The Woodland Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanoides) is one of the few butterflies that is almost entirely tolerant of urban habitats. During the summer I’ve seen these tiny butterflies, often by the dozens, covering lavender plants throughout the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Their tolerance is easily illustrated because, unlike many butterfly species, a camera lens in their face doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They can be found not only in the city, but also in a wide variety of habitats, so many in fact, it’s easier to list where they’re not found, and that is the desert. They can be found on the west coast as far north as British Columbia, south to Baja California and east to Alberta, Colorado and New Mexico. They are also found in Europe and Asia where they’re called the Large Skipper and are just as resilient.
These little orange and brown butterflies are in the Skipper family and specifically part of the Grass-Skippers. They are a bit peculiar because when landed, their forewings don’t open all the way while the hindwing does open flat, giving them a unique appearance. They are abundant from July through October and in late summer and early fall can be the most common butterfly seen. They can even be seen as early as June in some areas. They are orange and brown with more contrasting markings on the top of their wings and more subdued markings underneath. The larvae are light green, yellowish or cream while the egg is white.
Interestingly, even though this is a common, wide-spread species, there is no scientific literature about the specific larval host plant species in North America. What is known is that it’s grass, and often a broad-leaf grass native or non-native. Other than that, their plant preference and natural history is unknown. However, in Europe they are known to use plants such as False Brome (a King County noxious weed), Purple Moor-grass, Tor-grass and Wood Small-reed for their larval plant. Wood Small-reed is the genus Calamagrostis and there are several native grasses also in that genus such as Bluejoint (Calamagrotis canadensis), which may be a good option.
Unlike the host plant of the larva, the nectar plant of the adult is known, and that is just about as wide-ranging as their habitat choices. They often choose composite flowers and among them they like lavender, black-eyed Susan, dandelion, aster, lobelia, marigold, oregano, statice, bluebeard, oxeye daisy, garden sage and many more. They are truly one of the most adaptable wildlife species out there.
Learn more about the Woodland Skipper, other urban species and how to landscape for wildlife at The Metropolitan Field Guide.