Friday, June 25, 2010

Monarchs Arrive in Springerville!

Bob saw the smooth glide that gave it away first - a monarch looking for a tree to spend the night around 6 p.m. on Friday. It was one of those moments that takes your breath away as we stared and realized in wonder that monarchs were arriving at Winema Wildlife Area near Springerville far earlier than we expected. We saw her just a minute, but as she waltzed in front of the sun I could see she was threadbare and ragged, I could see right through her wings. She flew high to nearby trees and we climbed the fence and followed for a while as she danced between the branches looking for just the right spot. Then the local mosquitoes discovered us and we left.
Early Saturday morning we returned to Wenima and Bob searched the trees where we last saw her. Instead he saw a monarch speeding north just over the west meadow around 9:30. This was a monarch on a mission, fast, low, determined. About the same time I saw a male monarch flying high in an area we started calling, "Danaus Crossing" just near the path to the south meadow around 9:55. While the monarchs were few, large numbers of queens and mourning cloaks were everywhere.

The challenge to finding monarchs was finding nectar. Everything was rolling green but there were very few flowers. On the road in we saw Asclepias latifolia about 18 inches tall with some starting to bloom. Asclepias subverticillata was about 12 to 18 inches tall, some with buds, most without. In the north meadow we found Aslepias speciosia about 2 to 3 feet tall just starting to bloom. The ground was a carpet of field bindweed and a few dandelions were around, even a very few thistles, but most were not in bloom.

 In late morning we discovered "Danaus Crossing", an area near the South Meadow where queens streamed from nearby willows to nectar on Indian Hemp, Apocynum cannabinum, a member of the Dogbane family. It wasn't unusual to see 6 to 8 queens nectaring at one time with mourning cloaks dancing around them. Around 3 p.m. two male monarchs joined their fun and started to patrol the area driving off the queens and other butterflies trying to nectar. The two males flew high, swooping like a roller coaster now and then, and fast. Their color looked pretty fresh and new. Bob almost caught the two in his net at one time, but they flew high and away.

Early Sunday morning we arrived to see three queens gently swooping up and down the milkweed laying eggs in the south meadow and the meadow near the parking lot. We watched as they found the smallest and freshest Asclepias subverticillata to lay their eggs. We walked through "Danaus crossing" and noticed a weathered, faded, shredded female monarch nectaring on Indian Hemp near the banks of the Little Colorado River. She was an easy catch in her feeble condition. We were a little in awe realizing she was likely the lady monarch who layed eggs that would be the foundation of the summer population at Wenima. We didn't know if we should even tag her, but we did (#325U) in case another female was around to tell them apart. We also tested her for O.e., a disease monarch and queen butterflies can get. After placing her back where we originally found her, she rested on the flower quite a while before flying away. (7:55 a.m., 70 degrees).

It looks like the monarch butterflies are just starting to move into Winema on the Eastern border of Arizona. There are far more queens and mourning cloaks in the area. We can verify for certain two males and one female plus one monarch of unknown gender racing over the meadow. (We don't know how many others were repeat sightings, but the numbers are very small.) Right now Indian Hemp is their only nectar source, but the vast amount of A. subverticillata should beginning blooming in the next few weeks. Hundreds of sunflowers one to two feet tall are all around.

Wondering how far monarchs had moved into Arizona, we stopped at Silver Creek Fish Hatchery outside of Show Low on the way home where we saw monarchs last August. No monarchs this time. Goldenrods were about 2 feet tall with no flowers, Aslepias subverticillata about 18 inches tall with no buds yet and Aslepias Speciosia about 24 to 36 inches tall, some starting to bloom. Earilier on the way up we stopped at Sharpe Creek Campground near Christopher Creek where we found Asclepias asperula in bloom, but no signs of any larval activity or monarchs.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Monarch Population in June

There is a lingering question about the monarch butterfly population. After devastation in the monarch population over the winter, will their numbers rebound? Previously when numbers dwindled in response to storms or other factors, the following year witnessed a huge increase in population. Will this year see the same?

The winter of 2009 witnessed the lowest numbers of monarch butterflies in both Mexico and California. The Spring reports in the Eastern portion of the United States are very favorable. Monarchs found a rich breeding ground in Texas with abundant milkweed for egg-laying and nectar everywhere from frequent winter rains. In fact, monarchs seemed to hunker down in Texas for awhile, raising speculation of their dynamics as everyone watched the sightings soar on Journey North.  Then when winds and temperatures were favorable, monarchs took off on the move leading to a record number of sightings in May all the way up to Canada.  But the question remained: Were there really more monarchs, or were more people aware of their dilemna and looking for them? Only time will tell. We'll hope for the best.

The news about monarchs in the West doesn't appear as hopeful at first glance. Monarch spotters in California are reporting monarch absence rather than presence. Milkweed locations that usually have "evidence" of monarchs - eggs or larvae - are bare, even though the milkweed is abundant and healthy. While some experts advise patience because of the cool spring, the threads of growing concern are in the air. Hopefully more monarch sightings will be reported as the summer season continues.

Weather affects monarchs. Not too hot, not too cold....sounds like the Three Bears, right? When temperatures are lower than normal or more rain than normal, the monarch life cycle takes longer. When it takes more days to grow as a larvae or pupae, the number of generations can be affected. Studies indicate that monarchs larvae and pupae only grow between 52.7 and 91.4 degrees. When it is above or below this threshold growth ceases and waits until the temperatures rise within these parameters to continue. Look at the weather maps for May and you can see that the East had warmer than usual temperatures, while most of the West was cooler.

Lets all hope that as summer progresses more monarch and monarch larvae will be reported in the West and Southwest. No reports of monarchs yet in June in Arizona. Keep looking! By early July monarchs are usually moving into the state. Keep your eyes open!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Queen Butterflies Are Everywhere!

I was surprised to find a queen butterfly caterpillar in my milkweed patch this week. I was up early and thought I'd do my weekly check searching my milkweed plants for any activity. The little caterpillar was nibbling the flowers of Asclepias curassavica, Tropical Milkweed or Bloodflower. This part of the garden was still in the shade of a tall nearby tree and the larva was munching the flowers hungrily near the top. Morning is the best time to look for larvae since they tend to climb to the top of milkweeds until the warm sun encourages them to seek a cooler place lower in the plant and under leaves as the day progresses.

Where are the monarchs? As temperatures climb, monarch butterflies seek cooler climates. Monarchs have a hard time surviving above 104 degrees and 106 is lethal for most. Last weekend it reached 109 in Phoenix, so any monarchs that were around likely left as the heat climbed. We didn't see very many monarchs this Spring. While Spring numbers are usually low, this year there were only a few spotted here or there, even less than normal. Lets hope the breeding season increases their numbers during the summer. Preliminary reports are not encouraging in the West, though. More about that later.

The flowers on Desert Milkweed are lush and full this year from our abundant winter rains! They are a magnet for pollinators of all kinds and queen butterflies are drawn to their nectar as well as a host plant.

The queen butterfly is in the same family as the monarch butterfly. Queens are abundant right now around town! So take the time to enjoy these close relatives of the migrating monarchs that love our desert heat. You can find queens nectaring on flowers or Desert Milkweed - or laying eggs on milkweed, too.

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix

Rio Salado Restoration Habitat, Phoenix

Signal Butte Road and Southern, Mesa

ASU Polytech Campus, Mesa

Sycamore Creek near Sunflower

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rio Salado a Planting Success!

If you enjoy walking around the peaceful paths of Rio Salado  look for butterflies in the air! Seven "friends of the monarchs" planted 20 Narrowleaf or Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia, along the lower channel of the creek near the waterfall on May 8th. The day was warm,  but lucky for us Narrowleaf Milkweed grows best in the shade. We worked fast! All twenty holes were dug (some times with a pick!) and planted in two hours - quick enough to miss the upper 90 degree temperatures forecast for the day.

While we were working, hikers and visitors to the restoration habitat stopped by to watch. A tour group from Israel was planning a riparian park in their home town using reclaimed water. They came by to see what a restoration area could look like and dream for the future. They were visiting both Phoenix and San Antonio searching for ideas. Everyone was thrilled by the wealth of wildlife in the area - birds of every kind, lizards, rabbits....and, of course, the monarch butterfly habitat!

Rio Salado looked more like Winter than Spring with cotton from nearby Cottonwood trees thickly wrapping and hanging from every available tree branch. It gave an eerie look to the area, almost looking like snow - an interesting tension to the warm temperatures of the day. We planted the milkweed close to the creek so they could absorb water easily to thrive in the hidden recesses of the canopy. The white flowers were refreshing in an area lush with green growth and by the time we were leaving bees were busy doing their work.

Afterwards Ranger Rebecca thanked everyone for their efforts! During the summer months we'll likely see Queen butterflies laying eggs on the Desert and Narrowleaf milkweed until their cousins, the Monarch butterflies, return in the Fall.