|Photo by Louise Smith on Unsplash|
Is there a surer sign of spring than the sight of a Comma on a country lane? Some would make a case for snowdrops or daffodils perhaps; my grandfather would have pointed to Ursa Major in the sky. There are lambs in the fields near my house, and the turning forward of the clocks is a milestone in the year. But for all these cues to the lengthening days, I'll stick with my first choice and the scalloped wings of one of our most remarkable butterflies.
Yesterday, as I walked the loop near my house, one was flying ahead of me. Each time I got near it would flit to a new clump of dandelions further down the verge. Or at least that's how it appeared, for it's just as probable I saw a number of specimens rather than one. The males are highly territorial, returning to the same bush or twig where they bask in the sun and wait for a mate to pass by. I suppose it might have been a single female, but if so, she wasn't stopping to lay eggs on the nettles and currants that are now the most common plants on which to find its larvae.
I say 'now' because in the past it was the Hop that was the Comma's favoured foodplant. By the early years of last century, with the decline of Hop farming, the butterfly was confined to but a handful of counties—including as it happens, Monmouthshire where I live. Even as recently as the Seventies its distribution was confined to the South and West, which explains why it wasn't until I moved from my native Northumberland that I first recorded a sighting in my little Observer's Book of Butterflies.
Happily today, the Comma is one of our most successful species. Having made a spectacular comeback it can be found across all but the most northern counties of Great Britain, and it's thought this is due to the changing of its larval foodplant to the Common Nettle. Milder winters will have helped too for it's a species that hibernates as an adult—those I saw yesterday will have spent the winter camouflaged in the bushes and barns along my route.
But here I am getting all technical when you can read this in books or on websites. You can learn too about its fascinating ability to produce offspring variants; one which has an annual lifecycle, the other producing a second brood in summer. It's these which are so vibrant in the spring. My trusty Observer's book describes their colour as tawny or fulvous: I had to look it up—what a fabulous new word to have learned.
And that's appropriate, for I think it's the surprise of seeing the Comma that I like the most. When I first moved south, I'd assume that glimpse of russet brown to be a Tortoiseshell or perhaps a Fritillary (though surely too early I'd say). Three decades later, there's still a delight in that first spring sighting—the signal that summer's on its way—and somehow more so than in spotting the obvious Orange Tip or pale yellow Brimstone, neither of which—come to think—have I seen this year.
On Saturday, I'm travelling to Pembrokeshire. That in itself is a sign of spring; of rebirth and renewal of a different sort. There should be Small Coppers on the Coast Path and I expect there'll be Peacocks, which overwinter like the Comma, in the lanes by our cottage. Butterflies have fascinated me for fifty years; the joy of seeing them never fades. Our neighbours have two boys who also take an interest; the youngest is the age I was when I first recorded what I'd seen. I hope he too will witness springs and seasons as abundant as mine have been.