Spring Butterflies: Five of the Earliest

Butterfly season peaks in the summer, but a few begin to fly on warmer sunny days in the spring. Of the approximately 30 different species that I see each year in Eliza Howell Park, there are five that are always among the earliest to appear.

1.Mourning Cloak

mourning cloak

Photo by Margaret Weber

Butterflies have different ways of surviving the winter. Some few migrate; some overwinter as chrysalis and complete development in the spring; some hibernate as adults. Mourning Cloak is one that hibernates, under bark or a log, and emerges, as soon as the weather is warm enough, to feed on sap and rotten fruit and to get minerals and moisture from the soil. It looks much less colorful when the wings are folded.

2.Eastern Comma

20180404_171922

The butterflies that overwinter as adults locally are the earliest to take flight in the spring. Eastern Comma also hibernates and it, or Mourning Cloak, is usually the very first I see. Early in the spring, it feeds on sap and decaying organic material. Even later in the year, it is rarely seen on flowers.

The underwings are brown with a white mark in the general shape of a comma.

3.Spring Azure

Resized_20180724_122719_1731

The Spring Azure is a blue butterfly that overwinters as chrysalis. It is very small and, when seen flying or with the wings open, the blue is striking. Whenever it allows me to take its picture, however, it has its wings closed and shows no blue at all. Early in the spring, the azure does not visit flowers, but later in the season it (or the subspecies Summer Azure) does. This picture was taken later in the year and is likely a Summer Azure.

4.Cabbage White

Resized_20190322_142031_1838

One of only two non-native butterfly species that have become widespread in North America, Cabbage White also spends the winter as chrysalis. When the wings are open, the dark spots on the wings are evident as is the black on the tip. The name comes from the fact that Cabbage White caterpillars often feed on plants in the cabbage family.

5.Red Admiral

20190322_141831

The Red Admiral is one of the butterflies that migrate south for the winter. When the wings are folded, the insect is drab-looking, with only a small bit of orange showing. It too will take sap and decaying organic material until flowers bloom and then it is usually seen nectaring. The picture was taken in the summer.

—-

In July, when thousands of wildflowers are blooming in the fields of Eliza Howell, butterflies are numerous. During April, before the flowers bloom, there are only a few on some of the warmer sunny days. But for those of us eager to see butterflies again and to delight in the very fact that they are appearing again, the season begins.

Advertisements

Six Hibernating Animals: See You in April

Animals have different ways of surviving winter in locations like Michigan where temperatures fall below freezing and the usual food sources are scarce or absent. Some (especially birds and mammals) find sufficient food options and remain active all winter. Some (especially insect-eating birds) migrate to a warmer climate for the season. Some (especially insects) survive only in the egg or pupa stage that will grow into the next generation of adults in the spring. And some hibernate.

I am using the term “hibernation” here to mean an adult remaining in an inactive or dormant condition, in the same sheltered location, all or most of the winter. Mammals (such as bears or groundhogs) may be the hibernators that we think of first, but many “cold-blooded” animals like reptiles, amphibians, insects, and crustaceans also hibernate.

On a recent walk, I started thinking of species that I find every year in Eliza Howell Park that are now hibernating. They include these six.

1.Eastern Chipmunk

20181210_131653

While tree squirrels remain active all winter, often relying on the food (especially nuts) that they stored in the fall, the chipmunk, the only ground squirrel in EHP, hibernates. It stores some food for the winter in its winter burrow and eats when it awakens from time to time during the winter, before returning to its dormant winter condition.  It will emerge in the spring, when I often see the first of the year near the path by the river on a sunny day.

2. Common Garter Snake

20180419_180338

I was walking in the park in the afternoon on December 2 this year when I was surprised to see a Garter Snake. My first thought was “I thought you would be hibernating.” They usually are in their den well before December, but this was a warm day (68 degrees), so it may not have been quite ready to settle down for the winter.

The non-venomous Garter Snake, with its three stripes along its roughly 2 feet length, is the only snake species that I encounter with any regularity in Eliza Howell Park.

3.Mourning Cloak

mourning cloak

Photo by Margaret Weber

The Mourning Cloak is the first butterfly species I expect to see in the spring. Different from almost all other butterflies in our region, it overwinters as an adult rather than in a developing stage or by migrating – and this is the explanation for its early emergence. It finds a hidden location, such as under bark, seeking protection from the birds that forage for insect life all winter. The location may not protect it from freezing temperatures, but it can survive them.

4.Land Snail

20181211_105702

In early October, these (Brown-lipped?) land snails were common in the wild flowers, climbing plants to consume dying leaves. Around first frost they settle down for the winter. They use their mucus to close the shell mouth and protect themselves from the cold. Before they seal themselves in, they find a location under rocks or ground litter protected from the cold and stay there until it is time to emerge in the spring. (Note “The Snails Have Returned,” April 18, 2018.)

5.Groundhog

20170607_163949

This picture, taken in June, is of a half-grown immature Groundhog. Adults mate shortly after they emerge from hibernation in the spring. Groundhogs use burrows throughout the year, but they sometimes dig a separate one for the winter. They settle in below the frost line, rely upon their stored body fat, and sometimes lose half their weight during the months of winter. I don’t know if any of the Eliza Howell groundhogs check the weather on February 2, but, if one does, no one is there watching.

6.American Toad

20180720_141814

Except for gathering at the breeding pond for an intense couple of days in April (See “American Toad Breeding Pond,” July 23, 2018), adult American Toads live quite solidary and nocturnal lives. In the Fall, they dig winter burrows with their feet, sometimes up to three feet deep. When the weather begins to warm and the insects become more active, they emerge and soon after, when the air temperature and the body temperature are right, the males will head to the breeding pond and call the females. (Some of us toad watchers will be listening.)

While the dates vary somewhat, I usually see each of these species for the first time in April. Until then, I wish them a peaceful winter.