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A butterfly in winter

A remarkable find on a DUC property in the Carp Hills of Ontario

February 19, 2020
A gray comma butterfly appeared on Norm Hart’s mitt during a cold February walk in the Carp Hills.
A gray comma butterfly appeared on Norm Hart’s mitt during a cold February walk in the Carp Hills. © Norm Hart

Early on a cold morning in February 2019, Norm Hart made an amazing discovery during his habitual trek near his home along the public trail , which is on DUC’s property in the Carp Hills outside of Ottawa.

“I was out for a hike on the Carp Ridge,” says Hart. “At some point, I looked down at my mitt and thought I had a piece of bark on it. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a butterfly.”

This was a big surprise, given that Hart recalls the “temperature was about minus-12 with a 20 kilometre-per-hour north wind and three feet of snow on the ground.”

“The one unusual thing I did was reach up and pull down a small, rotted branch. I may have acquired my companion then,” he muses.

How comma butterflies can survive an Ontario winter

  • Commas and other related butterflies will overwinter in shelters, such as firewood piles, hollow logs or outbuildings, but this one appeared to survive direct exposure to very cold temperatures.
  • Some butterfly species contain glycerol in their blood which acts as anti-freeze during the winter weeks.
  • An eastern comma butterfly was reported in February 2017 on Point Pelee during record warm temperatures.

The small, still creature stayed on his mitt as he hiked the half-hour it took to return home.

Now, what do you do when a butterfly follows you home? If you’re a curious naturalist, you get on your email and find out.

Soon, Hart had the Ottawa Field-Naturalists Club in a flutter. They put him in touch with experts Peter Hall and Ross Layberry, co-authors of the illustrated guide, The Butterflies of Canada.

“It certainly beats any record I’m aware of for the earliest date for a live butterfly in the outdoors in Ontario,” said Hall.

“Amazing!” Layberry wrote. “A fantastic early record of a butterfly from the Carp Hills and probably the earliest record for any species from the Ottawa area. I intend to add the record to the Butterfly Distribution database of the Toronto Entomologists’ Association.”

Hart gently placed the butterfly in a container, tucked in a bit of tissue to keep it from harm, and drove it to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. There it remained under the watchful eye of Sandy Garland, quietly hibernating in her refrigerator and waiting for spring—just like the rest of us.

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