San Antonio River Walk Boasts Vibrant “Butterfly City” Along Museum Reach as Butterfly Wildscape Matures

Having spent the last year in Austin, I haven’t had the chance to check on my favorite public milkweed patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River Walk as often as I’d like.  Whenever I came to town over the last year and my husband and I found ourselves at the Pearl Brewery Farmer’s Market or enjoying a taco at La Gloria, we would wander down to the vast expanse of Asclepias tuberosa (native Butterflyweed and Monarch butterfly host) planted by the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) two years ago.

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on the San Antonio Riverwalk

The Museum Reach Milkweed Patch on San Antonio River Walk in Dec. 2011, dwarf white Lantana in background

A visit upon my recent San Antonio homecoming left me grinning.   A diverse population of butterflies flitted along the flowering stretch of river just south of the Pearl Brewery.

Monarchs, Sulphurs, Painted Ladies, Gulf Fritillaries–all nectared on native milkweed, lantana and passionflower vines, aerially skipping above the walkways and enchanting those lucky enough to bear witness.  Even after hints of a first frost descended on San Antonio this week, the butterfly wildscape looked stunning–robust, healthy, and still showing flowers.  Recent rains helped.

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio Riverwalk

Passionflower and its fruit, the host plant to the Gulf Fritillary and Zebra Longwing, on the San Antonio River Walk

I’m not the only one delighted by the display.   Benjamin Ahlburg, a five-year-old fellow butterfly fan and son of Trinity University’s President Dennis Ahlburg and Penelope Harley, relayed via email that a recent trot down the River Walk left him charmed.

“Mum, it really is a butterfly city,” he told his British mom in an accent worthy of Harry Potter.  Tourists and passers-by parked themselves on benches to observe the butterfly festival, pronouncing it “lovely.”

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by

Sulphur butterfly on lantana, photo by

Austin has Ladybird Lake and its incumbent urban charms–hipster-crowded running trails, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards for rent, and of course, the famous bat colony under the Congress Avenue bridge.

San Antonio’s River Walk has some of that, and more:  a unique marriage of wild and  urban.  Venture north or south of the touristy downtown River Walk and enjoy publicly funded improvements that bring the wild aspects of South Texas into our downtown backyard.  This urban wildscape befits San Antonio’s geographic location as “the funnel” of the Monarch Butterfly migration and as a crossroads for myriad butterfly species. And for home gardeners and those with acreage destined for a butterfly wildscape, our San Antonio River Walk provides proven inspiration for what works.

San Antonio River Improvements Project Map

San Antonio River Improvements Project

Two years after its installation during our historic Texas drought, the SARA’s $72.1 million Museum Urban Reach Segment extends 1.5 miles north from downtown, from Lexington Street to Josephine Street.   The project is part of  $358.3 million in San Antonio River improvements to restore the San Antonio River by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) and the San Antonio River Foundation.

And it gets better.  South of downtown, the Mission Reach segment of the improvement project offers an even longer, more natural river walk all the way to Mission Espada.   The undertaking will restore 334 acres of riparian woodland and includes the planting of more than 20,000 young trees and shrubs, 39 native tree and shrub species and more than 60 native grass and wildlife species. It’s already happening and vividly on display just south of The Blue Star Arts complex.

According to the Project website, when the restoration is complete,

“The native landscape will look wild rather than manicured. Grasses and wildflowers will be allowed to grow to their natural heights rather than mowed. Boat traffic on the river will be limited to canoes and kayaks rather than barges. The result will be a serene, natural landscape where visitors can enjoy the inherent beauty of the river.”

Hallelujah.  More butterflies in our future.

In the Butterfly Garden: Use Solarization to Convert a Drought Damaged Lawn into a Vibrant Butterfly Garden

From Alamo Heights in San Antonio (78209) to Travis Heights in Austin (78704) a butterfly garden evolves from an ugly patch of Bermuda grass

Last November, I relocated to Austin temporarily when my employer moved operations there from San Antonio.  Since my husband and I had just sold our family home in San Antonio’s Alamo Heights (78209), I decided to take an apartment in Austin’s Travis Heights neighborhood (78704) while continuing my job and figuring out next steps.

Future butterfly garden in Travis Heights, Austin, 78704 November 2010

FROM THIS: Bermuda grass front yard in Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, November 2010

Treating the episode as a “semester abroad”  with a full-time paycheck seemed a logical approach for our family, as was avoiding the maddening 75-mile commute.  That’s how I ended up renting Apartment B in a small South Austin quadriplex.   Exploring, experiencing and enjoying Austin’s myriad offerings held immense appeal, but one thought plagued me: I MUST have a garden, or grumpiness would trounce my fun.

With my lease starting December 1, 2010, I begged my landlord to allow me two weeks’ early access so I could begin a turf-to-bed conversion that would turn the Bermuda grass infested yard into a stage for my future butterfly garden.  My new circumstances required I park on the street and enter my apartment via the walkway above.  A garden makeover would not only provide a steady supply of caterpillars and butterflies to keep me busy, but a more scenic stroll each time I left the house.

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

TO THIS: Butterfly Garden, Travis Heights, Austin, TX 78704, Summer 2011

Since first freezes in Austin can occur as early as November 15, I raced to begin my project, hoping to exploit the season’s remaining warm days.  But just as I arrived in Austin, the days grew shorter and temperatures dropped. What to do?

Turf-to-bed conversion:  six-10 layers of newspaper with three-four inches of mulch

Turf-to-bed conversion: six-10 layers of newspaper with several inches of mulch

Some gardeners would reach for the Round-Up or other weedkillers, but I prefer the chemical-free approach of solarization.  Solarization has worked well for me in previous lawn makeovers.  My butterfly garden in Alamo Heights, once an expanse of St. Augustine, had been converted into a wild, vibrant pollinator station in two short years. See photos below. (I STILL miss it!)

St. Augustine ruled for years at my Alamo Heights home in San Antonio, TX 78209

St. Augustine ruled for years at my Alamo Heights home in San Antonio, TX 78209

Solarization flaunts a low cost, low tech, low impact, chemical free approach to weed removal and bed prep.  Plus, why not take advantage of the free solar power that shines on our part of the world an average 300 days a year?

The idea of solarizing the soil or killing turf  in this manner is to smother, almost pasteurize the soil, killing most weeds and undesirable live organisms by raising the temperature and “cooking” the earth–much like a compost pile.  Piling mulch on top of layers of newsprint ensures darkness and insulates the ground, increasing the temperature–as high as 140 degrees, depending on the time of year you do it. According to several studies, solarization kills pathogens, nematodes, weed seeds and seedlings and speeds up the breakdown of organic material, resulting in more soluble nutrients for future plants. The process can take as little as three  – six weeks.

Two year old butterfly garden in San Antonio, TX 78209 Once it was St. Augustine

Former St. Augustine lawn, two years later, a glorious butterfly garden, San Antonio, TX 78209

With so many drought damaged landscapes in Central and South Texas, maybe it’s time to think about solarization and converting your yard to a butterfly garden.  Here’s how to do it.

Solarization How-To

1.  Thoroughly water (but don’t soak) the area you’re planning to convert from grass or weeds to butterfly beds.

2. Take a pile of newsprint destined for the recycling heap (I prefer the Wall Street Journal because they still publish their pages in large format), and lay down  six, preferably 10 layers of newspaper over the well-watered turf.  Cardboard, feedbags, and other compostable paper products can also be used, but my preference is newsprint. NOTE:  Many solarization directions call for black plastic to turn up the heat on the soil.  You can use plastic, but then you will have to remove it later.  As a lazy gardener, I prefer materials that will simply decompose.

3.  Water down the newsprint with a good spraying so it doesn’t argue with the breeze and will stay in its assigned place.

4.  Load  4-6 inches of native Texas mulch (for the two 15 x 10 areas straddling my walkway, I used about 40 bags/or $90 at the South Austin Home Depot) on top of the newspapers.   Then?

5. Water again thoroughly and wait.

You can begin to install transplants immediately, but that’s another blogpost.

Next week: we’ll discuss transplanting your favorite butterfly plants and getting seedlings started and incorporating edible landscape into your butterfly garden.

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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 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 American Native 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.

Monarch Butterfly Migration Tracking Toward West Texas with Nectar Stops Along Llano River and Texas Hill Country

They’re here.  But once again, Monarch butterflies confound and intrigue with their interesting choices and unpredictable behaviour as they make their annual migration to Mexico.

Scientists and enthusiastic observers like myself were guessing that the millions of Monarch butterflies that pass through Texas each Fall would hug the Texas

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Monarch butterflies nectaring in the Chigger Islands in the Llano River on Frostweed

Hill Country streams and river systems or gravitate to the Gulf Coast where more moisture might offer occasional flowers for nectaring.

But observers contributing to the Monarch Watch D-Plex listserv, an email list established by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor, have Monarchs massing and roosting in West Texas, the most parched area of our state.  Excerpts from emails follow.

Matt York, Marathon, Brewster County:  Gage Gardens, here in Marathon Paradise City, had conservative reports of  ‘at least 2k’ monarchs.  Much of that guesstimate gathered from roosting clusters in trees.  In town we still had them flitting about, generally southward.

Monarch butterflies mating on the Llano River, 10/2/2011

Monarch butterflies mating on the Llano River, 10/2/2011

Dave Marqua, near Ft. Davis: I am seeing many Monarchs heading south. Last Friday, I went to Alpine (about 50 miles from my house up here in the mountains) and noticed several Monarchs crossing the road and heading south….every time I go out of the house I see one or two, heading south.  There is never a group.

Penelope Melton, 12 miles south of Alpine: There were an uncountable number of Monarchs resting on the cottonwood trees at our dirt tank Saturday evening 10/1.  They spent the day Sunday nectaring on Bacharris, Beebrush and some kind of sunflower and left Monday AM.

Monarch nectaring in Ft. Davis near Indian LodgeMonarch nectaring in Ft. Davis near Indian Lodge, West Texas–photo by Texas Parks and Wildlife

Over on Twitter, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Twitter feed posted the beautiful photo above with this tweet:  Monarch migration time in Texas. This one stops for food at Indian Lodge in the Davis Mtns.

Lucky swing: three Monarch butterflies netted in one swoop on the Llano River

Lucky swing: three Monarch butterflies netted in one swoop on the Llano River

Damaged male Monarch butterfly--probably won't make it to Mexico

Damaged male Monarch butterfly--probably won't make it to Mexico

We saw hundreds of Monarch butterflies on the Llano River again this weekend, but they weren’t massing as they usually do.  Almost all of the 104 we tagged were netted nectaring on Frostweed in the Chigger Islands that dot the Llano between Mason and Junction.    Most were in fine shape, but some, like the one above, were beat up from their travels–unlikely candidates for a Mexico arrival.   We witnessed one incident of mating behaviour, but no eggs were present on the Swamp Milkweed.

Occasional Monarchs have stopped by my front yard in Austin this week as well, laying eggs and taking quick sips of lantana.

Peak migration is upon us (through October 22 or so), as predicted by Monarch Watch for our latitude, so keep your eyes open for them.

Use Twitter Search to Track the Monarch Butterfly Migration in Real Time and Get Live Updates from the Field

I wrote a few weeks ago about using online and social media tools to keep up with Monarch butterfly news. Even more immediate data can be gleaned from Twitter search.

Use Twitter search to track the Monarch migration in real timeFor those unaware, Twitter is a free, real-time search engine, as well as a broadcast outlet for individuals and organizations.  That means you can visit and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “butterfly” and you’ll find hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates–that can be used to track the migration in real time.  Twitter was conceived as a mass text messaging tool, thus the brevity of the updates.  It refreshes constantly, and for Twitter search you don’t even need to have an account.

Unlike Google, Twitter search ONLY indexes recent updates on Twitter, while Google is more of a library* or archive for the entire web.    Think of it as a search engine for public text-like messages with a shelf life of days, maybe weeks.

The results from these searches paint an amazing picture of what’s going on with the Monarch migration NOW.  Yes, there’s junk in there, but also real-time facts.  By clicking on the Twitterer’s profile, you learn their location.  In the case of a “monarch butterfly migration” search, that suggests where Monarch butterflies are flying RIGHT NOW.

Here’s a couple of tweets from today:

  • OurLittleAcre Kylee Baumle: (3 minutes ago) I saw several monarch butterflies flying around the yard today.  Get thee to Mexico!  Winter is coming my friends!
  • emilyyylbs Emily Pounds: (4 hours ago) I’ve seen many #monarchbutterflies lately, it makes my heart smile.
  • mammelton50 Mary Ann Melton (7 hours ago) Seeing solitary monarch butterflies flitting above the highway heading south on their migration.

As mentioned, the person’s Twitter handle (click on the blue hyperlinked text in the tweet) reveals their profile and location.  Those mentioned above hail from Ohio, Texas, and  Hutto, Texas (not everyone names their city).

This is useful info for Monarch butterfly trackers like myself.  Many of us plan “tag team” outings whereby fellow butterfly wranglers gather for a weekend of tagging, doing our part to help track the migration.  Knowing when the Monarchs are coming is helpful, and interesting.

Scientists could conceivably tap this information and map the migration in real-time, making even more use of the power of citizen scientists.  Who will develop an app for that?

Twitter’s not for everyone, but for those interested in clocking the migration in real-time, it can be indispensable.  Check out this Twitter search for Monarch butterflies.

*You can search Google News and get recent articles about the migration, but not updates from individuals.

Texas “hell” for Monarch Butterflies Migrating to Mexico, Says Monarch Watch Founder, Plus: How You Can Help

Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor characterized drought-stricken Texas as “1,000 miles of hell” for migrating Monarch butterflies who must funnel through our state to arrive at their ancestral roosts in Michoacan, Mexico.  A glance at the drought monitor map below explains why.

Taylor made the observation in his fall Monarch butterfly population status report
this week in which he predicts the worst migration ever, Monarch numbers in steep decline and speculation that the roosting spots in Mexico will reach historic lows.

Monarch buttefly on hummingbird feeder

Monarch butterflies will have to be resourceful when migrating through drought-stricken Texas this Fall

Dr. Taylor has called Texas the “most important state” in the Monarch migration.  Our state is indeed “the funnel” since Monarchs must fly through our neighborhoods and wildscapes to and from their roosts in Mexico.   Millions of the flying insects pass through in April and October, hugging our Hill Country streams or the humid coastline.   Scientists have expressed concern this year about the interminable drought that has left us parched and relatively nectarless.

With many Texas streams and rivers severely compromised or completely dried up, the usual late season bloomers are absent this fall.  That lack of flowering plants on the Monarchs’ home stretch here in Texas suggests those arriving in Mexico will have lower-than-average fat preserves, the stored energy that sustains them through the winter.

Drought Monitor September 2011

Monarch butterflies will find a red hot zone as they funnel through Texas during their annual Fall migration.

“It will be interesting to see how Monarchs cope with the lack of nectar and water as they move through Texas,” wrote Dr. Taylor.  “Monarchs, like most insects, have hygroreceptors (sense organs that are sensitive to humidity gradients); therefore, when conditions are extremely dry, we might expect them to seek out the darkest and most humid habitats. If this plays out, most Monarchs will accumulate in drainages, along rivers, move in an out of forests, and around other water sources.”

That was the case last weekend on our stretch of the Llano River, sometimes called “the last wild river” in Texas.  The Llano is down, for sure, but running.  A slew of migrating Monarchs nectared on Frostweed, Water Hemlock, Swamp Milkweed, Goldenrod and even Purple Mistflower that bloomed after recent rains.

Taylor cites the widespread adoption of herbicide tolerant crops in the Midwest in recent years, drought and wildfire here in Texas, and continued habitat destruction everywhere as primary threats to the migration.

How can you help?

In an email exchange with Dr. Taylor, he suggested Texans water their lawns lightly early in the morning (only on your designated watering day, of course) IF you have a roost nearby.   Try not to water actual flowers on nectar-providing plants, though, as you’ll wash the precious nectar away;  water the leaves and ground only if possible.

“As to feeders, you could try to scatter Gatorade/JuicyJuice feeders, open (small) cups of applesauce, watermelon slices (at the level of flowerheads) in gardens,” said Dr. Taylor.

You can also plant milkweed in your yard and wildscapes.  Wildflower planting season is coming up quick.  More on that later.

Tracking the Monarch Butterfly Migration? Check out these Social Media and Online Resources for Staying Informed

The Monarch Butterfly Migration is underway, and social media and online resources make it easier than ever to track the butterflies’ progress as they leave the nectar in the North for their ancestral roosts in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico.

Two Monarch butterflies on Vitex in Ft. Worth, Texas -- photo by Teddi R. Zonker-Vissers

Here are my favorite online resources for tracking the Monarch migration.

Journey North

Billed as the nation’s premiere citizen scientist project for children, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations and seasonal change.   This time of  year, they post a weekly migration update on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.   Here’s an excerpt from a recent report:

Roosts: Fewer, Smaller, and Short-lived
So far this fall, only 43 roosts have been reported compared to 156 reports last year at this time. (See chart.) This year’s roosts have also been small. Most have had only a few hundred butterflies and the largest contained about 1,500. Last year at this time, the largest roost had 10,000 monarchs (See photo.) This fall’s roosts have also been short-lived.

Written for kids and educators, Journey North offers loads of tools and resources for teachers and others on the Monarch butterfly migration. The site also invites participants to report their sightings and collates the information for online viewing.  The database provides an interesting thumbnail sketch of the migration in real time.

Monarch Watch

While Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies (they also monitor hummingbirds, whales and birds), Monarch Watch brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.

Based at the University of Kansas, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall.  Its comprehensive website at offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can search and find if any of our butterflies made it home.   The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude, all based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions.

Equally interesting is the Monarch Watch blog, where Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor waxes scientific about the State of the Union of Monarch butterflies.   Dr. Taylor’s annual population status reports are must-reads for entomologists and those of us who care about Monarch butterflies.

Monarch Watch Facebook page

But the most fun and timely way to track the Monarch butterfly migration is to keep an eye on Monarch Watch’s Facebook page.  With its 6800+ fans, the page offers a delightful daily stream of photos, insights, observations, questions and links from across the country.

Monarch Watch Facebook page

Monarch Watch Facebook page: never a dull moment

Be sure to click on the “everyone” tab so you can read firsthand what Monarch maniacs from all over the country are seeing in their gardens and wildscapes.   Butterfly wranglers post chrysalis pictures, caterpillar snapshots and digital documentation of how they’re lending a hand to a unique natural phenomenon that scientists believe is under severe threat.  Here’s a sampling:

Mike Reim  Spotted some Monarchs (dozen or so) resting in our cedar trees on our acreage in Purcell, OK and some in Norman, OK on the OU Campus.

Laurie Walz  Here at Latitude 40, we had a major group of butterflies eclose two weeks ago, but seen no eggs since. I’m down to 1 fifth instar and 8 chrysalises. Are we through for the season, or will things pick up again?

Ann Rogerson Weaver  Big weather change here….93 degrees on Friday and 60 degrees on Sat. I released 26 Monarchs yesterday morning and this morning there are still 21 of them hanging around on my front porch. Guess they don’t like the cooler temps. They have zinnias and sedum flowers for nectar, but don’t appear to be eating. Still have 79 caterpillars feeding and think they will be my last….eastern NC

I almost always learn something from the Monarch Watch Facebook page.  Here, questions find answers, veteran caterpillar wranglers offer wisdom born from hundreds of hatched chrysalises, and the sharp folks at Monarch Watch set the gang straight if someone posts an inaccuracy.  The photos are also AMAZING, like the one above, shared on Facebook by Teddi R. Vonker-Zissers.

Social media serves the Monarch butterfly migration well.  All we need now is a Monarch butterfly Twitter feed to post real-time check-ins from the clouds.  Any volunteers?

Butterfly Plant Walk, Monarch Talk and Caterpillar Crawl to Kick off San Antonio Botanical Garden’s Amazing Butterflies Exhibit

The San Antonio Botanical Garden celebrates the whole life cycle with the aptly named “Amazing Butterflies” exhibit, an interactive nature maze created by London’s Natural History Museum in collaboration with Minotaur Mazes.   The exhibit kicks off this weekend with special events and will run through January 8, 2012.

Amazing Butterflies aims to give visitors a chance to experience the challenges of being a caterpillar by wandering through a nature maze of larger-than-life leaves, grass and trees before morphing into a butterfly. Enroute, participants learn how caterpillars move, what they eat and how other creatures help them during their life cycle. Ultimately, participants have the chance to flap their wings and even do a wacky dance–maybe like the one in the video above?  (Apologies to old friend Kim Wilson and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.)

“The timing of Amazing Butterflies couldn’t be better, since fall is when our local butterflies are most active and people can watch their magical life cycle unfold in their own backyards,” said Bob Brackman, executive director of the San Antonio Botanical Garden.  “And what a bonus that the fall is when the Monarch butterflies are migrating through San Antonio.”

Of course, you don’t have to convince the Texas Butterfly Ranch that butterflies are amazing.  We know it.  That’s why I’ve signed up to talk about Milkweed, Monarchs, Migrations and More* at 11 AM on Saturday at the exhibit.  Hope to see you there.

Opening weekend activities run 10 am – 2 pm this Saturday and Sunday and include butterfly workshops for children and adults, children’s arts and craft activities, live butterfly tent, and more. The Austin Bike Zoo will make an appearance with their much lauded amazing butterfly bicycles, offering rides and fun.

10:00 am Butterflies & Plants Walk
Patty Leslie Pasztor, Naturalist & Horticulturist
Wisteria Arbor
11:00 am Milkweed, Monarchs, Migration & More
Monika Maeckle, Texas Butterfly Ranch
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House
10:00 am Butterfly Gardening
Diane Lewis, Horticulturist
Auld House
11:00 am  Storytime: Emily’s Butterfly Bouquet
Children’s author Kathy Luders. Book signing until 1 PM
Auld House Patio
1:00 pm Build it and They Will Come
Norman Winters, Executive Director, NABA National Butterfly Center
Auld House

*If the Monarchs are out, we’ll do a demonstration on how to tag them.  Join us!

The San Antonio Botanical Garden is located at  555 Funston Avenue in San Antonio, TX  78209.  Amazing Butterflies exhibit continues through January 8, 2012.  Access to the exhibit is free with paid admission to the San Antonio Botanical Garden–$8 for adults; $6 for students, seniors, and military; and $5 for children age 3-13. Botanical Society members enjoy free admission.



Who’s Got Milkweed, Vladimir Nabokov, Seedballs and Monarch Butterflies Roosting? We Do, in our Top Five Blogposts

Birthdays are as much about reflection as celebration.   Looking back on the first year of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog, it’s curious to see what readers read the most. Read on for a recap of the most widely read blogposts of our first twelve months.

#1  Milkweed Guide to Central and South Texas

Our Milkweed Guide: Choose Best Plants for Monarch Butterflies post continues to generate interest.  Most days of the week it is the most viewed blogpost here. Why?

Butterfly gardeners and others want region-specific tips and guidance on choosing appropriate milkweed species for their Central and South Texas gardens.  

#2 Vladimir Nabokov as Darwin Doubter

The ongoing popularity of the offbeat post, Butterflies Made a Darwin Doubter of Vladimir Nabokov, surprises.   Perhaps referencing the conservative Discovery Institute is what continues to provoke readers. Hmm.

#3  Who’s Got Pesticide-Free Milkweed?  Some Local Nurseries Do

For those of us who cultivate Monarch and Queen caterpillars, it’s supremely disappointing to bring a happy milkweed plant back from the nursery to feed future butterflies only to have the caterpillars drop dead the next day from ingesting leaves containing pesticides.  Our guide to local area nurseries that carry pesticide-free milkweed will be updated soon, but appears to have served an unmet need by providing names, addresses and phone numbers of Austin and San Antonio nurseries that offer worthy caterpillar food.

#4  Better than Mudpies:  How to Make Seed Balls

This post on how to make seedballs generates steady views and I suspect will spike as summer recedes and gardeners head back outside to plant wildflowers.  Not a bad idea to get ready for fall and re-read Happy Solstice! Celebrate by Making Seedballs For Next Year’s Butterfly Garden.

#5  On the Butterfly Trail in Michoacan, Mexico

Readers appreciated this description and video of my trip with my husband Bob to the Monarch butterfly roosts in Mexico.  The sight of 450 million Monarch butterflies exploding off of the oyamel trees made for a magical mystical tour for me, and a vacation I will always remember.  Hopefully you’ll enjoy reading about it.

Happy First Birthday! Cheers to the Texas Butterfly Ranch and to the Evolution of this Butterfly Blog

This week marks the first birthday of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog.  We’ve come a long way since our first blogpost.  Friends and family often wonder why I write this blog.  The answer is:  I can’t help myself.

What brought me to my enchantment with butterflies and their life cycle? Becoming a Master Gardener, managing a weekend ranch for wildlife, exploring the creek as a childhood tomboy–all of these set up me up to become a novice lepidopterist.  And working in new media at my corporate day job equipped me with the blogging skills to share my passion.

Monarch butterfly on hummingbird feeder

When the going gets tough, Monarchs get resourceful.

My love affair with butterflies and their life cycle began on October 1, 2005. Here’s what I wrote in an email to friends and family with the subject line, “Magical Monarch Saturday.”

The pagan goddess was smiling on me Saturday when I kayaked upstream from Lucky Boy Ranch about 10 minutes.  I saw a steady supply of Monarch butterflies drifting around and across the river, mostly from our side to the opposite.

It was dry and windy and hotter than the average October 1.  The goldenrod was in bloom,  and there’s still a bit of snow-on-the-mountain (a white, Edelweiss type plant), even some purple aster. As I scooted upstream along the shallow river and near the bank beyond our usual wading spot, I noticed two low hanging pecan trees surrounded by small cedars and blooming milkweed, the Monarch’s favorite nectar source.

I pulled up my kayak  and stepped onto the gravel bank.  As I approached the trees, the riverbank erupted with butterflies.  Hundreds of them floated up from the knee-high milkweed, as each of my steps disturbed their peace.

Floating, flitting, fleeting, they danced, lighting on the milkweed flowers and occasionally roosting in clusters on bare pecan  limbs.

I got my tags out and my net and started swooping.  I started at 4:51 PM.  One netting swooped 22 butterflies.   Most of the time I nabbed only one or two, and each time it was magical.  I tagged their wings with the dot-sized tags purchased from, recorded the tag number, if the specimen was male or female, and noted the time I caught each one.   In one productive stint, I tagged eight Monarchs in 10 minutes.

Tagging accomplished, the best part followed:  holding a Monarch in my palm, opening my soft grasp, then grinning widely as she floats to freedom, lighting in the breeze.

I ran out of tags and kayaked back to the house about 5 PM, returning to the river within 20 minutes.  Upstream from the Monarch trees was another pecan shading a thick milkweed field.  Monarchs perched like small birds on the flowertops, sipping  nectar.  By 7 PM I’d tagged 50 Monarchs.

The next day, I dragged Bob down there to see if the Magic was still present.  It was! We tagged another 25 Monarchs in about 20 minutes (it goes really fast with two people).  Boy and girl Monarchs were equally abundant and like a soothing balm, cast their spell over macho Bob.

What an enchanting retreat from the pressures of the week.  I hope each of you has the chance to experience this wonder some day.


That transcendent outing to0k place about a year after my first exposure to Monarch tagging which occurred  the prior fall, when my friend Jenny Singleton invited me, Bob, and another couple to “come tag Monarchs” near Menard, Texas.

I had no idea what she was talking about.  But we were game.

As the sun set on the San Saba River, the four of us raced around the river bottom with other members of Jenny’s “tag team,” our nets hoisted by 12-foot long PVC pipes, snagging dozens of Monarch butterflies as they sought an evening roost.  I’ll never forget the sensation of unbridled life the first time I stuck my hand into a butterfly net filled with 37 Monarch butterflies.

We parked them in ice chests for tagging, assembly line style.  After collecting their data–male or female–we placed the tiny stickers on their wings that Jenny had purchased from Monarch Watch, the University of Kansas citizen scientist program that tracks the Monarch migration each year.  We then released them to roost for the night.

Butterfly blogger Monika Maeckle with Monarch Butterfly Motherlode in 2008

Me and a Monarch Motherlode in 2008. We tagged 567 in one day and ran out of tags! --photo by Clint Howell

That night I learned that Monarch butterflies migrate to and from Mexico and Canada each year, moving through the Texas “funnel” each fall on their way to their ancestral roost in the mountains of Mexico.  How did I not know about this?

I was intrigued.

The next October, I ordered 100 tags from Monarch Watch.  Then, on the sunny October afternoon described above, I set out in my kayak to find a roosting spot on our stretch of river. As I combed the Llano’s shores in my kayak, I had no idea of the magic awaiting me.

And so began the Texas Butterfly Ranch, a state of mind and place that encompasses San Antonio (my home), Austin (where I work) and Lucky Boy Ranch (our weekend retreat on the Llano River).

Since that wondrous autumn day, I’ve learned everything I could about butterflies and their life cycle. I’ve tagged more than 1200 Monarchs, 20 of which have been recovered in Mexico.  I’ve turned my front yard into a butterfly garden, and my kitchen into an incubator, bringing Monarch, Queen, Eastern Swallowtail and Gulf Fritillary eggs inside, hatching chrysalises from milkweed stands at the ranch and host plants in my yard.

I’ve been known to bring caterpillars to work when they’re about to “go chrysalis” or ready to eclose to the butterfly stage.  My colleagues are always delighted to witness the daily miracle of metamorphosis. I’ve also given chrysalises to friends and family to mark life transitions like birthdays, weddings, loss, graduations and death. And I’ve written 63 blogposts with thousands of views.

Thank you for joining me.  My education continues.  See you outside.