Hairstreak Butterflies Identification Guide

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picture of a Silver-banded Hairstreak

Hairstreaks, the subfamily (Theclinae) of butterflies in the Lycaenidae family, are generally, but not always identified by the small protruding hair at the bottom of the tail.

Most of the one hundred or so hairstreak species live in a geographically limited range. The Gray Hairstreak is an exception to that rule, with a range extending throughout most of the United States.

Hairstreaks divide into around a dozen different genera, with approximately two-thirds of the species belonging to one of three genera: Callophyrs; Satyrium; Strymon.

Hairstreak butterflies identification starts out straight forward, with the patterns on the underside of the wings serving as the basic identification clues. Most species are relatively small, the size of a penny or nickle when the wings are folded, so getting a large, accurate picture might be the most difficult identification task.

Hairstreak Butterflies: Callophrys

picture of a Western Pine Elfin butterfly-pictures

One quick glance at the butterfly pictures in this section alerts the reader to the fact that Callophrys figuratively translates into color. Taxonomic debate exists regarding genus organization, traditionally the North American species divide between the elfins and greens. Close to twenty documented species inhabit all areas of North America.

Elfin butterflies are a group of hairstreaks in the Callophrys genus often adopt a common name based on their habitat, such as the Desert Elfin and the Bog Elfin. One of the less colorful elfin species, the Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus), takes its common name from the relatively plain brown wings. Small populations of Brown Elfins thrive in most forest areas of North America, principally because their larvae have adapted to feeding on a variety of native plants, including blueberries.

It stands to reason that the larvae of the flashier looking, Western Pine Elfin (Callophrys eryphon), pictured here, feed on pine tree needles. They, along with the Eastern Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon) make their seasonal appearance during spring in pine forests throughout North America.

Callophrys also literally translates into green butterflies.

picture of a Sheridan's Hairstreak

Sheridan’s Hairstreak (Callophrys sheridanii), one of a handful of green hairstreaks found in the United States, shares some physical similarities with another species, the Western Green Hairstreak (Callophrys affinis).

Both species also share overlapping territory in portions of Western North America, and both species start the spring butterfly-pictures season in their respective territories.

Taking into account regional variations within species, Sheridan’s Hairstreak gets identified by the presence, more or less pronounced, of a white line across the green wing. In 2009, Wyoming designated the Sheridan’s green hairstreak as its official state butterfly-pictures.

picture of a nelson's hairstreak

Not to be outdone by the green butterflies, the seven Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) subspecies tend to adopt a few colorful looks. The picture shows the Nelson’s Hairstreak, which, in good sun, is fairly easy to identify by the purple shades on the wings.

picture of a Thicket Hairstreak

While the Thicket Hairstreak (Callophrys spinetorum) has a range that extends throughout much of western North America, finding one can be difficult.

The caterpillars feed on dwarf mistletoe, parasitic plants that feed on pine and cypress (Cupressaceae) trees. Logging management practices promote mistletoe eradication, so populations are thought to have declined over the years.

The brown wings on the underside, also show a row of some gray, orange and black spots on the hindwing, along with a white postmedian band.

Hairstreaks: Strymon

picture of a gray hairstreak butterfly

For practical purposes, the Gray Hairstreak (Strymon melinu) represents the Strymon genus of haristreaks in the United States. With the exception of portions of the northern Midwest and New England, the Gray Hairstreak inhabits most areas of North America.

Its extended range can be attributed to its adaptability. A variety of flowering plants, including members of the pea and mallow family serve as larval host plants. Adults also nectar on a variety of flowers.

The top picture shows its characteristic gray wings with orange spots on the border next to the protruding tail hairs. It is a bit larger in size compared to other hairstreak species.

picture of a Red-crescent Scrub-Hairstreak butterfly

On the other hand, the remaining dozen or so species in the genus are southern species, with limited representation in southern Florida, Texas and Arizona. The Red-crescent Scrub-Hairstreak (Strymon rufofusca), a less common tropical Strymon species, inhabits gardens around South Texas. The caterpillars feed on plants in the mallow family.

Satyrium Hairstreak Butterflies

picture of a behr's hairstreak butterfly

Many, but not all Satyrium caterpillars feed on oak leaves, the Behr’s hairstreak pictured, represents an exception to the rule. They are western butterflies with a range extending from east of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains to the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains.

picture of a California hairstreak butterfly

The California Hairstreak (Satyrium californica), another Western species, inhabits open areas near forests and stream sides.

The picture highlights two field identification marks. The top wing has slight orange marks along the border. The bottom wing has orange spots that book-end a black spot by the tail. Unlike many hairstreak species, the wings also have black dots rather than a postmedian line.

picture of a hedgerow hairstreak

The Hedgerow Hairstreak (Satyrium saepium), gets defined by the blue/dark spot near the white-tipped tail.

Unlike other Satyrium species, it lacks the orange spots along the wing borders. The copper color of the top of the wings, not shown in the picture, is more flashy than the underside of the wings.

Other Hairstreak Butterflies

The Silver-banded Hairstreak (Chlorostrymon simaethis), top picture, a tropical species, inhabits small areas of south Texas, south Florida and southern Arizona. Green wings bring color to the hairstreak scene along with making it fairly easy to identify

picture of a Great Purple Hairstreak

Great Purple Hairstreaks (Atides halesus) also contribute to the colorful hairstreak world. Larvae feed on mistletoe and adults prefer wooded habitat. They can be found in many southern areas of the United States that provide suitable habitat.

picture of a Dusky-blue Groundstreak butterfly

The Dusky-blue Groundstreak (Calycopis isobeon), one of two native calycopis species, inhabits forest areas in the subtropical Americas from Venezuela in the South, to South Texas in the north. Occasionally southern Arizona hosts a few visitors.

The picture highlights the insect’s dark orange markings, especially on the hindwing. The sky blue spot on the hindwing, directly under the second pair of tails adds another bit of flash.

Caterpillars feed on various forest floor leaves and adults nectar on flowers. They fly almost year round.

picture of a Clytie Ministreak butterfly

The Clytie Ministreak (Ministrymon clytie), one of three native North American Ministrymon, inhabit areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas and Southern Arizona.

The double tail and orange striped pattern on the underside of the wings are good field identification clues.