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.

 

When it’s time to eat your own skin

Several years ago, I bought a couple hard polyethylene pond liners and dug two large holes in my clay and rock-filled back yard. I wanted to have a pond area and figured that two big tubs would be easier to manage and clean than maintaining an in-ground pond. So far, that has been the case except for the fact that I couldn’t keep any fish – a great blue heron managed to eat all the fish I had over the course of about 2-3 years.

That doesn’t mean my pond is not populated, however. Indeed, all the water sources in my yard have residents. Some are unwanted – for example, the mosquito larvae that I admittedly kill with mosquito dunk. The Cope’s gray tree frogs (Hyla chrysoscelis) have a preference for my rain barrels. Somehow they manage to crawl inside even when a lid is on and they deposit hundreds of eggs per season.

   

Fortunately, not all of the frog eggs hatch or my yard would be overrun and the sound in the evenings would be overwhelming. Even the half-dozen or so current adults manage to produce quite a loud concert series – I’m surprised neighbors haven’t asked me to do something to tamp down the sound!

I used to have bullfrogs in my container ponds but haven’t seen them this year. Instead, my neighbors have been lovely green frogs (Rana clamitans). One grew to a very large size and he was joined by two others of a bit smaller stature.

They aren’t very noisy, mostly croaking in the late afternoon. It must have been that sound that attracted another neighborhood resident whom I spotted one day sitting on a nest box next to the pond. The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) have spent time watching the pond before when in the mood for frog legs; this was a young hawk who had obviously been in the pond as evidenced by his wet plumage.

The pond was quiet for a few days and I thought the hawk must have had a good meal. And then, slowly, the frogs began to emerge again. There are three that sit on the rocks surrounding the larger pond although one is a bit smaller. This makes me think the hawk might have gotten one but that a juvenile frog was now accompanying the larger pair.

   

When my pond “greenies” croak, they don’t seem to get very large inflated vocal sacs. At the NC Botanical Garden, fellow photographer Mary showed me a green frog that she had been photographing and he croaked a couple times. It went too fast to get a good shot so I offered to make him “talk” by croaking at him. My pathetic attempt at imitating him really was quite pitiful, but amazingly did evoke a response. His vocal sac didn’t get really large either though.

One day, I spotted one of the yard frogs sitting on a rock, opening and closing its mouth without making a sound.

 

When I looked more closely, it seemed to have some membrane hanging on its side.

Then I saw that it was partly in the frog’s mouth and the amphibian was tugging away at it. I wondered if he was sick.

It turns out that he was perfectly healthy and staying that way by eating his own skin! These amphibians regularly shed their skin because it would otherwise harden and make it difficult for them to absorb oxygen while underwater, where they spend a considerable amount of time. So periodically, they scrunch themselves together and then stretch to break the skin so that it can be pulled off, leaving supple skin behind to better enable the “breathing” method called cutaneous gas exchange.

But why do the frogs then eat their skin? It actually has many nutrients, including calcium and proteins. I have no idea if the skin has any taste and whether they enjoy ingesting it. It seemed to be a bit of a laborious process when I watched this frog go through the process. Added to that is the fact that they actually use their eyeballs to push food down their throats and you discover that our froggy friends have quite a unique digestive process!

 

Outside my yard, I’ve not seen too many frogs this year. There was a lovely little Northern cricket frog (Acris crepitans) out and about on one of my walks.

More recently, I’ve been seeing Fowler’s toads (Anaxyrus fowleri) in the woods and parks.

 

     

At the NC Botanical Garden, I had the chance to see some rather large tadpoles sharing a pond with smaller ones.

It was interesting to see that the tadpoles first develop their hind legs and then their front legs before eventually losing their tails.

Finally, one more type of interesting creature I’ve been observing lately on walks are land snails. They don’t really belong in a blog that is about amphibians but it’s unlikely I’ll be writing one about mollusks any time soon. So, I’ll leave you here with a few photos of what I thought were some snails with beautifully spiraled shells. Have a good day or evening!

 

 

 

Hopping into springtime

I’ve been planning new blogs for quite some time; then I keep taking new photos that will fit into them and the blog writing gets delayed. But two days ago, I saw such a cool natural event that I resolved to produce a blog quickly and here it is!

One welcome feature of springtime is that many insects emerge from their over-wintering spots. Some are bugs we dislike (mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers), but others are fascinating and wonderful members of our natural systems. Pollinators like this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) keep our gorgeous plants and important food crops going and many bugs provide other wildlife with meals.

On my trip to Costa Rica last year, our guide not only pointed out birds but also some mammals and insects. He had developed an interest in treehoppers, a group of insects with about 3200 species worldwide that specialize in eating plant sap. He was unable to find any to show me, but I resolved to keep an eye open for them when I returned home. I had forgotten that I had seen my first one the year before, a pretty green Ceresini species.

As I stared at plants during nature walks, I was lucky and managed to find my first treehoppers when I was actually looking for them. These were of a dark-colored species (Acutalis tartarea) that favors the sap of black locust trees, sunflowers, goldenrod and ragweeds.

The treehoppers, which are related to leafhoppers and cicadas, are popular with some entomologists because many species have elaborate “helmets” at the top of their heads. I got to see my first example of this type on my recent walk when I happened to find a young oak tree with numerous nymphs and recently eclosed (emerged) adult oak treehoppers (Platycostis vittata).

The mother treehopper is known for staying close to the nymphs to protect them against wasps and other predators.

The hoppers get plant sap by piercing plant stems with their beaks. The nymphs have extensible anal ducts that deposit the sap away from their bodies. This is important because the concentrated excess sap, called honeydew, can get moldy.

 

                              

The honeydew attracts ants, which like the sugar-rich liquid, so the hoppers and ants have a mutually beneficial relationship.

Just how the helmet develops into an unusual shape has been a source of investigation. One team of entomologists theorized that the helmet was formed by body parts that were actually modified wings. Another researcher countered that this was impossible and that the helmet was an unusual pronotum — the foremost dorsal section of the thorax. More recently, a third group of evolutionary biologists postulated that the helmet is indeed a section of pronotum but one that developed with the aid of genes that code for wings.

In various species, the pronotum has developed into a quite unusual and oddly shaped appendage; examples can be seen in this article. When the helmet resembles a plant thorn, it is thought to aid in camouflage.

When I discovered the group of oak treehoppers, one was just in the process of emerging from its nymph form. A friend who saw the photo remarked that it reminded her of the film Alien but this process was slow and deliberate and not a heart-thumping explosive emergence as shown in the movie.

As you can see, the oak treehopper is quite a beautiful insect with its pristine white body decorated with pink/red stripes and hints of yellow. They made me think of mints and Candy Stripers (a sign of our times when almost anything makes me think of health and health-related concerns. For younger readers: young female volunteers who work under nurses’ supervision in hospitals used to wear pink and white striped smocks and thus got the name Candy Striper).

Not all the adults had the horned pronotum; some had rounded heads.

This close-up of a hopper’s face could evoke all kinds of thoughts. I thought it looked as if it had a pig’s snout. Another friend thought it looked like a grumpy old man. What do you think when you see this visage?

Or about this one, with its head upside down? (It looks a bit more “innocent”, don’t you think?)

In any event, I found these insects just adorable and I felt very privileged to have had the chance to see them emerge into adulthood. It turns out that in this species, older individuals may change color, turning a dull brown or green color. Some mottled forms may be blue with yellowish spots. It would be interesting to see those forms as well one day – or perhaps one of the other treehoppers with a different fabulous helmet!I hope you, too, are able to get out in nature during these social distancing times so that you can connect with the wonderful wildlife around us!

Awesome amphibians in Costa Rica

During my two trips to Costa Rica (so far?), it was my good fortune to see different kinds of animals besides the birds which were the focus of the trips. There are a lot of interesting amphibians and reptiles to see; in this blog, we’ll see some of the amphibians that I managed to photograph. I was ultimately able to identify almost all of them except the one to the right; if anyone can tell me which frog this is, it would be appreciated!

 

One of the most famous frogs in the country is the little (0.75-1 inch) strawberry poison dart frog (Oophaga pumilio), also known as the blue jeans frog because many individuals have a bright red upper body accented by a bright blue lower half. It turns out that the species has an estimated 15-30 color variations – in 2000, totally blue individuals were seen at the La Selva Field Station.

The female lays 3-5 eggs on a leaf and the male then keeps the eggs hydrated with water he transports in his cloaca. After the eggs hatch and tadpoles emerge, the female frog transports them on her back and deposits each one separately in a small pool formed in the crevice or hole of a tree or a large bromeliad. There, the tadpoles consume only unfertilized eggs that their mother feeds, a practice called obligatory oophagy,

 

The feeding habits of the adults (certain ant and mite species) are what makes them poisonous when touched or eaten. Their skin is toxic and humans should wash their hands vigorously after touching them.

A very tiny frog that we saw last year was the common tink frog (also called dink frog; Diasporus diastema). I’m not absolutely certain that the two shown below are tink frogs but think they are. These tiny frogs change color, having grayish brown skin with spots or bars during the day and a pale tan or pink color at night, when it is most active.

 

 

A somewhat larger amphibian that we saw at the same pond as the tink was the hourglass tree frog (Dendropsophus ebraccatus). Part of the species name comes from the Latin term ebraccata, which means “without trousers”. Some people call this frog the “pantless frog” because they think the smooth yellow thighs that contrast with its highly patterned back make it look as if it is not wearing pants. These individuals had patterns on their thighs, however!

The attractive hourglass frogs were in an amorous mood when we spotted them. The female chooses her mate and he mounts her to deposit his sperm. She then will seek out a suitable place for her eggs, either in the water or a leaf overhanging water. When the arboreal eggs hatch, the tadpoles roll off the leaf into the water below.

These frogs are of interest to scientists because their skin contains bioactive peptides which have anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and might even have therapeutic properties useful in treating diabetes.

 

The pond had quite a few frogs in residence and several brilliant forest frogs (Lithobates warszewitschii)were among them. They are slender-looking frogs with pointy heads. Their sides are apparently always darker in color than their backs.

 

 

Their coloring seems to vary somewhat, being browner in some individuals and featuring more green highlights in others. They tend to have yellow spots on their legs.

They do not have vocal sacs or slits but do make trilling sounds.

 

 

We were lucky to catch a glimpse of a red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) at the pond. Although some lodges will ask you to avoid using a flashlight during night-time walks to see amphibians, it’s very difficult to spot them without some use of a light. That’s how we managed to spot the tree frog.

We came across the Canal Zone tree frog (Boana rufitela) taking a daytime nap, right out in the open on a large leaf next to a walking path. This frog is also known as the red-webbed or scarlet-webbed treefrog. It used to have the scientific name Hypsiboas rufitelus, which was changed for a reason I couldn’t determine.

The smoky jungle frog (Leptodactylus pentadactylus) is Costa Rica’s largest frog species; males grow to as much as 7.3 inches (18.5 cm). The adults are so big that they can eat small mammals (e.g., bats), small birds and lizards. They have some interesting characteristics. In contrast to the little blue jeans frogs, who only lay 5 or fewer eggs, female smoky jungle frogs lay about 1000 eggs at a time! They can secrete copious amounts of mucus, which makes them difficult to hold for predators; in addition, these secretions are toxic. They can even vaporize the toxin, causing people to sneeze and get swollen eyes.

What has further contributed to making them famous is the alarm call that they emit when captured; some liken it to a human person screaming. It doesn’t sound like that to me; rather, what I heard in a video sounds to me like a sound that a distressed cat might make.

That brings us to Costa Rica’s largest amphibian, the cane toad, also known as the marine toad. They are not only this Central American’s biggest amphibian, though; they are the largest toad in the world, growing as long as 9 inches long (22.86 cm) and weighing up to 3.5 lbs (1.59 kg).

This animal has also gotten a new scientific name; while it used to be called the Bufo marinus, it is now known as the Rhinella marina. Like some of the frogs, this toad has toxic skin and they are especially dangerous for dogs.

They were introduced to different countries to control pests as they have voracious appetites. Now they are considered an invasive species and pests themselves.

In 2018, I came across these toads in different places. There are a few living around a fountain in the hotel in San José where our tour groups stayed; they enjoy taking a shower under the running water.

To end today’s offering, I’ll show you the frog that really fascinated me most — the reticulated glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium valerioi). Our guide, Cope (who showed us the awesome spectacled owls and bats shown in previous blogs), led us to this awesome amphibian. It has a green and yellow back but its ventral (abdominal) skin is completely transparent! The frog’s heart is covered by white tissue and its liver and digestive tract are also white. Here you see the male frog on a leaf guarding eggs – he actually looks pretty much like the egg masses!

Isn’t nature endlessly interesting? Next blog: Costa Rican reptiles!