been echoed by other enthusiasts, I’m devoting this column to the five local hairstreak species, plus a bonus colonizer.
In general, hairstreaks are small, with wingspans ranging from 1 to 1.5 inches. They usually sport fine, hair-like tails. Also, they have many lines or streaks on the undersides of their hindwings. Those attributes probably led to their being called hairstreaks. Most perch, so we generally never see their upper dorsal wings open.
I observed 2,816 hairstreaks in total from 1995 through last year on my Minnesota walks. That may seem like a lot, but represented only 1.05 percent of the total 266,792 individual butterflies I tallied for those 25 years. In fact, I had only a total of 12 hairstreaks for all of 2019!
Coral-colored spots on this hairstreak’s brownish hindwing are both distinctive and very attractive, at least to we humans. Coral hairstreak (Satryrium titus) doesn’t have tails. Caterpillars feed on flowers and fruits of chokecherries, wild plums and juneberries.
Corals make up only 11 percent of the hairstreaks I’ve seen in Minnesota.
Gray with submarginal orange spots, the Acadian hairstreak (S. acadica) has tails. Caterpillars feed on willows.
Acadians are my wife Marlene’s personal favorite butterfly species. She’s been greatly disappointed in recent years to see only a few, if any.
Acadians have represented 14 percent of the hairstreaks I’ve seen.
Brown with rows of white-ringed black spots, the Edwards’ hairstreak (S. edwardsii) has tails. Caterpillars feed on oak leaves. When blooming leadplant is present, adults (and other hairstreak species) eagerly nectar it.
By far, the greatest share of hairstreaks I've witnessed: 55 percent.
The banded hairstreak (S. calanus) is dark gray-brown with white bands almost connecting dark spots. Caterpillars exclusively feed on oaks.
Hudson had gone from July 26, 2015 until this year without seeing any. He wonders, and I agree, where were they all the years not seen? They are quite local.
Banded represent a small percentage of hairstreaks for me: six percent.
Striped hairstreaks (S. liparops) are also brown with tails. Its common name is almost a misnomer since there are widely spaced bands.
Caterpillars feed on members of heath and rose families, such as blueberry, pin cherry, chokecherry, juneberries and others.
Hudson did see on one July 4, 2020, his first in years.
Doug Johnson, a Bemidji resident, was thrilled to see two on our fall Nevis count, held Aug. 2 this year.
Jim and Susan Hengeveld, from Indiana, this year reported their first-ever striped hairstreak in their cabin yard on Cass Lake.
However, for me, the striped represents an even smaller share: four percent.
Strymon melinus is a long-distance colonizer from the south. Butterfly authority Paul A. Opler considers their caterpillar food as being “an almost infinite variety of plants, most often from pean and mallow families.
After a recent weekly monarch monitoring visit at his place, Alan Olander showed me a picture taken on his phone at 3 p.m. July 8. From a social distance, I took a picture of it.
He thought it was a hairstreak, but it was perched with wings open. He’d only seen hairstreaks with their wings closed.
I assured Olander that it was indeed a hairstreak, a gray to be exact. Grays, it turns out, are an exception to the general rule of closed hairstreak perching. They regularly, as Olander captured in his photo, rest with wings open. He also noted it was on spreading dogbane, one of its myriad host plants.
I told Olander how I’d been faked out by my first gray hairstreak encounter 38 years ago. At the time, Marlene and I were living in Omaha. My insect photography journey had just begun in July 1982, in our small yard there.
A gray hairstreak was one of the first insects I photographed. I didn’t realize while photographing it that it was nectaring spearmint by our porch steps with its head down. What I thought were a head with two protruding antennae were actually its tails with adjacent spots that looked like eyes.
Turns out, the gray was using a common hairstreak feeding survival strategy. By nectaring head down, if a predatory bird nipped off just its tails, it would live to fly another day.
Since I’ve only seen 10 grays in the past 25 years in Minnesota, Olander had quite a find near his rural mailbox this year. It has now been four years since I’d last seen one in this neck of the woods!
John Weber is a local butterfly and dragonfly enthusiast. Since 1997, Weber has been meticulously recording every dragonfly sighting. He’s counted butterflies since 1993. “Leps” is short for the insect order of lepidoptera, meaning butterflies and moths. “Odes” is short for odonata, or dragonflies and damselflies.