Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two hairstreaks

During last weekend's expedition into deepest Adams County, our group stopped by an interesting little barrens prairie. Here we had such showstopper birds as Red-headed Woodpecker, Summer Tanager, and Orchard Oriole. But it was two little butterflies that nearly stole the show, and trumped the larger feathered objects.

Banded Hairstreak, Satyrium calanus. Not an uncommon species, but hairstreaks are easy to miss. They're not much larger than your thumbnail, and move in a rapid darty flight. Sometimes when one is flushed, it'll spiral high into the trees, never to be seen again. This unit remained stationary, allowing the fawning humanoids to ooh and aah over its intricate markings.

I like hairstreaks a lot. In fact, they may be my favorite group of butterflies. From afar and without a discerning look, they are nothing more than tiny flickering shadows barely noticed. If one wises up to the fact that the creature may be something worth a closer inspection, and is successful in the stalk, they will be rewarded with a stunning piece of scaled art.

Edward's Hairstreak, Satyrium edwardsii. This tiny animal almost defies suitable adjectives. Where would I start? This is the sort of critter that is great fun to show someone for the first time, and help them get a view like this. They will not look at butterflies in the same light again.

The silky dove-gray ground color of the wings is ornamented with brilliant scarlet chevrons that buffer a pool of glimmering turquoise. Let the light hit these marks just so and they fairly explode in a riot of color. The hairstreak's antennae and legs are nothing short of outrageous. Striped like a zebraesque barber pole, they are the perfect compliment to the creature's huge eyes; inscrutable inky pools trimmed in white. Even when you look one of these in the eye, it is impossible to fathom its thoughts.

Perhaps most incredible is the other end of the beast. A behavorial trait that an observer notices instantly is the hairstreak's habit of constantly rubbing the hindwings together. The effect is entrancing, and creates the illusion of a fake head. Those little tails that project from the rear wings resemble antennas, and the blue dot makes a nice eye. Predators will fixate on this - the wrong end - and if their lunge makes contact with the butterfly, they're likely to end up with just a bit of wing, and the hairstreak lives another day.

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