Sunday, August 23, 2009

Peacocks and painted ladies

My wife has planted our garden here in Ireland with butterfly bushes, with which she hoped to attract butterflies. We have butterflies, but I haven't noticed that they show any particular preference for the bush that bears their name. Ah, never mind, the bushes are quite lovely in themselves.

Ireland is not so rich in butterflies as the European continent, or even the UK. Only 32 species are considered truly Irish; that is, species that breed on the island. Most of these are fairly common and inconspicuous -- hairstreaks, blues, whites, fritillaries -- although I'm sure they'd be enough to excite a lepidopterist. The most gaudy visitors to our garden are the Red Admirals, Peacocks, and Painted Ladies. Once, on a shoulder of Mount Brandon, I found myself in a cloud of Red Admirals. Still, for all of that, an Irish butterfly guidebook is rather slim.

There are vagrants, of course. In the east of Ireland a dozen or so Camberwell Beauties have been recorded -- what North Americans call Mourning Cloaks. They presumably drifted across the North Sea from Scandinavia, where they are common. My guidebook also informs me that here in the west of the island nineteen Monarchs have been recorded over the years, the largest butterfly to grace these shores. Where did these North American natives come from? Did they hitchhike on a ship? The consensus seems to be that they winged their way across the Atlantic on the prevailing winds, as improbable as that might sound. We know Monarchs are prodigious fliers -- they make a journey of several thousand miles from New England to Mexico each autumn, presumably with rest stops along the way. But across the Atlantic? These fragile slips of things?

In 2005 a Blue-winged Warbler showed up at the Cape Clear Bird Observatory in the southwest corner of Ireland. It was apparently migrating from northern North America to Mexico when it was blown thousands of miles off course to land on tiny Cape Clear Island. So extraordinary was its appearance that it drew hundreds of birders from all over Europe hoping for a glimpse of the plucky aviator. Irish mythology is full of stories of a paradise -- a Land of the Blessed -- beyond the Western Sea. All it would take to plant such an idea in my mind would be one Monarch butterfly or Blue-winged Warbler beating shoreward from the gray Atlantic.