Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Photo copyright Lauretta Jones

Who doesn’t love butterflies? Their erratic, jittery flight catches our attention, and when they finally alight – on a blossom, a branch, a rock – we find ourselves enthralled by their bold patterns and rich colors.

We tend to think of butterflies as coming with the warm weather, but this Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) is one of the first species to take flight in the spring, as early as March or April. Having overwintered as an adult under loose tree bark, in a tree cavity, or a corner of an unheated building, Mourning Cloak butterflies emerge early to lay their eggs and start a new generation. They are also one of the longest living butterflies in North America, perhaps making it to the grand age of 10 months.

Typically living in forests and woodlands, the male Mourning Cloak waits for a female in a sunny clearing in the woods. That is where I came upon this fellow last month on a hike in the Angle Fly Preserve. Butterflies also bask in the sun to warm their bodies for action, spreading their wings as natural solar cells; the dark color of their wings helps absorb the sun’s rays. On hot days, they close up their wings and head into the shade so as not to overheat.

The caterpillar, or larva, of the Mourning Cloak is a visually dramatic animal: its black body is speckled with white dots like stars, it boasts bright red blotches on its back, and bristles with spines. It lives on the leaves of willow, birch and elm, all of which are common in the Angle Fly Preserve.

There are many other butterflies to be found at Angle Fly; watch the habitat along the trails and you will be certain to see many of them.

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