Displaying items by tag: Dinosaur National Monument
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
Thursday, 19 September 2019 21:39

Back From Rafting the Green River

Last week, I was lucky enough to be a participant on a big horn sheep and monarch butterfly biological survey trip on the Green River. Since the stunning and dramatic canyons of the Green are hardly accessible on day trips or by car, we needed a multi-day trip of rafting to look for sheep and monarchs in the heart of the river canyons. Thus, a group of 11 park staff and volunteers loaded up onto 4 rafts to enjoy a week of rafting, camping, and science.

We began the trip from the Gates of Lodore on the Green on a Sunday. The Gates of Lodore Canyons surround the river at the very Northern tip of Dinosaur on the Colorado site of the Monument. When it was time to launch, we packed away our tents and gear and meals into dry boxes, fastened our life jackets, and took out our binoculars to look for our study species. By Thursday, we would have crossed back over into Utah, passed through Whirlpool and Split Mountain Canyons, navigated several rapids, and rafted down around 40 river miles. The entire trip, I looked around in awe at the amazing geology of the river canyons. I also observed sheep and monarchs, took notes and photos, and generally had a pretty great time.

This was my first time really rafting and certainly my first time dealing with rapids and rocks while trying to do scientific observations and take notes. It’s not the easiest thing to write down things about monarch butterfly habitat while navigating through Hells Half Mile or Disaster Falls, for example. Nevertheless, I think I got some good work done and I have lots of results of look at now in my study of monarch habitat and migration. My next blog will explain what kinds of butterfly work I did on the trip.

I came back from the trip with a new appreciation for the diversity of landscapes in Dinosaur, a big stack of datasheets from my observations, and some pretty hideous tan lines on my feet from my rafting sandals. I am excited to be going on a rafting day trip again next week where I’ll get to enjoy the Green River again and do more field work. I’m thankful for my supervisors at Dinosaur, the wildlife biologist from the Park Service who rowed the monarch raft I rode in, and the volunteers who made this trip possible and welcomed me along.

Published in EFTA intern blog

Over Labor Day weekend, I helped out and attended events at “Dark Skies over Dinosaur,” a multi-day stargazing/astronomy/night sky festival celebrating Dinosaur’s recent designation as an International Dark Sky Park. To earn recognition as a Dark Sky Park, Dinosaur has had to prove that it meets rigorous measures for sky darkness, remains open and accessible for citizens to enjoy the dark sky, and takes steps to conserve the darkness. In part, keeping the park dark and limiting light pollution means using light fixtures that face the ground and are the right color/temperature. By meeting all these requirements and going through the designation process, Dinosaur has earned Dark Sky Park classification from the International Dark Sky Association.

Events during the celebratory festival included junior ranger programs on astronomy, viewings of the sun through a solar telescope, documentary viewings of the film “Saving the Dark,” ranger presentations about female astronomers” and several nights of stargazing in Dinosaur. I knew very little about astronomy heading into the week, but after attending a few events I can now tell you a little bit about nebulae, dark-sky friendly lighting, the summer triangle, and a bunch of other night sky related things.

The highlight of the festival was probably the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend, when over 200 people attended a stargazing event at the Split Mountain Campground in Dinosaur. (Split Mountain is pictured during the daylight). During the event, I worked at the welcome table, giving out red cellphone to put over flashlights (so people’s right white flashlights wouldn’t disrupt telescopes or people’s night vision) and handing out star maps. Once in the stargazing area, visitors got to learn from park rangers and a variety of volunteers. These volunteers brought years of astronomy experience plus many of their own telescopes to the event. They let visitors look through their scopes to observe nebulas, double stars, planets, galaxies, and more. I thought the generosity of the volunteers was really special to witness. It is awesome that people drove for hours to Dinosaur so they could share their expertise and gear, giving people a tour of the sky and seeking out anything the visitors to see.

It’s incredible just to be in a place as dark as Dinosaur; you can look up and see the whole Milky Way and probably thousands of stars. Further, there’s a lot of peace in being at a stargazing event at Split Mountain. Everyone stays calm and quiet; the most noise you hear is just gurgling from the nearby Green River. It feels like it’s just you out there under a whole universe of stars. It’s especially cool to follow a ranger’s laser pointer to a constellation you never knew about before or even peer through a telescope to see Saturn’s famous rings.

When the visitors left the Saturday night event to head to bed, they remarked on how amazing their experience was and how much they learned. They walked with confidence without flashlights, showing that they adjusted to the darkness and embraced the night. People remarked to me that they learned about the event only earlier that day and drove all the way from Salt Lake City to join in on the stargazing. A couple from China told me that at home, they’d never have the chance to see stars like they did at Dinosaur. People everywhere just seem to love night skies and stars. In a world with a lot of city lights that keep people from seeing the stars, we’re lucky to have dark skies over Dinosaur.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Wednesday, 04 September 2019 20:06

Searching for Signs of Monarch Butterfly Breeding

Along with tagging monarch butterflies to study their migration paths, in my internship I am also conducting field surveys for milkweed, monarch butterfly eggs, and monarch caterpillars. I send my data to both the Southwest Monarch Study and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. USFWS is currently using data to decide whether monarchs need to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. My work is important because little is known about monarchs in the Uintah Basin area around Dinosaur National Monument. We need to know where monarch breeding habitat is if we want to protect it and conserve monarchs.

In my early days of the internship, finding monarch eggs was pretty tricky. I had no experience with them and I just knew they would be tiny little things on milkweed leaves. Like most other people I have met, I got pretty overwhelmed when I realized that milkweed plants have all sorts of little things on the bottom of their leaves. Usually, these are little injuries or scars or maybe just dried globs of milk. Luckily enough for me, telling a monarch egg apart from all these little distractions isn’t too tough once you really know what an egg is.

A monarch egg is sort of a yellow to creamy color. It almost always will be underneath a milkweed leaf, though I’ve found a few on the top sides. The egg is also a regular shape, there’s not all these little bubbles and weird geometries to it like there are in dried milk globs. If you look closely, you’ll see that the egg ends in a little point and it has little ridges all along it leading up to that point. Usually, I find just one egg per milkweed plant, but sometimes there will be a few eggs on a single leaf.

After a few days, those monarch eggs hatch into caterpillars (larvae if you want to sound scientific). Upon hatching, a monarch larva takes about 2 weeks to eat lots of milkweed leaves and mature through 5 larval stages, called instars. Larvae molt in between instars and after their fifth stage, they go into a chrysalis for metamorphosis. The first instar, right out of the egg, is only about 1 millimeter long and has very little color. If you find one, you’ll probably see that it’s already made some chew marks in the milkweed and maybe has caused a little milk to start spilling out of the leaf. A first instar larva is pale and doesn’t have any tentacles at its head or rear. By the fifth instar, the larva is up to 45 millimeters long, with big tentacles and bright yellow/black/white coloration. Whereas you have to closely look at the underside of a leaf to find a first or second instar larvae, the third to fifth instars can be spotted from a little farther away. They also are sometimes on the milkweed stems rather than under the leaves.

It is not for the faint of heart to survey a whole patch of milkweed for an hour or two. You’re bending down and standing up, most everything is so tiny that it’s hard to get a camera to focus for a picture, and you’re always stepping carefully to avoid trampling a milkweed plant that might be housing a precious baby monarch. If you’re working in Dinosaur, it might also be 95 degrees under a completely cloudless sky.

Nevertheless, finding each new egg or larva is always cool. I’m reminded of this every time I show a Dinosaur visitor a monarch egg or larva and they get all excited, calling over family members to have a look too. If you find milkweed somewhere, have a look around to see if you can spot any of your own monarch eggs or larvae. If you find any, you’ll have evidence that monarch butterflies are using and breeding in that habitat. If you don’t, you still at least will have opened your eyes to all the biodiversity living in the microhabitat of milkweed plants. You’ll be amazed at all the insects and things you never thought about but see once you start looking closely at plants.

If you need a little help finding and identifying monarch eggs and larvae, have a look at this video or this guide from the University of Minnesota. I highly recommend the video, whose creators have managed to capture high quality images of tiny baby monarchs.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Monday, 02 September 2019 20:25

Seeing Other Pollinators in the Uinta Basin

As much as butterflies need flowers and their nectar for food, flowers also need butterflies and other animals for pollination. I’ve caught monarchs off of flowers and seen their bodies covered with a thin dust that’s ready to be deposited on another flower. It’s cool to observe the mutualism between plants and pollinating animals. It’s also cool when I catch a butterfly and it is so shocked to have been caught that its long skinny tongue (“proboscis” if you want to sound more scientific) for drinking nectar is still stuck out. Here’s a quick rundown of the pollinators that I’m getting up close and personal with during my monarch butterfly research.

First, there’s a whole host of butterfly and moth species in the area beyond just monarchs; swallowtails, cabbage whites, viceroys, and queens (pictured left) are some that I have identified so far. All these types of butterflies fly around from flower to flower drinking up nectar and pollinating the plants. And, of course, all of them seem to fly a lot slower and a lot clumsier than monarchs do, so they’d probably be way easier to catch. Just my luck.

Another butterfly pollinator is the Great Basin Silverspot, which has only been found in Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. Bog violet is believed to be the one and only larval food plant for the Great Basin Silverspot and thus is an indicator of potential habitat for the species. This plant was found in the Hog Canyon area of Dinosaur this spring where I catch monarchs. I haven’t seen any Great Basin Silverspots yet, but I have caught some of their close relatives (pictured middle) while watching for to see if this species is actually present in the potential habitat. Like monarch butterflies, Great Basin Silverspots are currently under review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service to be listed under the Endangered Species Act. You can read a lot more about Great Basin Silverspot ecology and conservation here. Around the country and the world, people are paying special attention to the conservation of all sorts of pollinators. They’re needed not just for the health of wild vegetation but also for agriculture; many of our favorite foods require pollination that our wild flying friends can provide.

Bees (pictured right) are another abundant pollinator in this area. It seems that bees especially love to feed on the fluffy purple/pink flowers of Rocky Mountain bee plant (who would have thought with a name like that) and Joe Pye weed. Both of these plants can also be pretty attractive to monarchs, and I’ve had the great fortune to catch some angry buzzing bees in my net along with a monarch when both are feeding on the same flower. It can be a little tricky and nerve-wracking to keep the butterfly in the net while getting the bee out without getting it too upset and stinging me. But it’s been 5 weeks without a bee sting incident for me and I’m hoping to keep that streak alive for all of my internship.

Finally, perhaps the coolest pollinators zooming around flowers in my butterfly survey sites are hummingbirds. For such tiny birds, they’re very loud when they fly and it’s a little startling when they whiz by your head. Black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds are probably the ones I’ve seen so far, but they are there and gone so fast I hardly have much of a chance to look and identify them. I’m still pretty amazed every time I see a hummingbird, but I try not to get too distracted by them. It’s fun to see the whole assemblage of pollinators and flowers, but monarch butterflies are the pollinators I’m really after this summer.

Published in EFTA intern blog
Tuesday, 20 August 2019 18:20

Journeying Outside Dinosaur National Monument

Now that I have a few weeks of butterfly field work experience under my belt, I am beginning to spread my wings (butterfly pun sincerely intended) to conduct field work in areas outside of my main field site in Dinosaur National Monument. Since little is known about monarch butterflies in the greater Uintah Basin area of Northeastern Utah, I have traveled around the region to survey for monarchs and milkweed. So far, I’ve gone to a private urban property, a private ranch, a state wildlife management area, and a BLM historic site. In the future, I’ll be surveying other lands outside the Monument as well as more remote parts of Dinosaur. I even will be going on a river rafting trip through Dinosaur in September to look for monarchs within the deep canyons of the Green River.

Utah has several different species of milkweed, and all of the different places I’ve surveyed so far have had showy milkweed. From what I gather, showy milkweed is likely to grow in wetlands, riparian areas, roadsides, and irrigated areas. In Dinosaur, but not the others areas, I’ve also found swamp milkweed (which is found in, you guessed it, swampy areas), and pallid milkweed (in the Monument’s desert ecosystems). You can look at this page from the Xerces Society and scroll down to the regional milkweed guides if you want to learn about what types of milkweed might be present in your area.

Even though they have milkweed, many of the other sites don’t have nearly as many monarchs as I’ve seen at Dinosaur. I figure that’s because milkweed alone isn’t enough to make good monarch habitat. Since milkweed is monarchs’ larval food plant, milkweed has to be present for monarchs to reproduce. But monarchs also need trees to roost in overnight, water, and blooming flowers for nectar. Without nectar, monarchs can’t eat and get the nutrients they need to fuel their reproduction or migration.

My main study site in Dinosaur National Monument is lucky to have all sorts of blooming nectar plants – milkweed plus sunflowers, asters, Joe Pye weed, Rocky Mountain bee plant, thistles, and more – and that’s probably a big reason why it has so many monarchs. (Pictured are blooming sunflowers and Joe Pye weed at my study site in Dinosaur. There’s enough purple and gold around there from the flowers that the scene practically looks like a Lakers game). At Stewart Lake Wildlife Management Area, meanwhile, there were whole fields of blooming sunflowers and Rocky Mountain bee plant and many monarchs flying about and feeding. Elsewhere, there may be huge patches of milkweed in the middle of mowed agricultural fields or alongside highways elsewhere. However, it’s hard to imagine that monarchs visit those patches too much once the milkweed is done blooming and there’s no nectar plants around. I found lots of monarch eggs and larvae on the private ranch in a patch near the lawn where there was blooming plants, but any signs of monarch breeding were hard to find down in the milkweed patches in mowed alfalfa fields.

Going outside Dinosaur has made me really appreciate what the Monument has. I can see 30 monarchs in just a few hours at my main site in Dinosaur, but many places outside the Monument just don’t have that many nectar plants and they might have just a few monarchs coming by. Further, in Dinosaur I’ve recaptured monarchs days and even weeks after I originally caught them. This means that at least some monarchs are hanging out in my study area for a while and not just passing through. In such a nice habitat, some are probably staying to breed, lay eggs, and live out their lives. It’s great that the little swampy area occurs in a national monument and will be protected long-term, conserving this awesome bit of monarch habitat.

Published in EFTA intern blog
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