Monday, September 17, 2012

Chasing Monarch Butterflies Around Arizona

Tagged monarch at Tonto Natural Bridge
Bob and I left early  Friday chasing the monarch butterfly migration through Arizona. A few leaders of the pack already arrived in Phoenix in the past week while most of the higher elevations of the state had pockets of breeding monarchs through the late summer. But now the newly eclosed generation of monarchs are feeling the tug to move to their winter homes and migrate in increasing numbers.

Tonto Natural Brid
First stop was Natural Bridge State Park in Pine. Last year Laura found monarch butterflies and we watched for their arrival this summer. Recently we received a limited permit to tag at this site and today we found a few monarchs that we had tagged ten days earlier and were able to net and tag a few more. This family spotted us catching one nectaring on Asclepias subverticillata then helped us tag and release after.We will be working with this State Park for some fun events in the future.

We drove up to Flagstaff and found a sea of yellow! Three weeks earlier monarchs ruled the meadows but now with the cooler temperatures butterflies were scarce even in the warmest time of day.

Asclepias subverticillata seed pods - Flagstaff
 The milkweed that was blooming earlier was now scenescing with seed pods beginning to explode filling the air with tufts.

Male monarch on thistle - Flagstaf
We found one lone freshly eclosed male monarch nectaring on a fresh thistle in the meadow. On our way home we stopped at this same location since it was warmer but we didn't see any monarchs.

Monarch on Rabbitbush - Grand Canyon
We arrived at the Grand Canyon early Saturday. Three weeks earlier monarch butterflies flooded the South Rim, but today numbers were more limited. Rabbitbush was everywhere and the monarchs that were there were all over it.

 In August we were approved for a permit to tag monarchs and monitor milkweed at the Grand Canyon and we were able to tag a few freshly eclosed monarchs.

Monarch caterpillar

We also still found a few 5th instar monarch larvae. A few days earlier Laura was at the Canyon and also saw several.

On Sunday Bob and I trained several National Park Rangers to tag monarchs during the peak of their migration coming soon. We will be working closely with the Grand Canyon National Park in the future to train Rangers as new eyes to monitor monarch butterflies at this location.

Asclepias subverticillata seeds
As we noticed in Flagstaff, milkweed was going to seed rapidly with few still in bloom. Yet there were pockets of fresh stems here and there. Primary nectar for migrating monarchs included huge amounts of rabbitbush, asters and sunflowers everywhere. Sunday brought new monarchs into the Canyon beginning their southward journey.

On the road home we saw roadsides filled with ripe rabbitbush in bloom everywhere, a butterfly's delight.

....and it wasn't limited to the roadsides. Rolling hills of rabbitbush were cascading everywhere you could see, a perfect nectar for the migration.

Mating queen butterflies in mesquite
Our last stop was a wash leading to the Agua Fria. The summer rains fed lush pockets of seep willow, rabbitbush and sunflowers drawing large numbers of queen butterflies. This mating pair flew to a nearby tree as dusk fell. We even saw one large fresh and new looking monarch fly right in front of us, then off to the mesquite thicket.

Drought stricken Gooding Willow trees
Our long drought rattled this canyon wash. Trees were skeletons, but lush new growth began springing to life with our healthy monsoon rains this summer. 

Queen butterfly on camphorweed
The narrow canyon was filled with new shoots of seep willow in bloom and even the camphorweed was covered with queens.

Interested in monarch butterflies in Arizona? Join us at the Hassayampa Preserve in Wickenburg this Saturday for a special program for adults in the morning and for children in the afternoon. Or on Sunday join in our last public tagging field trip for the SW Monarch Study. Meet in Sonoita for a morning of tagging in Canelo. See the Southwest Monarch Study Facebook Page for more information.

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