The Wandering Skipper (Panoquina errans) is a small butterfly that lives only in coastal saltmarsh. They range from Santa Barbara County, California south to northern coastal Baja and the Sea of Cortez. Their range is a narrow band close to the ocean. This is because this butterfly’s larval food plant, saltgrass, only lives in coastal salt marsh. Wandering Skippers fly in late summer and fall, usually in two broods.
Finding Wandering Skipper
As it happens, one of the largest Wandering Skipper colonies is right here in Orange County at Upper Newport Bay. 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. This causes them to disappear right before your eyes! Wandering Skippers have dark, chocolate brown upper wings 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). Eufala Skipper is lighter brown but has similar spots on the wings. The underwing network of yellowish veins dusted with yellow-orange scales readily distinguishes Wandering Skipper from Eufala Skipper. Eufala Skipper shows dark wing veins and more uniform color underneath. Furthermore, Wandering Skipper has alternating yellow and brown stripes on the abdomen, while Eufala Skipper has a pale tan abdomen.
One other skipper we saw a lot of at Big Canyon was the Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus). Fiery Skipper seemingly outnumbered Wandering Skipper by about 30-to-1. Luckily, there is no way to confuse a Fiery Skipper with Wandering Skipper. If there’s any orange on it, it’s a Fiery! Fiery Skippers are particularly fond of nectaring on the Heliotrope flowers. But the Wandering Skippers always used the Seaheath much more. Fiery Skipper may well be the most common butterfly in southern California. It utilizes 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).