Thursday 19 April 2012

The Grand Surprise

My week in Canada was wonderful in all manner of ways, but the most completely unexpected wonder was my first encounter with the butterfly we in Britain know as the Camberwell Beauty (the name that won out over its splendid alternative naming, The Grand Surprise). In North America, the Beauty goes by the name of the Mourning Cloak, at once poetic and descriptive.
We were walking, all six of us, on a morning of intermittent sunshine but not much warmth, on Mount Royal, the great hill (or mountain, as they call it) that dominates the city, and provides a welcome retreat from the city streets. Laid out as a 'wild park' by the great Frederick William Olmsted, creator of New York's Central Park, Mount Royal beautifully embodies his ideal of creating a park that is the nearest possible thing to a natural environment. Mostly we followed Chemin Olmsted, the easiest ascent to the summit, rising gently through grand steep woods, but at one point - near the manmade lake (not part of Olmsted's plan, but it works) - we turned off on a narrower path through scattered woods. My son and I were enjoying the antics of a small woodpecker (very much like our own Lesser-Spotted or Barred Woodpecker) and a tiny nuthatch-lke bird, when there was an excited call from the group ahead, urging us to hurry to where they were. And there, on the bare dry earth, was a Camberwell Beauty, its wings fully spread, as if basking, though there was no sun.
This was a breathtaking moment - the Camberwell Beauty is of course a great rarity in Britain, and I never expected to see one. Least of all on a far from balmy April day in the city of Montreal, when there were still patches of unmelted snow on the ground (and great grey heaps of it in odd places where it had been piled high). This glorious specimen showed little inclination to move and I was able to admire it very close up. It did not disappoint; it is a Beauty indeed, with its velvety chocolate/black/deepest red wings fringed by blue eyelets and a creamy skirt, in places just a little tattered. I almost succeeded in getting her to climb onto my finger - four legs were on before she had second thoughts, flew off surprisingly strongly into the trees, and was gone.
Of course, over the coming days, I discovered that the Mourning Cloak is - at least in this part of Canada - roughly the equivalent of our Red Admiral, the butterfly you're most likely to see, almost anywhere, on those early spring days when little or nothing else is flying. I spotted half a dozen more, in Montreal and Quebec cities, before the week was out, but all were in strong flight, and nothing could ever top that first magical close-up encounter.
There's a poem by May Swenson, Unconscious Came A Beauty, that evokes an even closer encounter. Like George Herbert's Easter Wings, it's a 'pattern poem' in winged form. Follow the link here to enjoy it. Surely it's a Mourning Cloak she's writing about, rather than a Red Spotted Purple. 'Tomb-stained' is beautifully descriptive of the Camberwell Beauty's underwings.

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