Area butterfly buffs will have a unique opportunity to see exotic butterflies up close and personal while learning about the Monarch butterfly migration at the San Antonio Zoo’s
first Monarch Fest March 4 – 6. The inaugural event celebrates San Antonio’s recent national status as the first and only Monarch Champion City, so designated by the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge program.
Laurie Brown, Zoo volunteer services manager, along with Zoo staff and volunteers, have been preparing for the event for months. On the agenda for the 72-hour celebration: a native plant sale and seed giveaway, kid-friendly crafts and educational activities, and booths/displays by more than a dozen local pollinator advocacy organizations. The event is free with zoo admission.
But for an extra $1.50, visitors can also stroll through the Zoo’s butterfly house, an experience well worth the cost. Proceeds go 100% to conservation and education efforts, says Brown.
Inside the flight house, hundreds of exotic flyers like the Malabar Tree nymph, Idea malabarica, also known as the Paper Kite, will be on display in a natural, garden like setting. The wings of this gorgeous black-and-white butterfly, native to India and Southeast Asia, resemble rice paper with a Monarch-like painted glass pattern.
Interestingly, the Paper Kite’s host plant, Apocynaceae, belongs to the same plant family as the Monarch butterfly’s host plant–Asclepias (milkweeds). Both are members of the dogbane family. Is it a coincidence that the lovely wing pattern on these two butterflies from opposite sides of the world are similar?
Not really, says Brown. The Paper Kite and Monarch are distant relatives.
Also scheduled for appearances in the flight house: the Common banded Peacock, Papilio crino, sometimes called a Buddhist Heart, sports fluorescent wings can suggest blue or green, depending on the angle from which it is viewed.
Brown promises a couple dozen other exotics, a mix of local butterflies and a handful of amazing Atlas Moths, Atacus atlas, one of the most dramatic looking Lepidoptera. If you’ve never seen one of these impressive moths up close, you’re in for a treat.
These Saturnid moths rank as one of the 10 largest insects in the world and hail from Southeast Asia. Their wingspans can reach 12 inches and in Taiwan, empty Atlas moth cocoons, spun from sturdy Fagara silk, are used as purses.
“Some vacated cocoons don’t need to be deconstructed—they can be used ‘as found’ as small pocket-change purses by simply installing a zipper,” according to the educational magazine Mental Floss.
Hmm. New handbag trend?
Advance tickets are available online or you can buy them upon arrival. Hope to see you there!
Monarch butterflies are heading our way, making their way south from the northern reaches of their migration toward Mexico in what looks to be a banner season.
It’s too early for those of us who live in the “Texas funnel” to see masses of Monarchs moving through town, but we should be able to witness a trickle of the migrating butterflies in the coming weeks.
Typically for Labor Day, we see a “pre-migration migration”–that is, a vanguard arrival of reproductive Monarch butterflies that lay eggs which will hatch and become the final generation of migrating adults. That didn’t happen this year, but then everything in 2015 has run about two weeks late. The next two weeks should bring early moving Monarchs to town.
Further north, the butterflies are making their presence known and suggesting a banner year.
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, the citizen science tagging program that tags the butterflies each fall, revised his forecast in August based on evidence of robust egg laying and suggested that 2015 might double the mild rebound of 2014.
In her weekly migration bulletin from citizen scientist website Journey North, founder Elizabeth Howard wrote on September 10 that the first cold fronts of the season were sending Monarchs “sailing southward.”
“It’s two weeks before the Equinox,” wrote Howard. “Fall conditions are setting in as the jet stream dips south…. People are counting Monarchs roosting by the hundreds, feeding by the dozens, and flying overhead at rates up to two per minute.”
Generally the Fall Equinox, which takes place September 23 this year and marks when days get shorter, signals to Monarchs it’s time to hit the trail to Mexico. As they start moving south, they migrate alone during the day and gather at night at hospitable places, general somewhere with nearby nectar, moisture, and protection from wind and extreme temperatures. Usually they will only occupy a roost for a day or two, but if winds or weather are disadvantageous, they might linger longer.
In October of 2014, we had many Monarchs stranded on the Llano River in the Texas Hill Country for a long weekend. Ferocious winds out of the South held them in place. While the situation was great for tagging (we tagged more than 300), it was slightly disconcerting to see the tenacious travelers stymied in their quest to keep moving. Once the wind shifted, the butterflies caught the wave, riding it to Mexico or as far as the wind and their wings would take them.
Howard shared news of dozens of reported overnight roosts (see map above) in and around the Upper Midwest, including one of 1,000 Monarchs on Tuesday night in Perrysburg, Ohio.
Roosts are weeks away for those of us in Texas, but as mentioned, we should start to see early arrivals in the next two weeks. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the migration via social media.
“Check your local field or meadow, #Monarch Butterfly migration is underway,” wrote Paul Roedding, of London, Ontario, on Twitter.
“Look what stopped by the yard this afternoon,” posted Joe Orsolini of Lombard, Illinois. His tweet was accompanied by the photo below of a perfect female Monarch nectaring on pink Buddleia.
On the Monarch Watch Facebook page, Terry Pease of Sioux Falls, Iowa, posted that in the past month, Monarchs at her family farm’s 100-year-old grove were decimated by crop dusters in the area. “But this morning when I came home, there were Monarch’s everywhere!” wrote Pease. “It was like being surrounded by angels….”
A look at the locations of the above social media reports from London, Ontario (42.98 latitude), Lombard, Illinois (42.87 latitude), and Sioux Falls, Iowa (43.58 latitude), suggests the Monarchs are on track. The Monarch Watch Peak Migration schedule says southbound butterflies should hit latitudes 42 and 43 right around September 11. And so they have.
For our area, latitude 28, the peak migration will occur somewhere between October 10 and 27. I’m betting it’s late this year. Check the chart above to see when peak migration arrives in your neighborhood–or goto the Monarch Watch website.
When they arrive, an ample nectar buffet awaits. A ranch tour last weekend included a kayak tour of grand stands of Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata, and Goldenrod, Solidago, and about to bust-into-blooms Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. Bees,
wasps, ants, and of course, aphids enjoyed the bounty. A few Queens and Swallowtails, too, plenty of Skippers and Sulphurs, but no Monarchs yet. Soon enough.
To see Monarchs in the next few weeks, seek out nectar destinations like pollinator gardens, wildflower patches on roadsides–any place with flowers that will draw the migrants on their journey south. Remember, the primary goal when migrating is to fuel up on nectar and store fat for the long winter.
….I would love to see the migration at the Llano River. We have a 5th wheel [travel trailer] and have camped at the KOA on the Llano River in Junction, Texas….
Is this the area where we would be able to see the migration? I think I saw the estimated dates for peak migration at the Llano River is Oct 10-27, 2014. Is this correct? Want to make sure I am in the right place and right time if possible.
Thanks for the information and for your newsletter/emails about the butterflies. Just love them.
Emails like the one above are common this time of year. Many of us who follow Monarchs try to stay on top of the migration to plan tagging outings and sate our extreme interest and curiosity.
I check the Monarch Watch peak migration calendar, monitor the wind and weather, and keep an eye on email lists and social media before inviting my butterfly loving friends to join me for a weekend of tagging on the Llano River. Lucky for me my birthday is October 13, which generally falls in the middle of prime migration time (this year, October 10 – 22 for our latitude). That all makes for a great Monika’s Monarch birthday weekend.
In the meantime, it’s fun to catch vanguard migrants on their early journeys south for observation and tagging. And for those with limited outdoor access, social media and the web provide chances to experience the migration virtually. (Yeah, not the same, but better than nothing.)
Elaine, no sure way exists to predict exactly which weekend Monarchs will mass along the Llano River near Junction. But by tapping the resources below, you’ll be able to determine the best chance of seeing the most Monarchs.
So make note and check out the cool tools available at the intersection of technology and (citizen) science.
First stop should be the Journey North website. A free internet-based program that explores the interrelated aspects of seasonal change, Journey North tracks wildlife migrations including hummingbirds, whales and bald eagles. This time of year, the Monarch migration gets top billing. Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard told us that 400,000 people per month visit the site during Monarch migration season.
And with good reason. Journey North offers constantly updated maps showing where adult Monarchs, eggs, caterpillars, and roosts have been spotted. Photos and reports from citizen scientists, butterfly enthusiasts, professional photographers and academics populate the site, along with training and resources for teachers and others.
In last week’s map, below, recently observed overnight roosts were limited to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Note to Elaine: you won’t be missing anything in Junction, Texas, for a while.
Journey North also posts a weekly report on Thursdays based on observations from Monarch butterfly enthusiasts of all ages, from Canada to Mexico.
Journey North founder Elizabeth Howard often writes the updates herself, like this one from last Thursday. “The largest counts have been in nectar-rich hotspots with Liatris. This late-blooming plant is a monarch magnet! When planting for monarchs, flower bloom-times are important. Include late-bloomers to attract migrating monarchs and provide vital fuel for migration.”
Using Twitter as a search engine is another great Monarch butterfly tracking tool. It provides real-time updates of Monarch butterfly sightings and offers a timely feed on Monarch butterfly news, from many of my favorite sources–including Journey North and Monarch Watch.
Granted, not everyone uses Twitter, but an estimated 270+ million people and myriad organizations tap the free, real-time application as a search engine and personal or professional broadcast outlet.
That means you can visit http://search.twitter.com and punch in “monarch butterflies” or “monarch migration” or “tagged monarch butterfly” and dozens of hours-old “tweets”–brief 140-character updates—will be returned, telling you where Monarchs are flying RIGHT NOW.
Such a search today turned up this tweet from Minnesota State Representative for District 60B, Phyllis Kahn: “Monarch butterfly tagged and released. About to take off for Mexico.” Kahn offered the lovely Monarch on Goldenrod pictured above with her tweet.
Twitter search ONLY indexes recent updates. Google and other search engines are more akin to archives for the entire web. You can try searching Google News, but this won’t return the real-time reports Twitter delivers. Check it out.
For those of us who live in the Texas funnel, the wind plays an especially significant role in planning for Monarch tagging outings. I work full-time, so during Monarch season, I plot each weekend for maximum Monarch activity.
Before leaving town, I check the Wind Map, a fantastic tool that shows which way the winds are blowing. If winds are coming out of the North, that means Monarchs will be riding the wave and we could have a big mass when they drop from the sky at sunset and roost for the night.
If winds are coming from the South, Monarchs won’t be moving much. That could mean they’re stranded in place, which could also make for good tagging since they will likely hang out and nectar on late blooming flowers.
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, recently suggested that tracking wind patterns through the wind map and matching them up with tagged Monarch butterfly recoveries would be a great citizen scientist project. We’ll have to see if someone tackles that.
Either way, the map lets us know what’s coming. Plus, it’s simply a dreamy tool, with it’s visual articulation of nature’s breath expressed in real-time.
As the site descriptor says: “An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US.”
The wind map is an art project of Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg who lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The talented team are committed to a “rigorous understanding of visualization” informed by their Ph.Ds–Viégas’ graduate degree from the MIT Media Lab; Wattenberg’s in mathematics, from U.C. Berkeley.
LOVE this project.
If you’re reading this and you’re on Facebook, then you likely have already “LIKED” the Monarch Watch Facebook page. If not, go ahead, do it now, and join the party. (And while you’re at it, why not LIKE the Texas Butterfly Ranch Facebook page?)
With more than 23,000 fans, Monarch Watch’s page serves as a delightful online plaza where the Monarch Watch team from the University of Kansas engages with the rest of us to share information, photos, and wax passionate about Monarch butterflies and their migration. Citizen scientists, recreational observers, and professional and amateur biologists and entomologists join the conversation. Like this:
Toby Smith, who posted the above photo, is from Garland, Texas. That’s just 292 miles north of here, so that tells me at least individual Monarchs are en route. Be sure to click on the “posts to page” tab so you can see what people in the field are seeing.
Journey North devotes itself to wildlife migrations besides Monarch butterflies, but the Monarch Watch website brags Monarch butterflies, all the time.
Based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Monarch Watch founded the citizen scientist tagging program embraced by thousands of us who tag Monarchs each fall. Its comprehensive website offers information on how to tag a Monarch, raising milkweed, rearing Monarch caterpillars, and a database of all the Monarch tags recovered in Mexico, so those of us who tag can find out if any of our butterflies made it home.
The site also posts predictions for when the peak migration will occur at your latitude based on Monarch Watch scientists’ well-researched opinions. The Monarch Watch blog is also worth a look and you can join 30,000 others to get on the mailing list.
If the above won’t sate your migration curiosity, then consider signing up for the D-PLEX list, an email exchange that includes about 650 scientists, conservationists, enthusiasts, and others, including some very interesting characters.
Named after the Monarch butterfly’s Latin designation, Danaus plexipus, the D-PLEX is an old fashioned email listserv started by Monarch Watch founder Dr. Chip Taylor and invites the public. Sign up to receive D-PLEX emails on the Monarch Watch webpage.
Careful, though. The D-PLEX can overtake your email inbox. Conversations can escalate, generating dozens of emails a day, many of which you may not find useful. I’ve set up all D-PLEX emails to forward to a special email box that I check once a day, so as not to be overwhelmed.
Don’t forget to check in with us here at the Texas Butterfly Ranch, too. We’ll do our best to keep you posted.
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Many of us believe the Monarch butterfly should be declared the Official Insect of San Antonio. Given our geographic location in the heart of the Texas flyway and the dramatic butterflies’ intimate connection to Mexico, it makes perfect sense. Monarch butterflies have already been declared the official bug of Texas.
Since Monarch butterflies are on the move this week, the Texas Butterfly Ranch is joining its sister site, the Rivard Report, to perform a Monarch butterfly tagging demonstration for “Something Monday,” tomorrow, October 21. Something Monday is a weekly learning outing sponsored by the site, co-founded by me and my husband Robert Rivard.
Meet us at 6:30 p.m. at the Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach of the San Antonio River, tomorrow, October 21. We’ll gather downstream from the Pearl (map below) and demonstrate How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly. Park at the Pearl, cross the river, and walk south five minutes and you’ll be there.
Tag a Monarch butterfly? How does one do that?
You’ll have to join us to find out. But show some respect – the dramatic orange and black butterflies have had a tough year. Many of us believe that 2013 is shaping up to be their worst in history, population wise.
Professional and citizen scientists have been “tagging” the storied creatures since the ’50s. That’s how they figured out that the Monarchs that are passing through town right now are the great-great grandchildren of the ones that left Mexico last spring.
Yep, that’s right. The butterflies that are migrating to Mexico this month through the “Texas Funnel” have never been to the roosting spot that is their final destination. That would be like finding your way to the home of your great-great grandmother without ever having known her address.
The methodology for unraveling this mystery entailed professional and citizen scientists “tagging” the butterflies throughout the Eastern U.S.
Monarch Watch, a citizen scientist program based at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, continues the program today.
The butterflies migrate to a remote mountainous area of southern Mexico in the winter, rouse in the spring, mate, then die. Their bodies are found on the forest floor. These days, scientists pay the local people of Michoacán $5 per recovered tag. In 1976, thanks to an intrepid Austin woman named Catalina Trail, scientists finally pieced together the puzzle and determined that Monarch butterflies are the only creatures on the planet to undertake a multi-generational migration.
And why the Milkweed Patch, you say?
Monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on a particular plant–milkweed. The beautiful orange bloomer serves as the insects’ host plant and also provides nectar for fueling up for its long journey. The San Antonio River Authority planted a stand of milkweed on the Museum Reach four years ago when the River Walk was extended north.
The butterfly garden has since become known as The Milkweed Patch and is a regular hangout for Monarchs in the Spring and Fall, and other butterflies year-round. The Patch also is monitored by citizen scientists on behalf of the Monarch Larvae Monitoring Project.
Join us at the Milkweed Patch at 6:30 PM. Bring the kids. They’ll love it.
I’ll have a couple of butterfly nets and tags on hand to show you how its done. We’ll tag the butterflies, record their tag numbers, and make note if they are male and female. All that info will be to Monarch Watch and entered into a database that is accessible from the web.
We’ll release tagged butterflies to the wind with the hope they find their way to Mexico. Perhaps our ‘Something Monday’ Monarchs will be fortunate enough to complete the trip.
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What a perfect weekend: friends and family gathered to assist in my annual Monarch Birthday Tagging weekend. Lucky me, my October 13 birthday falls smack dab in the middle of peak migration, predicted October 10 – 22 this year by Monarch Watch.
En route to the Llano, where Monarchs typically roost in the pecan trees that line our stretch of river, our San Antonio tagging team of Alex Rivard, Veronica Prida and Omar Rodriguez stopped at the Hilltop Cafe 12 miles outside Fredericksburg. “Monarchs are all over the ranch,” said Johnny Nicholas, the piano playing proprietor. We were stoked.
We arrived after dark, thus couldn’t check the usual roosting and resting spots along the riverbanks until Saturday morning. On Saturday, Chris Gannon, David Braun and Karen Ford joined us from Austin. The tag team was complete.
I scouted the scene around 8 AM, paddling my kayak to the “Monarch spot.” Monarch butterflies floated over the pecan branches near the river, a scene that suggested to me that all might possibly be right with the world. “YES!” I said aloud to no one. “They’re here!”
After the drumbeat of dreary predictions warning us that 2013 will be the worst year in history for Monarch butterflies, I had just about convinced myself that the days of a robust migration were over. Seeing the creatures lilting in the breeze, floating above the persimmons and cedars, and lighting on pecan limbs gave me hope that perhaps they would be OK.
But the clusters were small compared to previous years. The largest group we saw numbered only 20 – 25. Most swoops of the net garnered only one Monarch at a time. In the past we’d often capture several in one swing.
Typically we stage a Big Swoop Contest: who could get the MOST Monarchs in their net in one swoop? In 2008, my friend Clint Howell nabbed almost three dozen at once. Here’s what I wrote five years ago–same week, same place, as last weekend. That year, 2008, was a magnum opus year for Monarch butterflies in our part of the world:
“Our crew of Monarch maniacs competed to see who could snag the most in a single swing: Monika started with 15; David quickly surpassed that by netting 26; then Clint came along and outdid us both by nabbing 35 Monarchs in one swoop.”
So far this year, I take the prize with a mere six.
The Monarchs seemed tentative on Saturday, as if waiting for the wind to carry them home. Thunderstorms had been predicted for the entire weekend, but Saturday rose sunny and calm.
They moved around the trees and we tagged more than 100 by dinnertime Saturday–again, in ones and twos. Most appeared healthy and we recorded an equal number of males and females. The butterflies seemed uninterested in the abundant nectar lining the riverbanks–Frostweed, Goldenrod, Water hemlock, Cowpen Daisies, Purple Aster and even a Cardinal flower or two. But Monarchs stayed in the trees, as if resting for their long journey.
Saturday night a magnificent light show graced the sky about the river. For more than an hour this year’s Monarch Tagging Team sat on the porch and enjoyed heat lightning as it backlit a cloud banket to the North. Occasional bolts peeked through the clouds, showing itself as some sort of mammoth display of power and light. The light show continued into early morning until the sky unleashed a thunderstorm that started at 6 AM and continued for 90 minutes, ebbing into a steady drizzle for most of the day with slight interruptions. Three inches of rain resulted and the Llano River rose half a foot.
Monarchs waited out the storm along the Llano River banks. We returned around noon and tagged a few more, ending the day with a total of 124.
Was this it? The big mass of Monarchs for 2013?
Jenny Singleton in Menard reported similar results with no huge roosts. She and her gang tagged 310 over the weekend, chasing them at three different ranches including her place on the Sabinal River where she usually tags 1,000-plus.
“I think the butterflies this weekend are the early pulses,” she wrote as we exchanged text message reports. “They’re running really late this year.”
Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, agreed in a phone call. “Monarchs are having their worst year. And they’re running really late. I think these are the early pulses.” I hope they are right. We will see in the coming weeks.
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A new 3D IMAX film, “Flight of the Butterflies,” may provide the best chance this butterfly season to capture the magic of the Monarch butterfly migration, as many Monarch butterfly followers are bracing for what may be the worst on year on record for Monarch numbers.
Peak migration for our latitude should be October 2 – 16, according to Monarch Watch. So far, Monarch sitings in Texas have been far below average.
Last year’s drought set the stage for a small population (the smallest since records have been kept). Crazy weather, spikes in temperature that confused host plant growth cycles, drought, wildfire and even massive aerial insecticide sprays aimed at West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes in the strategic North Texas migration flyway — all have conspired to make it a tough year for Monarch butterflies. Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, labeled 2012 a year “like no other” in his annual state-of-the-Monarch-migration blogpost.
When the Monarch butterfly puzzle was finally pieced together in 1975 after more than 40 years of research, things were different. Catalina Trail and her partner Kenneth Brugger walked into the remote Oyamel tree forest in the Mexican state of Michoacan on January 2 of that year, and massive numbers of Monarch butterflies crowded the trees, like overlaid clusters of grapes. “I suspect the early colonies may have collectively contained a billion in some years,” said Dr. Lincoln Brower, renowned Monarch butterfly scientist.
Today, their numbers are less than half that. In 1975, threats to the migration were less severe than today–the fir forests where the butterflies roost were largely intact, genetically modified organisms were the fantasies of science fiction writers, and theories on climate change were just warming up.
“Back then, it appeared that those places were so isolated, they were pretty much left alone,” said Trail, from her home in Austin recently. “You didn’t see the big operations with big trucks, taking away huge fir trees,” she said of the illegal logging that has only recently come to a halt thanks to efforts by the World Wildlife Foundation and partnerships between the Mexican and U.S. governments. Read the full story of Catalina Trail and the “discovery” here. (Quotation marks are deliberate, since native people knew of the overwintering sites for centuries before Westerners pieced the migration puzzle together.)
Trail, the only living member of the crew who found the roosting sites and made them known to the world, now lives a quiet life in South Austin. She just returned from a screening of “Flight of the Butterflies,” a 3D film produced by Canadian filmmakers SK Films, that debuted in Washington, DC last week.
The 3D film chronicles the natural history saga, which includes the tenacious Dr. Fred Urquardt, Brugger, an eccentric American expatriate, and Trail, a spirited young woman. “Flight of the Butterflies” is being released in IMAX theaters nationwide this month and will screen in Houston October 5 and Galveston in March, according to Eddie Ward, SK Films spokesman. No San Antonio or Austin screenings are scheduled yet, he said.
“I absolutely loved it–in 3D it was like you could almost reach out and touch them. Very inspiring,” said Trail. “They did a very high tech rendition of the pupae transformation and metamorphosis via Cat Scan–that was really exciting and beautiful to see.” Dr. Brower, who also attended the Washington debut at the Smithsonian Institute, called the film “beautiful….the 3D shots of overwintering are superb.” He called the story, “a fine narrative and emotionally appealing,” adding, “the conservation issues were weakly presented.”
San Antonio’s Milkweed Patch on the Museum Reach, the riparian restoration of the San Antonio River Mission Reach, and the San Antonio Botanical Garden (SABOT) are all great vantage points for observing the storied insects in the coming weeks. SABOT horticulturist Amanda Wielgosh reported seeing six Monarchs on Tuesday.
In Austin, butterfly watching hotspots include Zilker Butterfly Trail, the Barton Creek Greenbelt, and of course, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in SW Austin. For more on Austin butterfly viewing, see our entomologist friend Mike Quinn’s website.
We look forward to viewing the film, and to welcoming the Monarchs as they arrive. Until then, keep an eye out for early Monarch migrants, and enjoy the trailer teaser at the top of this post until the movie shows up here.Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.
One of the most common questions we get at the Texas Butterfly Ranch is how the heck do you tag a Monarch butterfly?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Make sure you’ve noted the tag number, butterfly’s sex, any other useful data, on your data sheet or notebook.
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.
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.
Good luck with your tagging. Please let us know how it goes.Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.
For a fun outdoor getaway filled with butterflies and birds, look no further than Alamo, Texas. No, not The Alamo. Alamo, Texas.
The small town in Hidalgo County may seem like an unworthy stop on the drive to South Padre Island with its strip malls and fast food joints dotting the highway. But the former headquarters of the Alamo Sugar and Land Company sits in the center of the Rio Grande Valley and makes a perfect base for exploring the bird and butterfly hotspots of South Texas.
A Fourth of July trip took Bob and me to the National Butterfly Center, the Global Birding Center and the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in a 48-hour off-season nature sojourn that made us want to rebook in the “high season” of October or March.
We stayed at the Alamo Inn B & B, a historic naturalists’ retreat just five miles from the fabulous Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge. Our new friend Ro Wauer, butterfly guidebook author extraordinaire, who we met at the Wings Over the Hills Festival in Fredericksburg this spring, recommended it highly. And despite the historic part of the hotel being closed for the off-season, Proprietor Keith Hackland made us feel welcome with his profound hospitality, charming South African accent, and dog friendly accommodations in adjacent studio apartments (Cost: $78 per night). Our dog Cocoa made friends with Hackland’s sweet pooch Henry, and roamed a huge, fenced yard.
Hackland offered hefty 20-page handouts of bird species we were likely to see upon check-in, retrieved from his well-stocked outdoor store which was also closed for the off-season. Alas, we’re not serious birders and I’m a novice (but extremely enthusiastic) lepidopterist, more interested in the whole life cycles of plants, creatures and ecosystems than checking species off a life-list. Yet the pages and pages of species had me intrigued: were there really 500 species of birds and at least 200 different butterflies cruising the area around our hotel? Apparently so.
We arrived Sunday afternoon and planned a late morning visit to the National Butterfly Center. (One of the best things about chasing butterflies is that they don’t get up early.) As we sat on our front porch Sunday evening and watched buff-bellied hummingbirds nectar on Turk’s Cap, a thunderstorm blew in, dropping a quarter-inch of rain on the Alamo Inn’s garden.
Ten minutes later, a torrent of flying creatures filled the air–a massive hatch like we had never witnessed. I thought at first they were Mayflies, but Hackland nabbed one with one hand and provided a positive I.D.: termites. “This happens pretty regularly after it’s been dry,” he said.
The next day, Empress Louisa, Asterocampa louisa, butterflies filled the air at the National Butterfly Center. They fluttered along the pathways, nectared on lantana, and rested on miniature log roosts assembled by the Center. This video provides a great overview.
The 100-acre park, opened in 2004, is a project of the North American Butterfly Association, which planted hundreds of host plants to draw butterflies from all corners of the Valley and northern Mexico. More than 200 species have been identified along the Center’s trails.
Ambling the park-like grounds last week, we saw Queens, Sulphers, Whites, Swallowtails, Zebra Longwings, unusual hairstreaks and brush foots. We had the place to ourselves, and enjoyed the solitude in spite of a muggy heat. Tip: be sure to bring your own snacks and drinks as the Butterfly Center offers no refreshments. According to office manager Flora Vela, the Center had contracted with a restaurant to open a cafe on the premises earlier in its history, but the deal fell through.
Next stop: the World Birding Center ecotourism headquarters, built by San Antonio’s AIA Firm of the Year, Lake|Flato Architects. The award-winning building anchors nine birding destinations that dot the Valley and draw thousands of ecotourists each winter. Unfortunately our trip here was cut short by another downpour. A lovely Black Witch Moth kept us company under the eaves of the magnificent galvanized metal quonset-hut style patio. As a drumbeat of raindrops pounded on the tin roof, we were able to observe the rainwater collection system in action. It felt like the tropics.
At the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, some of the wetlands were dry, but those back-to-back thunderstorms created a steamy, fertile backdrop for a hike. We hoped to spot the Valley’s signature Green Jay, and helpful attendants at the front desk offered to spread birdseed in the feeding area to increase our chances.
No luck, but Kiskadees, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, and other flying creatures kept our walk interesting and the screaming cicada chorus and tropical bird sounds provided an apt soundtrack as we traversed the Canopy Walk and climbed the Tree Tower.
An off-season visit has the advantage of no crowds, but we’re already planning our high season return.Like what you’re reading? Follow butterfly and native plant news at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. Sign up for email delivery in the righthand navigation bar of this page, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter, @monikam. You can also read our stuff on the Rivard Report.
Butterfly listservs were all aflutter this week with news of butterflies inundating South Texas. The American Snout butterfly, Libytheana carinenta, arrived en masse in Brownsville and McAllen this week, firing up Facebook, Twitter and email lists with tales of snout butterfly overload. “American snout butterflies swarm into the Valley,” reported the Brownsville Herald this morning.
“Clouds of those butterflies,” Carina A. Wyant Brunson posted on Facebook from McAllen, Texas. “It’s hard to walk without bumping into one.”
Dalia R. Salinas of Brownsville relayed that she was sitting outside with her granddaughter “when all of a sudden a swarm of butterflies flew right in front of us. It was amazing, and to see my granddaughter’s face light with amazement was so delightful.”
We had an American snout outbreak in San Antonio in the summer of 2006. The migrating masses clogged car grills, gummed up windshields, and massed on local asters, dogwood, goldenrod and anything else bearing nectar. There’s a good chance they’re coming our way again soon.
The mottled grey insects disguise themselves as dead leaves when their wings are closed. In an open-winged pose, they flaunt orange, black and white accents. They lay their eggs on hackberry trees, a drought-tolerant native considered a trash shrub by some. But the hackberry is actually a fantastic wildlife plant. Its leaves provide food for
Snout caterpillars and its berries offer important winter sustenance for birds. The large numbers of migrating Snout butterflies can completely defoliate a hackberry tree, but “It’s nothing to worry about,” said Michael Nentwich, Forester for the City of San Antonio. “The trees will recover. These are seasonal things that happen.”
This year’s weather pattern has lent itself to a butterfly boom, as we’ve written before. And with temperatures rising earlier in the year, it makes sense the Snouts are arriving in June, rather than August, as they did last time.
In the annals of American Snout butterfly migrations, 1921 ranks as a most remarkable year.
After a world record downpour in Central Texas on September 9-10, 1921, when 36.4 inches of rain fell in an 18-hour period, a Snout butterfly breakout resulted a few weeks later. “An estimated 25 million per minute southeasterly-bound snout butterflies passed over a 250 mile front from San Marcos to the Rio Grande River,” according to Austin entomologist Mike Quinn’s website Texas Entomology, a trusted and entertaining source for Texas insect news and info. Scientists noted at the time that the butterflies’ flight “lasted 18 days and may have involved more that 6 billion butterflies.”
Wow. So no complaining if a few of the migrating insects get hung up in your car grill. And remember to brake for the butterflies.