It was warmer today than yesterday. I first noticed this when I opened the back door to toss out some peanuts for the squirrels and chipmunks, then later throughout the day as I noticed the odd ladybug flying by or crawling up my window. After lunch I took a quick look out back to see if the juncos were still around (at least one still is, though it wasn’t visible then) and was surprised to see a small orange butterfly fluttering in a sunny spot near my fence. It was spending a lot of time exploring the thorny raspberry brambles that mysteriously sprouted against the fence this past summer, and I prayed it would stay long enough for me to get my camera and make my slow, laborious way out into the yard. It did, and I was thrilled to get some photos of it so I could later identify it.
Although my house isn’t far from Stony Swamp as the bird flies, I live right in the middle of the Emerald Meadows subdivision, and Cabbage Whites are by far the most common species to visit my townhouse backyard. Any other species is a cause for investigation and excitement.
At first I wasn’t sure whether it was a Gray Comma or an Eastern Comma, as I did not get a look at the silvery comma on the underside of its hindwings. Then I checked out the New Jersey Butterflies page on naba.org and learned that these two species can also be differentiated by the colour and pattern of the upper hindwing. The Eastern Comma may have either an orange hindwing or a black hindwing, depending on whether it is a summer or winter form individual. The orange winter form has several black dots on the hindwing, whereas the hindwing of the Gray Comma is roughly half orange and half black and lacks the central dark spot found on the winter form Eastern Comma. The Gray Comma also usually has a submarginal row of yellow dots that are lacking or inconspicuous in the dark form Eastern Comma. Clearly my butterfly was a winter form Eastern Comma – a new butterfly for my yard! I have only seen one other Polygonia species in my yard, a Gray Comma that appeared briefly on my Lantana flowers in July 2007.
It spent a few minutes fluttering around the brambles, checking out the back of the house, and landing briefly on the ground before disappearing over the fence into the neighbour’s yard. The Eastern Comma overwinters in its adult stage, so it was probably enjoying the sunny (if gusty) 15°C temperature while searching for a nice, sheltered crevice or brush pile in which to spend the winter. This is the latest I can recall seeing this species; this sighting makes it a little easier to bear the thought that I probably won’t see my next one until the first warm days of late March or early April.