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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Resilience Required: Climate Change Turns up the Heat in the Butterfly Garden

Brace yourselves, butterfly gardeners: climate change is turning up the heat in the butterfly garden.

Not only do higher temperatures rule, but resilience and adaptability will be required for successful pollinator gardens in the coming years.

Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

An open mind and willingness to adapt will be keys to sustaining your butterfly garden in the wake of climate change.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Surely you’ve noticed: Wacky weather, erratic extremes, traditional first and last frost dates that are routinely inaccurate.   As James Barilla wrote in the New York Times last week, “This past winter was a tough one in our backyard…. One week I’m sweating, the bees are buzzing, buds are breaking; the next, the birdbath is frozen and there’s snow on the ground.”

The crazy vacillations in daily temperatures make the usual gardening choices and chores more challenging. When it’s freezing one day, brazen sun and high temps the next, what’s a butterfly gardener to do? And if you’re feeling confused, imagine how birds, bees and butterflies are coping—not to mention the plants that sustain them.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours.  March 2 and 3, 2014.

From 80 degrees to 27 in 48 hours. March 2 and 3, 2014.

I suggest we all keep an open mind. Adaptability is key. For example, let’s not be doctrinaire about native plants.   Of course natives are preferred, but with changing range expansions and longer growing seasons, what does native really mean?

According to the National Arboretum, a native plant is one that was present at the time Europeans arrived in North America–that is, around  Columbus’s arrival in 1492.  I prefer the definition of the The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Mr. Smarty Plants, who defines natives like this:

“It is actually pretty simple…to define a native plant as … a plant that occurs naturally in the place where it evolved.”

That makes sense.   But I also agree with Mr. Barilla’s pragmatic approach to the garden.  “It doesn’t makes sense to think in terms of native and nonnative when the local weather vacillates so abruptly.   A resilient garden is a diverse garden.”

Amen.

Monarch on milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica  Photo by Monika Maeckle

My views on Tropical milkweed, Monarch butterflies favorite host plant, native to Mexico, are well-known. Some scientists will claim that the easy-to-grow orange bloomer encourages disease and its adoption will wipe out native milkweeds. I disagree. Besides, that train has left the station since Tropical Milkweed is the only Asclepias species widely available commercially.

No one says we have to choose between Tropical and native milkweeds.   Do both. While you’re struggling to get those natives established, Tropical milkweed can hold down the fort since it consistently delivers. Not only is it a reliable host plant for Monarch butterflies, but all butterflies flock to its bright blossoms for nectar.   And many scientists believe that it’s the plant on which Monarch butterflies evolved.

With my stretch of the world considered part of planting Zone 9A as of January 2012  (the same zone as coastal cities Corpus Christi and Houston) we’re not that far from “tropical,” anyway. This year, however, much of my Asclepias curassavica froze beyond recovery in the harsh winter and didn’t come back. Good thing it’s easy to propagate from seed and I have a private stash. I have replanted.

Chino Checkerspot

The endangered Chino Checkerspot moved to higher altitudes and changed its host plant of its own volition. Courtesy photo

Perhaps we should look to the butterflies themselves for inspiration.   One endangered species, the Quino Checkerspot, Euphydryas editha quino, found in Mexico and southern California, shifted to higher altitudes and switched its host plant to an entirely different species of its own volition.  Scientists were expecting the species to become extinct, but somehow it quickly adapted, according to research presented at the Butterfly Conservation’s seventh international symposium in April.

Meanwhile, we learned recently that professional and amateur butterfly breeders have also had luck feeding Monarch butterfly caterpillars pumpkin, butternut squash, even cucumbers in their fifth and final instar.  This news came at a good time this spring when a brutal winter and late spring made milkweeds unavailable, just as Monarchs began their migration.  While I received at least one email from a scientist chastising me for celebrating this news, taking it as a challenge to native milkweeds, my feeling is we should celebrate the fact that Monarchs appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

Monarch caterpillars on pumping and squash

Monarch butterfly caterpillars will eat pumpkin, squash, even cucumbers in the fifth instar or final stage. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Unpredictable weather will likely be the new normal for some time. As 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 occur with increasing frequency. Oh, and the wildfires will continue.

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

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Mexican Team Begins Year-long Project to Document Monarch Butterfly Migration

Mexican journalist Jaime Maussan passed through San Antonio for the second time in a month this week to gather information on a documentary he is making for Mexican public television.

Maussan has worked as a journalist for decades in Mexico serving various media outlets, including 60 Minutes, Telemundo and ABC Radio.  He’s well-known as Mexico’s premiere ufologist–that is, expert on UFOs–and devotes himself to hosting duties of an online TV program called Tercer Millenio.

He and producer Guillermo Figueroa and McAllen-based broadcast reporter Graciela Echeverria spent much of Thursday visiting with Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and trainer Kip Kiphart, who they said spoke passionately about the threats to the Monarch butterfly migration.  Kiphart had not returned calls or emails to let us in on the details as of the time we posted this.  Kip, let’s hear it.

Jaime Maussan and Crew

Guillermo Figueroa, Jaime Maussan and Graciela Echeverria stopped by to chat Monarch migration for their documentary on the subject. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The team then stopped by to get my thoughts on the future of the migration and to take a look at my modest urban butterfly garden–a temporary gardening fix at my Lavaca neighborhood apartment.   The 25′ x 4′ plot has pacified my butterfly gardening needs for the past two years in the interim while my husband and I build a house that will have a real yard and my first, dedicated mariposario, or butterfly house.  We’re hoping to move in within a few months.

What are my thoughts?   Dreary.  The perfect storm of climate change, human encroachment on habitat, genetically modified crops, herbicide tolerant corn and soy, increased use of pesticides, historic drought–it’s not looking good.  For the first time in my life I said out loud into a microphone that I have made my peace with the possibility that the Monarch butterfly migration may cease to exist within my lifetime.   A troubling thought, but a real–even likely–possibility.

Urban butterfly garden

My urban butterfly garden–if I can do it here, you can, too. Get busy. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Efforts to raise red flags and awareness can postpone that.   Maussan and team secured a $600,000 budget from Television Edukativo, the Mexican equivalent of public television in the U.S. to make the documentary.   Making people care–and it appears that they do–is a starting point.

 “We plan to make this documentary within the year and release it on February 19, 2015, exactly one year after the meeting in Toluca,” he said, sitting in a rocking chair on my porch near downtown San Antonio.

As you may have heard, on February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and  Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, discussed the preservation of the Monarch butterfly migration when they met in Toluca, Mexico, just 75 miles from the Monarch butterfly ancestral roosting sites.   The meeting made international headlines and put the Monarch butterfly migration on the radar of politicos throughout North America.   Seven weeks later, First Lady Michelle Obama planted milkweed at the White House vegetable garden for the first time in history.

 

Monarch butterfly freshly minted

Only two of 11 eggs collected in my downtown butterfly garden made it to the butterfly stage this spring. This male was released hours after Maussan’s visit. Another Monarch, a female, followed shortly. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Maussan has had a long history of Monarch butterfly activism.   He did a story in Mexico on the location of the Monarch roosting spots way back in 1976, and continues to help raise awareness of the threat to the migration.   After our visit, he and his team planned to hit the highway for Austin to visit with Dr. William Calvert, one of several folks who revealed the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites to the world in 1976 following Dr. Fred Urquardt’s National Geographic cover story, which declared the discovery of the sites, but kept their exact location secret.

Maussan and his crew plan to return throughout the year to document the entire migration–from Michoacán through Texas to Canada and back. The undertaking reminds me a little of Ari Shapiro’s Google Earth tour of the Monarch Butterfly Migration, above, take a look.  Maussan also mentioned that he plans to ask the American ambassador and top officials of the Canadian government to share the documentary with their public television entities once it is complete.

We look forward to seeing the final product.

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Milkweed Shortage Sparks “Alternative Fuels” for Hungry Monarch Caterpillars

Monarch butterflies have made their way to Texas, but unfortunately not much milkweed greets them upon arrival.  A harsh, dry winter preceded by drought and schizophrenic weather have left the sought-after perennial a no-show in many Texas gardens–and on roadsides and ranch land.

Milkweeds, that is, any Asclepias species, are the host plants to Monarch butterflies and the only plant on which they will lay eggs to continue their life cycle.

PUmpkin fed Monarch

The Monarch butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar. Photo by Ellen Reid

Reliable DPLEX correspondent Harlen Aschen wrote to the listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly fans that on a 1000-mile trip from Port Lavaca, Texas, past San Antonio to near Abilene and back around Austin “we saw no blooming milkweed.”

Not good.

Yet that hasn’t stopped a tenacious group of butterfly lovers from raising caterpillars and hatching butterflies on “alternative fuels.”

Professional butterfly breeders have been experimenting for years to keep their livestock well nourished when host plants become scarce.    Many of us who raise butterflies at home, especially in a year like this, also seek alternatives, since local nurseries seem to be having a hard time getting milkweed and keeping it in stock.   The recent news that the Monarch butterfly migration may soon become extinct because of a loss of milkweed habitat is driving the demand.

So what’s a hungry caterpillar to do?

Hungry caterpillars on milkweed seedlings

My boys are hungry! Six Monarch caterpillars have pretty much decimated this pot of milkweed seedlings planted in February. Good thing I have another one. Photo by Monika Maeckle

It’s a quandary.   At my house, I planted Tropical milkweed seeds in February and have several pots growing, including two filled with seedlings only two inches tall.  This will sate my caterpillars for a few days, at most.

I’m hoping that by the time the hungry cats finish up the tender seedlings, my garden milkweeds will have taken off.  Or perhaps local nurseries will get more milkweed in stock.

Over on the DPLEX list, butterfly buffs–and the Monarch caterpillars–are getting resourceful.  Several folks mentioned that by the time the caterpillars get to their fifth instar, or their final stage, before morphing into a chrysalis, they will eat pumpkin and cucumbers.

That’s right, folks.   See it with your own eyes.

Monarch caterpillars eating pumpkin

No milkweed? No problem. In the fifth instar, Monarch caterpillars will eat a variety of pumpkins. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

“The butterfly on the left was fed with pumpkin during its final instar.  The one on the right was reared on milkweed,” Ellen Reid wrote via email all the way from St. Arnaud, Victoria, Australia.  “We couldn’t distinguish between them in any way.”

Reid shared a photo of “pumpkin frass”–orange colored butterfly poop which is produced in volumes in the final stages of the caterpillars metamorphosis.   Usually the frass is dark green or even brown, but “pumpkin frass” looks like the food that fueled it.

Paul Addington tried feeding his Monarch caterpillars cucumbers.  It worked.

Monarchs eating cucumbers

Monarch caterpillars in the fifth instar will eat cucumbers. But they have to be FRESH cucumbers! Photo courtesy Paul Addington

“These cats are eating the skin of the cucumber,” relayed Addington. “These were organic, but still felt like they were waxy, so [they were] heavily scrubbed first.”

Addington said the caterpillars indeed preferred milkweed when given a choice.  “All 52 of mine finished on cucumber, looked great and joined the wild,” he said, adding     “UPDATE: must be fresh, crunchy cucumbers.…two-weeks-in-the-fridge cukes were rejected with enthusiasm….what an uproar!”

Pumpkin frass

The frass, or butterfly poop, of pumpkin fed Monarch caterpillars reflects the food’s orange tint. Photo courtesy Ellen Reid

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, chimed in to the conversation, letting folks know that the alternatives have been known for a while.   “These alternatives have been utilized by many people in the past. They only seem to work for fifth instar larvae that are less than four days from pupating. Many of the larvae will not make these transitions successfully.”

So Monarch butterfly caterpillars appear to be more adaptable than we thought.

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First Lady Michelle Obama Gets Milkweed as White House Adds First Pollinator Garden

Congratulations, pollinator advocates!   Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama added a “first-ever pollinator garden,” including two types of milkweed and dozens of flowering nectar plants, to the White House Kitchen Garden.

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed.  Photo via Obama Foodorama

First Lady Michelle Obama busy at the White House Kitchen Garden where she recently added pollinator plants, including two species of milkweed. Photo via Obama Foodorama Blog

On April 2, during its spring installation, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue added Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata and Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa to the 1500-square-foot garden.  The milkweed species will serve as Monarch host plant as well as a favored nectar source to bees and other butterfly species.

Swamp milkweed

Coming soon to the first ever pollinator garden at the White House: Asclepias incarnata, Swamp Milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

In her remarks to the 25 school children assisting in the planting, Mrs. Obama explained  she was adding flowering inedible plants to the vegetable garden because she wants to “help bees and butterflies.”  Until now, herbs and vegetables have occupied all 34 of the garden’s beds since it was first planted in 2009. 

“A pollinator garden helps to encourage the production of bees and Monarch butterflies.  They pollinate the plants, they help the plants grow,” said the First Lady.  “They’re dying because of disease–we don’t even know why some beehives are just totally disappearing.”

Ascelpias tuberosa

Asclepias tuberosa, or Butterfly Weed, will be growing soon at the White House Pollinator Garden. Photo courtesy Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center

The loss of the insects “could be a problem for the planet because if you don’t have insects and great pollinators to pollinate the plants, it could affect our food source, it could affect our ability to continue to grow things,” Mrs. Obama explained.

“So this garden is going to help to contribute to improving that problem,” she said.  “Pretty cool, huh?”

VERY cool.

The addition of milkweed to this symbolic presidential garden must be viewed as a small victory for pollinator advocacy.

Ever since the news broke in January that this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population plunged to historically low numbers and scientists suggested that the migration may soon become extinct, Monarch and pollinator advocates have been energized, seeking solutions to the decline.

On February 19, the Presidents of the United States and Mexico, Barack Obama and Enrique Peńa Nieto, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada, met in Toluca, Mexico to discuss weighty matters of state–border security, economic issues, energy issues, and  immigration.  By the end of the day, they had also agreed to work together to try and save the Monarch butterfly migration, which binds all three countries through the magnificent insects’ North American migration.

Now here we are only seven weeks later–enough time for a Monarch butterfly egg to move through its five instars, form a chrysalis and hatch into a butterfly–and milkweed has been added to the White House garden.   

Coincidence?   We think not.

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House
We did it!  First Lady Michelle Obama added milkweed to the White House kitchen garden, creating the first-ever pollinator garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue last week.

What happened in between is a testament to what is possible when individuals and citizen scientists take action.   As written here previously, the NAFTA gathering galvanized awareness of pollinator decline.  

Two groups, the Mexico-based Grupo de los Cien Internacional and Make Way for Monarchs here in the U.S., banded together to form the Milkweed-Butterfly Recovery Alliance  and wrote a letter to the three presidents beseeching them to work together for cross-continent solutions to restoring milkweed habitat. More than 160 scientists, conservationists, artists, naturalists and others signed the letter.

Facebook pages were created, petitions launched (including one by the Texas Butterfly Ranch–thanks to all 508 of you who signed!) and organizations as diverse as the NRDC, the Xerces Society, Pollinator Partnership, Monarch Watch, Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project –even Monsanto expressed commitments to help.

Awareness is the first step in addressing the problem and this small garden cultivates attention at the highest level.  This is progress, pollinator peeps.   Let’s keep pushing.

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Historic Rendezvous of Those Who Located Monarch Butterfly Roosting Sites Draws Crowd of 200

Almost 200 butterfly aficionados gathered at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center auditorium in South Austin Monday night to hear from four speakers responsible for discovering and sharing the location of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Mexico almost 40 years ago.

Catalina Trail in Michoacán, 1975

Even in the 70s, logging took a toll on the Monarchs’ roosting sites as witnessed by this stump, enveloped in butterflies.  Catalina Trail on right.  Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country, was flown in from Virginia by the Austin Butterfly Forum to join three Austinites instrumental in Monarch butterfly history:  Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian.   The historic occasion was orchestrated by Mike Quinn, guardian of Texas Monarch Watch and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum.

Trail is the only living founder of three people present at the “discovery” of the site where millions of Monarch butterflies roost each winter.  Calvert and Christian, in collaboration with Dr. Brower, revealed that location to the world two years after the site was first explored by Westerners. NOTE:  Native peoples had known about the roosts for centuries, but had no idea the butterflies had migrated from the United States and Canada.

Monday night’s presentation, staged by the Austin Butterfly Forum and billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia” did not disappoint.

Austin Butterfly Forum

Left to right: John Christian, Dr. Bill Calvert, Catalina Trail, and Dr. Lincoln Brower at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. Photo Copyright by Mike Quinn

Wearing a lovely Pineda Covalin silk shawl festooned with lifelike Monarch butterflies,  Trail opened the discussion by sharing rarely seen photos of the ancestral roosting grounds as they appeared in the 70s.  Such was the state of the Oyamel forests when she and her then-husband, North American Ken Brugger, came upon the roosts after searching the rugged Sierra Madre mountains by motor home in the mid-70s.

thickmonarchsontreetrunks

“Butterflies on the ground, covering the trees, all the way to the top like a cathedral,” Catalina Trail said of the Monarch roosting sites’ appearance in 1975.   Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I was speechless,” said Trail in her soft Spanish accent.  “They were one-foot high, on the ground and covering the trees all the way to the top, like a cathedral.”

She described how she and Brugger had answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora for “interested persons” that would help track down the Monarch butterfly roosting sites.   The Urquharts had been working on the puzzle for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the mountains for several years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

catalinatalkingtolocals

On the Monarch butterfly trail with Catalina Trail. She toured the Sierra Madre asking the locals if they had seen Monarch butterflies in the mid 1970s. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

“I kept wishing the whole world had my eyes so they could see what I was seeing and feel what I was feeling,” she said, upon witnessing the millions and millions of butterflies covering every surface in the forest.   To hear the sound of the Monarchs taking flight was akin to “a symphony of the wings.”

ridgewheremonarchswerediscovered

According to Trail, this is the ridge where she and her husband Ken Brugger first found the roosts. Photo Copyright Catalina Trail

The day they found the Monarchs, she and her husband rushed back to town to call Dr. Urquhart and then came the hardest part:  “We had to keep it a secret.”

That’s because Dr. Urquhart wanted to keep the news quiet until he and his wife could visit and he could prepare a scientific paper.  Because of poor health, they didn’t make the trip until almost a year later.   Eventually Urquhart broke the news with a cover story in National Geographic in August of 1976.  That story rocked the world of entomology but left out the specifics of the location and caused devoted scientists like Dr. Brower, who had also been working on Monarch butterflies for years, and Dr. Bill Calvert, to set out on a quest to reveal the butterflies’ location.

The saga has been well documented in the book, Four Wings in a Prayer by Sue Halpern.

While Trail was the star of the show on Monday, the crowd also heard from the soft-spoken John Christian, a quiet, Spanish-speaking photographer and documentarian, who grew up in Mexico and was approached by Dr. Calvert at the University of Texas to accompany him on an adventure in search of the butterflies.   Calvert had teamed up with Brower, Dr. Victoria Foe, and her boyfriend (no one can remember his name)  to figure out the location of the roosting sites.  His role was to set out for Mexico via pick-up truck in search of the location.

“Bill Calvert asked me one day if I wanted to go help him find the butterflies as a translator,” said Christian from the stage, wearing a Huichol bag across his left shoulder.  “I said yes, and it was quite an honor.”

Like Trail, and many of us who have visited the roosting sites, Christian was permanently effected by the experience.  “It was extraordinary.  Not religious, but spiritual. Like a Church of Nature.  It’s a sacred place.”

Calvert also spoke, putting all the memories in context by pointing out that with the passage of time, testimony frequently comes riddled with “embellishments and omissions and aggrandizements…resulting in no idea of the truth.”

Calvert recalled how he met Dr. Brower at a seminar and when he realized the entomologist was making the study of Monarch butterflies his life’s work, soon drove all the way to Bustamante, Mexico, to retrieve 200 for him.

“He immediately ground them up into paste and did a cardenolide study on them,” said Calvert.

In those days, Dr. Brower was on the cutting edge of research using chemical fingerprinting to determine lipid content and what type of milkweed the Monarchs were eating.   Surely this had to be threatening to Dr. Urquhart, who had mastered the quaint-but-effective (and still utilized) practice of physically putting tags on Monarchs to determine their migratory pattern.

Brower gets credit for figuring out that the toxins in milkweed, the cardiac glycosides, are what make Monarch butterflies distasteful to predators, and in fact, may be the key to their roosting survival.

As Dr. Brower pointed out in his own fascinating presentation, cold butterflies don’t move fast and are quite vulnerable for several months at 10,000 feet in the cool Mexican forest.   Why are predators not feasting on them in this most vulnerable state?

Because they don’t taste good.  Brower’s famous barfing bluejay photo proved that point, below.

Barfing Bluejay

Dr. Brower’s famous “Barfing Bluejay” photo of a bird wretching after eating Monarchs, proved Monarchs don’t taste good. Photo courtesy Dr. Lincoln Brower

Calvert said that when he and Brower contacted Urquhart to ask him the location of the butterflies so they could deepen their understanding and study of the Monarchs, Urquhart “suggested we goto Appalachicola Bay along the Florida coast and retrieve some.”  That led to their travels and Monarch findings in Mexico.

The duo realized two important clues dropped by Urquhart in the National Geographic article and in a paper published in the the Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society:  the roosting sites were somewhere at 3,000 meters elevation and on a slope of volcanic mountains in the northern part of Michoacán.

Based on those two simple clues, Calvert determined a small area west of Mexico City that met the criteria and he and Christian set out to find the site.   When they arrived in Angangueo, a small town near the roosting sanctuaries, they recruited the Mayor’s son to help them.   “He seemed incredulous that anyone would be interested in these insects,” said Calvert.

On New Year’s Eve, 1976, almost exactly two years after Catalina Trail first trod on the spot, they located the roosting sanctuaries.

“That’s what science is,” said Brower, summing up the feat of connecting the dots and following the clues.

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Right on time: First of Season Monarchs Arrive in San Antonio

Reports of Monarch butterfly sightings in South Texas are hitting email lists, the web and social media this week, as the hearty orange-and-black butterflies begin their massive departure from Michoacán, Mexico, making their multi-generational journey north.

Mating Monarchs

Get a room! Monarch butterflies drop to the ground in a mating frenzy upon departing their roosts in Michoacán. Photo by Estela Romero via Journey North

“The massive leaving is occurring right now!” wrote Journey North correspondent Estela Romero from Morelia, Mexico, on March 13, as millions of butterflies fled their roosts. “Monarchs are clouding our town, flying by the towers of our downtown churches in a majestic performance as if dancing to music!”  Romero provides regular dispatches from the ancestral roosting sites to the educational organization that tracks the Monarch and other migrations. Read Romero’s updates here.

The butterflies leave Mexico each year right around the Equinox, which occurred  at precisely at 11:57 AM CDT in San Antonio on Thursday.   The butterflies get their cues from the sun, rouse themselves from a semi-hibernative state, and mate.   Then they start heading north, following the blooming flowers that provide fuel in the form of nectar in search milkweed–the only plant on which they will lay their eggs and be able to continue their life cycle. The “Texas Funnel”–South Texas and the Hill Country– is often the first stop for egg-laying, and thus begets the first generation of new migrating Monarchs.

I spotted my FOS (First of Season) Monarch on Friday, March 20, about 6:30 PM, along the San Antonio River Walk right near downtown.  Alex Rivard reported a Monarch in the Dignowity Hill neighborhood of the Alamo City the same day. The faded beauty observed on my evening walk was nectaring on purple Mountain Laurel flowers, the early spring trees that offer a distinct grape Kool-aid scented bloom. As I approached the butterfly, she lighted upstream.

First of Season Monarchs are arriving in San Antonio

Harlen Aschen, a regular butterfly watcher  based in Port Lavaca, Texas, shared his  FOS Monarch spotting March 19 with the DPLEX-list, an old school style list serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly buffs.

Late this afternoon a monarch flew from the SSW out across the open pasture and finally picked a mesquite just north of the cabin to land in and spend the night.  It wasn’t new but not close enough to tell sex.  We will all be out for a few more days to see if any others follow and if we can get any to pose for a photo.  This would put this one about 640 miles north of the sanctuaries … 65 miles ESE of San Antonio. A light north breeze today and in mid-70’s. –Harlen

Last year, my FOS arrived on March 17.   That was a different year, with ample, well-timed rains and an abundance of milkweed waiting.  This year our spring follows a brutally dry winter and extremely cold temperatures–including three hard freezes–that have resulted in a delayed start to spring.

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Front yard milkweed 2013:  Look how big the milkweed was in my yard on March 17 compared to the same plant, a year later, below.  This butterfly laid 12 eggs here that day. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, in my yard is barely out of the ground, and the Swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata, on the Llano River is not even showing.   Antelope Horns, Asclepias asperula?  Haven’t see any at our place, but others report a bounty.

As noted in a previous post, cold winters are actually good for the migration, since not only do colder temps kill fireants and other predators, but they slow down the butterflies and prevent them from getting ahead of the plants.  Check out the difference between last year (above) and this year’s milkweed foliage (below).

Tropical milkweed, spring 2014

Front yard Tropical milkweed March 21, 2014: barely out of the ground. Photo by Monika Maeckle

One common thread carried over from 2013:  again, this year looks to be the worst in history, population wise for Monarchs.  Last year we bemoaned the paltry 2.93 acres of Oyamel forest occupied by the Monarchs in Mexico.  But 2014 knocked out that dreary record, with only 1.65 acres–about 72,000 square feet–of  forest occupied by Monarch butterflies.  Scientists measure the number of acres occupied by the butterflies each year at their ancestral roosts to estimate how many butterflies exist.

That said, we must marvel at the tenacity and endurance of these small, slight creatures.  Those spotted this week have just traveled 850 miles in search of milkweed so they can lay eggs and continue the life cycle. They just don’t give up.

And we won’t either.

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Austin Butterfly Forum to Feature Historic Gathering Of Monarch Butterfly Flutterati

Butterfly aficionados in Texas are in for a treat March 24 in Austin:  the Austin Butterfly Forum will host a quartet of players responsible for discovering and sharing the location in Mexico of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites back in 1976.   For butterfly buffs, it will be an historic night, as Dr. Lincoln Brower, Catalina Trail, Dr. William “Bill” Calvert and John Christian gather to share stories billed as “a discussion of The Monarch’s Mexican Overwintering Refugia.”

I can’t wait.

The event takes place at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Avenue, Austin, TX 78739  7PM Monday, March 24. Tickets are $10 per person.   For more information, see the Austin Butterfly Forum website.

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

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

Dr. Lincoln Brower, one of the foremost Monarch butterfly entomologists in the country and a tireless advocate for the migrating creatures, will fly in from Sweet Briar, Virginia, to join the discussion and lead two field trips–one on Saturday and one on Monday.  Unfortunately, both of those are full.

Catalina Trail, the only living founder of the roosting sites, lives in Austin.  Her story and historic contribution to the discovery of the Monarch wintering grounds were first profiled on this website in July of 2012. 

Back in the 70s, Trail and her then husband, North American Ken Brugger, answered an ad placed in the Mexico City News by Canadian entomologist Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Nora seeking “research assistants” to help piece together the mystery of the Monarch butterfly migration, a puzzle they had been working on for decades.   Born on a ranch in Michoacán, Trail worked with Brugger to search the Sierra Madre for years before discovering the ancestral roosts in January of 1975.

Catalina Trail, always a bit of a free spirit, traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.

Free spirit and itinerant traveler Catalina Trail traveled the hemisphere in the 70s.                      Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart refused to disclose the site to the scientific community and the world.  In the story he wrote for National Geographic that broke the news in August of 1976, coy language described a vague destination in the Sierra Madre at an elevation of 10,000 feet.  Many entomologists and citizen scientists who had contributed for years to unraveling the Monarch mystery wondered exactly where the millions of Monarch butterflies documented in the magazine’s pages were roosting.

Enter Dr. Bill Calvert, labeled a “cowboy entomologist” in the book Four Wings and A Prayer, which chronicles the events.

University of Texas entomologist Calvert teamed up with Brower on a quest to track down the mysterious location and make the whereabouts of the butterflies public.  He enlisted in this adventure an intrepid, Spanish-speaking researcher, writer and photographer named John Christian, also of Austin, whose Mexican upbringing and natural curiosity made him the perfect traveling companion and guide.

Catalina and Bill

Catalina Trail and William “Bill” Calvert at an Austin coffee shop in June of 2012. Photo by Monika Maeckle

All four of these characters will stand before us on March 24 to share their tales of adventure and discovery of one of the most amazing natural phenomena on earth.   That scientists are predicting the possible extinction in the near future of the Monarch migration makes this gathering even more poignant.

For those who can’t sate their butterfly curiosity with just one event, Dr. Brower will offer an extra lecture on Tuesday, The Grand Saga of the Monarch Butterfly Research.

Dr. Lincoln Brower

Dr. Lincoln Brower                                                 Photo courtesy Austin Butterfly Forum

Mike Quinn and his colleagues at the Austin Butterfly Forum deserve a lot of credit for assembling this historic entourage of Monarch butterfly celebrities.

Quinn said the idea for the gathering was sparked by the chronicling of Catalina’s story here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  Trail had received little attention or recognition of her role in the saga until recently.  “That story got me thinking…” he said.  “Catalina, Bill Calvert, even Ken Brugger lived in Austin.  And now John Christian.  Austin is an epicenter of butterfly discoveries.”

As the founder of Texas Monarch Watch, the highly educational Texasento.net insect site and the president of the Austin Butterfly Forum,  Quinn fits right in with this crowd.

The event will be crowded, so show up early.   Folks are flying in from Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska and making the trip from Dallas and the Rio Grande Valley.  A crew of four documentary filmmakers contracted by public television of Mexico will also be on hand from Mexico City.

See you there.

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Plant Milkweed, Sign our Petition, Help Save the Monarch Butterfly Migration

Crazy, erratic weather arrived in Texas–again–this week, bringing freezing temperatures to much of the state.   Last Saturday temperatures rose to the 80s;  by noon on Sunday it was 27 degrees.   Surely plants and insects must be grossly confused and butterfly gardeners like me start thinking: what should we plant in our gardens?

Michelle Obama, please plant milkweed at the White House

Since Monarch butterflies are about to leave their overwintering roosts in Michoacán and head our way, it’s impossible to not consider milkweed, the only plant on which Monarch butterflies will lay their eggs.    A cold winter in San Antonio that included four “polar vortexes” has frozen all our milkweed to the ground, leaving little or nothing for the  migrating insects to host on if they show up in the next few weeks.   Even sturdy Asclepias asperula, Antelope Horns, which we usually see at the ranch by now haven’t shown their nubby heads.

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told us via email this week that looking ahead, average temperatures are likely to prevail for the next 40 days, according to Accu-weather.   “That’s a more favorable forecast than the one from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association,” he wrote.   In his seasonal blogpost assessing the beginning of the 2014 Monarch migration, Dr. Taylor had speculated that temperatures would be higher than normal in Texas for March and April.   “Which wouldn’t be good,” he said.

Why?

It seems counterintuitive, but it creates a bad situation when early spring is warmer than usual because the Monarchs disperse further north faster.  That can cause them to get ahead of the milkweed plants they need to lay their eggs and provide food for hatching caterpillars.   When they travel further north too early, they arrive in locations where milkweed has neither germinated nor produced leaves for them to eat.  On top of that, subsequent cold spells  are more likely to occur as they move further north–and this can kill eggs and caterpillars they leave behind in the erratic weather.

Aslcepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed

Asclepias curassavica, Tropical milkweed seeds, were planted in February and are just showing their delicate leaves. Photo by Monika Maeckle

While the weather continues its uncertain patterns one thing is for sure:  we should all be planting milkweed.

I dropped some Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed, and Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed, into several black buckets in early February and the sprouts are poking their dainty heads above the soil mix right now.  In about two weeks, I’ll re-pot those seedlings into two-inch square containers for later transplanting in the garden and sharing with friends.

You should all do the same.   If not with Tropical Milkweed, the most widely available, easy-to-grow variety, then with your local natives collected from the wild or bought at native nurseries and seed suppliers.  Check out the Texas Butterfly Ranch Milkweed Guide for details.

Asclepias incarnata, Swamp milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed on the Llano River, PHoto by Monika Maeckle

Native plant purists sometimes contest the planting of Tropical milkweed outside of its natural range, which would limit it to parts of Mexico.  They suggest that it might cause disease or encourage migrating Monarchs to break their diapause and stick around locally.   I don’t buy that argument, especially when Monarchs are in such great need of milkweed and Tropical milkweed is the only one widely available commercially.   To me, that’s like saying you’re not going to feed a starving child anything but locavore, organic produce.  Given the circumstances, we can’t afford to be so choosy.   Read more about the Tropical milkweed quandary in this post.

However, for those who live in warm climates where Tropical milkweed might survive a mild winter, best practices suggest we should chop it to the ground at the end of the fall so  any undesireable spores that may carry disease won’t have the chance to fester on its stalks and be passed along to the next generation.  This year’s ample freezes took care of that for 2014.

While you’re waiting for those milkweed sprouts to take root, please sign our petition encouraging First Lady Michelle Obama to plant milkweed at the White House garden.   The First Lady has been lauded for planting an organic vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and for encouraging Americans to get out and get active through her Let’s Move initiative.   We feel that planting milkweed–Asclepias syriaca, Common milkweed, perhaps–in between the rows of broccoli and tomatoes at the White House would be an apt expression of her priorities, while also helping to raise awareness of the dramatic decline of the Monarch migration.

If you agree, please join us by signing our petition.

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