Saturday, February 27, 2016

Monarch Population Numbers Are In!

And great news...

Population numbers are up!!!

Graph of area covered by the Monarch overwintering population in Mexico
graph by WWF
The Monarch butterfly is known for its great migration across North America. They overwinter only in certain locations in Mexico and California, and when they fly North to breed, it takes several generations before their great-great-grandchildren fly back south to overwinter in the same spots.

Monarch migration paths shown by the USDA
Monarch population numbers have been so low the past couple of years that we were in serious danger of losing this great migration.  The Monarch butterfly population plummeted due to several factors: severe winters at their overwintering sites, illegal deforestation of their overwintering sites, and the sharp drop in the amount of their larval food of milkweed along their migration path. 

Monarch butterfly
With the rise of corn prices, due in part to the government mandate of adding ethanol to gasoline, millions of acres of grasslands that make up part of the Monarch breeding grounds have been converted to farmlands, and the majority of farms have switched to new varieties that are genetically engineered to tolerate herbicides.  The spraying of herbicides has eliminated the milkweed that used to sprout up in and around crops – and thus eliminated much of the breeding ground for Monarchs.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
I know gardeners across America have been planting milkweed to help out the Monarch, and there is even a federal initiative to try to address this problem.  And it looks like all that milkweed planting might be making a difference, as the population totals have jumped!

graph from the Center for Biological Diversity
World Wildlife Mexico, in collaboration with SEMARNAT and CONANP and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (MBBR), announced yesterday that nine colonies of butterflies were found in Mexico with a total forest area occupied adding up to 4.01 hectares.  That is almost quadruple the 1.13 hectares occupied last winter, and considerably up from the shockingly low area of 0.67 hectares two winters ago.

graph of overwintering population in hectares
provided by Monarch Watch
Of course, the battle is not yet over.  The target is for the Monarch population to be able to sustain their average population of 6 hectares, a number large enough to withstand natural population fluctuations without dropping below the threshold for possible extinction.

Such good news for the Monarch butterflies of North America!

And now back to planting a little more milkweed...

Saturday, February 20, 2016

If You Don't Like the Weather, Just Wait a Day

Sunday saw a very frigid Valentine's Day with the temperatures hitting -10°F (-23°C).

Monday saw a storm of perfect snowflakes.

The cold froze the six-pointed crystals,

keeping them in perfect snowflake shape.

Tuesday brought a drastic change with lots of rain and melting snow.

And Wednesday saw the first bloom of the year in the garden.

What I believe might be a little Crocus tommasinianus 'Roseus' is in bloom, beating out even my snowdrops for first bloom of the season.

In February.

Three days after the coldest day this winter.

(Not that I'm complaining.)

What a strange winter it has been!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Third Winter's the Charm

I must admit, the first two winters after moving up to the Northeast were tough for me.

The first winter dragged on; I was not used to such a long, isolating winter and depressed having moved so far from friends and home.

The second winter was cold but with plentiful sun and little snow - until February hit.

Blizzard after blizzard dumped record amounts of snow on us, and we spent every morning trying to clear the mountain of snow off our roof and dealing with issues such as ice dams, cracking ceilings, a leak in the roof, and water damage to the floor of our bedroom.

We honestly laughed a lot that winter.  When you're up on a ladder every single morning looking absurd trying to clear snow off a roof with a rowing oar (because you've already broken your roof rake and there isn't another one to be had for miles around), laughing is really the best option. 

But now it's our third winter here.  And while I know there is still plenty of time for winter to whammy us, so far winter has been - dare I say it? - almost pleasant.

The first half of winter was delightfully mild, and now that the temperatures have dropped, we have gotten a wonderfully normal (knocking on lots of wood here) amount of snow.

Of course, weather must always be strange, and we got a surprisingly wet snow, the kind that clings to everything and turns the world into a quiet wonderland.

I am amazed at how snow can cling to every single branch and surface.

Young branches bowed nearly to the ground, and the tops of the flexible pines curled from the weight of the snow.

Thankfully no trees broke, though in spring we may find a good number of downed branches.

Every wire on the vegetable garden fence turned into thick white ropes,

and every branch was outlined in white.

This year I am thankful for the snow.  As temperatures drop from the blast of arctic air coming down, my plants are safe and snug under the insulating layer.

And I am finding beauty in this winter wonderland.

I hope everyone is staying warm out there!

And I wish everyone a beautiful and peaceful winter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Can Birds Predict Bad Weather?

I don't need to read the weather forecast to know if a storm is coming or not.  I just look to see who is gossiping around the bird feeder.

If it's just the usual suspects - the Chickadees, Dark-eyed Juncos, Goldfinches, and other small birds - I know we're good.  But when all the big guys and loners start showing up....

Hairy Woodpecker and Goldfinches
I know there's a storm brewing!

American Goldfinches
But how do birds know a storm is moving in?  Scientists have long thought that birds sense barometric pressure, and in 2013 Western University's Advanced Facility for Avian Research (AFAR) proved it by putting White-throated Sparrows in a hypobaric avian wind tunnel.  (Wind tunnel for birds?  I'm impressed!)  When scientists simulated an oncoming storm by dropping the air pressure before dawn, the birds would immediately start eating at first light instead of doing their normal morning preening.

But while birds being able to sense air pressure is really not a surprise, researchers suspect that birds may have another way of foretelling when bad storms are coming...

A couple of years ago researchers were testing whether or not the small Golden-winged Warbler could carry geolocators on their backs.  It turns out they could - and they provided some unexpected but extremely interesting data.

In April 2014, the Golden-winged Warblers had just flown from South America to their breeding grounds in the Tennessee mountains when an incredibly massive storm started brewing across the US, one that ending up spawning 84 tornadoes and killing 35 people.  Two days before the giant storm reached Tennessee - and while it was still over 500 miles (900 km) away - the birds turned around and fled 1,000 miles back down south to the Gulf of Florida and Cuba to wait out the storm before flying back up north.

Dark-eyed Junco
Realizing a giant storm was coming when it was still hundreds of miles away?  That's some impressive forecasting!  But researchers realized that the Warblers left even before there was any change in barometric pressure, wind speed, or anything else in Tennessee that would normally cause them to flee that early.  So how did the birds know a storm was coming so far ahead of time?

Eastern Bluebird
Scientists think that the birds must have been able to hear infrasound waves from the approaching storm.  Infrasound, sound where the wave frequency is so low that humans can't detect it, can carry over large distances, and this deep rumble made by far-off tornadoes might have tipped off the birds that something big was coming.

Northern Cardinal
Birds predicting oncoming storms by air pressure changes and infrasound make sense.
How about birds predicting earthquakes?

Downy Woodpecker
There have long been anecdotes about animals fleeing an area before an earthquake happens. There is now a hypothesis that some migrating birds could predict earthquakes because of their ability to detect shifts in magnetic fields.  Before an earthquake strikes, stressed rocks give off clouds of positive electric charge, which generate a magnetic field at the Earth's surface.  Do birds detect this, and could a change in migration patterns predict an earthquake?  Scientists with the ICARUS Initiative (short for International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) are hoping to find out.  They have started tracking migrating patterns of birds and bats by tagging them with ultralight, solar-powered transmitters, and disaster prediction is one of the things they are studying.  It will be interesting to see what they find.

Northern Flicker
Who knows?  Maybe someday instead of watching the Weather Channel for forecasts of impending doom, everyone will just watch the birds.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...