Two mourning cloak butterflies cling to the side of a sugar maple tree in April in Dedham. The underside of their wings is patterned to look like tree bark, while the topside is flashier. Credit: Courtesy of Aislinn Sarnacki

I was sitting in a lawn chair in my backyard the other day, soaking in the spring sunshine while reading a book. It sounds glamorous, so I suppose I should complete the picture. I was in a 10-by-10-foot dog kennel with my puppy, Juno, and she was vigorously digging a hole under my chair. Cold clumps of dirt, grubs and earthworms were spraying into my boots. And every once in a while, Juno would place a slobbery toy on my lap.

My husband, Derek, came outside to join us, and he quickly remarked on the size of Juno’s growing excavation site. Since our lawn is really more of a rock-filled forest clearing, complete with ferns and mossy hillocks, we aren’t particularly concerned with our new dog’s instinctive habit to create cool beds of dirt to lie in. It’s more amusing than anything else.

So there we were, caged in our backyard, when the flutter of dark wings on a nearby sugar maple tree caught my attention. “Oh wow, do you see the butterflies?” I said before bolting indoors.

By now, Derek has come to understand that if I see something interesting outdoors and run inside, I’m just fetching my camera. I bet he could anticipate the unsolicited nature lesson that was coming, too.


Back in the yard with camera in hand — complete with a hefty, metal 400mm lens attached — I slowly approached the two large butterflies, snapping photos along the way.

Then it dawned on me.

“You know what they’re doing,” I said to Derek in an excited tone. “They’re eating sap from the holes the sapsuckers just left!”

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are one of the nine species of woodpeckers found in Maine, and they’re among the most common. With beautiful black-and-white plumage, a red cap and a yellow-tinged belly, they’re flashy and fluffy-looking. To eat, they drill into tree trunks, creating rows of small, evenly spaced holes. Using a long, brush-tipped tongue, they then lap up the leaking sap and any insects that come with it.

I had read that certain butterflies in Maine visit these freshly drilled holes to feed on sap, especially in early spring when there are few other food sources on the landscape. But I’d never witnessed this natural phenomenon in action. Just a day prior, I’d watched and photographed a sapsucker drilling holes in that very tree.

The butterflies were mourning cloaks, which are among the first butterfly species to emerge each spring in Maine. Their large, velvety brown wings are edged with a band of yellow, followed by a row of bright blue spots. They’re such early risers that people will often see them on warm days in March, while snow still covers the ground.

I’d seen mourning cloaks plenty of times before, but that particular sighting was special because it revealed a piece of the complex food chain that exists right in my backyard. By drilling holes, the woodpecker left behind food for butterflies, which are on the menu for many wild animals — including the pair of eastern phoebes that arrived earlier this spring to build a nest under my house’s second-story deck.

As I write this column, I’m sitting outside in Juno’s kennel again — you know, to embrace the scene. One of the phoebes is perching nearby, bobbing its long tail up and down. This year’s pair has claimed a nest that was used last year, perhaps by the same couple. The female has built onto the cup-shaped dwelling with a layer of fresh green moss (because only female eastern phoebes build nests), and with any luck, she’ll lay some eggs soon.

A loon on the nearby lake just issued a short, haunting call. Juno cocked her head to the side as she listened, something she often does when sounds are novel to her. As songbirds continue to return from the south this spring, there will be plenty of new sounds for her to wonder at.

Another source of entertainment? Black flies.

They’ve just emerged, and Juno seems to enjoy biting at them as they float around her head. But these black flies aren’t biting back — not yet, at least. They’re just pinging off my forehead. Maybe the black fly species that’s out right now isn’t interested in feeding on humans. There are between 40 and 50 back fly species in Maine, and many of those species feed exclusively on only certain types of animals, such as birds.

Or maybe it has to do with the life cycle of the fly. Only female blackflies feed on blood, and they do it so they can develop egg masses. So maybe these flies just aren’t there in that part of the cycle yet.

These are the things I think about when I’m sitting outside with Juno.

A turkey vulture just circled overhead. One of the largest birds we have here in the state (just a little smaller than a bald eagle), it’s hard to miss as it rides thermals high overhead. At least one turkey vulture has been feasting on a dead porcupine nearby — something Juno and I steer clear of on our daily walks. I’ve spooked the bird off its spiky meal a couple of times. If you’ve never seen a turkey vulture up close, Google it. They’re so ugly that they’re cute.

Spending so much time in my backyard, I’ve been able to watch the world slowly transform this spring. In the past, the change from winter to summer has seemed so abrupt. One day the trees are skeletal, the next, they’re covered in vibrant green foliage. But not anymore. Since I’m out there every day, multiple times, I’ve noticed how some trees start blooming long before others. Today, the big sugar maple in my yard — the one that feeds woodpeckers and butterflies — is covered with trailing yellow-green flowers, and its leaves are just starting to unfurl.

Before writing this column, I knew the tree was a maple because of its distinctive leaves, but I didn’t know what kind. To identify it, I browsed the helpful booklet “Forest Trees of Maine” and searched online for photos of catkins, which are tree flowers. I also walked over to the tree and picked up some dead leaves at its base to look more closely at the leaves’ shape.

I’m telling you this because I want to express that you don’t need to know the name of every tree, flower, bird or bee that passes your way to be a backyard naturalist. Just observe and see where your curiosity leads you. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be Googling things like “black fly life cycle” and “eastern phoebe diet” in no time. You’ll witness natural phenomena like butterflies feeding from tiny holes in a tree trunk and wonder why that’s happening.

That wonderment will lead you to discoveries that will change the way you see — and value — the nature that surrounds your home.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is a Maine outdoors writer and the author of three Maine hiking guidebooks including “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine.” Find her on Twitter and Facebook @1minhikegirl. You can also...