At last, the listless woodland stream, spent by months of summer drought, fanned into a shallow lake, barely murmuring as it merged. At first glance, it seemed almost unremarkable. Almost. But here and there, flickers of movement stirred across the gravel it had scoured from the shore where it lost itself in lake waters. The very stones themselves seemed waking and winking, as it were, into the autumn sun, restless in their eternal torpor. Curious, I drew nearer. To my surprise, given the advanced season, butterflies had lit upon the gravel bed, slowly fanning their wings, then snapping them shut, resulting in the fitful fluttering. Unlike many butterflies, with flamboyant patterns on both wing surfaces, these only bore vivid markings on their upperwings, while their underwings were cryptically patterned to resemble dead leaves and bits of bark, which blended perfectly with the woodland detritus strewn among the pebbles. So uncanny was their disguise, it mimicked decaying organic matter down to irregular spots, patterns, and patches. By merely folding their wings upward, the butterflies could instantaneously hide in plain sight. The effect was all the more pronounced by their paper-thin profile with wings fully folded. Several times, just as I focused my camera on a specimen, it suddenly “disappeared” from the viewfinder and, thinking it had taken flight, I lowered the lens, only to discover that it was still there, rendered virtually invisible by simply clasping its wings upward.

But why would these creatures of the summer meadows frequent this barren shore? They were likely lapping moisture and minerals from among its stones, as butterflies do to supplement their diet of nectar and fruit. (See their long, straw-like tongues curving down beneath their pointy little snub noses?) These were species of comma butterflies (Polygonia spp., possibly hoary commas, P. gracilis), which are named for the bright, almost out-of-place squiggle on the underside of each hindwing that could easily be mistaken for a tear in the delicate pane. They are also commonly called “anglewings” for the notches along the edges of their wings, which, in some species, produce a very ragged appearance that no doubt enhances the guise of a desiccated leaf. Their vacant-looking eyes seemed finely attuned to detection of motion, yet not necessarily of shape, as they would dart at my slightest move, only to return and light nearby if I remained stock-still. (One even lit upon my finger and duly began tapping its tongue on my skin that was no doubt savory after several hours of hiking. It was at once both endearing and a little disgusting to serve as an insect salt lick.) Multiple generations of commas can live and die in a single year, with the latest hibernating over winter to start the cycle anew. In the waning days of warmth, these were likely the last, flickering embers of an entire race, preparing for the winter they must survive in order to ensure the continuation of their kind in the coming year.

I lingered awhile along their languid shore, near the sighing stream and sightless stones. In that time, no predators seemed to see — or solve — the blinking code of flashing wings. No birds dove to snatch the unsuspecting. Not even the giant dragonflies hovering about dared carry them off, as they do with lesser quarries. In these halcyon days of autumn, the vanishingly brief lives of these enigmatic creatures seemed truly idyllic.

Each of these photos features the same comma butterfly (Polygonia sp.) alternating between contrasting patterns merely by folding and fanning its wings.
Twin Lakes, Cold Creek Trail, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest
(ancestral lands of the Kittitas)

© 2023 Anthony Colburn


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