Winter Elixir

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at the Butterflies and Blooms Habitat in Eatonton, GA

She’s decided to just take it easy, amidst the perennials at the Butterflies & Blooms in the Briar Patch Miracle, in Eatonton, Georgia. It’s just past 8:30 A.M with the sun not yet fiery hot. Yesterday’s nectar haul was chef’s choice, thanks to Virginia and her band of merry volunteers. Those eggs she’s nurturing are not yet ready, and the boys know that she’s already cooked.

Weeks aloft have taken some toll on her wing scales, but she remains a looker, what with those comely white spots shot out from their black margins.

The thing is We cannot see a Monarch butterfly now. The offspring of this one are now safely in central Mexico, high up in fir trees, awaiting the signal that even Our best biologists/molecular biologists do not yet understand.

So, we share this as a winter elixir, a sweet teaser with future implications. Winter will recede, Spring will taker over, and one day in June, Virginia will broadcast far and wide, the . . . Monarchs are back!

Jeff

Anxious Monarch Watchers

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

She was the only butterfly that did that. As I approached her, on that spent wildflower head, I slowly raised my macro-lens toward her. She did it. She turned her head to the right, and looked at me. It never happened before and it hasn’t happened since. What do you make of a butterfly that did what 314,295 haven’t done? I was surprised, very surprised.

I haven’t seen a Monarch yet, this year, in 2016. When I travel to Maryland next week, will I see my first? Will that happen in Frick Park, my neighborhood park here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Must I wait for the first week in June, when I will be in Chapman State Park and Allegheny National Forest and then, when I’m doing a field walk at the Jamestown Audubon Center on June 3rd?

Danaus plexxipus, has given us fits in recent years. Americans are concerned about our economy, our role in the world, jobs, job security, and the education our children are getting in our beloved public schools. We added to that long list, a legitimate concern that we could lose the inspirational arrival and departures of Monarch butterflies like this one. Social share a photo of a 4th grade class delicately handling monarch caterpillars, and hear a multitude of inspired sighs from millions who love this American butterfly.

I’ve seen celebrities in person: Lloyd Bridges, Mike Tyson, Diana Ross and Kirk Douglas come to mind. Meeting a Monarch excites me as much or more. Honest.

Jeff

Two Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterfly photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

Two beautiful, sun-filled hours working the Nichol Road trail and Doak field. Raccoon Creek State Park has time and again been my preferred destination. No other Pennsylvania state park within a 90 minute drive enjoys such rich and diverse butterfly populations. Doak field had to have 10,000 Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) in flower today. Typical for the first week in September.

As I worked the Doak field trails, my focus was on finding butterflies nectaring on the goldenrod. Nothing. Nada. Not a single butterfly was on a Solidago flowerhead. How can that be? I’ve seen butterflies feeding on goldenrod. Today, No.

So as I approached the later morning, and quitting time came closer and closer, I no decided to no longer continue my goldenrod hunt.

Moving along the southeast edge of the field, I was very surprised to have flushed up a Monarch butterfly, that had been . . . nectaring on goldenrod.  Just like the Monarch in this image was doing. Ok, so I did see a Monarch on goldenrod, this 2014 year with its near total absence of Monarchs.

Be cool Jeff, continue on your way, that sighting, a 1 in a million, literally.

I moved 10 feet forward . . . another Monarch sped up and away, it also was on goldenrod. Truth be told, I could not believe it. All morning I wanted 2 things, to see/photograph a Mourning cloak butterfly and 2) to capture a photo of a fresh Monarch on goldenrod. Skunked, I stopped looking. Then . . . .

Which of those two Monarchs will reach Louisiana by October 1st? I’ve driven from Pittsburgh to Mississippi twice. Imagine flying there on gossamer wings . . . no A/C, no music, no GPS, no cushiony  seats . . . .

Jeff

Male Monarch Butterfly

Monarch caterpillar photographed by Jeff Zablow at Raccoon Creek State Park

You will always be asked, “How can you tell whether a Monarch Butterfly is a male or a female?” It is asked each and every time I show photographs before groups of adults and children.

It’s August 17th and this butterfly is resting on a Common milkweed leaf (Asclepias Syriaca) at Raccoon Creek State Park in Hookstown,  Pennsylvania.

This powerfully built butterfly demonstrates how to discern the sex of male and female Monarchs. Do you see that black patch on his left hindwing vein? Only males have these scent glands, one on each hindwing. If you see a Monarch and it doesn’t have two black scent patches, it’s a female. If it does have a black scent patch on each hindwing, it’s a male.

2013 has got to be a bummer for male Monarchs. With so few females about in the 48 continental U.S. states, males have more than the usual patrolling to do to find a mate. No time to waste!

Jeff

 

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar

Monarch butterfly caterpillar photographed at Raccoon Creek State Park, PA

It’s July 24th at Raccoon Creek State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania. Because it’s just minutes after 9 A.M. the sun’s rays are just beginning to warm up this stand of wildflowers.

Our Danaus plexippus caterpillar has gorged on Butterflyweed leaves (Asclepias tuberosa) and remains satisfied and sluggish. The following day it may have moved to Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and continue nourishing itself.

These milkweed plants provide the glycosides that add a whole new dimension to this species. Those glycosides aren’t digested by the caterpillar. Instead, they remain unchanged and stable. The metamorphosis from caterpillar to adult ends with those same glycosides present in the adult.

That’s why I have never seen a Monarch caterpillar that bears predator damage. I have great difficulty remembering having ever seen a Monarch butterfly that had wings or other body parts that showed the ravages of a predator.

I have seen birds attack Monarch adults . . . and spit them out as quickly as they have mouthed them. The birds appear to be repulsed by something about the Monarchs.

What is that something? The glycosides. It must be a very, very unpleasant taste.

So our caterpillar rests in plain sight of any and all predators. Soon it will descend down the stem and remain out of sight until much later in the day. Some days later it will work to fasten itself to a plant stalk and then . . .

Have a look at our image of a Monarch Chrysalis.

In 2010 we saw reduced numbers of Monarchs. 2011 brought an increased number. What can we expect of 2012?

Jeffrey