Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Mourning Cloak butterfly sips sap from our dying ash tree...

In our backyard we have a huge weeping willow tree and several birches, so I always hoped Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies would show up. Both of these tree species are host plants for the butterflies, but it took our dying ash tree to finally lure the beautiful butterflies in...

Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly sips from a sap flow on our ash tree.
A Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly sips from a sap flow on our ash tree. Emerald Ash Borers have left their D-shaped holes all over our tree, and sap flows are everywhere. The only (short-lived) benefit of the infestation is an abundance of butterflies feasting on the sap, especially butterflies I don't normally see in our backyard, such as this Mourning Cloak. (Click here for an older post on the Emerald Ash Borer.)

Dorsal view of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; yellow border, black with iridescent blue spots
I photographed this Mourning Cloak butterfly at about 4:30 in the afternoon. The sun was bright and washed out the butterfly's color. Here the butterfly appears to be trimmed in white, but really the edge is yellow. The bright light also brought out a reddish cast on the wings, but when not in bright light, the dorsal side of the butterfly looks more like a dark brown or velvety black. Against the black, the border is noticeably more yellow. The same shade of iridescent blue spots show in dark or bright light. 

Close-up of the brush-footed front legs of a Mourning Cloak butterfly.
Morning Cloak butterflies are called "brush-footed butterflies" or "four-footed butterflies" (family Nymphalidae). They have six legs like any other insect, but you can only see four of the legs. The other two are very small and resemble brushes. They are tucked up underneath the butterfly's "chin," and are not used for walking or perching. To read a little more about brush-footed butterflies, click here.

Ventral view of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; the wings are dark and wrinkled-looking, and resemble bark
The ventral side of the Mourning Cloak butterfly looks wrinkled and bark-like. The dark, black color helps it blend into the tree bark. Mourning Cloaks love tree sap, so it's great camouflage. Additionally, this photo clearly shows how the butterfly looks like it only has four legs. The last two legs are small and brush-like, and make the butterfly look like it always needs a shave! 

Beautiful marking of a Mourning Cloak butterfly; dorsal view
The beautiful dorsal markings of a Mourning Cloak butterfly

Hot, dry summer weather triggers aestivation (a type of hibernation called summer sleep) in Mourning Cloak butterflies.
Mourning Cloak butterflies undergo aestivation—a type of hibernation sometimes called "summer sleep." Mourning Cloaks like cooler temps. In the summer during hot and dry weather, the butterflies will go into aestivation and do not resume feeding until the cooler temperatures of fall return. Saturday was our first cool day of the season. Rain on Friday pushed in a much-needed cool front, and two Mourning Cloaks took to the wing on Saturday in our yard. (Source: "The Life Cycles of Butterflies," by Judy Burris and Wayne Richards, pg 138.)

Electric blue spots on the dark wings always catch my eye. Here the yellow border is showing a little better.


Mourning Cloak butterfly tucks into a cedar for the night.
A Mourning Cloak butterfly tucks itself up into a cedar tree for the evening. I was surprised as I watched it land on the tree and then slowly crawl deeper and deeper into it. By the time it was all the way tucked in, I couldn't see it anymore. Mourning Cloaks are one of the longest-lived butterflies in Ohio (can live 8-10 months). They overwinter here by hibernating through the winter. I'll have to keep my eye on this tree. It is well protected and would be an ideal place to hibernate.

In the spring, Mourning Cloaks are one of the first butterflies to take flight, and I have seen them flitting on sunny March days when snow is still on the ground! Since they are dark, they bask in the sun to raise their body temperatures for flight. They are solar powered on those cold days! Being sap lovers instead of flower nectar lovers helps these butterflies because they have a ready food source as soon as the sap starts to flow. Mourning Cloaks also love to feed off rotting fruit. This summer, I started a little area in my "wild patch" part of the yard where I would dump fruit that had started to turn before we could eat it. I put it out there for the hummingbirds, because I know they love to nab fruit flies from the air, but maybe the little fruit dump helped to lure these butterflies in too.

22 comments:

Banjo52 said...

Fascinating, as always. And again your use of different focal points helps a lot as I try to visualize your information.

Sorry to hear this brown is a little misleading--I like it a lot.

What are the two little brush legs for?

Are ash trees surviving anywhere?

Friend of HK said...

Enjoyed reading your blog, very informative. We don't see this species in Hong Kong. Thanks for sharing.

Kelly said...

Banjo...thank you! In our area, no ash trees are surviving. We had it professionally treated for 3 years, but the bugs still took over. There are supposed to be some treatments that do work, but they didn't for us. Untreated trees are dying quickly around Mason now. You can see them everywhere. ...they use their little brush feet to clean their antenna.

..thanks, Friend of HK!

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

We have a fair number of Mourning Cloaks here and I always enjoy seeing them they are so beautiful and their life cycle means that we can see them when there are no other butterflies around. A lovely post.

Guy

Kerri said...

Stunning captures! And so Educational!
Thank you!

TexWisGirl said...

i will have to watch for them, knowing they may be around in the cooler weather. we did get some this spring.

our dogs had torn off some bark from one of our smaller trees in the yard. all the butterflies would cluster on it, sipping the sap as long as it ran.

TexWisGirl said...

and thank you for the explanation on brushfoots. i had seen that term but didn't realize what it meant.

Roy said...

A lovely specimen Kelly.

Little Brown Job said...

Beautiful series Kelly.

Roy said...

Great shots, Kelly! I used to see a lot of these early in the season in Ballard Park in Newport. Oddly enough, we had a good few hanging out in the garden center at work earlier in the Summer. Now I'm wonering if it was the trees we carry that attracted them.

Frank said...

Hi Kelly. A very interesting and informative post. I know it is sad to loose your Ash but at least it has its uses for other species, like the Mourning Cloak.

Lois Evensen said...

Fantastic. I always learn so much from your posts. Wonderful images and information.

Gillian Olson said...

Fascinating critters, wonderful pictures, thanks for the information about them and their life cycle.

Elaine said...

Very interesting, Kelly! I never knew that butterflies like tree sap or that some prefer cooler weather. You always prompt me to do a little extra reading.

Weedpicker Cheryl said...

Wonderful post, Kelly. You do a great job of introducing folks to the lesser known butterfly facts. They are not all flowers and Monarch-like migration.

Lovely photos, too. 'Picker

Janice K said...

I never knew that about Mourning Cloaks. I used to see lots of them on the farm where I grew up, but not so much where I live know. I do remember seeing one this Spring, however, on the siding of our house.

Antonio Ruiz said...

Nice pictures, like you always show us.

Thanks for share them.

Antonio

Kathie Brown said...

Wonderful nature lesson and wonderful photos. I love the wing details! I didn't know half this stuff! Thanks Kelly!

Tammie Lee said...

thank you for sharing this information and your lovely photos of this beautiful butterfly.

Kelly said...

...thanks, everyone! Yesterday I looked out the living room window and saw 3 Mourning Cloaks feeding at one of the sap flows at the same time. They looked so pretty in the shadows. The butterflies continue to swarm the tree...Red Admirals and Red-spotted Purples were most numerous after the Mourning Cloaks.

Montanagirl said...

Don't know how I missed this post, Kelly! I always learn something when visiting your blog. Your photos are wonderful. I have never seen a Mourning Cloak butterfly.

thatoneoldguy said...

yours is simply my favorite blog of all. Thank you.

I remember watching mourning cloaks flying around a bare winter woods and wondering if they were the promise of the coming year or ghosts of the last one...