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

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

Mating Monarchs

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

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

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

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

First of Season Monarchs are arriving in San Antonio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tropical milkweed, spring 2014

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

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

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

And we won’t either.

More stories like this:

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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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Butterfly FAQ: How to Tag A Monarch Butterfly in Six Easy Steps

One of the most common questions we get at the Texas Butterfly Ranch is how the heck do you tag a Monarch butterfly?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

Ready to tag some butterflies?

It’s pretty straightforward, really.  You’ll need a butterfly net, a clipboard or mini notebook and a writing utensil to record your findings.   You’ll also need tags issued by Monarch Watch ($15 for 25 tags).    I recommend a hat and camera, too.

Before you go, apply sunscreen or insect spray if you use them, then wash your hands thoroughly.   Monarchs and other butterflies are more resilient than we think, however, Deet, Paba  and other chemical contact with their scales, wings and bodies should be avoided.  There’s no need to sterilize your hands or wear gloves.  Just wash your hands.

Monarch Watch tags and data sheets

You’ll need Monarch Watch tags and data sheets to tag Monarch butterflies. And a butterfly net.

When should you go tagging?  I like late mornings after my second cup of coffee.   By then, the butterflies have had a chance to warm up their bodies and are out flying and nectaring.  Remember, butterflies won’t fly if the temperature is less than 60 degrees, so late mornings and afternoons on sunny days are ideal.   Right before sunset is good, too, especially when they’re migrating.  In the Hill Country in October, masses of Monarch butterflies will often drop from the sky around dusk and look for roosting spots—usually in protected tree limbs and often near water sources.

Ready for some tagging?  Here’s how to do it.

  1. Locate butterfly

Millions of migrating Monarch butterflies will pass through the “Texas funnel” on their way to their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico, over the coming weeks and months.    According to Monarch Watch, peak migration for San Antonio and Austin will be October 2 – 22.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Frostweed is a fall favorite nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Typically, we see a first pulse of vanguard Monarchs around Labor Day in the Hill Country and in our San Antonio and Austin gardens.  In September we’ll consistently see individual Monarchs trickling through town.  By October, groups will show up and form evening roosts in trees and large bushes like Poverty Weed along our rivers and other protected locations.

The best places to see them are along our streams and rivers where late season blooms offer a nectar rich rest stop.  Monarchs fuel up on their journey south, so anywhere with late season butterfly-friendly flowers—native and Tropical milkweeds, Gregg’s Purple mistflower, Cowpen daisies, Frostweed, Goldenrod, lantana, for example—should draw them, as well as other butterflies.

Your own garden, if it has butterfly-friendly flowers blooming, should draw Monarch butterflies.  Look, observe, wait.   And be patient.  For some prime Monarch butterfly spotting, stop by the Milkweed Patch along the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River this fall.

2.  Net butterfly

Netting a Monarch butterfly—or any butterfly for that matter—is more challenging than it looks. The flitting creatures exhibit extreme skittishness and their compound eyes afford them a 360-degree field of vision. The slightest movement can send them sailing.

When I first started tagging Monarchs, I diligently chased them in flight. After slipping in the river more than once and skinning my knee after tripping down the steps at my house while in hot pursuit, I resolved to only try and net Monarchs when they’re roosting or nectaring. I’ve witnessed several ace netters with excellent hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, and a sniper’s aim nab butterflies in flight, but I’m not among them.

Monarch nectaring on swamp milkweed

It’s easier to net Monarch butterflies when they’re nectaring. Sneak up on them from behind.

Suggestions:  wear low-key clothing that blends into the environment, move slowly, keep quiet and sneak up on them from behind.  Once you swing your net, the butterflies will scatter.  It resembles fishing in that sense;  when you cast your line, the fish get spooked and flee, but they’ll be back. After a few minutes, the butterflies will resume their activities—nectaring, resting or roosting.  Or they may fly out of your reach.

Once you get a butterfly in your net, be sure to flip the net sock over the circle of the rim—otherwise the clever insects can slip out.   With the net sock folded over the net structure, they will remain in your net.

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique

Annie Schenzel demonstrates proper net technique. See how the net sock is draped over the rim? No butterflies can escape.

Some folks take the net down to the ground after they swoop the butterfly into the net to ensure the butterfly doesn’t escape.   This is especially helpful when you capture many at once.

3. Collect butterfly/butterflies from net

Once the butterfly or butterflies are in the net, gently reach in and clasp an individual in your cupped hand, wings folded together if possible.  (No insecticides or sunscreen on your hands, please.)  The butterflies will flail around in the net, so try to calm them by folding their wings closed and gently pressing the net fabric on them. Also, try holding the butterfly upside down;  it seems to calm them.

Keep the net closed so that other butterflies don’t fly out as you remove the one in your grasp, then pull out your catch and take a look.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.

Tracy Hamilton shows how to retrieve a Monarch from the net.

4.  Examine butterfly, establish its sex.

This is when you examine the butterfly to determine its sex.   Open the wings gently and look for the two pheromone sacs on the lower half of the butterfly’s wings.  If you see two black dots, it’s a male.  If not, it’s a female.   Also note the state of the butterfly—is it

Male Monarch Butterfly

Male Monarch Butterfly: it’s a boy! See the two black dots on the veins of his lower wings? Those are pheromone sacks–supposedly they drive the lady butterflies CRAZY.

weathered and raggedy, or fresh and healthy?  If the butterfly is extremely worn out and highly unlikely to make it to Mexico, refrain from tagging it.  Let the poor creature fly off.  Note the info on your data sheet or notebook, as well as the tag number.

Raggedy Monarch butterfly

Raggedy Monarch butterfly. I don’t tag beat-up butterflies like this. Doubtful she’ll make it to Mexico. Plus, don’t want to waste tags.

5.  Remove tag from sheet and adhere to butterfly

Holding the butterfly between two fingers with wings closed with one hand, remove a Monarch Watch sticker from the tag sheet.  I like to use my thumbnail and get them on the tip of my nail so they’re easy to slip onto the discal cell of the butterfly’s wing. Some

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

Use your thumbnail to lift tag from sheet and transfer to butterfly.

people prefer a toothpick to lift the tag off the sheet. Try not to handle the adhesive too much, as it won’t stick to the butterfly’s wing as well if it has oil from your fingers on it.

Place the tag on the discal cell, as illustrated in the tagging sheet sent to you by Monarch Watch.  Press gently, but firmly.  Congratulations!  You’ve tagged a Monarch butterfly.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown.

Press the tag onto the discal cell in the middle of the lower wing, as shown.

Make sure you’ve noted the tag number, butterfly’s sex, any other useful data, on your data sheet or notebook.

6.  Release

Open your grasp and let the butterfly go.  If you’re so inclined, send her off with a kiss and best wishes for safe travels to Mexico.

Off she goes!

Off she goes!

After the Monarch migration season, send all your data to Monarch Watch by December 1 so it can be entered into the online tag recovery database.   In the spring, you can check  to see if any of your Monarchs were recovered in Mexico.

Monarch butterfly recoveries

Of about 1800 Monarchs tagged, we’ve had 24 recoveries in Mexico.

Good luck with your tagging.  Please let us know how it goes.

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Want to Meet the Beetles? Better Hurry, Removal of Milkweed Beetles from San Antonio River’s Milkweed Patch Imminent

An invasion of red-and-black milkweed beetles have made a temporary eyesore of the San Antonio River’s celebrated Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach.  The striking insects, whose colorful torsos suggest the patterns of a tiki mask, have moved into the 1200-square foot Tropical milkweed garden on the banks of the San Antonio River just south of the Pearl Brewery  in a classic play of nature’s cycles.

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

Milkweed Beetles have taken over the Milkweed Patch

The beetles, which look like ladybugs on steroids, don’t bite, sting or carry diseases. They do, however, defoliate milkweed plants, and have left the highly trafficked stretch of the River with some unattractive bald spots.

Migrating Monarch butterflies moved through town earlier this spring, laying the first generation of eggs in their annual migration at the Milkweed Patch.  The resulting acrobatic caterpillars occupied the Patch, feasting on milkweed leaves, the Monarch butterfly host plant.  Late straggling Monarchs continue to mingle with our local colony but the pervasive milkweed beetle, Labidomera clivicollis, dominates.

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Milkweed Patch going bald thanks to milkweed beetles

Volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP), a citizen scientist program based at the University of Minnesota and which aims to better understand the Monarch life cycle and migration, have noticed fewer Monarch caterpillars and chrysalises during their weekly observations as beetles consume the milkweed leaves.

Discussions ensued about possibly pruning the milkweeds, which typically die back in winters when a hard freeze occurs.   That didn’t happen this year.  But San Antonio River Authority staff determined a better approach would be to hand-remove the beetles, THEN prune the plants.

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

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

“We believe this to be a holistic management approach with minimal negative impact to the environment that is consistent with our commitment to the local community for the project, ” said Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications at the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees maintenance of the area.   The Museum Reach stretch of the San Antonio River was designed as a manicured, urban park setting, unlike the Mission Reach section, which is managed as a native riparian restoration.

SARA deserves praise for working with MLMP  volunteers and resisting the use of pesticides to address the problem.   A round of pesticides would quickly rid the area of

Gulf Fritillary

Gulf Fritillary, photo courtesy NABA.org

beetles (and other plant pests) and would also jeopardize the Monarchs’ and other butterflies’ continued colonization of the River.  Just north of the Milkweed Patch is a huge Passionflower planting, where Gulf Fritillary butterflies have made their home and are breeding.

If you’d like to “meet the beetles,”  better do so in the next few days.  The critters will be less visible once the hand removal is accomplished.

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Scientific Research in Progress at the San Antonio River Museum Reach Milkweed Patch

Mary Kennedy and Mobi Warren showed up right around 10 AM on Saturday for their shifts as volunteers of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP) citizen science program.

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

Milkweed Patch Citizen Science Project

With temperatures in the 50s, not much was flying at the Milkweed Patch at the San Antonio River Museum Reach just south of the Pearl Brewery.  But that didn’t deter these novice lepidopterists from perusing dozens of milkweed plants, and noting the profuse life teeming in the understory.

What, exactly, do volunteers for the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project do?

Simply, they monitor milkweed plants for all stages of the Monarch butterfly lifecycle–eggs, caterpillars in five stages, the lovely jade-green gold-flecked chrysalises, and the butterflies.  The goal:  to better understand how and why Monarch populations change over time and space and to conserve Monarchs and their threatened migration.

One aspect of the project requires inspecting adult butterflies for the unpronounceable Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, protozoan.   Mary Kennedy, a former science teacher who has been involved with MLMP since 1999, demonstrates.

Kennedy carefully lifts a recently hatched Monarch, rubs a sterile Q-tip on its belly and tucks the sample into a zip-lock bag to be sent to a laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  She then takes a special piece of round tape, holds it against the creature’s abdomen, and lifts scales and spores onto the adhesive.

OE Spores with Monarch Butterfly Scales

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

The tape is secured onto a sheet of paper and later will be viewed under a microscope for OE spores, which can be deadly to Monarch butterflies. The butterfly is then marked gently with a black marker as well as a cut-in-half Monarch Watch tag (used in the fall to help track their migration) so that it’s not inadvertently monitored again.  Check out the slideshow above to see how it works.

Interested in helping out at the Milkweed Patch?  Volunteers meet on Saturdays at various times, depending on the weather.  Contact Mary Kennedy at mbkenned@sbcglobal.net for more information.

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San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch Becomes Official Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project Site

Monarch butterflies, who usually pass through town like so many other fleeting visitors, have taken up permanent residence at a 1200 square-foot milkweed garden known by local butterfly aficionados as “the Milkweed Patch” on the San Antonio River Museum Reach.  The year-round colony is a first for San Antonio.

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

Resident Monarch butterfly on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

We’ve written about the Milkweed Patch here many times, but just this month the Patch gained national attention from Monarch researchers when it became one of hundreds of  sites in the nation to be observed weekly by volunteer citizen scientists associated with the University of Minnesota-based Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project (MLMP).

Monarch butterflies traditionally pass through San Antonio and the “Texas Funnel” each spring and fall to and from their ancestral roosting grounds in the the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.   Year-round local Monarch butterfly communities are relatively common along the Gulf Coast, in Houston and in Florida, yet they’ve been unheard of in San Antonio–until now.

“Its historic,” says Mary Kennedy of Boerne, who monitors Monarch caterpillars, at Boerne’s Cibolo Nature Center and at Mitchell Lake. “We’ve never had anything

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

Mary Kennedy, volunteer at the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project

like this before,” says the retired science teacher.  Kennedy used Monarch butterflies in her classroom for years at Texas Military Institute.  “This is not a place they would normally be this time of year.”

Kennedy suggests warmer winters and advantageous conditions at the protected, well-kept milkweed garden get credit for attracting the creatures that have captivated observers for millennia.

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, founder of the MLMP, calls the San Antonio Museum Reach Milkweed Patch “unique” and explains why scientists are especially interested in what goes on here.

“All Monarchs pass through Texas in the fall and again in the spring, and their use of resources in this state in many ways determines the success of the migration. Additionally, many Monarchs stay to breed in Texas in the fall, and understanding what drives this behavior will help us understand how monarchs might respond to climate change and how they are reacting to the presence of non-native milkweed.  The site is particularly interesting because it is basically an island of habitat, and understanding what happens there will help us understand how monarchs use habitat patches of different sizes and with different amounts of isolation from other sites.”

Dr. Oberhauser also points out that the visibility of the Milkweed Patch in our highly trafficked River Walk will engage many more people in “the wonders of monarch biology.”

The first weeks of monitoring have yielded more than 30 chrysalises–17 alive and 15 dead–and some surprising results, says Kennedy.  All butterflies were tested for Ophryocystis elektroscirrhaor OE, a nasty protozoan disease that infects Monarchs and other milkweed feeders.  Some Monarch scientists have speculated that cultivating Monarch butterflies on Tropical milkweed year round can result in undesirable colonies of OE, which seems to flourish on the plant 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.

Kennedy was pleasantly surprised that not a single one of the Milkweed Patch Monarchs collected this month showed signs of the crippling, often fatal disease.

San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

"A" marks the approximate spot for the San Antonio River Milkweed Patch

And San Antonians will be pleasantly surprised by a saunter to the Milkweed Patch.  As the Spring Equinox approaches March 20, Monarchs will start to stream through San Antonio from Mexico, making their journey north and laying the first generation of eggs that will hatch, morph into their various stages, eclose and continue the multi-generation migration.  Go take a look.

Directions:  Park at the Pearl Brewery and cross to the west side of the River.  Follow the trail about five minutes and watch for butterflies.  You can also park on the deadened street at Elmira and Myrtle Streets, and descend the stairs to the River.  Walk south about one minute and you’ll be there.   

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Wildflower Bonanza-to-be on the San Antonio Mission Reach, Thanks to Above-average Rains

Bluebonnets, coreoposis, red and blue sage–who knew it was February in San Antonio, Texas?   Recent Texas rains have drenched our drought-parched landscape, but Nature seems bent on making it up to us.

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A recent walk on San Antonio’s Mission Reach, the nine-mile linear park that extends from the south part of downtown San Antonio all the easy to Mission Espada, revealed bounties of budding wildflowers, awaiting slightly warmer temperatures and doses of daily sunshine to put out full blooms.  After the 2011 historic drought, it’s heartening.   The butterflies will follow shortly, as will the birds who find their caterpillar life stage a favorite treat.   Not far behind are other returning critters–raccoons, opossums, nutria, even foxes and coyotes eventually.

For a quick preview of what’s coming later this spring, see the slideshow above.   For insights on the complex collaboration of planners, scientists, engineers and specialist contractors tapped to set the stage for these blooms, see my story at The Rivard Report.

“Plant Lady” Lee Marlowe, Guardian of San Antonio River Riparian Restoration, Names Top 10 Troublesome Plants

Working as Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) is “a dream assignment” for Lee Marlowe, the biologist who serves as plant guardian of the landmark San Antonio River restoration project.  The MacArthur High School graduate was living and working in Minneapolis when she noticed the job listing during a visit home for Christmas in 2007.

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

By February of 2008, she had relocated back to San Antonio to immerse herself in the initiative touted by local leadership as the most important public works project of our time.

Known around SARA as “the plant lady,” Marlowe works with a team of nine to restore and maintain the 13 miles of river frontage that stretch from the formal plantings of the Museum Reach north of downtown to the native wildscapes of the Mission Reach that forge south.  Marlowe is passionate and approachable about the complex project, which entails planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and luck–with weather as the biggest wildcard.

“People relate to her,” said Suzanne Scott, General Manager of SARA. “She is able to communicate in such a way that the complex nuances of the project can be understood in layman’s terms.”

Marlowe refereed a recent online kerfuffle on the nature of the milkweed planted at the Monarch butterfly Milkweed Patch just south of the Pearl Brewery on the Museum Reach recently.  Was the Monarch butterfly magnet a native plant or not?

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Yes, that's Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

She confirmed that the species is, indeed, the NONnative Asclepias curassavica, also known as Tropical milkweed.

“I would rather not have it there,” she said matter-of-factly. “That area was to be a formal garden and had to look good year-round,” she said.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 native trees planted recently

That won’t be the case  south of downtown on the Mission Reach.  Marlowe and her team have relocated 3.5 million cubic yards of soil (the equivalent amount of concrete could  build another Hoover Dam) to accommodate 23,000 native trees scheduled for installation by 2014.  So far, 3,000 saplings and more than 10,000 pounds of wildflower seed have been planted.

Marlowe noted that while dozens of wildflower species were planted on the Mission Reach, many more ”volunteers”–gardening talk for plants that grow of their own volition, unplanned and unannounced–have sprouted.  Perhaps three times as many.  She cited the common sunflower Helianthus annuus as the most active volunteer.

Helianthus_annuus

The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, was an active "volunteer" on the Mission Reach

“It did so well we had to thin it out in some locations where it was compromising other plantings,” she said.  Marlowe attributed the wildflower windfall to active land management (read: pulling weeds) even moreso than the restoration of native conditions.

Interestingly, the same problem plants that plague home gardeners also invade the meticulously planned and managed Mission Reach.   Marlowe won’t single out a “most” troublesome plant, as it depends on the season and the day.  But Bermuda grass ranks near the top.

“It’s so well adapted it’s almost impossible to control,” she said.

Here’s Marlowe’s Top Ten Most Troublesome Plants (in no particular order)

  1. Leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala)
  2. Castorbean (Ricinus communis)
  3. Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  4. Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
  5. Giant cane (Arundo donax)
  6. King Ranch “KR” Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum)
  7. Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
  8. Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
  9. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)
  10. Malta starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis/melitensis

While the SARA restoration project has won numerous local awards, Steven Schauer, SARA’s External Communications Manager, said later this spring SARA will nominate the Mission Reach for the Riverprize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. A win would shine international attention on the Mission Reach.  The prize, awarded by Australia-based International River Foundation, gives recognition, reward and support to those who have developed and implemented outstanding, visionary and sustainable programs in river management.

In 2011, the Riverprize and its $330,000 purse went to the Charles River in Boston.  We’re betting in 2012 San Antonio’s Mission Reach has a credible shot and we’re keeping fingers crossed.  The award is announced in October.

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Mission Reach Improvements on San Antonio River Spell Good News for Naturalists, Will Result in More Butterflies

If, like me, you enjoy witnessing the metamorphosis, come down to the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River over the holidays to check out the transformation underway.  More than 3,000 native tree saplings have been planted about two miles south of the new LED lights on the River Walk, an apt backdrop to restoring “the meander” to the San Antonio River.

Cormorants, Snowy Egrets, ducks and Greater Blue Heron have taken up residence on the San Antonio River Mission Reach

Various bird life has settled on the San Antonio River Mission Reach. Butterflies are not far behind., an apt backdrop for bringing "the meander" back to the River.

For years the San Antonio River south of downtown was treated like a drainage ditch.   But no more.   With the $246 million Mission Reach investment of public and private funds overseen by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the River will once again flow as a riffle-riddled stream, home to a diversity of birds, other wildlife, and yes:  butterflies.

No official butterfly habitat has been declared, says Lee Marlowe, Natural Resource Management Specialist for SARA.  Yet these early stages of the Mission Reach improvements are “habitat restoration projects, so the entire areas support numerous butterfly species,” she says.  I like the sound of that.

Marlowe provided a Mission Reach plant list that spells good news for future generations of butterflies:    Milkweed, Purple Coneflower, Cut Leaf Daisy, Sunflowers, Goldenrod, and several clovers are included.  Host and nectar plants dot the list of 39-species.  So do dozens of native trees and grasses.

When complete, the project will add eight miles of nature trails to San Antonio, connecting four of our historic missions to each other via hike and bike trails and restoring and restoring 334 acres of riparian woodland.  City leadership also hopes the south side Mission Reach, combined with the north bound Museum Reach, will connect the north and south sides of our city to each with the San Antonio River as a common thread.  See the video above for an overview of the project.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

A sense of community has already taken root along the trails as regulars walk their dogs, jog, ride bikes and enjoy the riffles.  The same goes for wildlife:  more trees, wildflowers and a restored River mean more insects and aquatic life.  Snowy egrets, Greater Blue Heron, ducks and Cormorants have all taken up residence on the Mission Reach so they can  enjoy the bounty.  An increased butterfly population is not far behind.