By Allison Raeck, MNA Intern
To me, one of the most interesting things about the outdoors is its variety. Each species provides a vital link in its habitat, regardless of how small it may be. One of Michigan’s tiny yet fascinating creatures is the Poweshiek skipperling.
Though moth-like in appearance, the Poweshiek skipperling is a small butterfly that resides in tallgrass prairie. Its upper wings are a dark grayish-brown tone, with orange markings on the forewing. A distinctive pale area on the butterfly’s hindwing sets it apart from moth counterparts, as does a dark green stripe on Poweshiek skipperling caterpillars. Males and females are very similar in appearance, as they both have a wingspan of roughly one inch. However, females can be identified by a subtle brand on the forewing.
The main flight period for the Poweshiek skipperling is mid June to mid July. During this time, the butterfly can be spotted fluttering low in the grass near nectar sources, especially tending to prefer black-eyed Susan flowers in Michigan. Its flight involves excessive wing movement that exerts little forward velocity, distinguishing the species from other butterflies and moths. This slow, bouncy pattern resembles skipping, which gives the Poweshiek skipperling its name.
The butterfly has been sporadically reported in various areas throughout the Midwest, as far east as Ohio and as far west as Minnesota. In Michigan, the Poweshiek skipperling resides in select prairie fens in the southeast region. These fens are wetland communities mainly composed of sedges and grasses, and are one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in Michigan. Prairie fens house over two dozen of the state’s rarest plants and animals, including the Poweshiek skipperling.
However, because Michigan Poweshiek skipperlings are limited to this specific prairie fen habitat, they are experiencing a severe population decline and are currently state threatened. Prairie fens are extremely delicate areas, limited by invasive species, gravel mining, and woodland invasion. Without scheduled burn or mow periods, fen plants grow too tall to house this sensitive insect, limiting their survival.
Addressing this concern, MNA protects prairie fens in 14 of its sanctuaries in southern Michigan. In order to prevent the fens from succeeding into forest or shrubland, MNA holds prescribed burns of these areas. Though some of MNA’s especially sensitive fens have restricted access, Lefglen Nature Sanctuary, Lakeville Swamp, and Goose Creek Grasslands are all open to the public. MNA also holds scheduled field trips and work days in many of these areas, including upcoming volunteer days at Goose Creek Grasslands, located in Lenawee County, on June 10th and June 14th. These visits allow guests to help protect these delicate habitats.