Monday, August 30, 2010

Get ready for monarchs!

Female Monarch

In the desert summer lasts forever! What are signs of Fall? In Northern climates, leaves begin to change colors. Here in the desert, the large and elegant regal orange monarch butterflies appear on their Fall migration!

Male Monarch
Monarch butterflies are the only insect with a long range and impressive annual migration. Tropical in nature, they can only survive in temperatures above freezing. During the summer months monarchs are in their breeding grounds. East of the Rockies monarchs breed in the Northern tier of the United States and Southern Canada. West of the Rockies the breeding grounds are not as well known. We do know that we have several breeding hot spots in Arizona in Springerville, Arivaca Cienega, Canelo, St. David Cienega and likely more. Where these monarchs moved from is not currently known.

2009 Southwest Monarch Study "Recent Sightings"
So, it's time to get ready for the monarchs in Phoenix! Last year they were first spotted at South Mountain on September 10th and the Desert Botanical Garden the next day. What triggered their arrival? Likely two things. First, the peak migration time for the Phoenix area is predicted as the time interval from September 29 through October 11th. Perhaps the best way to look at the migration is a marathon race in the Olympics. When the start signal flares, a few runners surge ahead, then there is the main body of runners, and finally the stragglers. Monarchs seem to have similar movements. The early leaders of the pack can arrive up to thirty days before the time of the peak migration. In the Phoenix area we have a limiting factor - our temperatures. 104 in laboratory studies is a critical temperature when monarch mortality increases. By 108 there is widespread mortality. Last year temperatures cooled around the fifth of September. The monsoons receded and nightime temperatures eased to the low 70's, offering a relief to balance the higher daytime heating. The surge in monarch sightings last year occurred during the week ending September 15th when migrating monarchs began to appear in addition to presence of breeding monarchs around the state. You can also note the second increase of monarchs appeared during the anticipated time of peak migration.

Lantana is a butterfly favorite!
How to get your yard ready so monarch will visit? If you haven't already, lightly fertilize monarch favorite exotic (versus native) nectar plants like lantana, zinnia or Tropical Milkweed. A light dose of Bone Meal or a half strength solution of a liquid fertilizer watered in well will help revive heat ravaged plants. Keep sensitive to high daytime temperatures to avoid burning your plant. Gently trim any straggly growth to encourage new leaves. Again, less is more when the temperatures are high, but light trimming is beneficial to creating new blooms.Take care when you gently trim Tropical Milkweed - queen butterflies are busy laying eggs and you don't want to lose the offspring of these family members of the monarchs.

Female monarch butterfly on marigolds
Taking a few moments now to water deeply, lightly pruning and gently fertilizing can help the flowers monarch butterflies love surge with new growth and lush flowers to welcome these jewels of the butterfly world when they swoop in to our desert gardens.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monarch Tagging in Springerville

Sunflowers were everywhere you looked!
Bob and I spent five days in the White Mountains last week. The monsoon rains are very abundant this year and some areas even had local flooding.  The entire region is lush and green with roadsides and meadows a blanket of yellow sunflowers, goldenrod and twinkling Asclepias subverticillata urging monarchs to visit. Soon the "leaders of the pack" of the Fall migration will find a feast to fuel their journey through the state.

We visited Wenima Wildlife Area north of Springerville twice, once to recon the area then finally for a monarch tagging event on Saturday. While we usually like to wait until the migratory generation ecloses, we also tag monarchs now to monitor their movements around the state.

We found two faded females laying eggs, one in the field just north of the parking area and another in the north meadow. In general monarchs were scarce, unlike the abundant numbers spotted just a year ago. Bob and I were hoping this was just a fluke on Thursday, but had the same experience on Saturday when Roger Baker drove up from Phoenix and joined Dee and Rich Tuminello from Eager for a monarch tagging event we led for the Southwest Monarch Study. Dee and Rich told us about the heavy rains, even hail, in the entire region, much more intense than previous years. The grasshopper population was incredible, almost like a plague. Ants, a known monarch egg predator, were everywhere.

Roger Baker searching the meadows.
The meadows were lush and tall from the recent rains but we searched and searched all morning.

While the number of monarchs were low, Roger, Dee and Rich had keen eyes and we netted a few monarchs to tag. Most were very tattered and faded, likely from the intense weather they experienced.
We noted the monarch's condition, gender,time of day, weather conditions, then placed a small blue Southwest Monarch Study and the discal cell of their wing.

We found this damaged monarch patrolling a small milkweed patch near the parking area. Most of his wing was missing, yet he was driving off any queen or male monarch that tried to approach "his" milkweed and eagerly looked for a mate despite his ragged condition.

Gail, Dee & Rich Tuminello, and Roger Baker
We may not have found as many monarch butterflies as we had hoped to tag, but we had a grand time anyway! The weather and the abundant flowers were just perfect and we all learned a lot about the monarch migration.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Monarchs are waiting in the upper elevations of AZ

Since early August monarchs were reported in Flagstaff, Springerville, Silver Creek Fish Hatchery near Show Low, Young, Sipe White Mountain Wildlife Area, Arivaca Cienega, Sharpe Springs, Canelo Marsh, Bog's Hole - the higher and cooler elevations around Arizona. The numbers of monarchs seem smaller than a year ago, but they are present none-the-less, especially in locations with milkweed in bloom.

Threatening skies didn't keep the monarchs away
Female laying eggs
On the weekend of August 1st the skies were cloudy, but monarchs were still searching for nectar and milkweed to lay their eggs at Wenima Wildlife area near Springerville. We were surprised to see monarchs out when the skies were so threatening. Eight people joined the tagging event on Sunday morning to learn about monarchs and wait until the sun poked through drawing monarchs to sun and nectar. We only tagged three together but had a lot of fun learning the differences between males and females and other monarch traits and habits. The numbers of monarchs were low in the breeding community, we saw perhaps 10 or so. But the rainy weather and threatening weather could easily put a lid on their activity. On the way back to our cars we were lucky to see this female laying eggs on milkweed nearby.

A lone monarch danced through the soggy milkweed patches
On the way home Bob and I stopped at Silver Creek Fish Hatchery. Last year we spotted monarchs in a patch of goldenrods and Asclepias subverticillata milkweed across the tiny creek. But the heavy rains created massive flooding drawing water up to the parking lot. We drove to a nearby bridge and saw a lone male monarch patrolling the soggy milkweed.

After adding a tag she was ready to go!
On Friday, August 6, Bob, Scott and I headed down to Arivaca Cienega near the Mexican border. A month earlier one female monarch was spotted laying eggs on milkweed. We were hoping to see more today. Once again rain was in the area, but the sun peaked through soon after we arrived. Once again the number of monarchs were limited: We tagged two females. When one was released she was immediately ambushed by a male who eventually helicoptered up to a nearby willow tree. We spotted about eight monarchs in the massive milkweed fields.

Sunflowers were everywhere!
On Friday, August 13, Laura Miller and I drove up to Flagstaff to get a break from the heat and to see if we could find any monarchs. Flagstaff is an interesting place. There are rolling fields of sunflowers everywhere and patches of white flowerd Asclepias subverticillata woven through the yellow carpet. Yet monarchs are rarely reported. Today we visited Buffalo Park and Laura's keen eye spotted a monarch cruising above the flowers. We watch the monarch for close to 15 minutes flying huge circles above the milkweed and under the pine tree branches. Finally he went on his way. We couldn't get close enough to identify gender, but my guess is a male based on his patrolling behavior.

Monarch tagging events continue in the high country this upcoming Saturday, August 21, at 8:30 a.m. at Wenima Wildlife Area just outside of Springerville. Join in the fun of tagging monarch butterflies in the cool, refreshing weather of the higher elevations of Arizona.