Saturday, August 12, 2006

Camberwell Beauty

What a delicious name for a butterfly. The insect was first observed and named in Britain in 1748 in the village of Camberwell in southeast London. It is a common butterfly in Scandinavia and central Europe, but rarely visits Britain or Ireland. It also is called Grand Surprise and White Petticoat.

The Camberwell Beauty is same as our American Mourning Cloak. It is the only conspicuous New England butterfly that over-winters as an adult, hunkering down in whatever refuge it can find. How it survives a New England winter is a bit of a mystery, but out it pops on the first warm day of early spring, flitting along the roadsides and flashing its petticoat silks, a grand surprise indeed.

The few Camberwell Beauties that have been recorded in Ireland were on the east coast and no doubt migrants from Norway across the North and Irish Seas.

North American species of butterflies have been observed in the west of Ireland, most particularly that noted long-distance flyer the Monarch. It beggars the imagination that a butterfly might survive an ocean crossing. American birds are occasionally blown across the Atlantic and fall exhausted upon these shores: Irish ornithologists have recorded one or more Indigo Buntings, Bobolinks, Scarlet Tanagers, Redstarts and American Robins, for example.

I sometimes wonder if the occasional colorful and unfamiliar winged migrant -- bird or butterfly -- arriving in the west of Ireland on the prevailing westerly wind, might have reinforced that most common of Irish myths: a Land of Delight or Isle of the Blessed out there in the Western Sea beyond the misty horizon.