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Tuesday, July 7, 2015

What is Rarer Than a Day in June?…

D. plexippus 2015The answer? A monarch butterfly here in the Valley. The other day with hardly a flutter of wings, like an orange silk scarf loosed in the wind, one floated in on the afternoon breeze, glided about the garden, drifted from one patch of flowers to another. Choosing our aptly named “butterfly bush” (buddleia), it settled briefly to nectar… just long enough for me to snap a digital record of this highly unusual event. In forty years I’ve seen only one other monarch butterfly in the Valley and that was over twenty years ago.

There is no more iconic  North American butterfly than the monarch (Danaus plexippus). When people who can name or identify no other butterfly (even the cabbage white) hear the word “monarch,” the word “butterfly” immediately comes to mind. But for most laymen, that’s where the knowledge trail ends. From that point any large, colorful butterfly must be a “monarch.” Years ago a small local periodical—The Sky Valley News—or something to that effect printed its summer issue. The cover page featured a full page black and white photo of a “large” butterfly. Beneath its banner ran this headline: “You know it’s summer when the Sky Valley Monarchs are on the wing.” The featured butterfly is a harbinger of summer in the Sky Valley. True. But a monarch? Far from it. The cover page featured instead a western tiger swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), a large yellow butterfly with distinct black tiger stripes and a tail on the trailing end of each hind wing. western tiger swallowtailThe headline made me chuckle, and I’ve often shared the paper’s error with others more in tune with the natural world. They chuckle, too. Although the monarch is much in the news these days, most folks are not able to distinguish one large butterfly from another. Oftentimes when I’m afield with my insect net and meet hikers or passersby curious about my activity, once I tell them I’m questing for butterflies, they are quick to inform me they “saw a monarch the other day.” I politely inform them, no, what they most likely saw was an in season western tiger swallowtail.

The monarch’s markings are distinct: orange (not yellow) with black venation (not stripes), its thorax salted with white dots. The monarch is more a glider, a drifter than a flutterer (like the western tiger swallowtail); it uses air currents to good purpose, a trait that enables this unique butterfly to migrate great distances. One of the most memorable experiences in this butterfly fancier’s life was a warm September afternoon spent on my sister’s lawn in Omaha where the monarchs were on the wing. They slalomed through the trees, drifted with the breeze, and costumed in orange and black, they performed an aerial ballet. I was spellbound.A True Valley Monarch

The backyard monarch magic I witnessed was just a small number of a great swarm of insects en route to the oyamel forests of Michoacan, Mexico. The true renown of the monarch is its annual trans-continent migration. The monarchs that entertained me in Omaha that September aftenoon would pass through countless backyards before they arrived at their mountain destination in Mexico where by the thousands they will cling to the mountain firs. There, draped from the branches like autumn leaves, they’ll winter. Come spring, the return trip--unlike spawning salmon—no monarch will complete. But their offspring and their offspring’s offspring will, as far north as—and some beyond—the Canadian border where they’ll summer until their genomic trigger sends them winging southward again.

North America has two populations of monarchs: those east of the Rocky Mountain Divide and the enclave west of the Rockies. The latter population migrates to the eucalyptus groves of coastal California, Pacific Grove, Monterey County. Both eastern and western populations journey thousands of miles annually to reach their respective wintering grounds. Monarchs belong to subfamily Danidae or milkweed butterflies. As the larvae feed on their milkweed host plant, they extract toxins which are stored in their tissues and render them as adults unpalatable to avian predators (unlike the western tiger whose wings by season’s end are shredded by bird strikes).

Monarch populations are dwindling in North America. The biggest cause is habitat destruction. As agriculture, industry and housing projects increase, stands of milkweed disappear. Pesticides and herbicides used to control roadside vegetation kill both monarch larvae and their host plant. Because of extensive logging of the oyamel forests, monarchs’ wintering grounds have been reduced to mere acres. West coast populations are imperiled by the same factors. Monarch conservationists have mounted extensive campaigns to educate Americans to the plight of this truly American icon. Dr. Chip Taylor of Kansas University has founded The Monarch Watch project, a program to study monarch migration patterns and behaviors and educate people on the natural history of this beautiful but imperiled butterfly. Taylor and volunteers tag monarchs and release them in hopes whoever finds them will respond to the contact information on the tags and provide valuable data to help better understand and sustain the species. Tagged monarch the Monarch ProjectSome mid-west farmers are setting aside acreage to allow milkweed to flourish and backyard gardeners are encouraged to add milkweed to their landscaping—and avoid pesticide applications. In fact if it weren’t for our backyard butterfly bush, the rare appearance of our monarch here in the Valley may well have gone unnoticed.

(An added note on this topic. From time to time around town I see the van of a local pest control company. The rig is painted a tasteful green but plastered across the rear panels of the van where one might expect to see a giant mosquito, wasp, or whiskered rat with its ropey tail curling across the back doors is painted instead a large, beautiful monarch butterfly as if to say: “One call and your monarch problems are over.”)

Hinchliffe’s A Butterfly Atlas of Washington State gives only one Snohomish County record for Danaus plexippus. The site is near the border of Snohomish and Skagit Counties. In my collection of Washington State butterflies I have only one monarch from the state, a male I collected in 1989 in Douglas County (a county record according to Hinchliffe’s 1996 Atlas). As for our backyard beauty, “she” has appeared six times in the last two weeks. Day before yesterday she bullied a western tiger from the buddleia; yesterday afternoon she was unwilling to share the bush with an American Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui). If she returns—and I hope she does, I have no intention of including her in my collection. Not only did she lift my spirits, she was gracious enough to allow me three photos and gift me with a special memory. Besides, I’ve been to Pacific Grove and Monterey, loved both places. And though her journey will be long, in no way would I deprive her of the experience.Monarch 2015

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the butterfly lesson. I've seen a couple butterflies in the yard but don't think they were Monarch's but couldn't tell you what they are. I've also had many dragonflies get stuck in my chicken run. I was able to save one the other day by opening up the gate and shooing her out. We picked up a water fountain and two bird baths at Falling Water Gardens over the weekend. The birds and the bees are already enjoying them. I have had to save a couple bees from drowning though. Need to get some wine corks or something in some of the baths. You can see the new water features we got here: