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.
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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

 

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 Monarch Butterfly Visits the Garden

Why do you get up in the morning? For me, it doesn’t get any better than this: I was outside in the garden yesterday to check on a squawking hen. Looking up as a shadow crossed over my head, I spotted a monarch butterfly. A very welcome sight, because this hasn’t been a good year for monarchs; she was the first one I’ve seen in our garden all year.

Monarch butterfly in the garden

She flitted around several of the milkweed plants that George has planted to attract the monarchs. Milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat.

Monarch butterfly in the garden

Finally, she found one to her liking and deposited an egg under a leaf.

Monarch butterfly laying an egg

If I hadn’t taken this photograph of her leaving the egg, I don’t think we would have found it, it was so well hidden.

Monarch butterfly egg on milkweed

We carefully inspected the other milkweed plants and found several more eggs. I wonder how many we missed!

Monarch butterfly egg on milkweed

The one high up in this milkweed plant (it’s the yellow dot near the center of the photo) must have been left a few days ago, because it already hatched, as did a second one George found on the same plant. This photo with the head of a pin included shows the size of the egg and the two tiny caterpillars.

Monarch butterfly caterpillars

Have you seen any monarchs in your garden? Are you planting milkweed to attract the females and feed the caterpillars?

The Four Elements of Habitat

George and I took our “pup and pony show” to the El Cerrito Garden Club today.  He spoke, and we showed my photos on the topic of maintaining a garden to attract and nurture butterflies.

George speaking about Gardening for ButterfliesWe prepared some handouts and I want to share some of the information with you, so here is George’s explanation of the elements that you need to provide habitat for wildlife.

The four critical elements are: food; water; shelter; and places to raise young. All four elements are intertwined and necessary for wild life. No one element stands alone, and without all four successes at providing for wildlife suffers.

1) Food: All wildlife enhancements absolutely require this. Animals of all species will avoid areas unless they can be guaranteed a reliable food source. A balanced ecosystem needs to sustain everything from plants for larval insects to seeds and prey species, etc.

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

Anise swallowtail butterfly caterpillar eating fennel

2) Water : The second partner in the pas-de-deux of life. Many animals need water to even feed, or to provide the food they need.

3) Shelter : The greatest variety of wildlife occurs at the interface of distinct habitat types. Example: an open field adjacent to a wooded area. Birds can feed in the field while having the woods to escape if necessary. And there needs to be shelter for them for waiting out inclement weather, or for night-time. Brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff” all provide shelter and for the last item below:

4) Places to raise young : Success at proving habitat comes in a reward: succeeding generations of young! Tadpoles, baby birds, spawning fish, a skunk and her kits, emerging butterflies ovipositing and the emergent adults from cocoons or chrysalides is the perfect indicator of habitat success.

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Monarch butterfly chrysalis

As for shelter, again provide brush, trees of all types and heights, brush piles, high grasses, rock walls, and deep leaf litter and undisturbed forest “duff”’, and gravel beds for many anadromous species of fish.

Notes: it is essential that the above provisions are consistent, removal of one or many of the elements will cause unnecessary suffering and waste of valuable energy for animals. Make all changes to the environment gradual and incremental. Many animals will flee a changed ecosystem and not come back.

ABSOLUTELY REFRAIN FROM USING HERBICIDES AND PESTICIDES. They have no part in habitat preservation. Most long-term effects are unknown and the current load already in the environment is doing irreparable harm.

Thanks, George, for this concise explanation. Dear reader, are you gardening for wildlife – butterflies, bees, birds, and other critters? What are you doing in your garden to provide the four elements of habitat?

Monarch Butterfly Emerges

The first monarch butterfly of the batch of eggs that we found on the milkweed in our garden has emerged! Picking up where my last blog post, Monarch caterpillar to chrysalis, left off – this is how the chrysalises have looked for the past few weeks:

The first one to form a chrysalis started to darken yesterday. Actually it looks dark, but what’s happening is that the chrysalis is becoming transparent, so you can see the butterfly inside. Soon you can see the pattern and color of the wings.

3:32 p.m.

I took the photo above around 3:30.  I was running upstairs every so often to check, but I finally just settled down next to the butterfly house with a book. I looked up at about 4:15 and saw that the chrysalis was cracked!

4:17 p.m.

The butterfly holds onto the chrysalis with its legs – the wings and body drop out.

The picture above shows the abdomen hanging down. The abdomen is filled with fluid that the butterfly uses to inflate its wings.

The wings are filling and lengthening.

This is an extreme closeup showing the curled proboscis, and the legs holding onto the chrysalis.

4:20 p.m.

The forewings are now showing (peeking out from under the hindwing at the bottom right).

The forewings continue to lengthen.

Some more…

Just a bit more…

4:37 p.m.

And finally, about a half hour after the butterfly began to emerge, it’s in its final form. It continues to hang, letting its wings dry and harden. Soon we’ll release the butterfly, to continue the cycle!

These are my other posts about the monarch who laid the eggs, the caterpillars, and the chrysalis:

Monarch in the Garden

Monarch Eggs in the Garden!

First Monarch Caterpillar Emerges

Monarch Caterpillar to Chrysalis