Displaying items by tag: Dinosaur National Monument

On September 11-13th, a team of National Park Service staff, volunteers, and myself as the LHIP Science Communications and Resource Monitoring intern surveyed the Green River for Monarch butterflies at all life stages. We floated from the Gates of Lodore (River Mille 243) to Split Mountain Boat Ramp ( River Mile 200). The survey was completed with 15 instars in various stages, 15 eggs, and no adult monarchs. Monarchs in any of these life stages were last found at river mile 240. The survey began at the end of a major storm that brought winds of 50+ mph, below freezing temperatures along with snow and rain. On the 11th the weather began to clear up and temperatures rose steadily with an average of 75° until the end of the trip. Milkweed was spotted consistently from Gates of Lodore Canyon to Split Mountain; it did become patchy in areas like Echo Park, Whirlpool Canyon, and Split Mountain. However, there were not many plants in bloom with sporadic and few nectar sources along the river. The predominant nectar sources were rabbitbrush, goldenrod, and purple species of Asters. Several of the Milkweed showed signs of predation and even stem cutting that’s associated with 5th instars. As well some empty chrysalis and empty eggs were found below river mile 240.

Gates of Lodore Canyon (river mile 242-227) This is where we had the most success on various beaches with strong showy milkweed patches. The upper part of the canyon above Winnie's Rapid is where all instars and eggs were sighted.

Whirlpool Canyon (river miles 223-214) Little to no milkweed in the upper part of the canyon but the lower areas near Jones Hole had various sites with milkweed.

Island Park/Rainbow Park area (river miles 213-208) Had very few milkweed patches or desirable habitat for breeding. However, a good area for adults due to abundant nectar sources and roosting sites.

Split Mountain Canyon (river miles 207-201) Had few milkweed patches, mostly all in direct sun and tough. Not a lot of pollinator plants.

Comparing to last year’s Green River survey they were able to catch adults and observe Monarchs in all their life stages. However, they also noted the patchiness of milkweed along the riverbanks and had more success in capturing and tagging Monarchs. Likewise, the 2019 trip faced a similar bout of bad weather that included rains and lower temperatures. Additionally, since the 2019 trip departed at a similar date one can hypothesize that our low numbers, this year, are attributed to the severe storms that came through the area. That significantly and rapidly changed the climate conditions shocking the milkweed, nectar sources, and Monarchs themselves. If there is a 2021 survey, I hope it can be done in a similar time frame and with consistent weather (No storms), to serve as a control. That will either support the hypothesis or present new questions about how Monarchs move through Dinosaur National Monument.

To look back on the trip, a lot of questions come to mind. Did we not see any adults due to the weather? Were we too early or too late? Yet, it is hard to say what influenced the lack of sightings and why they stopped at Upper Lodore Canyon. It could be caused by the severe storm that rolled through the area and left a lot of the Milkweed flattened by the strength of the winds. Coupled with a sharp drop in temperature that decimated many of the pollinator plants and their flowers. Additionally, we will see another generation born on the river from the instars found that could make their way South and be tagged.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Tuesday, 22 September 2020 23:19

Electrofishing: The Easiest Way To Catch Fish

At Dinosaur I've had the great fortune of participating in numerous opportunities. I can now say that I've drawn blood from a Prairie Dog and tagged a Monarch. Yet, electrofishing was by far one of the most interesting experiences I've had, especially since it tested my hand-eye coordination. In the morning, I had the opportunity to meet the staff from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) that would be guiding us on our mission. On the excursion, were one biologist, two boat operators, and two technicians who have worked their way through the Green River surveying for native and nonnative fish. To monitor and manage the river’s fisheries and ensure that endangered native fish populations are healthy.

 

Before we could set off, the group had a safety discussion with a focus on electricity and water. So, the safety discussion mostly focused on electrofishing and how it works. Essentially, electrofishing is a tool to capture large quantities of fish for scientific research. It works by transmitting a charge of electricity between two metal balls that act as a cathode and anode, hanging off the bow of the boat. The amperage of electricity discharged between the cathode and anode is determined by the boat operator. It’s set to a level that temporarily shocks the fish allowing a technician enough time to scoop it into the boat. The shock is not strong enough to affect fish that are more than a couple of feet away from one of the balls. On larger fish, the shock would leave them shaking for a couple of seconds after pulling them out of the water. However, all the fish are safe and alive and return to the water once they’re processed.

 

Once on the river, the generator turned on and electricity flowed through the water. While standing on the bow of the boat with net in hand I assured that my feet were fully placed on a black mat. This mat acted as a kill switch incase someone were to go off the mat, it would turn off the electricity preventing someone from getting shocked. So, as I consciously tried to stay atop the mat my eyes were focused on the water below. As we moved down the river the water was mostly cloudy with only a few shallow areas that provided clarity. So, that required fast reactions when you saw a fish emerge shocked from the murky waters below as you attempted to net it as the fish, and you are both moving. This usually led to missing a lot of fish, especially when passing over a large group that shocked 5+ fish at once. Yet, we were still able to catch a large amount of native and nonnative fish.

 

When the boat collects enough fish it stops on a riverbank or sandbar and begins to process them. Usually 10-15 fish would be caught before stopping, to ensure that they would survive. Some of the native fish that were caught were Blue-Headed Suckers, Flannel mouth Suckers, and the endangered Razorback Sucker. The nonnative species that were caught included Smallmouth Bass and White Suckers. The process for the native fish began with checking fish for a PIT tag, if they have one it will read out a unique identifier. Once that data is collected the fish is then weighed, measured, and released. If the fish doesn't have a PIT tag one is put in and recorded, the PIT tags act as an electronic identifier of individual fish. If endangered species like the Razorback Sucker don't have a PIT tag one is injected, and a sample of the fine bone is taken for genetic testing. Nonnative fish have a different fate they are checked for a PIT tag, and then weighed and measured. After that they are killed to manage their populations and prevent dominance over native species. It is a sad fact of conservation that sometimes the best thing we can do for an ecosystem is to remove the flora and fauna that humans introduced.

 

Published in EFTA intern blog
Sunday, 16 August 2020 18:00

Prairie Dogs: Fighting the Sylvatic Plague

Prairie dogs (Cynomys leucurus) are a common sight throughout the West. You can find them in your yard or tearing up your field. They're almost as common as squirrels or raccoons. However, in their natural habitat, their lives are much more difficult. From fending off predators to habitat loss and disease. This particular species of prairie dogs is the white-tailed prairie dog. Like other prairie dogs species, their range and populations have drastically reduced, due to massive eradication efforts that began in the early 1900s. Yet, they are a resilient species and continue to thrive even though they once faced burrow poisoning and complete eradication from States like Wyoming.

Now, they face another existential threat. That comes in the form of a bacterial disease known as the Sylvatic plague. This is the same bacterium that causes the Black plague. If this plague is found in any individual prairie dog it can easily be transmitted across an entire population, with deadly results. Thus, Wildlife Scientist and Technicians in various agencies from NPS, BLM, and USDA are surveying numerous Prairie dog populations and vaccinating them against the Sylvatic plague.

But before they can set out the vaccines they must first capture as many Prairie dogs in the determined study area and collect various data points about each individual prairie dog. Once they are captured they're taken to the outdoor processing station to have their ears pierced with a numbered tag. The tag number is then marked on their heads. So, they can later be identified when they are recaptured in a month. After tagging their weight is taken and their sex is identified. Finally, blood is drawn to run various analyses and act as a control. They are then put back in their cage and soon dropped off at the burrow where they came from. This process is repeated on every individual prairie dog.

In a week from now, small gummy like vaccines will be left by their burrows. A month from then they will be recaptured and blood will be drawn again to see how many have taken the vaccine and given them a fighting chance against the Sylvatic plague.

 

Published in EFTA intern blog
Tuesday, 21 July 2020 22:25

Into Dinosaur: My First Two Days

Well, I finally made it to Dinosaur! Before I get ahead of myself, I am Luis Garcia Falcon. I am a passionate outdoors person, nature photographer, and advocate for preserving our natural treasures. This summer I will be continuing the Monarch project and doing science communication at Dinosaur National Monument located 25% in Utah and 75% in Colorado. As I am writing this, I have only been here for two days. It was a long trip to get here from Miami, Florida. However, the actual drive to the park was around 5 hours long and included a beautiful overlook of the Rocky Mountains and long stretches of lonely state highways.

The first two days at the monument have been amazing! On my first day, I met with my supervisor and we went over the various materials I will be using to survey the Monarch butterflies, measuring night sky quality, and all the general administrative tasks. Later in the day, my supervisor and I went up Harper's Corner Road to take in the sights and familiarize myself with the monument. One of the things you notice immediately is the livestock. Specifically, the cows that graze throughout areas within and outside of the park boundary. It was interesting to see the mixed use of resources in this area and looking forward to learning more about how it works. We stopped on Harper's Corner Road to take in the views of Echo Park in the canyon pictured below. 

On my second day in the park, I met with my supervisor at Josie Morris Cabin, which is on the Utah side of the park. This historic homesteading cabin was built-in an oasis, at least for Monarchs. This area is well-known as one of the most productive habitats for these butterflies. Since, it is near various water sources that create wet meadows and other riparian conditions that allow for various species of milkweed, Canada Thistle, Rocky Mountain bee-plant, and numerous other plants that Monarch’s need to use for feeding and various parts of their life cycle. Pictured below is an image of the first Monarch I tagged. 

Well, I hope I have more stories to share with y'all soon!

Thank you, 

Luis Garcia Falcon

Published in EFTA intern blog
Friday, 24 April 2020 00:03

Luis Garcia Falcon

I am a passionate advocate for the natural world and science communicator going to Dinosaur National Monument! I was born in Cuba and moved to the United States of America at the age of five. Now, I live in Miami, Florida where I spend the majority of my time in the Everglades, Florida Springs or Pine Rocklands photographing its unmatched beauty. I am a senior at Florida International University graduating with a bachelor's in Sustainability and the Environment. My interests include the full range of the environmental field from research and policy to communications. Specifically interested in how scientific data can be used to promote ethical and equitable conservation of natural resources and environmental justice of underprivileged communities. Once I graduate in Spring 2020, I will be going to Dinosaur NM to study the Monarch butterfly population of the Great Basin region, as well as to work with local communities and visitors to share the project and connect them with the natural resources around them. After the project, I want to continue my education towards a Ph.D. in the Environmental and Conservation field.

 

Published in Intern Bios
Friday, 11 October 2019 16:44

The Sun Sets on My Internship

On the last day of my LHIP internship at Dinosaur National Monument, I want to share some of the results of my work on monarch butterflies. First, in my field work this summer and fall, I saw around 300 adult monarchs. These high numbers have suggested that the monarchs in this area might be part of the eastern monarch population that migrates to Mexico rather than the western population that goes to California. The California migrating population is currently so small that all the monarchs I saw this summer probably aren’t part of that population. To prove this hypothesis, we need a tagged monarch from the area to be sighted at an overwintering site in California or Mexico. My Dinosaur colleagues and I caught, tagged, and released 151 wild adult monarchs for migration research with the Southwest Monarch Study. Unfortunately, none of the tagged monarchs have been recovered elsewhere to date (though we recaptured several of our own monarchs in Dinosaur days or weeks later). I hope to receive news later this year that one of our monarchs was seen again. When catching monarchs, we also sampled them for parasitic infection by removing some of their scales with a sticker. We will send 116 samples to Project Monarch Health at the University of Georgia for analysis of infection intensity in our monarchs.  

My field work also consisted of surveying milkweed plants and monarch populations in Dinosaur and around the local area, including on federal, state, and private lands. My surveys also consisted of Dinosaur’s first ever river-based survey for monarchs and milkweed. In total, I found over 100 monarch eggs and over 100 caterpillars at the various milkweed sites that I visited. I sent 146 data sheets about my surveys to the US Fish & Wildlife Service via a tablet app. The data I sent will help USFWS determine whether monarch butterflies need to be listed as an endangered species. Further, since there had been limited monarch research in this area prior to this summer, my work was new and important to USFWS.

When I wasn’t doing field work, I was working on science communications. In addition to my blogs, I wrote some social media posts about monarchs that you can find on Dinosaur’s Facebook page. I also helped plan and administer a number of educational programs this summer: a public monarch tagging event, a middle school field trip on monarchs, a public presentation of my research, and two middle school presentations. While in the field, I also made informal, unplanned contacts with about 100 Dinosaur visitors. I think that each person I interacted with this summer learned a bit about monarchs, and I hope many of those people will become monarch citizen scientists.

To end, here’s a few more things I learned this summer. They aren’t necessarily about the best way to catch a monarch or how to identity monarch caterpillar chew marks on a milkweed leaf, but I still find them interesting and important.

National park service staff and volunteers are the nicest people around 

Maybe it’s because they’re the people who choose a career in public service. Maybe it’s because they’re the ones whose job is to protect cultural and natural resources. Or maybe it’s because it’s their jobs to make people feel welcome in and informed about America’s treasures. Regardless of why, it’s clear to me that NPS folks are the nicest ones around. I’m very thankful to have been welcomed to Dinosaur National Monument by all the staff here.

When you put on the name badge in a National Park, people will talk to you. So much

I think people are really curious when they visit a National Park. Further, anyone with a name badge or park service uniform is viewed as an interpretive ranger who can answer any and all questions. A few times as I was just walking through the campgrounds looking for monarchs, I was asked pretty specific questions about camp site logistics. Of course, I had to answer that I had no idea. At Josie’s Cabin in Dinosaur, where I did a lot of my monarch work, I would be asked about where to find hiking trails and petroglyphs. Mostly though, people asked me what in the world I was doing when I was wielding a butterfly net or intently studying milkweed leaves. I’m so glad to have had the chance to talk informally with so many visitors. I got to show people monarch eggs, caterpillars, and butterflies. I told people about the research I was doing and anything else they wanted to know about monarchs. Since citizen science is so important for monarch research, it is really important that as many people as possible are keeping an eye out for monarchs and reporting their observations.

Most everyone knows something about monarch butterflies

“Ah, they go to Mexico, right?” “Don’t they need milkweed?” Or people have had some experience with them. “My aunt counts them in Minnesota,” “I’ve seen caterpillars in my garden,” “I used to see a lot of monarchs when I was a kid but now I don’t see them,” “I once collected a monarch caterpillar, put it in a jar and let it pupate, and when it emerged while I was at school its wings got damaged from being in the tight jar all day so I found a dead monarch on the front of my school bus, cut off its wings, and glued them on to my monarch and it took a second to figure them out but then it flew off” (Shoutout to Dinosaur’s quarry exhibit hall shuttle driver for telling me that wing transplant story, which is obviously my very favorite)!

Thank you to everyone at the LHIP program for this opportunity to work with the National Park Service and study monarch butterflies. Thank you also to my supervisors at Dinosaur National Monument (plus all the staff there) and the many other people in the local area who I worked with this summer. 

Published in EFTA intern blog
Monday, 07 October 2019 23:38

My Guide to Catching Monarch Butterflies

Throughout my internship experience researching monarch butterflies, I have been trying to encourage people to become monarch butterfly citizen scientists. A citizen scientist is someone who isn’t a professional scientists but can still contribute to important research. In the case of monarch research, citizens can be involved with about everything, including catching and tagging monarchs for migration research. The more citizen scientists there are reporting tagging monarchs, the more we can learn about migration. As such, everyone reading this blog should become a citizen monarch tagger, whether with the Southwest Monarch Study, Monarch Watch, Monarch Alert, or another organization that provides tags.

I’m here to provide you with a few tips on how to catch monarchs so you can get into tagging. Of course, nothing substitutes for experience and hands-on learning, so I hope interested people go out and try netting monarchs themselves. Most North American monarchs should be migrating south now, so maybe you can catch a few migrators. If not, you can work on catching and tagging next summer. Study these tips to learn how to catch monarchs.

Find your study site

To catch and tag monarchs, you need a place that is going to have a decent number of monarchs. In my experience, patches of flowers draw in the most monarchs. Further, I had my best luck catching monarchs when they landed on flowers to drink nectar, not when they were flying around. You may have to get out and scout a bit to find a place with monarchs or connect with others in your community who know where monarchs might be.

Time it right!

If I’d written this for you back in August, I would have told you to wake up early and get to your site at 7:30 am or so if you wanted to catch monarchs. Doing so would position you to catch monarchs when they are waking up for the day and beginning to feed but before they have warmed up to much and gotten too quick. However, if you’re trying to tag later in the year – say September or even October – you need to wait until a little later in the day when the sun is out and shining, warming up the monarchs and encouraging them to start moving. It seems like the ideal weather for monarch catching is probably somewhere in the 60s with the sun out and no wind. Your ideal catching time will depend on where you are and what time of the year it is.

Watch for Monarchs

When you get to your site and get out your net, start scanning around through the air, any nice patches of blooming flowers, and tree branches where monarchs may have landed. Keep watching until you see a big, bright orange monarch float around and land on a flower or some other vegetation. Realize that any efforts to chase a flying monarch will likely prove futile. Monarchs can fly very fast to get away from you. Unless the monarch is actively flying toward you, you’ll want to be patient and let it land somewhere. Then, start making your move.

The Approach

This is something I tried to perfect throughout my internship. You’ve got to got close enough to the monarch to be able to net it, but not so close that you startle it and cause it to take off. (The netting distance will depend on whether you have a super extendo net like me or a shorter one). Move quietly and smoothly up behind the butterfly at a deliberate, but not necessarily slow, pace. Try not to stomp too loudly or swish around too much vegetation. Monarchs get pretty busy eating and sometimes they’ll open and close their wings a few times, maybe in delight at some wonderful nectar. They hardly expect to be netted if they haven’t heard or felt you come up. Meanwhile, you also don’t want to wait too long before you swing because the monarch might notice you and fly off. As Wayne Gretzky (and maybe Michael Scott) may have said, “You miss 100% of the monarchs you don’t even get the chance to swing at.” Anyway, when you’re close enough to the monarch, don’t delay. Take a breath and…

Swing!

Again, monarchs are pretty good at evading being caught, so you’ve got to swing fast, like you really mean it. You’re not going to catch a monarch with a slow swing. I usually swing from high to low to put the net over a butterfly. You can also swing horizontally at the butterfly, especially if it’s flying and you can’t go over it. If you miss on the first swing, you’ll still have a second for a quick second swing to try to get the monarch before it’s gone. On the swing, make sure you follow through. When I was a little kid on the court learning to follow through on my tennis and basketball strokes, I don’t think I ever would have imagined the follow through is also critical in butterfly catching technique. It certainly is though. You’ve got to swing through the butterfly, not chop at it, to get it all the way to the back of the net. Then, twist to “close the door” on the net, preventing any escape. Nothing’s going to hurt your heart more than having a butterfly in the net for a second only for it to escape and fly off at dazzling speed. You can also pinch the net closed with your free hand for extra safety.

Celebrate Accordingly

This one is quite important for a new catcher. It’s not that easy to catch a monarch. I’ll be honest, even I whiff or scare away several monarchs for every one I do net. So, you’ve got to celebrate a little when you do get one. I liked to throw out a fist pump and maybe a “Let’s go!” This is serious research business on a species in decline. But we’re also out there catching butterflies like kids after butterflies, so you might as well have a little fun with it. Never get complacent about how cool it is to catch a migratory monarch butterfly and never stop feeling like an excited kid. And, never forget to tag your monarch, take notes on it, and to send your data to whatever organization provided your tags.

Published in EFTA intern blog

During my internship, Dinosaur has caught and tagged 150 monarch butterflies. (Pictured is a mosaic of pictures of most of our tagged monarchs). Out of those 150 catches, some stick in my memory as particularly special. Without further ado, here’s the list of the five best monarch catches of my internship.

#5 The 100th monarch

The actual catch on this monarch was nothing too special, but there was much fanfare about catching and tagging our 100th monarch of 2019. At the end of the day on September 2, I was counting up the total number of tags we’d done so far and I got to 97, 98, and then 99. The next butterfly we tagged would be number 100. My excited supervisors joined me in the field the next morning to find number 100. I definitely wanted to be the one to catch it, so I was sort of racing against them to get the first catch. Eventually, I snagged a monarch when it landed on the branch of a little tree. Then, we did a special tagging and release of this 100th monarch. It was exciting to hear soon after this catch that for about every 100 butterflies tagged during peak migration time, 1 can be recovered. A 1% chance is not too bad, and I’m sure hoping that tagging 100 butterflies means we will get a resighting. For full news coverage of the 100th monarch, check out this Instagram post.

#4 The field trip run down – definitely my most athletic catch

As mentioned in a previous blog, this happened when I was catching butterflies to tag with a group of middle school students on a field trip to Josie’s Cabin in Dinosaur. Carrying just one butterfly in my holder with only minutes to go before the students’ arrival, I was making my way up to the picnic area to prepare for the field trip. Then, I saw a monarch go flitting through a field. I put down the holder and took off running for it, knowing that the more butterflies I could show the students, the better. I had to run maybe a hundred yards through a field to keep my eye on the butterfly, and soon enough it landed in a tree near a ditch. It was high enough up that I would have to jump, and there was a definite danger that I could fall in the ditch on the landing and sustain a laughable injury. I went for it though, leaping up and reaching into the tree to net the butterfly. I landed safely and with the butterfly secured in my net. I like to image that this catch was sort of like a famous LeBron James full court chase down and shot block. That could be an exaggeration though. Anyway, after the catch, I trekked back to the picnic area with this newest monarch. By the time I’d got there, I was sweating plenty and out of breath. It was worth it though, as I had one more butterfly to tag with the students and I’d just made one of my better catches.

#3 Fresh out of the chrysalis – part 2

This catch maybe wouldn’t seem too special to you considering it was the second monarch to be caught soon after emerging from the chrysalis. This one, however, was very cool because I actually found the chrysalis the day before. Well, actually, some little kids going for a hike found it a few feet off the trail in Hog Canyon. They pointed out to me a chrysalis dangling from a reed stem. This chrysalis was clear and I could see the orange wings of the butterfly inside – meaning it wouldn’t be too long before it would emerge. I told my supervisors about this cool finding, and one suggested I camp out overnight to watch it and see the butterfly emerge. I wasn’t willing to do that, but I went straight back to it the following day after helping with a public program in the morning. While stepping down the trail and scanning for the chrysalis, a monarch started near my feet and flew up. I netted it and looked up to see the chrysalis – now hatched - just a few feet away. When I released the monarch, it didn’t fly away but just stayed put and dried its wings. With that, I was pretty certain the butterfly I just caught was the one I saw the day before still inside the chrysalis. It was very cool to see an individual monarch at different stages of the life cycle.

#2 My first monarch

Catching my first monarch of the summer was pretty awesome. As I’ve explained in a previous blog, this monarch came flying straight for me within about five minutes of beginning my field work for the summer. I used my best tennis swing to net the airborne butterfly and then celebrated a little with my colleagues. In addition to being the first monarch, this was a good catch because the butterfly was flying, not just landed on a flower. The only reason this catch doesn’t make the top of the list here is because I was so nervous about handling it and tagging it that my hand was shaking a bit. I totally embarrassed myself in front of my colleagues, who probably were concerned that they hired a person who was squeamish holding a butterfly to do basically one job: catch and hold butterflies. I’m proud to report that since then, I’ve become totally confident holding butterflies. I have also taught many others how to catch and handle monarchs safely.

#1 The Green River catch

This catch was probably the most unique of my internship, and that’s why it rises to number one on the list. I was sitting on a raft in the middle of the Green River in early September on a monarch survey trip. I was peering through my binoculars at the river banks to look for milkweed or monarchs. Suddenly, I see some brilliant orange wings on a goldenrod plant and I let the boatman – who also happened to be the head of monarch conservation for the National Park Service – know that I’ve spotted a monarch. Although he doesn’t see it at first, he’s able to row us back upstream to the bank a dozen or so yards above the monarch. I extend my net, walk up to the front of the boat, and prepare myself as we float down the bank toward the monarch. When we’re close enough, I throw out the net over the goldenrod, pinch the net closed, and pull it back onto the boat before we float away again. “Got it,” I say, and give a thank you to the boatman who expertly guided me to the river catch. We tag and release the monarch while sitting on the raft and then continue on our way down the river.

Now that we’ve finished the list and celebrated all my fun catches, it’s worth noting that there were a lot of others that could have been cool but didn’t quite work out. There was the time I ran and jumped into a tree to try to catch one, the time I almost netted one through the open car window, the time I swung for a monarch across a little spring, and then the time I was face-deep in thick Joe pye weed and just missed a monarch. All would have been awesome catches, but the monarchs were just a little too quick for me on each occasion.

Finally, while catching and tagging butterflies is pretty dang fun (and let’s be honest, pretty frustrating sometimes too), the real joy of this research is releasing the monarchs. Every release of a tagged monarch is special; it comes with a strong sense of hope that the butterfly and its tag will be recovered to give us new information about monarch migration. It’s also exciting to release a monarch that might be flying hundreds of miles south to a new state or even a new country.

 

Published in EFTA intern blog
Friday, 20 September 2019 22:36

Inspiring Monarch Citizen Science

I recently administered a monarch butterfly school field trip at Dinosaur for middle school students from nearby Vernal, Utah. On the day of the field trip, I arrived with colleagues to the Josie’s Cabin area a little before 7:30. On this early morning, the goal was for our team to catch as many monarchs as we could before the student’ arrival at 9:00. Then, we could start their field trip by tagging a batch of butterflies with them. The entire morning as I was trudging through the meadow looking for butterflies, I was quite terrified that the students would get there and we wouldn’t have anything to show them.

Luckily though, we caught 7 monarchs and had them ready to go for the students when they got off their bus at Josie’s. I caught 2 of the monarchs – one which was groggily flying near the ground and another who I had to take off running through a field and leap and swing into a tree to catch. Though this effort left me sweating and out of breath just before the students arrived, it was definitely one of my better catches and I was glad to have one more butterfly to show the students.

When tagging the monarchs, the students helped me by taking notes, evaluating the genders and body conditions of the monarchs, applying the identification tags, taking the swabs of monarchs’ abdomens to sample for parasites, photographing tagged butterflies, and, finally, releasing them. Most of the students were willing to hold the monarchs for me or otherwise participate in the tagging process. All of them seemed pretty excited to be tagging monarchs and many asked questions. I was excited to hear at the end of the day that several of them were interested in tagging again. One students even asked me where she could get her own tags. I was glad to hear that I had cultivated some potential citizen scientists.

Later on during the trip, students went on a habitat hike in the area. There, they observed nectar plants and pollinator species. They also surveyed the milkweed along the hiking trail for monarch eggs /caterpillars and they even caught and tagged 2 more adult monarchs. (Pictured is one of the monarchs caught by a student). Unfortunately, they did not find any monarch eggs and caterpillars. However, they did learn what milkweed is and going forward they’ll be able to continue being citizen scientists and checking milkweed for monarchs.

I’m thankful for one of the interpretive rangers at Dinosaur who helped me plan for the trip. Her advice proved crucial, as I was originally planning to give a 30 minute lecture of sorts to the students about all things monarchs. She helped me realize that there was little chance 20 middle school students could sit for 30 minutes and listen when they were out on a field trip. So instead, I broke up my talking points and spoke about the monarchs throughout the day, not all at once. I did my best during my discussions, and my only major slip-up was mentioning birds and bees consecutively while discussing different types of pollinators. That caused a couple giggles and was probably immensely distracting to the middle school group. In the end though, I do think some of the information probably resonated with the students and it was a memorable day for them. My hope is that in the future they will look around for monarchs and enter their observations to one of the citizen science sites I provided to their teacher.

In other citizen science news, coming into the office one day last week, I looked at my phone and received a Snapchat from my dear college friend Nicole. She has been telling me this summer that every time she sees a butterfly, she thinks of me. I opened her message this day and saw a close up video of a monarch nectaring on a potted flower. The video was captioned with just “!!!”

I kind of freaked out when I got the video. I immediately responded “OMG” with a lot of exclamation points and asked for a copy of the video. As I have freely admitted at this point, I am a monarch nerd. A monarch sighting by a friend calls for a lot of excitement. So, I requested to talk to Nicole about the sighting. Later that night, I explained that from her picture we could tell it was a definitely a male monarch. Nicole said she gets monarchs at that plant at her home in New Jersey every year, and she shared with me the video and several more pictures. Soon enough, I had directed her to a citizen science site and she had logged her sighting on Journey North. With that, she officially became a monarch citizen scientist. Hopefully, it’s the first of many sighting and entries to come for Nicole and the first of many friends that I’ll convert to monarch citizen scientists, or maybe even monarch nerds.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Thursday, 19 September 2019 21:41

Science on the River in Dinosaur National Monument

While rafting on the Green River last week, I continued the tasks I have been working on all summer: surveying for monarch butterfly habitat and tagging adult butterflies. Surveying for habitat meant recording the presence and approximate number of milkweed plants along each river mile. For about the first two days of the float, milkweed was present in nearly continuous patches on both sides of the river. Farther downstream, patches started shrinking and becoming fewer and farther apart. I also recorded what nectar plants were available to feed the adult butterflies; sneezeweed and goldenrod were the most common flowers. Finally, we periodically stopped at patches of milkweed to search for eggs and caterpillars. We found a number of monarch caterpillars and eggs. Many of the eggs were actually already hatched; what was left behind was just part of the egg case. Egg cases are meant to be eaten by the caterpillar when it hatches. Every leftover egg case was a little mystery: did some predator eat the caterpillar before it could eat its egg case? Did something else happen to it? Did it just not eat its egg case for some reason?

What we found the most of in our searches of milkweed patches were munched milkweed leaves. 1st and 2nd instar caterpillars especially have a distinctive chewing pattern that was left behind on many leaves and is pretty easily distinguishable. Perhaps, most monarchs have already become butterflies at this point in the year and are flying south. We found only the remnants of their meals when they were caterpillars. The eggs and caterpillars we did find are probably a bit on the late side for maturing. I hope that the weather won’t turn too cold before the month or so it will take the eggs and newly hatched caterpillars we found to become adult monarchs that are ready to fly south.

Since it was rainy and hailing and cold for a decent portion of our trip, the adult monarch butterflies were probably focused on staying warm, not flying around and being catchable/taggable. Ultimately, we only observed around 16 adult monarchs during the trip. Maybe this was because of the weather, maybe most of the monarchs had already passed through, or maybe it was just luck. We tagged four monarchs on the trip, perhaps a disappointing number considering I was traveling with more than 55 tags and had hoped to see swarms of monarchs flying down the Green on their way south. It was still great to get four tags out though. Thee of the tagged individuals were in excellent condition and probably are migrators. Two of our monarchs were caught nectaring on goldenrod on the riverbank and two were caught in a meadow area near the Echo Park (near the confluence of the Green and Yampa Rivers) parking lot.

The highlight of catching was definitely catching a monarch while standing on front of the boat while floating. We were in mid river when I spotted some fabulous orange wings on a goldenrod. The boatman steered us over to the bank just upstream from the monarch, and as we floated down I reached out my net and captured the butterfly before we floated away again. Tagging a butterfly is always pretty cool, but it was especially fun to tag and release a butterfly while on a raft floating down the middle of the legendary Green River. During our taggings, I explained all the steps and science to other members of the trip. I enjoyed doing this and pointing out monarch caterpillars to others when possible.

On the last day of the trip and just about 30 minutes upstream from the takeout point, we struck monarch gold. From the middle of the river, I peered through my binoculars to a sandy bank and spotted a few young shoots of milkweed. We brought the raft into this spot and I begin checking under milkweed leaves. Pretty quickly, I found a second and third instar larvae on two plants right next to each other. My colleague went around the corner a bit and found much more milkweed, and that’s when it got exciting.

First, I found an empty chrysalis under a milkweed leaf. It was clear and the bottom had been ripped open – a monarch butterfly successfully formed in that chrysalis and emerged sometime before we arrived there. In all likelihood, it had already begun its flight south by the time we spotted its chrysalis. This was the second empty chrysalis I have found this summer. The first was at around Josie’s Cabin in Dinosaur. We actually captured and tagged the butterfly that had just emerged from that chrysalis, as it had landed near its chrysalis and was drying its wings.

The excitement continued from there, as I found two more chrysalises (or is “chrysali” the plural?). These two both were still active with a monarch inside them going through the metamorphosis process from caterpillar to butterfly. The chrysalises were attached to the bottom of a milkweed by a little black stem. They were pea green with a golden ring around the top. A chrysalis is a pretty beautiful little wonder of nature. I hope that all goes well with the metamorphosis and the butterflies have a successful migration. I was thrilled to finally find some active chrysalises and my excitement in doing so definitely confirmed by status as a monarch butterfly nerd.

This awesome spot at the end of our trip also yielded several more monarch caterpillars, one hatched egg case, and a bunch of milkweed leaves that had clearly been munched on by caterpillars in previous days or weeks. With the addition of the findings at the site, we had successfully hit for the cycle on the trip. That is to say that we found every stage of the monarch life cycle – eggs, hatched eggs, 1st through 5th instar caterpillars, active and hatched chrysalises, and adult butterflies. I was happy to end the week on this high note and end my notetaking by marking down one more riverbank site of monarch breeding habitat in Dinosaur.

Published in EFTA intern blog
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