Photo of Mourning Cloak basking in the sun to warm up. Photo by Pamm Cooper
One of the first butterflies seen in early spring in Connecticut is the Mourning Cloak butterfly. Nymphalis antiopa ( Linnaeus ) is one of the our most widespread butterfly species and is also one of the longest living as an adult. Any seen flying about in early spring spent the winter in a sheltered spot. On warm winter days with no snow cover I have seen one or two flying about in sunny, open woods.
This is a fairly large butterfly with a wingspan between 2 ½- 4 inches. The upper wings are a deep chocolate brown with a wide creamy yellow border along the outside margin. Just outside this border are a row of iridescent blue/ purple spots. The color of these spots can vary as the sun strikes them at different angles.
Males are very territorial, and they defend their area by chasing away, or at least attempting to do so, every perceived threat to it. I have actually had one land on my head, unaware of the fact until I heard a whirring sound and felt something lightly fluttering on my head. It was the male Mourning Cloak I had just seen flying up from the hiking trail just in front of me. It had doubled back and “ jumped” me from behind. It was actually pretty funny, especially since I could see the shadow of it drumming on my head. In such cases, it is often best to move on to another area for the sake of the butterfly.
The female lays her eggs in a cluster or ring on a twig or leaf. I have found newly hatched caterpillars in a large group still near the egg ring on a willow twig. Some of the larval host plants are native willows, Cottonwood, Hackberry, American Elm, poplar, and Gray birch. If you see a Mourning cloak landing on any of these host plants, check and see if perhaps it is a female looking for the correct plant on which to lay her eggs. The caterpillars are fairly easy to spot as they feed in groups, making a web as they go. Their bodies are black with tiny white spots, and they have diamond shaped red spots along their back. Their prologs are a matching red color, and they also have black spikes, which are harmless but fearsome- looking.
Mourning cloaks are found most often along woodland edges and watercourses, but I have found them on power lines also, especially where there are wetland areas with native willows. If you are hiking along a woodland trail, you may see take off just in front of you. If so, watch where it goes. It will often be a male who was perched or patrolling his territory, and many times it will return almost exactly to the same area. Even it seems to be flying quite a distance away, even deep into the woods, wait where you are, and you may be rewarded with a close- up view if you stand still, as it usually will return to its resting spot. You can have a little fun with this butterfly. I have held out my hand and had one actually land on it, checking me out to see if I was a threat. They may even try to obtain salts from your skin, as will other butterflies such as the Red Admiral.
obsessionwithbutterflies.com photo of chrysalis
Mourning Cloaks are attracted to sap flows, such as on cracks found on tree trunks, and also dung or rotting fruit. If there is a sap flow, they land above it and will walk down to it and then feed head downward. They will also obtain nectar from red maple and milkweed, but it is uncommon to see them doing so.
fcps.edu photo of Mourning Cloaks feeding on sap flows from yellow-bellied sapsucker damage.
One final word on this butterfly: they often make a loud click before flying away from a spot where they have been resting. The reason for this is unknown but remarkable..