Mighty Monarch butterflies brave south winds, Hurricane Patricia to arrive in Mexico

Those of us who tag Monarch butterflies often compare the activity to fishing: you just never know what kind of day to expect.

Monarch cluster

South winds kept Monarchs in place the week of October 19. Cluster in Texas Hill Country. Photo by Jenny Singleton.

That pretty much describes this peak Monarch migration season. We anticipated a huge rebound with thousands of Monarchs gathering at their usual roosting spots along the streams and pecan groves of the Texas Hill Country.

Instead, upon entering the Texas funnel this season, the Monarchs veered west of their usual Hill Country trek. By Thursday of last week, they were arriving in Coahuila, Mexico, about 650 miles from their destination in Michoacán.  Then in a surprise twist, the migrating insects faced the prospect of a supposedly historic Category 5 Hurricane Patricia that delivered big worries, winds and rain–but ultimately fizzled fast.

Coahuila Monarchs

Journey North reported Monarchs arriving in Cuatrocienegas, Coahuila, Mexico on Thursday of last week. Photo via Journey North.

We had planned back-to-back tagging outings with a special group of butterfly enthusiasts to take advantage of the predicted peak migration weekends, October 16 and 23.  In August, 500 tags from Monarch Watch were ordered.  In mid October, nets were bleached and readied, picnics and campfires planned, and supplies secured.  In an overly optimistic move, I even retrieved unused tags from previous seasons–in the event that we ran out of our 2015 stash.

We knew that the major migratory wave had moved west of our Texas Hill Country because of more recent rains in that part of the state. One roost in Midland-Odessa hosted 20-25,000 Monarchs, according to Steve Schafersman, who posted to the Texas Butterfly Listserv on October 17. “Several experienced butterfly counters observed this concentration. The Monarchs were watched as they took off in great clouds when the temperature warmed,” he wrote on October 17.

Hurricane Patricia path

Thanks, Hurricane Patricia! You messed up our peak Monarch tagging weekend. Photo via Accuweather.com

That same weekend, our tag team netted 137 tagged Monarchs–a small showing for peak migration week. Last year we tagged three times that many, and our record in 2008 was almost 500 in just a few hours.  We cancelled this past weekend’s outing because of the dramatic weather predictions that made the two-hour drive to the ranch appear a dangerous insanity.

As Hurricane Patricia approached Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on Friday, October 23, Monarch butterfly social media and email lists ignited with concern.

“My heart was well and I felt so good that the Monarchs are about to reach their overwintering site,” wrote Michelle Nystrom of Minnesota on the DPLEX list, an email subscriber list of about 800 Monarch butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and citizen scientists.

Monarch on daisy

Prior to Hurricane Patricia, south winds in the Texas Hill Country made for great photos as Monarchs were held in place. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Any news on how Hurricane Patricia is affecting the Monarchs?” asked Colleen Glass Smith on the Monarch Watch Facebook page.

Journey North, which tracks the migration in real-time with reports from citizen scientists from all over North America, posted this on October 23:

Many people are worried about the effect of Hurricane Patricia on the Monarch migration.
We don’t have any information at this time but we are in touch with people who will share what they know. We’ll be sure to include any news in next week’s monarch migration update.
The landfall for Hurricane Patricia is west of the monarch overwintering region; its path is predicted to stay to west and north of the region. By Sunday, the downgraded storm may reach the monarch migration pathway near Monterrey but presumably the winds will not be too strong by then.

“The bottom line–for the moment at least–is that there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that Monarchs have been adversely affected by the winds and rains that have accompanied Patricia,”  said Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch, answering repeated questions on the DPLEX list late Saturday.  “That said, Monarchs roosting in trees in areas

Monarchs Alpine

Monarchs filled the skies in Alpine, Texas October 21. Photo via Borderlands Research institute for nature Resource Management

with high winds and torrential rainfall, such as the four inches per hour reported for San Antonio, might well have been blown out of trees and drown.”

Our friend Jenny Singleton of Grapevine, who introduced me to the magical world of Monarch butterflies back in 2005 (thanks, Jenny!), was lucky enough to spend an entire peak migration week out in the Hill Country.  She left her ranch in Hext near Menard, Texas, on Friday, just as Hurricane Patricia made its approach to Mexico.  Her tally:  257 Monarchs–a fraction of her 2008 weekend record of 1200+.

“No rain right now,” Singleton texted me on Thursday.  “Kinda misty all AM….Still a strong southerly wind…they don’t want to be blown north so they just stay in the trees.  But they are very hard to catch.  Very wary and seem to see me way before I see them.”


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Monarch weekend 2015 slideshow photos by Nicolas Rivard and Monika   Maeckle.  Video by Nicolas Rivard.

Yep.  That sounds like what we encountered the prior weekend. One unusual observation: a Monarch butterfly puddling, or drinking, from a mud puddle along the Llano. Never seen Monarchs do that in Texas before–only Mexico ( see photo in slideshow). I can only imagine the creature was dehydrated.

Other than that, it was winds from the south, skittish butterflies, and glorious sunsets with the late fall light beaming across the river bottom. Totally lovely.

Our tagging team spanned multiple generations this year with our youngest tagger, Nola Garcia Hamilton, age 8, personally orchestrating a catch-and-release program that concluded our tagging adventure with a dramatic release on the Chigger Islands platform right as the Saturday night sun set.  Check out the video below.

Butterfly tagging teammates included: Victoria Echeverri, Allison Hu and Nicolas Bradshaw, Nicolas Rivard, Alexander Rivard, Nola Garcia Hamilton and her mom, Tracy Idell Hamilton of San Antonio; and Leyla Shams and Chris Gannon of Austin.  Also in attendance, canine partners Cocoa, Brisket, Porsche, Gus and Walter, as well as one five-week-old kitten, Snowflake.

Thanks to all for participating.  Next year, perhaps, a less volatile season.

 Related posts:

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

2015 a banner year? Monarch butterfly migration heading our way

Monarch butterflies are heading our way, making their way south from the northern reaches of their migration toward Mexico in what looks to be a banner season.

Monarch roost

More than 1,000 Monarchs formed a roost in Perrysburg, Ohio this week. Photo via Journey North

It’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, but we should be able to witness a trickle of the migrating butterflies in the coming weeks.

Typically for Labor Day, we see a “pre-migration migration”–that is, a vanguard arrival of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults.  That didn’t happen this year, but then everything in 2015 has run about two weeks late.  The next two weeks should bring early moving Monarchs to town.

Further north, the butterflies are making their presence known and suggesting a banner year.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that tags the butterflies each fall, revised his forecast in August based on evidence of robust egg laying and suggested that 2015 might double the mild rebound of 2014.

skipper on swamp milkweed llano

Skippers and other pollinators enjoyed the Swamp milkweed last weekend on the Llano. No Monarchs. Yet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her weekly migration bulletin from citizen scientist website Journey North, founder Elizabeth Howard wrote on September 10 that the first cold fronts of the season were sending Monarchs “sailing southward.”

“It’s two weeks before the Equinox,” wrote Howard. “Fall conditions are setting in as the jet stream dips south…. People are counting Monarchs roosting by the hundreds, feeding by the dozens, and flying overhead at rates up to two per minute.”

Generally the Fall Equinox, which takes place September 23 this year and marks when days get shorter, signals to Monarchs it’s time to hit the trail to Mexico. As they start moving south, they migrate alone during the day and gather at night at hospitable places, general somewhere with nearby nectar, moisture, and protection from wind and extreme temperatures. Usually they will only occupy a roost for a day or two, but if winds or weather are disadvantageous, they might linger longer.

In October of 2014, we had many Monarchs stranded on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country for a long weekend. Ferocious winds out of the South held them in place. While the situation was great for tagging (we tagged more than 300), it was slightly disconcerting to see the tenacious travelers stymied in their quest to keep moving. Once the wind shifted, the butterflies caught the wave, riding it to Mexico or as far as the wind and their wings would take them.

Monarch roosts

Monarch butterfly overnight roosts September 20, 2015. Map via Journey North

Howard shared news of dozens of reported overnight roosts (see map above) in and around the Upper Midwest, including one of 1,000 Monarchs on Tuesday night in Perrysburg, Ohio.

Roosts are weeks away for those of us in Texas, but as mentioned, we should start to see early arrivals in the next two weeks.   Meanwhile, we can enjoy the migration via social media.

“Check your local field or meadow, #Monarch Butterfly migration is underway,” wrote Paul Roedding, of London, Ontario, on Twitter.

“Look what stopped by the yard this afternoon,” posted Joe Orsolini of Lombard, Illinois. His tweet was accompanied by the photo below of a perfect female Monarch nectaring on pink Buddleia.


“Look what stopped by the yard this afternoon.” Joe Orsolini via Twitter

Monarch roost in Iowa

Terry Pease of Sioux Falls, Iowa, had a roost of Monarchs grace her family farm this week. Photo by Terry Pease via Facebook

On the Monarch Watch Facebook page, Terry Pease of Sioux Falls, Iowa, posted that in the past month, Monarchs at her family farm’s 100-year-old grove were decimated by crop dusters in the area. “But this morning when I came home, there were Monarch’s everywhere!” wrote Pease. “It was like being surrounded by angels….”

A look at the locations of the above social media reports from London, Ontario (42.98 latitude), Lombard, Illinois (42.87 latitude), and Sioux Falls, Iowa (43.58 latitude), suggests the Monarchs are on track. The Monarch Watch Peak Migration schedule says southbound butterflies should hit latitudes 42 and 43 right around September 11. And so they have.

Peak Migration dates

What’s your latitude?  Peak Migration dates according to Monarch Watch

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  I’m betting it’s late this year. Check the chart above to see when peak migration arrives in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

When they arrive, an ample nectar buffet awaits.  A ranch tour last weekend included a kayak tour of grand stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, and Goldenrod, Solidago, and about to bust-into-blooms Frostweed, Verbesina virginica.   Bees,


This Frostweed should be just about prime when Monarchs arrive to fuel up next month. Photo by Monika Maeckle

wasps, ants, and of course, aphids enjoyed the bounty.   A few Queens and Swallowtails, too, plenty of Skippers and Sulphurs, but no Monarchs yet.   Soon enough.

To see Monarchs in the next few weeks, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south.  Remember, the primary goal when migrating is to fuel up on nectar and store fat for the long winter.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam


Late-but-Great Wildflowers to Greet Monarchs and other Pollinators

A banner wildflower season will greet Monarch butterflies when they begin their migratory trek north later this month. The slow soak of winter has set the stage for a late-but-great bloom season. According to Journey North, a citizen scientist organization which tracks the migrating insects, roosting Monarchs are unlikely to leave their roosts in the forests of  Michoacán until March 29, about two weeks behind schedule.

Monarchs in MIchoacaán

Monarchs are taking their time leaving their roosts in Michoacán. Photo via Journey North

That’s probably a good thing, since  the Monarchs’ host plant, milkweed, is JUST beginning to sprout in Texas.  Texas is the Monarchs’ first stop on their multi-generation, Pan-American migratory journey north and typically the first generation in the butterflies’  spring migration is born in the Lone Star State.

The Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center released its annual wildflower forecast last week, predicting a delayed start to a “stunning” season.


Won’t be long and bluebonnet stands like this one in Big Bend will dot the Texas Hill Country. Give it two weeks. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildfower Center

“It’s going to be good,” said horticulturist Andrea DeLong-Amaya, Senior Program Coordinator for the Center. DeLong-Amaya cited well-paced rains that benefit all wildflowers, especially annuals with shallow roots. Some plants will be “a teeny bit late, others right on time,” she said, adding “as soon we get some warm days with full sun, we’ll be cooking with gas.”

On a recent bike ride on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, bluebonnet rosettes were abundant but not quite showing. “At this point there are no large patches,” said Lee Marlowe, sustainable landscape superintendent at San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which manages the linear park. “We’re seeing some good bluebonnet stands that should be really nice, probably in April,” she said.

Over at the San Antonio Botanical Garden (SABOT), horticulturist Amanda Wielgosh also predicted a great wildflower season. She credited ideal precipitation and cool temps as reasons. “We’re already seeing a nice display of wildflowers here at the garden,” she said.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

“It’s looking absolutely spectacular,” out in Bandera County outside San Antonio, said botanist and horticulturist Charles Bartlett, president of Greenhaven Industries, a San Antonio landscaping company. Bartlett visited his ranch in Bandera County last week and reported fields of three-five acres of Indian paintbrush with grand stands of bluebonnets in the bud stage. He also mentioned that the Texas buckeyes in Medina County are gorgeous, but that milkweed is taking its time.

Both DeLong-Amaya and Marlowe reported that milkweed is not quite ready and a weekend HIll Country outing to the Llano River confirmed the laid-back growth pace of the Monarch’s host plant.

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterfly, recently hatched, readies for flight on mulch at the Museum Reach Milkweed patch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It’s still pretty early for milkweeds to come out–they don’t have a rosette in the spring like others, they just come up,” DeLong-Amaya said. At Cibolo Nature Center in Boerne, Ben Eldredge reported that no milkweeds were up yet, but plenty of nectar plants are available. Bartlett cited four-inch tall Antelope Horns, a Texas native milkweed found out in the campo, but mentioned it was just beginning to bud. The more refined atmosphere of the SABOT coaxed milkweeds to show early. SABOT’s Wielgosh said “a plethora of milkweed” will be ready for Monarchs when they arrive later this month.

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Not much flying--yet.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trimmed Tropical milkweed at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach. Not much flying–yet. Nice lantanas there on the sidewalk.Photo by Monika Maeckle

At the Milkweed Patch at San Antonio’s Museum Reach, a favorite gathering spot for Monarchs and other butterflies, the Tropical Milkweed stand got a trim this winter and has not fully recovered. Marlowe said the plant, while technically not native but a preferred host plant to Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, was cut back in February to stimulate healthy growth. A recent visit there found a freshly hatched local Monarch resting in the mulch getting ready for her first flight.

Bastard Cabbage

Damn you, bastard cabbage! This invader displaces wildflowers and other native vegetation. Photo courtesy SARA

One plant that’s pervasive but unwelcome is the ubiquitous “bastard cabbage.” You’ll see this yellow blooming member of the mustard family all over Central Texas and in select spots along the river. According to Dr. Kelly Lyons, a native grass and invasive species expert who teaches plant ecology at Trinity University, our warmer winters make plants like bastard cabbage flourish.  “As our climate gets more Mediterranean, we’ll see more of it,” she said.

Marlowe said she would even look the other way if someone yanked it out when strolling the river. Managing bastard cabbage continues to vex SARA’s landscape managers.

While the yellow blooms are attractive enough, don’t be fooled. This extremely aggressive invader can grow five feet tall and will take over and displace native vegetation.

As the sun comes out we’ll be in for the Big Bloom of 2015.  In the meantime, keep in mind that Texas is still in a drought.  Summer will be here soon enough, so enjoy the mild weather–and the wildflowers–while you can.

Related posts:

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam

Queen, Monarch Caterpillars and Butterflies: How to Tell the Difference

Found a Monarch caterpillar on my milkweed!

                               –my friend Hugh Daschbach, via text message

How to tell the difference between a Queen or Monarch caterpillar

Every year around this time as the Queen butterflies start to show up, we get lots of questions about how to tell the difference between Queens, Danaus gilippus, and Monarchs, Danaus plexippus.  And with the warm weather that has gripped South Texas throughout November and now December, many of us are still finding eggs and caterpillars in the leaves of our milkweed.   Queens are here en masse.

Three Queen butterflies

Queens have been flying and reproducing this Fall.

As it turned out, the caterpillar in question that my friend Hugh texted me about (excuse the typos) was in fact a Queen.  The giveaway:  it had three sets of protuberances–frequently called antennae, but actually only one set are antennae and the other two are filaments.  The antennae have special sensing properties while the filaments are mostly for show, and to throw off predators.

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Queens on Purple Mistflower

Hugh’s confusion is common:  because of their similar color, size and affinity for milkweed as a host plant, Queens and Monarchs are often mistaken for each other in their various life stages.

But once you look closely, it’s not that hard to tell the difference between Monarchs and Queens.

First, Queens appear solid orange compared to the varying shades of a Monarch.  In the photo above, notice how with their wings folded, the Queens’ solid dark orange is interrupted with occasional white dots–nothing like the striking stained glass veins and color pattern of the Monarch below.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

With their wings open, the difference is even more obvious.  The Queen is solid, the Monarch has varied coloration.  Both of the examples below are male butterflies, as you can see by the prominent display of their family jewels–the defunct pheremone sacs that presumably once drove the lady butterflies wild.

Queen butterfly, wings open

Queen butterfly.  It’s a male.

Female Queens and Monarchs don’t have these prominent markings with wings open.   In Monarchs, the black veins are generally wider and more pronounced in the females.

Monarch butterflies are on the move in Texas

Male Monarch butterfly.  Notice the two dark spots, his “family jewels.”

In the caterpillar stage, the most obvious difference is that Queens have one set of antennae and two sets of filaments, while Monarchs have one set of antennae and one set of filaments. Antennae are on the head of the butterfly, while filaments are at the rear–and in the case of the Queen, in the middle.

Queen caterpillar with three filaments

Queen caterpillar sports three sets of protuberances–two sets of filaments, one set of antennae.

Notice in the photo above, the Queen has what appear to be THREE sets of protuberances.  The Monarch caterpillar only has TWO.  Both wear distinctive yellow, black and white striped suits.   The Queen often will have a slight red blend as the filaments connect to the caterpillar’s torso.  The patterns of the stripes can vary depending on time of year, humidity and diet.

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has two filaments

Monarch butterfly caterpillar has one set of antennae, one of filaments–two total sets.

Scientists don’t fully understand the biological purpose of the filaments, which seem to reach out and “feel” the universe around them.   They swerve and turn in various directions, almost punctuating caterpillar moves like a roving eye or arched eyebrows on the human face.

For the sake of identification, let’s just say their purpose is to signal the difference between Queens and Monarchs.   For more on filaments and what we do and don’t know about them, check this link on the Monarch Watch page.

Queen and Monarch chrysalises

Queen and Monarch chrysalises. Monarch in the middle.

In the chrysalis stage, Queen chrysalises are almost identical to Monarchs, except they are generally smaller.  They also sometimes offer a subtle pink hue, as evidenced in the picture above, Monarch in the middle, Queen on the sides.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Happy Moth Week! Night Flying Butterflies Finally Get Some Respect

Butterflies,  Monarch butterflies in particular, seem to get all the press–and yet their night-flying cousins can be equally endearing and beautiful, providing useful pollination and food chain chores for our greater good.  Vastly under celebrated, moths are finally getting some well-deserved attention thanks to the first National Moth Week, July 23 – 29.

First National Moth Week, July 23 – 29, 2012

Started by several environmental scientists and insect enthusiasts in East Brunswick, New Jersey, National Moth Week grew out of occasional celebrations the group enjoyed hosting “Moth Nights” on the east coast and rides on the citizen scientist movement typified by Monarch Watch.   At a Moth Night, enthusiasts gather in the evenings with sheet-covered lights and old beer to draw the night flyers in for close inspection and photographs.

Interested?  If so, leave a comment.

The National Moth Night website offers a wealth of resources, including step-by-step instructions for hosting a Moth Party and recipes for making Moth Bait, which often features stale or fermented fruit, sugar, beer or wine.  Moths are literally suckers for stale beer.

“Basically, we want people to go out and have fun,” David Moskowitz told  Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.  Moskowitz, a New Jersey-based biologist who also works as a senior vice president for environmental consulting firm EcolSciences, collaborated with New Jersey oceanographer Liti Haramaty to get National Moth Week off the ground.

Sphinx Moth

C’mon, admit it: she’s adorable. Sphinx Moth, photo courtesy Colorado State University extension office

“If we can use National Moth Week to turn them on to what’s in their own backyard, then hopefully something will click and they’ll start to think twice about environmental issues like recycling, and preserving habitats and biodiversity,” said Moskowitz.

Why is it that moths don’t get the attention and respect of butterflies?

Most are grey or brown, which makes them more drab than visually appealing.   Their erratic flight pattern can be creepy.   Flailing around and diving at lights can put people off.   Moths’ habit of coming out at night also raises some shackles and perhaps unpleasant, scary associations.  And then there’s the fact that much of our contact with moths amounts to finding them ruining our sweaters and winter wear.

Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Look at that face! Tobacco Hornworm on Jimsonweed

Some people even have a fear of moths, called mottephobia.  “Motte” means “moth” in German.

As we’ve written here before, the 1991 thriller The Silence of the Lambs, starring Jodi Foster as tenacious cop Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as cannibalistic serial killer, Hannibal Lecter, didn’t help moths’  reputation.  In the award-winning movie, “Hannibal the Cannibal” places the cocoon of a certain species of hawk moth, the Death’s Head Hawk Moth, in the mouths of  his victims as some sort of sick gesture of transformation. The moths fly around in a creepy, dark basement and evoke a weird terror.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, has contributed to moths' creepy reputation.

The thriller, Silence of the Lambs, contributed to moths’ creepy rep.

But not all moths are scary or ugly.  The Sphinx Moth, for example, sports black, grey and white stripes and often is mistaken for a hummingbird.  It sometimes carries out its aerial ventures during the day, hovering on late afternoon blooms.

In the caterpillar stage, the distinctive creature sports seven black-dotted stripes on a plump green body, its namesake “horn” reaching from its rear-end.   When bothered, the caterpillar strikes a stately “sphinx” pose, arching its head and shooting an annoyed look.

NEXT:   The Black Witch Moth

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Alamo, Texas, a Great Base for South Texas Sojourn of Bugs, Butterflies and Birds

For a fun outdoor getaway filled with butterflies and birds, look no further than Alamo, Texas. No, not The Alamo.  Alamo, Texas.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

Empress Louisa butterflies at the Alamo B & B Inn

The small town in Hidalgo County may seem like an unworthy stop on the drive to South Padre Island with its strip malls and fast food joints dotting the highway.   But the former headquarters of the Alamo Sugar and Land Company sits in the center of the Rio Grande Valley and makes a perfect base for exploring the bird and butterfly hotspots of South Texas.

A Fourth of July trip took Bob and me to the National Butterfly Center, the Global Birding Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in a 48-hour off-season nature sojourn that made us want to rebook in the “high season” of October or March.

We stayed at the Alamo Inn B & B, a historic naturalists’ retreat just five miles from the fabulous Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge.  Our new friend Ro Wauer, butterfly guidebook author extraordinaire, who we met at the Wings Over the Hills Festival in Fredericksburg this spring, recommended it highly.  And despite the historic part of the hotel being closed for the off-season, Proprietor Keith Hackland made us feel welcome with his profound hospitality, charming South African accent, and dog friendly accommodations in adjacent studio apartments (Cost:  $78 per night).  Our dog Cocoa made friends with Hackland’s sweet pooch Henry, and roamed a huge, fenced yard.

Hackland offered hefty 20-page handouts of bird species we were likely to see upon check-in, retrieved from his well-stocked outdoor store which was also closed for the off-season.  Alas, we’re not serious birders and I’m a novice (but extremely enthusiastic) lepidopterist, more interested in the whole life cycles of plants, creatures and ecosystems than checking species off a life-list.  Yet the pages and pages of species had me intrigued:  were there really 500 species of birds and at least 200 different butterflies cruising the area around our hotel?  Apparently so.

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

Termite hatch left bug detritus everywhere

We arrived Sunday afternoon and planned a late morning visit to the National Butterfly Center.   (One of the best things about chasing butterflies is that they don’t get up early.) As we sat on our front porch Sunday evening and watched buff-bellied hummingbirds nectar on Turk’s Cap, a thunderstorm blew in, dropping a quarter-inch of rain on the Alamo Inn’s garden.

Ten minutes later, a torrent of flying creatures filled the air–a massive hatch like we had never witnessed.  I thought at first they were Mayflies, but Hackland nabbed one with one hand and provided a positive I.D.: termites. “This happens pretty regularly after it’s been dry,” he said.

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

Empress Louisa butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

The next day, Empress Louisa, Asterocampa louisa, butterflies filled the air at the National Butterfly Center.  They fluttered along the pathways, nectared on lantana, and rested on miniature log roosts assembled by the Center.    This video provides a great overview.

The 100-acre park, opened in 2004, is a project of the North American Butterfly Association, which planted hundreds of host plants to draw butterflies from all corners of the Valley and northern Mexico.  More than 200 species have been identified along the Center’s trails.

Lake Flato's World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas

World Birding Center Headquarters in Mission, Texas, photo courtesy Lake|Flato Architects

Ambling the park-like grounds last week, we saw Queens, Sulphers, Whites, Swallowtails, Zebra Longwings, unusual hairstreaks and brush foots.  We had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed the solitude in spite of a muggy heat.  Tip:  be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as the Butterfly Center offers no refreshments.  According to office manager Flora Vela, the Center had contracted with a restaurant to open a cafe on the premises earlier in  its history, but the deal fell through.

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

At the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley

Next stop: the World Birding Center ecotourism headquarters, built by San Antonio’s  AIA Firm of the Year, Lake|Flato Architects.  The award-winning building anchors nine birding destinations that dot the Valley and draw thousands of ecotourists each winter.  Unfortunately our trip here was cut short by another downpour.  A lovely Black Witch Moth kept us company under the eaves of the magnificent galvanized metal quonset-hut style patio. As a drumbeat of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, we were able to observe the rainwater collection system in action.  It felt like the tropics.

Canopy Walk, feels like the jungle at Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge

Bob Rivard on the Canopy Walk at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, some of the wetlands were dry, but those back-to-back thunderstorms created a steamy, fertile backdrop for a hike.  We hoped to spot the Valley’s signature Green Jay, and helpful attendants at the front desk offered to spread birdseed in the feeding area to increase our chances.

No luck, but Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and other flying creatures kept our walk interesting and the screaming cicada chorus and tropical bird sounds provided an apt soundtrack as we traversed the Canopy Walk and climbed the Tree Tower.

An off-season visit has the advantage of  no crowds, but we’re already planning our high season return.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam.  You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.

Banner Butterfly Year Caused by “Ecological Release” in Texas, says Monarch Watch Founder Dr. Chip Taylor

Texas has been called the “most important state” to the Monarch butterfly migration by Monarch Watch founder Chip Taylor.   Now our Lone Star State is getting attention for spawning an “ecological release” that has resulted in a butterfly “season like no other,”  Taylor told the Hornell Evening Tribune in New York.

Banner year for butterflies, thank you, Texas!

Banner year for butterflies. Thank you, Texas!

“This year continues to amaze,” Dr. Taylor wrote to the DPLEX email list, well-read by hundreds of academics, enthusiasts and others who follow the Monarch butterfly migration.   Taylor detailed ample and early sightings of Monarchs, Sulphurs, Red Admirals, Buckeyes and other species to the Midwest.   Watch the video above for examples.

Taylor and others attribute the 2012 banner butterfly year to a perfect storm of circumstances in Texas, including:

  •  An historic drought which killed butterfly and caterpillar predators, notably fire ants, followed by
  • Generous, well-timed rains, a mild winter that caused host and nectar plants to flourish, and caterpillars and butterflies to thrive.

Eventually, host plant and nectar populations will drop back to normal, as will this year’s butterfly explosion.

In the meantime, enjoy the show.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. 

Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

Like what you’re reading?  Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. 

Mexican President Felipe Calderon Visits Monarch Butterfly Preserves in Michoacan

President Felipe Calderon of Mexico visited the Monarch butterfly preserves in Michoacan last week to film an IMAX film and call attention to the importance of the butterflies’ unique ancestral roosting spots to the sustainable economic development of the impoverished communities surrounding them.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan

Mexican President Felipe Calderon visits the Monarch butterfly sanctuaries in Michoacan--photo by La Voz

Late February and early March are ideal for visiting the sanctuaries since rising temperatures warm up the butterflies and make them more active.

Unfortunately, tourism at the roosting areas, including visits from scientists who make such pilgrimages the basis for their life’s work, has fallen dramatically in recent years because of narco violence and instability in the region.   U.S.-based tour operators have pretty much ceased offering Monarch butterfly sanctuary tours because of potential liabilities.  (An exception:  Bill Toone’s EcoLife Foundation.)

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

Deforestation in Mexico is still a problem

The U.S. State Department advised Americans to avoid “non-essential travel” to 14 of Mexico’s 31 states in an amped-up  travel warning on February 8.   The warning came on the heels of a 15-ton meth seizure outside Guadalajara and expanded on previous advisories that has Mexican tourism authorities annoyed.

While informal reports of this years’ visitor count to El Rosario Sanctuary list slight increases ecotourism (up to 100,000 from 80,000 last year), the butterfly preserves need all the help they can get.  Fewer visitors means locals will have to seek other ways of earning a living, including illegal logging.  My husband and I braved Mexico last year to visit the sanctuaries and it was a memorable, monumental trip;  however, not sure I would do it again until the situation changes there.

It’s unfortunate, but travel in Mexico right now is just too potentially dangerous.  Driving through the Mexican provinces, once a common adventure for many Texans, now is fraught with risk, sometimes death.  Says the advisory:   “TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them. You should cooperate at all checkpoints.”   Doesn’t sound like much of a vacation.

The good news is that migrating Monarch butterflies are already on their way to Texas.   The active DPLEX list, a Monarch butterfly list-serv that charts the creatures’  every move, has reports of first-of-season sightings and egg-laying on South Texas milkweeds, which are emerging early this year because of our warm winter.

As the Spring Equinox approaches and the migrating insects leave Mexico, they’ll nectar up for their journey north,  head our way, and grace us with their joyous presence.    On March 15, the state-of-the-union report of the Monarch butterfly population for 2011-2012 will be released by Mexican authorities.   We’ll keep you posted.

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery  on the right navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.



San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  “This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

Like what you’re reading?  Don’t miss a single post from the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the right navigation bar on this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @butterflybeat.