Sunday, March 25, 2007

Mourning Cloaks

The recent spate of terribly warm, nay, hot weather has caused the overwintering butterfly species to emerge from their hibernation spots and seek nectar sources. I noticed the first mourning cloaks last week. Their numbers increase as the warm days continue their constant path towards summer. Officially, mourning cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa antiopa) are dark brown or maroon, but they look black, hence the common name. They are one of the few hibernating butterfly species that emerge on warm days, even in winter. During the winter, they hibernate behind tree bark and in hollow cavities.

Mourning cloaks, like most other butterflies, breed in the spring. They lay their eggs on host plants: black willow, hackberry, poplar, and hawthorn species. Adult butterflies can lay up to 200 eggs and the larvae are gregarious. They feed on leaves of host plants, tree sap, and rotting fruit. They tend to congregate in moist areas. The caterpillars are black with red spots running down their bristly backs.

Unlike most butterflies, mourning cloaks seldom visit flowers. They seek sustenance in tree sap and mud puddles, which is why they are most active in early spring when tree sap flows from damaged areas procured during the winter. The butterfly's main predators are flycatchers, dragonflies and mantids. The flycatchers haven't arrived yet, but the dragonflies are everywhere. I've never seen a dragonfly devour a butterfly, but with all the mourning cloaks in the woods, it's inevitable that I will soon. Mourning cloaks aren't very secretive; apparently they make a slight "click" when they fly off a resting spot. I thought the constant clicking in the woods these days was from deer ticks falling on the leaf litter, but hopefully I'm wrong.

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