Species Spotlight: Monarch Butterfly

By Michelle Ferrell, MNA Intern

Beautiful and bold, butterflies have captured the interests and imaginations of people for millennia. Few have been as iconic as the Monarch butterfly. With a historic range spanning over 3,000 miles across North and Central America, as well as the northern part of South America, it is also the most well-traveled. Every spring, millions of these winged wonders make the journey north as far as Canada from their wintering spots in Mexico.

It’s one of nature’s most fascinating phenomena, as no living Monarch has ever made the journey before, and yet they reliably fly in the same direction, year after year. By the time they reach the northernmost part of their range, five generations of Monarchs will have lived, bred and died, leaving their offspring to carry the torch. This final generation, born in late summer, will be the lucky ones to migrate south to overwinter for eight months before beginning the journey north again the following spring.

Monarch on a goldenrod – Wendy Caldwell, Monarch Joint Venture

As many of us have seen, the Monarch is a mid-sized butterfly with a distinctive orange and black wing pattern accented with white spots. Predators should take care not to confuse it with the strikingly similar Viceroy, whose hind wings have a black line that the Monarch lacks. This small difference is important to note, because the Monarch is toxic. Its caterpillars have an equally distinctive appearance, their stout bodies banded with yellow, black and white. Because Monarchs lay their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants, the caterpillars grow up eating nothing else – rendering them their toxicity.

Largely the result of habitat loss, there has been a nearly 90% decline in the population of the Eastern monarch, which is the largest subset of the species and that which carries its migration into Michigan. The loss of habitat includes breeding grounds across the U.S. and overwintering habitat in Mexico, as well as a variety of habitats in which to rest and refuel on their exhaustive journey. This is a grave concern, as pollinators supply 1/3 of the world’s food and 3/4 of its flowers, and apart from being lovely, Monarchs are one of the most common and widespread butterfly species.

Few insects are as beloved as the Monarch. Several initiatives are underway to preserve the necessary habitats to sustain their populations, including the Monarch Joint Venture and Journey North. The Michigan Nature Association is hosting its annual Monarch March Family Fun Run & 5k at Mayor’s Riverfront Park in Kalamazoo on Sunday, October 1 to promote efforts to preserve Monarch habitat throughout Michigan.

Partnership logo

Contact Jess Foxen at jfoxen@michigannature.org to learn more, or register online. The fee for adults is $25, children $10, and includes a t-shirt and participatory medal. If you’re more into pizza than running, you can also show your support for the majestic Monarch by showing this flyer with your order at Blaze Pizza at 5015 W Main Street in Kalamazoo on September 30th from 3-7pm. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to MNA to support their mission of preserving Michigan’s natural heritage.

Read more about MNA’s involvement with Monarch conservation and keep current on other important news with the Fall 2017 publication of Michigan Nature magazine!

Saw-Whet Owl Banding at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary

The Michigan Nature Association recently hosted a project to track saw-whet owl migration at Lefglen Nature Sanctuary in Jackson County. The project leader and head owl bander was Selena Creed, who has years of experience banding raptors in the Mackinac Straits.

Saw-whet owl migration routes are well-documented along the Great Lakes shoreline, but the routes they take through inland Michigan are less understood. Given that the Sharonville State Game Area and surrounding wooded complex (which includes Lefglen) represents one of the largest contiguous habitat blocks in southeast Michigan, researchers believe it was likely they would be moving through here if they travel inland.

This year a total of 13 saw-whet owls were captured across five nights using mist nets and an audio lure. This is more than enough to prove that saw-whets are using Lefglen Nature Sanctuary and the larger surrounding habitat complex as an inland migration route through Michigan!

Selena and the team examined mostly female and hatch year owls, but were treated to a couple second year/after second year/male owls as well. One owl was a recapture that had been banded earlier this fall at Hillardton Marsh, Ontario – Selena states that recaptures are somewhat rare.

Thank you to Gary Hofing for taking very high-quality photos that provide great documentation of the banding process and measurements/data collected from each bird, including how they are aged using a blacklight to see wing molt pattern.

Water Quality Partnerships, Poweshiek Skipperling, and Dragonflies: this week in environmental news

Local land conservancies, Watershed Council partner up to safeguard water quality (The Livingston Post): Local land conservancies, including the Michigan Nature Association, and the Huron River Watershed Council joined forces in 2014, to help private land owners protect natural areas with the potential to impact water quality. This month, the partnership will hold information sessions throughout the Huron River’s watershed so that land owners can learn about the land protection process and register for free land assessment tools. The Huron River is considered Michigan’s cleanest urban river. It owes this designation both to historic land conservation efforts and to the watershed’s remaining natural areas.

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Reared Poweshiek skipperling. Photo: Erik Runquist/Minnesota Zoo.

Stopping Extinction of a Prairie Butterfly – Poweshiek Skipperling (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service): The Poweshiek skipperling was listed as endangered in 2014. Prairie loss and degradation led to the initial decline of the species, but causes of the recent sharp decline remain a mystery. It is suspected that several threats may be responsible, such as an unknown disease or parasite, climate change, or use of pesticides. Research has begun in an effort to narrow down the cause or causes of the decline.

Superheroes build homes for bats (Great Lakes Echo): The Organization for Bat Conservation in Bloomfield, Michigan teamed up with Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and crew to raise funds and awareness for bat conservation. The set from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is getting recycled wood to auction off in the form of bat houses. The auction will be held on EBay and the money from the sales will go to the Save the Bat campaign.

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This Pantala dragonfly is a male from Japan. Photo: Alpsdake/Wikipedia

Tiny dragonfly species crushes long-distance migration record by riding high-altitude winds (Mother Nature Network): Barely an inch and a half long, the Pantala flavescens dragonfly flies across continents and oceans. Pantala dragonflies are found all over the world. Biologists recently discovered that it’s not just that some Pantala dragonflies migrate long-distance from here to there, but rather that the worldwide Pantala population is one giant gene pool, and individuals from all corners of the world are freely interbreeding. More research will be needed to gather the evidence necessary to fully prove this new hypothesis about travel via high-altitude winds, but the dragonfly’s roughly 4,400-mile migration range puts it well ahead of any other migratory insect.

Lake-effect snow, monarch butterflies and the climate: this week in environmental news

Each week, MNA does a quick recap of news related to nature and the environment. Below are a few stories you may have missed this week in environmental news:

Monarch butterflies near a plot of tropical milkweed where doctoral students at the University of Georgia Odum School of Ecology are monitoring the insects. Credit Stephen Morton for The New York Times

What is lake-effect snow? Hint: it involves a lake (TIME): A timely look at the science behind lake-effect snow. Brr!

For the monarch butterfly, a long road back (The New York Times): Researchers at the University of Georgia are studying the human effects on migratory behavior of monarch butterflies. The recent efforts of amateur conservationists to replenish declines in milkweed may be part of the problem – in many cases, the milkweed available for planting is an exotic species that may lead to unseasonal breeding.

Long-eared bat listing gets pushback (Great Lakes Echo): Timber industry advocates and bat conservationists are at odds over the federal protection of the northern long-eared bat. Fish and Wildlife Service officials recommended the listing and have distributed guidelines on how to best log forests without harming bats. These recommendations suggest restricted logging from April through October, which led to pushback from the forest industry.

State of the Climate: Global average temperature is highest on record for October (NOAA): The combined average temperature over global land and ocean surfaces for October 2014 was the highest on record for October at 0.74 degrees Celsius above the 20th century average of 14.0 degrees Celsius.