The Wandering Skipper (Panoquina errans) is a very small butterfly found only in coastal saltmarsh, from Point Concepcion in Santa Barbara County in southern California, south to northern coastal Baja and the eastern shore of the Sea of Cortez. The range is a narrow band close to the ocean because the larval food plant for this butterfly is Saltgrass (Distichlis spicata). Wandering Skippers fly in late summer and fall, usually in two broods. As it happens, one of the largest known Wandering Skipper colonies is right here in Orange County at the Upper Newport Bay Reserve. References said that they were present in the highest density in the vicinity of Big Canyon. So we started to look for them in late July. They weren’t easy to find! It wasn’t until August that we found a single individual, nectaring on the tiny purple flowers of European Seaheath (Frankenia pulverulenta). We went back several weeks later and found a fair few more of them, again feeding on the Seaheath.
Wandering Skippers are very tiny butterflies, averaging a little less than an inch in length from nose to wingtips. They fly with a rapid and erratic flight, and typically land with wings closed, causing them to disappear right before your eyes! Wandering Skippers have a dark, chocolate brown coloration on the upper wing and body surface, with pale, almost translucent off-white spots on the wings. They tended to land on flowers folded up and then open briefly as they fed, before taking off (see one here). Wandering Skipper looks most like Eufala Skipper (Lerodea eufala), which is slightly lighter brown but has similar spots on the wings. Wandering Skipper is readily distinguished from Eufala Skipper because the underwing surface is laced with a network of yellowish veins and dusted with yellow-orange scales. Eufala Skipper has dark veins and is more uniformly colored underneath. Furthermore, Wandering Skipper has a set of alternating yellow and brown longitudinal stripes on the abdomen, while Eufala Skipper has a pale tan abdomen. Fortunately, the Eufala Skipper isn’t often found in coastal salt marshes.
One other skipper we saw a lot of at Big Canyon was the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus) which seemingly outnumbered Wandering Skipper by about 30-to-1. Luckily, there is no way to confuse even a dark female Fiery Skipper with Wandering Skipper: if there’s any orange on it, it’s a Fiery! We noticed that Fiery Skippers were particularly fond of nectaring on the Heliotrope flowers, but even when the Seaheath was blooming in amongst the larger patches of Helioptropium, the Wandering Skippers used the Seaheath much more, though not exclusively. Fiery Skipper may well be the most common butterfly in southern California, utilizing a wide variety of habitats and nectar sources. Fiery Skippers don’t usually pose fully spread out like this. They usually fold at least the upper wings into a vertical position, as shown (here), or completely folded with both sets of wings in vertical, like this (one).