Kim and I spent a few days at the Niobrara Valley Preserve this week, something that has become an annual holiday tradition for us. As always, it was beautiful, peaceful, and we were alone in a big wild place – the three components of a perfect getaway. We saw plenty of wildlife, including multitudes of eagles and deer, as well as flocks of meadowlarks, robins, tree sparrows, and grouse. In addition, tracks of many other animals were abundant in the recently-fallen snow. I kept hopeful eyes out for mountain lion tracks, but didn’t see any – though I did have a strong sense of being watched one night, while out photographing night scenes under a half moon. It wasn’t just the cold temperatures that made me shiver a little.
I spent one particularly nice hour or so exploring the partially frozen river one morning, and was able to get some photos before heavy overcast skies took over. The temperature was hovering around zero, but it was nevertheless a pleasant calm morning. I enjoyed the solitude and sunrise and then walked back up to a hot breakfast before Kim and I headed out for a longer hike. Here are a few photos from my sunrise walk.
I wish you all a wonderful and happy new year; something I’m very much looking forward to myself.
Adding insult to injury, the overly-ambitious monarchs in Nebraska this spring had to deal with cold wet weather all last weekend. Temperatures got down to about 30 degrees F, and maybe lower in some places, and much of the prairie was covered in frost at least one morning. During the days, it was rainy, windy, and cold.
We’d brought several monarch eggs from our garden into the house so we and the kids could watch them develop, and the caterpillars from those eggs seem to be doing very well. When I went back to the garden, though, I didn’t find either eggs or caterpillars on the remaining plants. I don’t know what happened, but I wonder if the caterpillars hatched out and then didn’t make it through the weather. Maybe they’re just hiding really well?
Yesterday, I was out at our Platte River Prairies, and Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) and I spent a couple hours walking around and looking for caterpillars on milkweed with no luck. In addition, the frost killed the tips of most of the warm-season grasses that were just emerging from the ground, and also wilted a lot of the common milkweed plants. Interestingly, the whorled milkweed plants I’d seen caterpillars on during previous week seemed to have handled the cold just fine, but we couldn’t find any caterpillars on them. We did find a few eggs on common milkweed plants, but it’ll be interesting to see how quickly those plants recover from the frost, and whether or not they are able to provide sufficient food for any caterpillars that hatch from those eggs.
There was good news from the day, though, which is that I saw two adult monarchs, one of which was nectaring on dandelions. Maybe we’ll still see more eggs laid by this early migrant population. Temperatures for the next couple weeks look pretty good, so those eggs might have both bigger milkweeds than their earlier counterparts and better weather as well.
While it’s been really interesting to see these monarchs show up early this spring, we’ve also seen some first-hand evidence of why we’re further north than those butterflies usually come to breed. First, we were worried the butterflies wouldn’t find places to lay their eggs because the milkweed hadn’t emerged when they arrived. Then we worried that caterpillars hatched out on those tiny milkweed plants might run out of food. Now we’ve seen a frost and cold rainy weather that appears to have been hard on both caterpillars and milkweed. Our prairies aren’t exactly giving those ambitious migratory monarchs a warm welcome. Hopefully, we’ll see at least a few caterpillars turn into adults from this first generation, and their cousins further south will have better luck. If so, we’ll see our regularly-scheduled influx of monarchs in a few weeks. By then, we should be ready for them.
P.S. Let’s just take a moment to appreciate the incredible journey the monarch in the above photo has made… It hatched out of an egg late last summer, maybe even in Nebraska, and although its parents had been born near where it was born and hadn’t migrated anywhere, this one somehow knew that it needed to fly south. Not only that, it knew to fly to a particular small spot northwest of Mexico City. It somehow successfully navigated and survived the trip there, survived the winter with a horde of others like it, and then this spring, traveled about 1500 miles back north to get to the dandelion I photographed it on. It’s a friggin’ butterfly, folks! It’s just an amazing world, isn’t it?