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Milbert's Tortoiseshell in York County, Maine

Today — yes, during the last week of March — I saw my first butterfly of 2006 while walking up the trail from Laudholm Beach at the Wells Reserve. As I climbed the incline through a patch of woods, I spotted it flitting between cobbles on the wide path. I was able to approach it closely as it held its wings out in a patch of full sun.

It looked like no butterfly I had seen before. Its most striking feature was a rich orange U-shaped band forming a wingtip-to-wingtip semicircle against wings of deep velvet brown. On the leading edge of each forewing were four patches. The innermost two were squares of the same orange, the next was a similar hue but washed out, and the last was whitish. The outer two patches merged somewhat with the band.

Milbert's Tortoiseshell, Ottawa
By D. Gordon E. Robertson [CC-BY-SA-3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

It had a sturdy-looking brown body, alert antennae, and a glossiness that shone like armor. I figured it was just about 2 inches across, maybe slightly more. Its flights were brisk and brief; it skipped purposefully ahead of me, moving from rock to rock, as I attempted to pass.

After several yards, it landed trailside among grass and downed twigs and I went ahead to the farmhouse. No bookshelf references showed me what I was looking for, so I went to the web. Once, again, the USGS NPWRC Butterflies of North America site, or more specifically its Butterflies of Maine listing, was a terrific resource.

Scrolling down the list of names, it was easy to reject most, but I linked to a few to "ground" myself. I went to the Mourning Cloak account half expecting to find my animal there, but no: That was not it. I was looking for orange, not yellow, and a smaller insect. I've seen Mourning Cloaks and this didn't look like one.

But maybe it was a close relative. I went to Compton Tortoiseshell — not a chance. Then I went to Milbert's Tortoiseshell and found my match.

But the map shows no records for York County, confirmed, unconfirmed, or dubious.

I grabbed the camera and went back out, but of course the nymph was gone. That makes this an unconfirmed or, egad, a dubious report.

Great way to start spring, though!

Edit 2012-05-09: Removed links to NPWRC pages, which have migrated to here. Removed copyrighted image and added copyleft image.

Last checked: March 8, 2021

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