Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Plight of the Monarch

The Plight of the Monarch

     In a world filled with amazing animals, one tiny but colorful insect stands out because of its endurance and unique life cycle. Weighing only .0095 to .026 oz with a lifespan of 6 to 8 months, the amazing monarch butterfly manages to journey up to 3,000 miles on paper thin wings through storms and across vast landscapes. Although monarchs are found throughout the world, the North American monarch is referenced here. The perilous journey of the North American monarch is necessary as the milkweed is only found in the midwestern US and Canada in the summer and the monarch cannot withstand cold winter temperatures. Thus, the need to migrate between winter locations in Mexico or warm areas of southern California and the summer feeding areas of the US and southern Canada.

      Unfortunately, populations of the brightly colored monarch butterflies have gone into a steep decline. Understanding more about their life cycle and habits is key so that humans can help to reverse this trend.

     Monarchs begin their life as eggs which are placed on milkweed plants. The placement of eggs on milkweed is vital for monarchs as the larva, otherwise known as a caterpillar, which hatches from the eggs feeds almost exclusively on milkweed. This is only the beginning of the most unusual life cycle over the next year.

      The young caterpillars feed voraciously on the milkweed and are capable of consuming an entire leaf in 5 minutes.  To protect from being eaten by lizards, frogs and birds the caterpillars produce a toxin from the sap of the milkweed which is poisonous to potential predators. The brightly colored caterpillar serves as a warning to predators.

     This first phase, also known as an instar, may only last a few weeks before the caterpillar begins one of the most incredible transformations in nature. The larva while attached by a thin thread to a stationary object will next spin a protective case or chrysalis inside of which the caterpillar will undergo a metamorphosis into the beautiful and iconic monarch butterfly.  This second generation will only live for a short while during which they will continue to feed on milkweed and later on nectar after another metamorphosis into a butterfly as they flutter further north. Soon, this generation will lay eggs on milkweed which will begin the third generation of butterflies.

     As the summer begins to wane, this third generation of the year will again cycle through the stages of egg to caterpillar to butterfly.  The fourth and final generation of the monarch which emerges in September to October is the long distance flier to winter ranges in California or Mexico ahead of the advancing winter. One of the truly amazing feats is that although this generation of monarchs has never been to the winter retreat, they manage to return to the same area and often to the same tree as the butterflies from the previous winter.

    This perilous journey of thousands of miles is full of obstacles to survival along the way. Recent changes in farming practices have lead to a steep decline in milkweed throughout the corn belt in the midwestern US. The population and extent of milkweed necessary for the caterpillars has declined because of the conversion of areas that previously grew milkweed to corn for ethanol and because the increased use of herbicide resistant crop species has allowed the use of non-selective herbicides which kills the milkweed. Illegal logging has impacted winter habitat in Mexico and recent unprecedented weather events may have adversely impacted the delicate butterfly.

   What can be done to reverse this recent trend? Preserving a corridor of milkweed is absolutely essential to providing a food source for the larval stage of the monarch. Conserving areas that can grow milkweed, especially in regions dominated by managed crops, will provide feeding stations along the northward path.

      Conservation of habitat within areas of historical wintering retreats in  Mexico and California is essential. Perhaps ecotourism in these areas will provide an additional financial incentive to preserve these critical areas. Small landowners and even urban dwellers can encourage milkweed or nectar producing plants on their properties. Finally, education that helps to raise awareness of the plight of the monarch will encourage people to care so that future generations can also enjoy the amazing monarch.

Here are some additional sources of information:

Battle For Butterflies

Habitat Highways 

Monarch Butterfly

On the Track of the Monarch Butterfly


Monday, April 3, 2017

Looking for Spring

Yesterday I took a long stroll along the North Country Trail above the Manistee River in a quest to find signs of spring. Yes, the day was warm and spring-like, but you had to really look hard to find signs of spring.

One butterfly, seemingly out of season because there is nothing blooming, flitted about, occasionally pausing on the leafy ground. There were a few insects. Good, that means protein for soon-to-come baby birds. But for now, only a few robins found food to eat. Aspens displayed fuzzy buds that soon will be followed by flowers and later a flush of spring-green leaves.

Still, although the calendar says April, it was hard to find signs of spring in the northwoods. At times, swirling winds shifted last fall's thick layer of leaves. The woodland wildflowers have yet to feel the touch of a warm rain followed by a sunny day to wake them from their slumber. Soon spring will arrive and seemingly overnight the forest floor will undergo a magical transformation.

It has been almost a year since the woodland wildflowers have announced the coming spring. I cannot wait to again see the delicate bloodroot with its pure white petals. I anxiously await the arrival of patches of spring beauty, the aptly named Dutchman's breeches and hepatica, also known as liverleaf, which brave the still fickle early spring weather to give a sense that spring is finally making progress.  Even a tiny violet will be a welcome sight. In wetter areas, early blooming marsh marigold will put on a dazzling display of yellow and green. Seemingly infinite numbers of yellow trout lily with its spotted leaves and graceful flower at the end of a stalk are another sure sign of spring. 

I must admit that I cannot wait for the later blooming wildflowers to announce that spring is finally here to stay. The giant white trillium is by far the star of the spring woods. In places, it seems to form a carpet of blossoms. Not to be outdone, the individual or small areas of red trillium, also known as wake robin, add an unexpected splash of red. The large-flowered


bellwort, with its bell-shaped yellow flowers, complements the white trillium. With spring in full swing, bees will buzz among this kaleidoscope of woodland flowers. Spring in the woods lasts only a short time, as the blooming spring ephemerals quickly fade in the shade of emerging leaves on the trees overhead. Spring however short is still much anticipated.

Meanwhile, I wait patiently as the sun tilts ever higher in the sky and the days grow warmer.  Soon there will be new life everywhere, and with a spring in my step and a smile on my face I will traipse down the trail surrounded by the magic of spring. 

Wake Robin


Friday, March 24, 2017

Artist-in-Residence Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Big Creek in the rain
It was my dream come true to have been the Artist-in-Residence (AiR) as a photographer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) for six weeks from September through November of 2016. I have been to the GSMNP many times and I would never have imagined having this opportunity. My background as a natural resource manager for 26 years along with my passion for photography helped to secure the chance to take photographs for an entire season in one of the most picturesque national parks. For me, it was about more than just taking photos. I wanted to take the time to gain a greater understanding of the park.
Middle Prong

The National Park Service, the Friends of the Smokies and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts sponsor the AiR program in the GSMNP. Artists are provided housing in a park service apartment inside of the park. From May through November painters, musicians, poets, writers and other artists were given from 3 to 6 weeks to utilize the park to inspire their art.

Although I mostly had the freedom to pursue my photography during my residency, there were few requirements to fulfill. I worked with the Volunteer Coordinator for the National Park Service to present programs on photography to the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and the Job Corps. I also took a day to work with a park volunteer to capture and tag monarch butterflies during their fall migration. On another day, I worked with the Great Smoky Mountain Association on a video promoting the AiR program. I gave a brief summary of the AiR program before taking a group hike with the Friends of the Smokies to the stunning Charlie's Bunion formation and the awe-inspiring views near the Appalachian Trail. An AiR is also required to donate a product of their work and I am currently finishing a book of photos and essays about the park for the National Park Service and the Friends of the Smokies.

Deep Creek Drainage
On most days with my camera bags and lunch packed, I headed to my chosen location well before sunrise. Sometimes the days lasted into the night for sunsets or even night stars from Clingmans Dome. During the early part of my residency, I felt no rush and just absorbing and studying about the surroundings was enough. As my time as an AiR dwindled there was a sense of urgency to capture with my camera as much as possible.

Fall Colors
During my six weeks, I visited all of my favorite places, but I also had time to explore and photograph places I had previously never had the time to visit. I discovered that I really enjoyed photographing butterflies as they stopped to fuel up on nectar during their migration through the area. On several occasions, I photographed elk in the Cataloochee Valley during the fall rut as the bull elk bugled and sparred with other males in the herd. On some days the camera stayed behind and I just hiked the trails. One of my favorite trails was the Boogerman Trail, perhaps because of the
Great Spangled Fritillary
amusing story behind the name, but also for the solitude and beauty of the trail through an old growth hardwood forest on a stunning fall day. A hike through the giant trees in the Albright Grove had me thinking about the cycle of life and the struggle to capture sunlight energy in the forest. Another memorable day was spent along beautiful Big Creek in a driving rainstorm at the peak of the fall color when I was able to capture several of my favorite images. Drawing from my experience as a natural resource manager, it was during these hikes when I contemplated the state of the park and what will it be like in the future.

Majestic Bull Elk
In 2016 over 11 million people, many of which are serious photographers, visited the GSMNP. It is obvious that people really do love the park, as we do all of our national parks. Although the Smokies may seem like paradise, the park has faced past threats is facing many new threats. I left just before the historic fires burned almost 17,000 acres in the park and devastated many adjoining areas around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Past invasive pests such as the chestnut blight and balsam woolly adelgid removed the American chestnut and Fraser fir from the park. New threats have arrived, such as the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), which kills hemlock trees. During my time in residence, I wondered how future threats such as climate change, air pollution and the ever increasing number of visitors will impact the park.

Monarch on Lobelia
My six weeks went by too quickly, but my adventure as an AiR in the GSMNP provided the time to immerse myself into one of the most amazing places on earth. It also gave me the chance to see and learn so much more about the park while contemplating the future of this special place.

There are many other AiR programs throughout the country and I would highly recommend that photographers pursue these opportunities. Not only are these programs great opportunities for photography, but they also provide ample time to gain a unique perspective of a place.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Up North Winter Getaway

Viewing the Caves

Getting through the winter "up north" means learning to enjoy winter outings. It can be skiing, snowshoeing or some other way of getting out of the house for fresh air and welcome exercise which has the added benefit of keeping you warm. After watching through the windows as the winter snows swirled down, I saw the weather reports that a January thaw was promising a break in the  relentless rounds of snow. That is when I knew that I could not resist the siren song of a winter trip and outing any longer.

So, I loaded the truck and headed off to the Upper Peninsula (UP ) for a winter getaway. I had my sights set for the Eben Ice Caves with a couple of added side trips. While most "Yoopers" know about the Eben Ice Caves, also known as the Rock River Canyon Wilderness on the Hiawatha National Forest, many non-locals may not have experienced this spectacle.

In winter, water seeping from a rock bluff freezes into a magical curtain of ice about 50 feet tall and several hundred feet across.  As the water percolates through the rock layers it dissolves minerals which gives distinctive colors to the ice formations.  This other worldly sight beckons thousands of visitors every year who make the short hike through a beautiful yellow birch forest and into the riparian area leading to the caves.

Behind the Curtain

I have been here several times and made the three quarter-mile hike to the caves on good days when the trail was easy and on other days when it was a challenge just to stay upright. The sign at the entrance to the wilderness area advises of the treacherous nature of trail, and this is quite true. During times when the trail has been packed down by the many visitors into an icy path, hiking the short-steep hills is quite daunting.  I have seen some people resort to sliding down the hills on their bottoms, only to find that they could not stop at the bottom of the hill. It is highly advisable to wear ice cleats, not only for the hike in, but also for the even icier area around the caves.

When you finally reach the caves, the best part is that if you have your cleats, and otherwise, only if you are extremely careful, you can walk behind the ice to see why these formations are called ice caves. In the narrow chamber behind the ice there is space to explore further this unique natural phenomena. Be careful though, as it is still slippery even with cleats and the super-sized icicles can be very easily dislodged onto people below. While exploring the caves, listen closely for the constant drips of water echoing throughout the cave and look out through the translucent ice to experience the amazing colors. 

If you go on a weekend between January and March, when the ice formations are normally at their best, you will probably have plenty of company. There is limited parking, so get there early. To get there, start at the small town of Eben Junction, MI (about a half hour west of Munising). From M-94 in Eben Junction, turn north onto Eben Road and drive about 1.5 miles to Frey Road. Turn right on Frey Road and drive to the end where there is a small parking area, or find a space along the road. Also, Eben Road and Frey Road have small hand-made yellow wooden signs on them that say "Ice Caves".  Parking and the first part of the trail is on private property, and the family there has been nice enough to allow access across their property. They have even provided portable toilets and only ask for a contribution. There is another much longer way in to the caves, so please be respectful of the privilege when crossing private property.

Tahquamenon Falls

Side trips to Tahquamenon Fall State Park north of Newberry, MI and Wagner Falls were also included on my getaway.  The Upper Falls at Tahquamenon only requires a short hike and there is a nice lodge with food and beverages at the parking area. Beautiful in any season, the falls here are even more amazing when surrounded by ice and snow.  The Lower Falls requires more hiking and snowshoes may come in quite handy. Wagner Falls, just south of Munising,  is just a hundred yards from M-94 and the parking area is not plowed, leaving only parking along the road shoulder. If the normally deep snow on trail along the boardwalk into the falls  has been packed by previous visitors it is worth the stop.

There are  many other winter outings awaiting in this area of the UP.  There are even a few local hotels with an indoor hot tub to soak in later.  So, make your plans, get your reservations, pack the car and head over the bridge and through the woods to a unique winter adventure.