Monday, December 29, 2014

Monarch Butterflies Weathering California Storms

As 2014 is ending, another storm looms along the Pacific coast setting its aim on California and the southwest. In early December we visited several of the monarch butterfly overwintering sites along the coast and had the unique experience of watching how monarch butterflies respond to strong winds, heavy rains and coastal flooding. We were able to witness how adaptable and resilient monarchs are in their response to challenging weather conditions.

We arrived at the Oceano Campground in Pismo Beach at 2 p.m. on December 10. After setting up camp we quickly drove to see the overwintering monarch population before dark at the Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove just north of the campground on Highway 1. A major winter storm was arriving the following day with high winds and heavy rains in the forecast.The recently completed Thanksgiving Count for this site reported a total of 30,000 monarchs this year and we were hoping to see the normal distribution of monarchs at this location before the high winds began the following day.

Monarchs were located inside the circle of eucalyptus and cypress trees in the grove, densest on branches that would receive limited afternoon sun through a southerly opening. Their greatest numbers were directly north of the opening in a protected tree canopy and on a large branch on the south stretching over the walkway. A few fluttered nearby but most were already in clusters or tucked densely as singletons in nearby trees.

We also learned from docents at the grove that the grove was experiencing more monarch breeding with larvae and pupae still present on nearby milkweed. In fact there was a monarch in "J" hanging on the side of a milkweed as well as a chrysalis on a table for everyone to see.

The next morning we returned to the grove and watched as the monarchs responding to the increasing winds throughout the morning and afternoon.
We made several trips during the course of the day observing monarch behavior at the Pismo Monarch Butterfly Grove and another site at Oceano Campground where we staying. The winds were blowing from the south and shifting at times to the southwest and southeast, increasing in intensity to 45 to 50 mph. Already by 10 a.m. the monarchs were beginning to concentrate on the north side of the inner tree circle, particularly on the cypress trees.

We found them taking to the air trying to relocate to a more favorable location and a strong gust would toss some into nearby trees or a few even to the ground. Their storm-tossed flight was halted only temporarily as the monarchs were persistent in their determination to find a safe port to weather the storm.

By afternoon many of the monarchs had left the safety of the inner tree circle and moved to the
northern perimeter of the site for a safe haven from the persistently increasing winds from the south. Some moved to the eucalyptus trees across the highway. We watched as the monarchs began to form small clusters on the northern side of the cypress trees in high locations but tucked under the highest branches. But others moved to the lower branches of small oaks and other bushes right above the creek in the grove. Many of the smaller clusters were forming on branches only about eight to ten feet high right over the creek. We knew that the rains would blast in from the north later that evening and were concerned about monarch survival on these lower locations.
 While a safe refuge from the winds, heavy rains could toss them into the creek not too far below. Sustained winds were now at 31 mph with gusts over 50 mph as darkness fell.

Then the rains came. Winds howled as heavy rains from the north blasted the area in darkness. At 11 p.m. an imminent flood siren pealed waking everyone in the campground to be aware of possible rising water. While we were lucky to have a campsite on slightly higher ground, others had standing water of two to four inches deep nearby. Road dips filled with standing water as did low areas nearby.

It was 52 degrees and cloudy at 9 a.m. when we walked out to the nearby monarch site at Oceano campground. Most of the monarchs were tossed to the ground with only about one quarter still clinging to tree branches above.
At first we saw one, then about 20 to 25 monarchs grasping the tops of twigs in the ravine, but as we looked closer, we saw hundreds. Most were closed-winged but then one began to shiver and flew to a nearby tree branch. Despite being storm-tossed to the ground, overall these monarchs looked good - they were survivors. The poison oak in the area made it tricky to observe at times.

By 9:30 a.m. it was partly cloudy and we returned to the Pismo Beach Monarch Grove. Temperature was still at 52 degrees as we arrived. No one was there. Branches and leaves now covered the walkway. The monarch clusters in the tree circle were greatly reduced, although we did find smaller numbers of monarchs lower in the trees. It took a few moments to adjust your eyes to see the monarchs covering the ground.

Their closed wings looked like other dead leaves littering the grounds. A few were covered with mud.
But then, as the temperatures began to slowly warm, orange wings flew open across the area, pulsing rhythmically, as grounded monarchs began to shiver, warming their chilled muscles. One by one, they lifted off to the safety of nearby trees.


But what happened to the monarchs that decided to move to the north side of the cove? We walked towards the bridge and found the creek swollen, brushing the bottom of the bridge. Small streams were spilling over the walkway and we looked for downed branches to access the area where the monarchs moved the day before.
Our feet were soaked from all the moving water, but we finally made our way to where we last saw the monarchs as night fell. The monarchs high in the cypress tree seemed to fare well and any that were storm-tossed fell on higher ground. But the monarchs that were hanging about the now swollen creek were gone.
We found just a few in small clusters about 10 to 12 feet about the ground and one lone monarch clinging to a branch just inches above the rushing water.

We made several trips to both the Oceano and Pismo Beach sites during the day watching the monarchs recover and once again cover the trees with orange wings warming in the rising sun. By nightfall all was well and the monarchs were once again tucked in to their traditional branches in the groves. The storm offered us a unique opportunity to witness the monarch's storm survival strategies.

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Unusual Fall for Monarch Butterflies in Arizona

Male monarch feeding on Bidens laevis in my pond October 7
Monarchs arrived on schedule in the high country of Arizona at the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff and the White Mountains this summer, but numbers were modest compared to last year's abundant population. We saw monarchs at more locations but at lower numbers when we did. With our ample monsoon rains we were hoping the population would increase as summer progressed but instead the migration through the greater Phoenix area was weak with limited sightings. Usually early September brings breeding monarchs laying eggs everywhere but this year reports were only occasional. Instead most monarchs sweeping through the area in late September and early October appeared to be in diapause with both males and females stopping to feed deeply, but had little interest in mating or oviposition despite rich stands of milkweed in bloom.

First egg-laying monarch October 24
In late October that all changed. Normally a time of diminishing monarch presence turned into a monarch explosion. Suddenly reports of monarchs soared as did breeding and oviposition. The milkweed was ready yet the fall pattern this year was rather startling compared to earlier years. Fall temperatures were warm and they likely facilitated another monarch generation locally. Heavy rains in September and warm temperatures created an ideal lush milkweed and nectar banquet and now monarchs and other butterflies are filling the skies. Instead of November, it seems like late September.

4th instar monarch larva November 9
Rather than a late larva, this is the first one of fall in my yard. At least three adult monarchs are flying every day as well as the queens, gulf frits, cloudless sulphurs, sleepy oranges and more. It's been a very unusual fall.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Arizona Monarch Migration to California - Another Piece of the Puzzle

 Jessica Griffiths was conducting a training workshop in Pacific Grove, California to help volunteers learn how to count overwintering monarchs for the annual Thanksgiving Count right around the corner. Every year monarchs along the coast are officially counted during the week of Thanksgiving as a base for year to year comparison of the California overwintering monarch population. For the field portion of their workshop they stepped out to practice counting monarchs already gathering in the area. This is what Jessica shared the next day on the Western Monarch List-serve: "Yesterday at the Pacific Grove Monarch Sanctuary, during a monarch count training workshop, we spotted a tagged monarch with a white circular tag in a big cluster of butterflies on a Monterey Cypress tree. I could tell by looking through binoculars that it was a Southwest Monarch Study tag that started with the letter A, but I couldn't read the actual number.  The excitement in our group was palpable!  After Allison Watson heroically drove back to the Museum and fetched a spotting scope, we determined that it was monarch AG210."

AG210 was tagged on Monday morning, September 22 at 9:22 a.m. at the Canelo Forest Service Administration Area in southeast Arizona. She was a freshly eclosed female spotted in the field feeding deeply on thistle. This is the farthest north in California any of our Arizona monarchs have been ever recovered so far. We estimate AG210 flew 680 miles in 34 days or approximately 20 miles per day. We don't know the migration route of this monarch. We do know that Dr. Fred Urquhart and the Monarch Program both noted that monarchs tend to fly north once they reach the California coast. There is more to learn.

The monarch migration is guided by an internal sun-compensated compass. As they fly, they adjust their flight to the angle of the noon day sun. In the eastern migration, Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch (pers. comm.) observed that the leading edge of the monarch migration begins in Winnipeg, Ottawa (45.42°N latitude) in Canada when the sun angle is 57° to 56°. Through monitoring monarchs that are tagged when freshly eclosed from milkweed fields in southeastern Arizona and later recovered along the California coast in early September, the Southwest Monarch Study is finding that the migration from southeast Arizona appears to begin earlier. Here is a chart of our recoveries to date from September 7 to November 19. The red Xs are monarchs tagged in southeast Arizona that were later seen along the California coast. The bold red X is AG210 that was just recovered by Jessica with a sun angle at the time of tagging of  58.49°. The blue Xs represent tagged monarchs that flew to Mexico. Sun angle at the time of tagging for all Southwest Monarch Study recoveries range from 66.16° to 39.22°.

So what determines migration destination from Arizona? Is it sun angle or something more? Once again wind direction during the week after tagging may play a role. We will continue to review all these factors.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Spring Monarchs in the Desert

She flew in while we were working in the yard. We paused a moment and watched, frozen in place so we wouldn’t frighten her away. It was  April 8, and we were delighted to see a female monarch stop by to visit. She flew from milkweed to milkweed feeding deeply from their flowers then rested a bit. Then she began exploring the yard and we stepped back to enjoy her Aslcepias survey.

Pineleaf Milkweed, Asclepias linaria
Pineleaf Milkweed, Asclepias linaria, captivated her interest first as she eagerly examined each branch, finally selecting one for her first egg. We were amused by her choice of the Pineleaf - usually it is not a monarch favorite. Her milkweed dance continued and after laying several eggs she rested a moment nearby.

She fluttered over to Desert Milkweed, Asclepias subulata, and Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia, patiently exploring each branch and selecting flower after flower then leaf after leaf, to lay her day’s bounty of eggs. Finally she discovered the Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, now in the early afternoon shade. She left over 30 eggs that day and we marveled at our good fortune to be outside at just the right time and place to watch her story unfold.
Arizona Milkweed, Asclepias angustifolia
Desert or Rush Milkweed, Asclepias subulata
Tropical Milkweed, Asclepias curassavica

In time there was a traffic jam on A. angustifolia
She wasn’t done. She was back the next morning – and every day afterwards for the next three weeks. In the Spring, female monarchs are not common in Arizona. We don’t know quite why this is the case. Intense, blustery Westerly winds are a hallmark of Spring in the state. Perhaps monarchs flying up from Mexico are unable to fight their forceful throws, yet one would think this would aid migrators from California. But every year a few monarchs do appear and we were lucky to see one. Usually when a female monarch arrives she will lay her eggs, rest for the night and then continue on her migration the next morning or stay an extra day at most. So to have her live out her natural life here in our yard was quite unusual.

It was a delight to see her each day visiting different corners of the milkweed patch in our yard. It was stressful as well when she discovered the young milkweed we had for a weekend sale and promptly decided the fresh new seedlings were perfect for her eggs. Luckily we were able to move most of the eggs and small larvae that we missed at first to hardier plants. All in all over 70 monarchs eclosed in our yard over the past ten days and over 60 small larvae were distributed to my “caterpillar exchange” friends and schools. Who says there are no monarchs in the desert?

Oh, the story didn’t end with this one female monarch. While most freshly eclosed monarchs stayed a day to nectar-up and then left on their migration north, a few stayed. Those that stayed mated. There are signs of new larvae on the milkweed that recently just leafed out after the earlier larvae defoliation. I asked Dr. Chip Taylor of Monarch Watch why eight monarchs were staying in our yard during a time they are hard-wired to migrate. After hearing about our above normal temperatures he said,“It's too hot to migrate. Most of the movement takes place when temps are 65-85F. Optimal temps for migration are in the mid 70s.” 

So, we’ll enjoy our monarchs while we have them. They've adapted well to our 100 degree plus high temperatures by flying and feeding early at 6 a.m., resting in nearby trees and bushes in the heat of the day and then flying again in the late afternoon until sunset.  The continued high temperatures in the coming week will likely halt this unusual late spring activity in the desert. But, still after recent highs of 107 degrees, monarch larvae continue flourishing in my backyard (see photo below). Truly this is a monarch Spring to remember!

Backyard - 5/30/14:  Three monarch larvae on A. angustifolia

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Plummeting Monarch Butterfly Population

The news is grim. The monarch butterfly population overwintering in Mexico plunged to a new low this winter. The signs were there earlier. Cooler than normal temperatures during the Spring migration delayed monarch movement into the northern part of the United States and Canada as well as slowing the growth of immatures for the next generation. The Fall migration was late mainly due to the late maturation of the migrating generation. Fortunately the weather along the migration route was warmer than usual across the board, helping monarchs reach Mexico to some degree. An early freeze could have been even worse.

Monarch Butterfly Fund -
How late? Monarchs usually begin to arrive in Mexico during the annual celebration of the Days of the Dead, Día de Muertos, on November 1 and 2. Fluttering orange wings of monarchs dancing through the skies, traditionally believed by local people to bring the return of the souls of deceased children and loved ones, were silent. Empty. No monarchs graced the skies to the lament of those holding this annual tradition dear.

Once the monarchs finally did arrive in Mexico the weather near the overwintering sites was inhospitable to further movement, cool and sometimes rainy, making it difficult for the monarchs to fly their final miles into the oyamel forest. But they did arrive in early December, nearly a month late.

When the monarchs first arrive in the oyamel forests they usually are dispersed through an area. As the temperatures get colder, they compact in clusters in the trees. Measurements of the monarch population are recorded frequently. For comparison, the count of the monarch population at the end of December, the time of the coldest temperatures and when the monarch clusters are the most compact, are used for comparison each year and are reflected in the graph above.

So the real question is, now what? We're grieving. Some are panicking and rushing into desperate plans that may not really benefit the monarchs in the long run. Take a few moments to think through what we all can reasonably do. In a conversation with Monarch Watch Conservation Specialists recently, Dr. Chip Taylor pointed out this sobering thought. "Yes, the numbers are low but they have surely been lower in the past. No one remembers the dirty thirtys - 8 years of drought and high temperatures. Based on how monarchs respond to high temps and drought in recent years it is likely that monarch numbers were lower in the late thirtys than they are now. The difference between then and now is habitat. There was more habitat then. The habitat loses now are extraordinary - over 24 million acres plowed under since 2008 and about a million lost each year due to development." You can read more important details about habitat loss in this recent Monarch Watch Blog .

Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Director of Monarch Larva Monitoring Project (MLMP), shared this sobering call to action when the population numbers were announced:"Four concrete things that people can do include:
  1. Plant locally sourced, native milkweed and nectar sources wherever possible
  2. Educate others and advocate for monarch conservation.  People can register their monarch habitats as monarch Waystations and add them to other success stories on the Monarch Joint Venture website.  They can talk to friends and neighbors about monarchs, ask local or county land managers to avoid mowing milkweed when monarch eggs and caterpillars might be present, and advocate to limit insecticide spraying at the local, state or national level
  3. Get involved in a monarch citizen science program and contribute data that will help us manage monarchs more effectively
  4. Donate money to organizations that support monarch, pollinator, and land conservation. 
Conservation  biology is essentially a science of hope, and the number of organizations and passionate individuals involved in monarch conservation across North America gives us reason for hope.  Given the conservation challenges facing monarchs and the clear evidence that their populations are declining, it is vitally important that we mobilize as many people as possible, and that our efforts are carefully planned to maximize their impacts.  For many people, monarchs represent a connection to nature that began in childhood, and our actions will allow generations to come to make this same connection." You can read more of Dr. Oberhauser's press release here.

 In response to the record low monarch population in Mexico and the increasing loss of monarch habitats in Arizona, the Southwest Monarch Study has partnered with Borderland Restoration Nursery to offer organic, pesticide-free milkweed for your gardens and nature centers. This Spring beginning in March we will have Desert Milkweed (A. subulata) and Arizona Milkweed (A. angustifolia) for the lower desert region. By May, for the higher elevations, we will have Showy Milkweed (A. speciosa), Butterflyweed (A. tuberosa), Antelope Horns Milkweed (A.asperula), Broadleaf Milkweed (A.latifolia), and for areas without horses/cattle we will also have a limited amount of Horsetail Milkweed (A.subverticillata). Your seeds are growing now. For more information as plants are available, please follow the Southwest Monarch Study Facebook page,

Milkweed seedlings at Borderlands Restoration Nursery

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Monarch Butterflies at Buckskin State Park

Tagged monarch spotted in Lake Havasu 2-17-13

We spent last weekend at Buckskin State Park in Parker, AZ, along the Colorado River. When we last visited in November we were lucky to find migrating monarch butterflies. With our unusually warm winter this year we wondered if any monarchs would still be around. Just a year ago Keith Graves tagged a monarch in November at Rotary Park in Lake Havasu and on February 17th a local resident, Karen, found the tagged monarch. Naturally we were curious to see if we could spot any overwintering monarchs around this year.

Male monarc nectaring on Lantana
It didn’t take long. We arrived after 4 p.m. and Bob took a quick walk to stretch his legs before setting up camp. When he returned he was holding a monarch! Turns out a few monarchs were nectaring on a nearby lantana. We have a permit to tag monarchs at the Arizona State Parks so we were delighted to find one so easily. While tagging is usually done in the Fall to track the monarch migration, it can also help us learn if a monarch stays in an area. Every year the Southwest Monarch Study saves tags dedicated for winter tagging to help increase our understanding of monarch behavior.

Monarch in Willow Acacia, Acacia salicina
We were looking forward to learning how many monarchs were in the area on Saturday. The night temps were on the chilly side in the low 40’s. Nearby mountains shelter the rising sun, so it wasn’t until late morning before temperatures warmed and monarchs slowly began to appear. Like last November, they still favored the Willow Acacia trees, Acacia salicina, as night roosts and many trees still had limited blooms for nectar, an ideal “bed and breakfast.” 

Male monarch on Ficus, Microcarpa retusa
We also spotted monarchs in nearby Ficus, Microcarpa retusa, as well. All in all there were approximately 25 monarchs in the area. This time we only saw two Painted Ladies and didn’t see any Queen butterflies. Monarchs ruled. Daytime temperatures were in the low to mid 70’s, perfect for butterfly activity. 

Campers Vera Walters and Cathie Hartin help tag a monarch
A few monarchs were hungrily feeding at large lantana bushes that were no longer in their prime, but still suitable nectar on Saturday afternoon. I just netted one monarch to tag, when Vera Walters and Cathie Hartin walked over to help. They both visited the overwintering monarchs in Mexico a few years ago and were surprised and excited to see monarchs at Buckskin State Park. 

Bill Williams River Natural Wildlife Area
Bob and I also drove up to Bill Williams River Natural Wildlife Area. The ranger on duty mentioned that the area was extremely dry with the deep drought, but even so we were surprised at how desolate the riverbed was on our hike. Most of the trees had died back and there were only limited pockets of green foliage of Seep Willow, Baccharis salicifolia without any blooms. We didn’t see any butterflies of any kind.

Sweet Bush, Bebbia juncea
We continued to Lake Havasu to check Rotary Park and other riparian areas around town. Nothing was in bloom but we did see one monarch flying north along Highway 95. There was abundant Sweet Bush, Bebbia juncea, all along the road that surprisingly had pockets of good blooms, but no butterflies of any kind. 

Monarch well camouflaged in the dead leaves
From our quick trip up the Colorado, the monarchs were following the nectar – and this year the nectar was at Buckskin State Park to the delight of everyone from around the United States and Canada camping.