I was walking along a muddy road on a beautiful spring day when a butterfly landed on my hand. Not once. Not twice. But seven times. It just kept coming back.
It was a mourning cloak butterfly. With large, dark wings, they’re among the first butterflies to emerge in the spring in Maine. They overwinter as adults, nestled beneath tree bark and under leaf litter, their delicate bodies somehow surviving snowstorms and freezing weather.
I always look forward to spotting mourning cloaks in March and April. As the snow melts, they flutter about, feeding on rotting fruit and tree sap. I spot them often on my hikes, but I’d never had one land on me before.
Here’s how it went: I was walking along, looking for coltsfoot flowers and other signs of spring, when I noticed a butterfly flying above the gravel road ahead. It drew near and circled around my head. Then it landed on the ground, so I took a photo. I thought that’d be the end of the encounter, but I was wrong.
Taking flight, the butterfly circled around my head once more. I held out my hand with the barest hope that the creature would choose it as a perch. I’m not sure what I was thinking. It wasn’t a trained hawk, for crying out loud.
But to my surprise, the butterfly swooped in and landed on my knuckles. I stared in amazement as it shuffled around on six spindly legs, its long, straw-like tongue tickling my skin. Up close, the butterfly’s dark reddish-brown wings sparkled in the sun. Bright blue dots lined the wings’ ragged edges.
After a few seconds, it took flight and headed down the road. I thought that was certainly the end of it — an odd occurrence and nothing more. But then the butterfly turned around and headed back in my direction. I started recording video with my phone, then held out a hand to see if the butterfly would land.
It did. I was delighted. And so began a little dance. The butterfly would fly for a bit, then return to my hand. Over and over.
I felt like a Disney princess or a fairy queen, but in reality, I was probably just a butterfly salt lick.
Butterflies need salt and other nutrients to survive and reproduce. That’s why they’re often seen congregating on things like animal feces and carrion. Remembering that little factoid, I didn’t feel quite so majestic.
But how did the butterfly know that my hand would provide a salty snack?
Well, according to a fact sheet about butterflies published by the American Museum of Natural History, butterflies have a good sense of smell. Sensors on their antennas offer them information about odors. So I’m guessing the butterfly smelled my salty skin when I drew near to photograph it.
In addition, butterflies can taste with their tongue, and females can also taste with sensory structures on their feet. This allows them to identify plants.
Through a simple online search, I discovered that I’m not alone in my butterfly experience. Several other wildlife enthusiasts have written about butterflies landing on them. And it’s always attributed to one thing: salt.
I also came across a short article published by Science magazine titled “Salt is like steroids for butterflies.” In it, a University of Minnesota study published in 2015 is referenced. The study found that high amounts of salt, such as road salt runoff, might significantly affect neural and muscle development in butterflies — sometimes in beneficial ways. In other words, humans may be inadvertently responsible for butterfly mutants.
I had been sweating in the sun during my walk, but I’m not concerned about my butterfly friend acquiring too much salt from me. I’d like to think I offered the creature just enough.
The scientific explanation of the event didn’t dampen the magic of it. It may have heightened it, in fact. What a wondrous thing to know you’ve contributed to a butterfly’s diet.
This all occurred in the Caribou Bog Conservation Area in Orono, one of my favorite places to walk in the springtime. The place is teeming with wildlife and interesting plants. Last year, I had a special encounter with a hummingbird there. And during my most recent walk, in addition to playing with a butterfly, I watched a large snapping turtle swim through a culvert. I also witnessed a party of 11 painted turtles basking on a log at the edge of a pond.
The property features intersecting trails and multi-use roads that total more than 18 miles, so there’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the wilderness. Other animals I spotted during my walk included Canada geese, wood ducks, mallards, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, common mergansers and an osprey. I’m sure you can see why it’s high on my list of amazing outdoor destinations.
Eventually I had to say goodbye to the butterfly. A group of what looked like college-aged people were approaching me on the road, and I decided that I didn’t want to explain what I was doing. So I said farewell to the mourning cloak and continued on my walk.
Next time you see a butterfly, I hope you’ll hold out your hand. Most butterflies will probably pass you by. But one fine day, you might just be surprised.