Monarch Butterflies, in Berkeley?!

For years, George and I have trekked to Albany Hill to count the monarch butterflies for the annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, started by the Monarch Program in 1997. The largest clusters we’ve seen at Albany Hill arrived in 2011.

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill

Monarchs wintering on Albany Hill in 2011, copyright Heidi Rand

Although numbers decreased for the past few years, early reports for 2015 from citizen spotters are markedly up. Most exciting locally is the discovery of a new clustering site in Berkeley’s Aquatic Park! The news quickly spread from hard-core monarch researchers to locals who had never seen the splendor of monarchs clustering, reported in an excellent article by Elaine Miller Bond on the Berkeleyside news site.

George and I rushed to see them yesterday. We had been told they were near the 14th basket of the disc-golf course, an easy walk from the Park’s north parking lot. Even without seeing many monarchs flying around in the clear winter sky, we couldn’t miss the spot where gawkers gathered beneath an ash tree with cameras and binoculars pointed up.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We estimated at least a thousand butterflies were clustering, and figured possibly double that many were flying around and would join the clusters for warmth and protection at sunset.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

We watched for an hour as monarchs danced; leaving clusters to fly about and then return. Entranced, we marveled and shared information with people gathered there about planting milkweed, raising butterflies, and other local overwintering sites.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

A closeup shows most of the cluster with wings closed, and one female (the male has two large spots near the veins at the bottom wing) with her wings open.

Monarch butterflies clustering at Aquatic Park

Have you seen any monarch butterflies in your garden or at an overwintering site? Do you grow milkweed or provide nectaring plants for butterflies and birds? For more information, and photos and stories about our adventures watching and raising monarch butterflies, see my prior blog posts:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch caterpillar to chrysalis

First monarch caterpillar emerges

Monarch eggs in the garden!

A Very Butterfly Day

A Butterfly Born on the 4th of July

Finally, if you’re a local, I’d like to cordially invite you to my Holiday Gift Sale and Art Show, the first two weekends of December. I have lots of monarch and other butterfly-related photos and artwork and crafts that I make from my nature photographs. Click here for all the deets.

Killing Our Lawn

This guest post written by my wonderful husband George McRae is very timely as California’s long-term drought worsens and it becomes more critical for people to conserve water.

Killing Our Lawn: Or, How We Made the Transition to a Wildlife Refuge, by George McRae

When Heidi and I moved into our house, I saw gardening as a selfish endeavor: vegetables, fruit, flowers were for the enjoyment of humans only. I even installed a lawn, from seed. Then I got involved in local environmental issues in El Cerrito. Creek restoration was at the top of the list, as a branch of Baxter Creek was at the back side of our home. Not wanting to get involved in a “lawn-envy war” with our neighbor, I roto-tilled our parking strip. I terraced it and planted what started out as an English cottage-style garden, but has evolved into a wildlife habitat. The photo on the left is our neighbor’s lawn, our native garden’s on the right.

Front lawns

I started to read National Wildlife Federation literature about how local back and front yards, and even apartment balconies, are the best hope for many endangered species considering how much habitat is being destroyed by development.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

I began planting native California plants everywhere I could fit them in. Our philosophy evolved into, “if a local critter eats it or needs it, we’ll plant it.”

California grape

We registered as an NWF wildlife habitat. We provide food and water.

Squirrels at feeder

Also required: shelter and places for critters to raise their young. We’ve been rewarded many times over by birds, in particular hummingbirds, raising families here year after year.

Hummingbird mother on nest

And insects galore! Monarch, Swallowtail, Skipper, Red Admirable (Admiral), Painted lady, Dragonfly…. an endless list of species, come here to lay eggs on the plants we provide them.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Other benefits? With the abundance of California native plants, our water bill is extremely low. We use no pesticides or fertilizers, so we’re not adding downstream pollutants to the biosphere. We evaluate any weed as a possible food source. If not, we hand pull. We use no herbicides, as they are proven amphibian killers. We rarely use power gardening tools, reducing our addition to air and noise pollution and global warming. We prune our trees and weed carefully and during seasons when we won’t upset nesting cycles of birds, insects and mammals.

Towhee eggs in nest

Towhee eggs in nest

W H A T  C A N  Y O U  D O ?

1) Plant local native plants in as many varieties as possible, from grasses to flowering trees, like ceanothus. California bunch grasses have deep roots and hold soils together, preventing erosion and drawing deep moisture to the surface for other plants. Many butterflies use them as larval food sources. Grasses are the basis of a sound ecosystem.

Some local nurseries to learn more and buy natives:

California Native Plant Society (East Bay), Native Here Nursery

Watershed Nursery

Bay Natives Nursery

Honeybee on fennel flower

2) Before you prune, thin or remove trees, shrubbery or other plants, make sure you’re not disturbing nesting sites or life cycles for birds, insects or other critters making a home there. Late August through late November is best, but be aware that hummingbirds can nest all year long!

3) Certify your garden as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation

A Very Butterfly Day

George and I were jonesing for a monarch butterfly fix. This winter’s Big Storm uprooted the largest milkweed plant in our garden, and no monarchs have visited the smaller ones. Our butterfly-spotting treks to Albany Hill and Point Pinole Regional Shoreline, the over-wintering spots closest to us, were disappointing. We saw a few fluttering around Albany Hill, but nothing like past years’ large clusters. One paused on a branch at the top of the Hill long enough for me to photograph it.Monarch Butterfly at Albany Hill

And that’s why we both woke up yesterday morning with one thought: time to head for Ardenwood Historic Farm Park. Monarchs over-winter in Ardenwood’s eucalyptus grove from December to mid-February, and we’d heard through the butterfly grapevine (aka Facebook) that the numbers were good this year.

Ardenwood’s rangers are well-informed and eager to educate visitors about monarchs, from showing the butterfly’s life cycle to explaining the importance of growing milkweed and flowers, and not using pesticides. George quickly spotted a caterpillar munching on a milkweed leaf (Asclepias physocarpa) in their garden.

Monarch caterpillar

Then the ranger pointed out a chrysalis hidden under another leaf. An exciting first for us; we’ve seen so many monarch chrysalises in our butterfly “nursery”, but have never seen one in the wild!

Monarch chrysalisAnd finally! Hundreds of gorgeous orange monarchs fluttered above us in the bright blue sky.

Monarch butterflies

George and I, with the other awed visitors, lay on our backs to watch the dance.

Monarch butterflies

Two flew near a red-tailed hawk making lazy circles.

Monarch and hawk

As the sun slanted lower, the butterflies began to light on the eucalyptus branches.

Monarch  butterflies at Ardenwood

We reluctantly left the monarchs to speed through the rest of the Park before it closed (stay tuned for further adventures). Want to see more of my monarch butterfly blog posts? Click these links:

Monarch Butterfly Mating Dance

More Monarch Butterflies

A Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

Monarch Caterpillar to Chrysalis

First Monarch Caterpillar Emerges

Monarch Eggs in the Garden!

Monarch in the Garden

Butterflies & Barbie at the Albany Library

 

Cards Hot Off the Press!

You know that rush of relief when you check things off that have been haunting your to-do list for too long? I am supremely happy that I met one of my biggest goals before the end of 2014. Way back in March I told you that the wonderful sales rep who was selling my greeting cards to stores stopped repping. It took me awhile to scramble back to my feet, to decide to sell my cards on my own, and to master the many moving parts involved in that.

Greeting cards

Designing a brochure was a big part of the project, since I can’t go visit each store to show them my cards. I kept it simple (just the facts, ma’am) – a nice large photo of each card, its number, and basic info.

Greeting cards

My wonderful local printer, Jayne at Cerrito Printing, made the process easy and affordable, and I think the brochure turned out beautifully! Hummingbird cards take up 3 pages, the largest portion of my line.

Greeting cardsButterfly cards are really popular.

Greeting cardsA lot of garden stores order the flower cards, and few can resist the squirrels!

Greeting cardsThe back page has an enlarged image of my favorite card and more order info. But wait, by the time the brochure was printed I had added another large task to my to-do list – I decided to design eight new cards. When those were all printed (thanks, Cerrito Printing!) I designed an insert page to show them off, and even had room for an order form.

Greeting cards

So now I’m well on my way selling my own cards, a lot of work but really fulfilling. If you know of any shops that carry my kinda greeting cards, also garden stores or nurseries, send me an email with the name of the store and I’ll contact them! You can click here to see my entire card line, and here’s a link to the brochure as a pdf

Monarch butterfly mating dance

This past year I selected my best photos of monarch butterflies from egg to emerged adult, to create a poster illustrating the monarch’s life cycle.

Monarch Butterfly life cycle posterI was most thrilled to get photos of the wonder of a monarch creating, and then shedding, its chrysalis. Here it’s pupating:

Monarch caterpillar pupating

After about two weeks it emerged (also called eclosing):

Monarch butterfly eclosing

In all my time photographing monarchs I never imagined I’d be able to capture one depositing an egg on milkweed; their visits to the garden are sadly rare, and the female leaves her eggs quickly and flits away. But disciplining myself to bring my camera whenever I went into the garden finally paid off. One day this summer I saw a female ovipositing, and quickly grabbed some photos before she flew off.

Moanrch butterfly laying egg

The cycle was finally complete, I thought, but of course I forgot one crucial part: mating! Yesterday George and I took a road trip to a local overwintering spot for monarchs, and were joyously watching several large clusters in the eucalyptus trees. Many lone butterflies were also flying around.

Monarch butterfly cluster

Noticing one fluttering its wings in the grass, I went to see whether it was stuck and needed help. I called George over, and with his keen naturalist eyes he spotted what I had missed; there were two.

Monarchs mating

And they were mating!

Monarchs mating

Here the male fluttered his wings over the female.

Monarch butterflies mating

And now they’re attached.

Monarch butterflies mating

Since it was almost evening, they probably stayed on the ground overnight because monarchs can’t fly if their body temperature goes below about 55 F (13 C).

And now the cycle truly is complete! Has Mother Nature thrilled you lately? If so, let us know!

More Monarch Butterflies

It’s baby time again in the butterfly nursery at our house! In a June blog post  I told you about the thrilling visit by a female monarch to our garden, and showed you photos of her laying an egg on our milkweed.

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

Monarch butterfly depositing an egg on milkweed

The first monarch emerged this weekend!
DSC_5771 small This is a closeup of him hanging onto the chrysalis that he emerged from. DSC_5769 smallWe let him rest overnight because the weather was cold and windy. Sunday brought a bit of sun, so we let him go.

Monarch butterfly

His empty chrysalis is on the left. His sister is ready to emerge – we could tell because her chrysalis became transparent and we could see the pattern of her wings through it.
DSC_5735 smallShe emerged the next day. Here’s a photo of her from the front.DSC_5764 smallWe raised and released three monarchs – two male and one female. Hopefully she’ll return to our garden to to lay more eggs, or if you’ve planted milkweed maybe she’ll find her way to your garden!

I made a poster and card of the life cycle of the monarch butterfly.

A Butterfly Born on the 4th of July

We’re still finding anise swallowtail butterfly eggs on the fennel in our garden. And ta .. daaa… the first of the recent batch we’re raising emerged today. Born on the Fourth of July; more orange, yellow and blue than red, white and blue, and with stripes!

Anise swallowtail butterfly

The caterpillar at the top of the enclosure looks like it’s ready to form its chrysalis. And here are younger sibling caterpillars, still eating away.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillars

We’ve been gathering fennel around the neighborhood, because our plants are starting to be pretty sparse after feeding at least 30 growing caterpillars!

So which do you think came first, the butterfly or the egg? I don’t have an answer to that old conundrum, but to bring the story full cycle, I just took this photo of one of the anise swallowtails depositing eggs on the fennel in our garden.

Anise swallowtail butterfly laying egg on fennel

Since we’re also finding monarch butterfly eggs on our milkweed, I took an extreme closeup photo of a monarch butterfly egg (on the left) and an anise swallowtail egg (on the right), to compare their sizes, and with the head of a needle included for scale.

Monarch and anise swallowtail butterfly eggs

Click here to see my post about the monarch butterfly that left that egg.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – if you have to cut down the fennel that’s growing on your property, please check it carefully for eggs, caterpillars, and chrysalises first. You could be killing an entire generation of anise swallowtail butterflies.