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.
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 Monarchwatch.org, 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.[wpvideo KbyUheFI]
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.
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.