Saturday, October 01, 2016

Chasing after monarchs

Gonna give the teal deer up front:

Banding monarchs is super fun and I am really glad I went.

So, I set off as the sun was coming up to go to the Tishomingo NWR. It's about 45 minutes from me (40 if I push it). I didn't need to leave quite as early as I did but that was fine, I wasn't TERRIBLY early. Found the spot where we were meeting (the place has changed a lot since 2015; the floods destroyed a lot of the buildings and apparently the old headquarters was condemned after the flood).

It was a small group of people. I think I came from the farthest. The program was run by the (fairly new) instructional-outreach person and the site biologist (who has been there for a while and whom I know slightly).

We headed out to the field site. One thing I learned: smartweed (One of the Polygonums, I think maybe it was P. persicaria?) is a really good nectaring plant for adult monarchs (the caterpillars, of course, have to have milkweed).  So they grow big fields of the stuff - more than I've ever seen - for that purpose. (Also, apparently the seeds make good food for overwintering birds).

The way you band monarchs is this: using a butterfly net, you GENTLY catch one. You have to sort of flip the net so a fold of the net closes over the top before the butterfly gets back out (I lost one or two butterflies after catching them by not being fast enough at that). Then you have to kind of guide the butterfly to the bottom of the net, so you can get it with its wings closed (You don't want it to flutter too much in the net so it doesn't hurt itself. Or, I suppose, burn up too much energy). You gently hold the butterfly by the closed wings, and then work its legs free (they are "brush-footed" butterflies, meaning their legs will snag in any little thing). Then, you gently hold it by the closed wings while another person carefully places the "band" on it. The bands are tiny circular stickers with a number and a numeric code on it. It gets stuck on the outside of the lower wing, in a particular "cell" (the different areas of the wing that are marked off by the black lines are called "cells"). You then gently squeeze the sticker so it's stuck on well....then you let the butterfly go. (The other person records the number and sex of the butterfly - you can tell male from female by some of the vein patterns on the wings; it got to the point where I could differentiate them)

Part of the fun was that it's just fun to be running around with a butterfly net. And monarchs are big and pretty, and as far as butterflies go, they're fairly sturdy. I worried at first about hurting them but after the first few had been banded and as soon as you opened your hand, they took off flying again, you knew they were okay. (I am sure studies have been done to be sure the presence of the sticker doesn't adversely affect survival).

The idea is, people in the overwintering territory know to look for the marked butterflies and they keep track - in fact, if you find a dead monarch with a sticker on it, you can go to the Monarch Watch website and enter it in to give them information about it. They're using the program to track migrations and also, I think, monitor population sizes.

There was something satisfying about doing it, too, even beyond it being simply fun. Maybe one of my marked butterflies will be found in Mexico - or maybe even found again next spring (the migratory generation lives 8 months or so, which is amazing for a butterfly).

Also, in a way, it was a connection to something in my past. When I was a kid, the old field next to my parents' house was full of common milkweed and my brother and I always found monarch caterpillars on it. Most years, my mom let us bring a couple into the house and raise them - and then when the chrysalids opened, we would let the butterflies go. (I didn't know then that those butterflies probably WEREN'T part of the long-lived migratory generation, but were shorter-lived ones that served to build up the populations). So monarchs are important to me and I admit I worry about the population decline. (I've even said that the extinction of monarchs would make me sadder than would the extinction of the giant panda).

Today, the group I was in banded about 50 butterflies. I did ten myself, which is pretty good for a first timer and also for someone with lousy depth perception (my left eye is a lot weaker than my right, which meant there were a lot of times I swooped for a butterfly and missed it with the net by six inches or more. I also wonder if the fact that I wear progressive lenses now affected my ability to do that. I had sunglasses on but my sunglasses have the progressives in them too).

I tried to remember the numbers but I only remember 844 and 851 as being the first two I did. They said we could look the numbers up on the website at some point in the future if we wanted to learn the fates of our butterflies (if they were found again).

I think the people running the program were pleased at how many we saw, and how many we banded - they said 50 was "a good day." (And it made me happy - that's more monarchs than I've seen in ages. JoAnne (the instructional specialist) said that she had heard old-timers say that they remembered seeing whole "flocks" of them migrating together, and you don't see them in such great numbers any more. Part of it is loss of overwintering habitat but the biggest part is probably loss of food plants for the young because of changing agricultural practices, stuff like the "roundup ready" crops means no weeds wind up in the fields, and milkweed used to be a common weed in farm fields).

1 comment:

Lynn said...

That does sound like fun.

When I was a kid I was always told that I should never touch a butterfly's wings because even the lightest touch would damage them and make them unable to fly. I accepted that well into adulthood until one day when I saw a butterfly with severely damaged wings (one side was about half gone) flitting around on my flowers as if absolutely nothing was wrong. That's when it hit me that what I had always "known" was probably not true.