Photo of the Week – April 28, 2017

Ten days ago, I wrote about monarch butterflies returning from Mexico and flying much further north than is typical, and some of the risks they face because of that.  Many of you responded with your own similar observations and stories of monarchs across the country.  Since writing that post, I’ve spotted numerous monarchs both at our family prairie and in our Platte River Prairies, and reports to Journey North show monarchs have traveled even further north than we are here.

Earlier this week, my wife got to watch a monarch laying eggs on some small whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) plants in our backyard prairie garden.  A monarch (same one?) came by when I was around too, so I snuck out and tried to get photos of it but it was too cagey.  At the end of last year, Kim and I were talking about how surprisingly fast the couple of small whorled milkweed plants we’d gotten for the garden had spread.  Now we’re worried that we don’t have enough whorled milkweed to support all the eggs that have been laid on them!

A monarch egg on whorled milkweed in our backyard.

Usually, the monarch laid only a single egg per plant, but some plants had as many as three on the same small plant. Hopefully, those caterpillars will be able to make their way to surrounding plants if they overwhelm the ones they start on.

Yesterday, I went walking in our Platte River Prairies, hoping to find some eggs there as well.  I was looking for common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) but all I found was more whorled milkweed.  Sure enough, I found eggs on some of those plants too, and even spotted a couple tiny caterpillars.  All the plants I found were in prairie patches we’d burned and grazed last year.  I’m guessing the monarchs had the same impression I did of that grazed habitat – it’s sure easier to find tiny milkweed plants when there aren’t a lot of taller plants and thatch hiding them!

This tiny little caterpillar was busily munching away on whorled milkweed in our Platte River Prairies. It was just a couple millimeters long.

Whorled milkweed doesn’t usually get the accolades or attention it deserves.  In our prairies, it is often most abundant in areas where native prairies have been degraded by a long history of overgrazing and broadcast herbicide use (before we acquired the properties).  The plants are relatively small (often less than a foot tall) and have small white flower clusters and skinny seed pods.  When we’re harvesting seeds for our prairie restoration work, we try to get enough seed to ensure the species will establish in our plantings, but probably haven’t always worked as hard as we should at it.

Whorled milkweed is often overlooked and underappreciated, but is certainly proving its worth this spring.

The monarch eggs and caterpillars I found yesterday were in a restored prairie we’d seeded back in 2000.  The patches of whorled milkweed I found were over 15 feet in diameter, and some contained well over 100 plants.  I’m awfully glad now that we took the time to find and harvest whorled milkweed seeds during the summer of 1999, and wish we’d harvested even more.  Nevertheless, the plants that established back in 2000 have spread successfully and are now helping to rear the next generation of monarch butterflies.  When those caterpillars emerge as butterflies, they’ll find themselves in the middle of a large and diverse prairie community, full of flowers for them to feed on.  Eighteen years ago, that same location was a cornfield.  Today, it is giving some way-too-early monarchs a chance at survival.

This plant had both an egg and an already-hatched caterpillar. Hopefully, as it grows, it will find not only sufficient milkweed, but also abundant nectar resources for its adult life. (You can see a larger and more clear version of this image by clicking on it.  Maybe you can figure out what the little white bump is on the caterpillar’s back…  Part of the egg?  Something else?)

A Family Roundup

During the 20 years of my employment with The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, I’ve been involved in at least 20 bison roundups (we usually do two a year – one for each herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve).  Last week’s was my favorite, hands down.  It wasn’t because the roundup went well – though it went as smoothly as any we’ve done.  It wasn’t even because the weather was perfect – though it was.  Nope, it was my favorite because it was the first time it’s ever worked out to bring my kids along.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year's roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

My son John, laughing with other workers at this year’s roundup of the west bison herd at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

I didn’t get to bring all of them, but everything lined up just right for John and Daniel, who were on fall break from school and were old enough to be helpful and safe.  They had a great time, and the experience was far richer for me as well.

Now, to be perfectly clear, we don’t typically involve kids in our roundups, but I was able to supervise the boys personally and make sure they were safely doing work appropriate to their age and ability.  To begin with, both of them just watched the process to learn how the animals are moved quickly through a series of alleys and gates with as little noise and stress as possible.  Later in the day, they were both able to join in the work.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing "quality control" - helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Daniel spend most of the morning doing “quality control” – helping the recorder keep track of how many animals of each sex and age came through the alleys.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Later, Daniel learned how to use a flag to get the bison to move in the desired direction.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn't effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Unfortunately, the flag wasn’t effective at warding off his dad/photographer.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like a well-oiled machine, gates were opened and closed to sort animals as they moved through the alleys.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.

Like Daniel, John started as an observer, marveling at the size, strength, and agility of the bison passing by.  Before long, however, he took over a sliding gate.

John seemed to enjoy the experience...

He seemed to enjoy the experience…

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

Most of the bison were difficult to distinguish from each other, but a few had unique characteristics, including one with a particularly long mop of hair and this one with its kerwhacky horns.

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

This was also the first bison roundup for our two Hubbard Fellows, Katharine (middle) and Eric (right).

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Katharine did two jobs much of the day, running a gate and also recording the sex and age of the animals as they came through.

Eric hides behind a gate while bison move past.

Here, Eric is hiding behind a gate while bison move past.

Then he gets to show off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

Then he shows off his athleticism as he hurdles the fence and closes the gate behind the bison.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town, where they (fruitlessly) waited for the prairie dogs to come back out of their holes.

After the work settled down, the boys and I took a quick trip to a nearby prairie dog town.  They learned that no matter how long you wait, prairie dogs don’t re-emerge from holes while you’re sitting there.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.

The roundup was a success because of the help of many staff and volunteers, including Richard Egelhoff (cowboy hat), who recently retired from being our bison manager.