Helping monarch butterflies thrive

If you follow news about nature, you may have come across warnings that the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) has been in rather dire straits for many years now.

 

These lovely orange and black butterflies live from 6 to 8 weeks when they are adults engaged in reproduction. Those who live in the Eastern USA participate in a multi-generational migration process between Canada and central Mexico. The last generation to emerge in late summer is able to delay its sexual maturity to undertake the last leg of the migratory journey (called reproductive diapause) and may live up to 8 months. Individual butterflies may travel as far as 1200-3000 miles to get to their warmer over-wintering grounds.

 

Since the 1980s, the Eastern US monarch population has declined by about 80%, mainly because the only food source for their caterpillars has been disappearing. Milkweeds used to grow abundantly in agricultural areas and along roadsides and ditches, but people have been eradicating the plants from fields and using herbicides and mowing to remove them along roads.

Climate change has also affected the butterflies’ breeding and migratory patterns so that reproduction has been reduced.

One way to help out the monarchs is to plant native (not exotic!) milkweeds in your own yard and any other natural spaces to which you have access. I’ve been doing it around my home and as a volunteer for the Mason Farm Biological Reserve. This year, I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of a milkweed give-away organized by some local high-school students, so I had two types of the plants in my yard.

 

The ones that I had originally planted were common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). These plants have large globular clusters of flowers that range in color from pinkish to purple. They do not have blooms their first year but that doesn’t stop the caterpillars from eating their leaves.

 

Butterfly weed (also known as butterfly milkweed; Asclepias tuberosa) is a bit more delicate and “exuberant” in appearance, with small clusters of orange, reddish and yellow flowers. These were the plants that I was gifted by the students and I was happy to see them grow quickly to exhibit their beautiful blooms.

According to Wikipedia, the butterfly milkweed is not a preferred plant for the monarch but this year the butterflies seemed much more attracted to it than to the common milkweed. After a few visits from some butterflies, I began seeing caterpillars and at one point counted 17 crawling up and down the various plants.

They were especially prevalent on the butterfly weed in my front yard and were munching the plants to bare stems very quickly.

 

       

To make sure they had enough food, I transferred some of them to the common milkweeds in my back yard – these were larger plants with much broader leaves and I thought this would ensure their healthy development. Frass (poop) was being left on the remaining leaves and the ground surrounding the plants.

 

It was rewarding to see three caterpillars make it to the chrysalis stage; the other caterpillars crawled away before I could see where they went, and I didn’t find them suspended from any plants. The first one had attached itself to a bare sapling and, unfortunately, the next day it had disappeared, leaving only the silken thread by which it had been suspended.

The caterpillars store milkweed glycosides in their bodies, making them toxic to many other animals. They still have many predators, however, including wasps, spiders, other insects, lizards, toads and mice. I resolved to save at least one chrysalid if I could.

I got to see the second chrysalis being formed (see the video, which is a little shaky at times). When the caterpillar is ready to undergo the pupation stage, it attaches itself to a plant stem by making a silk pad as an anchor (called a cremaster). Then it inserts the hooks at the end of its abdomen into the pad and hangs down. When the caterpillar forms a J shape, this signals the change to a chrysalis will soon be underway.

Starting from the head, the outer skin is shed, rolling up as the new covering develops. The shed skin may remain at the silk pad or fall off.

 

Slowly the stripes of the caterpillar disappear, and the chrysalis takes on a shiny even green hue, with some golden accent spots.

 

I kept that chrysalis, as well as a third one I saw the next morning, in my house and waited for them to darken. This signals the butterfly is almost through developing inside.

One morning I found the newly emerged monarch from the second chrysalis drying its wings. I took it outside so that it could fly free and then begin its trip to Mexico. (I also took the third one outside when it darkened but the twig holding it disappeared.)

 

You, too, could contribute to their propagation by planting some milkweed if you have an area for this. Autumn is the best time to plant seeds, but you can try it in the spring as well. Common milkweed typically doesn’t flower during its first year, but butterfly weed will give you flowers in its first season; the latter plants may be slow to emerge at first.

Both of these milkweed varieties are perennials so be sure to remember where you planted them. Common milkweed may spread out with time, while butterfly weed remains where you put it.

 

Other flowering plants will attract the adult monarchs, too, for nectaring, such as asters and lantana.

 

And then sit back next year and wait for the monarchs to arrive, happy in the knowledge that you have contributed to maintaining a favorable environment for their survival.

More ideas on how you can participate in the drive to save this iconic butterfly are detailed on a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website: https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/

 

What gets a birder really going? A rare bird!

People who are “into birding” are excited when they see a new bird for the first time. Many keep “life lists” – an account of each different species they have actually seen worldwide, in their country, in their state or province, or perhaps in their yard. When they see a new species, birders say they got a “lifer” – a first-time sighting in their life. Quite a few of these birders then decide to enjoy a reward – a lifer pie!

This past week, I was lucky enough to get a lifer, thanks to alerts circulated in the birding community. Doc Ellen Tinsley, the North Carolina Piedmont area’s main bald eagle researcher, also looks for other species when she goes out to see the eagles she knows. On 27 September, she was at the Jordan Lake Dam, where she often sees eagles whom she has come to recognize and know. Since it is the migration period for many birds that breed up North, she was also watching for warblers, a popular type of songbird because they are often beautifully colored.

She counted herself very lucky when she spotted a yellow striped bird that she had not seen before. After getting a confirmation of its scientific identification, she notified area birders that she had spotted a Kirtland’s warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) and it was still foraging so people might be able to see it if they came to the Dam.

Until recently, the Kirtland’s warbler was considered an endangered species as it requires a very specific habitat in jack pine forest to breed. It depends on areas affected by fire; about 6 years after a conflagration, the space will be regenerated with small trees, shrubs and open areas that are favorable for its nests. When trees grow to about 10-16.5 feet high (3-5 m), the warblers leave to find a more suitable living area.

Compared to other birds, the Kirtland’s has the most restricted geographical breeding area of any bird in the continental United States. In the 1970s and 1980s, only about 167-200 males were counted in annual surveys. Conservationists in Michigan, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, collaborated on protecting the Kirtland’s environment and achieved success. This warbler has now been re-designated a threatened rather than endangered species. There are currently about 2,300 breeding pairs who migrate south to spend the winter in the Bahamas.

 

These birds’ diet comprises mainly insects and small fruit such as blueberries. Occasionally, they will catch an insect on the wing but more usually they glean pine needles and other vegetation for their meals. Spiders, moths and flies constitute part of their diet. Adults will also ingest pine sap.

 

 

These birds place their nests on the ground, underneath the small jack pines. The males will feed the females while they brood and both parents bring nutrition to the hatched offspring. In the past, brown-headed cowbirds often laid their eggs in Kirtland’s warbler nests and this contributed to their endangered status. Elimination of cowbirds from the environment for many years has now reduced the threat.

“As a condition for the warbler’s delisting, the USFWS, U.S. Forest Service, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources signed a memorandum of understanding that the agencies will continue habitat management at sufficient levels to ensure a continued stable Kirtland’s Warbler population. Keith Kintigh, a forest conservation specialist with the Michigan DNR, says his agency will plant 1.8 million jack pine seedlings per year going forward to help maintain the 38,000 acres of suitable jack-pine habitat needed to keep the warbler population above the 1,000-breeding-pair threshold for recovered status.”
9 January 2020; https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/kirtlands-warbler-delisted-after-47-years-of-conservation-work/

It’s likely that at least 100 people have traveled to Jordan Lake Dam to see this female bird. She was very popular because she didn’t particularly hide as some birds do. (She was sometimes a bit hidden by the pine needles, but that was because she was constantly moving about in the trees.)

She was foraging for insects along rocks bordering the dam area and in nearby trees, which gave the birders an opportunity to memorialize her visit with photos. Much of the time, she was seen in the company of a male bird of the Cape May species, who look similar (left).

The Kirtland warblers’ areas in Michigan and Wisconsin are closed to the public when they are breeding. They are rarely seen so there are guided tours in those two states to enable people to spot them.

 

Doc Ellen provided area birders with a wonderful opportunity to admire this rare bird! A much needed bright spot in a year that has been fraught with calamities.

 

Finding joy in troubled times

While working on photos for other blogs, it occurred to me that it might be more productive right now to focus on what we, everywhere, are facing with the current pandemic. It’s my hope that as many of us as possible will survive, thrive and overcome the distress we are facing. As we hunker down, like this beautiful mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), we can intensify our nature observations – or begin paying more attention to the wildlife around us when we do go for walks.

 

Practicing social quarantine and distancing is essential –- even if we live somewhere where authorities are not yet requiring this. Keeping away physically from those outside our households can protect them as well as ourselves. In most places, social distancing rules still allow us to get outside for walks in the fresh air and nature. I have never seen so many people, including families with children, in the local nature reserves and that is a welcome sight. Hopefully, a side effect of this will be much more social support and advocacy for environmental conservation and expansion of natural areas, parks and reserves now and in the future -– that would be an unexpected positive outcome to the measures we are taking to get through these troubled times! (Yellow trout lily above, Erythronium americanum).

For people who haven’t had the pleasure of getting out much on walks, I wanted to share something about how to possibly enjoy nature even more. From my perspective, a key element is learning to practice patience and to stop, wait, watch and explore frequently. Here are some examples of what you might find. (Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia)

Looking down at the ground can be a fruitful exercise, especially in spring. Fresh new blooms are emerging and can delight us with their beauty (like the Eastern spring beauties, Claytonia virginica).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) – the leaves look like jigsaw puzzle pieces

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)                  Tiny bluet (Houstonia pusilla)

Common chickweed (Stellaria media)

   

Little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum)

   

Ground ivy – also known as creeping Charlie (Glechoma hederacea)

Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

If you are out with kids, you can pay more attention to the plants –- take photos of them (most reserves and parks don’t want people to dig up and pick flowers) and then look them up at home and learn about them. Or make a game out of fallen leaves –- find three with very different shapes and identify the trees.

If you look closely at the flowers, you might glimpse small bugs flitting around the blooms. If you have a camera or phone camera, try to get a photo. When you enlarge it, you might find that you have actually seen a beautiful fly, bee or other insect whose shape and colors you couldn’t see with the naked eye. If you want to identify it, post the photo to the site BugGuide.net, where entomologists can perhaps tell you what species you saw.

Parasitic fly (Goninii, above)

 

 

Greater bee fly (Bombylius major)

Various species of syrphid flies are shown below; they are often mistaken for small bees. The first photos are all of the species Toxomerus geminatus.

 

Male                                                               Female

And below the male and female together.

 

A species of syrphid fly with a striped abdomen (Syrphus torvus) is characterized by “hairy” eyes (more so in males, like this one). Click to enlarge and see the hairs.

A larger species, Brachypalpus oarus, is not so colorful.

Even if you can’t get outside much, you might see an interesting insect around your house. For example, this male brown-tipped conehead katydid (Neoconocephalus triops) appeared on my porch when I was sweeping.

Butterflies are really starting to fly around now. The bluish spring azures (Celastrina ladon) are abundant right now.

I’ve been seeing falcate orangetips (Anthocharis midea), too.

Damselflies are also starting to appear; we tend to see them earlier than the dragonflies, who spread their wings horizontally when they alight on vegetation. This fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita) was getting covered in yellow pine pollen –- much of North Carolina’s Piedmont region is bedecked in yellow dust during the spring weeks when the pine trees emit clouds of pollen.

 

Looking in the water can be productive, too. One day, I spent some time scanning the edge of a pond where the water was shallow enough to see the bottom. As I watched little fish darting to and fro, I suddenly noticed something larger moving about quickly. I looked more intently and discovered Eastern newts (also called red-spotted newts, Notophthalmus viridescens) down there – the first time I had seen these amphibians!!

When you see an Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) scurrying across the leaves in the forest or even alongside a road, stop and watch a bit. I did the other day and saw the mammal locate a winter stash and dig up some food it had stored. This article describes their storage process and reveals that they can probably remember where up to 95% of their stashes are hidden!

Paying attention to fallen logs can reveal beauty, too. This tree that fell across a creek ended up providing a growing place for common blue violets (Viola sororia).

As I walked by some other fallen trees, a common five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) popped briefly into view, gave me a pensive look and then disappeared into the leaf and twig litter.

Looking up at the trees, you might be lucky to see a wasp nest. The paper wasps (Polistes) make compartmentalized nests, with a place for each individual egg.

Or you may see a large bald-faced hornet’s nest (Dolichovespula maculata).

               

If you take the time to watch birds, you may see them engaged in looking for food (like insects, nuts, berries and seeds).

Tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor)         Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla)

Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

Blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata)                          Cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)

 

Black & white warbler (Mniotilta varia)    Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

On one of my latest walks, I heard rapid knocking and was able to watch a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) engaged in beginning a new series of sap holes, which provide sweet drinking spots for themselves and other birds.

If you’re able to look at trees, bushes or nest boxes during walks or from your windows, you might catch birds collecting materials for their nests. Just the other day, I saw a Carolina chickadee gathering up some spider web to use in a nest.

If you find a nest, be sure to maintain a good distance, but then watch the parents bringing food to their nestlings after they hatch. If you’re lucky, you may even see the babies fledge! And if you are not near any trees, watch some birds at their nests through webcams online: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/cams/ – https://www.audubon.org/birdcamshttps://birdwatchinghq.com/live-bird-cams/
https://birdcams.live/

If, at some point, we are “stuck” inside, we can follow this link to international wildlife days. If we find one to celebrate during our quarantine, we can spend some time learning about that animal and drawing or painting it. And we can do the same for other environmental days as well at this link.

To end, I’d like to share some resources with free online nature activities – for children and adults! Not all the sites require having a yard; even readers living in apartments could get out for a short walk and find something to see, investigate, etc.  Enjoy!!

 

 

 

 

Costa Rican mammals, part 2 – those quite different from our Carolina wildlife neighbors!

Seeing mammals that we don’t get to enjoy during nature outings in the Carolinas was one of the treats of my Costa Rican trip. Although we spotted spider monkeys during our outings, it was the mantled howler monkey (Alouatta palliata) that we saw – and heard – most often. My first sighting of one was last year, when its white scrotum identified it as a mature male.

These primates eat mostly leaves (50-75% of its food), designating its diet as folivorous (new word for me!).

This low-energy diet means that they sleep and rest a lot – all night and about 75% of the day! They will supplement their leafy meals with fruit and flowers, and they get their water from bromeliads and holes in tree trunks.

Their large hyoid bones amplify the sound coming from their vocal cords so that their calls echo up to 3 miles (5 km) throughout the forest.

Interesting fact: if the howler is disturbed or irritated by humans, it will sometimes urinate or defecate on them, having surprisingly good aim from high in the tree canopy!

Another arboreal mammal that everyone in our group found endearing was the three-toed (brown-throated) sloth (Bradypus variegatus). These animals are apparently quite popular with tourists and often appear in logos and signs. An orphaned sloth was brought to one hotel where we stayed; the staff let the youngster go up in a tree in the courtyard where we could see it.

     

I had seen (and touched) a sloth in a friend’s back yard in Bolivia once (right); seeing another one close-up outside a zoo was a new treat. I love how they move in slow motion. Their sluggish movement is a result of their diet – just like the howler monkeys, they are folivorous and conserve energy as a result of their mostly leafy diet.

 

That slow movement and the fact that they cannot walk on all fours, unfortunately can also be the cause of their undoing. Their movement on the ground consists of dragging themselves forward by their forearms and claws. Our guide told us that when they cross roadways in that position, drivers may not notice them on the pavement until it’s too late to avoid them. ☹

An interesting fact is that their rough hair eventually comes to harbor various organisms, including cockroaches, beetles, moths and algae. So picking them up and holding them is perhaps not advisable – both for the human who can get insects all over them and for the sloth, who can get upset by being held. (The sloth I touched in Bolivia, below, was at the base of a tree and when I put my hand on its chest, it made no movement but I could feel its heart rate suddenly increase rapidly, so I backed off!)

 

Another interesting behavior – once a week, the sloths leave their trees to defecate on the ground. At this time, they become vulnerable to predators. (The sloth in my friends’ yard unfortunately did this and was killed by a neighborhood dog.)

 

On the ground, a slender dark mammal that frequents hotel gardens, people’s yards and nature reserves is the white-nosed coatimundi (Nasua narica). These mammals are related to raccoons and people in Costa Rica will tell you that they are Costa Rican raccoons.

 

Coatis, as they are popularly known, travel both on the ground and in trees, although I only saw one arboreal individual. They usually spend the nights in trees and then come down to look for food, which includes small vertebrates such as mice and lizards, eggs, snakes, insects, carrion and fruit – a varied diet, for sure!

The coati below was busy at the side of a mountain road we walked; it was unclear to me what it was doing. There was obviously another animal there and at first, I thought it was a young coati, but I don’t think that was the case. I now wonder if another mammal had died and the coati was investigating it as a food source.

 

They do not appear to be very wary of humans; this one passed by fairly close in a wooded area. Apparently, people will feed coatis strawberries along roadsides, which will undoubtedly make them less wary of humans. This coati might have been a male as they are solitary except for mating season when they will join a female group for a time.

Another ground-dwelling mammal we saw on multiple occasions in different areas was the Central American agouti (Dasyprocta punctata). This rodent plays an important role in the forest as it is a seed disperser. Like squirrels, the agoutis bury caches of seeds and nuts for lean times; when they do not re-visit a storage area, the seeds and nuts may germinate to create new trees.

 

The agoutis eat other foods as well, including leaves, roots and fruit. They will sit on their hind legs and hold the food in their front paws to dine.

These cute animals mate for life; the young are unusual in that they are active right after birth. The mother takes them to nest sites dug by other animals so they can claim their own home burrows! The young then line their home with leaves and twigs.

It is worth noting here that the Costa Ricans are protecting their ground mammals and all other wildlife. The country was the first in Latin America to ban sport hunting in 2012; it is also forbidden to keep, import or export wildlife for the pet trade.

And finally we get to the smallest mammals we viewed during our August trip. Last year, our group had been surprised to find that a group of bats was flying into a hotel’s outdoor restaurant to roost each night. The staff accommodated the creatures, which they listed as two-lined bats. After reading about Costa Rican bats, I think these might be lesser white-lined bats (Saccopteryx leptura). It was interesting to see how they would hang by one leg as they engaged in some grooming.

This year, we came across a small group of similar-looking bats roosting under a bridge. They had white lines down their backs but appeared to be long-nosed proboscis bats (Rhynchonyceteris naso). Their colonies often number 5-10 individuals.

One of our most interesting walks took place the day after our bridge sighting. We were visiting a self-taught local artist named Cope, in La Union, Guapiles. He created a wildlife viewing site around his home where he welcomes tourists to see hummingbirds and other avians. He offered to take us into the nearby forest to find a particular owl (coming blog!), as well as a couple species of bats and some interesting amphibians.

While we may be used to thinking of bats living in caverns, various species in the rain forest have found other roosting sites. The tent-making bats (Uroderma bilobatum) create a home by biting through the middle vein of a large leaf so that the sides droop down and form a hanging shelter. The structure is recognizable and after Cope found us a couple tents, members of our group knelt or hunkered down so we could peer upwards at the sheltering mammals.

 

At one site, after photographing the bats, I unfortunately stumbled backwards after taking a photo; I startled the bats, who took off in haste. Apparently, it is known that they spook easily since the slightest movement of their leaf could indicate that a predator is approaching. Cope fortunately located another tent so that the other group members could peer upwards at the creatures.

Our guide was kind enough to use people’s cell phones to take photos of the little bats.

At another tent, it turned out that adorable Honduran white bats (Ectophylla alba) were roosting. Of the approximately 1300 known bat species, only six have entirely white fur.

These bats are frugivorous, with one fig species being a preferred food.

The Honduran white bats are unique in being able to convert lutein into a form that better helps protect the retina and it is speculated that understanding how they do this could be helpful in the treatment of macular degeneration.

Our final bat species had a different type of residence – a termite mound, which may be abandoned or actively harboring termites. I believe that the species we saw was the pygmy round-eared bat (Lophostoma brasiliense), an insectivore although it will also eat fruit. Their daytime roosting site is maintained by a resident male bat, who prevents termites from repairing the cavity made by the bats. Seeing these nocturnal mammals in an unexpected home was truly an interesting way to conclude our bat-watching outing.

 

Many thanks to Nan DeWire and Ylva Byars for letting me include photos they took in this blog. After a foray into North Carolinian wildlife in the next posting, it will be back to Costa Rica to take a look at the woodpeckers there – and elsewhere!

Costa Rican mammals, part 1 – those similar to our Carolina wildlife neighbors!

While the trip I took this past August to Costa Rica was mainly focused on birding, our guides fortunately were also quite willing to stop and look for mammals, amphibians, reptiles and insects – people after my own heart! Here I’ll focus on some of the mammals we saw, starting in this 2-part blog with those that were familiar.

Fellow traveler Nan especially was drawn to the canines we came across – there wasn’t a dog (Canis) that she was unwilling to pet!

 

And they often were very cute.

 

As we drove from one destination to another, it was not uncommon to see light-colored cattle (Bos taurus) grazing in fields. It turns out that about 75% of the country’s cattle are found in Guanacaste province (where we started our trip) and that the Brahman breed is the one commonly raised for the meat industry.

I saw mostly cows, but during a visit to southern Costa Rica last year, we also saw a laid-back steer.

 

There were horses (Equus caballus) grazing in some fields and mountain valleys.

Everywhere we went, there were squirrels scurrying about on the ground, in trees and at feeding stations. The most commonly seen squirrel in the country is the variegated squirrel (Sciurus variegatoides), which varies in color from gray hues to dark brown colors.

  

This species spends most of its time in trees and does not hoard food.

 

Their main dietary selection consists of various seeds, although they also eat acorns, fruit and insects.

   

Another cute rodent is the red-tailed squirrel (Notosciurus granatensis), which is usually found in the cloud forests and wet/humid areas.

Although in some places, people warn against feeding mammals, we saw a red-tailed squirrel enjoying fruit at a restaurant that attracts tourists with its plants that attract hummingbirds.

 

While we do have wild boars in some mountainous North Carolina counties, as well as feral swine in Eastern coastal areas, we will not see collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu) roaming our forests and woods. They share some characteristics of the pig family but are not classified as pigs.

They are both carnivorous and vegetarian, even eating tulip bulbs, which are poisonous for humans. It’s said they usually ignore humans and that was the case for this peccary, which paid us no mind as it plodded about the gardens in one reserve.

 

Our final, at least partly familiar, mammal was observed near the restaurant of a hotel where we stayed. We were lucky to see it since these animals are both arboreal and nocturnal. Fellow birder Ylva got a nice photo of the visiting Central American woolly opossum (Caluromys derbianus). Not only is this marsupial a real cutie, it is also a nectar feeder, pollinator and seed disperser so that we got to see a species that fulfills multiple roles in its rain forest habitat.

Next up – the mammals we won’t see in North or South Carolina (yet).