On a sunny, relatively warm, Saturday, March 9th I saw my first butterfly of the season. It was a Mourning Cloak at a small West Seattle Park, Orchard St Ravine, a pocket of nature hidden a little ways below the top of High Point hill. The Mourning Cloak - Nymphalis antiopa is one of a handful of species in the Nymphalini tribe, including the Anglewings, Tortoiseshells and Ladies, that winter over in the adult stage, and may fly on any especially warm, sunny day in winter. It was repeatedly flying around, then landing in the sun to gather solar energy. They lay their clusters of eggs on a diversity of broad leafed deciduous trees, but I’ve seen the caterpillars mostly on willows.
I’m now betting that the next butterfly I see will be another member of the Nymphalini tribe, the Satyr Anglewing - Polygonia satyrus, our most common early spring Seattle butterfly. If the weather is right, we may see them in my Sunday, April 7th Camp Long walk: Salamanders and Slugs, Spring Butterflies and Birds of Camp Long!
The Satyr Anglewing lays its eggs only on Stinging Nettles – Urtica dioica, the most important “host plant” for our Seattle butterflies, as 3 of our local butterfly species only lay eggs on this species, and 2 more can lay on both nettles and other species. It won’t be long before it’s time to look for the Satyr Anglewing (also called Satyr Comma) caterpillars hiding under the nettle leaves that they have curved over themselves like tents and have started eating from the tips.
Now that the butterflies are flying and the Trilliums are blooming, for me it is functionally Spring, even though the calendar waits to March 20th.
Not only do the new growing tips of the Stinging Nettle – Urtica dioica, picked with gloves then cooked, make good edible greens, the stinging hairs being disarmed by cooking, that are also good for prostrate health and female organ health, the fibers of their dying stalks were used by the aboriginal peoples to make fish nets, but the leaves support more butterfly species’ caterpillars than any other Seattle plant. Could it be that the stinging hairs, that the caterpillars would never be stung by, provide a bit of a selective advantage for the caterpillars, as they may discourage browsing by herbivores, that would incidentally kill caterpillars in the process. The other butterfly species exclusively using them are the Milbert’s Tortoiseshell – Aglais milbertii (a.k.a. Nymphalis milbertii), whose young caterpillars feed in groups, leaving silk, frass (poop) and leaf veins behind, and the Red Admirable – Vanessa atalanta (a.k.a. Red Admiral), more abundant in the fall, whose larvae sit on top of the leaf and fold the leaves over their heads like a taco.