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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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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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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Persnickety Texas Milkweeds “May not Lend Themselves to Mass Seed Production”

Native American Seed Company is on a mission to restore the earth, one native seed at a time.

The 300-acre spread about 115 miles west of San Antonio on the banks of the Llano River just northeast of Junction, Texas, boasts 75 acres of native plants in production

Antelope horns milkweed seed pods

Antelope horns milkweed pods last June at Native American Seed in Junction, Texas.                Photo courtesy Native American Seed

for the distinct purpose of harvesting native seed.

The company’s nondescript cedar post gate opens onto a caliche drive that winds through classic Hill Country mesquite, agarita and sotol, then spills into planted rows of huisache daisy, standing cypress, gayfeather, American blanketflower and other native wildflowers and grasses.   Water pumped from the nearby Llano River maintains the verdant fields, and allows the company to grow, harvest, process, package and ship more than 170 species of native seed and 30 seed mixes nationwide.

Antelope Horns milkweed

Antelope Horns milkweed last June, after well-timed and regular rains in early 2012. Photo courtesy Native American Seed

Among the seed stock, two native Texas milkweeds, Asclepias asperula, commonly known as Antelope horns, and Asclepias viridis, often called Green milkweed, have challenged the 25-year-old seed company’s experts.  The Monarch butterfly host plants are essential to the Monarch butterfly migration, which funnels south through the Texas Hill Country each fall.  Native milkweeds are famously difficult to propagate, even for professionals. “Species in Texas may not lend themselves to mass seed production,” said George Cates, chief “seed wrangler” at Native American Seed.

Native Texas milkweeds require stratification–cold and moisture to soften up their outer shells.   They need 45 days of moist conditions, specific soil conditions, and alternate wet and dry periods.   Worst thing you can do: overwater them.  (Check out Native American Seed’s Milkweed Stratification process at this post.)

Gardeners and butterfly fans committed in theory to propagating and planting native milkweeds (and I consider myself among them) have been vexed in practice by their persnickety ways.   That’s what often drives us to plant Tropical Milkweed, the nonnative Asclepias curassavica that is easy-to-grow, widely available and the favorite of Monarch butterflies for hosting and other butterflies for nectar. While the practice bothers some scientists and native plant purists, our rationale is that Monarch caterpillars need to eat.   In short, it’s better to provide SOME host plant for migrating Monarchs than NONE as they pass through Texas.

George Cates

George Cates stands in a field of future Antelope Horns in April. Nothing sprouting yet. PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native American Seed and the Portland-based Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization devoted to protecting invertebrates and their habitats, hope to change all that.

In 2010, the Xerces Society approached the 18-person staff of the Native American Seed Company about establishing a partnership to restore native milkweeds to the American landscape.  Xerces had recieved a $117,000 conservation innovation grant from the USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service.   “We call it the ‘milkweed CIG,’” said Brianna Borders, project manager for the undertaking, since renamed Project Milkweed.  A requirement of the grant was that the recipients match the sum by raising an equal amount.

Project Milkweed identified several U.S. regions for milkweed seed production–California, the Great Basin, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida, and Texas. “Texas was a clear choice, arguably the most important state to the Monarch migration,” said Borders.  The $334,000 was pretty much divied up equally between the areas, she said.

xerceslogo

Native American Seed was an ideal candidate for the project, said Borders, because of the company’s long involvement in native seed production and its opportune location on the Monarch flyway.  Founder Bill Nieman, a high school dropout who turned a trash hauling business into a successful landscaping and design firm and then into Native American Seed, has a long history as a conservationist. The company’s mission aligned perfectly with the task.

The company’s 100-page catalogue practically serves as a free native plant guide. The vivid and abundant photography, renderings of how seeds look when they sprout, and descriptive verbiage describing each plant’s soil type, sunlight needs, and other traits

Irrigating at Native American Seed

Native American Seed will use its full irrigation alltoment from the Llano River to produce native seeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

offer a broad overview of the life cycle of many plants native to the U.S.   Especially entertaining is Nieman’s annual introductory letter in which he tackles topical environmental issues–from invasive plants and water waste to wind power lines.

Results for the Mlikweed Project have been mixed so far.  The program launched just as Texas entered the ongoing historic drought.  In April 2011, the milkweeds didn’t flower or produce seed (which is expected, given they are perennials).  Borders said the first seed harvest last year (2012) was “pretty modest.”The 2,400 linear feet of native milkweeds  produced 1.5 pounds of seed, which, at an average of 65,000 seeds per pound, amounts to almost 100,000 seeds.  Of those 100,000 seeds, 95% have been restratified and replanted.

“We didn’t set a target for how much seed has been produced because there are so many unknowns,” said Borders.

Meanwhile, others have tackled the daunting task of producing milkweed plugs.  Monarch Watch, based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, launched a “Bring Back the Monarchs” milkweed restoration campaign back in 2010.  Last fall, the program got a second life here in Texas when it partnered with the Native Plant Society to recruit volunteers to gather native seed, then mail them to Kansas for cultivation there.

bring-back-the-monarchs

The milkweed restoration campaign previously used a Texas grower. Pat McNeal, of McNeal Growers in Manchaca, Texas, assumed those duties in 2012,  but said recently that Monarch Watch “had better success in Kansas where they have four real seasons.”

McNeal suggested that the best way to propagate Texas native milkweeds would be to cultivate the tubers for two years, then plant those in the fall.   “These milkweeds don’t adapt their schedules for us,” he said, adding that Texas native milkweeds don’t do well in containers.  The plants can have a two-meter long tap root making them difficult to transplant.  “It’s like trying to grow a potato in a pot,” said McNeal.

Dr. Chip Taylor, who oversees the program, continued cultivation this year with a Kansas grower.  He said he anticipates that 25,000 native milkweed plugs will have been produced this spring.  All have been sold on preorder. Monarch Watch will soon set up  a “Milkweed Market” for retailers on its website so people can connect with growers in their area.

Antelope Horns milkweed root stok at American Native Seed

Cates points out root stock from 2012′s Antelope Horns milkweed crop, which has yet to sprout this year because of a lack of rain.    Photo by Monika Maeckle

At Native American Seed, the battle for Texas native milkweed seed plods on.  Cates assumes primary responsibility for their production.   He joined the company in 2003 as a student intern in ecological sciences at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.  After graduating he came on fulltime in 2007.

On a windy Friday afternoon in April, Cates pointed to the dry landscape.  “The grass hasn’t been green since 2010,” he said. With the Llano River flowing at an historic low, Cates mentioned the seed company will once again use its entire irrigation allotment, strategically watering wildflowers and native grasses, supplementing with a recently installed rainwater collection system.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Cates says voting for Tropical milkweed is a vote against native milkweeds. Photo by Monika Maeckle

A dry winter coupled with early, hot tempertures, watering restrictions on the Llano, and an unpredictable climate suggest months of hard work and frustration ahead for Cates.  But the difficulties haven’t dampened his zeal for restoring native plants with seeds.  “A plant in the ground will produce 100x more seed than tubers,”  he said.  “That’s where we’re at–we’re trying to grow a substantial amount of this seed material.”

Cates has little patience for Tropical milkweed, the easy answer for gardeners in the long haul of native plant restoration. “We’re all about having it right now,” said Cates.  “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’  It takes time.”

“Every time you vote for Tropical milkweed with your dollar, you vote against this,” he said, pointing to tidy, dry rows of future Antelope horns, which had yet to sprout this year.

Cates kneeled down and dug his fingers into the soil to find root stock from the 2012 milkweed crop. “Half of what we do fails, but that doesn’t make us stop.”

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How to Get Texas Native Milkweed Seeds to Germinate

Our friends at Native American Seed have been working for years on the best way to get persnickety Texas native milkweed seeds to germinate.   “Native milkweeds simply don’t do well in containers,” said George Cates, seed wrangler at the seed farm and land restoration company in the Hill Country town of Junction.  “They require a very specific set of conditions and have an extremely long tap-root, making containerization untenable.”

Want native Texas milkweed?  Start with seeds.  Photo courtesy Native American Seed Co.

Want native Texas milkweed? Start with seeds.

So what’s the solution to getting native milkweeds into our landscape?  Start with seeds.

The process has been perfected by Cates, who has germinated thousands of seeds in the last year for Native American Seed‘s customers and the Xerces Society.    Read a report about the project and the status of native Texas milkweed seed production here.   Here’s Cate’s process:

Milkweed Stratification Procedures, Courtesy Native American Seed

NOTE:  Cates insists that sterile rubber (latex) gloves be worn at all times and that containers and implements be sterile.   Otherwise, mold can grow in the vermiculite and damage the seeds.

1. Mix seeds with pre-chilled distilled water and let soak for 24 hours in the fridge.

2.  After 24 hours, pour seeds into strainer and rinse with distilled water.

3. Moisten vermiculite with distilled water, the exact quantity required varies with different media, moist but not dripping is best.

4.  Mix rinsed seeds into vermiculite using your hands, and wear sterile gloves.

5.  Seal container and store in fridge for 30-45 days at 35-45 degrees.  Remove and plant immediately if you see mold.

6.  Plant entire mixture or sift seeds out and plant in prepared seed bed when soil temps are warm (70 degrees+).

7.  Water often until germination occurs.

 

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant, in bloom.  Photos by Native American Seed

Antelope horns milkweed, a Monarch butterfly host plant. Photos by Native American Seed

Soaking and washing the seeds removes natural chemicals that inhibit germination.  When the seeds are moved from the cold darkness of the refrigerator to the bright light and warmth of the sun, they are “shocked” into sprouting.  “The stratification process is meant to mimic nature,” he said, adding that the plants likely developed this dormancy strategy as an answer to drought conditions.

Good luck with your milkweed seeds and let us know how it goes!

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First Frost Often Means the End for Late Season Caterpillars, and a Next Chapter for the Intriguing Frostweed Wildflower

We’re finally getting our first frost in San Antonio, about three weeks after the typical November 21 first frost date prescribed by gardening buffs, farmer’s almanacs and the National Climate Data Center.

Frostweed

Frostweed spills its guts on first frost creating a beautiful ice sculpture. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Freezing temps usually mean the end of the season for butterflies.   Just this week we’ve had several emails and posts from butterfly wranglers wondering what to do about caterpillars discovered outside–better to let them brave the elements, or bring them inside?

Brought 22 monarch caterpillars in from the cold. Some are already starting to make chrysalises. Some are still eating, and a few have “J’d” but after a day haven’t progressed. Anyone have any hints or advice? Hoping for the best and preparing.

–Tom Kinsey, San Antonio, via Facebook

I can argue the answer to that question either way, and have taken both routes.   A late stage Queen caterpillar was discovered on a milkweed plant in our courtyard this week.  She remained outside.

Considerations included my busy holiday schedule, a lack of host plant, and the probability that when she formed and later emerged from the chrysalis, the butterfly would face cold temperatures (making it difficult if not impossible to fly), little nectar, and few prospects for a mate.  What kind of life is that?

Frostweed

Frostweed is a magnet for Monarch and other butterflies in the fall, a reliable late season nectar source.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

And yet, our friend Marileen Manos Jones of upstate New York took a different tact in late October.  She convinced Southwest Airlines to fly her and a lone lady Monarch to San Antonio in early November to release the late blooming lep at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens.   No “right” answer exists to the late season caterpillar quandary.  It’s a judgment call.

The first frost of the season poses a separate natural majesty not unrelated to butterflies:  the transformation of the excellent nectar plant, Frostweed, into a beautiful ice sculpture.  I love this plant.   Such an overlooked gem.  Can’t figure out why  this easy-to-grow perennial is not sold in commercial nurseries.

In the fall, Frostweed serves as a prime nectar source for Monarchs and other butterflies.  The sturdy Verbesina virginica, with its odd square-like stalks, sports fleshy green flanges on its stems.   The wildflower produces lush white blossoms from late August through November in semi-shade that provides respite from the late summer sun.   The flowers bloom in big colonies along the rivers and streams of the Texas Hill Country.

Frostweed ice sculpture

Frostweed ice ribbons are always a nice surprise. Photo via Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

Along our stretch of the Llano River, Frostweed lines the riverbanks.  This last year took a toll on the flowers, as the water table had receded significantly from the 2011 drought.  Many Frostweeds died as stiff stalks in August.

But in general, this plant is gorgeous, drought toleranat, a generous seed and nectar producer, and the butterflies love it.

As a member of the aster family, Frostweed  can reach six-eight feet in height in a good year. Upon first frost, the stem splits, the sap oozes out and freezes to form fascinating curled ice ribbons and intriguing sculptures. That’s why it’s called Frostweed, or sometimes, Iceweed.

Frostweed Seed

Frostweed produces generous seed and nectar. And it’s easy to grow.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only a handful of species commonly exhibit this behaviour, according to Dr. James Carter’s website.   Dr. Carter coined the term, crystallofollia, to describe the phenomenon, from the Latin crystallus, ice, and folium, leaf.   Dr. Carter also points out that “the ice formation far exceeds the amount of moisture from sap locally available in the stem, and must be augmented by water drawn up from the roots.”   Frostweed’s rhizomes help it slurp up moisture in the soil to produce the ice formations.  The robust root system also makes it easy to propagate the plant from its roots as well as from seed.

For a fascinating blow-by-blow of what actually occurs botanically in the forming of these sculptures, see Bob Harms’ Biophysica of Crystallofolia website.   It humbles the most talented artist.

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Winds from the South Stall Migrating Monarch Butterflies on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country

Hundreds of Monarch butterflies were stuck in a holding pattern this weekend along the Llano River as 20-mile-per-hour wind gusts postponed their journey south.  We observed several small roosts and many clusters.   All were holding tight to pecan tree branches or seeking refuge in the low persimmon trees hugging the Llano’s limestone cliff embankments when not battling the winds in their attempt to move south.

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch Butterflies stalled in pecan trees on the Llano River

Paddling my kayak into the wind made me even more sympathetic than usual to their travails.    It sure helps if the wind is on your side, and this weekend it wasn’t.

My husband Bob Rivard and I tagged more than 130 Monarchs in 24 hours. The insects’ orange-and-black coloring made them perfectly camouflaged in the autumn colors of the pecan tree leaves–even more so in dappled afternoon light.

Bob Rivard Tags Monarch Butterflies on the Llano

Bob Rivard tags Monarch butterflies on the Llano. Bob won the Big Swoop contest this weekend with 12 in one net.

While Monarch butterflies were ubiquitous, their numbers appeared drastically reduced compared to years past.

How to tell?   Usually, we see clusters of hundreds.  This year it was clusters of 10s and 20s. Usually, we can snag 20 or more in one lucky swoop of the net.  This year, the record (hat’s off to Bob), was 12.

Monarch butterflies hold onto a pecan tree branch

A common pose on the Llano this weekend: Monarch butterflies hang on tight to a pecan tree as winds from the South stall their migration.

Of the hundreds we saw this weekend, only one Monarch butterfly was spotted nectaring. Usually dozens of Monarchs break from their flight in the late afternoons and evenings to fuel up on abundant Frostweed or Goldenrod.   Not this year.  The insects seemed hell-bent on moving south.

Trolling up and down the banks of our stretch of river, we spotted the tenacious flyers fighting the wind, pushing into its gales, only to be forced back with a wind gust and advancing only a few yards south at a time. As Sunday afternoon rolled around, we found ourselves netting Monarchs tagged on Saturday, thus making the case that their efforts to move south were stymied.

Jenny Singleton and Friends Tag Monarch butterflies in Menard

Jenny Singleton and Friends Tag Monarch butterflies in Menard

Our weekend resembled that of Jenny Singleton, a fellow Monarch butterfly fan who had a similar experience one week prior only  30 miles northwest of us in Menard.  “We tagged 450 over three days last weekend (Oct 11-13),”  Singleton wrote in an email to the DPLEX list, a list-serve that reaches hundreds of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts and scientists . “There was a strong SW wind all week which kept the little guys in the trees for four days and made it easy for us to observe and tag.”

Cocoa patrols the "Monarch Spot"

Cocoa Rivard patrols the riverbank we call “The Monarch Spot,” a favorite resting and roosting area for migrating Monarch butterflies on the Llano River.

Singleton relayed that at another nearby ranch, along a spring-fed creek, a team tagged 125 Monarchs in an hour in the middle of the day. “All seemed to be roosting, very few were nectaring.”

While nectar sources have been depleted because of the drought, Frostweed, Poverty weed, purple aster, goldenrod, water hemlock and other late season bloomers awaited Monarchs’ this weekend,  But they didn’t seem interested.

A strange year, hopefully an aberration, but I fear that’s not the case.

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Chasing Monarchs on the Llano River with Dr. Chip Taylor, Champion of Monarch Butterflies

With overcast skies and falling temperatures last Saturday, Dr. Chip Taylor and I sneaked out of the Native Plant Society of Texas annual conference in Kerrville to chase Monarch butterflies on the Llano River.   Dr. Taylor had made a quick trip to Texas from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, to address more than 280 NPSOT members on what we can do about the threats to native milkweeds and the Monarch butterfly migration.

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country

His prescription:  cultivate seeds, plugs and plants of more native milkweed species through a Texas version of Bring Back the Monarchs, an innovative prairie restoration program that NPSOT is importing from Kansas.  Why the Texas focus?  “It’s the most important state.  Spring conditions in Texas determine Monarchs numbers,”  he told the NPSOT audience.

In NPSOT’s joint venture with Monarch Watch, local volunteers like Texas Master Naturalist Cathy Downs and Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist Skip “Kip” Kiphart will organize others to help collect native milkweed seeds and share them with approved growers for cultivation and distribution.   “Last year we had a small version of this program,” said Bill Hopkins, a NPSOT volunteer, adding that the program is in the formative and fundraising stages.

Taylor’s 50-minute talk followed a presentation by hydrogeologist William “Feather” Wilson, President of Strata Geological Services, detailing the serious water challenges our region faces as the Texas population booms and drought persists. These two sobering talks on climate change and environmental challenges were about as much as I could take on a Saturday morning after only one cup of coffee. I was ready for an escape.

“Wanna go to the ranch?” I asked Dr. Taylor.  “Let’s go,” he said.

Taylor and I have spoken, emailed and corresponded many times over the past five years, but this was my first chance to meet one of my Monarch butterfly heroes:  the founder of Monarch Watch.   Anyone who follows the Monarch migration or tags Monarchs has heard about and seen photos of the feisty 75-year-old, whose signature scruffy white beard and blazing blue eyes call Santa Claus to mind.

The prospect of tagging Monarchs with Dr. Taylor presented a slightly stressful situation for me.  Monarch tagging has a lot in common with fishing in that you just never know if they’ll show up.   And even if the flighty insects make an appearance, they might not be accessible for netting and tagging.  My hope was that Dr. Taylor, having traveled so far, would have a satisfying Monarch butterfly experience.

The cool weather, a north wind and the timing of our spontaneous outing in the middle of our peak migration period gave me hope that we would see Monarch butterflies.   A text message from my friend and Monarch scout Terry Pittsford in Menard–“Monarchs flying all over Mason County!”–stoked my cautious optimism.

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

A small roost of about 200 Monarchs gathered in a pecan tree on the Llano River to the sage delight of Dr. Taylor.

The one-hour drive from Kerrville to our family’s Llano River ranch was a revelation for Taylor.   He said the outing gave him a greater understanding of our precious Texas Hill Country. That some Texas highways allow speed limits of 80-miles-per-hour caught him by surprise.   As he followed my decade-old Toyota Four-runner in a brand new Highlander rental, he seemed slightly flummoxed at the quick pace we were tracking on the winding Hill Country back roads.  “You always drive that fast?”  he asked.  “Dr. Taylor, you’re not in Kansas anymore,” I reminded him.

At our gate just yards from the Kimble-Mason county line, the outside temperature read 58 degrees.   “I’m not seeing any,” I said, in an attempt at expectation management.   But of course, wise Dr. Taylor didn’t need his expectations managed.   He knows well the elusive and unpredictable tendencies of Monarch butterflies.

Following a tricky crossing of the Llano’s slippery limestone bed, Taylor and I walked the pecan grove along the riverbank where Monarchs typically roost each fall en route to Mexico.   Around 4:30 PM, we noticed about a dozen Monarchs wafting high among the pecan branches.  Then Taylor identified a cluster of about 200 gathered in two high limbs.   “Here they are,” he said matter-of-factly.

As a north wind blew in, more Monarchs took up the roost.  Taylor couldn’t help but crack a wide grin.

Dr. Chip Taylor on the Llano River bottom near London, Texas

Dr. Chip Taylor takes in the scene of the Llano River bottom where pecan trees invite annual roosts of the migrating insects.

“It’s always  fun to see Monarchs in a new area,” he said later, adding that he’s only tagged a few hundred Monarchs in his time.  “I usually leave that to others to have all the fun.  My job is to organize and harvest the data.”

Always the curious student, Taylor took in the scene, remarking on our karst limestone formations, marveling at the Llano, the “last wild river” in Texas,  quizzing me on native plants, and observing a fresh hatch of Lycid beetles–first mistaken for a moth—on a nearby bloom.   We tagged only three butterflies in our 45-minute sojourn.  The roosting bunch was out of reach.

Dr. Orley “Chip” Taylor is a walking case study in adaptation.  With his hefty Monarch butterfly reputation, one would assume that butterflies have been his life’s work.  Not so.  He didn’t start Monarch Watch until 1992.

Lycid Beetle

Dr. Taylor was fascinated with a fresh hatch of Lycid beetles, and used the occasion to explain Muellerian mimicry. –photo via www.pollinators.blogspot.com

Working toward his PhD in zoology at the University of Connecticut, Taylor studied insect ecology and population biology extensively.  He realized as he finished his dissertation in 1969 that he was seriously allergic to the orange and yellow Sulphur butterflies that were the subject of his dissertation.  Such reactions are not uncommon for scientists, Taylor said.  By 1972, ”I grew seriously asthmatic, and was having to take prednisone every day,” he recalled.  “I knew I had to stop.”  And by 1973, he did.

He switched his scientific focus to honey bees in 1974.   More than two decades later, he determined that to secure funds to continue studying the creatures, he would have to move into molecular biology, a field that didn’t interest him.  That’s when he turned to Monarchs.   “I’ve morphed twice,” he said.

Taylor founded Monarch Watch when he was 55 years old–an age when many of us consider retirement.  The organization has done more to enlighten the world about the unique charms and challenges of the Monarch butterfly migration than any other, and with the recent release of the film, “Flight of the Butterflies”  Taylor senses a tipping point in public awareness.   Forty-five percent of the profits from the IMAX movie will be channeled to Monarch  conservation, he told NPSOT members during his talk.

The organization, like its founder, has adapted its focus.  It began with an exclusive focus on Danaus plexippus, but has evolved to become a conservation organization—an inevitable outcome of embracing the life cycle of the Monarch butterfly.  That’s fine with Taylor, who sees the Monarch’s plight as a siege on all pollinators and the ecosystems that sustain them–and us.    “Our human welfare is being negatively affected,” he said, adding that in some locations in China, ecosystems are so degraded that apple trees must be pollinated by hand.

Taylor’s NPSOT presentation focused mostly on the myriad threats to the Monarch migration, but he ended the serious overview on an upbeat note.   Recently he rallied his resources to help turn a former chemical recycling facility and Superfund site into a living pollinator laboratory and demonstration garden.  Taylor designed the site himself, to include butterfly, Monarch, honeybee, and pollinator gardens at the former CCI chemical recycling plant in Olathe, Kansas.  More than 100 volunteers  joined Taylor and others last month to install the plants that will comprise these gardens.  “We planted 1,600 plants in 55 minutes,” Taylor said proudly, adding that all were native to eastern Kansas.

When he’s not traveling as a Monarch butterfly champion, Taylor still teaches at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  “I teach one course:  the World of 2040,” he said.  “It’s a seminar in which students have to research what the world will be like in 27 years and it scares the bejeezus out of them.”

He still grades papers, leads several professional development classes, and spends time with his wife  of 49 years, Toni, now retired after many years working in the library system at the University.   His two grown daughters obviously make him proud–Robin works as a consumer reporter for a television station in Pittsburgh and Wendy pursues a career in public health.   Between three grandchildren,  a beloved Golden Retriever, Chugaah, who he named after the Chugach Mountains in Alaska where he manages an annual fishing trip, life is busy.

We raced back to Taylor’s rental so he can leave the ranch and return to Kerrville in time for a dinner, and before deer crowd the roads at dusk.  “Ever ever think about retirement?” I asked.  “I’ve thought about it,” he said.  “But I just have too much to do.”

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.