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.

Friday, September 23, 2016

These Old Mountains

As my Artist-in-Residence in the Great Smoky Mountains begins for the fall of 2016, I thought that a brief introduction to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in order. The park is the star and provides the setting for my camera as summer transitions to fall. As an introduction,  I will start with an abridged description of park geology. This may seem mundane, but it is the geology along with the climate that has shaped the natural and human history within the park and made the Great Smoky Mountains as it is today.

The story of the Smoky Mountains begins approximately 200-300 million years ago when tectonic forces lifted these mountains. These are some of the oldest mountains on earth, and at one time the Smoky Mountains resembled the rugged Rocky Mountains. Millions of years of erosion have whittled down the Smoky Mountains.  It is nearly incomprehensible to imagine that mountains can be laid low by simple everyday forces of precipitation, freezing and thawing, but the aggregation of almost imperceptible erosion over 200 million years wears down even the loftiest of mountains.

The land forms resulting from these geologic forces are the foundation for all life in the park, and as well the incredible biodiversity. The Smoky Mountains were not significantly impacted by glaciers in the last ice age 10,000 years ago. As the glaciers pressed south, many plants and animals retreated from the glaciers and found refuge within the park. Many northern species have persisted in cooler climates at the highest elevations or in other cool micro climates. Elevation differences create  climatic zones which mimic the zones typically found on a traverse from south to north. These zones are compacted within the park from the lowest elevation of 875 feet to the highest at 6,643 feet (Clingman's Dome). These diverse climatic zones as well as the smaller scale climatic variations provide habitat for the more than 10,000 identified species (tens of thousands of additional species are thought to exist here).

Although it will not be readily apparent,  my photos of scenes and life in these old mountains will be  the result of the nearly invisible hand of relentless geologic forces for hundreds of millions of years.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

What We're Missing

Our modern civilization has literally obliterated
 our night skies with light pollution and most people don't know what they are missing. Where does one go to escape the multitude of outdoor lights in order to have a clearer view of the night sky? Night lights are everywhere. Shopping mall parking lots, car dealers, grocery stores, streetlights, night-lighted billboards, security lighting around our homes, business signs, stadium lights, decorative lights, car headlights and traffic lights. If you drive around at night, unfortunately you will need your headlights and will need to heed traffic lights. However, it does not take long to see the lights.

What we're missing are the aurora borealis (northern lights), planets, the milky way, comets, constellations, meteor showers, and bright moonlit nights as they can, and should, appear to us. One can only imagine what our ancestors, before the proliferation of night lighting, saw when they gazed at the night sky full of stars.

There have been a few times in my life when I looked up at the night sky and stared in amazement at the stars above. It took my breath away the first time I looked skyward while in the remote mountains of New Mexico. The same feeling of awe and wonder overcame me in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Where did all of those stars come from, I wondered? True, viewing the stars at low elevations, as I had done most of my life, is not the same as the view from the western mountains. However, even at lower elevations, in a remote area of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, I have experienced some amazing night skies.
This week is the annual Perseid meteor shower, but I cannot help but ask the question: How far do I have to go to escape the bright lights in order to more clearly see the beautiful night skies? Where can we go to gaze at the multitude of stars in a truly dark night sky and to peer into the universe beyond our small world?

We just keep our heads down as we venture outdoors at night. Why bother to look skyward, because although we may think that we see the stars and night sky as they should be, we cannot because the skies are no longer dark and starry.

My one wish is that for one night of the year all of the unneeded night lights would be turned off. Then, we would only have to step outside of our homes and look up into the night sky to see what we've been missing.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

A Season with the Loons

The mated pair

It is a chilly morning in early June as I make my first visit of the year to the lake. It has been almost a year since I last visited the lake with the pair of loons. The early dawn light and still air accentuate the mists rising above the lake. If the loons are back this year they are well hidden in the fog. As the sun peaks over the horizon it is time to launch the kayak into the lake. As I silently paddle into the lake, two sandhill cranes call as they lift off from nearby and an eagle flies overhead, seemingly oblivious to me. I am unable to stay unnoticed for long as a trumpeter swan honks to announce my presence to all on the lake. Too, the red-winged blackbirds guard their territory among the shoreline reeds with vocal taunts.

Paddling is easy on the still lake, and I begin to peer through the fog for the loons. Their low to the water profile and mannerisms are easy to distinguish, even in the fog, and soon I spot them near the shore. As always, I am careful to keep my distance and to make as little sound as possible.

It is obvious that they have a nest nearby and it seems to be in a swampy area that may offer protection from raccoons and other land-based predators. Even people will have difficulty approaching the nest from the shore, so the loons have chosen their nesting site well. Unlike the previous year when the loons were unable to successfully reproduce, perhaps this year will be better. I tried to memorize the grassy area where the nest appeared to be in order to make sure that I did not get too close and left the loons to their family building endeavors.

Mom and chick in fog

Since last year when I first spotted the loons on the lake, I have learned so much more about loons. Unlike most birds, they are heavy-boned and their legs with webbed feet are well back on their body. Their eyes can focus both in air and water. Even their bright-red eyes help to filter light below water so that they can see their way. This makes them well adapted to swimming and diving, even to depths of 200 feet, in order to capture their diet of fish and other aquatic fauna. Although having their feet further back on their body makes loons well adapted to water, this means that their mobility on land is cumbersome. To minimize their land stay, their nests are usually very close to the shoreline. Being heavy-boned is great for diving, but taking flight requires a long runway.  Therefore, they are usually only found on larger inland lakes.
After several weeks of occasional visits to check on the loon pair, finally the day comes when I spot the loon chick for the first time. The fuzzy chick stays close by both parents and if an eagle happens to fly over the parents corral the chick between them and commence calling very loudly.
If you have never heard a loon call, it is one of the most beautiful series of notes you will ever hear. Only the males yodel and on one particularly foggy morning on the lake the male came up behind me and surprised me with a loud yodel.

Loon dance

As the summer days grow warmer, the young loon continues to grow. Apparently able to swim from birth, it will be 12 weeks until the first flight. Both parents care for their offspring, but it appears that the female stays close by while the male may range about the lake. On the warmer mornings the loons will turn in their sides and fan themselves with their webbed foot, seemingly in an effort to cool themselves.

On some foggy mornings getting clear photos is nearly impossible. But there are days when the loons will come very close to me in my kayak as I stay as still and quiet as possible.
Other times they will preen to stretch or dry their wings, or in a similar move will do a territorial display that means that their space has been encroached upon.

On another day four or five other loons suddenly flew in and landed on the lake. Perhaps the aunts and uncles have come to check the new arrival, although junior remained well hidden among the shore grasses. Meanwhile, the other loons circled my kayak in a boisterous feeding frenzy. I was just awestruck to be surrounded by loons. As quickly as they arrived the other loons flew off and once again the lake was a peaceful oasis for the loon family.

Lily pads

By late July waterlilies on the lake have multiplied and sometimes paddling through the lilies is taxing, but the shapes and sometimes even the colors of the pads and the large white flowers are beautiful.
The middle of the lake is still open and the loons keep to these areas. The flight feathers on the young loon are now replacing the downy feathers and the chick will even make an occasional dive, although it has not shown signs of being a successful angler yet. Regardless, the parents are catching plenty of fish and their offspring eagerly accepts an offered fish.

Preening loon in the mists

Successful catch

On one visit the female leaves the young loon alone near me as if I were a babysitter and swims across the lake. Perhaps the loons have become accustomed to my presence and trust me to be a protector. Soon though she swims back with yet another small fish to feed her offspring.
By this time too the young loon has nearly all flight feathers but it does not match the beautiful bands and stripes on the neck, black and white spotted back and white underbelly feather patterns of the adults. They are truly beautiful and striking birds.

Nearly grown up

By August the summer days are starting to dwindle. The parents will soon be the first to head south to winter along the coasts, inlets and bays along the gulf and Atlantic coasts. The young and immature loons will leave several weeks later and spend the next several years along the coasts before returning to the north country as beautiful adult loons ready to repeat the cycle for a summer season on a northern lake.
Loons do not mate for life, but they do return to the same lakes each year to mate and it will be a welcome sight at the beginning of another summer to again see this truly iconic bird on the lakes of the northwoods.