Seen any monarchs lately?
No, not the British royal family: the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
Butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology who has monitored butterfly populations of dozens of species in the Central Valley since 1972, says it's a poor year for monarchs.
He saw one monarch on Sept. 26 in Davis, and one on Sept. 27 in West Sacramento, both Yolo County. "The coastward migration is apparently afoot...all 6 dozen of them..." he lamented.
Maybe the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife will declare it an endangered species?
From its website: "On December 15, 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing the monarch as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act is warranted, but precluded by higher priority listing actions. The decision is the result of an extensive status review of the monarch that compiled and assessed the monarch's current and future status. The monarch is now a candidate under the Endangered Species Act; we will review its status annually until a listing decision is made."
The first five paragraphs of their news release, issued Dec. 15, 2020: "After a thorough assessment of the monarch butterfly's status, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has found that adding the monarch butterfly to the list of threatened and endangered species is warranted but precluded by work on higher-priority listing actions. With this decision, the monarch becomes a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and its status will be reviewed each year until it is no longer a candidate."
“We conducted an intensive, thorough review using a rigorous, transparent science-based process and found that the monarch meets listing criteria under the Endangered Species Act. However, before we can propose listing, we must focus resources on our higher-priority listing actions,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Aurelia Skipwith. “While this work goes on, we are committed to our ongoing efforts with partners to conserve the monarch and its habitat at the local, regional and national levels. Our conservation goal is to improve monarch populations, and we encourage everyone to join the effort.”
“The Monarch Joint Venture is committed to continuing its conservation efforts for monarchs. Each of our partners, and many other stakeholders, come to the monarch conservation table with different approaches, audiences, strengths and opportunities to make a difference. There is a role for everyone in monarch conservation,” stated Wendy Caldwell, Executive Director, Monarch Joint Venture.
"Over the past 20 years, scientists have noted declines in North American monarchs overwintering in Mexico and California, where these butterflies cluster. Numbers in the larger eastern population are measured by the size of the area they occupy. At a density of roughly 8.5 million monarchs per acre, it is estimated that the eastern population fell from about 384 million in 1996 to a low of 14 million in 2013. The population in 2019 was about 60 million. The western population, located in California, saw a more precipitous decline, from about 1.2 million in 1997 to fewer than 30,000 in 2019."
"In 2014, the Service received a petition to list the species and published a substantial 90-day finding in December 2014. In 2016, the agency began an in-depth status assessment, looking at the global population as well as focusing on monarchs in North America, where 90% of the world's population occurs."
Meanwhile, the tally of sightings in the Yolo-Solano area is troubling. Beyond troubling....
An American flag flies from its sky-high pole at our home year-around.
A U.S. Air Force veteran lives here, and the survivors of generations of veterans, starting with the American Revolution, live here.
On Memorial Day, Flag Day and Veterans' Day, we pause and pay tribute to all who served in our nation's wars.
I think of my great-grandfather, Samuel Davidson Laughlin, a Union color bearer in the Civil War who carried the American flag in several of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War: the Siege of Vicksburg, Battle of Lookout Mountain, and the battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga. The 6'3" farm boy from Linn, Mo. towered over his fellow soldiers. Height, as well as strength and courage, determined who carried the flags. It was an honor accorded to only a few.
Sam Laughlin and his white-knuckle grip on the American flag portrayed a defining moment in history. He escaped the blood and bullets of the Civil War unscathed. His flag did not; a musket tore a hole in it.
What he saw on the battlefields, however, would torment him and his fellow soldiers for decades.
The horrors of war....
Back at camp, did they ever pause to see a little beauty reminding them of the existence of Mother Nature...such as a butterfly fluttering by? Not during the late fall or winter months! Perhaps they did at the Siege of Vicksburg (May 18-July 4, 1863)? Maybe a monarch to soothe the soul?
"Some of the most breathtaking sights are those created by Mother Nature. And during the next few weeks, we'll get to experience one of her most eye-catching works – the spring migration of the monarch butterfly. The vibrant insects pass right through Mississippi, creating a colorful show in the sky."--Only in Your State (Mississippi)
Flying high, flying free.
"What are YOU doing here?"
It was Saturday morning, Jan. 23, and the monarch caterpillar seemed to be sunning itself on a milkweed leaf in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., a Solano County city situated between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Yes, Saturday, Jan. 23. The dead of winter. A third-star monarch caterpillar.
"Mama Monarch" must have laid the egg in late December, surmised butterfly guru Art Shapiro, UC Davis distinguished professor of evolution and ecology, who has researched butterfly population trends since 1972 and maintains a research website, Art's Butterfly World.
"Evidence of inland winter breeding," he commented. "Nothing surprises me any more..."
Interestingly enough, on the same day that we spotted the monarch caterpillar was the same day that naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas, an associate of the Bohart Museum of Entomology, UC Davis, photographed a newly eclosed Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, in his yard in Davis.
The temperature on Jan. 23 hovered at 60 degrees. Since then, it's dropped into the 30s, with blustery winds, heavy rain and a strong storm uprooting trees and flash-flooding the LNU Lighting Complex burn scar. And it's c-o-l-d--cold enough to borrow Bernie Sanders' heavy overcoat and mittens, and for good measure, add an Elmer Fudd (trapper) hat, the kind you need in Vermont.
But a monarch caterpillar in January in Solano County?
Last year the monarchs in our garden thrived, as the Danaus plexippus population declined throughout the country, and scientists began talking about extinction. Last year we collected more than 300 monarch eggs or caterpillars in our garden, primarily from two of the three milkweed species. We reared and released them, except for the ones we donated to researchers at the University of California, Davis and the University of Nevada to start their own colonies.
Is the January caterpillar healthy? Will it survive?
Seems so. We moved it inside on Jan. 24 in a Bohart Museum butterfly habitat on our kitchen counter, but only time will tell.
Still, it's like spotting the Easter Bunny handing out candy in December or Santa Claus delivering candy canes on Easter Sunday.
2020 was a troubling year for the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus.
USFWS announced Dec. 15 that the iconic butterfly qualified as an endangered species but resources are not available to place it on the high priority list. Translation: no funding. However, USFWS said the "monarchs' status will be reviewed each year by the agency and conservation efforts will continue."
Still, both the Western population, which overwinters along the California coast, and the Eastern population, which overwinters in central Mexico, are declining rapidly. Since the 1990s, monarchs have declined by approximately 80 percent in central Mexico, and by 99 percent in coastal California, scientists say. The threats impacting the monarchs? "Habitat loss and fragmentation has occurred throughout the monarch's range. Pesticide use can destroy the milkweed monarchs need to survive," USFWS says. "A changing climate has intensified weather events which may impact monarch populations."
Incredibly, 2020 was a very good year for monarchs--the best year yet--in our family's pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif. We counted more than 300 eggs or caterpillars. We donated some to researchers to establish populations, and we reared some ourselves.
Our entire garden was a'flutter. The monarchs nectared on the milkweed flowers, Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia rotundifolia), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and assorted other flowers.
Monarch butterflies usually lay their eggs beneath the milkweed leaves, but sometimes we see them laying their eggs on flowers and stems. One memorable day in late summer, we spotted four monarch eggs on a milkweed "floral bouquet." We offer the monarchs a choice of milkweed, primarily: narrowleaf milkweed, Asclepias. fascicularis,and showy milkweed, A. speciosa, both natives; and tropical milkweed, A. curassavica, a non-native. ( As recommended, we cut back or remove the tropical milkweed before the migratory season.)
Let's hope that monarchs will fare better in 2021. Check out the Xerces Society's page at https://xerces.org/monarchs and let's do what we can to help.
Ever seen a back-lit monarch butterfly?
It's like a stained-glass window in a centuries-old steepled church where you cannot see the ugliness of the world, but its beauty.
Monarchs are like that. Those iconic butterflies excite, inspire and transform you, just like stained glass windows.
We captured these images at dusk of a monarch fluttering around an aphid-infested milkweed, a tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, on Aug. 7 in Vacaville, Calif.
The orange butterfly was nothing but a blur until we stopped the action (1/4000 of a second) with a 200mm macro lens mounted on a Nikon D500.
The beauty (the monarch) eclipsed the beast (oleander aphids) in a moment of time.