Those Maddening yet Delicately Beautiful Butterflies – The Gossamer-wings!

by | Sep 17, 2014

One of the most maddening and frustrating things I can to do as a working nature photographer is hunt down a group of highly excitable tiny butterflies known collectively as gossamer-wings, and get them on camera. This delicate and very beautiful butterfly family (Lycaenidae) has about 4700 – 5000+ species which are found all over the world and in many different types of habitat. The gossamer-wing family is broken down into four groups: blues, hairstreaks, coppers and harvesters.  

Click on any image to enlarge.

Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinus)

Gray Hairstreak

A gray hairstreak pauses on an unidentified species of liatris in the Fakahatchee Strand in Collier County, Florida.

All gossamer-wings are very small, and generally have roughly a one inch wing-span, some a bit larger (the coppers) and others a bit smaller (the blues). Nearly all of them have very erratic and seemingly random flight patterns and don’t touch down for very long – often less than a couple of seconds. Oftentimes, when they are drinking or feeding from mud or feces is the only time I can get them to sit still for just a bit longer, or just long enough to get the rare shot with no movement. With a lot of patience, I can sometimes get one to sit still while feeding, especially if the weather is cool, or it is early in the morning and its flight muscles aren’t warmed up for optimal flight conditions. Trying to get most hairstreaks on camera often ends up with me wasting hours with nothing to show for it, except a bad case of “pottymouth”. Photographing blues can be and often is usually much worse. This post is just to share some examples of gossamer-wings that I’ve photographed around the United States, and to share one of the most overlooked groups of butterflies found most everywhere.

Western Pygmy-Blue

Western Pygmy-Blue

An incredibly tiny western pygmy-blue sits motionless in a shrub on a hot summer evening in the Moab Desert in Eastern Utah.

Western Pygmy-Blue

Western Pygmy-Blue

A rare view of the opened wings of a live western-pygmy-blue in Utah’s Moab Desert. Touted as the world’s smallest butterfly (at least in this is true in North America) this one was one of hundreds I found at late dusk in Arches National Park in Eastern Utah. The wingspan at best is half an inch.

Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius)

Cassius Blue

The tiny and beautifully detailed cassius blue in close-up. These fast fliers are very difficult to catch standing still.

The majority of gossamer-wing butterflies have some sort of pattern at the rear of their wings usually on the underside of the hindwing which is most visible when their wings are closed, but often on the top side in the same part of the wing. These “eyespots” are a very effective decoy for evading prey, and many of the ones that I do see in the wild have had these eyespots bitten off or otherwise damaged in some way. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to cause them any problems in flight. This is a survival adaptation strategy often seen on other animals such as many of the fish found on coral reefs and on some birds.

Fulvous Hairstreak (Electrostrymon angelia)

Fulvous Hairstreak

Fulvous hairstreak resting on a palmetto frond in the CREW Marsh Hiking Trails in Collier County, Florida. This is one of the most beautiful of all the hairstreaks!

California Hairstreak

California Hairstreak

A California hairstreak feeds on a narrowleaf milkweed in the Columbia Gorge, just on the Washington side, north of the Columbia River. Although it is most common in the state of California, it can be found throughout most of the central western states from the Pacific Coast westward to the Rocky Mountains.

Silvery Blue

Boisduval’s Blue

Close-up view of a Boisduval’s blue, a small member of the gossamer-wing butterfly family collecting moisture from the edge of a creek in Kittitas County, Washington.

Acmon Blue

 Acmon Blue

A male acmon blue butterfly in Central Washington drinks moisture from the mud after a soaking summer rain in the rural canyons south of Yakima, Washington.

Ruddy Copper

Ruddy Copper

A beautiful white and orange male ruddy copper butterfly rests on a local aster in the White River National Forest near Aspen, Colorado below the the Rocky Mountain’s Maroon Bells on a sunny summer morning.

An interesting note about the caterpillars of many gossamer-wings (you can imagine how tiny they are) is the fact that many of them excrete a sugary liquid that is deliberately fed to various species of ants, who in turn protect them from predators. This symbiotic relationship ensures that more gossamer-wing caterpillars reach adulthood, as strategy that other butterfly families don’t have.

Mallow Scrub Hairstreak

Mallow Scrub Hairstreak

The uncommon mallow scrub hairstreak seen here in the CREW Marsh Hiking Trails in Southwest Florida is often found near palmettos and other pine scrub plants.

Silvery Blue

Boisduval’s Blues

A super-energetic group of Boisduval’s blues, drink up water quickly after a summer rain in the hot, arid sagebrush country of Kittitas County, Washington.

Acmon Blue Butterfly

 Acmon Blue

An acmon blue butterfly pauses for a moment on an antelope-brush on a chilly late spring morning in Central Washington, just south of Naches.

Red-Banded Hairstreak

Red-Banded Hairstreak

One of Florida’s most beautiful hairstreaks, the tiny red-banded hairstreak is found often in rural fields and oak hammocks.

Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus)

Ceraunus Blue

Male Ceraunus Blue Butterfly photographed in Sarasota County, Florida in an overgrown and formerly agricultural area which has been converted to a wildlife sanctuary.

To see more gossamer-wing butterflies, visit the ever-growing gallery below. New images are being added all the time!



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