Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Another CA Monarch Sighting - Blowin' in the Wind!

Photo by Paul Cherubini 11-12-13 Pismo Beach (Used with permission)

Photo by Paul Cherubini
Yesterday I heard the news. JB called and left a message with my husband, Bob, that a monarch tagged with Southwest Monarch Study Tag #AD183 was spotted yesterday at 2 p.m. at Pismo Beach by Paul Cherubini. Turns out it was one of the monarchs I had tagged at the Canelo Forest Service Administration Area (permit required) on September 14 at 10 a.m. while nectaring on a thistle. Exciting news!

You've likely seen the migration maps - monarchs from Arizona fly mainly to Mexico and a few fly to California. Yet those California sightings come in clusters. In 2008, five Southwest Monarch Study tags were spotted: Three in San Diego and two in Ellwood Main in Goleta. The photos of the tags from San Diego were fuzzy and the numbers unreadable. At first we thought there was only one in Ellwood Main but when we finally had a photo of the tagged monarch with the number clearly identified we realized the tag was in a different place on the wing than the earlier photo. In 2009 there was one spotted by Monarch Alert. Then none.

Canelo Monarchs 10-15-13
But 2013 felt different. In the field this fall and in all my workshop presentations I described our persistent and insistent monsoon this year - and how it was a good possibility it would cause California recoveries. Turns out I was right. So far we've had three sightings and with the Thanksgiving Counts right around the corner we may hear of more. So recently I took our Southwest Monarch Study recovery data to Darcy Anderson, M.S. Meteorology, to see if she could confirm what our Citizen Science Storm Spotters eyes were seeing in the weather maps - or not.

I met with Darcy on Monday. Briefly, she explained how every summer the jet stream retreats north. When this happens the winds shift in the extreme southerly portions of the United States. For example, instead of the prevailing Westerlies, during the summer months Florida will have Easterly winds. Eventually our summer monsoon creates the same scenario in Arizona bringing moisture from Mexico into the state from the South and Southeast. Monsoon is simply a change of wind direction.

One of the weather charts Darcy shared
This summer into late September the monsoon was exceptionally entrenched setting up deep Southeast to Northwest winds regularly and on some days intensely. During the week of tagging the three monarchs that were recovered in California this year, the air was often extremely unstable and even at 7 a.m. sustained winds were blowing at the surface  at 30 to 35 miles per hour from the Southeast to Northwest to above 10,000 feet on some days. This doesn't include gusts. Above that level there was a strong wind sheer with winds blowing from the Northwest to the Southeast. This is what Darcy Anderson, M.S. Meteorology, said about our recent California recoveries:

"Basically what I've found from the Tucson upper air soundings is that there were southeast winds during the September 15 - 20 time frame, at a relatively low atmospheric level, that could have "propelled" the two (now three) monarchs retrieved in CA. During the same time period, there were winds at slightly higher atmospheric levels from the NW and N that could have resulted in monarchs being propelled to Mexico from the same AZ area. It would all depend on the altitude of their flight. I think that will be the case for most CA sightings."

As we talked, Darcy shared copies of the Atmospheric Soundings for the time period to explain her findings. We realized that so far, every California recovery had strong lower level winds so we can not rule out wind as a driving factor in migration destination. Keep in mind if a monarch can ride a thermal high into an unstable air mass and punch through the atmospheric lid of the wind sheer layer above it is conceivable that we could tag two monarchs on the same day, and have one recovered in California and one in Mexico.
By late September and early October, the time of our peak migration in Arizona, winds tend to settle into a more typical Westerly direction. So far all of our recoveries from that period are in Mexico.

Darcy offered to keep daily weather maps every September, the time our monsoon season is likely the most unstable, to track weather phenomena in relation to the monarch migration in Arizona. Eventually we will publish this information after more data are available to see if this pattern persists. Amazing how our love affair with monarch butterflies and their fascinating migration could help us uncover and learn so many new things!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Butterflies, Herbs and Wildflowers - 'Tis the Season

Sweetbush, Bebbia juncea
Fall is the season for planting in the desert. Warm soils encourage roots to develop before the cold of winter settles in stalling growth. University of Arizona Extension studies have shown Fall planting helps new seedlings handle our hot summers as well with a solid understory foundation more readily adapting to our limited water. Several milkweeds (Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata), Arizona Milkweed (Asclepias angustifolia) and Pineleaf Milkweed (Asclepias linaria) are featured at many seasonal plant sales as are rich nectar sources like Desert Ageratum (Ageratum corymbosum), Sweetbush (Bebbia juncea) or Lantana (Lantana camara). But don't forget herbs and wildflowers that attract our earliest butterflies during the cooler season as well.

Fernleaf Lavender
Every winter a few monarchs spend the winter in the greater Phoenix and Yuma areas. These are likely monarchs that eclosed late in the season. Some may be breeding monarchs but many are in reproductive diapause and will delay mating until spring. Whether breeding or not, monarchs will need strong nectar to help sustain them during the cooler months.Winter blooming Fernleaf lavender is a monarch favorite. Calendulas are as well, so keep a few around in pots for monarchs that survive our light freezes in the area.

Wildflowers are easy to grow and many reseed for future seasons. Premier planting time in the lower deserts is from October through the end of November. Simply sprinkle seeds thinly and rake in. You can spread seeds over granite or soil. Small seeds may be easier to distribute mixed with sand. You can let nature take its course with our winter rains, or you can help secure a spring floral display by watering lightly until new growth is up. Only an occasional drink of water is needed if our rains are late.  On warm winter days you may spot a few local butterflies visiting your patch before anything else is in bloom, a regal thank you for your effort.

Bakers Nursery in Phoenix has large vats of wildflower seeds you can purchase by the ounce that grow well in our Sonoran Desert. The Desert Botanical Garden Desert Botanical Garden Wildflower Sources is a handy resource to order seeds in time for planting as well. So think wildlife with wildflowers this winter and keep your eye out for out of season visitors to your yard.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Untangling a Long Distance Monarch Flight

I heard the news first yesterday morning. A monarch wearing a Southwest Monarch Study tag was sighted near Morro Bay, California. Later I discovered that a monarch wearing AD 947 was tagged by Joe Billings on September 15 in Hereford, Arizona. It was spotted in Cayucos, California on October 9 by Paul Cherubini, a flight of approximately 675 miles.

We don't know the flight path, only the two observation points. Typically monarchs on their Fall migration will fly South or Southwest from the Eastern United States. Much is still unknown in the West although some tests were observed with farmed monarchs (captive monarch butterflies bred for sale) that were moved around the Western states and released. However, there were not any controls with wild monarchs nor records of wind direction and weather conditions at the time.

From earlier studies about migrating monarchs we do know that they are very susceptible to winds. Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch observed, "Our tagging records are full of monarchs that have been pushed off course - one by as much as 800 miles. Remember the posting (D-plex) recently on monarchs from the Dakotas, MN, IA with many pushed to the SE?" Furthermore, studies have also documented that monarchs are resilient and can reorient their flight pattern within a week after they are displaced.

Purple arrow indicates wind direction
While most of the recoveries and sightings from tagging monarchs in Arizona during the Fall migration have been in Mexico, a few were seen in California. Monarch scientists have urged us to check weather patterns and winds in the days shortly after tagging to see if they can reveal a clue. So yesterday that is what I did. You can see from this map that in the first days after this monarch was tagged, winds blew at a good clip from the Southeast to the Northwest facilitating movement in that direction. Monarchs also use thermals to gain altitude to fly and with the warmth of nearby mountains basking in the sun, rising air could have easily facilitated vertical movement that could have made a flying monarch more vulnerable to wind gusts. The National Weather Service also reported a storm in the area that day with winds blowing towards the Northwest. Dr. David James, Associate Professor of Entomology at Washington State University, noted, "Yes wind makes a lot of sense. Once individuals get to a certain point towards the coast, its likely other factors take over, ensuring their final destination is the coast."

The truth of the matter is we just don't know. We do know that this year the seasonal monsoon wind pattern was more entrenched than earlier years until late September. We can't say for certain that the winds blew this monarch to California, but we also can't say given the winds that week, that they didn't.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Grand Canyon Monarch Butterfly Population

Monarch nectaring on sunflowers at the Grand Canyon
Our favorite vacation destination is the ever changing Grand Canyon National Park in northern Arizona. While the etching of this great geological wonder is slow, for over thirty years our family has uncovered new discoveries each time we visit about it's many natural splendors.  When we were young, we hiked the trails absorbing the ages of time around us. Once, to make our travels light, we rode the mules. We learned quickly that for us hiking was much easier. We’ve rafted the mighty Colorado River several times between the steep Canyon walls and over treacherous rapids. We have fallen asleep to the roar of monsoon storms pummeling the deep gorges with thunder echoing and rebounding off the walls. More recently we enjoyed a cabin on the South Rim savoring the Canyon’s many moods – and watching monarch butterflies shoot up out of the Canyon each afternoon like bullets from the river far below.

Monarch nectaring on New Mexico Vervain
The number of monarch butterflies we see at the Canyon fluctuates. Last year they were abundant, the most we’ve ever seen. This summer the monarch population was more typical, but still exciting to watch. Like earlier visits we witnessed egg-laying and larvae, pristine and shredded winged monarchs, and enjoyed watching adults nectaring. But monarchs often reveal new survival strategies when the circumstance is right and it’s fun to look for them. This year we found monarchs nectaring on New Mexico Vervain, Verbena macdougalii, in damp meadows. Of course they still favored Horsetail Milkweed, Aslcepias subverticillata, Rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus spp., and Sunflowers, Helianthus spp., as well.

Monarch nectaring on Rabbitbrush
The Grand Canyon is home to three varieties of Rabbitbrush and each has its own bloom period. As one is senescing, another is just coming into flower. As a result it is a major and continuous late summer and Fall nectar source. Monarchs chase the rabbitbrush bloom around the Canyon then stay in nearby trees for shelter, a perfect bed and breakfast.  We found monarchs roosting in pine and junipers alike, usually on the South and Southeast portions of trees. You could often find them shortly after sunrise sunning with open wings to warm before dipping down to feed.

Monarch on Horsetail Milkweed, Asclepias subverticillata
Like previous years, monarch numbers were densest at the edge of the canyon closest to the Bright Angel Cabins. We stood by the rim on warm afternoons and watched monarchs fly up out of the canyon, then appear to hover a moment, and gracefully glide over treetops to nearby milkweed and nectar just to the South. From sightings along the South Bright Angel Trail it appears they follow the creek and nectar up through Indian Gardens then follow the canon gorge up.

Joe, an Interpretive Ranger at the Grand Canyon
But there was something very different about the Grand Canyon this year - the National Park Service employees chasing monarchs. Joe joined us tagging last year and was the first to create a Ranger monarch logging system for our data to record sightings by the public. There is something very special about spotting a ranger with a net on his back riding around the Canyon looking for monarchs!

Marna, Grand Canyon Park Guide
Marna, a Park Guide for the National Park Service, was inspired by her encounter of monarchs last year to create this beautiful detailed monarch painting that hangs above her desk.

Monarch larva
This year we were invited by the National Park Service to share monarch presentations at the Grand Canyon school for the K, 6, 7, 8 and 10th grade classes. Afterwards, each grade walked around the school grounds to identify monarch host and nectar plants. The sixth grade class was the first to find a monarch larva on Horsetail Milkweed, Asclepias subverticillata! Classes decided on seeds to collect and grow in their greenhouse this winter. We'll return next Spring to help with their Earth Day butterfly garden installation for their phenology project. 

In the evening we shared a public presentation on Monarch Butterflies at the Grand Canyon at the Shrine of the Ages. We were excited by the international interest in the monarch migration phenomena. For us it was a wonderful experience to be able to share new understanding about the monarch butterfly migration through Arizona at a place that has touched the heart of our family so deeply for a lifetime. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Following the Monarch Trail

Male monarch Asclepias subverticillata

We weren’t sure what we would find. Every summer we enjoy following the monarch trail around Arizona. By July monarchs usually arrive and establish breeding colonies in the higher elevations. After the record low overwintering population in Mexico and lower numbers in California, what would we see?

Monarch larva Asclepias speciosa
While the rest of the country is seeing a plunge in monarch sightings as well as eggs, larvae and pupae, what we’ve seen so far in Arizona gives hope. Bob and I’ve visited Springerville/Eager as well as Pinetop/Lakeside in the White Mountains twice over the last three weeks and the number of monarchs is steadily increasing. Plus, we were still seeing female monarchs laying eggs a week ago. As the milkweeds are now beginning to senesce as Fall draws near, seed pods are growing. Yet, many new sprigs are breaking ground to the delight of female monarchs still depositing eggs.

Even more promising are large meadows packed with sunflowers swaying with summer’s playful breezes. Rolling dips and gentle hills are one enormous quilt of rich nectar to fuel the monarch’s migration drawing nigh. Our abundant monsoon this year is coaxing dormant seeds to new life.

The White Mountains aren’t alone. The Southeast portion of our state also is blossoming in butterflies and monarchs as their premier season progresses. Sierra Vista and Canelo both are rich in milkweeds, nectar and monarchs – a good harbinger for the migration coming our way soon.