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Critically Endangered Rare Skipper in Eagles Island Wetlands

Construction Threatens Critically Imperiled Butterfly in Eagles Island Wetlands

by Morgan Greene

The golden butterflies pictured below are rare skippers (Problema bulenta), and if you want to see them in North Carolina, the only place you’ll find them is in the wetlands of Eagles Island. In fact, no one knew whether the skippers still existed in our state until wildlife biologist and owner of Wilmington Outdoor Adventures, Kay Lynn Hernandez, recently rediscovered them.

Rare skippers are attracted to Pickerelweed, also known as Pickerel Rush (Pontederia cordata).

Photo © Bryan Putnam, Art-Sublimina-Photography.com

Hernandez first spotted the skippers on one of her kayaking ecotours and subsequently spent weeks trying to photograph them to confirm her sighting. The rare skippers are quite shy and typically fluttered away whenever Hernandez got close, but she wasn’t alone in her mission: many ecotour clients were eager to help and would email her butterfly photos they’d taken during their tours. When Hernandez finally captured the skippers on her phone, she sent the pictures to NC State to be identified by the university’s resident lepidopterist, Matt Bertone.

Sadly, these photos were not high enough quality for Bertone to accurately identify the butterflies as rare skippers. Because rare skippers are critically imperiled in North Carolina, Hernandez knew getting a second chance to photograph the butterflies was unlikely.

“I was afraid we’d never see [them] again,” says Hernandez. “There could be fewer than five to twelve individuals remaining, to get that kind of conservation status.”

Undeterred, Hernandez called her friend and professional photographer Bryan Putman, and the two set out for Eagles Island in hopes of getting a proper photograph. After six hours of searching, they miraculously stumbled upon the skippers again. Putman took the photograph featured on this page, which was successfully used to identify the skippers and prove that they still reside on Eagles Island.

The rare skipper is a wetland species that feeds primarily on aquatic plants like pickerelweed and arrowhead, both of which grow in Eagles Island. Unfortunately, Eagles Island may soon be unable to support the skippers, which could lead to the species’ extinction in North Carolina. There are two proposals for construction in Eagles Island: Battleship Point and Wilmington Hotel and Spa. This development would likely spell doom for the golden butterflies.

“We looked at a plan one of the engineers was working on … and it just has this massive footprint,” says Hernandez regarding the plans for Wilmington Hotel and Spa. “It’s really in a wetland. There’s just enough upland for them to legally build on it, but they haven’t left any space … for any stormwater or impacts from the building to be dealt with before it impacts the wetlands around it. And of course, the river.”

Finding a critically imperiled species would be enough to raise alarm over the negligently planned construction for Eagles Island, not to mention the impact the construction could have on the wetlands and surrounding ecosystems. However, there is yet another crack in these proposals that cannot be overlooked: Eagles Island is a part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

When Hernandez leads ecotours around Eagles Island, she focuses on the wetland’s cultural history just as much as its wildlife. She particularly focuses on the lasting impact of the Gullah Geechee, a group of people kidnapped from Africa’s west coast for their society’s advancements in rice cultivation. The enslaved Gullah Geechee not only hand dug Eagles Island’s rice canals, but engineered the canal system themselves, which still exists today for Hernandez to lead ecotours through.

“There’s so much history, important history, that I feel like people need to be aware of out there,” says Hernandez. “Not just people who are residents here, but also visitors … who might consider moving here one day, so they’ll be good stewards of our coastal ecosystems once they do arrive.”

Kay Lynn Hernandez paddles along Eagles Island in the hopes of seeing Pickerelweed or Arrowhead flowers because she might then spot a Rare Skipper.

Photo © Bryan Putnam, Art-Sublimina-Photography.com

If the construction planned for Eagles Island is carried out, an important wetland will be contaminated, a cultural heritage site will be degraded and some of the last remaining rare skippers on our planet will almost surely be wiped out. Let’s spread the word and hope that the Eagles Island stakeholders change their minds, choosing to save these little golden butterflies over yet another towering hotel.

Morgan Greene is a junior at UNCW majoring in biology with a concentration in freshwater and terrestrial conservation. She enjoys sharing fun facts about insects and other tiny animals on her blog, The ArthroBlogger, found at thearthroblogger.com.

Kay Lynn Hernandez is the owner of Wilmington Outdoor Adventures. Learn more about the company at www.wilmingtonoutdooradventures.com.

About the Rare Skipper

The rare skipper is a very small butterfly that lives along the Atlantic coast in fresh or brackish tidal marshes and abandoned rice paddies. Its upperside is yellow-orange with black borders; the borders are wider in the female. It is endangered and vulnerable to extinction. In North Carolina, the only two counties where it has been reported since 1980 are Brunswick and New Hanover, according to Butterflies of North Carolina: Their Distribution and Abundance by Harry LeGrand and Tom Howard. (See https://auth1.dpr.ncparks.gov/nbnc/a/accounts.php.)

How did Kay Lynn Hernandez know to look for the rare skipper on Eagles Island? She had seen two plants that she knew to be attractive to the skipper: Pickerelweed and Arrowhead. When these native plants were in flower, she knew to look in their vicinity.

Pickerelweed, or Pontederia cordata, has heart-shaped leaves, and can be three feet tall. It produces a six-inch spike of small purple flowers that bloom from the bottom up.

Bulltongue Arrowhead, or Sagittaria lancifolia, pictured on our cover, is a broadleaf wetlands plant that can grow to three feet tall throughout the Southeast. It has striking white flowers.