Country diary: There’s a peacock butterfly presenting the news | Phil Gates

Crook, County Durham: After the delight of finding this magnificent butterfly overwintering in our house comes the dilemma

Dozing-off at bedtime, yawning, reaching for the TV remote control – and suddenly I’m wide awake. There’s a butterfly on the screen. A real butterfly, a peacock, wings pressed against the glass, hiding the newsreader’s face. It must have found its way in during those mild, late autumn evenings, perhaps roosting behind an armchair, now roused from its winter sleep. It circled the ceiling light, then headed for the door, into the kitchen.

We don’t see many overwintering insects in the house these days. When we moved in, more than 30 years ago, it was cold, damp, with ill-fitting doors and windows and gaps between the floorboards. Then, it was no surprise to find silverfish and devil’s coach horse beetles in the kitchen, queen wasps and lacewing flies hibernating behind picture frames and herald moths sleeping through the coldest months under the stairs. Since then, energy-efficiency improvements have kept the heat in and the wildlife out – apart from daddy-longlegs spiders, useful fly-catching residents that can’t survive outside.

Peacock butterfly drinking from a sponge
The thirsty peacock butterfly drinks from a sponge. Photograph: Phil Gates

So, it’s a rare treat to welcome this magnificent butterfly, with scarlet wings and four azure wing-tip eye spots. I followed it into the kitchen, planning to offer an energy boost of diluted honey, but it had already settled, with proboscis extended, drinking from a wet washing-up sponge in the sink. Dehydrating central heating had made it thirsty, and irascible. It performed the classic peacock intimidation display, flashing those fake eyes and flicking its wings so that rough overlapping edges of fore- and hind-wings rasped together, with a short, sharp audible hiss.

After the delight, the dilemma: what to do with it? Outside, there was snow on the ground; in here it was warm and dry but, if allowed to go back to sleep behind the furniture, it would surely wake many times before spring, fluttering against the glass until it fell dead on the window ledge. Or daddy-longlegs spiders might take an interest.

Now, after a couple of day’s acclimatisation to winter hibernation conditions in the greenhouse, it’s roosting in a clay flower pot, sheltered from the weather under the conifer hedge. For one memorable evening in mid-winter, it had held out the promise of warm summer days to come.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary


Phil Gates

The GuardianTramp

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