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The first sign of spring

 Mourning Cloak butterfly. Istock Photo

Mourning Cloak butterfly. Istock Photo

The game is afoot!

Winter yet lingers. Snow piles dot the greening landscape. Thin ice glazes pond surfaces. Browning wreaths still cling tenuously to storm doors.

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But a change is in the air. Vernal pools from recent thaws deepen. Flocks of blackbirds, up from the south, roost in budding trees. A lone purple crocus stabs through thawing sod.

Each year in March, as gray winter shuffles off stage, and colorful spring waits in the wings, I hold my own private competition: to spot the year’s first butterfly. Aye, for many the robin is the harbinger of spring, but for me tis the mourning cloak. For you the bird, for me the butterfly!

For the past decade, I have spied one on the same sunlit hillside in Andover, at an identical location, within a six foot radius of the original spot. The earliest sighting was March 2; the latest mid-April. For me it has become a yearly ritual that reassures the continuity of life.

The burgundy and gold-rimmed mourning cloak, named for a traditional cloak worn “in mourning,” is the rare local butterfly that overwinters. Whereas most butterflies die in fall, after depositing eggs or pupa, the mourning cloak shelters in loose bark or rock crevices in a state of “cryo-preservation” (think Ted Williams). When temperatures warm in late winter or early spring, the adults emerge fully formed. Like descendants of royalty coming home to ancestral castles, they return to favorite haunts.

And so the game is aflutter!

On the first sunny day in March I set out on freshly-oiled bike, lugged up from basement storage. The sky is cobalt-blue. A flag hangs limp on the pole. A jogger passes in fresh cottons, having packed away wools and fleece. Pedaling past mailboxes decorated in St. Patrick’s shamrocks, I am filled with pulse-pounding anticipation.

Holt Hill, overlooking a rare quaking bog and capped with solstice stones, is the highest point in Essex County (420 feet) with distant views of Boston’s skyline, 20 miles south. As I begin the ascent, I spy emerging fiddle ferns and partridgeberry to the side of the trail. Half-way up, 10 yards before a sunlit patch of grass by the trail, I ditch the bike. The last remaining yards are best approached furtively.

Unlike other butterflies that nectar in fields of wildflowers, the mourning cloak is a denizen of forest edges and wooded trails. Males perch in sunny glades awaiting floating females, and there ensues a spectacular aerial courtship—the two spiraling like double strands of DNA to the height of towering tree tops.

Halloa!

Up ahead, on loose gravel, inches from where I expect, sits a male. With 3-inch wing span, powder-blue spots and golden trim, the dominant burgundy is burnished by the light. To me, more than an object of delicate beauty, the sight is one of reassurance.

Dropping to all fours, I crawl the remaining yards and hover. When the sun ducks behind a puffy cloud or I cast a clumsy shadow, the skittish butterfly, perhaps the son or grandson of last year’s prize, flutters away, returning to the spot after a brief foray. With each launch, the human heart flutters with the flutter of woodland wings.

For me, after several minutes in wondrous admiration, I am overcome with a sense of gratitude. For one more year, or maybe just one brief moment, the world is as it should be.

Bob Muldoon is author of the novel “Brass Bonanza Plays Again.”
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