Last Thursday was an auspicious day in the garden, made pleasant by sightings of three stately monarch butterflies and made thrilling by a truly rare visitor: Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis).
A week ago on October 3, the hottest day on record in North Carolina for the month of October (100 degrees) I ran out into the garden at midday (it was only 98°F. then) to greet and photograph a trio of monarchs nectaring at the zinnias. The butterflies scattered as I approached. I followed one to the large perennial lantana shrub, where it settled at the back, at the fence side where I would not be able to get close enough for a good photo.
Biding my time, I turned my camera to a dark butterfly that settled just at front left of me. Its hindwing was edged with white fringe.
The monarch I’d been following lifted up and resettled, unfortunately still keeping its distance. No good pictures there.
With one eye on the monarch I turned back to snap a few more images of the other butterfly.
The monarch floated upward and alit again well out of reach of my camera. Okay, then…
I turned attention back to the more cooperative butterfly. By now I had the sense there might be more than one. I can’t be sure of that now, but did I make a mental note of the sequence of pictures so as not to confuse individuals. Subconsciously I was already thinking of posting an image on iNaturalist. This one was to my right slightly deep in the shadows.
As I moved in the camera sensors adjusted and the butterfly started coming into focus.
Ah, there it opened its wings.
By this time it was feeling like the hottest day ever and I ran indoors. When I had time to check out the pictures, I first googled “black skipper 4 white spots” followed by “black skipper 4 white spots and white edging.” Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) came up quickly but I dismissed it after seeing its range as Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas south to Argentina.
Soon I turned to iNaturalist which compares an uploaded photograph to its vast database of images and makes its top ten species suggestions. Usually the top choice will be labelled “visually similar” and “seen nearby.” I normally accept the top suggestion and then wait and hope for the iNaturalist community to verify. Same as my google search, Funereal Duskywing (Erynnis funeralis) came up in iNaturalist as the top recommendation but it was missing the “seen nearby” designation.
After a couple days, no one on iNaturalist had responded. (Sometimes it takes only a couple minutes, but not this time. The entry remains unconfirmed there.) Barely about to contain my curiosity I turned to a new Facebook group I had just joined, Carolina Leps (Butterflies and Moths). As I was a brand new member I hesitated for a couple days before getting up the confidence to post an inquiry and photos for such an unlikely find.
But I should not have worried. One of the group members, Richard Stickney, soon answered it sure looked like one to him. Stickney is, it turns out, Butterfly House Curator at the NC Museum of Life and Science, an 84-acre science museum in nearby Durham. I was so grateful for his response. He confirmed the species is very rare in the eastern US and he indicated he would like to stop by to see it. By the time Richard came by on Monday, of course the butterfly was not to be found. I have not observed the butterfly again since those few minutes when I distractedly photographed it while waiting for the monarchs to pose. Stickney pointed out the dustywing could be well out of the area by now continuing on its path or even snapped up by a bird. I keep looking out for it though.
Another butterfly expert in the Carolina Leps group, Jeff Pippen, also replied:
Yes, this looks excellent for Funereal Duskywing — a great record for NC! There are only about 2 previous reports for NC, both along the southeast coast. Very glad you got good photos!
Now Funereal Duskywing, rarely seen along the eastern US, is documented in Piedmont region of NC. How cool is that! I am glad I got up the nerve to share the pictures and ask for help with the identification. Thanks for Richard and Jeff for their responses. I am very excited to have contributed this observation.