A Prelude to Spring in Boulder – The Mourning Cloak

Spring officially arrived at the foot of the Rockies at 11:32am MDT on March 20. As a photographer and daily hiker I am eager for what is about to play out in the wild. Winter is beautiful in its stark way but spring brings the return of life and color. So here I am hoping, peeping and listening  for the first signs of the symphony of evolution: the tiny flowers that timidly poke from the ground as though they are prepared to change plans when the snows return; the erratic flight of  hibernating(!) butterflies testing out their wings and the stirrings of new life and love among the flora and fauna. The players are tuning in anticipation of some unseen cue to begin their part of this opus and I am waiting impatiently in the front row for the first notes. I will be following the arrival of spring very closely this year and I hope to share my observations and photos with my readers as it plays out.

Here in Boulder a good place to anticipate spring is in the lower part of  Gregory Canyon. This is a nice spot where it is possible to observe from the road and parking area making it idea for handicapped access. There is a parking fee of $5.00 for folks who live outside of  Boulder. The warmer southern facing canyon slope and small creek create an environment which encourages the early bloomers. Thanks to a sharp-eyed Boulder Ranger I spotted my first butterfly, a Mourning CloakNymphalis antiopa), and I got down on the road to take a photo. I apologize to the nice ladies who thought I had been run over. I was just taking this at GPS coordinates. 39.998250, -105.292534…

Gregory Canyon Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Here are some interesting things about this hardy harbinger of spring:

-The North American common name for this species, mourning cloak, refers to its resemblance to a traditional cloak worn when one was “in mourning”. It’s common name in England is “Camberwell Beauty”.

-They spend the winter frozen in tree cavities, beneath loose tree bark or in unheated buildings. Virtually anywhere they can fit into will do as a hibernaculum (an overwintering den). The mourning cloak is one of the few butterflies that survives winter in the adult stage. Spring-active butterflies generally have dark coloured bodies and wings to aid in solar heating since they must be warm to start flying.

-Contrary to the general rule of 6 legs for insects, members of the Nymphalidae are more commonly known as the “brush-footed butterflies”. The front pair of legs are greatly reduced in these insects, often appearing as hairy and “brushlike”.

-Adult mourning cloak butterflies emerge from their winter hibernation and seek each other out for mating in the spring. In forested habitats, males will perch in places and wait for females to flutter by. After a brief aerial courtship the pair will mate.

-The butterflies probably die soon after mating and egg laying. Having spent as much as 11 months as adults makes it one of the longest-lived butterflies in North America.

-The larval stage of the mourning cloak is known as a spiny elm caterpillar. They live and feed in groups, eat everything in sight and contain stinging venom in their sharp spines.

I expect that this little brushfooted critter has returned to its hibernaculum today. March is the snowiest month in Colorado and here is what the trailhead looked like after the last snow of winter blew through…

4 Responses to “A Prelude to Spring in Boulder – The Mourning Cloak”

  1. Tom Peeples Says:

    Hi Rich,

    I got up early this morning to take walk around Lake Arbor and discovered this to be a beautiful day. Most still asleep, 27 degrees, and the sun just beginning to appear it was a very peaceful and refreshing walk. I arrived back home, and with my wife still sleeping I thought I’d check my email, went to Facebook, and have really enjoyed your photo of the Morning Cloak and its story. Thanks, this has been a great way to start spring and I look forward to future posts.


  2. A Finale to Spring in Boulder – The Calypso Orchid « Tales from the Trails Says:

    […] the first day of spring I was excited to see my first Mourning Cloak Butterfly sunning on a snowbank. Now just three months later the world has changed dramatically. The early […]

  3. Boulder’s Bloomin’ « Tales from the Trails Says:

    […] sun wakes the Mourning Cloak butterflies  (Nymphalis antiopa) from their hibernation… Mourning Cloak Butterfly (Nymphalis […]

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