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  • Writer's pictureljmarkson

A December Butterfly Brings Hope

In the middle of the brown landscape of winter a flash or orange and silver movement caught my eye. It startled me and when I looked a little closer, I realized it was a gulf fritillary butterfly. The joy of a new beginning and the sadness of knowing it was the wrong season for this butterfly to be eclosing (coming out of its chrysalis) hit me at once.

Seeing a gulf fritillary butterfly emerge in the winter brings with it a more complicated reaction than it does in the summer.

This happened on Christmas Eve, which is such a symbolic time. A butterfly emerging in December in Atlanta is as magical as Christmastime snow in Houston or Atlanta. I was lucky enough to live in both cities when this happened and there was only joyfulness all around at the improbability of it all.

When it snowed in Atlanta on December 25th back in 2010 there was only excitement. At our house it was all about making snowcats!

When a butterfly emerges and you realize it has a slim chance of survival, the joy is mixed with heartache though. To stop perseverating about the incongruity of the situation I took three meditative breathes and gave myself a space to appreciate the wonder of seeing a newly emerged butterfly in December.

I had to slow down my brain a bit to appreciate the wonder of seeing this beautiful butterfly in my Atlanta yard in the middle of winter.

Naturescaping my small, semi-urban yard gives me an insight into the natural world that I would never know if my yard was more traditionally landscaped. It’s a gift I cannot fully appreciate because I only have a rudimentary understanding of how everything works together and why. The possibility of miracles every day in such a tiny piece of the earth transcends human explanation.

I am in awe of nature every day in my naturescaped Atlanta yard. On December 24 a year ago, the light from rain, clouds and sun at dusk blanketed the landscape in a strange and beautiful red hue. At the exact same time of day a year later I saw a winter butterfly.

The peek into the natural world also challenges my wish that nature be kind and gentle. I took a few photos because the wings and body of the butterfly didn’t look right, came inside, and looked on the internet to see if there was anything I could do to help this poor butterfly. I try hard not to interfere with what goes on in my yard as much as possible, but I still have a hard time seeing any living creature die. One of my rules (that I don’t always follow!) is that if the danger is manmade, I can intervene, but if it is part of the natural order of things, I need to leave it alone. When I helped save gulf fritillary caterpillars from someone who didn’t want them on her passionflower vine, it fell in the manmade category. When I saved a caterpillar from a native spined soldier bug, I knew I was interfering and felt a bit guilty. Saving a caterpillar from an invasive stink bug is a little more of a grey area plus telling the difference between the spined soldier bug and stink bug can be tricky.

When I see spined soldier bugs preying on gulf fritillary caterpillars I have to work hard not to interfere. When I took these photos in early September I remained a bystander, but in the past I admit I've jumped in by removing a soldier bug or two that I found creeping on a passionflower vine.

Last winter, I found a green owlet looper caterpillar that had stowed away on a basil bouquet I brought in before the first frost. When it made a cocoon on the basil, I put it outside under some leaves. This time I also knew what to do about the butterfly. I still consulted the internet before reaffirming my decision to let it be. Whether it’s because of La Nina, climate change, or just a fluke of nature, I needed to just accept the butterfly was there for a reason. Maybe this happens all the time and I was just connected enough to my yard to see it.

When this stowaway owlet looper caterpillar made a cocoon inside on a basil bouquet, I put it back outside under some leaves for nature to sort out.

I decided to have another moment with the butterfly and maybe document it a bit better. I stopped when I saw a brown thrasher poking around the yard through my backdoor window. I’ve noticed the cardinals, thrashers, towhees, and other ground feeding birds like my yard better than the supplemental feeders and tend to show up just before it gets dark. I waited a few minutes until I was sure I wouldn’t be disturbing any birds getting their last bit of food before nighttime.

In the winter thrashers will stop by the platform feeder particularly if I put out dried mealworms or suet nuggets, but seem to prefer poking around in the leaves on the ground for insects at dawn and dusk. This photo of a thrasher was taken about half an hour before dark a few days before the butterfly incident.

When I looked where the butterfly had been she wasn’t there. It was dusk so I looked a little closer around where I thought she had been. My heart sank when I saw that all that was left of her were wings on the ground.

In my world a beautiful butterfly is more desirable than other insects, but in the context of a yard habitat, the butterfly’s two essential roles are as a pollinator and a member of the food web. In the summer and fall a butterfly can take cover and blend in with foliage and the flowers it pollinates. In the drab winter landscape, a butterfly stands out exposed to predators and there are few if any of the flowers it needs to survive around. A butterfly emerging in the winter is also an unexpected gift of much needed nutrients for a hungry bird. In less than 10 minutes I saw a healthy ecosystem in action and proof that there is great hope for restoring nature in rewilded yards. One of the challenges is accepting the complicated relationships nature creates and remaining a bystander, not an active participant.

If we can connect a pathway of healthy habitat yards throughout towns and cities, there is hope butterflies will again become part of our everyday ecosystem, not a rare sighting we feel compelled to intervene and help protect from the rough and tumble natural world...even when nature seems as out of sync to us as a winter butterfly.

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