Thursday, July 29, 2010

Monarchs in Young, AZ

I was surprised to hear monarch butterflies were in Young. It was early July when Ken Furtado saw his first monarch at Q Ranch, nestled in the hills at the end of a long dirt road drive, just outside of  Young. So Bob and I just had to see this new find and explore their habitat, favored milkweed, and nectar. This is the breeding season for monarchs, so if we were lucky we might find monarch caterpillars, too.

Ken took these photos of a female monarch nectaring on False Mesquite, Calliandra humilis, on Saturday morning around 8:30 a.m. The monarch looks like it is in very good condition with rich color and just a tiny hole in its left wing. If you look closely, you can see its long proboscis deep in the flower, savoring its rich energy supply. Ken also saw an occasional monarch feeding on Silverleaf Nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium. While the monarchs in Young are obviously quite comfortable finding these flowers as nectar sources, we have not heard of these used by monarchs in Arizona before.

This is a close-up view of  False Mesquite, Calliandra humilis, a member of the pea family. A small plant just near two inches tall that tends to hug the ground, it can spread to eight inches. The plant often grows in grassy fields as well as dry outcroppings. Yet monarchs and other butterflies have no problem burrowing through the blades of grass to reach its nectar.

Asclepias subverticillata, Horsetail or Poison Milkweed, was just starting to bloom. Soon the fields will sparkle with white flowers making the patches easier to find.

 We found small thickets of Asclepias subverticillata hidden in the grasses around Q Ranch and nearby hills. We didn't see any eggs or caterpillars, but maybe we will soon. Both monarch and queen butterflies use milkweed as a host plant.

Nearby there were fields of Prickle Poppies sheltering hidden treasures of Asclepias subverticillata. Earlier in the Spring cattle grazed this meadow.

 We also found alfalfa nestled in the milkweed patches side by side. The wide variety of local butterflies in the area often enjoyed its nectar.

Many butterflies savor milkweed's rich energy. We found about ten queens, most in fresh and new condition.
A Gray Hairstreak feeding on Horsetail Milkweed.

Two Juniper Hairstreaks ravishing the milkweed's rich nectar.

The colorful Variegated Fritillary stops to refuel.

We did find huge ant hills here and there. Ants devour monarch and queen eggs. 

You never know what you will find while exploring! At first I thought we found a plastic bag, violating the pristine rolling meadows. On closer look we found a snake skin shed as this desert dweller was returning home.

A special thank you to Jonathan Rogers, owner of Q Ranch, and Ken Furtado for their warm hospitality, great food and the generous gift of their time. Q Ranch abounds with archaelogical treasures, Arizona history, and has a wealth of birds, butterflies, lizards - nature at her finest! While the number of monarchs who visit each year is not great, they do return every summer. Plans are in the making for a Nature and Monarch tagging weekend at this remote location next year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In the Heat of Summer a Look to the Fall Migration

Monsoon rains signal the monarch migration is just around the corner. What can we expect this year - and how can we create a refreshing stop for monarchs on their journey through the Arizona desert? Recently Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch shared his observations of the monarch population in their summer breeding grounds and his estimate for the Fall migration that begins in Canada around August 15.  Dr. Chip Taylor's blog. Monarchs numbers are thriving in the Eastern Dakotas through Michigan and the migration in these areas could exceed average. The news from the Northeastern United States is not as optimistic with rain and temperatures stunting the monarch life cycle. It appears the overall population of monarch butterflies is making a modest recovery from its record decline. But the numbers are still lower than average.

Last year the monarch migration shifted slightly to the West and we did see many monarchs throughout Arizona. The question remains if more monarchs were here than usual, or if more people were looking and reporting monarchs, especially in the Phoenix area. This year's monarch population is lower, so observations and reporting become crucial.

What can YOU do? Plant milkweed! Monarchs need milkweed as their host plant. Its not unusual for the front runners of the migration that arrive in early September to lay eggs on Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata), Narrowleaf or Arizona Milkweed (Asclepias angustifolia) and the non-native Tropical Milkweed or Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica) in the Phoenix area. The summer rains refresh milkweeds with abundant new growth and flowers that monarchs crave.

Migrating monarchs also need rich nectar sources to fuel their long journey. The summer monsoon rains frame a perfect time to plant sunflowers and zinnias. Plant now and our summer heat plus rains will rush them to maturity just in time for the migration.

While monarchs love all zinnias, they especially favor the single ones if you can find them.


If you are tired of the heat and would like to help tag and monitor monarch butterflies, join the wildlife extravaganza planned in Springerville next weekend, July 31-August 1st. Saturday is the Arizona Game & Fish "High Country Hummer Festival" at Sipe Wildlife Area, a fun morning of catching and banding migrating Hummingbirds. If you are lucky your hand may be a hummer's launchpad back into the migration! On Sunday morning we meet at 8:30 at Wenima Wildlife Area to learn about breeding monarchs in Arizona and their migration. Then we'll try our hand at catching and tagging them so we can trace their movements. Maybe YOU will place the lucky blue tag on the monarch that travels to a new place we've never found monarchs before! Hotels are scarce in the Springerville-Eager area with these events, so make your reservation today.

You can find more information about tagging events on the Southwest Monarch Study Facebook page, scroll down to the "Events" column on the lower left. (You do not need to have a Facebook account to access this page.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monarch Butterflies & Disease

A fresh and healthy monarch is a beautiful treasure! But the life of a monarch butterfly isn't without its challenges. Predators abound as well as diseases. The most well known disease is Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, (O.e). It infects both monarch and queen butterflies.

O.e. is a protozoan parasite that must live in its host, the monarch or queen butterfly, to grow and multiply. The life cycle of O.e. mirrors that of the monarch. Spores are spread by an infected female monarch butterfly when she lays eggs and on the surrounding milkweed leaves. When the tiny caterpillar emerges it will eat its egg-sac then the nearby milkweed leaf, ingesting the spores. The dormant spores become activated in the caterpillars digestive tract. Once infected, butterflies do not recover. O.e. can cause smaller size, weak or severely deformed wing development and the inability to fully emerge from their chrysalis.

You can easily test a monarch butterfly for O.e. by swiping its abdomen with clear plastic tape, placing it on white index card, and examining it with a microscope. O.e. spores, when present, resemble small brown or black footballs. You can see photos of O.e. spores present with normal butterfly scales at this link:
What is O.e.?

How many monarch butterflies are infect with O.e.? Studies by Dr. Sonia Altizer and her staff at the University of Georgia show the disease appears to be linked to how far monarch butterflies fly during their migration. Here is the rate of heavily infected monarch butterflies by population:
  • Eastern monarchs (East of the Rocky Mountains): 8%
  • Western monarchs (West of the Rocky Mountains): 30%
  • Year round monarchs (South Florida)  70%
What about O.e. in Arizona? We know from the Southwest Monarch Study that monarch butterflies here migrate to both Mexico and California. A few even spend the winter in the Phoenix area. Last January Bob and I tested two monarch butterflies nectaring near the Salt River by the small overwintering site at Rio Salado and they were both negative. In February I tested three monarchs at Desert Botanical Garden that also overwintered in the area and they also were negative. The numbers are too small to be significant, but they are hopeful. The test was confirmed by David Marriott of the Monarch Program in California.

Recently we tested the frail, weathered female monarch we spotted and tagged (325U) at Wenima Wildlife Area in Springerville, AZ on June 20. She also was negative for O.e. This is especially interesting since we don't know how she entered the state - was she flying north through Arizona, or did she come in from New Mexico? In the microphotograph on the right you can see normal butterfly scales only. Again, these numbers are too small to give a full picture, but they are a beginning piece of the puzzle to better understand monarch butterflies in Arizona.

MonarchHealth is looking for more citizen-scientists to test monarch butterflies for O.e. in Arizona and report their findings for further analysis. MonarchHealth provides a kit with detailed directions to sample 30 monarchs this season. To participate or for more information contact:

You can watch this video link to see how you can test monarch butterflies for O.e.:
Live Monarch O.e. testing

Monday, July 5, 2010

Monarchs Arrive in Arivaca -- and a Surprise!

We just couldn't wait. After the surprising find of monarch butterflies in Springerville in mid-June, we kept wondering, did they arrive early at Arivaca Cienega nestled near the Mexican border, too? Laura and I hopped in the car early Friday morning to find out.

Monarch butterflies in Arizona usually are spotted first in the Southern cienegas. So we drove down, even though we knew the day would slam us with searing temperatures.

As we gathered our monitoring gear in the parking lot, a queen butterfly fluttered by in greeting. The boardwalk was lined with just a few flowers here and there, but butterflies of different varieties still found them.

The fields looked prolific, the grasses knee high, and abundant, rich Asclepias subverticillata, Horsetail Milkweed, was buried in hidden thickets. This monarch favorite was less advanced than the ones we noticed at Springerville. Less than 1/8 had flower buds, most were lush green and growing, a foot to 18 inches high. In a few more weeks it will become a rolling carpet of white flowers with male monarchs patrolling the pockets. But for today, the meadows looked surprisingly empty.

Laura and I walked the fields, hoping for a glimpse of royalty. We spotted several queens, but it wasn't until we hit the East fence boundary that we saw the bright orange and familiar glide in a nearby Asclepias subverticillata patch. Her scooping flight signalled egg-laying, so we watched her find just the right milkweed to lay her egg. Then she flew up and waltzed to the Southern meadow and out of sight.

We walked the fields searching known milkweed patches and explored Willow trees where monarchs and queens love to roost. While we spotted over 15 queens, we never saw another monarch. The temperatures rose to the upper 90's and the humidity was high, but that didn't seem to bother the queens. So, officially we spotted one female monarch in very good condition and color laying eggs on Asclepias subverticillata in the East-centeral edge of the meadow on Friday. Surprisingly, no males patrolling milkweed were seen anywhere.

 Nectar sources were in short supply. We found a few Bidens beginning to open here and there and they were always covered with hungry butterflies. A few elderberries were in bloom, but it didn't seem the butterflies were interested.

One lone Smartweed was blooming. Butterflies were abundant, but nectar limited. Soon that will change.

On Saturday, Bob and I headed up to the Rim country for cool temperatures and 4th of July fairs. We stopped in Pine for a bit and stumbled on this cute house off a main local road.

Knowing how hot it was back home in Phoenix, Bob and I thought we'd pull off a forest road, pull out our chairs and sit in the forest for a while. When we stopped our car, I saw some yellow flowers in the distance and thought it would be the perfect rest spot. Surprise - the yellow flowers were Asclepias tuberosa, also knows as Butterflyweed, in bloom! We found over 35 plants in the area, most just starting to flower, some just a small stem beginning to grow.

Curious, I took our dog for a walk in nearby meadows looking for the tell-tale yellow flowers. I didn't find any more nearby, but what I did find was simply amazing! In a sunny, narrow meadow stood a stand of Asclepias englemanniana, Englemann's Milkweed. I've been looking for this milkweed for the past year, and here were 12 plants right in front of me. Most had thick buds, none in bloom yet. Soon. Monarch butterflies use both Asclepias tuberosa and Asclepias englemanniana as host plants in Arizona.

A simply great weekend!