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SURPRISED TO SEE A MONARCH ON A FROSTY MORNING

         Today I awoke to a thermometer reading of 32˚F. This marks the first day the temperature has plummeted to the freezing mark this fall.  While I do not have any idea how long the temperature hovered this low, I know it could not have been too long since none of the plants flowering in my backyard showed any signs of frost damage.

When I ventured outside for the first time on this sunny, cool day the temperature had risen to 57˚.  Much to my surprise the first creature I saw this morning was a monarch butterfly.  The monarch was nectaring on the purple blossoms displayed on two butterfly bushes.

Needless to say, I was startled to see a monarch on such a cold morning since even on a sunny day, monarchs are rarely seen when the air temperature is in the 50s.  When it is cloudy, this magnificent butterfly often does not take to the air until the air temperature reaches 60˚.  That being the case how was this butterfly out and about feeding?

More than likely it must have spent the night roosting nearby in a location where the temperature remained above freezing.

In autumn, when monarchs are passing through the south on their way to Mexico they seem to prefer to roost in pecan and oak trees; especially those growing close to a nearby source of nectar. These trees offer protection from the wind and their dense foliage provide places to roost that at are often warmer than the air temperature.

During the past few years, I have noticed that late in the afternoon during the monarch migration, monarchs will nectar on one particular butterfly bush growing on the north side of my home.  Just beyond my driveway stand three water oaks.  Several times as the sunlight melted away, the monarchs would flutter up into the oaks and vanish from sight.  While I am not positive this is their nighttime roost, I suspect it is.

Wherever the monarch I saw this morning roosted, it could not move until the temperature rose above 40˚.  As the temperature slowly climbed, the butterfly had to crawl to a sunny spot and open its wings and bask in the warming rays of the sun.  The butterfly’s black scales and abdomen enabled to it to absorb the heat needed to raise its body temperature.  Once its flight muscles reached 55˚ degrees, the monarch was capable of flight.

I am certain the monarch I saw this morning is now miles away from my backyard.  As the sun begins to dip below the horizon this afternoon, I hope it finds another suitable roost site and the night will not be as chilly as it was last night in Monroe County.

FEMALE MONARCHS ARE BETTER FLIERS THAN MALES

      One event that backyard wildlife enthusiasts look forward to each autumn is the migration of the monarch butterfly. During the fall of the year, these beautiful butterflies stop and feed in our backyards as they make their way to their winter home in Mexico. This epic flight takes a tremendous toll on these gossamer-winged insects.

       Ever since it became apparent monarch populations have plummeted to a fraction of what they once were, researchers have been scrambling to learn as much as they can about this fascinating insect. The results of one such study recently conducted by University of Georgia, Odum School of Ecology researchers provide us with answers as to why female monarchs are better fliers.

       When the UGA research team compared the wings of male and female monarchs, they discovered some notable differences. It seems the females’ wings are thicker, and somewhat smaller. In addition, their flight muscles are smaller and lighter.

       One might think having larger and heavier wing muscles, coupled with thinner and lighter wings would benefit the males. Actually, the reverse is true. The males’ larger and thinner wings are more susceptible to damage. Their wings also forced to bear more weight per square inch than those of the females.

       In essence, this means female monarchs are more efficient fliers than males. This, in turn, enhances the chances of the females surviving the autumn migration.

THE VANGUARD OF THE MONARCH MIGRATION HAS REACHED MIDDLE GEORGIA

      Late last week the first monarch of the fall fluttered into the Johnson backyard. Since that time, I have seen monarchs seven more times. Seeing these handsome orange and black butterflies is a sure sign the vanguard of the 2019 autumn migration has reached Middle Georgia. Although I am elated to see these amazing butterflies, I fear that this year these long-distance migrants will have a difficult time finding enough food to fuel their flight on south.

       The reason for my concern is for many weeks we have been suffering through a terrible drought. This severe weather has stressed or killed plants growing across the rolling southern Piedmont countryside and in backyards alike. This has significantly reduced the amount of nectar available to monarchs and bumblebees and other nectar feeders.

       If you doubt this, assess the availability of nectar in your own backyard. Even in a good year, fewer nectar plants are blooming in most backyards in autumn than during the summer. This year, however, this year’s drought has made the situation much worse.

       With that in mind, the yards that will offer these hardy migrants the most nectar are those that feature plants that do not require a lot of water. If there is a paucity of such nectar sources in your yard, I hope you will make an effort to remedy this situation.

       One simple way to enhance the availability of nectar plants in your backyard is to grow plants in containers. For example, during the summer my wife sows zinnia seeds in pots sitting on our deck. As a result, currently some of our plants most visited by monarchs, gulf fritillaries and other nectar feeders are zinnias.

       Here is a list of the plants growing about our yard that are currently visiting in the Johnson backyard: lantana, ageratum, butterfly bush, scarlet sage, zinnia, goldenrod, and verbena.

       Keep in mind, providing food for southbound monarchs is every bit as important as offering them an abundance of host plants.

BUTTERFLY FEEDERS

       Not too long ago, one of our blog followers wrote that she had recently purchased a butterfly feeder and was requesting tips that might help her attract butterflies to her new feeder. 

       I must admit that over the years I have tried several different models of butterfly feeders in my yard.  Each one was designed to offer the insects a sugar water solution.  In spite of the fact I placed the feeders in a variety of locations, I was not able to attract a single butterfly to any of them.

       That being said, butterfly feeders do work for lots of folks.  With that in mind, I am convinced I have yet to find the right feeder, location, and/or food that appeals to these beautiful insects in my neck of the woods.  Consequently, here is a brief list of some the techniques others have employed to attract butterflies to their backyards:

       ● Have realistic expectations; the butterflies that most often visit feeders are those that prefer eating dining on such things as animal droppings, tree sap, and rotting fruit.  Therefore, you are more apt to attract a pearly-eye, red admiral, or question mark to your feeder than an Eastern tiger swallowtail or one of the sulphur butterflies.

      ● Carefully follow the directions provided with your feeder.  For example, some of the feeders I have tried recommended sugar solutions stronger than the formula commonly used to feed hummingbirds.

     ● It is always a good idea to change the solution in your feeder after a rain.  Rainfall can seep into the feeder and dilute the fluid’s sugar content.

    ● Protect your feeder from an ant invasion.  As such, use the same technique you employ to thwart ants from reaching your hummingbird feeders.

   ● Keep your feeder clean.  As is the case with hummingbird feeders, fungi and bacteria can spoil butterfly nectar.

  ● Finally, if you are unable to attract butterflies to your feeder, move it to another location.

       If you have been successful in attracting butterflies to a butterfly feeder in your backyard, please let us know what works for you.  I am sure that many folks would love to know the secret to your success.

LONG-TAILED SKIPPERS HAVE TAKEN CENTER STAGE IN MY BACKYARD

        The long-tailed skipper is a butterfly that can be seen in all of Georgia’s 159 counties.  Although it can be seen from April into November throughout much of the state, in my backyard, I see more long-tailed skippers from late summer into the autumn than at any other time of the year.  Since it is so common and seen over such an extended period, one might think all of these butterflies live and die in the Peach State.  Actually, many do.  However, some have wanderlust. 

       For reasons that are not fully understood, during the summer some long-tailed skippers take wing and move northward.  These movements are particularly common along the Coastal Plain.  As a result, before cold weather sets in long-tailed skippers are sometimes spotted as far north as southern New England.

       Far more often, however, each fall far more long-tailed skippers will fly south to the peninsula of Florida.  Here in Georgia some longtails are considered permanent residents, particularly in the southeast corner of the state.

       In spring, long-tailed skipper populations in Florida begin moving northward and eventually end up in our backyard gardens.

       I suspect many of the long-tailed skippers I am currently seeing in my backyard are en route to the Sunshine State.  Meanwhile, for the past several weeks, long-tailed skippers are the butterflies I have most often seen visiting ageratum, butterfly bush, zinnias and other fall-blooming plants.  This is the first autumn I can remember when I have seen more long-tailed skippers than cloudless sulphurs in my yard.  I suspect our prolonged drought has played a role in this situation.

       In the meantime, since I am not seeing any migratory songbirds in my yard, and most other butterflies such as eastern tiger swallowtails have disappeared; long-tailed skippers have added an appreciated touch of beauty to a backyard that has suffered immensely from a lack of rainfall.

BACKYARD SECRET: BLUEBIRDS EAT MONARCH CATERPILLARS

       Most of us have been taught that birds do not eat monarchs.  In fact, if a bird just happens to try to make a meal out of a monarch, it gets sick from ingesting the poisonous compounds that course through the monarch’s body.  After living through such an experience most birds do not try to dine on a monarch again. 

       Eastern bluebirds are an exception to the rule.  These gorgeous backyard favorites eat monarch caterpillars laden with poisonous chemicals obtained when they chomp on milkweed plants without showing any ill effects.  

       The bluebird can devour this toxic food because it uses a technique to prepare a caterpillar before it tries to consume it.  Once a bluebird grabs a monarch caterpillar it flies to a branch and squeezes the large, juicy caterpillar time and time again.  This process forces much of the juicy innards of the caterpillar out both ends of its body.  Once the caterpillar has been flattened, the hungry bluebird then proceeds to eat the hapless insect.

 

 

THE WIND CAN HELP MONARCHS MIGRATE

       Now that September has arrived it is hard not to turn our thoughts toward fall and migration.  Invariably we associate migration with birds.  However, the plight of the monarch has heightened our interest in the migration of insects such as the monarch butterfly. 

       Each fall these amazing insects make their way south to their winter home in Mexico.  While this is truly an amazing fete, we know very little about how these butterflies accomplish this seemingly impossible task.  Recently the results of research conducted by Samantha Knight of the Nature Conservancy of Canada and others filled in another piece of the jigsaw puzzle of monarch migration.

       The research team captured and placed tiny transmitters weighing only 300 milligrams on 43 monarch captured near the Canadian shore of Lake Huron.  The devices were mounted on the insects in an attempt to track their southbound migration.         Fortunately, the biologists were able to retrieve data from six of these butterflies.  One of the most interesting findings was one of the monarchs flew 89 miles in a single day.  They were also able to determine the monarchs winged their way south at a speed on 7.5 miles per hour.  Knight later stated, “[It] was a lot faster than anyone had ever really anticipated.”  She went on to comment, “They could likely go even faster without the heavy tags on them.”

       The biologists also learned the butterflies flew faster when they were pushed along by a tailwind.  This was demonstrated by one butterfly that was clocked flying at a bit under 18.5 miles per hour with the aid of a tailwind.

      It was also discovered that monarchs flew faster in warm weather.  However, the butterflies were not able to fly until the temperature reached 50˚F and flight speed dropped when the air temperature reached 73˚F.

       It is definitely true the more we learn about these stunning insects the more we realize why they are so special.

DO NOT FORGET TO DEADHEAD MEXICAN SUNFLOWERS

        Humans and butterflies alike are drawn to the bold orange blossoms of the Mexican sunflower.  The problem is by the middle of August the blooms displayed by this tall plant are often quickly fading.  This is unfortunate for those of us that enjoy its stunning beauty and the butterflies and other pollinators that feed at its showy flowers.

       With this in mind, if you deadhead the spent blossoms displayed by your Mexican sunflower plants, they will produce a new crop of flowers that will continue to contribute their beauty to our gardens and be a source of nectar for butterflies such as monarchs later in the year when nectar will be less abundant than it is right now.

BACKYARD SECRET: RED-BANDED HAIRSTREAKS NECTAR ON BRONZE FENNEL

        For quite some time I have been documenting butterflies nectaring on a wide range of cultivated and native plants.  This effort has helped me gain a better appreciation of which species of butterflies use which plants.  Every so often, I encounter a butterfly nectaring on a plant I never realized they visited. 

       For example, a few days ago my wife and I checked our bronze fennel for black swallowtail eggs and/or eggs.  Much to our chagrin, we did not find either.  However, my wife did make a fascinating discovery. When she called me over to look at what she had found, I was surprised to see six red-banded hairstreaks nectaring on a bronze fennel’s pale yellow blossoms.

       Although we have been growing bronze fennel in our garden for a number of years, we never considered the well-known black swallowtail host plant a source of nectar for butterflies.  Oh sure, we routinely see the blossoms routinely visited by sweat bees and other native pollinators, but never a red-banded hairstreak other butterfly.  Yet, here were half a dozen beautiful red-banded hairstreaks so engrossed in sipping nectar they never attempted to fly away in spite of the fact we were standing only a few feet away from them.

       A quick check of the literature and Internet failed to uncover any mention of red-banded hairstreaks using the plant as a source of nectar.  In fact, most authors simply mentioned it was visited by a number of pollinators; however, none said it was source of nectar for butterflies.

       While my wife’s sighting may not be an

important scientific find, it was important to us.  It

advanced our understanding of the unbelievably

complex relationships that exist between the plants

and animals that live just outside our backdoor.  

EASTERN TIGER SWALLOWTAILS CAN BE YELLOW OR BLACK

        Believe it or not, one of our most misidentified butterflies is the eastern tiger swallowtail.  This might come as a surprise to you since it is our state butterfly and is one of the largest butterflies that visits our yards.  This reason for this is this gorgeous butterfly has two color phases.

       The wings of the males are predominantly yellow and marked with vertical stripes.  This is the color form most people recognize.  Females, on the other hand come in either yellow or black phases.  If you look closely at the wings of a dark female, you will usually seen telltale black stripes.  The black form of the eastern swallowtail is the phase many people do not realize is also an eastern tiger swallowtail.

       In middle Georgia, my neck of the woods, more than 90 percent of all female eastern tiger swallowtails are black.  However, dark females are far less common in some other parts of the country.  Some lepidopterists – folks that study butterflies – suggest that the percentage of dark females is greatest where pipevine swallowtails are most abundant.  For example, black females are far less common in New England and others parts of the butterfly’s range.

       Interestingly, dark females are prone to produce dark daughters while yellow females usually have yellow mothers.

      Dark females have a better chance of surviving long enough to lay eggs than yellow females.  The reason why is that dark females look much like the poisonous pipevine swallowtail.  The pipevine has an extremely bitter taste.  If bird or other predator tries to eat one, it rarely goes back for seconds or even attacks a butterfly that looks like it.

       I would be interested in know the percentage of black females to yellow females you see in your yard.  If you conduct a survey of the eastern tiger swallowtails in your yards, let me know what you find.