They Might Be Giant (Yucca-skippers, that is)

Megathymus yuccae basking on warm asphalt between showers [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

Megathymus yuccae basking on warm asphalt between showers [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

I arrived by car a day early for a conference in the Knoxville TN area, fresh off the excitement of Saturday’s foray in Virginia for Appalachian Grizzled Skipper.  The weather took a decided turn for the worst later that day, though, and the last 24 hours had been rain-soaked and violent.  Even this morning I woke to a thunderstorm in progress, but checking the weather and seeing the potential for some clearing later in the day, I decided to chance a trip about 2 hours south to Chattanooga, where colleagues from the Tennessee Valley NABA chapter (Dave Spicer and Bill Haley) had tipped me off to the presence of a small colony of Yucca Giant-skippers.  This would be a life butterfly for me, but I was warned that a search for them last weekend turned up nothing — too early in the season.  Since then, they’d been seen in western TN, but not yet in the eastern part of the state. Giant-skippers of the genus Megathymus come by their common name honestly — they are VERY large skippers, looking much like heavy-bodied sphinx moths with short wings.  They flutter more than other skippers their size, and are most often seen at rest.

Promising clump of yucca to investigate for Megathymus [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN, photo by REB]

Promising clump of yucca to investigate for Megathymus [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN, photo by REB]

Yucca Giant-skipper, M. yuccae, is rare and local throughout its range in the Southeast, where the caterpillars bore down the apical meristem of yucca plants, killing the main stalk.  Adults are active very early in the season, hence my visit to Chattanooga.  The park where I’d been directed has clumps of yucca scattered throughout, but seldom in large quantities, so I was expecting a fairly intensive search.  Nor was the weather cooperating, with fresh thundershowers threatening at regular intervals.  Luckily, the rain held off and gave way by midafternoon to partly cloudy and warm conditions.

Goatweed Leafwing, a consolation prize early in the hike for finding no giant-skippers [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

Goatweed Leafwing, a consolation prize early in the hike for finding no giant-skippers [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

Meantime, I had other interesting sightings, notably five (or more) Goatweed Leafwings, many unidentified Juvenal’s/Horace’s duskywings, and Spicebush Swallowtails in addition to a squadron of Swamp Darners hanging in shrubs over a wet seep.  I was about to give up on the giant-skippers, having nosed around half a dozen clumps of yucca over the course of a couple of hours, when I decided to return one last to the largest clump I’d seen — now in full sun. I walked up to the yucca plants, some near the roadside and a few back under the trees, and poked around for a while, all to no avail.  But suddenly from a plant at the back of the patch a large, ungainly bat-like skipper rose out of the yuccas, only to return hovering and fluttering around the base of other yuccas and occasionally resting on bare ground or asphalt.  Shortly I spotted another along the roadside resting on asphalt.  Neither was terribly wary, allowing close approach even with my dinky point-and-shoot Lumix camera.

Success! My first Yucca Giant-skipper taking a break from buzzing the yuccas [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

Success! My first Yucca Giant-skipper taking a break from buzzing the yuccas [2015 APR 20, Hamilton Co TN; photo by REB]

The sun was quickly doused by rain clouds again, the breeze sprang up more fiercely, and both skippers disappeared back into the woods near the yuccas.  But not without indelibly imprinting on my memory!

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