Monarch migration

Monarch butterflies started migrating through the farm about a month ago, but I saw a few still coming through as late as last week. There are very few wildflowers left for them to use for refueling. The last of the goldenrods and asters are declining and the butterfly bush, hyssop, coneflower, milkweed, bee balm, and joe pye weed that attracted so many pollinators over the summer are long-spent.

I visited my daughter in western Maryland over the weekend and was amazed at all the monarchs stopping to fuel up on her Mexican sunflowers (of course, I didn’t have my camera with me). She has a very large flower cutting garden and they mow around it so it’s like a shining beacon to hungry migrating monarchs on their way to Mexico.

Next year, I will take my camera!

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Remembering the monarch butterfly and northern bobwhite

I got to thinking today about how common monarch butterflies were in my neighborhood when I was growing up (many years ago!) in Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. Back then, monarchs were as common as tiger swallowtails are today. I would sneak up on these orange and black beauties and gently catch their wings between my thumb and forefinger, and keep them just long enough to admire their exquisite markings and study their body parts before letting them go.

Today, monarch numbers are declining rapidly, largely due to loss of habitat (as our country grows in population) and use of pesticides for agriculture and our zeal to keep our lawns weed-free. When we moved to southwestern Virginia in 2011, I watched dozens flying south in September on their way to their wintering ground in Mexico. Every year since then, I have seen fewer and fewer monarchs. Last year, I saw only three monarchs on the farm all summer and the fall migration was barely noticeable.

Monarch on purple ironweed

Same with the northern bobwhite. There was an abandoned orchard next to our old subdivision that had become overgrown with tall grass and wildflowers where we regularly heard their whistled bob-white calls. They foraged in groups and we would see them scurrying between cover or bursting into flight if they happened to see us. Like the monarchs, bobwhites have been in sharp decline throughout the past half-century due to habitat loss and changes in agriculture. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, bobwhites have declined 85% between 1966 and 2014.

Male northern bobwhite

Bill and I made the decision when we moved to our farm to create more habitat for wildlife. We only mow around the house, and in six years, the fields that were once cow pasture have grown up into shrubs and young trees, creating a diversity of habitat and more cover and food for wildlife.

I guess our 20 acres is a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed to help these declining species. We’re doing what we can, but what I wouldn’t give to see monarchs on the wildflowers or hear the cheery song of the bobwhites once again.

monarchs on the move

Monarch butterflies are migrating, leaving their breeding grounds and making their way to their southern wintering grounds, thousands of miles away. Monarchs passed through Virginia this spring on their way north; a few spent the summer here, but most continued further north. Now, with the days growing shorter, I knew it wouldn’t be long before the monarchs came back through on their way south.

I witnessed the phenomenon of the monarch migration from Virginia for the first time last fall. I was putting in some flower bulbs when I noticed a monarch above me. A few minutes later, another passed by, headed in the same direction. To my surprise and delight, over the next few days, I watched dozens of butterflies making their way south, not in their usual meandering fashion, but making a “beeline” south.

Monarchs are the only species of butterfly that migrates both north and south, as the birds do, in a yearly cycle, but no one individual makes the entire round trip. The length of these journeys exceeds the normal lifespan of most monarchs, which is less than two months for butterflies born in early summer. The last monarch generation of the summer enters into a non-reproductive phase known as diapause and may live seven months or more; it is during this phase that the monarch flies to its overwintering site. The generation that overwinters generally does not reproduce until it leaves its wintering grounds sometime in February or March.

These fragile creatures, weighing less than half a gram, fly unbelievable distances to reach their final destination. “Our” monarchs born east of the Rockies leave the fields and forests of North America to migrate as far as 2,500 miles to the Oyamel fir trees in the Sierra Mountains of Mexico; those born west of the Rockies travel to small eucalyptus groves on the Baja California coast.

The monarch population that summers in eastern North America has been dwindling due to deforestation in their Mexican wintering grounds and a loss of milkweed, the host plant of the butterfly’s larvae, in their summer home. Milkweed plants, and many other native plants that benefit wildlife, are often bulldozed to make way for housing developments and shopping centers. Here in rural western Virginia, monarchs and other butterflies feed on goldenrod, milkweed, butterfly weed, asters, thistle, dame’s rocket, and joe-pye weed, among others.

I snapped these pictures of monarchs stopping to feast on the nectar of purple ironweed. These stops for food will help build the body fat that will fuel their long journey south.

I am sad to see the monarchs go. In a way, they are taking summer with them for their departure signals the end of the long, lazy days of summer. Gone soon, too, will be the wildflowers that once so lavishly decorated the fields, woods, and roadsides. But I know these orange and black marvels will be back next spring to start the cycle all over again. As I watch them winging their way south, I wish them well and hope that Mother Nature will be kind to them during the long journey ahead.