Friday, April 10, 2009

Spring Awakening

Serviceberry is in bloom. A Red-tailed Hawk called. This was all I wrote in my field notes as I sat in the car, before driving back down the mountain. I thought I must be just too high up to see anything this time of year, when a Mourning Cloak, Nymphalis antiopa, fluttered by. I grabbed my camera, jumped out of the car and hurried after it. Finally, it settled down to bask in the sun and I was able to move within inches for a good close-up. On sunny days, like this one, the butterfly’s dark color allows it to raise its temperature above the air temperature. Once it has warmed up, it can take flight again. Click, click, click, I quickly took photos before it flew to find droplets of tree sap for lunch. In the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Butterflies, Robert Pyle states that “upon the approach of a predator, the Mourning Cloak makes a “click” sound when flying away from rest.” I was making way too much of my own noise to hear that!

Through the screen on my camera I could see the lacy edge and blue spots on its beautiful wings. The common name, Mourning Cloak, comes from it’s resemblance to cloaks worn when our ancestors were mourning the death of someone close. This one had a few torn edges to its cloak, perhaps the sign of a rough winter. They are one of the first butterflies to be seen in the spring because they overwinter as adults, often hiding behind loose bark and in other crooks and crannies. The caterpillar form of this species, Spiny Elm Caterpillar, feeds on leaves of poplar, willow, elm and hackberry. By the time the eggs hatch the leaves should be out. I don’t know if this one will be a father or a mother, since there is no obvious difference other than size.

A flash of blue caught my eye when a Spring Azure butterfly landed on a pile of dung nestled among a cluster of mushrooms. Watching it take a sip of dung juice, I thought, for such a pretty little thing it has awful taste in cuisine. At least I imagine it to taste awful. When they drink up the nutrients, their wings are folded together over their backs, hiding the brilliant blue scales on top.

As it flew off, my eyes followed to a Cutleaf Toothwort I hadn’t noticed before. Kneeling down on all fours to take a close up, I spotted a Spring Beauty in flower. It was as if someone was planting flowers and releasing butterflies while I crawled around on the damp forest floor. My eyes were opening and I was now seeing flowers and butterflies everywhere. Did I not see all this earlier because it was not here or was I just now aware and awake from a long winters nap? A friend had a similar experience when I taught her to survey dragonflies. She thought of herself as observant, but now after she had focused on dragonflies, she was amazed that she was seeing them everywhere. She just couldn’t get over it. .
I remember my mother telling me about her first sight of the Monarch butterflies wintering on the trees at Pismo Beach, California. She didn’t see the Monarchs until one flew, and then she could see that all those dead leaves were really butterflies. I think part of it is developing what Naturalists call a “search image,” and the other part is just waking up and focusing. I hate to think of how many times I wander the forest with my mind asleep, not seeing what is right before me. When I do see, it is truly wonderful like that day up on the mountain.

The photos were all taken by me. Be sure to click on the photos to make them larger. You can find more photos of my morning on the mountain at:

1 comment:

Trillium said...

stunning photos, and charming story. I was right there with you.