Friday, April 19, 2024

Friday Ramble - Cloaked in Spring

Mourning Cloak or Camberwell Beauty
(Nymphalis antiopa)

The first 'cloaks' of the season have hatched out, and Beau and I were happy when several flew right by our noses on a recent morning walk. The little dears alighted on nearby tree trunks, perched on stones along the trail, rested on the glossy metal of parked cars to warm their wings in the early sunlight. Perhaps spring has truly arrived? Their appearance in the woods is usually a good indication.

I was a little worried about their food supply until I remembered their diet is mainly tree sap, particularly that of maples, poplars, oaks and birches. The butterflies also 'mud-puddle', a feeding process in which they take in nutrients from damp soil, compost and decaying organic matter in the woods, sometimes gathering in groups to do do. 

Groups of butterflies are called kaleidoscopes, but a coterie of cloaks dining together in a lovely patch of wet mud ought to be called a puddle. A banquet of cloaks would be a fine expression too. Whatever one calls them, our early hatching purple wonders have no need for spring wildflowers.

The Mourning Cloak hibernates and is freeze tolerant, sleeping through the winter in trees and actually freezing when temperatures plummet. It is one of the few northern butterflies to do so. In winter, the cells in its body are flooded with proteins and sugars to control the formation of ice crystals, and Nymphalis antiopa can survive temperatures as low as -60 ⁰C (-76⁰F). During hot dry summers, the butterfly enters a similar state called aestivation, awakening in autumn when temperatures are more moderate. One has to love a butterfly with such elegant survival strategies.

Also known as the Camberwell Beauty in Britain, the species is one of the longest living butterfly species on the planet, and it is certainly one of the most powerful fliers, capable of flying long distances and sometimes found far from its range.

I always forget how beautiful "cloaks" are when they are viewed from other angles. The butterfly is lovely with its dark plummy purple wings open wide, displaying a row of bright blue spots along the back edge and yellow fringes, but this member of the tortoiseshell (or anglewing) family is equally exquisite when seen with its wings folded.

Every year I am enchanted all over again when I encounter a specimen of Nymphalis antiopa in profile, my attention held by its iridescence and complex overlapping scale structure. There is much to be learned from looking at the great wide world from a slightly different angle, and there are always surprises.

And so it begins... I wish my departed love was here to witness the earth coming to life again. This was his favorite season, and he so loved these butterflies.

3 comments: said...

What a beautiful post, Cate. I learned a lot about 'cloaks' and their twice hibernation. All of nature is announcing the presence of Spring. Enjoy!

Pienosole said...


Tabor said...

Our butterflies are just arriving in one or two. How lovely!!