"Nevermore will a flying flower drift by you unnoticed..."
During a walk on the trails of Rinconada Hills with my wife Cecile, I experienced my first sighting of a Mourning Cloak Butterfly (Nymphalis Antiopa, 1758 by Linnaeaus) basking in the sun. It was laying flat atop a low lying green plant with dry woody stems near the water’s edge of a cascading pond near our town home. I was amazed it allowed me to get close enough to photograph it without flying off.
This Mahogany brown butterfly with light tannish yellow edges is named after the funeral shawls worn over a pale dress or petticoat by grieving widows. The darker brown band around the main wing is accented with pale blue-lavender spots that adds to its beauty.
The Mourning Cloak butterflies, do not migrate long distances but hibernate over winter through a process called “cryopreservation,” that involves the secretion of chemicals which acts like anti-freeze during the winter months. In the spring they emerge as adults ready to mate (much sooner than other butterflies). Males mate with several females. Sadly, these stunning and graceful creatures live for about a year and die soon after mating. I discovered that the reason it was basking in the sun is to warm up its flight muscles making it possible for it to fly about. Actually all butterflies need to warm up before they can fly. It is theorized that the dark wings of a Mourning Cloak make it easier to absorb the spring sun. The Mourning Cloak is found in many regions of the world including California. One of the reasons it is so widespread is that this striking flier uses a variety of host trees such as the Cottonwood, Willow, Popular and Elm to flourish. Their main diet is tree sap and decaying fruit and they extract salts and minerals form mud. Their main predators are insect eating birds. The males are highly territorial and defend their territory from other males, other butterflies, hummingbirds and even Scrub Jays. They have also been seen head-butting a human hand, demonstrating that even a delicate butterfly can put up a fight if necessary.
I was invited to send my photo to inaturalist.org to help scientists interested in studying years fluctuations in the butterfly population. With more rainfall occurring in California following years of drought the Mourning Cloak butterfly has been making a comeback.