Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Mourning Cloak Caterpillars

I first noticed them as a small mass of black threads high in the ornamental plum tree–black caterpillars about the thickness of a pen.

They were clumped together munching on the purple leaves. It has been a while since we have had mourning cloak caterpillars, but I recognized them immediately–bristly black caterpillars with spots of deep red. With all of the nesting birds gathering food for chicks, the caterpillars were fortunate not to be spotted in the top of the tree.

Mourning cloak butterflies are one of the few species, like monarchs that overwinter as adults. A tattered adult frequented the yard a few weeks ago. It must have been a female that laid eggs on the newly emerged plum leaves.

A few days later I saw them again, but the clump had become more dispersed and they seemed plumper. 

On Sunday, I just happened to see one "wandering" up the front of the house. It had trekked down the tree, across the ground, across the walkway and started up the wall. Wandering is the phase of a caterpillar's life when it leaves the food resource it has matured on and goes in search of a quiet place to start its metamorphosis into a butterfly. The caterpillar didn't know how lucky it was, I also spotted an alligator lizard waiting at the trunk of the tree and feasting upon some of the caterpillar's less lucky siblings.

Monday, I watched a second caterpillar troop up the wall of the house.

This individual attached itself to the bottom center of our "Welcome" sign. For about 24 hours it hung there, upside-down, in a "J" position.

But yesterday afternoon I was lucky enough to catch the moment when it dropped its spiky black outer skin and became a chrysalis. For a few moments it twitched and shuddered, hanging from the tiny base of silk that attached it to the ceramic sign. Then it became very still.

In the next 10-14 days it should emerge as a butterfly. How exciting! 

We planted nectar plants to attract butterflies and it seems to have worked. Hopefully, this is just the first of several butterflies species we will have this year.

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