Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Gray hairstreak butterfly on antelope-horns milkweed

with 32 comments

Gray Hairstreak Butterfly on Antelope-Horns Milkweed Flowers 3288

Another visitor to an antelope-horns milkweed flower, Asclepias asperula, along the Smith Memorial Trail in northwest Austin on April 29th was this little butterfly. It appears to be a gray hairstreak, Strymon melinus. Notice that at a hairstreak’s rear there are false antennae that typically move up and down when the insect is nectaring and can mislead a predator into striking at the insect’s rear rather than at its head. A butterfly can live with a chomp taken out of the rear of its wings, but can’t live with a missing head. A similar thing could be said of people, tales of a headless horseman notwithstanding.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 2, 2014 at 5:59 AM

32 Responses

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  1. It’s beautiful 🙂 They’re such tiny butterflies, the hairstreaks, but the detail on their wings is wonderful!

    • They are tiny and so require getting close for a good picture, but I’ve found that they’re more likely to stay put than many other kinds of butterflies and are therefore often easier to photograph. In addition to the scales on this one’s wings, notice the down on the body below its head.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 7:15 AM

      • I know it’s just wonderful 🙂 Yes they do tend to stay put on a flower they really like! I got some great images of a tailed-blue, which is part of the hairstreak family, in Greece last year 🙂 http://miradordesign.wordpress.com/2013/10/04/langs-short-tailed-blue-butterfly/

        • I’m glad to see you got a shot (actually several) at a hairstreak too.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 2, 2014 at 2:30 PM

          • I hope I’ll get to see more when we’re out there this year! I’m always looking for the UK species but they really are hard to spot and have quite specific habitats.

            • Good luck finding more. Texas is quite different from what you describe: I often see hairstreaks in Austin, and there are probably close to 20 species here.

              Steve Schwartzman

              June 2, 2014 at 4:24 PM

              • Texas is BIG country! Habitat for many UK butterflies has been disappearing over the years from intensive farming procedures, roadways and other infrastructure construction. Some of the butterflies are very fussy about what flowers they feed on and plants for laying their eggs.

                • There’s a lot of development in the Austin area too. Each year at least one property where I’ve photographed nature (sometimes on many occasions) disappears due to development. This spring alone I’m aware of three such construction sites, alas.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  June 2, 2014 at 4:46 PM

                • It’s devastatingly sad! The majority of the population have no idea of the mass extinctions going on every year around the world and in their own back yards. The day will come when the world has to acknowledge that there are too many people on this little planet that is reliant upon a diverse ecosystem for its survival. I wonder what the governments will eventually do?

  2. With an appropriate nod to Natural Selection … D

    Pairodox Farm

    June 2, 2014 at 6:38 AM

    • Speaking of which, I just finished The Righeous Mind, in which Jonathan Haidt mentions that Darwin believed not only in individual selection but also group selection. Haidt says that since the 1970s the notion of group selection has become taboo in orthodox circles (including Stephen Jay Gould), but goes on to cite some recent evidence in support of group evolution. I recommend this book to you. You can find a TED talk that’s an earlier version of the book’s approach to moral psychology at:

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 7:25 AM

  3. Well, as Kipling said, “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” I’m not sure he meant it quite so literally, but the butterfly’s found a way. It is a beautiful little creature. I’m constantly amazed by the complexity of their patterns and design.


    June 2, 2014 at 7:12 AM

    • That’s a good connection to Kipling’s poem, even if, as you say, he didn’t have something like this butterfly in mind. (Speaking of which, I’m reminded of the perhaps apocryphal story of a Japanese student who came across the English proverb “Out of sight, out of mind” and translated it into Japanese with words that are the equivalent of “Blind, insane.”)

      I’m fascinated by butterflies’ patterns and designs too, but I wish they were more cooperative and would more often stay put when I approach for pictures.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 7:33 AM

      • Now, that’s funny. Apocryphal or not, I’m going to share the story with my reader, Omar, who’s fascinated by the problems involved with proper translation of English idioms. If I’m lucky, I’ll find a use for it myself one day.


        June 3, 2014 at 6:39 AM

        • I’ll generalize and say it isn’t just English, though that’s what native Spanish speaker Omar most often deals with. Whenever two languages come into contact, inevitably there are expressions in each that are hard to render in the other. As for the anecdote I mentioned, I do hope you’ll manage to incorporate it into an article.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 3, 2014 at 6:59 AM

    • By the way, I just checked and found this is the 31st photograph I’ve showed here that features a butterfly:


      That’s close to one a month.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 7:40 AM

      • Looking through the photos reminded me how often the colors of the butterfly coordinate with the plants they’re on. The obvious exception is the Monarch (and others, I presume), which defends itself by being distinctly unpalatable. It would be interesting to sort butterflies by bitter/non-bitter, and then by which flowers they prefer. But not this morning!


        June 3, 2014 at 6:45 AM

  4. Stunning!


    June 2, 2014 at 12:33 PM

    • It’s good that this one didn’t flutter by. Instead it stayed put and let me take pictures of it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 2:24 PM

  5. Lovely butterfly. Yes, loss of one’s head can have deadening effects. Unfortunately, it seems our species has learned how to exist without using said heads.

    Steve Gingold

    June 2, 2014 at 4:30 PM

    • Oh, I detect a cynic.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2014 at 4:32 PM

      • Just now? It should have been evident for ages. More a realist than a cynic, methinks. Me talks funny.

        Steve Gingold

        June 2, 2014 at 4:40 PM

        • Well, one man’s realist is another man’s cynic.

          In the archaic expression methinks, the thinks was an impersonal form of the verb that meant ‘seems’ and me was an indirect object, so methinks meant ‘to me it seems.’ Now thou knowest.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 2, 2014 at 4:56 PM

          • Fabulous~botany, lepidoptery, AND grammar, all in one convenient place 🙂
            Hairstreaks are among my favorites. Later in the summer when the Asclepias tuberosa is in bloom, they are a magnet for the hairstreaks we have here.
            For a shot of optimism, may I recommend the book, “Upcycle”, by William McDonough?


            June 2, 2014 at 11:06 PM

  6. Wow, I think this is rather difficult shot. Well done !


    June 8, 2014 at 8:44 AM

    • Thanks. Fortunately this butterfly stayed on the flowers and didn’t fly away when I got close, so the shot wasn’t really that difficult.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 8, 2014 at 8:47 AM

  7. With serious rain in the forecast, I threw everything to the winds this past weekend and spent time both at the nearby nature center and Armand Bayou. I managed a photo of what I’ve decided is a red-banded hairstreak: similar to your gray hairstreak but with a wider and more extensive red band. (Sometimes, the names make sense.)

    What tickled me most is that the butterfly fooled me. I’d never seen a live one, and at first I couldn’t figure out which end was fore and which aft, since those appendages were waving around and the antennae were perfectly still. I remembered your conversation with krikitarts and came back to check out the posts. It’s such fun to be discovering things in the wild that I’ve read about here, and learning a little more in the process.


    October 20, 2015 at 7:56 AM

    • I’m glad you finally got to see the false antennae moving on a hairstreak butterfly. One of the first butterflies I got familiar with when I started my nature photography in 1999 was the olive hairstreak, which is generally pretty obliging and let me get close on various occasions. That’s when I first noticed the behavior meant to mislead predators. Now that you not only know what to expect from hairstreaks but have seen the phenomenon for yourself, perhaps you won’t be fooled the next time you observe that behavior. Or maybe it’s a good enough illusion that you’ll still be taken in.

      Eryngo was similar for me. I’d read about the plant and seen the picture in Marshall Enquist, but I began photographing in February of 1999 and eryngo doesn’t come out till late summer, so I kept wondering when I would finally get to see one of those little purple pineapples. I still remember the place near Lake Georgetown where I finally found a few later that year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 20, 2015 at 9:14 AM

      • Speaking of finally finding things, I came across beauty berry at Armand Bayou on Sunday. The berries clearly were aging, but it still was a treat to see. And out in the prairie section, the Maximilian sunflowers were in their full glory — along with a goodly number of spent Liataris. Now I know where to go to find some lovely, purple gay feather next year.


        October 20, 2015 at 10:21 PM

        • Then here’s to the fall of 2016, and may we have enough rain to make it a flowerful year.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 21, 2015 at 6:03 AM

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