Frosty Monarchs

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.

This common milkweed plant looked a little wilted from the frost, but looked a lot better than the warm-season grasses surrounding it.

The common milkweed plant on the left was more typical of most of the plants we saw on our walk yesterday. Note the whorled milkweed on the right side of the image (skinny green leaves) – it looks perfectly fine.

This was one of several monarch eggs we found on common milkweed plants yesterday.  We found eggs on whorled milkweed as well.

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.

This was one of two adult monarchs I saw yesterday. This one was so intent on feeding it let me army crawl to within a foot or so of it for a photograph.  Its faded color and rough-looking wings make it clear that it’s part of the migratory population that overwintered in Mexico.

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?

Hubbard Alumni Post – Chicken Wire?!

This post was written (and illustrated) by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows back in 2015-2016.  Evan now works for The Nature Conservancy in Oregon as a monitoring and outreach assistant.

When I worked for The Nature Conservancy near Wood River, NE, I lived close to a restored wetland. In late winter I would gaze longingly out my window at the clouds of migrating waterfowl whirling above the calm water. I wanted to photograph this spectacle but approaching the skittish birds through the open prairie seemed an impossible task. Then I met Michael Forsberg, famed Nebraskan wildlife photographer. I learned how he builds blinds out of garden fence and grass and sleeps in them, sometimes for days, in order to capture the most intimate moments of nature and share them with the rest of us. I wanted to learn this art too, so I decided to try building my own blind on the restored wetland. The result was a successful comic adventure that for some reason I never shared on the Prairie Ecologist, until now.

You could say I messed up from the start. The store was out of garden fence so I bought chicken wire instead, thinking it couldn’t be to different. It could. I spent most of the next afternoon pounding stakes; cutting wire, camo cloth, and grass; and zip tying it all together in the rough shape of a burrito with a hole at one end and a window at the other. The blind was placed right on the water’s edge and would have a spectacular view of ducks waking up in the golden light of sunrise. Or so I thought.

After leaving the blind out for two weeks to let the birds acclimate to it, I set out one March night with my camera gear and sleeping bag, crawled into the blind, and fell asleep to the quite murmurs of roosting mallards. I was so eager for sunrise that I had no less than five dreams of waking up in the blind. In one dream I woke up underwater. In another I woke up to find the wetland dry. When I finally did wake up, I discovered a snafu that I hadn’t even dreamt of: the blind had collapsed on me. The chicken wire couldn’t support the added weight of the morning dew, and in order for me to see out the blind’s window I had to prop the damn thing up with my head. In addition to being extremely uncomfortable, I worried that the floppy and occasionally cursing blob would scare away the birds. Fortunately, it did not. Maybe the birds thought it was too pathetic to be man-made, or maybe it looked like a decomposing tree trunk, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. I knew I was okay when a Red-winged Blackbird strolled across the top of my head.

Viewed head-on, you can see how a Great Blue Heron’s head is adapted for a lifestyle of hunting prey directly below it. It amazes me how this bird’s appearance changes from Jurrasic to cartoonish with a slight adjustment.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to the blind for giving me intimate glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It’s not often you get to see wild animals behave truly naturally, not at all concerned about a human watching them. Watching a goose bathe in the golden light of sunrise, hearing Blue-winged Teal drakes whisper soft calls to an attractive female, watching beads of water drip from a Gadwall’s impermeable feathers; these were new and beautiful experiences for me. Thanks to the blind, I saw familiar birds in an entirely new way.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

Gadwall drakes reveal their surprisingly vivid legs while foraging in the classic dabbler form.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

A Killdeer ruffles her feathers after preening in front of me.

20160407_nebraska_1760

A Greater Yellowlegs scans the water for invertebrates. This was the closest I’ve ever been to one.

Pathetic as it was, I’m grateful to that blind for giving me glimpses into the lives of birds that I never would have had otherwise. It taught me a new way to appreciate wildlife, one that requires you to become a part of the landscape. Hunters and photographers know the value of extreme patience, but in today’s fast-paced society, rarely does the average person sit in a spot for hours and watch nature’s secrets reveal themselves. A blind, I learned, teaches you that patience and provides a window to a new view of nature. I hope to build many more blinds in the future, but never, ever again out of chicken wire.