While walking along the shore of Baum Lake (Shasta County CA) I saw two butterflies. That would not usually be a cause for surprise except temperatures were only in the high 40s, the remnants of our winter snows still clung to the ground in spots and nothing was yet green – no wildflowers or leaves yet. The two butterflies were mourningcloaks (Nymphalis antiopa). They lit briefly and then flew off and disappeared completely. Butterflies this early in the season?
While most butterflies overwinter as eggs, pupae or caterpillars, mourningcloaks overwinter as adults. Fascinating discovery! These butterflies did not need to go through their early life stages in the spring. They survived the cold winter as adults. Overwintering adults mate in the spring and the new generation of butterflies begins flying in the early summer. The adults eat tree sap, especially the sap of oaks, and sometimes will eat nectar or rotting fruit. Mourningcloak butterfly adults live 10 or 11 months and are one of the most long-lived butterflies.
Mourningcloaks are native to North America and Eurasia. In North America they are widely distributed everywhere south of the tundra and are found in the temperate regions of Eurasia. Their preferred habitats are forests and riparian areas, but mourningcloaks can also live in more arid environments. The caterpillars feed on willows, cottonwoods, elms, aspens and birches, the same species on whose twigs the eggs are laid.
Mourningcloak butterflies have burnt brown wings that appear slightly purple in certain light. The irregular wing borders have a yellow marginal band. To the inside of the border are iridescent blue spots. Along the top wing border are a couple yellow spots. I think mourningcloaks are a beautiful butterfly.
The name mourningcloak is the currently accepted form. However, this butterfly’s name is also seen as mourning cloak (two words), morning cloak and morningcloak. In Britian the morningcloak butterfly is known as a Camberwell beauty.
These mourningcloaks flew by so quickly and stopped so briefly that I was only able to take one picture. Yet it was long enough to make the late winter day seem spring-like.