Friday, December 30, 2011

Phoenix Area Monarch Butterflies

Late Wednesday afternoon Bob and I went out to cover our plants for one more night of possible freezing temperatures. As I walked by the Sweet Almond tree, Aloysia virgata, I saw a flutter of orange on the ground - a freshly eclosed male monarch attempting its first flight. The temperatures were already dropping and its wings were not fully hardened. As I looked up at the tree, I spotted this dark monarch chrysalis. The previous night the temperatures dipped to 31 degrees and I wasn't sure if the chrysalis was viable so I brought it inside. (The monarch eclosed two hours later successfully.) As I lifted the frost cover in another part of the yard to cover more plants another freshly eclosed monarch flapped its wings in greeting! All this activity is so rare for the end of December in the Phoenix area.

Last week I shared that a female monarch #60061 tagged on 11/19 (eclosed 11/18) in my backyard was seen in Kino Bay, Sonora on 12/14 by Gail Rochlin. Scientists have learned that temperatures and sun angle are important triggers of the monarch migration among other factors.  The celestial influence weakens in late November and most directional flight ceases by the beginning of December. Here you can see monarch #60421 tagged in my yard on 11/25 (eclosed 11/24) sunning and later nectaring on tithonia still in my yard yesterday. That is a difference of only six days of when they eclosed. The sun angle for #60061 was 37.31. The sun angle for #60421 was 35.99. One migrated. One stayed. There likely isn't an exact migration cut-off date or maybe one of these bugs just didn't read the "how to migrate rules" to follow. Just interesting stuff.

With warming temperatures climbing to the mid-70's for the next week we will hopefully see more butterfly activity. Check out the activity we saw at Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area in Phoenix yesterday: 

If you decide to visit Rio Salado, please stay on the trails and enjoy this natural wonder. Touching, capturing or removal of monarch butterflies, or future eggs, larvae or pupae is prohibited by law and hidden cameras are recording the area for the preservation of the habitat.

We've had a cool December in the Phoenix area and many people are still reporting monarch larvae, pupae and adults around town in Paradise Valley, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler, Mesa and Ahwatukee. Monarchs are tropical by nature and are affected by freezing temperatures. Unless we have a hard freeze there is a chance some of these monarchs may survive our winter this year. (The National Weather Service Winter Outlook  gives a glimpse of the next few months in Arizona.) It's a good idea to keep some of the favorite nectar plants of monarchs around to encourage them to visit your yard on warm, sunny days. Besides lantana and verbena which can look a bit cold stressed this time of year, look for some of these nectar favorites still available in local nurseries:

 Fern-leaf Lavender, Lavandula minutolli
(Monarchs are picky about lavenders - this is the only lavender we see them use for nectar.)

Marigolds, Tagetes spp.

Baja Fairy Duster, Calliandra californica

Calendulas, Calendula spp.


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Monarch Butterfly From Chandler, AZ Flies to Kino Bay, Sonora, MX

Female monarch nectaring on Asclepias subulata
Fall in the Phoenix area is an exciting time to watch a new monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. It takes several hours for its wings to harden to be able to fly. As the season progresses, sometimes I wait until the following day before tagging them with the blue tag of the SW Monarch Study and sending them on their way. So on November 19 that is just what I did. The day before a beautiful female monarch was born and on the 19th I affixed tag #60061 to her wing and wished her well on her journey. She stayed around feeding on the nectar of flowers in my garden for a few days and then left my yard like over 100 other monarchs before her. I always wonder, where will this one go? The SW Monarch Study has learned that monarch butterflies migrating through Arizona fly to both the overwintering sites in Mexico and also to the coast of California. But despite tagging thousands of monarchs, very few have ever been recovered.

On Wednesday, December 14, Gail Rochlin of Tucson was enjoying her condo in Kino Bay, Sonora, Mexico. She saw a monarch nectaring on a plentiful bank of flowering bouganvillea. Gail spotted a blue tag and was able to read the number #60061 and contacted me. Little did I know at the time this monarch came from my own backyard. You can see where #60061 flew on the map of the SW Monarch Study recoveries.

Gail Rochlin learned about the Southwest Monarch Study at a talk I gave at the Tucson Botanical Garden in Tucson last year. So when she saw the blue tag, she immediately emailed me. I was excited to hear of a recovery in Mexico - then thrilled when I learned this monarch came from my own backyard!

It is unusual to see a monarch migrate so late in the season. Migration is influenced by temperature and celestial orientation (sun angle) as well as other cues. Most monarchs stop their migrational movement by the first week of December so it is likely this female had been in the Kino Bay area for the past week. The celestial influence decreases by the end of November, although exactly when is unclear. We looked at the temperatures, wind speed and direction from the time #60061 was tagged in Chandler through the beginning of December and could find nothing that would push her to Kino Bay nor draw her there. The cool temperatures during the time period would likely keep this butterfly in reproductive diapause, common for migrating monarch butterflies during the winter months. Gail Rochlin said this monarch was in good condition when she spotted her. A breeding monarch would likely have faded wings by this time from laying eggs under the leaves of milkweed plants in the area. A special thank you to Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch for his keen educator questions to help us understand a little more about this unique recovery. He also pointed out that the route this monarch flew was very rugged and likely offered little nectar along the way.

Male monarch nectaring on tithonia
If you would like to create a Monarch Waystation in your yard, pick up a copy of the January issue of Phoenix Home and Garden magazine. Our monarch haven is the backyard garden feature for the month. You can also see a shorter version of the article in this link: Phoenix Home & Garden Monarch Garden If you create a milkweed banquet, the monarchs will come!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Rio Salado Monarch Habitat Restoration

We arrived early, just as the sun evaporated the last of the night from the sky. Gathering from near and far, carrying picks and shovels, we walked in the early dawn light down the hill. We came to restore what had once been a thriving winter habitat for a small number of monarch butterflies each year. Last July a fire reduced the area to ashes, destroying the canopy of trees that protected the visiting monarchs from the extreme temperatures here in the desert.

 Riparian trees are not easy to buy in Arizona. So Lynn Krabbe and Bruce Kilbride volunteered to haul trees and other plants from Desert Survivor's Nursery.  The four of us (including Bob) spent most of a day driving to and from Tucson with a trailer and 40 pots. Desert Survivor's also donated twenty fabric recyclable bags to the volunteers helping that day.

Twenty-eight volunteers arrived to start healing the habitat that chilly Friday morning. Budget cuts limited the availability of Rio Salado staff, so we reached out to the Master Gardeners, Sierra Club and other members of the community interested in monarch conservation. Their excitement and enthusiasm warmed our hearts and we completed the planting in record time, twice as fast as we had planned.

 The digging wasn't always easy but the rocky river terrain and steep slopes didn't stand in their way.

When we finished we worked with city workers to make sure irrigation lines were in place. Then we gave all the new trees and shrubs a deep drink.

 The day before, eight fresh and new monarch butterflies eclosed from their chrysalis in my yard in Chandler. To celebrate our planting day,  I brought them to Rio Salado and one by one everyone present helped us tag each butterfly with their own unique number of the Southwest Monarch Study. We also tested each one for Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, O.e., a disease unique to monarch and queen butterflies. This will be sent to Monarch Health to be part of a national study.

We hope many of the monarchs will spend the winter at Rio Salado. Earlier taggings by the Southwest Monarch Study show Arizona monarchs fly to Mexico and California during their migration. But a few in November always stay at Rio Salado. Further taggings and study may help us learn why.

Thank you to the 28 volunteers, the city staff at Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area and the many people behind the scenes that are keeping a bit of wilderness alive in the greater Phoenix area.