Such a spring-like day...
Well, that's how it felt just the other day, what with everything sprouting some green, startling light in the morning, and then low, dark, clouds with sprinkles and a lush wind.
I think such dark, humid, cool days transport me back to my Celtic roots -- my northern European heritage of cool forests, maritime moisture, misty moors and the like. It seems like a perfect moment when it briefly happens here.
The mourningcloak butterfly is quite common in Flagstaff this spring. It has brown wings with a light yellow band across the bottom. After overwintering as adults, they didn't emerge all that long ago, ready for mating season to commence.
The males are territorial. There is one "guarding" the plum hedge in my front yard; he's been at it for several days. I've watched him chase away other mourningcloaks; when a male intrudes, an upward spiraling dance begins, they go quite high chasing each other into the sky, and then bolt across neighboring yards in one direction and then the other ... so much work.
The victorious male perched on a low wall and gently fanned his wings, trying to cool down, I'll bet. This is repeated many times a day.
Adults prefer to feed on plant sap, such as that oozing from bark, and rotting fruit, rarely eating nectar; I guess they're not very active pollinators.
So why are they guarding my blooming hedge? Maybe good habitat.
Eggs will be laid on host plants soon, a ring of eggs surrounding a stem. The caterpillars grow quickly, feeding on leaves, then pupate and emerge as adults just in time to overwinter. Go figure.
This butterfly occurs throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, where its main plant host, willow, is most common. Its caterpillars also feed on cottonwood, hackberry and elm. Its populations are regarded as being in pretty good shape these days.
Such serendipity. Yes, here come the spring winds just as Siberian elm and cheatgrass are about ready to let their wind-adapted seeds go. No wonder both are doing so well here, requiring our vigilance in controlling cheatgrass, especially, wherever we can. Its threat to animals cannot be overstated, piercing skin, lungs, ears and the like. Please pull it where you can.
Gwendolyn Waring is the author most recently of "A Natural History of the Intermountain West: Its Ecological and Evolutionary Story," published last year by University of Utah Press. She has lived in Flagstaff since 1975.