Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monarchs arrive in Chandler!

Monarch butterflies aren't fond of the heat. Or, so they say. Last weekend we sizzled with record breaking high temps in the Phoenix area of 109, 111 and 106. Tuesday "chilled" into the low 100's. Around 1:30 I was packing my computer for an overnight trip to Southeast Arizona for a presentation at the Southeast Butterfly Association and a monarch tagging trip with the docents at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. I glanced up to looked out the window  and thought I was seeing things. Butterflies were busily hopping from flower to flower and there were several queens visiting the milkweed. But what grabbed my eye, though, was the jewel of the butterfly world, my first monarch of the season!

Well, so much for running out the door. I just had to savor this rare visitor. It was 100 degrees and he was resting in the shade on a milkweed plant or from a nearby hanging plant. Bob was home sick but was able to take a wonderful photo of him. We have worked hard over the last few years developing a monarch habitat and it was wonderful to enjoy his presence gliding around the yard, driving off the queens and even another male monarch that visited on Thursday afternoon for a short time. This new little one had a hole in his right wing and was ravishing Desert and Tropical Milkweed when they engaged in a tussle, scuffling high up over the house. Only the original large male returned and stayed another day.

While the monarch stayed in our yard we saw him nectaring on a variety of milkweed flowers, bluemist, lantanta and sweet almond bush.

Even with the high temperatures this week, monarchs are slowly moving in to the Phoenix area. Tomorrow, September 29, begins the peak time of migration for monarch butterflies in the Phoenix area. So keep on eye for large wings of orange in the air! The migration window lasts until October 11th, but remember there will be straglers around for likely another month moving through. For more information about how the peak migration time is determined, see this link: Peak Migration Dates

Yesterday Bob and I tagged a monarch at the Rio Salado Restoration Habitat near Central in downtown Phoenix. He was a weathered male and we found him in the riverbottom nectaring on a Chaste Tree. Much of the monarch over-wintering habitat is suffering from lack of water due to a major break in the watering system that feeds the waterfall. Instead we found this monarch in the river channel where it was significantly cooler. We did spot a queen caterpillar on the Desert Milkweed near the habitat.

Towards the late afternoon we visited the ASU Polytech Campus in Mesa and found the first monarchs entering the area. There were buckets of queen butterflies, but we spotted this monarch cruising through the milkweed patch, nectaring on Desert Milkweed and resting on a mesquite tree.

Bob & I love leading monarch tagging trips. Recently we were in Ajo for the International Day of Peace and had a wonderful time sharing the joy of monarch butterflies - who know no borders. Two weeks ago students from Scottsdale Community College joined us on a tagging expedition to Canelo in SE Arizona. Last week the docents at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum opened my eyes to a new tagging experience at Canelo - tagging monarchs in the rain! Most people would have cancelled the trip with rain streaming in our faces. But this was a tough crew! They donned raincoats, sloshed in the marsh - and tagged eight monarchs! Yes, we did a bit of butterfly rescue, too. Monarchs wandered from the safety of the canopy of nearby trees to nectar when it drizzled. When a downpour stuck they were stranded, thrown to the tall grasses.We gently picked them up and placed them in the safety of nearby trees, away from a predator's harm. Wonder if tagging hurts monarchs? See this delightful explanation by Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch: How to tag a monarch

Its a busy time for watching and enjoying monarchs! Savor these special jewels of the butterfly world and let us know if you see one.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

As the Temperatures Dip, Monarchs Glide In!

Monarch at Boyce Thompson Arboretum by Laura Miller
Last week the high temps released their grip on us for a few days - and monarch butterflies coasted into the Phoenix area. Bob and I found two monarchs in Mesquite Wash Friday morning. One looked very faded and frail; the other fresh and new. Tatsuyo called early Saturday morning reporting her first monarch of the season on South Mountain. (Funny thing - last year the first monarch arrived on September 11th, too.) We drove to Seven Springs north of Cave Creek and met Christine Lowe there. We spotted one monarch in excellent condition near the campground. When we came home I received an email from Ranger Rebecca at Rio Salado Restoration Habitat reporting two monarch sightings - one near the 7th Street bridge and another near the waterfall. Today Laura Miller found this new-looking male monarch in the Demonstration Garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. Slowly, monarch butterflies are moving in to the greater Phoenix area.

The cool window of last week flared into the blazing heat wave of today. Monarch butterflies struggle with high temps. Anything 104 and above is stressful with increasing mortality. Hopefully, the monarchs that are here will find a cooler place in the trees or near water to refresh them a bit. I contacted Dr. Karen Oberhauser at the University of Minnesota, a monarch expert, about the effect of our high temperatures this week, often exceeding 104 degrees. In the laboratory monarchs were studied at high temperatures for a full day, 12 hours of sustained heat, and they mainly studied immatures. Here in Phoenix, adult monarchs are exposed to high temperatures of 104 and above only three to five hours before cooling again. "The adults' lifespans will be shortened, but otherwise they may live/reproduce normally." That's good news for monarchs in the desert. But let's hope it cools before the main migration surge arrives in upcoming weeks.

Freshly eclosed female Queen butterfly
Even though the afternoons are hot, the mornings are not. If you're like me, it's time to get outdoors and garden. Continue watering milkweed well to encourage flowering for the migration rush. Plant monarch nectar plants if you can find them.  Maxmillian sunflowers will bloom soon and other sunflowers are already flowering. Lantana is a butterfly magnet as are zinnias. Avoid trimming Red Bird of Paradise or Baja Fairy Duster - monarchs are frequent visitors. Be careful pruning any bushes near milkweed! This morning I was trimming a Texas Sage that was intruding on a nearby Desert Milkweed when suddenly orange wings fluttered near the ground. A female queen butterfly recently emerged from her chrysalis hidden in the branches! I was frightened that I damaged her wings. So I reached down - when she jumped on my hand. She was fine....whew! Together we walked over to the Maxmillian Sunflowers where she continued to flex her wings to dry before flying off to enjoy her new life several hours later.

Finally, resist the urge to prune or scalp Desert Milkweed! Many landscapers and home owners love a neatly contoured plant. This milkweed was severely pruned last April right before it bloomed. As you can see it still hasn't recovered enough to flower and will likely not be on the monarch butterfly's "visitation list" when they swarm through the Valley during their main migration window. So, look for orange wings gliding above! September 29 through October 11th is the peak time of the monarch migration - but the leaders of the migration pack are visiting now.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Monarchs Arrive at Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

Male Monarch at Desert Botanical Garden 9-2-10
Monarch butterflies arrived early at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix this year. Despite highs of 111, 109 and 108 degrees over several days, three monarchs rested in the refreshing and cooler tree canopy of the Herb Garden during the hottest time of the day, but occasionally coasted down to a flower. It was surprising to see them so early. I thought the high temperatures would keep them further north. But nighttime temperatures in the low 80's must offer enough relief.

Female Monarch at DBG
When I walked through the garden at first I didn't see any butterflies at all - not too surprising at 3 in
the afternoon with temps near 110. I stopped to look around, then took a step forward. Twenty queen butterflies swooshed into the air! I took another step, again another surge of queens shot up. I've heard of people encountering butterflies like this, but never experienced it myself. My presence obviously startled them, but just for a moment. Then suddenly I saw the familiar orange glide. I was surprised to see one monarch, then another, coast down from nearby trees.

My natural response was to call everyone I knew and ask them to check the large milkweed patches around town, but no other monarchs were found as of today. Last year Tatsuyo, who lives on South Mountain, was the first to see a monarch visiting her vast number of milkweed plants. Over the past week she has seen over 38 queen chrysalids, but no monarchs.  The cooler highs in the 90's and lows in the upper 60's may open the gate of opportunity inviting more monarchs into the greater Phoenix area.

Queen chrysalis on Giant Milkweed
 While monarchs are just entering the Phoenix area, the queen butterfly population is exploding! Everyone is talking about the huge numbers of queens visiting gardens, and milkweeds are brimming with their caterpillars. Just this morning I stepped out into my yard to look at the butterfly activity and when I looked back I found this male queen just emerging from his chrysalis - right under my sliding glass door! He stayed there a few hours before flying to a nearby bush. Sometimes a caterpillar will climb to a mighty peculiar place.