Monarch Tagged With Dr. Lincoln Brower in 2011 Texas Drought Recovered at El Rosario

The same week I saw my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, more happy news came my way in the wake of the recent dreary Monarch butterfly population report.

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

From the Texas Hill Country to Michoacan! Monarch MJT894 was recovered on the forest floor here and reported last week. The butterfly was tagged on October 11, 2011, at the height of the Texas drought with Dr. Lincoln Brower.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

One of 34 butterflies we tagged during the historic Texas drought of 2011 while on a field trip with Dr. Lincoln Brower was recently recovered at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacan.  The particular butterfly, MJT 894, was tagged at a private springs among the late season Frostweed at the Whispering Waters Ranch.

Tienes "steekers?"  Native folks are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called "stickers."   Photo by Monika Maeckle

Tienes “steekers?” Native people are paid $5 each for recovered Monarch tags, often called “stickers.” Photo by Monika Maeckle

The news arrived via an email on the DPLEX list, a listserv that reaches hundreds of butterfly enthusiasts, scientists and academics.  Diane Pruden, who recently returned from a visit to the Monarch sanctuaries in Michoacan, Mexico, shared the news topped with the subject line:  “More tags from Mexico.”  While unpacking from her trip, “Low and behold, I found more tags that were not included in earlier Emails,” she wrote.  “So, attached is another list of tags from El Rosario.”

For those unaware, the people of Michoacan are paid about $5 per butterfly tag found on the recovered bodies of dead butterflies of the floor of the Michoacan forest.   Visitors are often approached by native people and offered “steekers,” a Spanish pronunciation of “stickers” which are how the tags are often identified there.   Visitors then share the tag numbers with Monarch Watch to assist in gathering data for their Monarch tag recovery database.

Here's what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged.  Courtesy graphic

Here’s what the drought map looked like the day our MJT 894 was tagged. Courtesy graphic

About a week after Prudden’s email, Singleton responded that after checking her logs, she realized that nine of the tags on the new list had been Monarchs tagged during an October 7 – 13 stay in the Hill Country, at the tail end of the historic 2011 Texas drought.

All nine were from Menard County in Texas, and MJT 894 was tagged 10/10/11 at Whispering Waters Ranch “along a natural spring that did not dry up in the Texas drought,” said Singleton.   “Lincoln Brower and Kip (Kiphart) were collecting specimens at this spot with us that day.”

Dr. Brower had made a field trip to Texas that brutal Texas fall.  Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer extraordinaire Kip Kiphart had contacted me to see if we might be able to take Brower out into the campo to see  butterflies in their natural setting in the Texas funnel flyway.  I was glad to oblige.

My first call was to Jenny Singleton, a dear friend who wrangled me into this whole butterfly seduction way back in 2005 by inviting me to “come tag Monarchs” at her place on the San Saba River.  Singleton is involved in Monarch outreach in Grapevine, Texas, and helps organize the annual Grapevine Flutterby Festival.  She also spends alot of time at her ranch where she pursues Monarchs and myriad naturalist interests.

Austin entomologist Mike Quinn also joined us on that fall outing, and took many photos, some of which you’ll see below.   We first went to our special stretch of the Llano River, and later visited the Whispering Waters Ranch Resort…..well, I’ll just let you read the story below.   What a great day it was.

On the Llano River: Assessing Texas Drought and Chasing Monarch Butterflies with the Legendary Dr. Lincoln Brower

It felt like a Monarch butterfly dream team visited the Texas Butterfly Ranch yesterday: four Monarch butterfly devotees–two scientists and two veteran Monarch taggers–accompanied Monarch butterfly scientist Dr. Lincoln Brower for a tour of the Texas Hill Country to collect specimens that would help assess the impact of the Texas drought on Monarch butterflies and their migration.  What a great excuse to take off work!

Monarch Butterfly Texas Team

Monarch Butterfly Dream Team: Kip Kiphart, Jenny Singleton, Dr. Lincoln Brower, Monika Maeckle, Mike Quinn

A student of Monarch butterflies for more than 65 years, Dr. Brower knows as much about the migrating creatures as anyone on the planet. Equally impressive is the 80 year-old’s physical stamina and untainted enthusiasm for the insect that has captivated him since he was a graduate student at Yale and snapped the famous “barfing blue-jay” photos that proved Monarch butterflies don’t taste good.

Dr. Lincoln' Brower's Barfing Blue Jay

Dr. Brower’s “barfing Blue Jay” proved Monarchs don’t taste good

Joining our butterfly chasing dream team were Mike Quinn, Texas  Monarch Watch coordinator and former statewide entomologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife, Kip Kiphart, award-winning volunteer manager/trainer for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project at Cibolo Creek Nature Center in Boerne, and Jenny Singleton, a dear friend, teacher and fellow tagger who looped me into Monarch mania back in 2005.   While Jenny and I hold no PhDs, we DID hold our own, making all citizen scientists proud by delivering dozens of live Monarch butterflies to Brower for his drought experiment.

Dr. Brower flew into San Antonio this week with the goal of observing the drought firsthand and collecting specimens to take back to his lab in Virginia. There, he will freeze and dry them, extract and weigh their fat,  and assess their health and chances of surviving at their winter roosts in the mountains of Michoacan.

We started our day on the Llano River,  between Mason and Junction.  With a cloudy sky, not much was flying, but we netted six.

Brower quickly appraised each butterfly–”skinny,” “fat,” “she looks pretty good,” “porker”–taking copious notes in a charming old-school notebook while deftly folding them into waxed paper envelopes for storage in an icechest.  He also shared new ways to determine male from female butterflies without unfolding their wings (males have obvious pincers on their rearends) and how to tell if a female is carrying eggs (she has a “bead” in her abdomen which you can feel when gripping her gently).

Next: a stop in Menard at the beautiful Whispering Water Ranch Resort, where the generous Carolyn Dippel led us to a spring-fed pond rimmed with dinosaur tracks and tall, white Frostweed.  There we tagged another 34 butterflies, all nectaring on the late season bloomer.  Quinn, Singleton and I left the tour here, as Brower and Kiphardt continued on to Junction for a visit to the liatris fields at Native American Seed company where 40 more butterflies were gathered.

“When someone gets the Monarch bug, they’re bit hard,” remarked Dr. Brower. No argument here.  I look forward to reading the results of his study.

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Faded FOS Monarch Butterfly Lays Eggs in San Antonio Despite Dreary Population Reports

My first day of earnest butterfly gardening of 2013 met with a sweet surprise:  my FOS (First of Season) Monarch butterfly, Sunday, March 17.

And, it was a faded female, fluttering in my mulched front yard garden, lighting from one Tropical milkweed plant to another.  In her wake, about a dozen creamy, white Monarch eggs were deposited on the undersides of select leaves.  I retrieved a handful for safekeeping inside.

FOS Monarch butterfly

WELCOME! FOS Monarch butterfly, a female, met me in the garden on Sunday.                                  Photo by Monika Maeckle

The sight was especially reassuring given that we just endured the worst news in history on Monarch butterfly numbers this week.   The official report from the World Wildlife Fund preserves in Michoacan, Mexico, confirmed what many of us had suspected for 2012.

Monarch egg on Tropical mlkweed

She left about a dozen creamy white eggs on the tenderest milkweed leaves she could find.      Photo by Monika Maeckle

The migrating butterflies occupied a mere 2.93 acres (1.19 hectares) of Oyamel forest in Mexico, the smallest recorded population in history. The number represents a 59% drop,  down from 7.14 acres (2.89 hectares) last year and the lowest population since record keeping began 20 years ago.  During the 1990s, the amount of forest typically occupied by Monarch butterflies averaged more than 20 acres.

Here's a close-up.  Never mind the dirty fingernails.  This egg is coming inside for safekeeping!  Photo by Monika Maeckle

Here’s a close-up. Never mind the dirty fingernails. This egg is coming inside for safekeeping! Photo by Monika Maeckle

Why is anyone surprised?  Climate change, drought, wildfires, illegal logging in Mexico, and pervasive pesticides have brewed a perfect storm that threatens the continuation of the magnificent Monarch  migration. Genetically modified crops leave our heartland void of milkweed, the Monarch host plant, starving the migrants of the only food that feeds their caterpillars.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 2.13.43 PM

Passage: the Decline of Monarch butterflies via CBS news.

Our friend Dr. Lincoln Brower co-authored an op-ed piece with Homer Aridjis, a Mexican author and former ambassador, for the New York Times headlined:  “The Winter of the Monarch.”  “Today the winter monarch colonies, which are found west of Mexico City, in an area of about 60 miles by 60 miles, are a pitiful remnant of their former splendor,” wrote Brower, who has been studying Monarchs for decades.

Scientists see ominous decline in Mexico’s Monarch butterflies,” read the headline topping an AP story that ran on NBC news’ webpage and many other news sites.   The listservs and Facebook exploded with angst from butterfly fans.

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. Graphic via Monarch Watch

“Bad omen: More than half of the monarch butterflies in Mexico have gone missing,”  tweeted Steve Silberman, as scores of others chimed in to express their dismay.  The Monarch Watch Facebook page posted the news and dozens of comments resulted.   “Terrible news” and “So sad” typified responses, along with myriad calls to plant more milkweed.
Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 10 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

Just keep doing your thing, girl. She laid about 12 eggs on Sunday. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“All in all, it was not a good year for monarchs,” said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, in his response to the report.

Yet…thinning my thick patch of Cowpen daisies to make more room for milkweed, I couldn’t help but marvel at the tenacity required for this small, slight creature to have traveled so far to complete her life cycle.   More than 850 miles. Faded, fluttering, she sought just a few good leaves for her babies.   She didn’t give up.

And we shouldn’t either.

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Tropical Milkweed: To Plant it or Not, it’s Not a Simple Question

Dara Satterfield SM

Dara Satterfield, PhD Candidate at the University of Georgia, is studying Monarch butterflies and OE. Courtesy photo

Graduate student Dara Satterfield came to town in late January for the second time in 12 months to take the pulse of the Monarch butterfly population at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch.  There, dozens of Tropical milkweed plants play year round host to Monarch butterflies.   Satterfield works closely with local volunteers like Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program, to monitor milkweed patches far and wide for egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and butterfly action that might shed light on the state of the Monarch butterfly migration.

Monarch on Tropical Milkweed

Monarch butterflies LOVE Tropical milkweed. But is it appropriate to plant it? Photo by Monika Maeckle

Satterfield, like other scientists, believes the increased availability of  Asclepias curassavica, commonly known as Tropical milkweed, coupled with our warmer winters, may have an unhealthy impact on Monarch butterflies and their migration.   The science is undetermined on that question.

A native of  Marietta, Georgia, Satterfield attends the University of Georgia where she is a PhD candidate whose dissertation focuses on the relationship between migration and infectious disease in wildlife.  Monarchs are her species focus.  Satterfield works closely with Monarch scientist Dr. Sonia Altizer, the foremost expert in the country on Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, or OE. The unpronouceable protozoan disease infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders, often resulting in butterfly crippling or death.

Dara Satterfield

Dara Satterfield checks Monarch butterflies at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch for OE.           Photo by Monika Maeckle

As winters get warmer, Asclepias curassavica, the only milkweed species commercially available, is less likely to die back in winter. Some scientists hypothesize that A. curassavica entices Monarchs to forego migration and winter in the U.S. This could create an unhealthy hotbed of lingering OE spores for caterpillars and butterflies that remain in the local area.   Since the spores transfer from creature to creature via physical contact with each other or the plants on which they rest or eat, scientists worry that local OE-infested Monarchs will infect and breed with populations that are passing through, possibly jeopardizing the migration.

The situation exacerbates an already serious decline in the Monarch migration.  Drought, genetically modified crops, late summer wildfires, and generally inhospitable conditions pose multiple threats to Monarchs and their migration.   It’s likely that 2012 will be the worst year, numbers wise, in Monarch butterfly migration history since records have been kept.

“Monarchs are famous for this migration so when we see what appears to be a break in their migratory pattern, we want to know why and what the implications are,” said Satterfield.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

But butterfly breeders and enthusiasts argue that OE is like staphylococcus–present in the general population and becoming a threat only under stressed circumstances. Organizations like the International Butterfly Breeders Association promote best practices for limiting OE in captive environments through education of its membership and seminars on managing and limiting its presence.  And yet others believe that OE is simply a part of the evolutionary cycle, killing those butterflies less fit than others.

For butterfly hobbyists and gardeners, the “curassavica question” presents a quandary:  should we be planting Tropical milkweed or not?

“This is a very sensitive subject in the Monarch world,”  said Satterfield.   “We just don’t have the data right now.” It will take three or four more years to complete Satterfield’s research.   She advises that natives are always better–which is true, IF you can find them and meet their persnickety growing needs.   Organizations like Monarch Watch and the Xerces Society‘s have launched milkweed restoration campaigns, but wide availability of native stock is still a dream.

If you DO plant curassavica, many scientists suggest cutting it to the ground in winter–unless yours is a research site like the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  Scientists encouraged the City of San Antonio and San Antonio River Authority to leave our milkweed patch alone as an experiment.   Interestingly, the San Antonio patch brags a lower incidence of OE (15%) than in other monitoring sites observed (47%) by the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.   The 47% figure is SIX TIMES the rate of OE in Monarchs that migrate to Mexico.

Satterfield suggested that a deluge of milkweed beetles at the Patch this winter decimated not only the foliage, but OE spores.  The hungry orange-and-black bugs pruned much of the diseased growth, creating a better balance for the butterflies. Apparently Mother Nature has her own way of managing the OE problem.

Milkweed beetles have defoliated the Milkweed Patch. But aren't they cute?

Mother Nature on the case: Milkweed beetles defoliated the Milkweed Patch last spring, cleaning out OE spores in the process. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“This may have removed any OE spores on the milkweed plants, which probably helped to keep the prevalence of OE low this year,” said Satterfield. She added that since our Milkweed Patch is further inland and enjoys cooler temperatures than coastal situations in Houston and Florida, the Monarch population was lower and perhaps more hearty.

In the meantime, gardeners are left to make their own calls.   Is it better to have a questionable milkweed source in your yard to provide Monarchs with nectar and host plant, or not?  

Let’s see: Tropical milkweed is easy to grow, widely available, prolific bloomer, favorite host plant for Monarchs and a great nectar source for all butterflies.   I know where I come down on that.   You’ll see Tropical milkweed in my yard.   But I’ll be sure to keep it out of wildscapes and ranch situations, and slash it to the ground in the winter.  

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Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist: TEDx San Antonio Talk on Monarch Butterfly Migration Finally Published

The “Tales of a Butterfly Evangelist” presentation I did last fall for TEDx San Antonio, the local version of the lauded TED Talks, has finally been published.  Take a look, below.

The event took place October, 13, 2012, at the Arthur and Jane Stieren Auditorium of Trinity University.  More than  400 people spent that Saturday (my birthday!) watching presentations made by me and 22 other presenters.  We shared stories and slideshows of inspiration, passion and creativity on topics ranging from the power of silence and the community of drumming to worm composting and the need to build San Antonio’s broadband network. What an amazing experience.

The process began in May when, after being invited to apply, we sent in applications describing our potential talk.  After being selected, we worked for weeks with our assigned TEDx coaches and mentors, crafting our final shows to fit the constructs of our given timeframes.  My coach was the always reassuring Ana Grace, who offered warm support and useful guidance in addition to frequent hugs and pats on the back.  Thank you, Ana!

The day of event, of course I was nervous–and slightly hepped up on decongestants, which help explain my cracking voice.    Allergies arrive every October right alongside migrating Monarch butterflies.

Monarch tagging demo at Trinity

Happy birthday to me! Monarch butterfly tagging demo followed the TEDx San Antonio event at Trinity University on Oct. 13, 2012. –photo by Nicolas Rivard

Technical difficulties plagued the day at Trinity University and caused special stress for those of us shy of microphones and video cameras.  My fellow presenters and I wrung our hands in angst as some took the stage to face the unpleasant surprise that a power outage and incongruent technologies prevented our slideshows from loading.

Dr. Karl Klose, a professor of microbiology at the University of Texas and director of the South Texas Center for Emerging and Infectious diseases,  deserves a medal for heroically winging his presentation on antibiotic resistant bacteria with absolutely no slides at all.  He was so compelling and didn’t even flinch.  Well done, Dr. Klose.

After the fits and starts, postponements and power glitches, my presentation ran relatively smoothly.  Despite many obstacles, the show went on and will hopefully inspire others.  Just like the Monarch butterfly migration.

To see the full roster of TEDx San Antonio talks and learn more, check out the TEDx San Antonio website.

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As the Earth Heats Up, What Does it Mean for Monarch and other Migrating Butterflies?

Congratulations, 2012, you’re the hottest year on record!

The National Climate Data Center, released data this week showing that temperatures across the U.S. averaged 3.2 degrees above their 20th Century average.   Nineteen states–including Texas–had their highest annual average temperatures ever recorded.

2012 hottest year on record

Hot enough for ya? Climate data shows 2012 was 3.2 degrees hotter than any prior year. Chart via NOAA

Last year’s wet winter and mild spring fooled us into thinking that the drought and extreme heat were behind us. But the last three months of 2012 were some of the driest in history and predictions are rife that 2013 will bring continued, possibly intensified drought.

Drought Outlook 2013

Drought Outlook 2013: more and maybe worse.

In our front yard, “winter” visited for a few days following Christmas, but the “freeze” didn’t even die back our Frostweed plants.   Our milkweed, pruned in early December, sports new chutes, suggesting our downtown environment is even warmer than thermometers reflect.   Over at the Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio River Museum Reach, we observed Monarchs and Queens in abundance in late December.

The continued drought and warm temperatures beg the question:  Will Monarchs and other butterflies continue to migrate if  they and the plants that sustain them can survive warm winters?

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Monarchs and other butterflies are occupying the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach year round. Photo by Monika Maeckle

“Climate change – in the near term – is not going to change the monarch migration,” Dr. Chip Taylor relayed via email.   Over the long haul, though, it’s inevitable that climate  change, coupled with the decimation of the Mexican roosting sites, pervasive insecticides, and an increase in genetically modified crops will decrease the numbers of Monarchs and impact their migration habits.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, PhD in Ecology at the University of Minnesota, suggested that Monarchs “might not need to (or be able to) move,” given the changing climate. “But that could expose them to potentially lethal conditions, when, for example, the southern US experiences an unseasonal freeze,” she added.

Oberhauser, who has been studying Monarchs since 1984, also mentioned undesirable colonies of Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders. OE is present in the landscape but seems to especially flourish on Tropical milkweed in southern climates late in the year.  In colder climates and the wild, milkweeds die off in the winter, apparently purging OE to a large degree.  But in places where freezes don’t kill off milkweed, OE becomes a problem and can be lethal to Monarchs.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

Eeeew! OE spores look like little footballs next to Monarch Butterfly Scales–photo courtesy of MLMP

“Some species are increasing their range, but one problem with that is that other species that they need to survive might not move at the same rate,” said Dr.  Oberhauser.

“Just because it warms up, doesn’t necessarily mean Monarchs. . . won’t migrate, ” Dr. John Abbott, Curator of Entomology for the Texas Natural Science Center at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote to us in an email.  “It may be so genetically programmed, that they have no “choice.”

Brown Argus Butterfly

The Brown Argus Butterfly has adapted well to climate change by changing its diet and expanding its range by 50 miles.  Photo via cum bria.org

One butterfly species in England has fared extremely well in the face of climate change.   The Brown Argus butterfly has increased its range in England 50 miles north in the past 20 years thanks to warming temperatures.   According to a study made possible by English citizen scientists over many years, the Brown Argus has flourished because it adapted its diet and now eats wild geraniums, which formerly only thrived in especially warm summers.  Prior to the warmer weather, Brown Argus caterpillars ate primarily Rock Rose.

The Brown Argus’ adaptation to a new host plant and that plant’s wider availability caused by warmer temperatures thus allowed the butterfly to expand its range at twice the average rate of other species, the study found.    Change or perish.

“Sudden changes resulting in a species being in an area where it wasn’t or when it wasn’t previously will almost invariably have an affect on other species,”  cautioned Dr. Abbott. “So it’s a cascade.”

According to the IO9 blog, a website devoted to science, science fiction, and the future, insects are well poised to take advantage of climate change.   Why?   Because they are well suited to quick adaptation and in the case of those with wings, able to move to new environments.   And, as cold blooded creatures, they will have a longer eating/growing/reproductive season with longer, warmer seasons.

Embrace it.  Odds are more mosquitoes, ticks, fire ants–and hopefully butterflies–are coming our way, if this warmer weather pattern continues.  One sure thing:  change will continue to be the only constant.

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“Flight of the Butterflies” in 3D a Special Holiday Treat for Kids, Seniors and all of us in Between

The new 3D IMAX film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” made the perfect Thanksgiving Day preface to a nontraditional dinner for my parents, Hilde and John Maeckle, 80 and 91 years young, respectively, and affectionately known as “Oma” and “Opa.”

Flight of the Butterflies in 3D

Thanksgiving Day treat: Flight of the Butterflies in 3D.  L-R  Hilde, John, and Monika Maeckle –Photo by Robert Rivard

Apart from the fantastic story and stunning effects, the sound was loud enough for my hard-of-hearing dad to enjoy the soothing rhythm of millions of butterflies’ wings beating.    The three-dimensional cinematography so captured his imagination that he, like the rest of us, couldn’t resist reaching into the darkness in attempts to touch the butterflies as they seemingly flit before our eyes.

This familiar story, well-told, never gets old–even to a butterfly evangelist well-versed in Monarch butterfly natural history.  Only one scene gave me pause, making me wonder if the filmmakers had taken their cinematic license too far.

The film weaves the compelling narrative of Dr. Fred Urquhart and his wife Norah, who studied the Monarchs for 40 years and are credited with piecing together the mystery of their migration. Their tenacious efforts included the development of the first citizen scientist tagging programs.   The climax of the story occurs when the Urquharts finally visit the ancestral roosts in early 1976, after Mexican national Catalina Trail and her husband Ken Brugger lead them to the mountaintop in Michoacan province near Angangueo where the butterflies wait out the winter each year.

The film depicts the elderly couple huffing up a challenging trail, seemingly gasping for air in the thin mountain air.  Upon first sight of  the forest filled with  Monarch butterflies, Dr. Urquhart appears teary.

In his first person account in National Geographic Magazine in August of 1976, Urquhart mentions the possibility that he might perish before seeing the subject of his life’s work.   Here’s what he wrote:

“Norah and I are no longer young.   At 10,000 feet, as we walked along the mountain crest, our hearts pounded and our feet felt leaden.

The rather macabre thought occurred to me:  Suppose the strain proved too much?  It would be the ultimate irony to have come this far and then never witness what we’d waited so long to see!”

But Urquhart and Norah lived to see the Monarchs and tell the tale. In the movie, he sits down in a field to absorb the magnificence of millions and millions of butterflies–floating, flitting, fleeing the ancient Oyamel trees as the sun warms them for a midday flight.  He looks down to see a tagged butterfly near his feet–thus proving that these butterflies migrated from the United States.

Watching this scene, I couldn’t believe it happened like that.   Did it?

The Urquharts as they find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan

In the movie, Flight of the Butterflies, Norah and Fred Urquhart find a tagged butterfly in Michoacan. The real story was even more amazing. Photo courtesy SK Films

“They couldn’t film what really happened.”  said Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas at Lawrence and a longtime Monarch butterfly scholar.  “A lot of people questioned that scene.”  Taylor relayed the real story, an Isaac Newton moment.

“What really happened, he was sitting by a tree, and a branch fell down,” Taylor said by phone.   “And one of the butterflies on the branch had the tag on it.”   Taylor said the filmmakers couldn’t replicate the situation exactly without harming the butterflies.  Deliberately breaking a branch off the tree in the protected sanctuaries where the scene was shot would have been illegal.  The tag was applied in Chaska, Minnesota.

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan

Monarch butterflies cluster on Oyamel Trees in Michoacan–Photo courtesy SK Films

Catalina Trail, the only living member of the team that discovered the Monarch roosting spots in Michoacan and who was present at that moment, confirmed the story.  “That’s how it happened,” she said by phone from Austin.

As difficult as it is to grasp, branches often break from the weight of millions of butterflies.   “It happens all the time,”  said Taylor.  Each butterfly weighs half a gram. That means 907 butterflies weigh one pound.  And a million butterflies weigh 1,102 pounds.   The roosting spots can host half a billion butterflies.   Do the math.

“It just blows me away,” said Taylor, recalling a trip to the Monarch sanctuaries and an inch-and-a-half round sapling, 20 feet tall, with a sprig of foliage on the branch.  “It would literally fold over double from the weight of the butterflies.”  And when they flew off, the branch would spring back to an erect posture, he said.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites.     Photo copyright Catalina Trail

Urquhart described the moment on page 173 of the August 1976 edition of National Geographic:   “”While we stared in wonder, a pine branch three inches thick broke under its burden of languid butterflies and crashed to earth…..There, to my amazement, was one bearing a white tag!”

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, “Flight of the Butterflies,” chronicles the “discovery” of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.  Photo courtesy SK Films.

Some have suggested that the movie misses a chance to make a strong case for conservation.  But one could also argue that that’s a different movie. The film does much more than any other single piece of media to raise awareness of the magic of the  Monarch butterfly migration.    Once people feel the magic, then doing something constructive to help often follows–like planting milkweed.

Flight of the Butterflies, a spectacular 44-minute show, simultaneously suits children, seniors and all of us in between.   The film continues in San Antonio at the Rivercenter IMAX theater and opens at Austin’s Bob Bullock IMAX Theater in January.

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Monarch Butterflies: the Panda Bears of Climate Change?

A late Monarch butterfly season comes to a close this month in what may be the worst year, numbers wise, in the history of the migration.  The storied insects arrived at El Rosario sanctuary in Michoacán, Mexico, last week, “thousands of them,” according to Journey North, a nonprofit organization that engages students and citizen scientists around the globe in tracking wildlife migration and seasonal change.

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close

Monarch butterfly season comes to a close in what may be the worst year, numbers wise in history.

The insects endured a rollercoaster ride in 2012.   The year began in the hangover of an historic Texas drought.  A wet, mild winter and a banner wildflower season followed in the spring.  The drought moved to the Midwest in the summer, crippling the Monarchs’ milkweed breeding grounds and stifling the growth of summer blooms for nectar.  By fall, storms hit the East Coast and aerial insecticides filled North Texas skies in an attempt to control West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes–just as Monarchs were set to move through the “Texas funnel” en route to their ancestral roosts in Mexico later in the season.  Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, aptly categorized 2012 as “a year like no other.”

And yet as we gather our tagging data to send to Monarch Watch by the December 1 deadline in a year of seemingly record low numbers, Monarch butterfly awareness seems to be enjoying an all-time high.

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacan

A Butterfly Haven somewhere in Michoacán –Photo courtesy SK Films

In October, the IMAX 3-D film “Flight of the Butterflies” opened with a soiree at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  The $12 million Monarch butterfly natural history epic drew the “flutterati”–my word for the Monarch scientist celebrity pack–from across the hemisphere.   Dr. Chip Taylor, Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Dr. Lincoln Brower  joined forest restoration patrons, citizen scientists and others along with Mexican President Felipe Calderon to attend the premiere.  Mainstream awareness of the history and plight of the migrating insects made international news.

On November 5, the savvy PR folks at Southwest Airlines agreed to fly a Monarch butterfly and  “the Butterfly lady” Maraleen Manos-Jones, author of the Spirit of the Butterflies, from Albany, New York, to San Antonio, Texas.  The Dallas-based airline sent a Southwest Airlines escort to meet Ms. Manos-Jones and her precious cargo from New

Monarch butterflies make front page news

Monarch butterflies made front page news when Southwest Airlines flew a late season Monarch from Albany to San Antonio

York to the Lone Star State. Upon arrival, a Southwest Airlines video crew met the butterfly and its entourage, documenting the event for future use and generating more international media buzz.  The AP picked up the story, NPR ran a segment, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other media outlets labeled the story “a talker” as local TV stations covered the spectacle.

The butterfly was released at the San Antonio Botanical Garden on a warm Fall afternoon, as dozens of butterflies fluttered around milkweed and other late season blooms.   Presumeably, the well-traveled insect joined its butterfly brethren for the trip south to Michoacán.

Then, on November 18, scientist-turned-eloquent-author Barbara Kingsolver released her latest book, “Flight Behavior.” The novel uses the Monarch butterfly migration to tackle the complex subject of climate change.  When asked why she used Monarch butterflies to make the wonky topic understandable, Kingsolver responded:  “The more I studied it, the more I realized this was a perfect vehicle for what I wanted to say.”

Kingsolver is on to something.   Monarch butterflies 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.

In 1961, Chi-Chi, a giant panda with lots of fur and appealing, black-patched eyes arrived at the London Zoo.  The cuddly, distinctive bear captured the imaginations of Londoners and quickly became the “poster species” of the World Wildlife Fund, which was founded the same year.

According to the WWF website, the first sketches were done by the British environmentalist and artist, Gerald Watterson.   “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, is endangered, and one loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities.”

Like the panda, Monarchs are a beloved species.   Pandas are endangered, Monarchs are not, but many would argue that the Monarch migration is rushing toward a dangerous path of extinction.

Monarch butterflies’ range is moving north as temperatures rise.   We see them later in the year, and further north, with each passing season.   They also endure the climate changing extremes of heavy, unpredictable rain and storms (Storm Sandy this year), unexpected freezes, and persistent drought.   They adapt, they adjust, and they tell us much about our changing climate and the abilities of other pollinators to adapt to these rapid changes–or not.

Recent media coverage and attention suggest Monarchs are on their way to becoming the “poster species” of climate change.   We applaud this new awareness.

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

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

Monarch Butterflies Stalled in Pecan Trees on the Llano River

Monarch Butterflies stalled in pecan trees on the Llano River

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

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

Bob Rivard Tags Monarch Butterflies on the Llano

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

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

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

Monarch butterflies hold onto a pecan tree branch

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

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

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

Jenny Singleton and Friends Tag Monarch butterflies in Menard

Jenny Singleton and Friends Tag Monarch butterflies in Menard

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

Cocoa patrols the "Monarch Spot"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Chip Taylor, Founder of Monarch Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lycid Beetle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Could 2012 be the Worst Year in Monarch Butterfly Migration History?

The mild winter, well-timed rains, and record wildflowers of spring 2012 resemble a lost dream as this year’s Monarch butterfly migration looks like it could be the worst in history.

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River

Parched Goldenrod on the Llano River will serve no use to migrating Monarch butterflies except as a rest stop.

For a recap of the challenging year so far, read this post.

A visit last weekend to the Llano River reinforced the depressing outlook:   many of the usual nectar sources that fuel the migrating insects have been stopped in their blooming tracks by a lack of, or ill-timed rains and brutal heat this summer.  Declining river flow and a lower water table have contributed to the nectar shortage.

Goldenrod, usually a magnet for migrating Monarchs this time of year, stood parched along the riverbank–brown, crisp, and useless to the absent migrants, except perhaps as a rest stop.  Some stalks still remained green and those on the “Chigger Islands,” as we call them, offered only a few blooms.  Any nectar plant more than a foot from the riverbank was dead, except for Snow-on-the-Mountain.

Frostweed, a Monarch butterfly favorite, was much more scarce than last year–surprising given our better rains.   In the “historic drought” of 2011, Frostweed still thrived, but I’m guessing the timing of our rains and the Llano’s failure to recover lowered the water table so dramatically that plant roots were left dry. The 2012 Frostweed crop looks to be half or less than last year.

Frostweed

Some Frostweed showed its blooms on the Llano River last weekend, but not as much as we usually see in September.

Swamp Milkweed, typically a favorite host to Queens and Monarchs laying eggs along the river, showed scrawny, wilted leaves with blooms mostly spent.   We did find some eggs, though, and brought them home for fostering.

In my San Antonio butterfly garden, Monarchs are scarce.  I’ve seen only five so far and tagged ONE.  Last year at this time I had seen many and tagged two dozen by now.

A recent visit to the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch resulted in two Monarch sightings.   “We’re not seeing anything here,” said Mary Kennedy, a Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project volunteer and former science teacher, of her Fair Oaks yard just west of San Antonio.

Monarch butterfly on Water Hemlock

Monarch butterflies opt for Water Hemlock when their favorite nectar sources are not available.

Dispatches from Facebook and the Monarch butterfly DPLEX list sound equally discouraging.  “I live on an acreage, and for the past 12 years, my small woods has been a roosting site,” wrote Anna Nicholas of Shell Rock, Iowa, on the DPLEX list, an email listserv that reaches hundreds of Monarch butterfly enthusiasts and scientists.

Nicholas relayed that in good years, Monarchs visited by the thousands. In bad years, only a couple hundred formed roosts. “So far… in the past week, I’ve seen three butterflies total,” she wrote.  “Throughout the summer, I seldom saw a Monarch. I never found a caterpillar on any of my milkweed. I’ve checked with friends and family members…all report the same thing. In various parts of Iowa, there simply are no Monarchs. It’s very sad.”

“Been seeing any Monarchs?” asked the Native Plant Society of Texas on Facebook recently. Answers were overwhelmingly no, and then this report from Shauna Feely of Dallas:

I have not….However, I’m in a section of Dallas county that was aerially sprayed [with insecticides] , due to West Nile virus. A definite lack of birds and bees around here….We had a very active garden, but the spraying has put a damper on things….

Aerial insecticide spraying creates an extra challenge for the migration.

And then we see isolated reports of record Monarch sightings, like this one from Pennsylvania:  “Observers at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary on the Berks-Schuylkill county line counted 2,806 monarch butterflies moving past the hawkwatch site on Monday,” reported the Pennlive website on September 11.  The tally set a one-day record at the sanctuary, Mary Linkevich, director of communications and grants, told reporter Marcus Schneck.

It’s still early in the season for the “Texas Funnel,” the strategic gateway through which all Monarch butterflies must pass en route to and from their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico.  So far, signs suggest a dismal year.  Continued rain like this weekend’s could change the forecast somewhat, perhaps coaxing late season Frostweed to push out more blooms, but nothing will resuscitate the crispy flower stalks we saw on the Llano.

Monarch Watch issued its periodic Monarch Population Status Report August 30, predicting the Monarch butterfly population this year “might be the largest since 2003– perhaps 6-7 hectares” if the weather cooperated.  Or, they speculated, we would see “another overwintering population in the 2-3 hectar range,” the worst since records have been kept.

I hope I’m wrong and am sad to say that I think it will be even worse.

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