Monarch Butterflies Migrating On to Warmer Climate

Submitted by Art and Barb Straub,

Imagine our frustration! This story begins a couple of years ago on an early September afternoon. After being in a classroom for nigh onto fifty years on this date, we were killing our boredom by taking a sunny drive with old faithful Frannie, the famous birding Ford Focus. We passed a field of clover south of the Ney Center which is located east of Henderson. To our utter amazement, the blossoming clover was being ‘nectared’ by hundreds and hundreds of Monarch butterflies. Under normal circumstances, we would have alerted our summer Nature Neighbor students to ‘head for the hills’ after school was out to observe such an awesome sight. Instead, we took photos, but wondered where the migrating insects might settle down for the night. Acting on a hunch, that same evening we visited the Ney Center just as the sun set behind the big red Kahlow barn. Walking to the edge of the well-laundered meadow, we were totally astounded by multitudes of branches, the leafy fronds coated with as many gorgeous monarchs as one could count or snap photos. By the small white tags on the wings of the migrators, we could ascertain that they had been recently in the gentle hands of humans who were acting as ‘citizen scientists;’ sending the tagged insects to wherever the butterflies might choose to roost for the winter.

For many years, the wintering roosts of monarchs was unknown. The inquiring mind of a naturalist, Fred Urquhart, urged him to tag the insects with tiny paper numbered glue-on dots.. dots … which were eventually discovered under trees in Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains where monarchs roost. Dr. Urguhart had discovered tagging. In the 1970’s, along came Jim Gilbert, a naturalist very well known in Henderson and throughout Minnesota and entire region. He and a couple of students replicated the Urguhart experiment by tagging monarchs at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum near Chaska. The ‘tag’ of one of the students, Jim Street, was found under a pine tree in Mexico by Dr. Urguhart, returned to Jim Gilbert, and the world of butterflies has never been the same. Butterfly tagging is currently done at the NEY Center with and for students and public.

Some readers may remember the vast numbers of monarchs we reported from the Ney Center in late August of 2020, some having been tagged that August day, others having wandered in from the prairie to rest for the remainder of their Mexico flight, having consumed nectar from goldenrod, sunflowers and other sources. On September 3rd and 4th this year, we re-visited the Ney oak and walnut trees just at sunset, finding 50 or so September 3rd, discovering about 20 on one leafy branch, with many hovering and whirling about our heads. An inspiring sight!

“If I had a shotgun, I’d shoot those bats over that school!” How well we remember that phrase from a small group near us during Chimney Swift count at a school years ago. That phrase lingered in our ears as we counted migrating swifts dropping down a chimney in late August this year. We learned some new behaviors of the swifts during two recent weather occurrences. Yes, we knew that swifts fly in all kinds of weather, even rain storms. On August 20th a real ‘banger’ occurred, much-needed rain, lightning, thunder, the works. As we watched, swifts were dropping. Suddenly, a bolt from the blue startled the birds, many of which flew back ‘out’ of the chimney instead of in. A few nights later, a second whipper-snapper occurred, more crashing and bashing. After that, numbers of birds returning to our chosen chimney lessened, and lessened, and…became ‘least.’ Partner decided to check a chimney we’d vacated years ago, and she was ‘right on the spot.’ Saturday, September 4th, out of a peerless beautiful sky, 1,125 birds swooped down the old brick edifice’s tip-top entrance…highest count of the year. We can hardly wait for each evening’s ‘swift’ event!

These reporters have waited to relate sad news until last. Notes indicate that on May 28th, long before the drought of 2021 began, a pair of Trumpeter Swans, Sylvia and Sylvan, emerged from the Coachlight cattail reeds with eight wee white fluffs, baby swans, cygnets. Research reported that the numbers would not last, thus we were prepared for the possibility of the cygnets disappearing as we inventoried the Coachlight’s three ponds. As summer progressed, eight, went to seven, to six, to five cygnets by August 22nd. With no hail events, the disappearance of some of the cygnets might be explained away by marauding turtles, hungry mink, eagles, or did the cygnets attempt flight, and lacked the strength to return? As of this writing, September 6th, two adult swans and a well-groomed cygnet, occupy the muskrat pad on the home pond! A block away, on the largest pond, a beat-up cygnet, alone, dirty and with unkempt patches of gray feathers, was atop a muskrat mound. Photos show THAT swan plucking at its dirty breast feathers. What’s up, Doc? Theories welcome.