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

 

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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!

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?

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

Monarch caterpillar to chrysalis

If you’ve seen my earlier posts (I list them at the bottom for you, with links), you know that a monarch butterfly visited our garden and left several eggs on our milkweed.  We brought the eggs in and when the caterpillars emerged, we fed them. I haven’t posted many photos of the caterpillars – but I promise I’ll do a blog post about them. For now, I’m too excited and want to show you what happens when a caterpillar pupates. We’ve had several do so already, and I couldn’t get photos of them, so I was glad to see that this fellow –

was right in front of the cage, and looking for a spot to form his “J” -that’s when they attach themselves securely to a surface so they can hang down and pupate.

He hung like that for several hours, then all of a sudden I noticed that he had straightened out.

He was starting to transform! His larval skin split, starting at his head – which is at the bottom.

The skin kept splitting higher.

Finally the larval skin was all crumpled at the top. It fell off a second after I took this photo.

The chrysalid twists and turns violently during the entire process, which is one reason some of the photos are not completely in focus.

After the skin fell off, he twisted and turned a bit more. He will contract in size, and the outer surface of the chrysalis will smooth out. The time from when he relaxed down from the “J” until I took the last photo was only 9 minutes!  I don’t have a photo of him in his final chrysalis form, but this is one of the others that turned yesterday:

I feel so lucky to be able to experience this miracle firsthand, I hope you enjoyed the photos!

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

Monarch in the Garden

Monarch Eggs in the Garden!

First Monarch Caterpillar Emerges

First monarch caterpillar emerges

Did you see my post about the monarch butterfly in our garden? 

And my follow-up post about the eggs that she left on our milkweed?

Here’s one of my photos of mama monarch:

And here’s one of my closeups of one of the eggs we found – for scale, remember that they’re about the size of the head of a pin!
I keep telling you about the size of the eggs, so here’s a photo I took of an egg alongside a normal-sized straight pin:
We decided to raise them inside, because it greatly increases their survival rate. We found 13 eggs, and carefully brought them inside on Thursday. By Saturday some of the eggs had lost their yellowish color, now appearing grayish-white with darker shading inside (the caterpillar’s skin has formed and is showing through the egg, which is actually translucent).
Here’s a tighter closeup:
And voila! By Saturday evening the first tiny caterpillar had eaten its way out of its egg. The newly-hatched larva is a little more than a millimeter long, and has a gray body with a shiny black head. Here he (or she) is:
You can see its egg to the right. The tiny caterpillar is exploring and eating the milkweed.
I just checked, and more of the caterpillars are emerging, so check back for more photos!
In fact, here’s a new photo of our second baby. This caterpillar emerged from the only egg of the batch that we found on another type of milkweed, the Asclepias physocarpa.
He’s headed back to eat more of his eggshell.
And finally, another photo with a pin for scale, showing the size of the newly emerged caterpillar:

Monarch eggs in the garden!

Well, guess what? George was right that she was a female – she left us some precious gifts. Yesterday I noticed many tiny yellow eggs sprinkled on our milkweed plants. Here’s an extreme closeup of one, it’s about the size of the head of a pin!
Isn’t it amazing how she tucked it up under the cap of the bud of the unopened milkweed flower? Most of the eggs that we spotted are on the Asclepias cancellata “Wild Cotton,” which we got at Annie’s Annuals & Perennials.  You can read about this beautiful milkweed plant on Annie’s website. Here’s another extreme closeup:
You can see the oval shape and tiny lines (which my poor eyes can’t even see without blowing up my photos).  This side view really shows the oval shape:
 I think this one is getting ready to emerge from the egg – the black speck appears to be the tiny larvae (caterpillar) breaking through:
Click here to see an incredible time lapse video on Youtube of a monarch caterpillar breaking out of its egg.  Pulling back a little, you can see this one tucked among the unopened flower buds:
Finally, I really hate to post an out-of-focus photograph, but I took this one last night when we first found them, and the light was fading and I had no time to set up my tripod (excuses, excuses), so sorry for the fuzziness, but it shows you the size of the egg in scale with George’s finger.
I mentioned in my prior blog post that we have hardly seen any monarchs in our garden for a couple of years. I checked, and it was Spring 2009 when we last had the good luck to find monarch eggs on our milkweed. We raised and released them, and I photographed the entire process. You can see those photos by clicking here.  The mortality rate of butterflies left outside is quite high, due to predators, weather factors and other causes, so raising them indoors greatly increases the chance that they will survive. We’re honored that this monarch trusted us with her eggs, and we will guard and nurture them until they emerge, then let them go to continue the cycle!