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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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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How to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration from your Desk

Monika,
….I would love to see the migration at the Llano River. We have a 5th wheel [travel trailer] and have camped at the KOA on the Llano River in Junction, Texas….

Is this the area where we would be able to see the migration? I think I saw the estimated dates for peak migration at the Llano River is Oct 10-27, 2014. Is this correct? Want to make sure I am in the right place and right time if possible.

Thanks for the information and for your newsletter/emails about the butterflies. Just love them.

                                     Sincerely,   Elaine

Emails like the one above are common this time of year.  Many of us who follow Monarchs  try to stay on top of the migration to plan tagging outings and sate our extreme interest and curiosity.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Won’t be long and Monarch butterflies will be passing throughout the Texas Funnel.  Check out the online tools that will help you track the migration.  Photo by Monika Maeckle

I check the Monarch Watch peak migration calendar, monitor the wind and weather, and keep an eye on email lists and social media before inviting my butterfly loving friends to join me for a weekend of tagging on the Llano River. Lucky for me my birthday is October 13, which generally falls in the middle of prime migration time (this year, October 10 – 22 for our latitude).  That all makes for a great Monika’s Monarch birthday weekend.

In the meantime, it’s fun to catch vanguard migrants on their early journeys south for observation and tagging.   And for those with limited outdoor access, social media and the web provide chances to experience the migration virtually. (Yeah, not the same, but better than nothing.)

Elaine, no sure way exists to predict exactly which weekend Monarchs will mass along the Llano River near Junction.   But by tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to determine the best chance of seeing the most Monarchs.

So make note and check out the cool tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science.

Journey North

First stop should be the Journey North website.  A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles.   This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing.  Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that 400,000 people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.

And with good reason.  Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted.  Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.

In last week’s map, below, recently observed overnight roosts were limited to Wisconsin and Minnesota.  Note to Elaine: you won’t be missing anything in Junction, Texas, for a while.

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Overnight roosts reported last week were limited to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Map by Journey North

Journey North also posts a weekly report on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.

Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard often writes the updates herself, like this one from last Thursday.  “The largest counts have been in nectar-rich hotspots with Liatris. This late-blooming plant is a monarch magnet! When planting for monarchs, flower bloom-times are important. Include late-bloomers to attract migrating monarchs and provide vital fuel for migration.”

 Twitter

Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on Monarch butterfly news, from many of my favorite sources–including Journey North and Monarch Watch.

Monarch tagged in Minnesotat

Tagged Monarch in Minnesota, courtesy of U.S. State Rep Phyllis Kahn and via Twitter

Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 270+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.

That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.

Such a search today turned up this tweet from Minnesota State Representative for District 60B, Phyllis Kahn: “Monarch butterfly tagged and released. About to take off for Mexico.”   Kahn offered the lovely Monarch on Goldenrod pictured above with her tweet.

Twitter search ONLY indexes recent updates. Google and other search engines are more akin to archives for the entire web. You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers.  Check it out.

Wind Map

For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings. I work full-time, so during Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.

Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing.  If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.

If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late blooming flowers.

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 6.13.58 PM

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, recently suggested that tracking wind patterns through the wind map and matching them up with tagged Monarch butterfly recoveries would be a great citizen scientist project.    We’ll have to see if someone tackles that.

Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming.  Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s  visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.

As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”

Wind map creators

Wind map creators Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda Viégas. Courtesy photo

The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.

LOVE this project.

Monarch Watch Facebook Page

If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party.  (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)

With more than 23,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration.   Citizen scientists, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation.  Like this:

Screen Shot 2014-09-07 at 2.29.58 PM

Toby Smith, who posted the above photo, is from Garland, Texas.  That’s just 292 miles north of here, so that tells me at least individual Monarchs are en route.  Be sure to click on the “posts to page” tab so you can see what people in the field are seeing.

Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Monarch Watch website offers Monarch info 24/7/365

Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.

The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.  The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look and you can join 30,000 others to get on the mailing list.

D-Plex List

If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list,  an email exchange that includes about 650 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.

Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, the D-PLEX is an old fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public.  Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.

Careful, though.  The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox.   Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful.   I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check once a day, so as not to be overwhelmed.

Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too.  We’ll do our best to keep you posted.

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

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

Monarch Roost Wisconsin

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

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

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

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

Female Monarch laying eggs

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

So what was up, was she shooting blanks?

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

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

Nectar corridor

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

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

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

Monarch migration map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For those with no access to roosting sites who want to see Monarchs, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south.  Remember, their primary goal when migrating is to fuel up and store fat for the long winter.

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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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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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Only Three Million Monarch Butterflies Make it to Mexico this Year

The dismal state of the Monarch butterfly migration came into closer focus this week, as reports from Mexico suggest that only three million butterflies had arrived at the ancestral roosts in Michoacán, the New York Times reported.  The 2012 season, acknowledged as the worst year for the insects population wise, counted 60 million Monarchs.  In prime years, they numbered 450 million.

Video may be as good as it gets from now on, when it comes to observing the Monarch butterfly migration.  Enjoy this one, taken in 2007, by Jesse Waugh.  

 

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, relayed a similar prognosis two weeks ago, addressing the International Butterfly Breeders conference.   Dr. Taylor stated that the butterflies would likely occupy only 1.25 acres of forest in the mountainous roosting grounds west of Mexico City.  At their height, the creatures roosted in 50+ acres of forest. How depressing that the entire population of Monarch butterflies east of the Rocky Mountains could fit into a space smaller than a strip shopping center.

Monarch graph Journey North

Only three million Monarchs made it to Mexico this year and may occupy only 1.25 acres of forest this year, a record low. Graph via Journey North

Each December, scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies at their ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of their population. (NOTE: one hectare equals 2.47 acres.)

Our friend and Monarch butterfly expert Dr. Lincoln Brower, quoted in the New York Times, forwarded an email from Mexico to the D-PLEX list (an email list for butterfly enthusiasts) last week.

“What I find worrisome is the late arrival of the butterflies,” wrote Dr. Brower, adding that the butterflies usually arrive in force at the very beginning of November.  Concern resulted when for the first time in recorded history, the Monarchs did not arrive in time for Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.  Here’s an excerpt from the email:

The monarch population is very low, the trees are not fully covered by monarch like in past years. In Chincua, there are approximately 14 trees, in Rosario, a similar number of trees was found, however in the past few days there was a cold front that entered the country, there were trees that fell down as a result of the strong winds, especially in Rosario, right in the middle of the monarch colony. The colony at Pelon is still wandering about and also with very low numbers.

 

Biologist Gloria Tavera Alonso told the Spanish language news agency EFE that “More or less we’re estimating that we’ll have 50 percent fewer than this time last year.”   Last year, only 60 million butterflies made it to the roosting sites, the worst year in history–until now.

Monarch butterfly on milkweed, November, 11, 2011

You can help by planting milkweed, the Monarch butterfly’s host plant. Here, a Monarch butterfly on Tropical milkweed.   Photo by Monika Maeckle

What can you do?   We’ve suggested in the past that you plant milkweed.  That’s a start.

But we also need to encourage our lawmakers to approve the Save America’s Pollinators Act, H.R. 2692.   The bill would ban neonicotinoid pesticides, introduced three decades ago without appropriate field study to its side effects.    The newcomer pesticide, often referred to as the “new DDT,” is the first new class of pesticides introduced in the last 50 years and while apparently

Save America's Pollinators

Don’t delay, sign the petition today. Photo via Friends of the Earth

milder on human beings, has a devastating effect on bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.  Here’s a few facts from the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization.

  • Neonicotinoid residues are found in pollen and nectar consumed by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. The residues can reach lethal concentrations in some situations.
  • Neonicotinoids can persist in soil for months or years after a single application. Measurable amounts of residues were found in woody plants up to six years after application.
  • Untreated plants may absorb chemical residues left over in the soil from the previous year.
  • Products approved for homeowners to use in gardens, lawns, and on ornamental trees have manufacturer-recommended application rates up to 120 times higher than rates approved for agricultural crops.

Recent research suggests that neonicotinoids can cause increased levels of proteins in bees that inhibit key molecules involved in their immune response, making the insects more susceptible to attack by harmful viruses.   The much publicized Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated the bee population, has been linked to neonicotinoids as well.

Insects like bees and butterflies are responsible for pollinating 75 percent of our food crops–one of every three bites of food you take. Shortages of bees have increased the cost of growing food because farmers must rent them for pollination services, resulting in food cost production increases by as much as 20%.

Please help protect bees, butterflies and other important pollinators by supporting H.R. 2692, the Save America’s Pollinators Act. They are the glue that binds our ecosystem.   Sign the petition now.   And in the meantime, plant some milkweed.

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Dr. Chip Taylor to Butterfly Breeders: Monarch Roosts May Occupy Only 1.25 Acres This Year

Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, told more than 100 butterfly breeders, enthusiasts and citizen scientists Saturday night that the entirety of this year’s migrating Monarch butterfly population may occupy only a half of a hectare–or about 1.25 acres–in Mexico.   That would make this year’s Monarch population the smallest in its recorded history.

Blue Sky Monarchs

The Monarch butterfly migration faces serious risks, says Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Scientists measure the hectares occupied by the migrating butterflies each spring at the ancestral overwintering sites in the mountains of Michoacán to determine the size of the population.

“We had some really robust Monarch butterfly populations in the 90s,” Taylor said.  “But we’re never going to see those again.”

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population.  In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres.  Graphic via Monarch Watch

The decline of the Monarch butterfly population. In the 90s, their roosting grounds averaged 22 acres. In 2013, they’re predicted to be 1.25 acres. Graphic via Monarch Watch

A perfect storm of dire circumstances is to blame.  The increased use of genetically modified crops, climate change disrupting the insects’ life cycle, pervasive pesticide use, general habitat destruction in the U.S. breeding grounds and in the roosting sites in Mexico–all have created a set of obstacles that threaten the continuation of the unique phenomenon of the Monarch migration.

“We all have to work together to create Monarch habitat,” Taylor told the combined audience of International Butterfly Breeders Association and the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio.  The conference convened to celebrate the 15th birthday of the butterfly breeding business, widely acknowledged to be founded by Rick Mikula, “the butterfly guy.”

Taylor’s presence at the convention was a hopeful sign that the academic/scientist community might be able to find common ground with professional breeders who supply hundreds of thousands of butterflies, caterpillars and eggs each year to schools, festivals, exhibits and other events.   The relationship has been taxed in the past by differences of opinion on the appropriateness of butterfly releases.

One point of agreement:  Monarchs are not only the “money crop” for breeders, they also are the poster species for climate change and habitat destruction.

Rick Mikula

Rick Mikula, widely considered the “father of the commercial butterfly breeding business” poses with the convention birthday cake. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Monarchs are the iconic species to which we can attach passion and do good for pollinators,” Dr. Taylor told the crowd.   “It’s not just about the Monarchs.  It’s everything else.”

Borrowing from lectures that he delivers regularly to students at the University of Kansas at Lawrence with titles like “The World of 2040″ and “Humans & Climate:  Past, Present and Future,” Taylor summarized the scenarios shared by the recently released United Nations Climate Change report.  The report includes research that suggests global warming will

Happy birthday, Butterfly biz!

The combine conference of the IBBA and AFB celebrated 15 years of the commercial butterfly breeding business. Photo by Monika Maeckle

reduce agricultural production by as much as two percent each decade for the rest of this century while demand for food climbs 14%.  Dr. Taylor underscored the point by adding that 75% of food crops are pollinated by birds, bees and butterflies.   The presentation put a sobering spin on the otherwise celebratory evening, which concluded with an oversized chocolate birthday cake decorated with edible soy and rice paper butterflies.

IBBA president Kathy Marshburn suggested that IBBA breeders, who live in at least 30 states and 13 different countries, could easily participate in the Monarch Watch’s Monarch Waystation program.  The program, launched in 2005, encourages the public, schools and others to create pollinator habitat by planting milkweed gardens for Monarch butterflies, something that every breeder does in the course of their business.

“That would be a simple thing to accomplish,” said Marshburn, who committed to discussing a resolution by the IBBA Board of Directors to implement such a program.  “It makes perfect sense,” she said, “and will push us more toward conservation efforts.”

Chip Taylor and Kathy Marshburn

Dr. Chip Taylor visits with IBBA president Kathy Marshburn at the organization’s combined conference with the Association for Butterflies in San Antonio. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Dr. Taylor posed for photos with conference attendees, answered questions and generally wowed the crowd with his accessibility, Father Christmas demeanor and passion for the topic.   To climate change deniers, Taylor said:  “It’s physics.  It’s chemistry.  It’s undeniable.  Are we on a sustainable path?  No.”

Taylor has a decades long passion for pollinators.   He began his career studying sulphurs,  the ubiquitous yellow butterflies that feed on legumes such as clovers and alfalfa.   He was forced to leave that field of study after developing an allergy to them–an apparently not uncommon occurrence in science when one spends lots of time with a particular species.

sulphur butterfly

Dr. Chip Taylor began his scientific career studying Sulphurs. Photo courtesy University of Florida

He then moved on to moved on to studies of the biology of neotropical African (killer) bees in South and Central America, a course he pursued for 22 years.   In 1994 he started Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that started in 1992 and tracks the Monarch migration by having common folks net, tag and record the sex of migrating butterflies, then report the information to a central database managed by the Monarch Watch staff at the University of Kansas at Lawrence.  The program has contributed much to the understanding of the mysterious Monarch butterfly migration.

Perhaps most important, though, is how Monarch Watch has engaged average citizens in  hands-on understanding of conservation and the environment.

Taylor, 76, said he feels a sense of urgency to engage the public in pollinator protection.  He has no qualms about tapping the popularity of Monarch butterflies to do so.  “There’s an innate interest in this mysterious insect,” he said.

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

It was a disappointing weekend of Monarch tagging.   Again.

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

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

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

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

Tagged Monarch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monarch chrysalises

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

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

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

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San Antonio Butterfly Fans, Join us Monday for How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense.  Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.

Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21.  Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.

Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21.   We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly.   Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.

Tagged Monarch butterfly

Join us at the Milkweed Patch for ‘Something Monday’ to see how Monarch butterflies are tagged en route to Mexico. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tag a Monarch butterfly?  How does one do that?

You’ll  have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year.  Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.

Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s.  That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.

Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

The Milkweed Patch before the drought. Don’t worry, the butterflies still show up. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Yep, that’s right.  The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination.   That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.

The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.

Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.

The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die.  Their bodies are found on the forest floor.  These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag.  In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.

Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

“A” Marks the spot for the Milkweed Patch

And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?

Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.

National Geographic cover of Monarch migration

Scientists didn’t piece together the puzzle of the Monarch butterfly migration until 1976.

The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.

Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM.  Bring the kids.  They’ll love it.

I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets  and tags on hand to show you how its done.  We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.

We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.

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