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!
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.
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.