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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

What happened to all the Monarchs?

A Monarch visits Joe-Pye weed this fall at NBNC
“What happened to all the Monarchs?” This has become a common question the past few years, as the iconic, once-common orange butterflies are now a rare treat to find. The milkweed in fields and meadows across Vermont that once harbored Monarch caterpillars are now devoid. So, where have they gone?

The decline of the Monarch population began decades ago. While the causes are varied, the primary factor thought to be responsible for the 90% reduction in the Monarch population is the increased use of pesticides that kill milkweed, the Monarch’s only hostplant. The Midwestern states are at the core of the Monarch’s reproductive range, and Monarch breeding habitat there has been rapidly disappearing. Farms that once provided marginal Monarch habitat, with milkweed popping up between rows of corn, are now ecological deserts. The use of glyphosate (aka round-up) on genetically modified, pesticide-resistant crops has killed what little milkweed could grow in the mega-farms of the Midwest (and beyond).
Source: monarchwatch.org

Added to this are all of the other threats and stressors that Monarchs face. Bad weather, such as droughts, unusually hot or cold periods, and storms, can wipe out large percentages of the population or limit their reproductive success. Illegal logging in the forests of central Mexico threatens the important overwintering grounds of the Monarch. Predators and pathogens may be an increasing threat as Monarchs become squeezed into smaller patches of milkweed as their breeding habitat continues to shrink. And global warming may pose another set of challenges that are only beginning to be realized. The rapid decline of Monarchs has prompted a number of conservation organizations to seek protection for the Monarch under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A Monarch tagged at NBNC, to help track its migration
So far this fall, Monarch numbers appear up from 2013. Sightings have been more numerous throughout Vermont and other parts of the breeding range and the overwintering population is expected to be double that of lastyear. While this gives some hope, Monarchs need our help to be brought back from the brink. Here are a few things you can do:

  •  Help preserve milkweed! Milkweed is a native plant and is common in open or disturbed areas. When it comes time to mow, be sure to leave some milkweed for the Monarchs! You can also plant milkweed to create habitat for breeding monarchs.
  • Plant a butterfly garden. Late-flowering plants such as Joe-Pye weed, asters, and goldenrods provide important food sources for migrating Monarchs to refuel on their long journey.
  • Report your Monarch sightings! There are several tools you can use to report butterflies, including eButterfly.org, iNaturalist.org, or you can send yourobservations to us at NBNC. (Note: The Viceroy butterfly can look a lot like a Monarch… learn how to identify a Monarch)
  • Help monitor migrating Monarchs. You can order tags through monarchwatch.org, or, join NBNC for our Monarch tagging events on Wednesday afternoons at 3:30 p.m.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Thanks for an amazing year!

Serving with the North Branch Nature Center as an AmeriCorps member has been an amazing experience. A year spent teaching and learning outdoors – what could be better? During quiet moments in the field, I often stopped to consider how lucky I was to pass a year in a beautiful place, with great people, doing fun and important work.
Lindsey leading the Fall Forest Preschoolers through the field 

           2013-2014 was the first year of my life spent so wholly outdoors and in one location. I felt connected to the field, forest, and river of NBNC in a unique way that allowed me to learn more from it. Seeing the landscape shift with the seasons seemed to put daily life in context.
Beautiful snowy field
Mary and our Spring Forest Preschool crew
            The incredible folks of North Branch Nature Center provided me with the support and knowledge I needed to grow as a teacher in my own right. Seeing these educators in action was inspiring. Always eager to share resources, tips or suggestions, these wonderful folks were open books of insight and experience to me. The little ones I spent my time with taught me a great deal, too! Through this lens, I was able to see the world in a new light – to slow down and investigate our world through play.
Forest School & their boats
On top of the education experience I gained, I was also exposed to so much naturalist knowledge. The wide range of topics covered by nature center staff is astounding! River ecology, mammal tracking, caterpillars, moths, wildcrafting, turtles, birds, bird banding, wildflowers, amphibians, crayfish, bees, medicinal herbs, fire tending… the list goes on. Participating in many events around the nature center (owl banding, the Superbowl of Birding, Birdfest and more) were great opportunities. I felt lucky to be surrounded by passionate people, so happy to share what they know about the natural world.

            To everyone in the North Branch Nature Center community (staff, volunteers, parents, students, campers): Thank you! Thank you for welcoming me onto the team, for sharing your wisdom, for letting me learn from your children. With expanding programs and many possibilities ahead for North Branch, it has been an exciting year to serve with such a unique and important organization.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Red Knot and the Feisty Dogs

Four shorebirds whiz by the shore of a
sandbar on Lake Champlain.
It was the first day of September, a federal holiday, and a picture-perfect summer afternoon; the waters of Lake Chaplain were packed with canoes, kayaks, jet skis, and sailboats. As my wife and I paddled through the shallow waters of the Winooski River delta, we saw two dogs racing energetically from one side of a large sandbar to the other. It wasn’t until peering through my binoculars that I saw why the dogs were so frantically running back and forth.

The dogs were chasing shorebirds. On August 27, local birders Jim Mead and Ted Murin discovered a Red Knot, a rare sighting in Vermont, on that same sandbar. Almost every day since its initial sighting, Jim had observed the Knot, sometimes with other shorebirds and sometimes all by itself. As we paddled closer, we could see that the Red Knot was one of four birds being pursued by the eager canines. Every time the birds would land, the dogs were close behind. Much to my surprise, the shorebirds were persistent and continued to return to the small sand island again and again, only to be chased off once more.

The shorebirds were relentlessly pursued by the
dogs until their owners intervened.
After several minutes of cat-and-mouse, or rather, dog-and-shorebird, it became clear that the birds were intent on staying put. We decided to paddle to the dog owners who were conversing in the shallow water as their dogs ‘got some exercise’. After greeting them as we paddled close by, I kindly told them, “I don’t know if you realize, but your dogs are chasing a group of shorebirds. These birds are actually quite rare around here and seem to really need this island. As much as the dogs chase them, the birds keep coming back”. I didn’t want to lecture these strangers, nor did I want to blame them or shame them. Without further elaboration, they replied, “we didn’t realize, we’ll call them in now,” and within minutes, they were back in their canoes, rowing away as their dogs swam alongside.

Red Knot (front), Semipalmated Sandpiper (middle),
and Sanderling (back) return to feeding after
the dogs and their owners disperse.
The shorebirds quickly resettled on the sandbar and began feeding. They allowed me to approach quite closely and photograph them without opposition. I later saw the same canoers on shore and one seemed eager to learn more about the birds. I explained to her how they breed in the arctic and can migrate thousands of miles over open ocean in a single flight. I showed her a picture of the Red Knot and told of how its population has declined drastically in recent years and could be in danger of extinction. She seemed intrigued and enlightened.

As is often the case, a little education went a long way towards changing a behavior for the benefit of wildlife. It can be hard to approach a stranger, especially when you anticipate how they will react. But it is always better to be actively engaged than to be a passive bystander, no matter what reaction you receive. And always remember, if you are kind, considerate, and open, you increase your chances of being heard. Whether you are asking a neighbor to keep their cats indoors or reminding a friend to recycle, these little things add up. Make sure you are doing your part for the environment by being part of the conversation. As lovers of nature, we have a lot to teach and society, as a whole, has a lot to learn.
Red Knot catches a worm. After nearly a week refueling in Vermont,
it still has over 5,000 miles left to go to reach its wintering grounds.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A new butterfly species for NBNC!

Washington County's first Wild Indigo Duskywing!
On August 6, while making a phone call on the front porch of the NBNC offices, Chip noticed a small, dark insect fluttering around the driveway. He immediately recognized it as one of the duskywing butterflies, and after running to grab coworkers and camera, it was confirmed to be a Wild Indigo Duskywing… not just a new butterfly for the Nature Center, but a new species for Washington County!

Since an extensive butterfly survey was completed in Vermont in 2007, this is the fourth new species to be added to the Washington County checklist. Wild Indigo Duskywing may be new to central Vermont, but it was not unexpected. The native host plants of this species, Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) and Lupine (Lupinus perennis), formerly restricted the range of this species to southern New England. But in recent years, the Wild Indigo Duskywing has colonized the introduced species Crown Vetch (Securigera varia). Using this new host plant, the species has been expanding its range northward.

West Virginia White
photo by Tom Murray (bugguide.net)
While the Wild Indigo Duskywing seems to have benefited from an introduced plant species, many other butterfly species have suffered. One example is the West Virginia White. This species, active in early spring, uses toothwort as its sole host plant. But in places where the invasive Garlic-mustard (Alliaria petiolata) has been introduced, West Virginia Whites don’t recognize the foreign plant, and lay their eggs on Garlic-mustard rather than toothwort. The caterpillars, unable to feed on garlic-mustard, eventually starve.

Since the initial sighting nearly two weeks ago, Wild Indigo Duskywing has been seen on the property several more times. It seems that this species may be a new permanent resident of North Branch Nature Center. Keep an eye out for this nondescript butterfly in fields and meadows throughout central Vermont and submit your observations to help document the continuing expansion of its range.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

NBNC's First Praying Mantis!

A summer camper shows off his find
It isn't too unusual for us to add a new insect species to our list for the property, but it isn't every day that we add a whole new order!

Summer campers at NBNC found a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) this week, a first for us and still somewhat rare this far north. They are not a native species, but are certainly an impressive one to see and an exciting one to find!

Wasp Mantidfly
Only one species of praying mantis is found in Vermont, but others (including native species) can be found further south (Florida has 11 mantid species!). The similar-looking Wasp Mantidfly, also present in Vermont, may be confused for a praying mantis but is more closely related to a lacewing than a praying mantis (their raptorial front legs give them a ‘praying’ posture).

With global climate change causing milder winters, it is possible that praying mantis will become more common around NBNC, but for now, this can be considered a pretty unusual find!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday #5: The Orchid

The field at NBNC is beautiful this time of year, full of daisies, vetch, black-eyed susan, milkweed, and so many more. Even the first goldenrods are starting to show their color. But it was a very subtle flower that made my day this wildflower Wednesday. I've probably walked by it 100 times without ever seeing it. The Ragged Fringed Orchid may not be obvious as you walk by, but once you find it among the ferns and grasses, it stands out for its beauty and elegance. The flowers emit a fragrance at night that attracts moths such as sphinx moths and owlets.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Candid Caterpillars

A guest post by Scott Maxham

Last week I was out clearing Japanese knotweed from the riverside. Clearing knotweed can be a daunting task. It takes over large areas and deprives other plants of sunlight. While taking a much needed water break, a few feet away from the knotweed patch, I found a spiky surprise. This black red spotted caterpillar looked a bit menacing with the numerous spikes, but I was feeling adventurous and let him crawl into my hands. This caterpillar seemed ginormous after working with the tiny cecropia caterpillars we have been raising at the Nature Center.

Back at the Center Center Chip and I determined that I found a Mourning Cloak Caterpillar. Chip agreed that it was a big caterpillar and would probably be looking to pupate in the near future. Sure enough the next day we found the mourning cloak hanging upside down from the container it now calls home. If you’re interested you can see the mourning cloak pupae here at the Nature Center in our critter room.

The mourning cloak butterfly is one of the first to be seen in the spring. This is because it overwinters as an adult butterfly and does not migrate. They find safe spots in trees or logs to overwinter. The butterfly hibernates and when spring arrives the mourning cloak is ready to find a mate. The mourning cloak is unique in that it remains an adult butterfly for 10 long months. This is much longer than most butterflies live. Most butterflies will live for about a month. Even the migrating monarch butterfly will live a shorter life, usually around 7 to 8 months.
Photo by Jo Ann Poe-McGavin
I was lucky enough to find another caterpillar while out in the field. This caterpillar was a pale green color with an interesting single spike protruding out of it. The official name for this spike is a tentacle. At first sight the tentacle made me think the caterpillar was a mystical unicorn caterpillar. However, further investigation showed that the tentacle was located on the caterpillar’s rear end, not on its head. This time I found a snowberry clearwing caterpillar. The snowberry clearwing seemed content to be out and about so I left him in his natural habitat. I soon regret this when I did some research and found out the turn into a hummingbird like moth.

Yesterday Ken was out and about with the “Incredible Insects” summer camp. While they were out looking for bugs, they found a caterpillar that I consider incredible, but prefers to be called “splendid”. Ken and the kids brought back a pair of splendid dagger moth caterpillars! These caterpillars have a bit of fuzz surrounding them and change from green to brown when they are about to molt. They grow up to be stealthy moths that blend in with tree bark.

All these caterpillars have been a warm-up for the rapidly approaching Live Caterpillar Day at NBNC. This Saturday, July 26, between 11am and 4pm Sam Jaffe from the Caterpillar Lab will be coming to the Nature Center to show off his wonderful caterpillars. If you can’t make it to caterpillar day or can’t wait until Saturday to see caterpillars you can again stop by the critter room at NBNC. The cecropia caterpillars are plentiful and have grown to be much more colorful. Hope to see you Saturday at Caterpillar Day!