The Chequered Sedge-skipper (Hesperilla mastersi) is one of around 125 Australian species belonging to the family Hesperiidae (Skippers and Darts). Most Skippers are small, brown and often difficult to distinguish, making them the butterfly equivalent of the birdwatchers’ “Little Brown Jobs”. Many members of the public completely overlook them, or mistake them for moths, and I’ve met some butterflyers who don’t bother with Skippers at all. I find them fascinating, especially those species I can actually identify 😉
The Chequered Sedge-skipper is not at all difficult to distinguish from other species, as the markings on its underside are very distinctive. It’s relatively large – by Skipper standards – with females reaching a wingspan of almost 40mm and the males just a tad smaller. The upperside markings in both sexes are very similar to those of its close relative the Flame Sedge-skipper (Hesperilla idothea), but the underside is like no other Australian butterfly, the brown ground colour being chequered with large cream-coloured markings. Fresh specimens are very beautiful, but even well-worn individuals still look quite striking.
I suspect one of the reasons why I prize this butterfly so much is the fact that it took me almost 6 years to find it. According to the Braby field guide the Chequered Sedge-skipper is “generally rare and very local”, meaning that although it occurs along the east coast from Victoria to SE Queensland it can only be found in small pockets of that range, and in low numbers.
I quickly grasped that I was unlikely to randomly encounter this butterfly whilst hiking through the bush. As mastersi is very much a hilltopping species, I did a bit of Googling to see if I could find any records of it on hills I could reach via public transport. As luck would have it, I found websites mentioning that it had been recorded from a few hilltops in Sydney’s northern beaches, notably Bushranger’s Hill and Bungan Head at Newport.
I therefore made a number of trips to Newport on the L90 bus (the notoriously bad service known locally as the “Hell 90”). I found Bushranger’s Hill to be very disappointing; it had been built up so much that to gain access I had to go part way up someone’s drive, and the bushland remaining at the hilltop was tiny. I spent a few hours there, listening to the cricket on the radio whilst watching one or two very common butterflies do their hilltopping thing on the trees.
Bungan Head was no better; I didn’t get any butterfly photos at either site on any of the occasions I visited them. Attunga Reserve, a couple of kms further north, was more productive as I did find a few useful butterflies there including my first Varied Sedge-skipper (Hesperilla donnysa); I even saw an Evening Brown (Melanitis leda) there once, much to my surprise. I never found any Chequered Sedge-skippers, though on one occasion a whole load of ticks found me.
In my first few years of butterflying I visited plenty of hills in a number of different locations. Other than the trips to the northern beaches I wasn’t looking specifically for mastersi, but for any interesting hilltopping species. On the whole these trips were very disappointing as I hardly ever found anything of interest at all, but eventually my luck turned.
The tide turns
In November 2009 I was with my mate Mick Sands on a hilltop near Blackheath in the Blue Mountains, looking for Ant-blues. Not long after we arrived Mick called me over to a butterfly a few metres below the peak of the hill and there – finally – was a mastersi. It was one of those coolish days with clouds predominating but the sun breaking through at times; typical Blackheath weather really. I think it was a bit cool for the mastersi, who just sat still on the tip of a low plant while I crept progressively closer, taking shots as I went. I ended up taking 8 or 9 shots of him, though they were all the same really except for the butterfly filling more and more of the frame as I got closer.
Whilst not quite a perfect specimen, he was a lovely thing to see, resplendent with his tawny-brown and cream markings. Unfortunately that was the only mastersi sighting that day, though we did see several other very interesting butterflies.
I didn’t see another Chequered Sedge-skipper for a year, until Al Hopkinson and I made our first trip to Mount Sugarloaf in November 2010. This is a well-known butterfly hilltop 25kms west of Newcastle, about 150kms north of Sydney. It’s quite an exciting place to visit; as soon as you reach the top of the steps at the end of the path from the carpark you see a number of butterflies swirling about overhead as they dogfight for territorial bragging rights.
It’s not actually a great site for butterfly photography; it has plenty of butterflies but many of them never appear to settle, and it has tall trees so even when they do land it’s usually too high for decent photos. Despite that, it is the most reliable site I know of for Hesperilla mastersi; I’ve been there a few times during the warmer months of the year (November to March) and they’ve always been there, provided the weather was halfway decent.
It was at Mount Sugarloaf that I first got to observe this species doing anything other than sitting still on a shrub. They frequently flew rapidly around the trees, around 4 metres up. Whilst they did often settle in the trees they were also prepared to land on the lower vegetation, where I could get close-up shots with my Macro lens. One individual seemed to be obsessed with the ugly green metal fence that runs around the perimeter of the hilltop, particularly with the top of one of the fence posts. I would have much preferred to get photos of him perching on a natural object, such as a twig or a rock, but no matter how many times I poked him with my finger he always returned to perch on the fence. I eventually sprayed his favourite fence post with a huge amount of Aerogard but it didn’t deter him in the slightest. Oh well, we all have our eccentricities. At least he was cooperative in other ways, allowing me to get photos of his underside and upperside, this being my first view of a mastersi with open wings.
Other specimens at Mount Sugarloaf have had a better understanding of how to pose for nature photos, so over the years I’ve been able to take some nice shots of them there :
More luck in the Blue Mountains
I’ve noticed a few times that once I’ve found a species of butterfly I keep on finding it, and it happened again with the Chequered Sedge-skipper. After the visit to Mount Sugarloaf I found mastersi again at Blackheath, at the hill where I’d first seen it but also at Hargraves Lookout at the end of Shipley Road, where a real beauty just sat and posed on a fallen branch. I’ve also found them at a couple of hills near Bell, whilst Al has seen them at Cahill’s Lookout at Katoomba (though I’ve not seen it there).
Some of those Blue Mountains hilltops have no tall trees, making it quite simple to get photos as – once settled – mastersi is usually easy to approach unless you trip and fall on top of it (as I once did). The absence of trees also makes it easier to observe this skipper in flight, though that’s still not easy because this butterfly is built for speed. It’s shaped like a bullet and flies rapidly even when it’s just running errands. If it encounters a rival mastersi, or its close relative the Flame Sedge-skipper (Hesperilla idothea), the resulting dogfight can see speeds escalate with combatants becoming dark blurs as they zip about at Warp 2.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see this lovely butterfly every year since I first photographed it. At the Blue Mountains sites I rarely see more than one or two on any particular day, and on some days they don’t show up at all, though on 01/12/2018 at Blackheath there were definitely more than half a dozen of them in one small area. They all seemed to be lovely fresh specimens, and since I can’t resist photographing them I found myself snapping away like a mad thing. Again.
A surprise at Ourimbah
In November 2018 I went butterflying at Ourimbah, about 80kms north of Sydney. This was one of several trips I made to the location in search of the White-brand Skipper (Toxidia reitmanni), as I only have a handful of lousy shots of it so I badly need upgrades. I never found reitmanni there but as I walked down a steep path, having fruitlessly searched the hillside, a much larger skipper flew past me and settled on a bush at the side of the path.
As the sun had just disappeared behind the thickening clouds the skipper was sitting with its wings closed, and one glance at the familiar chequered markings was enough for me to identify it as mastersi. Partly because I can’t resist them, and partly because it was a new location for me to see the species, I hovered about with my camera and took a few shots for the record. Then the sun came back out and the butterfly partially opened its wings; it was a female. I’d only ever seen hilltopping males before so this was a lovely surprise. I took as many photos as she’d allow; they weren’t fantastically sharp as her perch was moving about quite a lot in the strengthening breeze, but I’m not complaining.
Chequered Sedge-skippers (Hesperilla mastersi) from Al Hopkinson’s collection :