Here They Come! Monarch Butterflies Headed our Way in Promising Rebound Season

The Monarch butterfly migration began in mid August. The progeny of butterflies that left the forests of Mexico in March have reproduced several times on their multi-generational journey north to Canada, and are now turning their attention south, as they head “home” for the winter.

Monarch Roost Wisconsin

The first Monarch roost was reported in Wisconsin this week. The migration is on and they’re heading our way. Photo by Pat Swerkstron via Journey North

While it’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, it’s hard to resist running out and checking our favorite butterfly destinations to see what’s flying and which species are in town.   We should be seeing a trickle of Monarchs from now until the peak migraiton in mid October.

A check-in at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch this weekend didn’t disappoint.   Queens and Gulf Fritillaries were flying profusely, and one lone female Monarch joined the nectar party, frantically laying eggs on a dozen or more different Tropical Milkweed plants.

I checked the leaves she visited, hoping to spot some eggs–but no luck.   Just aphids.

Female Monarch laying eggs

Female Monarch butterfly “shooting blanks?” Apparently. Note how her abdomen is tucked under to lay eggs.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

So what was up, was she shooting blanks?

“Hard to say,” Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch told us via email.  “Could be blocked ducts, lacks mature eggs, having trouble moving an egg down the oviduct.  It happens frequently.”   Professional butterfly breeder Edith Smith of Shady Oak Butterfly Farm confirmed that this is not unusual.  “I’ve seen the same thing, normally caused by a clogged duct,” she relayed via email.

Since reproductive Monarchs do not migrate, this one will likely stay in the neighborhood.   Migrating Monarchs must preserve their energy for their long trip to Mexico.  Once they reach Michoacán, they roost for the winter, wake up in the spring, and reproduce then.  So if you see a Monarch laying eggs or mating, don’t tag it.

Nectar corridor

Monarchs nectar intensely when in migration mode–wouldn’t you, if you had to fly 3,000 miles? Photo via Journey North, by Elizabeth Howard

Monarch Watch discourages citizen scientists from tagging Monarchs before August 15 because it’s basically a waste of time.

“We generally send out tag orders starting in the first few days of August, giving priority to the most northerly areas. If we start sending tags in July, folks will tag more of the late breeders than they do now. This would be unproductive since the late breeders don’t migrate,”  Dr. Taylor explained to the DPLEX list, the email listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans, academics, citizen scientists and others.

Monarch migration map

Texas Funnel:  Migrating Monarchs must pass through Texas coming and going to Mexico.  Map by Nicolas Rivard

But further north, folks are already tagging in what appears to be a rebound season.

According to Journey North, a citizen scientist-fueled website that posts updates on migrations of all kinds, the first overnight roost was reported on Monday by Pat Swerkstrom of Oceola, Wisconsin.  See the photo at the top of this post to see what it looked like.

We get this kind of action in mid October when the Monarchs move through the Texas Funnel on their way to Mexico.  Typically, those of us enamored with Monarchs stage tagging outings.

Along the Llano River, they roost in pecan trees during peak migration. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of Monarch butterflies cluster like grapes as the sun sets, settling in for the night to rest and wake the next morning to nectar up and continue on their journey.  In the weeks prior, we see Monarchs in ones and twos nectaring on flowers or resting in trees and shrubs.

Small roost of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River, October 5, 2012

Looking forward to seeing this:  roost of about 200 Monarchs in a pecan tree on the Llano River in October 2012.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

This year looks like it could be a rebound for Monarchs.   Conditions are favorable in the midwestern breeding grounds and milder temperatures than recent years prevail in the Southwest.

For those with no access to roosting sites who want to see Monarchs, 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, their primary goal when migrating is to fuel up and store fat for the long winter.

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Llano River Ready for “Premigration Migration” of Monarch Butterflies

Email lists have been filled with optimistic reports on the Monarch migration in recent weeks. We’re feeling hopeful of a rebound.

Folks from Canada to Pennsylvania sang a buoyant chorus:  more butterflies than last year.  Of course, it’s all relative:  with 2013 holding the distinction as the worst migration in history, even a slight uptick in Monarch butterfly numbers would call for celebration.

Monarch on swamp milkweed

Pretty, early girl. Faded female Monarch on Swamp Milkweed in downtown San Antonio, August 14, 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a sampling of updates:

It has been the best year finding them, in 11 years of doing this. Most were from our yard.

–J Agazzi, SE Wisconsin on the Illinois border

I also live in SE WI and have about 30 just-born instars taken from swamp milkweed more than common milkweed. I agree also that this has been a good year and I’m still finding them.

–Chris Mason,  Lake Geneva, WI

A BIG comeback for Monarchs this year…. Having gathered and raised hundreds of Monarchs for past ten years; having been very sad over numbers next to nothing in 2012 & 2013, this year ‘s population is back up to 75 releases and more to come. I am amazed, overjoyed.   (Interestingly, I and others observed only a single Monarch here and there during this entire season. But how joyfully ‘active’ these ‘singles’ have been!)
                                –Cindy Ziebell, Eua Claire, Wisconsin

I have to agree with you all….although it is not scientific, I have recorded seeing at least one monarch every day for the last 4.5 weeks!! Sometimes I have seen as many as five in a day. This has not happened in at least 20 years! I really hope that our fall migration numbers follow these trends. It is also the only year I can remember collecting more than one or two eggs. This week, I have collected eight. Good to hear all this news from this central region.

–Jim and Linette Langhus, Monona Iowa

IMG_1637We learn in Monarch Migration 101 that the migratory generation of Monarchs do not reproduce.  Rather, they go into a reproductive diapause, a biological state of arrested development that interrupts their usual instinct to procreate.  Presumably, they do this to save their energy for the long flight and months-long overwintering in Mexico, conserving biological resources to awake in the spring and reproduce then.

Yet in late summer, we generally see a pulse of Monarchs over Labor Day weekend and many leave eggs as evidence of the reproductivity and their travels.

So what’s going on with these “joyfully active” single butterflies described above?

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, awaits on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years, scientists like  Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch and Dr. Karen Oberhauser of Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) have described a “premigration migration” that begins in mid-July and carries a final reproductive generation of Monarchs south.

Candy Sarikonda explains the phenomenon in this issue of the MLMP newsletter. 

Taylor has speculated that late season reproduction is selectively advantageous for some Monarchs who are born too far north too late in the year to complete the lifecycle.   Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, and an evolutionary scientist at the University of Minnesota, told Sarikonda that “It makes evolutionary sense that some monarchs would fly south as they laid their eggs, since an egg laid in August in Missouri or Virginia is probably more likely to develop and migrate to Mexico than one laid in Minnesota, where a hard freeze in early September is not that uncommon.”

What'syour latitude.  Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

What’s your latitude? Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch activity by latitude each fall.

We don’t fully understand the reasons for this premigration migration, but we do know that here in Texas, the Llano River is well-stocked with milkweed for those premigratory migrants.   Last Sunday we saw ample Swamp Milkweed and Goldenrod lining the banks, and heavy rains this weekend will keep the host and nectar plants fresh for Monarchs arriving later this summer.

For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27.  Check the chart above to see when peak migration is expected in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.

How convenient: eggs laid over Labor Day weekend will be hatching just as the peak migration passes through the Texas Hill Country in mid October.  That means our freshly hatched, well-fed Monarchs will have an excellent chance of making it to Michoacán.

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan!  MJR894 was recovered on the florest floor and reported last week.  The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011 with Dr. Lincoln Brower.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch 10/12/13 were recovered on the florest floor and recovered 2/22/14. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Perhaps that was the case with two Monarch butterflies tagged at the ranch last year on October 12.  Monarch Watch just posted a preliminary report on the 2013 season’s recoveries. 

SLM131, a male, was tagged along the Llano River by friends Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida and was found at EL Rosario in February.   A female I tagged the same day, SLM181, was also found at the sanctuary on 2/22/14.

All the elements are in place for a recovery of the Monarch population this year.  Stay tuned for updates.

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Thanks, Climate Change! 9.5-inch Llano River Rain Dump Exemplifies Extreme Weather

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

On the Llano River: the picnic spot kayak rock May 16, 2014.  As of this date, only five inches of rain had fallen on the ranch in all of 2014.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Everything I need to know about climate change I can learn from the the picnic spot kayak rock on our Llano River ranch pictured above.

The rock is our family’s “riverometer.”   It tells us how the river is faring.  Is it up?  Down? Is the current running swiftly or creeping slow?

Each visit to the ranch begins with a trek down to the picnic spot to check the kayak rock, where we put our kayaks in the water, launch our river adventures, begin our wading outings and fishing fun.    When the river is down, which it has been in recent years, we can even traverse almost the entire karst riddled river bottom without getting our shorts wet.   That’s a sad day.

Last weekend, like many of you, I was very much looking forward to a three-day Memorial Day weekend.   As is our custom, my family set out for the Texas Hill Country.   Memorial Day weekend generally means  the kick-off of summer with clusters of agarita berries, excellent bird and butterfly watching, fishing for bass and gar, and the first swim of the season.

But not this year. Just like other creatures that have had their schedules rearranged by “extreme weather events” the outing we had planned didn’t happen. We had to literally go with the flow–of the river, that is.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 23, 7:38 PM, after five inches of rain in 60 minutes.   And more on the way.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to our weekend late Friday afternoon, we encountered a massive storm that dumped five inches of rain on the Texas Hill Country in 60 minutes.   That’s more rain than our ranch has seen in all of 2014 until now.

Living in San Antonio’s “flash flood alley,” which sits on thin soils and lots of limestone,  we’re accustomed to rainstorms turning our streets into high water crossings.  But this rain event was monumental.

Water blocked Highway 385 around 6 PM on Friday night, and surrounding fields looked like fresh tanks with water standing under oak and pine trees. And then the sun came out.

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock on May 24, 2:43 PM, water has receded a bit. Photo by Monika Maeckle

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock May 25, 2014, 8:52 AM. Another two inches of rain later.

 

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock

Llano River picnic spot kayak rock, May 26, 9:56 AM, after two-and-a-half more inches of rain, for a total of nine-and-a-half inches. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The rain surge continued on and off all weekend–then into the week. By Monday morning, we had 9.5 inches of rain in the rain gauge. That’s a blessing, of course, in the context of historic drought. But it sure would be preferable if we could have it in smaller, more manageable doses.

Unfortunately, that’s not likely.  The predictable, manageable cycles of the past have been thrown into jeopardy with global climate change. As laid out in the recently released White House Global Climate Assessment Report earlier this month, “extreme weather events” like that of last weekend will become increasingly common.

Imagine you are an insect or crawfish that lives on or near the picnic spot kayak rock. One minute you’d be scrounging for sustenance in high salinity water with low oxygen levels, the next scrambling to survive as waves of run-off and debris literally rearrange your world. You’d really have to be flexible and have the ability to adapt to extremes to survive.

As written here previously, unpredictable and extreme weather will constitute the new normal for us. The third National Climate Assessment report suggests Texas will continue to face severe shortages of ground and surface water. Floods caused by extreme rain events will interrupt the ongoing drought. Tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, and winter storms will become more common.   And wildfires will punctuate our summers.

Science tells us this is a period of rapid climate change like no other. Organisms that can adapt, will survive, and with luck, thrive.

Rain dump means road repairs needed

Good news: it rained buckets. Bad news: road repairs needed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

As we assessed the damage to our roads following last weekend’s deluge, it’s clear some expensive road work is in our future.    We’ll adapt.    And, we’ll keep in mind that while we can always rebuild the road, only Nature can restore the river.

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Genista Moth Caterpillars Return to Llano River Mountain Laurels

Last May I posted a much-read report of an extreme outbreak of Genista Moth larvae on two treasured Mountain Laurel trees my family had transplanted to our Llano River ranch 10 years ago.

The post, “Squish remorse” — Genista Larvae on Mountain Laurels Create Caterpillar Quandary,” started like this:

“It was an odd day, digging up wild parsley in search of chubby, Eastern Swallowtail caterpillars for fostering and fun at home, followed by hours of trying to figure out a humane and responsible way to kill hundreds–no, thousands–of unwelcome critters decimating several precious Mountain Laurels.”

 

The Genista Broom moth caterpillar, Uresiphita reversals, occupied almost every leaf of the tree.   Sometimes called the Sophora worm, these moth larvae relish the toxic leaves of our native Texas Mountain Laurels, Sophora secundiflora.

IMG_1072

Genista moth caterpillars returned to a different set of Mountain Laurels this spring. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A year ago, the voracious caterpillars were decimating the evergreen native, which produces a Kool-Aid perfumed bloom that typically signals the first days of spring.

At the time, I was concerned the ubiquitous caterpillars would kill the tree or prune it to a shadow of its former self.   Several sources assured me not to worry—it was all part of the life cycle.

Twelve months later, I’m happy to report that the Mountain Laurels in question have rebounded magnificently. See the photo below.

Mountain Laurel

Genista moth caterpillars decimated this Mountain Laurel last year, but the tree bounced back nicely in 2014. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s the good news.

The bad news: the Genistas have  moved on to devour another Mountain Laurel further up the hill from their 2013 feast.   As Sandra Schwinn commented at the time:

“I have dealt with these for the last couple of years…. If there were just a few of them, it wouldn’t be so bad. Be prepared for a second onslaught, as that’s been my experience. In fact, last year, I battled them from spring into fall.”

Sounds about right.   While it’s reassuring that the caterpillar onslaught doesn’t appear to kill the plant, it does rob us of the next year’s purple blooms since Mountain Laurel flowers only occur on second year growth.

Genista Moth caterpillars

Genista Moth larvae returned to different Mountain Laurels this year on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Given the apparent heartiness of the Mountain Laurel I will resist the urge to squish the Genistas, letting nature take its course and ceding their role in the food web as fodder for lizards, wasps and others.

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Wake-up Call: As Monarch Butterfly Numbers Plummet, will their Migration become Extinct?

More alarming news from the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Michoacán last week: the 2013 season will surpass 2012 as the all time worst year for Monarch butterflies since records have been kept.

Ever since 1994, scientists have measured the hectares occupied by the migrating insects in the high altitude forests west of Mexico City to get an idea of their numbers.  That information typically works as a key indicator on the state of the union of Monarch butterflies and other pollinators, which fertilize 70% of the world’s flowering plants and two-thirds of the world’s food crops.

Monarch population status 2014

Monarch population status 2014: less than two acres!  Graphic via Monarch Watch

For the 2013 season, the entire migrating Monarch butterfly population occupies only .67 hectares.  That’s 1.65 acres, 72,000 square feet–or about 35 million butterflies, down from highs of 450 million in years’ past.  Think about it:  the entire population of migratory Monarch butterflies could easily fit into the average Walmart store, with 30,000 square feet to spare.

Headlines trumpeted the end of the migration.

“Monarch butterflies drop, migration may disappear,” the Washington Post reported.  On January 29, NBC Nightly News anchor Bryan Williams told viewers–incorrectly–that the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico said the Monarch butterfly is in serious risk of disappearing.  In fact, it’s the migration that’s endangered, NOT the butterflies.  Important point.

The New York Times put the dismal news in proper perspective:  “The migrating population has become so small—perhaps 35 million, experts guess—that the prospects of its rebounding to levels seen even five years ago are diminishing. At worst, scientists said, a migration widely called one of the world’s great natural spectacles is in danger of effectively vanishing.”

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks and may become extinct. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news cast a pall over Monarch watchers and other nature lovers.

“My whole day got grayer,” said David Braun, an attorney, naturalist, and founder of Braun & Gresham, a law firm that specializes in environmental and land management issues in Dripping Springs, Texas.

Like me, Braun lives in the Texas Funnel, the primary flyway through which all migrating Monarchs must pass  in the fall on their way to Mexico.  He has accompanied me over the years on Monarch tagging outings along the Llano River and led ecotravelers to the roosting spots in Michoacán for Victor Emanual Tours back in the 1980s.  He was the first person to spark my imagination about how truly awesome it would be to witness the spectacle of hundreds of millions of butterflies unleashed in a mountain forest.

Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, was the woman on the cover of National Geographic in 1976

Look at all those Monarchs!  Catalina Trail, then known as Cathy Aguado, discovered  the roosting sites and appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1976.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

“I remember clearly my excitement when the National Geographic story came out in 1976 announcing the discovery of the wintering grounds,” Braun wrote via email.  “I also remember my first trip there, the magic of walking through the hushed, cathedral-like fir forest and hearing the sound of millions of Monarch wings flapping.  Today, I have to wonder if that entire awe-inspiring, glorious natural wonder will disappear in my lifetime.  It makes my short life seem even more insignificant if the great cycles of nature aren’t timeless.”

Thousands of others echoed those sentiments via social media, in comments on dozens of news articles, and in emails, on listservs and conversations near and far.  For a sampling of angst, see the Monarch Watch Facebook page comments.

“What’s happening to Monarchs is probably happening to lots of species,” Dr. Karen Oberhauser, a professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project, told the Washington Post. “This is a species, unlike most other insects, that we can count and look at what we’ve done to it. So this really should serve as a wake-up call.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, which oversees the citizen scientist tagging program in which I participate,  reinforced the connection to other pollinators on the public radio program Here and Now.

In a comprehensive interview with WBUR, Taylor underscored the idea that this extreme and rapid decline is not just about Monarchs.  “Monarchs are simply a flagship species for everything else that’s happening out there,” he said.

Taylor noted that Monarchs live in marginal habitats that support most of our pollinators– in roadside wildflower patches, between rows of cultivated crops and in native wildflower prairies.  These spaces are too often decimated by habitat loss.  Read his compelling explanation of the decline on the Monarch Watch Population Status Report.

“Those marginal habitats support a lot of small mammals and ground-nesting birds, and if we lose the monarchs, it means we’re going to lose all those things,”  Dr. Taylor said. “People perhaps do not grasp…that it’s the pollinators that keep everything knitted together out there….there’s a fabric of life out there that maintains these ecosystems, and it’s the pollinators that are critical.”

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Lots of Butterflies, but No Monarchs on the Llano River this Weekend

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

This weekend was a repeat of last–with only one Monarch butterfly spotted, none tagged.   I’m betting Monarchs migrated further west.  Or more likely, this year’s crop was extremely thin.  I don’t foresee more tagging weekends this fall.  It’s over.

And honestly, we did not see the masses enjoyed in recent years.   Sightings of 10 – 20 have replaced masses of 100-200.

According to the Journey North website, Monarchs crossed the border into Mexico this week.  That suggests they have passed the Texas funnel.  We may still see singles and strays, but the “massive” migration–a shadow of its former self–has passed.

From Nuevo Leon:  “Today, Monarchs were spotted for miles over three hours in some parts of Monterrey this morning,” wrote Rocio Treviño of Mexico’s Monarch tracking project, Correo Real, on October 23.  Similar bulletins were cited for Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Tagged Monarch

Tagged Monarch, raised at home. Many of the Monarchs we tagged this year we raised ourselves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The butterflies have not arrived at their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacán.  On Thursday, Estela Romero, the Journey North correspondent on the ground in Michoacán, reported:

Our graph recording Monarchs’ arrival this week, filled in inside our VW due to the intense rain:   Z E R O on October 24.”

It’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of the Monarch migration.   Every obstacle has been thrown in its path.  Habitat destruction in the flyway, the breeding grounds and the roosting sites.   Drought and climate change messing with the butterflies’ inherent cycles.   Aerial spraying of pesticides and the use of herbicide tolerant crops.   Continued illegal logging in Mexico.

The one good note is that people are paying attention.  We are planting milkweed.   Monarch butterfly festivals are hatching across the hemisphere.  More people are raising butterflies at home.

Last fall, a 3-D IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies” was released, sharing the story of the Monarch migration to rave reviews and multiple awards.  And scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver‘s latest novel, “Flight Behavior,” used Monarch butterflies to tackle the complex subject of climate change.

Monarch chrysalises

Happy Monarch butterfly chrysalises.  We fostered many Monarchs from wild eggs and caterpillars this year. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Are Monarch butterflies the panda bears of climate change?   The beloved creatures hold universal appeal.   They don’t sting or bite.  They are beautiful and accessible.  They migrate across three countries, serving as a living metaphor for our innate interconnectedness.

Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not.  But many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

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Migration Update: Llano River Thunderstorms Stall Early Pulse of Monarch Butterflies

What a perfect weekend:  friends and family gathered to assist in my annual Monarch Birthday Tagging weekend.  Lucky me, my October 13 birthday falls smack dab in the middle of peak migration, predicted October 10 – 22 this year by Monarch Watch.

Monarch on the Llano

Monarch butterfly resting on Frostweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

En route to the Llano, where Monarchs typically roost in the pecan trees that line our stretch of river, our San Antonio tagging team of Alex Rivard, Veronica Prida and Omar Rodriguez stopped at the Hilltop Cafe 12 miles outside Fredericksburg.   “Monarchs are all over the ranch,” said Johnny Nicholas, the piano playing proprietor.  We were stoked.

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Handful of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We arrived after dark, thus couldn’t check the usual roosting and resting spots along the riverbanks until Saturday morning.   On Saturday, Chris Gannon, David Braun and Karen Ford joined us from Austin.  The tag team was complete.

I scouted the scene around 8 AM, paddling my kayak to the “Monarch spot.” Monarch butterflies floated over the pecan branches near the river, a scene that suggested to me that all might possibly be right with the world. “YES!” I said aloud to no one.  “They’re here!”

Omar and Veronica on the Llano

Omar Rodriguez and Veronica Prida brave the Chigger Islands on the Llano River to tag Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

After the drumbeat of dreary predictions warning us that 2013 will be the worst year in history for Monarch butterflies, I had just about convinced myself that the days of a robust migration were over.   Seeing the creatures lilting in the breeze, floating above the persimmons and cedars, and lighting on pecan limbs gave me hope that perhaps they would be OK.

But the clusters were small compared to previous years.  The largest group we saw numbered only 20 – 25.  Most swoops of the net garnered only one Monarch at a time.   In the past we’d often capture several in one swing.

Sack full of Monarchs

In 2008: same week, same place. We tagged 500+ in several hours. This year? Only 124 all weekend. PHoto by Clint Howell

Typically we stage a Big Swoop Contest:  who could get the MOST Monarchs in their net in one swoop?  In 2008, my friend Clint Howell nabbed almost three dozen at once.  Here’s what I wrote five years ago–same week, same place, as last weekend.  That year, 2008, was a magnum opus year for Monarch butterflies in our part of the world:

“Our crew of Monarch maniacs competed to see who could snag the most in a single swing: Monika started with 15; David quickly surpassed that by netting 26; then Clint came along and outdid us both by nabbing 35 Monarchs in one swoop.”

So far this year, I take the prize with a mere six.

Chris Gannon and tucker

Chris Gannon and Tucker the Mellow Dog give it their best swoop, chasing Monarch butterflies on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarchs seemed tentative on Saturday, as if waiting for the wind to carry them home.  Thunderstorms had been predicted for the entire weekend, but Saturday rose sunny and calm.

They moved around the trees and we tagged more than 100 by dinnertime Saturday–again, in ones and twos.  Most appeared healthy and we recorded an equal number of males and females.   The butterflies seemed uninterested in the abundant nectar lining the riverbanks–Frostweed, Goldenrod, Water hemlock, Cowpen Daisies, Purple Aster and even a Cardinal flower or two.  But Monarchs stayed in the trees, as if resting for their long journey.

Monarch butterfly resting on Cedar

A common sight this weekend: Monarchs resting on Ashe Juniper, a.k.a. Cedar. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Saturday night a magnificent light show graced the sky about the river.  For more than an hour this year’s Monarch Tagging Team sat on the porch and enjoyed heat lightning as it backlit a cloud banket to the North.  Occasional bolts peeked through the clouds, showing itself as some sort of mammoth display of power and light.  The light show continued into early morning until the sky unleashed a thunderstorm that started at 6 AM and continued for 90 minutes, ebbing into a steady drizzle for most of the day with slight interruptions.   Three inches of rain resulted and the Llano River rose half a foot.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Not so many caterpillars as last weekend, but plenty of Monarch butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarchs waited out the storm along the Llano River banks.  We returned around noon and tagged a few more, ending the day with a total of 124.

Was this it?  The big mass of Monarchs for 2013?

Jenny Singleton in Menard reported similar results with no huge roosts.  She and her gang tagged 310 over the weekend, chasing them at three different ranches including her place on the Sabinal River where she usually tags 1,000-plus.

“I think the butterflies this weekend are the early pulses,” she wrote as we exchanged text message reports.  “They’re running really late this year.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, agreed in a phone call.   “Monarchs are having their worst year.  And they’re running really late.   I think these are the early pulses.” I hope they are right.   We will see in the coming weeks.

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Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River: No Monarch butterflies, but caterpillars galore

I was worried that the only Monarchs that I’ll be tagging this year will be ones I raise myself.  Until this guy showed up:

FOS Wild Monarch tagged

First of season wild Monarch tagged on the Llano River. October 2013. Photo by Monika Maeckle

What a beauty.

The perfect male, SLM027, appeared to be recently hatched.   That wouldn’t surprise me since the Llano River this weekend was ripe with Monarch caterpillars, while flying Monarchs were almost completely absent.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars on the LLano River

Caterpillar – palooza on the Llano River. Plenty of caterpillars, but few Monarch butterflies this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The freshly minted specimen above was one of only two Monarchs seen all weekend, and is only the third Monarch butterfly I’ve tagged this year.   That puts me way behind my usual activity, which by now should number in the dozens.  The other two were reared at home. You’ve all heard how this is likely to be the worst year in history for Monarchs.  So I won’t belabor it again.

My friend and fellow butterfly fan Jenny Singleton, who first introduced me to butterflies, shared the hope that a cold front hitting the Llano River this weekend would push down some major pulses from up North and we’d have the usual clusters roosting in our pecan trees.  But as is often the case, Jenny and I were ahead of our time.   Migrating Monarchs had not quite arrived.

Jenny was at her place in Hext, about 40 miles from me and said she didn’t see any, either.  We’re both betting on next weekend.  Monarch Watch predicts the peak migration for our latitude to hit between October 10 and the 22nd.  And judging from reports we’re getting early this week, Monarchs are on the move.

Spangled Fritillary

Spangled Fritillary nectaring on Frostweed. Llano River, Texas Hill Country

Plenty of other butterflies were flying whenever the North wind gales paused to catch their breath.   The dramatic temperature drop and wind gusts appeared to make many insects seek the comfort of the opposite sex, as these pictures of mating Queens and grasshoppers (we call them Jumbos) attest.

Queen butterflies doing it

Queen butterflies snuggle up as a cold front hits the Llano River this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Grasshoppers doing it

Get a room!  Grasshoppers find companionship on the Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Eastern Swallowtail

Eastern Swallowtail, recently hatched, resting in the grass. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The good news is that the Llano River is up substantially from a dreary low flow.   A two-and-a-half inch rain about two weeks ago lifted the waters four feet and scrubbed much of the muck and dredge from its karst bottom.  Plenty of Swamp milkweed, Frostweed, Cowpen daisy, Goldenrod and Purple mistflower await hungry travelers when they finally arrive.   A fresh hatch of Gulf Fritillaries, Eastern Swallowtails and Queens lighted on the nectar feast Saturday afternoon.

Llano River, October 2013

Llano River recovered nicely from a long, hot summer. Three inches of rain raised the river at least a foot.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Interestingly, I found more than 20 Monarch caterpillars in various stages on the milkweed this weekend.  I have never retrieved so many caterpillars at once, so late in the season.   Not sure what that is about, except that perhaps the migration will be a bit late this year.  Upon returning home, my Tropical milkweed was filled with Monarch butterfly eggs.

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Caterpillar Cannibalism: Monarch butterfly caterpillar eats Monarch egg for lunch

I have heard that when Monarch caterpillars run out of milkweed to fuel their feeding frenzy en route to becoming a migrating butterfly, they can become cannibalistic.  That makes Darwinian sense.   Facing competition and a lack of food, it’s understandable that a creature might eat what’s before it to survive.   Nature can be cruel.

Monarch catepillars and eggs

Not interested:  Monarch caterpillars resisted a snack of a creamy yellow Monarch eggs–unlike a fellow caterpillar hours earlier. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Still, I was surprised this weekend when I watched a Monarch caterpillar retrieved from an aging milkweed plant nonchalantly devour a creamy yellow Monarch egg upon combining the two for safekeeping.    The second instar caterpillar appeared freshly minted, as if it had just shed its skin.  Its tentacles were still stuck to his head, not yet dry or perking up to explore the universe as they often do when in full form.  I’m betting that shedding your skin requires extra energy and works up an appetite.

This caterpillar was hungry.  As soon as I plucked the leaf on which he rested and placed it in a container with a Monarch egg found earlier, the caterpillar quickly gravitated to the egg and began noshing.  It took about five seconds to decimate the egg.  The caterpillar knocked it back like a high protein jello shot.

Later, as an experiment, I put several caterpillars in with several eggs to see if they would do the same.  They did not.  Were they just not that hungry?  Scientists will have to answer that one.

“Cannibalism in monarchs is not unheard of – it usually occurs due to overcrowding and/or insufficient food availability, but this is not always the case,” wrote Jim Lovett of Monarch Watch when the “caterpillar cannibalism” question was posed on a Monarch Watch forum. Most folks here will tell you to give the caterpillars plenty of room and to raise similarly-sized caterpillars together (don’t keep the larger caterpillars with the smaller ones).”

Sounds like good advice.   I generally keep eggs and tiny instars separate from their more voracious brethren.  In the case above, I was moving caterpillars and eggs from the river to the ranch house, holding them together temporarily.

Jacqueline Stearns responded on the same string that she had witnessed Monarch cannibalism.  “My first cat ever earlier this summer ended up killing my 2nd and 3rd cats and scaring my 4th and eating 3 eggs before I finally figured out what was happening,” Stearns posted on the forum.   She isolated the aggressive caterpillar and segregated the rest by size.   Since, she wrote, “have not had issue with any of the others until just last week. I found my youngest ones fighting and separated them (one is now a chrysalis) so I’m guessing they are safe together now.”

Whew.

Frostweed on the Llano

Frostweed on the Llano River awaits migrating Monarchs. Lookin’ good for a nectar fest in a few weeks. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Meanwhile, on the Llano River this weekend, we found plenty of eggs and caterpillars upon making our milkweed rounds.   Three Monarchs, four Queens were spotted in flight.  Swamp Milkweed stands of Asclepias incarnata are numerous but thin, and we even found one egg on Antelope Horns milkweed, Asclepias asperula.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Last year, this is what it looked like:  parched Goldenrod on the Llano River served no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a place to rest.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly mainstay in the fall with its puffs of white flowers, is just starting to bloom.  Goldenrod is still pervasive, but fading.  The timing is excellent for good nectar possibilities a month from now, October 10-22,  when Monarch Watch predicts peak Monarch Migration for latitude 29, which is San Antonio.  Austin, at latitude 30, would be around the same.

Peak Migration dates

Peak migration for San Antonio is predicted to be October 10 -18 according to Monarch Watch. Screengrab and info via Monarch Watch.org

My Monarch Watch tags arrived this week.  I had procrastinated buying them and only ordered 100 this year as I expect another dreary turnout for the migration given the myriad challenges Monarchs face. Weather seems to be cooperating and cooling off, though.

When the small troop arrives, nectar sources should be plentiful, boding a restorative rest stop as they make their way to Mexico.

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Welcome to the World, Lil Joe! Monarch Eggs Retrieved on the Llano River this Weekend

Sometimes a blackhead is a good thing….when it signals the imminent hatching of a Queen or Monarch butterfly caterpillar, for example.

About to hatch caterpillar egg

Black head on Monarch or Queen egg suggests imminent hatching. Soon, Lil Joe was born.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Labor Day usually marks the kick-off of Monarch tagging season for me and my mariposista friends.  Often we gather at the ranch for the three-day weekend, tags in one pocket, notebook in the other, a butterfly net in hand and a rack of babyback ribs slow cooking on the smoker.  We move up and down the banks of the Llano River on foot and in kayaks looking for the Monarch butterfly vanguard, the early arrivals of the magnificent Monarch butterfly migration. Central Texas stream systems are a favorite passage on the long journey from Canada to Mexico each fall, and the first pulse of migrants typically shows up around the end of August.

Baby Back ribs--Yeah!

Monarchs are a Labor Day tradition–as are baby back ribs on the smoker. Photo by Monika Maeckle

These early arrivals often break their reproductive diapause, the state of suspending their sexual activity in order to conserve energy for their long flight.  When that happens, they often deposit eggs on milkweed host plants in our gardens and along the Llano River.

And who can blame them for breaking celibacy vows to take advantage of available sexual, host plant and nectar resources?  The definition of success to an insect is to reproduce.

Pat Epstein paddles for Monarchs

Pat Epstein in search of Monarch butterflies and their eggs on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

That’s why our Labor Day Monarch tagging team makes a point to look not just for butterflies, but for eggs and caterpillars on the undersides of the leaves of Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed.  The native milkweed, a Monarch host plant, blooms pink in late August and early September and awaits butterfly travelers as they journey south.  Science suggests that when the butterflies break diapause they do not migrate. It’s either migrate or reproduce.  Understandably, no Monarch butterfly has the energy to do both.

The good news is that the offspring of those vanguard Monarchs will grow up in about four weeks to migrate.  Their journey will be a much shorter one than that undertaken by those Monarchs who began the trip in Ontario or northern Michigan–about 870 miles compared to 2,500+.  San Antonio or the Texas Hill Country to the roosting spot in Michoacán makes for a much more manageable trip, especially when you are young, energetic, and well-fed on fall blooming nectar plants.

Lil Joe caterpillar

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe! Monarch or Queen caterpillar hatched before my eyes. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Out of approximately 2,000 Monarch butterflies tagged by our team since 2005,  25 of  “my guys” from Central and South Texas have made it to the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, according to the Monarch Watch butterfly recovery database.  That’s what motivated my friend Pat Epstein of Austin to join me, my husband Bob, and my able assistant Cocoa for daily inspections of the Llano River milkweeds this weekend.

We saw very few butterflies in general—only three Queens, several Gulf Fritillaries, an occasional Eastern Swallowtail and periodic Sulphurs  and Skippers, as well as a hatch of the elegant Amymone, a small peaches-and-cream colored brushfoot.

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Swamp milkweed loaded with aphids this weekend on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Plenty of bees, aphids, wasps, fire ants, mosquitoes and grasshoppers joined a loud chorus of cicadas as we perused the milkweed stands and observed nectaring on Goldenrod and Snow-on-the-Praire.  Perhaps that 2.5 inches in the rain gauge, apparently from a passing thunderstorm earlier in the week, provoked recent hatches.

We did find several caterpillar eggs, however, including the one pictured at the top of this post. Within hours of retrieving it, the egg turned grey, then black.  About 4 PM the same day, just as I was mopping the ribs on the smoker, Lil Joe, as we named him, was born.

Olloclip camera lens

Olloclip. LOVE this cool 3-in-1 lens that snaps right onto your iPhone. Thanks to Wayne Alexander for the great gift!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The tiny critter measured but a fraction of a centimeter in length.   Honestly, you wouldn’t see him were it not for my handy Olloclip close-up lens, which snaps onto the corner of my iPhone and offers 10x magnification.

Welcome to the world, Lil Joe!

We named him/her for being sweet but wearing a “black hat” like the youngest brother in the epic 60s TV series Bonanza.  

It’s too soon to tell if Lil Joe is a Monarch or QueenAs he/she develops, we’ll be able to tell by how many sets of tentacles display on his striped body.   Monarchs have two;  Queens three.

Female monarch lays eggs on Swamp milkweed on Llano

Female Monarch lays eggs on Swamp Milkweed on Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

We observed no Monarchs—until I was packing up a few eggs collected from my kayak.   Right in front of me, I spotted a lone female, the singular sighting of the weekend.  She was  tattered, faded and fertile.   She laid three eggs on a milkweed plant right in front of my boat.  I whipped out my camera and took the shots above and below.

One of three Milkweed eggs

One of three Monarch eggs laid by the female above and retrieved from Milkweed on the Llano River. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Monarch’s eggs will be added to our brood with Lil Joe.  When they hatch, we’ll provide fresh milkweed, clean their caterpillar condos and await their transformation from one stage to another until they form their j-shape and then a jade green chrysalis with gold flecks.   Once a Monarch butterfly emerges, we’ll tag her and send her on her way.

Check back here for updates.

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