Sunday, March 21, 2010
Glorious mourning cloak struts its stuff early
Few creatures are more surefire signs of spring than the butterfly.
The sight of one of these gossamer-winged beauties flitting along on the season's first warm breezes is indeed welcome after the brutal winter just past.
One of the first Ohio butterflies to emerge and welcome spring is also one of the showiest species on the globe. The mourning cloak ( Nymphalis antiopa) is a jaw-dropping whopper insofar as butterflies go. With a wingspan that stretches the tape to 4 inches - like the familiar monarch butterfly - mourning cloaks are easy to spot.
If you see one, sneak in for a good look. Cloaks are extraordinary; painted in a background color of rich, velvety ebony-purple. The wings are trimmed in brilliant gold, as if gilded by elfin butterfly goldsmiths.
A row of tiny azure-blue dots stitches the margins of the gold, creating a fantastic tapestry of design that would turn Martha Stewart green with envy.
The Brits have coined a suitably magnificent name for this cosmopolitan stunner: the Camberwell beauty.
Mourning cloaks are perhaps our longest-lived butterfly. Some individuals can survive for 10 months or more. The adults spend winter in sheltered areas such as bark crevices or woodpiles. The first warm days bring them out: On a March 7 foray, with temperatures in the 50s, our group saw our first cloak of spring.
Butterflies and native plants are intimately intertwined. The larvae, or caterpillars, require specific plant species that provide the right nutrients and chemicals to spur their growth.
Thus, the butterfly seeks out certain suitable host plants upon which it lays its eggs. In the case of the mourning cloak, birches, willows, elms and hackberries are the fodder that ultimately cast this sensational butterfly to the skies.
You can help by learning more about native plants and planting them in your yard. By picking the species favored by particular butterflies, you might enrich your local turf with these winged wonders.
A good resource for learning more about Ohio butterflies and their host plants is the book Butterflies of Ohio by Jaret C. Daniels. Look for it in bookstores and on www.amazon.com.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at jim mccormac.blogspot.com.