By the time snow and frost and sub-zero temps have arrived, most animals either migrate, hibernate or die. But as the sun climbs back up into the sky, nature gradually awakens out of its frozen stupor and begins to sing again. It’s spring again.

Last Saturday (19-Feb) I saw my first caterpillar of the year: a furry little Ruby Tiger, sunbathing on the grass near Musgrave Park, Belfast. (Incidentally, it’s this caterpillar you can see in the website logo!)

19.2.11 Ruby Tiger moth caterpillar

But the next day got even better. I’ve been keeping an eye on the endangered Marsh Fritillary butterflies in Murlough National Nature Reserve near Newcastle, Co. Down. This equisite little insect flies in May and June then lays its eggs and dies. The eggs hatch into caterpillars, and, unusually for a butterfly, they spin a communal web of silk to protect themselves. They feed and grow through the summer and autumn, then retreat deep into vegetation to hibernate.

Now, it’s February, and they’re coming out again to eat. And so on the Sunday of that weekend (20-Feb) I saw them: 9 groups of tiny black caterpillars, huddled together and hoping for a glimpse of sunshine. There are probably over 100 per group, so that amounts to about 1000 caterpillars – and I think I’ll be able to find more on my next visit!

20.2.11 Marsh Fritillary caterpillars

1000 caterpillars may seem a phenomenal count for an endangered butterfly, but many of these may get parasites and die, get eaten and die, or get squashed and die. Still, hopefully a whole lot will survive to become lovely white, black and yellow chrysalides (that’s the plural form of chrysalis for some reason) and I can’t wait to see how many adult butterflies emerge come Maytime!

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