Four-winged spring beauties

Mourning Cloak

I’ve been very excited and wrapped up with the moths I’ve been catching in the last couple of weeks, but they’re not the only lepidopterans the warm weather has brought out. On the same lovely, warm day that I encountered the Infants, I also came across three butterfly species. The first, and certainly most abundant of these, was the above: Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa. From a distance and while flying, Mourning Cloaks look dark, almost black, and these shrouded robes give the butterfly its name. Up close, especially when sunbathing, it is a rich maroon, fringed with sky-blue dots and a soft yellow border – colours not usually seen in flight (except for the pale margin, which makes it easy to identify). Even the Kaufman guide to butterflies chooses not to show these bold colours, depicting the species instead as dark brownish-black with just a handful of brighter blue spots along the hindwing. Next time you see one sunbathing, take the opportunity to sneak up on it and peer closely. The colours are amazing.

It’s found through nearly all of North America, except the majority of Nunavut and the high arctic, as well as much of northern Eurasia, where it is known as Camberwell Beauty. Older names for the species included Grand Surprise (I love this one) and White Petticoat. The Mourning Cloak is usually the first butterfly spotted on the earliest warm spring days. The species can be seen most of the year, except for the cold winter months. Adults emerge from pupae in the late summer, build up fat over the fall period, and spend the winter hibernating. They emerge early in the spring, when the sun begins to warm the landscape and melt the winter’s snow cover, often looking a little tatty around the edges. Mating occurs in spring and early summer, and the larvae spend the summer developing and pupating before the cycle begins again. Because they hibernate as adults, they live longer than most butterflies, up to 10 months from their late summer emergence to their early summer death (if you can call their frozen torpor in winter “living”).

Compton's Tortoiseshell

Another species that spends the winter as an adult is the Compton Tortoiseshell, Nymphalis vaualbum. Despite the difference in appearance, it is classified in the same genus as the Mourning Cloak. The similarity is clearer when the butterflies are viewed from the underside. They have a similar range as the Mourning Cloak, occurring in both the Old and New Worlds, but their distribution is more restricted, found neither as far north or south. In North America, they are generally associated with dense woodlands of Canada and New England, but sometimes stray some distance beyond this narrow range.

Last spring was the first year that I observed this species, even though they’re not uncommon, and I had been paying at least casual attention to butterflies for years. I suspect I may have passed many previous observations off as being of Painted or American Ladies, which look similar. These latter species actually migrate south for the winter, as they can’t tolerate prolonged freezing temperatures. I only realized that what I had was different when I got home and examined the photos I had taken that day. It took me a while to identify it because the photo in the Kaufman guide is significantly darker than the individuals I’ve seen, however the white spot at the leading (top front) edge of the hindwing is diagnostic. This isn’t a great photo of it; the individual I saw was very flighty, and wouldn’t let me get close.

Eastern Comma

While I expected to encounter the previous two species, this one was a surprise to me. It’s an Eastern Comma, Polygonia comma, in the same taxonomic tribe but a different genus from the other two above. I had never seen a comma (or its close relation, the Question Mark) this early in the spring, but it shouldn’t have surprised me so. Yet another group of species that spend the winter hibernating as an adult, commas apparently occasionally come out on warm winter days, though I’ve never seen one do that here. Eastern Commas have two colour morphs, a dark and a light, which occur according to season. The winter/spring morph is the light one, with the summer/fall individuals having dark hindwings. The group is named for a silvery comma-shaped mark on the underside of their hindwings, which otherwise look like a dead leaf or loose piece of bark when folded closed. The Question Mark looks almost identical from above, and is most easily distinguished by the addition of a small silvery dot at one end of the comma, which gives it its common name. The Eastern Comma is interesting in that it doesn’t often visit flowers for food, but rather feeds at sap drips and rotting fruit, supplementing these with minerals obtained at mudpuddles or dung.

I’m now up to a couple dozen species of moth, and three species of butterfly, so far this spring season, and the season has barely started yet – we’re not even at April! I am constantly amazed at the circumstances that landed us here, in this location, and give thanks that we’re lucky enough to call such a place home.


April redux

Jumping spider

Towards the end of April I happened across a few observations that I thought would be interesting to post as a wrap-up to earlier topics.

This first one is going back to the jumping spider that I watched pounce at (and miss) a smaller brown spider. The following week I came across the above perched on one of the legs of my tripod. It was huge! Well, relative to my first little guy. It was easily a centimeter and a half long. Black and hairy, with striking orange markings, hard to miss. But the most eye-catching thing about this little spider was its fangs, a radiant metallic green.

The spider belongs to the genus Phidippus, but I’m unsure of the species. The metallic fangs are characteristic of this group, and are used in impressing females in courtship dances. The genus is primarily restricted to North America, and includes some of the larger jumping spider species. Julie Zickefoose apparently has a little black one that keeps her company while working. His name is Boris.

Jumping spider with prey

A bit earlier, I had found this guy hanging out on the wall of the station building. Unlike the individual from my original post, this one had had better luck hunting. He’s munching on a midge, which are extremely common down there.

Worn Compton Tortoiseshell

I came across this butterfly at the end of the morning one day. It was flitting from one tree to another and paused at this birch briefly. I identified it as a Painted Lady, and didn’t really give it much further thought. Then, while preparing the photos for this post I decided I should just double-check that it was a Painted and not an American, because I couldn’t remember which one had the spot on the wing. Well, turned out it was neither. I hunted through the entire Kaufman guide to butterflies twice before realizing that it was an extremely worn, rather orange Compton Tortoiseshell. The first one I’ve ever seen. But now I wonder if I’d been seeing them but writing them off as the more common Ladies.

Worn Compton Tortoiseshell at sapsucker well

It was pausing at the birch trees, and when I looked closer I realized it was drinking sap from fresh sapsucker wells. This species overwinters as an adult and comes out in early spring, much the way Mourning Cloaks do. Because it’s still quite early for nutrition in the form of flower nectar, they take some of their food from other sweet sources, such as sap wells (mentioned in the original post about the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker).

Mourning Cloak at Pussy Willow

And finally, returning to the Pussy Willows. The same day I had the tortoiseshell, I also observed three or four Mourning Cloaks visiting the buds of this Pussy Willow. For the same reason that the tortoiseshell was sipping at the sap wells, these Mourning Cloaks were drinking the nectar available from the female flowers of the willow. I love the velvety red-black of the wings in sunlight. Most butterflies I see that overwinter as adults look a little ratty in the spring. The tortoiseshell had a chunk missing from its wing like a bird had snapped at it. This Mourning Cloak seems to be missing a piece from its hindwing.