The Milbs Are Back

Most years mourning cloak butterflies signal spring’s arrival. This year it’s Milbert’s tortoiseshells.

The first one appeared a few days ago, while snow was still the predominant ground cover. The next day there were two. Warm temps and sunshine took a big whack out of the snow piles, just what the Milbs needed.

These ones were born last August and spent the winter sheltered beneath loose bark or in hollow logs. Their body fluids contain alcohols and glycerols — like antifreeze for your car — which keeps them from freezing when temperatures plummet and food isn’t available.

These winter-hardy butterflies lay their eggs on stinging nettles, the exclusive food of their caterpillars. We have a patch of nettles alongside one corner of our deck — I’ll watch for them there in the coming weeks.

Milbert’s tortoiseshell   Aglais milberti

Three More Inches of Winter

Or 8 centimetres, whichever you prefer. The snow arrived last night and it was still falling this morning, turning our world white. Again. Yes, a sure sign of spring in Alberta.

A month ago we were hiking the Sonoran Desert, panting in the heat, searching for shade. The snakes and lizards were out — and a profusion of flowers. A much nicer view right now. 🙂

Blue palo verde
Blue palo verde
Evening primrose
Evening primrose
Strawberry hedgehog
Strawberry hedgehog


The ditch, recently filled with snow, is overflowing now with ice-cold water. But that didn’t deter the wood frogs I found there the other evening. I heard an odd sound, sort of half duck, half something else which drew my attention to ripples on the water surface.

To my surprise it was a frog, in full mating call. I crept closer. It didn’t seem to notice me. Closer still. Suddenly one frog became two frogs — caught in “the act”.

Or amplexus, as a scientist would describe it. Except not quite. When wood frogs mate the smaller male grabs the larger female from behind. These two appeared not to have read the memo.

Then, as the angle changed, I realized I wasn’t looking at two frogs, I was seeing three. A ménage à trois, with the female stuck in the middle of this amphibian sandwich.

Wood frog threesome

Apparently this female was lucky that the mating season was hardly underway. At the height of the hormones, the males go crazy. They gather in huge numbers in small ponds and seasonal pools, calling and thrashing around. Anything that enters the water is fair game. I watched one video of a salamander that happened to be in the wrong pool at the wrong time and it was mobbed by male wood frogs.

Ditto for female frogs. A dozen or more males may descend on her, each trying to fertilize the hundreds or thousands of eggs she’ll lay. Talk about testosterone! The item I read said such mash-ups sometimes result in injury (no kidding) or death. (An unhappy thought. But who to? It didn’t say.)

Wood frog menage a trois

I’m not sure how long the lust-fest had been going on before I arrived, but it showed so sign of ending.

Menage a trois

I inched closer to the oblivious three-some. Just as I was about to take another shot, they disappeared, sinking to the bottom of the ditch. Where did they go? It took me several seconds to find them, still in the throes of it, seemingly standing upright underwater.

Underwater wood frogs

I watched for several minutes but they showed no signs of resurfacing. So I left them to each other and wandered home, pondering this latest encounter with the neighbours whose world I’m fortunate enough to share.

Wood frog … Rana sylvatica

Pussy Willows

At last they have arrived. Photographers elsewhere have been posting pics of these harbingers of spring for weeks. But they live in warmer climes. Here, snow still lingers in the woods and water-filled ditches have been freezing at night until just recently.

Male flowers appear first.


As they unfold, stalk-like stamens appear which produce pollen. Unlike other catkin-producing plants, such as aspens, the pollen isn’t spread by wind. Instead both male and female flowers produce a strongly-scented nectar that attracts insects.

Willow catkin

Willows provide bees, butterflies and flies with a welcome source of food — pollen and nectar — in early spring before other flowering plants have appeared.

Backlit willow catkin

Willow   Salix spp.

Ruffed Grouse

New shoots coming through the snow brought this female ruffed grouse out of the woods and into the yard. She didn’t seem bothered at all as the camera and I stepped closer.

I’ve heard the male drumming in the woods over the past week or so which means mating season will soon be underway.

The male, when in full display, fans his large tail (somewhat like a small peacock) and puffs up the ruff around his neck — all designed to impress the local ladies.

I’ve seen many grouse over the years but this one surprised me. On the back of her neck I spotted several iridescent blue feathers. Gorgeous. Although I googled several sites I couldn’t find any reference to blue feathers. Curiouser and curiouser as Alice would say.

Blue feathers on neckCheck out the dots on her back — like little white hearts. Maybe love is in the air. 🙂


Ruffed grouse   Borasa umbellus

Here & Now

A couple of weeks ago it was spring on the desert. Now it’s come to The Great White North and that means snow. Lots of snow.

For more than a week the temperatures have dithered around freezing. Whether that’s 32F or 0C for you, it’s hat-scarf-mitts-coat-and-boots weather for awhile longer.

So far today more than 10 cm have drifted down — that’s 4 inches and then some. The forecast is for more of the same for several days but that will change. Meanwhile I shall enjoy the soft fall of flakes and the muffled world outside my door.

Mountain ash   Sorbus spp.
White spruce   Picea glauca
Balsam poplar   Populus balsamifera