Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Monday, January 20, 2014

A Special Monarch Butterfly

Butterflies are intriguing insects and we support many species of butterflies in our garden by providing host and nectar plants. This past year we saw record numbers of certain species such as the Variegated and Gulf Fritillaries but very low numbers in others such as the Monarch where we only spotted one all season.  Just a few miles down the road my friend, Penny had lots of Monarchs in her garden. What a difference a few miles can make!

Monarch butterfly laying eggs on milkweed

Penny spent a lot of time studying the Monarchs in her garden. She watched the monarchs lay eggs, caterpillars grow from one instar to the next but when they crawled off to form their chrysalis she never could find them. Since she wanted to observe the entire life cycle she decided to grab a few fat caterpillars when she saw them crawling away from the milkweed and put them in her habitat cage. She was then able to watch up close how it formed its chrysalis and also see it eclose from the chrysalis 8 to 12 days later. The following two photos are hers that she took of the monarch in action.

Monarch emerging from chrysalis
©Penny Stowe
When a butterfly reaches maturity it emerges from the chrysalis and uses its legs to pull itself out and cling to the empty shell so that its crumpled wings can hang down.  It pumps its wings slowly up and down to force fluid (hemolymph) into the wings. The butterfly then stretches its wings out to dry. The butterfly has about an hour to do this otherwise the wings will dry in their folded position and will be permanently deformed.

Monarch pumping its wings with fluid
©Penny Stowe

Have you ever found a butterfly with deformed wings in your garden? There are several reasons this can occur. It could be that the butterfly falls to the ground while its wings are wet and they become damaged. Sometimes butterflies don't have enough room to fully spread their wings during this critical time or the butterfly may have a defect which prevents the wings from opening properly. Crinkled wings is one of the signs of O.E. (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha), a protozoan parasite that infects Monarchs all over the world. I wrote a post about this last year, O.E. and Monarch Conservation. You can read it here.

Monarch with crinkled (deformed) wings

What would you do if you found a butterfly that had deformed wings? Well, my friend, Penny found a special Monarch in her garden and being the kind soul that she is she brought him inside. She knew that he wouldn't survive on his own. Without the ability to fly properly, and since it was early December and the temperatures were dropping, his hours were numbered.

She feed him diluted honey water from a petri dish. Sometimes she used a paperclip to unfurl his proboscis to help the drinking process along.

feeding monarch with deformed wings

The day I visited, he ate heartily. Notice his feet resting in the liquid in the photo above...butterflies have sensory organs on their feet and this would indicate to him that this honey solution was something tasty to eat. In the photo below you can see his proboscis is unfurled and he is drinking.

Monarch drinking honey water solution

Penny kept him in a temperature controlled patio where he could rest comfortably. He would flap his wings to get around and crawl on the floor. He had a favorite corner he would go to and let the sun shine down on him through the floor to ceiling windows. Penny's pet monarch lived for a good 6 weeks but then his time had come. Thanks to Penny's tender heart and devotion he had a great life considering his circumstances. In addition it was an enthralling learning experience and I am so glad that she was able to share it with me.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Winter Wonderland Along the Shore of Lake Michigan

I didn't expect to be writing my first post of 2014 from Michigan, but here I am. We've extended our holiday visit with family because of the winter storm that has brought over a foot of snow, whiteout conditions and subzero temperatures.

evergreens covered in snow

It has been snowing steadily for four days and the result is breathtaking. We don't get this kind of snowfall in Georgia so it is a real treat to experience this. The kids and dogs have taken full advantage, sledding and frolicking in the snow. Most people are staying indoors and off the roads and it is eerily quiet.

winter wonderland

The wind was pretty wicked for two days and even the ice cycles got covered in snow.

ice cycles covered in snow

The landscape blanketed in pure white is soothing and brings a freshness to the area. The walnut trees that tower over my mother's front garden look even more majestic covered in the snow.

walnut trees covered in snow

The few squirrels that are still out searching for food find maneuvering along the snow covered branches rather challenging. And, when they do find a treasure amongst all the snow they stay put and devour their find. I was able to photograph this black squirrel before too much snow blanketed the trees.

black squirrel eating walnut

Before the roads became impassable, I ventured out to the frozen shores of Lake Michigan to see how it looked in the winter. I heard a snowy owl had been spotted near the lighthouse.

Lake Michigan in winter

It was brutally cold with the wind whipping off the lake but there were several other photographers there looking for the owl so I wasn't the only crazy one there!

Lighthouse in winter, St. Joseph Michigan

Walking to the lighthouse was treacherous with all the frozen ice and frankly it was just too cold for me. Even dressed in the warmest winter wear I have, my fingers were dangerously cold and the snowy owl had long gone. That was terribly disappointing.

ice covered railing along Lake Michigan

I warmed up in the car and then took a stroll along the beach. The wind had swirled the sand and snow together to make interesting patterns in the terrain.

snow covered sand dunes

A bit further down the beach I found some seagulls huddled together trying to keep warm. They look like small mounds of snow as they blend into the snowy landscape.

seagulls in snow

But looking closer you can see how they fluff up to trap air between their feathers and their bodies creating a natural layer of insulation. As they rest they even tuck their beak into their feathers to breathe in this warmer air. With the arctic wind whipping across the lake onto the beach you can't help but wonder if they are dreaming of warmer days.

seagull fluffed up to keep warm in winter

They took off as soon as I got too close but settled down again quickly once they discovered I wasn't a threat.

seagulls in flight over snowy beach

Along the shoreline the snow, ice and lapping water makes some wild sculptures. It is hard to believe people will be sunbathing in this spot in a few months.

snow and ice on Lake Michigan

The danger of walking along the beach when it is covered in snow is that it is hard to tell where the beach ends and the frozen lake begins. It can be very dangerous and the terrain deceiving. The snow looks solid but often is not and it is easy to fall through the snow into the freezing water. 

snow and ice along Lake Michigan

You wouldn't want to end up stuck here. I am thankful I brought my zoom lens along.

snow and ice on Lake Michigan

The polar vortex has brought some extreme weather conditions across much of the U.S. and I hope everyone affected is staying safe and warm! I am getting anxious to get home and see how my garden survived the freezing temperatures (without any snow insulation). It has finally stopped snowing and the arctic temperatures are retreating slightly. I even saw the sun trying to shine.

sun peaking out from trees in snow storm

Hopefully the road conditions will improve soon but until then we are enjoying this winter wonderland. Who knows when we will be seeing this kind of snowfall again.