It has been our practice to keep a hummingbird feeder going until finally convinced no straggler could conceivably arrive in need of a quick energy drink. This year, thanks mainly to a clever hairy woodpecker who removes the silly yellow flower decals most hummingbird feeders are fitted with, the feeder is now simply acting as a trap for bees and flies (until we learned to put  a DEET-soaked rag in the feeder support, there were earwigs in it, too; this works).

At this point, no self-respecting hummingbird would drink this stuff, but for the first time ever I noticed or saw one, a butterfly is drinking from our feeder. I have to think the bigger-diameter holes enable this insect to get to the “nectar,” not to mention access for bees and flies.

Adding to my surprise, I identified the butterfly as a mourning cloak butterfly. Had it confirmed by, among others, the author of the new field guide Butterflies of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Steven Poole. I was glad for the confirmation, because I was pretty much just leafing through his book. Reminiscent of our first bumbling attempt to identify birds by flipping through pages of an early Peterson field guide, then mostly with black-and-white illustrations.

Back to mourning cloak butterflies. Very interesting. Believed to be the longest-living butterfly in North America, 10 to 12 months. This means that mourning cloaks overwinter in Jackson’s Hole, and that explains why they can emerge on mild late-winter or spring days already flying about, seeking a mate. (Two other regional butterflies emerge from hibernation as adults: red admiral and Milbert’s tortoiseshell.)

Mourning cloak butterflies are dark brownish to almost black on their upper sides, with a yellowish border on each wing. Wingspan is from 2.25 to 4 inches. Close examination shows a row of blue spots inside each border. The wings are unusual because they are irregular in shape and feature projections; certainly what first attracted my attention. Then I noted other field marks as this particular butterfly persisted in getting to the bird feeder despite a swarm of flies that appeared to try to deter it. When it did land – on frequent forays – it fed head down.

This particular butterfly, as I believe it to be, has returned for at least seven straight days. The literature on this insect suggests it is actually territorial. Interesting. As the seasons progress and the weather cools, it produces antifreeze chemicals in its body, permitting it to hibernate.

Some butterfly species migrate to escape winter – monarch and painted lady butterflies. Other species use strategies including survival as an egg or larvae or chrysalis and, as with mourning cloaks, as adults. Fascinating.

Apropos of nothing above, I’d like to propose that (1) people use name tags more often and specifically (2) wear bigger name tags with really large letter fonts. Huge, even. After all, if the idea is identification, well ...

Field Notes: One would think no one would have complained about the nice weather of the recent past days, full-on Indian summer days as I write this. However, having some knowledge of my fellow Jackson Holites, why – don’t count on it. (Don’t count on continued nice weather, either). Sure pretty, though, cool nights, warm afternoons, breezy. Leaves coming down, brightly colored or simply tired out. Some trees haven’t made up their minds about this year’s pigmentation. Well! Now I’m anthropomorphizing trees. Why not talk to ’em.

A paucity of observations from y’all. Guess you’re all busy with Nature Mapping and getting your firewood in. Some reports of moose down in the valley and commencing their breeding activity. (BR: Interesting phrasing, that.) Elk hunting has begun, so look for some big bulls on the refuge shortly. Folks familiar with the habits of chipmunks are surprised these small mammals are still out and active.

Bird life dwindles. Many birds have migrated or are slipping away. Yellow-rumped warblers are still in some number (Susan Patla). On Sunday,  a lone ruby-crowned kinglet stopped off to forage in an aspen tree in my view. It seemed to be finding plenty to eat. The busiest place out my window is the hummingbird feeder; not for birds, for yellow jackets and flies. And one mourning cloak butterfly.

Friends have assured me that the day this publishes will be cold and stormy. I don’t make weather forecasts. But it is about that time. As the top tier of journalists and TV anchors are wont to say, we’ll just have to see.

© Bert Raynes 2009

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Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.

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