Butterfly bonanza: Monarch tagged in Oklahoma netted on Llano River in Texas

A male Monarch butterfly, tag number WMX658, paused Saturday morning October 1 around 11 AM on a fresh Frostweed bloom along the Llano River. Netted and retrieved, the faded Monarch was photographed, then released to set sail for his flight to Mexico.

Justin Roach WMX658

Justin Roach’s WMX658 male Monarch, 9/22 in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Photo by Justin Roach

tagged recovered Monarch

About 350 miles and nine days later, WMX658  was netted on the Llano River near London, Texas. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to the miracles of social media and the tight-knit Monarch butterfly community, it soon became apparent that Mr. WMX658 was tagged at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma on September 22 about 10:30 AM by Justin Roach, wildlife biologist for the US Fish and Wildlife Service refuge there.

Roach said by phone that WMX658 was one of 15 butterflies tagged that day. About 350 miles later, I netted the butterfly in Kimble County near London, Texas.

James Roach Tishomongo

Justin Roach, wildlife biologist at the Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge in southern Oklahoma tagging Monarchs in early September. Photo by Joanne Ryan

That means WMX658 traveled about 44 miles per day, an impressive clip, to reach our nectar patch along the Llano. Hopefully, he’ll have fueled up enough in Texas to carry him the remaining 920 miles to the overwintering roosts in Mexico.

“It seems the migration is more consistent this year than I’ve ever seen. Every day there’s been a few,” said Roach, who usually tags between 100-200 butterflies annually. The day WMX658 was tagged, butterflies were nectaring on Smartweed, a member of the Polygonum family.  Roach said a school outing was planned for that Thursday, but somehow the kids couldn’t make it so he just tagged with staff.

WMX658 flew about 350 miles since September 22, arriving along the Llano River on October 1. Graphic via Google

WMX658 left  Tishomingo,Oklahoma on September 22, arriving nine days later 350 miles south on the Llano River. Graphic via Google

Having tagged about 1,000 Monarchs since 1997, Roach has had two recoveries in Mexico, where the butterflies are typically found on the forest floor after having made the full trip to Michoacán. This was the first time someone found a Monarch he had tagged and reported it live.

It was a first for me as well. In 11 years of tagging more than 3,000 Monarch butterflies with 29 recoveries, I had never netted a Monarch tagged elsewhere.

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

This poor male was too ragged to tag. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Our Oklahoma Monarch was just one of about two dozen spotted and 11 tagged on the Llano this weekend–all males. Just a week prior, on September 26, more than five inches of rain fell in the Texas Hill Country and parts of South Texas. The storm system left the landscape thoroughly drenched and primed for sustaining late season blooms for peak migration visitors later this month.

Many Swamp milkweed stands, Asclepius incarnata, that exhibited packs of aphids, milkweed beetles and bugs just two weeks ago, were now washed clean, losing lower milkweed leaves to “drowning” by water levels that rose 4 – 6 feet. Seedpods have replaced the pink flowers while other late season bloomers drew literally thousands of butterflies.

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                                       --all photos by Monika Maeckle

Frostweed, Verbesina virginica, was a favorite draw for Queens, Spangled, Gulf and other fritillaries, Giant, Pipevine and Eastern Swallowtails, skippers, snouts, sulphurs–everyone swarmed to the nectar fest that the recent weather pattern has made possible. And the wilted, yellowed, washed out milkweed leaves didn’t stop Monarchs and Queens from laying their eggs on remaining healthy foliage. At least one more hatch will occur before peak migration arrives the last two weeks of October.

monarch egg drowned milkweed

River rises six feet and drowns your host plant? No problem. Monarchs and Queens find the good foliage to deposit their eggs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The snout-nosed butterfly invasion that hit us two weeks ago seems to bode well for butterflies in general. While the snouts were not quite as obvious this weekend at the ranch, they made a repeat–even exaggerated appearance in San Antonio midweek.

snouts pioneer flower mill

The snouts returned to invade downtown San Antonio again last week. The weather has been perfect for butterflies. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The small, orange-and-black brushfooted butterflies made headlines in early September because of their staggering presence. Just last Thursday, on September 29, literally millions of the small orange and black flyers filled the skies of downtown San Antonio, clogging car grills, spattering windshields, and confusing many who thought they were Monarchs.

“I looked outside and it was like a butterfly highway,” said Rebecca Guererro, a stylist at Mint Salon in downtown San Antonio on Thursday.

Monarchs have begun showing up in steady trickles in these parts just in the last week. The storied migrants were pushed south by a recent cold front and the dry-wet weather has set the stage for a bounty of nectar.

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River

Queens on Frostweed, Llano River Photo by Monika Maeckle

A kayak tour of the Llano revealed no caterpillars this trip, although plenty of Queen and Monarch eggs were present on the mud-coated Swamp milkweeds that bowed to the floodwaters which rose about six feet.

Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch issued a migration update on September 26 predicting a late migration this year.

“A while back I pointed out the probability that the migration would be late and long this year. That is likely to be the case,” said Taylor, pointing to hot weather as the cause. “Last week was a scorcher through much of the midwest with temperatures in the 90s and high-80s over a broad area. The migration advances slowly, if at all, under these conditions. The ideal temperatures for the migrants are in the 70s and 60s,” he said.

The Journey North website reported streams of Monarchs heading south through the central and eastern flyways. The site attributed the movement to a cold front that “dropped down from the north and finally ended the unseasonably hot weather — with associated south winds — that have been holding the butterflies back,” wrote Elizabeth Howard, founder of Journey North, in last week’s Thursday migration newsletter. Howard cited peak flights along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains over the weekend as “the first strong pulse in the Eastern Flyway.”

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Trinity students continue battle with Johnson grass–Goldenrod winning

Biology students from Trinity University returned to the Texas Butterfly Ranch last week to continue battle with invasive species–specifically, Johnson grass. Four students arrived last Friday to take stock of an ongoing experiment that began last April on the banks of the Llano River and will continue through next year. The goal: figure out which methods are most effective in killing Johnson grass.

Johnson grass experiment

Levanya Hospeti and Molly Lenihan assist Dr. Kelly Lyons  in collecting data for a Trinity University biology experiment. Foreground: Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“We successfully reduced Johnson grass abundance using both grubbing and herbicide,” said biology professor Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and invasive plant expert who organized the experiment for her students. While it’s too soon to say whether grubbing (physically removing the Johnson grass) or herbicide (aquatic-safe glyphosate) is more effective, preliminary data suggest that where Johnson grass was reduced, biodiversity increased.

“We also found that in these rainy seasons, Goldenrod competes well with Johnson grass, albeit to the exclusion of most other species,” said Dr. Lyons.

That’s good news for migrating Monarch butterflies who use the late season bloomer as a nectar stop as they move through the Texas Funnel each fall on their way to Mexico.

Goldenrod Llano River

Goldenrod, a favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies during the fall migration, competes will with Johnson grass and shields Swamp milkweed from harsh sun and flooding. Llano River, Texas Hill Country. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The project began last April as part of Trinity University’s ongoing research funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation. Last spring, a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity. Students established four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and applied  different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhackjng, and herbicides, in various combinations.

On this visit, Levanya Hospeti, Molly Lenihan, Austin Philippe and Olivia Roybal joined Dr. Lyons to collect data and plant plugs of native Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, a boisterous grower that Dr. Lyons believes can compete heftily with the rambunctious Johnson grass. Students planted 20 Eastern gamamgrass plugs and will continue monitoring the site over the course of the next year.

EEG

Olivia Roybel watches as Austin Phillipe drills a hole to plant Eastern gamagrass plugs. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas Invasives cites Johnson grass as one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world. It arrived from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop–even though when stressed, it can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock. The super aggressive grass spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

For years we’ve enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frosted on the Llano in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white late season nectar sources, respectively, serve as important fuel and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures. But ever since a road project disrupted our stream bank and hauled in uninvited Johnson grass, we’ve been fighting the battle to win back our native nectar plants.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Lyons thinks that the Goldenrod and Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, are up to the task.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

So the battle continues.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass. It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper. It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, host plant to Monarch butterflies. Tall mounds of Eastern gamagrass already occur naturally all along the Llano, providing shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost. It’s equally important to manage and combat the advances of invasive species that infect our wildscapes. Johnson grass is just one interloper. Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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

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

Monarch cluster

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

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

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

Coahuila Monarchs

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

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

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

Hurricane Patricia path

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

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

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

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

Monarch on daisy

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

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

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

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

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

Monarchs Alpine

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2015 a banner year? Monarch butterfly migration heading our way

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

Monarch roost

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

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

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

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

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

skipper on swamp milkweed llano

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch roosts

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch

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

Monarch roost in Iowa

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

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

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

Peak Migration dates

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

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

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

Frostweed

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

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

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

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Trinity Students Tackle Invasive Johnson grass on Llano River

There was a fine lady from Lampasas
Who waged battle with invasive grasses
When a root so immense
of that Sorghum halepense
Knocked her and her friends on their Johnson grasses.

                          –Chris Best, Texas State Botanist
                             U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

monarchsonfrostweed

Monarch butterflies nectar on Frostweed along the Llano River in 2012. Now the native nectar source has to compete with Johnson grass. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On the Llano River, we’ve always enjoyed lovely stands of Goldenrod and Frostweed in the fall when the Monarchs pass through. Solidago altissima and Verbesina virginica, beautiful yellow and white fall bloomers, respectively, serve as important nectar and resting stops for migrating Monarch butterflies and other creatures.

Until recently.

In the last two years, we’ve noticed our uninterrupted stands of fall nectar plants persistently punctuated by invasive Johnson grass. A recent road project that busted the crust on our river frontage opened the gate for germination, and the record rains and floods have put our nectar rest stop for pollinators at risk. Where once stood a solid stand of fall blooms for migrating Monarch butterflies, local Swallowtails and native bees, now presides an uninvited patch of Johnson grass.

The pesky invasive, Sorghum halepense, first arrived in the U.S. from the Mediterranean in the 1800s when it was imported as a supplementary foraging crop.   We all know how that turned out.

Eastern gamma grass

On the Llano River: Eastern gamagrass, a lovely native and host to the bunchgrass skipper.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Now, Johnson grass is one of the Top 10 Most Noxious weeds in the world, according to the educational website Texasinvasives.org, a public-private partnership of state and federal agencies, conservation organizations, green industry businesses, academia and others organized to protect Texas from the threat of invasive species.  Johnson grass is super aggressive, spreads through rhizomes and seeds, hogs space and resources, and crowds out natives that provide food, fodder and shelter to local wildlife.

Johnson grass has nasty rhizomes
Creeping through the clastic loams
The bunches measure three feet wide
And their leaves are stuffed with cyanide.

                                            –Chris Best

When stressed by drought, frost or herbicides, Johnson grass can produce toxic amounts of hydrocyanic acid that makes it poisonous to livestock–not a trait you typically seek in a grass meant for cattle grazing.  The seeds are also especially well protected by their casings and can survive the digestive tracts of birds and others that might eat them.

Oh, and Johnson grass likes moist conditions.  Like riversides.  After floods.   Are you getting the picture here?

austinjohnsoneeggrass

Trinity biology student Austin Phillipe lets us know what he thinks of Johnson grass on the Llano. That’s Johnson grass on the left. Eastern gamagrass on the right. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Trinity University students to the rescue.   Last week, five students accompanied their biology professor, Dr. Kelly Lyons, a restoration ecologist and expert in invasive plants, to the Texas Butterfly Ranch to assist in a Johnson grass eradication project as part of Trinity University’s summer research program funded by the University, Texas Ecolab, and the National Science Foundation.

The project began in April when a team of students arrived at the ranch to set up plots and gather baseline data on plant density and diversity.   Four 15- x 2-meter plots were established and will be treated with different forms of Johnson grass control–grubbing, weedwhacking, herbicides, and fire in various combinations.

Last week, students Ann Adams, Cassandra Alvarado, Avva Bassiri-Gharb, Kendall Kotara and Austin Phillipe returned to check the effect floods had on the site and begin control treatments.  The messy job of reestablishing the plots started Thursday, as super-sized mosquitoes dogged the students.  “Wear a hazmat suit,” quipped Avva Bassiri-Gharb. Said Phillipe:  “A bad day in the field beats a good one in the lab. But we had a great day in the field so you can’t beat that!”

More data collection and Johnson grass removal continued Friday in the aftermath of yet another inch-plus of rain and two overnight tornado warnings.  Grubbing and herbicide applications followed, with herbicide applied via makeshift wand–actually barbecue tongs wrapped in towels–that kept the product from escaping to desirable plants.

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Later this year we’ll test fire as a control method, and plant Eastern gamagrass, Tripsicum dactyloides, as a native replacement.   The project will continue into 2016.

Eastern gamagrass, a lovely, large bunchgrass related to corn that grows two – 10-feet tall, is well suited to the Llano River’s unpredictable moods of famine and flooding.

Dr. Kelly Lyons

Dr. Kelly Lyons

“The species is already present in high abundance and provides high quality habitat,” said Dr. Lyons, adding that Eastern gamagrass also works as a great soil stabilizer in river ecosystems. “Restoration ecologists often refer to it as ‘riparian rebar’ since its rhizomes are even more substantial than Johnson grass,” she said.

Eastern gamagrass also competes well with overzealous Johnson grass and uses niche space in a similar way, said Dr. Lyons. “We hypothesize that it will hold its own when Johnson grass tries to reinvade.”

So the war is on.  No surprise that we’re rooting–pardon the pun–for Eastern gamagrass.  It offers multiple benefits to our local creatures, including service as a host plant to the Bunchgrass skipper.   It also appears to be a steady companion to our Llano River Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, which is a host plant to Monarch butterflies.  The tall  mounds of Eastern gamagrass provide shade for late season milkweed from harsh summer sun and shield it from flooding.

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Easern gamma grasss and other bunch grasses.  Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson,  Bugwood.org -

Bunchgrasss skipper hosts on Eastern gamagrass and other bunch grasses. Photo by Charles T. and John R. Bryson, Bugwood.org –

We spend a lot of time and energy talking about restoring native milkweeds and other pollinator plants to the prairies that we’ve lost.   It’s equally important to manage and combat the deluge of invasive species that infect our wildscapes.  Johnson grass is just one interloper.    Check out the Texas Invasives website for more information.   We’ll keep you posted on the progress of the project.

 

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Thanks, El Niño: Llano River Hosts Milkweed Buffet for Monarchs and other Butterflies

First I’d like to say, “Thank you, el Niño.”

I haven’t seen the Llano River or the milkweed and other wildflowers this robust since 2010, the year before the historic Texas drought hit our state.

Milkweed buffet

Decisions, decisions. What’s your pleasure, Monarch caterpillar? photo by Monika Maeckle

A weekend in the Texas Hill Country included a series of thunderstorms, warm temperatures and a bounty of roadside milkweed as well as a variety of Asclepias species on our property we haven’t seen in years.  Our caterpillars literally had a milkweed buffet awaiting them–four different Asclepias species, the Monarch butterfly host plant.

Antelope horns, Asclepias asperula, made a hearty showing in front of our porch.  Under the breezeway deck, a lone Texas milkweed, Asclepias texana, was already sporting blooms.  Down the trail, Pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata, the lovely climber that boasts an attractive pearl-dotted flower, snuck up a nearby pencil cactus.  Along the banks of the Llano River, Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, the pink-blooming host plant offered hearty stalks, broader-than-usual leaves and new stands in places we’ve never noticed.

Antelope horns and Indian blanket

Antelope horns and Indian blanket dotted Highways 1871 and 87 in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Texas milkweed

Texas milkweed, what a trooper–no water, little light, growing under the breezeway. Haven’t seen this one in years. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus.  Can't wait for the flowers.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Along the trail, this Pearl milkweed vine peeked above the mulch to climb a pencil cactus. Can’t wait to see the flowers. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the River.  Gotta love it.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Robust stands of thick Swamp milkweed in new places along the Llano River. Gotta love it. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Only the Swamp milkweed hosted caterpillars and eggs.   The chubby chutes reached out of the Chigger Islands like thin stalks of asparagus.  What a heartening improvement over the scrawny plants of the past few years.

Only one Monarch was spotted flying this weekend, but others had obviously passed through since their offspring were observed in various stages–eggs, just-hatched cats,  second instar larvae and fifth instar caterpillars ready to bust their stripes and go chrysalis.

Two Monarch eggs over easy--well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed on the Llano.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two Monarch eggs over easy–well, under the leaves of Swamp milkweed, on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Two stages of Monarch caterpillars munch on Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom?  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Anybody recognize this bloom? Photo by Monika Maeckle

The wildflower display along Highways 1871 and 87 around Mason and Fredericksburg was among the most spectacular I’ve seen in recent memory. Some mysterious (to me) newcomers joined the bouquet, like the white flower above showing in our watershed. Anybody know what it is?

Prediction:  2015 will be a fantastic year for butterflies, Monarchs in particular.   While the first three months of 2015 clocked as the hottest first quarter in history, it’s been mild and wet in our neck of the woods   And that bodes well for butterflies and other pollinators.

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Migrating Monarch Butterflies Stymied by Wind, Storms in Texas Hill Country

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Monarch butterflies clustered along the Llano River this weekend, clinging to pecan tree branches as strong winds from the south kept them in place, temporarily halting their journey south toward Mexico and making easy work for Monarch taggers.

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicks into high gear.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Monarch butterflies along the Llano River fought the wind this weekend as the migration kicked into high gear. Photo by Monika Maeckle

On Friday, winds shifted temporarily, blowing out of the north.  Temperatures dropped  40 degrees–from 93 to 53. The shift blew in a fresh crop of the migrating creatures.  Then early Saturday morning a dramatic thunderstorm dumped 1 – 4 inches of rain in the Texas Hill Country, knocking out electrical power and bringing heavy cloud cover that kept the butterflies once again in place for the day.

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Singleton in Hext, Texas.  Photo by Jenny Singleton

Tuf Singleton enjoys his first Monarch butterfly tagging outing with his Aunt Peggy Turlington in Hext, Texas. Photo by Jenny Singleton

“Last night was great,” Jenny Singleton texted regarding Friday night. Singleton, our friend and fellow Monarch butterfly enthusiast, first introduced me to Monarch butterflies back in 2006 when she invited me to her Texas Hill Country ranch to “tag some Monarch butterflies” along with a group of her friends and family.

The tradition continues today during peak migration each year.  I’ve borrowed the practice as well, inviting friends and family to celebrate my October 13 birthday at the ranch, tagging butterflies along the Llano.  I’m lucky my birthday falls right in the middle of peak migration season, which this year runs October 10-22 for our latitude.

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“Nothing tonight,” Singleton texted on Saturday. “Why? Too cold?” she asked, echoing my own thoughts about schizophrenic weather conditions.

As the sun returned on Sunday, Monarchs started moving again, clustering into groups of 20 -50 and making for a fantastic day of tagging.

The butterflies bunched up to stay warm and protect themselves from the wind, occasionally busting off the trees when the sun was just right, floating and flitting in the gorgeous autumn day. The pattern made for full nets, sometimes swooping 20 in one swing.  See the video above and you’ll get the idea.

Our team from Austin and San Antonio recorded more than 300 of the stymied migrants as peak migration kicked into gear right on schedule for the Texas Funnel. Singleton tagged 271 over four days this weekend, compared to 333 last year, and categorized the weekend as “disappointing.” Keep in mind this is a woman who has tagged more than 1,000 butterflies in a single weekend. “Crazy weather” was to blame for what she considered low tagging numbers in Hext, Texas, just 30 miles away from our stretch of river.

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What a handful! Winds out of the South made for fantastic tagging last weekend, keeping Monarch butterfly clusters temporarily in place. Photo by Monika Maeckle

With big winds out of the south followed by thunderstorms, cold temps and then a blast from the north, conditions made for “Perfect migrating, not great for tagging,” said Singleton.

The story was different for us.   Monarchs hugged the trees, protected by a limestone escarpment and a linear grove of pecans, making for easy–and often loaded–net swoops.  All in all, a “Monarch-u-mental” weekend of butterfly fun, and a hopeful sign for a Monarch butterfly rebound. We’ll be back for more on Friday.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Monarch Migration Update: Lone “Cat” on Llano, Butterfly Cloud Spotted on Radar

No woman is an island, but this caterpillar had his own—right in the middle of the Llano River.

A quick kayak tour on Friday revealed another first in my eight years of tagging and monitoring Monarch butterflies: a fifth instar Monarch butterfly caterpillar clinging to a single milkweed stalk in the middle of the Llano.

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I had noticed this milkweed plant a week ago. How inspiring that a single, solitary Asclepias incarnata seed found its way to the silt surrounding one of the many limestone bedded “Chigger Islands” that dot our stretch of river.  A result of seed balls thrown last Fall?  Maybe–or Mother Nature’s grand plan.

It laid down roots, put out stalks, chutes and flowers, and attracted at least one female Monarch butterfly to grace its leaves with eggs. I recall gathering at least one egg from here on September 14.

But obviously I missed this guy–or was his egg laid later? Maybe he had just hatched and tucked himself into the petals of the pink flowers when I examined the plant last week.  In any case, eight days later, he’s ready to bust his stripes and go chrysalis at any moment. After two days of more milkweed in the well-fed, safe confines of a yogurt container-turned caterpillar cage in San Antonio, he formed a chrysalis. In another seven – 10 days, he’ll hatch and we’ll tag and release this Monarch so he/she can join the migration and head to Mexico.

The migration continues, with reports from Ontario and points south suggesting the rebound we hoped for will arrive in about two weeks. The latest report from Journey North has Monarchs skipping down the Atlantic coast.

Monarchs on  Atlantic coast via Journey North

Monarchs cling to pine trees to avoid winds along the Atlantic coast. Photo by Barbara Becker via Journey North

“The Atlantic Ocean is directing the migration now in the east,” wrote Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard in her report September 25.  “Monarchs hug the coast as they travel southward, trying to avoid the winds that can carry them out to sea.”

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch relayed to the DPLEX list, an old style list-serv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, academics and citizen scientists, that the peak had hit Lawrence, Kansas, where the Monarch Watch citizen scientist program is based.

“The numbers seen are certainly greater than observed during the last two migrations,” wrote Dr. Taylor, referencing good numbers of Monarchs for September 25-28 in Lawrence.  “This is another late migration,” he added.

“The leading edge of the migration usually reaches here between the 9-11th of September with an estimated peak on the 23rd. It’s hard to say but, it’s probable that the peak occurred yesterday – the 27th,”  he said.

In contrast, the Associated Press reported the first migrating Monarch butterflies arrived in the northern border state of Coahuila, earlier than usual.   The report characterized the early arrivals as “a tentative sign of hope” for the migration, given the historic drop in their numbers last year.

Bee on Frostweed

Bees were out in abundance this weekend, gathering pollen on Frostweed. Only a handful of Monarchs flying. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Luis Fueyo, head of Mexico’s nature reserves, told the reporter that the first butterflies have been seen entering Mexico earlier than usual. “…This premature presence could be the prelude to an increase in the migration,” he was quoted as saying. Usually the first arrivals don’t get to Mexico until October.

Here in the “Texas Funnel,” we saw a handful of Monarchs flying in the Texas Hill Country this weekend. Most appeared to be laying eggs and did not exhibit directional flight. Frostweed was the big draw, not only for Monarchs but other pollinators, especially bees.

Butterfly cloud in St. Louis

Butterfly cloud? Ya think? That’s what the National Weather Service of St. Louis said this week. Courtesy photo

In other news, a strange cloud spotted via radar above the city of St. Louis last week by the National Weather Service was identified as a Monarch butterfly mass, making its migratory trek south. “Sometimes our radars pick up more than precipitation,” the Facebook post read, provoking a social media flutter. The “butterfly cloud” even looked obtusely to be in the shape of a butterfly—well, if you used your imagination.

NOTE:  Have you taken our Milkweed Poll?  Please do. Three questions, only takes a minute.  GRACIAS!  Please do it now, here’s the link.

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Migration Update: It Takes a Village to Feed Hungry Monarch Butterfly Caterpillars

It takes a village to keep the Monarch butterfly migration going.

Last week I discovered dozens of Monarch butterfly eggs at the ranch when a cold front pushed a vanguard pulse of migrants down to the Texas funnel.   The early moving butterflies broke their reproductive diapause to lay hundreds of eggs.  I collected more than 70 from Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, along the banks of the Llano River and dozens more from our downtown San Antonio garden.

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Special delivery of milkweed by Tracy Idell Hamilton with an assist from Teresa Elliott. Photo by Teresa Elliott.

That’s the good news.

The problem:  where would we get enough “clean” milkweed this late in the season to feed the hungry critters, who eat more than 2,000 times their birth weight in milkweed leaves?  NOTE:  “clean” milkweed is plant material that has never been sprayed with systemic pesticides, which routinely kill the caterpillars.

I’ve written before about the scarcity of chemical free milkweed, especially this time of year.  In fact, we are exploring the idea of becoming a native, chemical free milkweed supplier.   Please take our poll and let us know if you would support such an endeavor.

Hungry Monarch caterpillar

What’s for dinner? Hungry Monarch caterpillar got a special delivery of Austin milkweed just in time to morph to the next stage. Photo by Monika Maeckle

San Antonio nurseries all told similar stories: “Sorry, we’re out,” or “Yes, we have some, but can’t guaranteed that it’s never been sprayed.”

One nursery had milkweed, but couldn’t guarantee it had not been sprayed by the grower with systemic pesticides, which can linger in the leaves for months.   And we all know how that turns out–just read one of our most read posts of all time, Desperately Seeking Milkweed, details the sorry stories of two friends who served pesticide laced milkweed to their hungry cats.

Boo-hoo! Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed

Dead Monarch caterpillars fall victim to pesticide laced milkweed.  No thank you!  Photo by Sharon Sander.

What to do?

Turn to the community, of course. In the case of Monarchs, that’s a broad collection of friends, family and acquaintances near and far. One of our favorite Austin nurseries, The Great Outdoors, almost always has a supply of chemical free milkweed on hand. A quick call to the native plant destination confirmed they had about a dozen large pots of clean, Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, left over from a spring shipment.  The plants could provide the massive foraging and feasting buffet required to take our dozens of ravenous crawlers to the butterfly stage of their life cycle.

But drive 150 miles roundtrip to Austin from San Antonio on the clogged IH-35 on a busy Saturday to collect plants? Sigh.  NOT very appealing.

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Good thing my dear friend Teresa Elliott lives a few blocks from Great Outdoors and volunteered to pick up a few plants for me at $15.95 a pop.  (Yeah, kind of expensive–but worth it.)  Teresa wouldn’t even let me reimburse her. “I’m doing it for the cause,” she said.

Meanwhile, another good friend and Monarch tagging pal, Tracy Idell Hamilton, agreed to pick up the bushy bloomers since she was already in Austin attending the Texas Tribune Festival. Teresa’s house happened to be just a few blocks away from where Tracy was staying.

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Such collaboration is commonplace in the sphere of the Monarch butterfly migration, where volunteers, citizen scientists, professional academics and entomologists routinely share data, tricks of the trade, and information to keep the migration going.  It’s the nature of the passion.

Upon arriving home from a day of errands last Saturday, three “ginormous” milkweed plants waited at my door.   The plants were mature, relatively aphid-free, and ready to be attacked by my hungry cats.

Hungry caterpillars

More, please! These hungry caterpillars outgrew their container and were ready for a bushy milkweed buffet. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The gang had been chomping happily on milkweed from my downtown garden, but even if we used every plant in the yard, it wouldn’t be enough to sustain them.   For the first few days, my mom, Hilde Maeckle, would help me daily clean out the caterpillars temporary plastic container home of frass, or caterpillar poop, which can be monumental. We would wipe down the container, lay out fresh leaves for them, and leave them to munch.

But now they were getting too big and too crowded, so it was time to transfer them to the plants–which arrived just in time.

Tropical milkweed

Thanks, ladies! “Ginormous” Tropical milkweed delivered to my door from Austin. Photo by Monika Maeckle

The caterpillars are now munching happily on these milkweeds, growing before our eyes.  In a day or so we’ll transfer the plants with the caterpillars to a large netted cage, or “caterpillar condo” to keep them from wandering off.  Eventually, each caterpillar will seek a quiet place, form an upside down “J” shape, then morph into a beautiful jade green chrysalis to hatch sometime during the second week in October, just as peak migration hits San Antonio.  We look forward tagging and sending them on their way.

Queen and Monarch Chrysalises

Monarch chrysalises coming soon. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Thanks to all the friends, family, professional and citizen scientists near and far who  work hard to sustain the seasonal miracle of the Monarch butterfly migration.

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Migration Update: Monarch Butterfly EGGstravaganza on the Llano River

We’re hearing positive reports from further north about the Monarch butterfly migration. Masses of Monarchs look to be in the Midwest right now, according to dispatches from the DPLEX list, the Monarch butterfly listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, citizen scientists, academics and others.

Monarch on Swamp milkweed

Monarch butterfly on Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, in downtown San Antonio September 15. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“It was obvious that the crest of the migration was passing through Omaha today,” Dr. Ted Burke, an entomologist and behavioral biologist at Creighton University wrote on Sunday. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, clarified that the ”crest” is actually the “leading edge” of the migration which should be followed by the peak six – eight days later.

“The numbers observed were incredible….At one prairie I counted 79…At the other prairie, I counted 150!” Burke wrote, adding that last year the numbers at the same locations were eight and twelve, respectively.

Monarch butterfly eggs

Musta been a wild weekend on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country: 77 eggs gathered from Swamp milkweed. Photo by Monika Maeckle

About 850 miles south of Omaha, a dramatic cold front that began in Canada pushed 20-mile winds out of the north and dropped temperatures from the 90s to the 50s. The front blew some early migrants into the “Texas Funnel” along the Llano River this weekend. Judging from the dozens of eggs observed and collected on Sunday, it must have been a wild Saturday night in the Texas Hill Country.

Early migrants broke their reproductive diapause to drop their small yellow pearls on the undersides of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, leaves.   In my eight years of tagging and monitoring, I have never seen so many eggs.   I stopped gathering after 77, wondering where I would find enough milkweed to feed the resulting hungry caterpillars.  Note to my San Antonio area friends:  you’ll be hearing from me regarding milkweed loans.

Monarch chrysalis on milkweed

Another first: perfect chrysalis found on Swamp milkweed on the Llano. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Another first: I found a fully formed Monarch chrysalis dangling from milkweed leaves over the river.

Two caterpillars and about half a dozen adult Monarchs also made an appearance, presenting the entire life cycle in a two-hour kayaking tour. With tags in the boat, I only took one swing with my net all afternoon.  I missed.  She was probably an egg-laying female anyway, so unlikely to migrate. See our recent story on the premigration migration.

Our friend Veronica Prida reported a FOS (First of Season) migrant Monarch in her front yard in Alamo Heights on Saturday.   The faded female nectared on dramatic Pride of Barbados while Veronica snapped photos.  Upon returning Monday, we also had a female laying eggs in our downtown garden on Swamp milked transplanted from the Llano.

Monarch on Pride of Barbados

This faded female showed up in San Antonio on Saturday, September 13 to nectar on Pride of Barbados. Photo by Veronica Prida

All this bodes well for the migration. The 77 harvested eggs will take about one month to become butterflies, hatching just in time for peak migration in our latitude, October 10 – 22. They’ll be tagged, released and join the migration.  We promise to fatten them up with ample nectar from our gardens, sending them on to Michoacán with massive healthy fat deposits to see them through the winter.

Ideal conditions prevail here with Goldenrod, Frostweed, Swamp Milkweed and other fall flowers still in bloom, and almost tropical weather in place.  Meteorologists predict a “mild El Nińo” pattern this fall, translating to more rain.  How sweetly ironic and preferable to last year’s dreary reports of drought and decline.

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