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Volume 16, Issue 5 - January 31 - February 6, 2008

Earth Journal by Gary Pendleton

Unveiling the Mourning Cloak

February: Sometimes a grand surprise

Ahh, the lovely month of February, shall we sing its praises?

It’s short, and that about covers it.

February is a good time for a nature writer to take the month off. Practically anything worth writing about could have been covered in January, or can wait until March.

Still, occasionally February will offer a nice day for us to enjoy.

In the woods you might find interesting birds: woodpeckers, creepers, kinglets and even a hermit thrush. Great horned owls, eagles and other big birds have begun their mating, or will soon. In wet areas, the early blooming skunk cabbage is a symbol of renewal if not beauty.

If the sun comes out and the temperature climbs well north of 50, you might be in for a grand surprise: a brown-and-cream-colored butterfly with azure spots. Here we call it the mourning cloak. In England they call it camberwell beauty and sometimes the grand surprise.

Nymphalis antiopa is one of the few species of butterfly that over-winters in its adult form. Most other species leave behind eggs that hatch into caterpillars in the spring.

But in the fall, some of the mourning cloaks seek shelter in tree cavities or under bark and other protected places.

Warm sunshine can wake them from their torpor. In the winter and early spring, if the day is especially warm and bright, you might see one basking in a sunny spot on a wooded trail. Woodlands are their preferred habitat. Like other butterflies, they feed on flower nectar, but not in the winter, because there isn’t any. Tree sap is a source of food that is available in every season. Mourning cloaks and some other butterfly species find sap that oozes from some trees in the warmish air.

This is a widespread species. In North America it occurs from the tundra to central Mexico. It thrives across Eurasia, as far north as Siberia and east to Japan. Montana made the mourning cloak its state butterfly, but it is common in Maryland, too.

Jug Bay Wetland Sanctuary in Anne Arundel County has miles of wooded trails, perfect for walking on a pleasant February day. Calvert Cliffs State Park in Lusby has good mourning cloak habitat, too.

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