By Jonathan Nikkila
Putting to use all the tips, tricks and ID help Neil Dankert has given me over the years, I spent a day during our family vacation to the Pine Ridge last week to hunt for Western Nebraska butterfly species.
My family was staying at Ft. Robinson State Park, a great place for kids and extended family to spend a vacation. We had catered breakfast at the foot of pine covered bluffs. The kids spent hours swimming in the huge indoor swimming pool. We hiked, watched a rodeo and played a game of whiffle ball on the parade grounds, among other things.
After the morning family breakfast on Thursday, I snuck away and drove about half an hour west to Sioux County and Gilbert-Baker WMA. My mom, who hears about a lot of my bird and butterfly hunting trips, joined me for the first time. We parked in the campground area, hopped the shallow creek and started down the trail. Right at the start we bumped into a researcher for the Xerxes Society who was doing a bumble bee survey and we said we would keep an eye out for the Western Bumble Bee, a rare species with white hairs on the end of its abdomen. We didn’t see that species, but we did see what I think was a group of Central Bumble Bees, including one that had become lunch for an ambush bug.
It did not take long to see that fritillaries were out in force. In the first big meadow I chased a couple of fritillaries for a while until they rested on a thistle and allowed me to get good photos. One was Aphrodite and the other was Edwards’. We saw a ton of large fritillaries on the trail, many drinking from mud. I should have taken more time to identify each because the next day Matt Brust, a lepidopterist from Chadron State College, visited Gilbert-Baker and may have seen a couple rare species. However, the larger fritillaries look very similar from a distance, rarely like to stay put and I just take photos and don’t use a net, so it is a lot of work to nail them down. I should have persisted but got a little on the lazy side.
Further down the trail the ticks picked up, but so did some great butterflies in the woodlands. We saw a Buckeye Butterfly, Silver Spotted Skippers, Variegated Fritillaries, Black Swallowtail, a large yellow swallowtail (unknown species), Cabbage White, Checkered White, Melissa Blues, Gray Hairstreak, Eastern Tailed-blues, a Hackberry Butterfly, Common Checkered-Skipper, and Viceroys. Two other new species (for me) were Ruddy Coppers and Icarioides Blues.
On the way back to the trail head I commented that I hadn’t seen many skippers during the two hour hike. Not long after, just a couple hundred yards from the trailhead, I saw a small skipper flit across the trail and I knew it was something special. I yelled at my mom to freeze. Sitting there, feeding on bindweed, was a Pahaska Skipper. I managed a single halfway decent photo before a Ruddy Copper decided to be a bully and scared it away. I took a few more passes to find it but it didn’t return. Pahaska is ranked “S2” by the Nebraska Heritage Program which means it is an imperiled species in the state.
After I dropped off my mom at Ft. Robinson I took over kid duties from my wife for a couple hours — supervising them at the pool. When the kids were finally worn out, I dropped them off at our cabin and drove down the road west of Ft. Robinson to the Soldier Creek campground and trailhead which is in Sioux County. Ft. Robinson’s property straddles the border between Sioux and Dawes counties. I was specifically looking for a lifer Taxiles Skipper, which is also rated as imperiled. I crossed the point where Soldier Creek went across the road and noticed lots of butterflies drinking from the mud along the creek and lots of flowering plants.
The butterflies were concentrated along the road between the creek and where the road tees off at the top of the hill. Among the species I remember were Gray Coppers, a Painted Lady, Melissa Blue, Delaware Skippers, a Dun Skipper, Eyed Brown, Common Wood-Nymph, Variegated Fritillary, Orange Sulphur, Hobomok Skippers, and Long Dash Skippers. I found my target species, Taxiles Skipper, after I had already walked the stretch of road several times. After poking around other parts of the campground and needing to get back for family dinner, I decided to make one more pass of the road by the creek and lucked out, finding two Taxiles Skippers on verbena.
The other butterfly of note was a type of crescent. I noticed it looked much darker dorsally than a common Pearl Crescent. It was drinking periodically from the mud. After taking some good photos from above, I stalked it for about 15 minutes waiting for it to show the underside of the wing so I could verify that I had seen my first ever Tawny Crescent. Unfortunately, it is even more rare and is rated “S1,” “critically imperiled” by the heritage program.
On the way home the next day, I passed through Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Garden County, my favorite road in Nebraska. We saw Common Sootywings, Long Dash Skippers, a few other species, and lots of Peck’s Skippers.
Western Nebraska is a special place for unique, beautiful landscapes and amazing wildlife. Central Nebraska is home and will probably always be, but the Pine Ridge, the Sandhills and Wildcat Hills are the best places in Nebraska to be when I am not at home in Kearney.