Showing posts with label monarch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label monarch. Show all posts

Friday, September 04, 2020

A Monarch Butterfly Status Report

Around mid-summer, I begin wondering how the monarchs are doing. Last summer, in 2019, they were more numerous than usual in the Princeton area, and as I googled for news of their numbers in 2020, it was with the expectation that their population was on the upswing. Surprisingly, their overwintering numbers in the mountains west of Mexico City were down dramatically. The count comes out in March, just before they begin their journey north, and was down by half compared to the winter of 2018/19. 

The low count this past winter was due in part to less than favorable migration weather last fall. Warm weather in the north delayed migration southward, and a drought in Texas left little nectar for the monarchs as they funneled through Texas on their way to Mexico. From Princeton, that flight is about 2500 miles, powered by the liquid sunlight of nectar.

This summer, I saw one every few days. Here's a male visiting Joe Pye Weed in our backyard. 

You can tell it's a male by those two spots on the back wings. 

The monarch has a delicate look, but a powerful flight. A single beating of the wings sends it rocketing forward at unexpected speed. 

One of summer's finest moments can be spent watching a monarch navigate a garden. In our backyard, masses of variously sized wildflowers form a kind of mountain range with peaks and valleys that the monarch masterfully navigates just above. Turning on a dime, coasting, darting this way and that, the monarch's flight can seem like whimsy, or an incredibly efficient and complete survey of a garden. 

Sometimes a monarch visits every section of our garden without landing, then heads off. What was it looking for? A mate? A milkweed to lay eggs on? Clearly not nectar that other more predictable insects are busy feasting upon. Oftentimes, the monarch's motivations are an enigma.

One time this summer, I witnessed a monarch whose intent was very clear. In the "Veblen Circle" of wildflowers at the botanical garden we're creating next to the parking lot at Herrontown Woods, there's a mix of purple and common milkweeds in sufficient numbers to satisfy a monarch caterpillar's voracious appetite. Yet until this summer, I had never seen a female monarch land on one.

August 7, however, a monarch came along and perched on the side of a leaf, then bent its abdomen around and under to lay an egg on the underside. All I had was an iPhone to record the moment, and didn't dare get close enough for a good photo, lest the monarch be distracted from its mission.

Though we can witness, appreciate, and take small steps to support any monarchs that come along, our capacity to influence their destiny is limited. As Monarch Watch Director Chip Taylor explains on his highly detailed blog, "High numbers in the northeast do not translate to high overwintering numbers." In other words, we can support monarchs by planting milkweed and other wildflowers, but their fate is largely being determined by weather and land management playing out elsewhere.

A 2019 New Yorker article with a less than auspicious title, "The Vanishing Flights of the Monarch Butterfly," quotes Chip Taylor describing how a banner year in 2018 was largely due to the favorable weather the monarchs experienced at various stages in their migration. With humanity still on its climate-radicalizing fossil fuel treadmill, and massive misuse of herbicides killing milkweed in farm country, the cards are increasingly stacked against monarchs getting lucky with the weather. The "inland hurricane" that swept through Iowa in August seemed an example of the increasing extremes the monarchs face.

Still, there is the delicate, improbable power of their flight, and the promise of an egg. Nature is incredibly resilient if given a chance. There are raingardens to plant and milkweed to propagate. Common and purple milkweeds spread underground, making it easy to dig one up and start a new planting that will soon expand on its own. So much tears at the foundations of our world. Let the odds be what they may, to care and to act defines who we are. 

The best source I've found thus far for updates on monarch status, and potential for participating in a larger effort, is the Journey North website:

Monday, August 13, 2018

Monarchs Bring Dance, Delight and Larger Meanings to a Backyard

These are the glory days for monarch watching, with the backyard packed with flowers--a veritable feast that we are grateful to provide.

Lovely as it is, the levitated landscape of pinks and yellows, reds and whites, gains a deeper meaning when a monarch arrives to animate the garden with its fanciful, danciful flight. Brilliance of color is matched by brilliance of movement, with glides and hairpin turns, sudden dips or dartings upward, gracing a garden's contours as if its flight were a form of affection. With an uncanny mix of power and whimsy, the monarch looks to know what it's looking for, as it approaches then darts away or doubles back, each minute of its flight a hundred instant decisions. What makes it land on one flower after approaching and rejecting so many others, seemingly the same, is a mystery.

This morning we saw four at once, two of which flew together, then collapsed upon the carport roof, there to mate for a minute while I ran to grab my camera. The one in front looks to be the female, with thicker veins and no little black spot on the wing.

This one here is a male, judging from the less prominent veins,

and those little black spots on either side of its abdomen.

The monarchs were especially drawn to the joe-pye-weed that with the summer's heat and rain have grown to ten feet high, like a mountain range of flowers.

Sometimes, when a monarch flew and flew around the garden, looking, looking, I thought it might be searching not for nectar but for a milkweed plant to lay its eggs on. Our swamp milkweed disappeared some years back, and this year my wife bought this kind, with orange and yellow flowers. Turns out to be tropical milkweed, native to Mexico but not here. It's pretty, easy for nurseries to grow, and rebounds quickly if ravenous monarch larva consume its leaves. It's also said to have some aspects, given the nature of its more tropical growth, that would make our northern native species of milkweed a better option,

like this butterflyweed that is flourishing in a neighbor's garden.

Most of Princeton's milkweed is common milkweed, which is less ornamental, spreads underground, and can be found in fields, along roadsides, and in this case growing at the nearby Princeton High School ecolab wetland. Other species include purple milkweed, a few of which grow at Herrontown Woods, and green milkweed, found years back in the meadows at Tusculum.

The dominant ideology of our day has deprived us of the satisfaction of contributing to something beyond ourselves. I grow more garden and less lawn because I love native plants, but the monarchs connect the garden to something much larger. Each March, starting out from their wintering home on just a few acres in the mountain forests of Mexico, the monarchs stretch themselves across all of eastern North America, ambassadors of beauty, as if to tell us that all our small efforts, spread across the land, are additive in and to nature, that we can contribute to something profound. May the monarch teach us how to find that satisfaction in other aspects of our lives as well.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Monarch Butterfly Populations Down

Last year, monarch butterflies numbers were up in the Princeton area compared to previous years, but those heartening visits in our gardens and along roadsides did not translate into increased numbers at their overwintering grounds in Mexico.

The announcement of an official count was delayed this year for some reason. Numbers for the western population of monarchs, overwintering in pine and eucalyptus groves in southern California, came out a month earlier, in early February, and were down considerably. Finally, early this month, the announcement came that numbers of eastern monarchs have declined again. They've been lower the past two years, after small increases the two years prior, with 2014 having marked an all-time low. Over the past several decades, the overall trend has been down, with overwintering monarchs filling 44 acres of forest in Mexico in 1997, and only 6 acres this year.

So many factors affect the survival of monarchs. Illegal logging, windstorms, and coldsnaps can affect their overwintering success. This past fall's migration was affected by the series of tropical storms and the unusually warm weather that delayed the monarchs' flight south. Increased use of herbicides for farming genetically engineered crops has decimated the milkweed that monarchs need to reproduce. And then there's the looming hammer of climate change, as political and economic forces keep us trapped in dependency on fossil fuels. We see, in car commercials, town streets and new developments an ever expanding arsenal of exhaust pipes and chimneys aimed at the heart of nature.

There's some good news to mention. Gendarmes (armed police) have reportedly greatly reduced illegal logging in the monarchs' overwintering forests this past year. And people are showing an interest in planting and caring for milkweed. The stunning thing, which for the most part settles in the back of our minds, unthinkable but inextricable, is that the future remains optional.

While the world continues on its path of self-destruction, we can still find pleasure and joy in working with nature, and wonder why so much of humanity just "doesn't get it." This year, I'll be helping create a large native wildflower garden near the parking lot at Herrontown Woods. Except for a few spots like Tusculum, Princeton's open space is mostly forested, and so offers few flowers in summer and fall to sustain pollinating insects like the monarch. But the combination of windfall from storms and the clearing of invasive woody plants has created a clearing at Herrontown Woods that we can now plant. The aim is to replicate my backyard native garden in a publicly accessible space and on a larger scale, with signage so that people can become acquainted with Princeton's native flora. Much of my backyard garden is in turn modeled on the native flora to be found along the canal next to Princeton's Carnegie Lake. Anyone interested in helping the Friends of Herrontown Woods with this project can contact me through this website.

There's also a citizens' science initiative at this link, where you can provide data on monarch sites to a national survey.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Coneflower Attracts Monarch and Much More

Typically, my random butterfly sightings don't go much beyond a tiger swallowtail fluttering in the distance. But on July 19, the purple coneflowers in the frontyard raingarden drew a diverse crowd, including this beautiful monarch. This sighting added to a few sightings elsewhere to suggest that monarchs are rebounding from a couple very tough years in which the overwintering area they occupied in the mountains of Mexico dropped to only a few acres. The blog at confirms that they are having a comparatively good year. The magnificent monarch with its matchless migration will always be vulnerable, particularly given the destabilizing effects of climate change, the loss of milkweed in farm fields now that Roundup-Ready corn and soybeans allow elimination of weeds, and the ongoing threats to the evergreen forests the monarchs congregate in every winter. There's a lot more work to do to make their population more resilient, but it's heartening to see them on the upswing.

A black tiger swallowtail in particularly good condition.

This looks to be a variegated fritillary,

with a different pattern on the underside.

A skipper,

a bumblebee, of which there are many species.

It was an oak in the backyard that attracted this moth, possibly a tulip tree beauty moth.

A few days later, we were back to the tiger swallowtail.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Searching for Monarchs in Princeton

The monarch butterfly, as most people know, is in trouble, due in part to a radical decimation of milkweed on more than one hundred million acres of farmland in the U.S. in recent years. Thus far this summer, I had seen a grand total of two monarchs, one having visited the raingarden in my front yard on Harrison Street. Another raingarden on Harrison Street, at the Spruce Circle senior housing, had just been bulldozed while in full flower.

With that traumatic step backwards in mind, I set out yesterday on my bike to check out a few spots elsewhere in Princeton. If a monarch were to travel around town at about the speed of a bike, wings warmed by the sun after a recent rain, would it find any prospective mates?

First stop was the meadow at the corner of Mountain Ave and the Great Road. The Joe-Pye-Weed was blooming as it does every year, but no monarchs to be seen.

Then a ride up the Great Road to Farmview Fields, where I had hooked the town up with Partners for Fish and Wildlife--a federal agency--to plant a meadow of warm-season native grasses in a stormwater detention basin that had previously been mowed as turf. More habitat, less mowing. Everyone was happy. I had added some native wildflowers, and others had seeded in. When I checked last year it was doing great. Yesterday, however, I was surprised to find the grasses stunted and the wildflowers gone. It hadn't been bulldozed, but something's wrong with the mowing regime, which should be just once a year during the dormant season.

Again, there's a sign that should signal that this is a special area, requiring a different management.

The heavy equipment had left some patches of ground scarred and bare. Mowing crews are so used to mowing these detention basins elsewhere that they may have started regularly mowing this one, out of habit. I had a job mowing a golf course one summer. It's not the kind of work that encourages thinking outside the box.

An unmowed area nearby showed what the basin should have looked like, with the "turkey feet" of big bluestem rising to the sky.

There was a swallowtail butterfly sampling the basin's meagre offerings, but still no monarchs.

Back down the Great Road to the opening in the fence, near Pretty Brook Rd, to take the boardwalk across the bottom of Coventry Farm over to Mountain Lakes. Lots of common milkweed in the field, but no signs of their being munched on by monarch caterpillars.

Finally, along the boardwalk near a big wet meadow of ironweed (the hydrologic conditions a raingarden imitates), I saw a lone monarch, flying about but not landing. As the monarch numbers have dwindled since the 1990's, the question arises, how do they find each other? They start each year in a small enclave in the mountains of Mexico, then spread out across vast areas of the U.S. and Canada. This migration, with one generation succeeding another as they move northward, is predicated on having sufficient numbers for individuals to find each other and mate. The lone monarch and the uneaten milkweeds offered little reason for optimism.

At Mountain Lakes House, a popular place for weddings and other gatherings, and also home base for Friends of Princeton Open Space, the raingarden I designed was prospering.

Lots of color there,

and in another rain garden in the driveway, but no monarchs to be seen.

There was still one spot to look, though, in the fields of Tusculum, preserved by Friends of Princeton Open Space and others, and packed with milkweed. To get there meant maneuvering through the now tattered evergreen forest of Community Park North. High winds in recent years have knocked down most of the pines and spruce, which really aren't natural to this area but had provided a deep forest feel that was enjoyable to walk through. Now, fallen trees have opened up the canopy, energizing an understory of invasive stiltgrass and honeysuckle.

Some trails are lined by young ash trees that will likely be attacked by the emerald ash borer when it reaches Princeton. This strangest of woods was not feeding optimism either.

The fields of Tusculum also looked different than in past years, perhaps again due to a mowing regime that might not be the best for wildlife habitat. Mountain mint, once a common wildflower there, was nowhere to be seen. And no monarchs.

But then, near Cherry Hill Road, next to a purple patch of tick trefoil and Indian grass,

monarchs, a pair, mating!

They flew over into the meadow to continue. Part naturalist, part voyeur, I lingered, wishing to document how long such pivotal acts take. It became clear that this was no brief rendezvous, so I moved on,

to the next field over, where common milkweed sprawled over more than an acre.  And there, another monarch, showing off its brilliant, speedy flight, ducking in and out among the milkweeds, as if in a hurry yet undecided as to where to land. It did land a few times, briefly, perhaps to lay an egg? I checked the undersides of leaves, but it was hard to tell from a distance where it had landed.

I biked home more hopeful than two hours prior. Those monarchs were starting the last generation of the year, the one that will fly all the way back to Mexico. On the way back, I passed the Princeton High School's detention basin just north of the performing arts center on Walnut Street. Now wouldn't that be a fine gesture, an act of generosity and belief in the future, if the school were to turn that empty, unused basin into a monarch meadow.