Monday, January 28, 2019

A Butterfly in Winter


On one of our walks the other day we saw so many things out enjoying the sunshine with us. It had warmed up enough for a little snake to be stretched out across the gravel trail at the marsh. It slithered away before we had a chance to take a photo. Then a ruby-crowned kinglet flitted about from tree to tree with wonderful exuberance. So many people were out walking as well. Everyone we crossed paths with smiled and said hello in that warm and cheerful way. Ah the very air was an invitation to the delights of the moment. Then we saw it... a butterfly. A butterfly in winter? No way. How is that even possible? But there it was floating in the air before us, and then landing on the trail. When I took a good long look at it and photographed it a few times, I thought I recognized what it was... a Mourning Cloak. I had seen one once before more than  a decade ago in Port Townsend, WA.

So, when we got home I googled around and verified it was indeed a Mourning Cloak. What is a butterfly doing out in winter? How is this possible? So I found some wonderful information about this species.
"The Mourning Cloak overwinters as an adult, which requires quite a bit of specialized biology. Hibernating adults can survive through the winter by use of “antifreeze” chemicals (glycerols) in their blood. They locate sheltered tree crevices where they will spend the winter.
On sunny days, even while there’s snow on the ground, some adults will emerge to feed on tree sap, especially oaks, and then return to their sheltered winter hiding place."
These butterflies even over-winter in as cold a place as Manitoba. Such strong and hearty little beauties they are.

There is something about seeing a butterfly in winter that is so full of the promise of spring. The little hidden lives and seeds out there, waiting for the right moment to emerge.  We were so happy to see it, we said hello and thanked it for showing up. Then we walked on.

34 comments:

  1. How interesting. We have a few butterflies that overwinter as adults and can get caught out by unexpected warm periods, in fact I had one overwintering in my shed last winter. It was gone when I thought about looking in the spring so I guess it survived - though I didn't know I had to check it for anti-freeze! Funny how everyone talks on sunny days, same happens here.

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    1. John-- It really surprised me to know that some butterflies overwinter. We loved seeing this one, for both its beauty and for giving us a glimpse into the unexpected.

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  2. On a recent visit to my Ozark cabin, when the weather was unseasonably temperate, we also saw a butterfly flitting about (as well as several other insects), and then we saw two ruddy bats going back and forth up the road. Were the bats out (in the daylight) because the insects had emerged? Even so, I hope they have found shelter again. The high on Wednesday this week is only 4 degrees!

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    1. Paul-- Interesting question about the bats. I hope they made it back to their shelter before the freezing temps head their way.

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  3. That must have been exciting, seeing that butterfly and then finding out so much about it. I love how you enjoy the moment.

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    1. Colette-- I had just been thinking the other day how much I missed seeing butterflies and dragonflies. To see this one truly delighted us.

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  4. "Adults live 10-11 months and may be our longest lived butterfly."

    Sweet to see this lovely overwintering butterfly first thing in the morning. Thank you for the photo and the link.

    This is such interesting information for me. It had been my impression that butterflies only lived for a brief portion of any given year -- that the winter part of their life cycle was as an egg -- that out in the world as a butterfly in winter was not conceivable in butterfly reality. If a Mourning Cloak were to try to explain winter to another species of butterfly, it might be met with bewilderment and disbelief.

    Now I'm wondering if I have ever seen a butterfly during the winter.

    I looked on Google for a photo or reference to a brown cloak worn for mourning because I don't think of that rich brown color with that black band with bright blue spots on it or that bright edge, so close in color to the radiant grass-covered California hills in summer sunlight, as mourning colors. I learned that, traditionally, any dark color was considered appropriate during the time of mourning in many cultures, although white is the color of mourning in some cultures.

    Hmmm.... The butterfly that lives the longest is associated with a cloak of mourning. That is something to think out. I can't help but wonder what grief prompted someone to identify what to me is a colorful butterfly with death and bereavement. On the other hand, why not wear a beautiful mourning cloak? You've given me so much to think about and feel today, robin andrea.

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    1. am-- I wondered about the meaning behind "mourning cloak" and the beauty of these wings. Hard to put it all together and truly something to think about on these gray days of winter.

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  5. What a beauty. I would have jumped for joy (literally) if I had seen it. And I LOVE how you said hello and thanked it. Warms my heart. What a lucky walk that turned out to be.

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    1. Sharon-- We love expressing our gratitude to some truly beautiful moments like this. You should hear our shout outs to a cresting whale!

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  6. That's really cool! I've never heard of that particular species, and the idea of an overwintering butterfly that emerges now and again is so surprising. What a great find!

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    1. Steve-- We loved seeing it and being surprised and delighted by its small presence. It's grand learning something new about butterflies.

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  7. Good for you to look up why a butterfly should be out in the winter.

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    1. Red-- I often say to Roger in times like these when we want to find out why we've just seen or heard something, "Go get the learning machine, Pa!" We always laugh about it, but these internets do have so much to tell us, and sometimes it's true!

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  8. I am so glad you looked it up for I too was stunned. Antifreeze huh? Wow, nature is certainly creative.

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    1. Patti-- I found other references to "antifreeze" and the overwintering butterflies. The Oregonian newspaper had this to say, "The blood of some butterfly species contains natural antifreeze agents -- glycerol and sorbitol -- which allow them to live in certain stages of their life cycle during subfreezing temperatures. During this period, their development comes to a standstill and vital functions are kept at bare minimum." Pretty wild, literally and figuratively.

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  9. I saw the photo and knew what it was before I even read your post because they are very common and one of my favorites here in New England. So my first reaction was "They've got them in California as well!" For all that, I still haven't gotten a photo of one that I'm pleased with, because I usually see them flitting through the woods faster than I can negotiate the undergrowth.
    What a blessing to see one on a lovely warm day! Yay!

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    1. CCorax-- We don't see them very often, but to see one on a winter day was such a crazy surprise. We loved it.

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  10. Amazing what a day of sunshine does to lift everyone's spirits. How fortunate that you saw the butterfly. I'm sure it added to your good spirits.

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    1. NCmountainwoman-- After days and days of rain, sunshine is the most welcome sight. That and butterflies in winter!

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    1. Catalyst-- I'm so glad, like the butterfly in the sunlight.

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  12. What a find and thanks for sharing.

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    1. Sabine-- One of the few sights this winter that needed to be shared.

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  13. Well now way would a butterfly survive in the winder here, it's around freezing point with snow on the way

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    1. Billy-- I was so surprised to read that these butterflies have been known to over-winter in Manitoba. That's really, really cold Canada. They're tough!

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  14. Glad you got the species. Don't know if I've seen one before, but I'll be on the lookout now.

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    1. Phil-- On warm sunny days in winter, they come out. We saw one in Port Townsend in May of 2007. Seems so long ago.

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  15. Neat that you saw a Mourning Cloak. They do appear here in late winter or early spring. It always feels like that's the end of winter when one flies by. Don and I used to see them basking on sunny patches of hiking trails when we would be out in the very early spring when there was even some snow still on the ground.

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    1. bev-- It was such a surprise to see this butterfly. After quite a bit of rain and cold temps, on a sunny day it flew out for that warmth. We were out walking for the same reason!

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  16. I don't think we will be seeing butterflies here in NH for awhile, but when we lived on the VA eastern shore, it was fun to take photos and then look up to find info about the butterflies. I don't recall seeing the one your captured.
    Thanks also for the birthday wishes from a fellow "NJ" native. What town did you live in . . .I lived in Plainfield, South Plainfield, Somerville and Beachwood before we relocated to VA and now to NH.

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    1. Beatrice-- I was surprised to discover that the Mourning Cloak can be found in places as cold as Manitoba in winter. Maybe on a really warm sunny day there in NH, you'll see one.
      Ah New Jersey, I was born in Newark in 1952. My family moved to the suburb of Fords in Middlesex County in 1960. We stayed there until 1970 when my twin brother and I graduated from high school. Then the family moved to California.

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  17. i love how conscious you two are of the living earth around you.

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    1. 37paddington-- We're in love with our beautiful planet.

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