First Butterflies of Spring

Mourning Cloak Nymphalis antiopa Butterfly

Mourning Cloak Butterfly © Dirk Hansen

It’s time to start watching for the first butterflies in your wildlife garden. Yes, even you wildlife gardeners in the Northeast where it’s still quite chilly!

One of the first butterflies that you can see in spring is the Mourning Cloak. These butterflies overwinter as adults, finding shelter in tree crevices and other protected places. On warm sunny days at the end of winter, you may be able to spot them flying around.

Mourning Cloaks mate first thing in the spring, and will develop to adulthood by mid June or July. They feed briefly then estivate (summer hibernation) until fall when they will emerge again to feed and store up energy to make it through the winter.

Adult Mourning Cloaks feed on tree sap, especially oak trees. They may also feed on rotting fruit, and very rarely nectar. Eggs are laid on trees, most often Willow, but the caterpillars will feed on several other trees as well, including Elm, Hackberry, and Aspen.

metamorphosis (Spring Azure Butterfly with a caterpillar!)

Spring Azure Butterfly with caterpillar © David DeHetre

Also to be seen in the early spring are the Spring Azure butterflies. Compared to the Mourning Cloak (2 ½ to 4″), Spring Azures are tiny (¾ to 1 ¼ “) so you’ll have to look carefully to spot them. Some are only about the size of your thumbnail.

Spring Azure adults will nectar at a wide variety of plants including New Jersey Tea, Blackberry, and Milkweeds.

Eggs are laid on a variety of woody shrubs including New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americana), dogwood (Cornus florida), and Meadowsweet (Spiraea salicifolia).

Learning the life cycles of butterflies is fun and will help you plan the best butterfly garden for your area. Keep notes in your garden journal of when you first spot each different butterfly. This will help you remember when to expect them for next year.

There are lots of resources for planning your butterfly garden, and by using them you will create a beautiful haven where the air is full of these swirling beauties.

What are the first butterflies of spring in your wildlife garden?

Carole Sevilla Brown lives in Philadelphia, PA, and she travels the country speaking about Ecosystem Gardening for Wildlife. Check out her new free online course Ecosystem Gardening Essentials, 15 free lessons delivered to your inbox every week.

© 2011 – 2012, Carole Sevilla Brown. All rights reserved. This article is the property of We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

Related Posts with Thumbnails

Join the Wren Song Community

Wren Winter Singing crop

Free Exclusive Content and Member's Forum

Sign up for a free membership in the Wren Song Community and you'll have access to a lot more valuable information published exclusively for our members.

Meet other passionate wildlife gardeners from around the country. Share your successes. Learn from your failures. Discover the best resources to help you create welcoming habitat for wildlife in your gardens with native plants so that you will attract more birds, butterflies, native pollinators, and other wildlife to your garden.

Learn more about the Wren Song Community


  1. says

    I looked at my phenology notes from last spring and saw an eastern comma before a mourning cloak which is unusual.

    I have seen mourning cloaks taking advantage of the sap on Mountain Ash trees that were heavily ‘holed’ by sapsuckers.

    I am really looking forward toafter first butterfly sighting after this long and very snowy winter!
    Heather recently posted..Name That Native Plant – Quiz 18

  2. Carole says

    Our first butterfly was a question mark on chickasaw plum, February 15. A first for me was a zebra swallowtail on March 3, puddling by Juniper Creek here in northwest Florida.

  3. says

    No Cloaks or E. Commas yet here in central MA but I did see a moth flying around last night around 7.30pm! That’s the first flying thing except for a bird that I’ve seen since last year!

  4. says

    I’m pouting ~ it’s mid-March in MN and there’s nothing, and I mean nothing, happening here yet, not even a Crocus. May have heard my first robin this morning, not sure, but awaiting my favorite colored butterflies… patience, oh, patience…
    Ginger recently posted..Raising Chickens At Home

    • says

      Ginger, I hear you about the pouting, there’s not a whole lot happening yet here in Pennsylvania although it seems we have more than you do in Minnesota. I cheated a little this week and went to Austin where I got to tour the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and go birding with our own Meredith O’Reilly. I got to see my first Monarch of the season while there, plus loads of Swallowtails and lots of birds. It was a wonderful week! I was even blessed to see my first PA butterfly this morning upon my return. A Mourning Cloak was happily flying around my garden this morning.
      Carole Brown recently posted..Doug Tallamy on Invasive Plants


  1. […] Yes, even though it’s still quite chilly here in the northeast, it is quite likely that I’ll …. […]

  2. […] even though it’s still quite chilly, pay attention on those warmer sunny days for the first butterflies of spring. The first butterflies I see in my garden are the Mourning Cloak, which overwinters in tree […]

  3. […] First Butterflies of Spring “Also to be seen in the early spring are the Spring Azure butterflies. Compared to the Mourning Cloak (2 ½ to 4″), Spring Azures are tiny (¾ to 1 ¼ “) so you’ll have to look carefully to spot them. Some are only about the size of your thumbnail.” by Carole Sevilla Brown […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge