Tagging Monarchs for Science

monarchs-caughtFor those of you who don’t know, I work at a natural history museum as the head of citizen science.  I oversee the collection and entry of data for about 40 citizen science projects at my museum’s field station, do a ton of education based on citizen science projects, create my own citizen science research projects, and help other people create and/or promote their projects as part of the overall program at the museum.  It’s a ton of fun and I absolutely love what I do, but I especially like it when my current life as a natural history museum citizen science person and my past life as an entomology researcher combine.  It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that one of my favorite projects to participate in every year is Monarch Watch.

Monarchs have been a focus of citizen science projects for a long time.  The first major monarch project was called the Insect Migration Association and was started by a pair of Canadian entomologists named Fred and Norah Urquhart.  For 40 years, they tracked movements by gluing small paper tags to monarch wings and enlisted the help of enthusiasts throughout Canada and the US to track where they went by reporting the tag numbers back to the Urquharts.  Thanks to their efforts, in 1975 another couple who participated in the project, Ken and Catalina Brugger, tracked the monarchs through Mexico and eventually found their overwintering grounds in the oyamel fir forests in central Mexico.  It’s a pretty miraculous story, but also one that could never have happened if the Urquharts didn’t enlist the help of many other people.  It’s a great example of a citizen science project, and one that worked amazingly well in spite of getting its start long before the convenience of the internet made this sort of research so much easier.

tagged-monarch-before-releaseThe Urquhart’s project eventually became Monarch Watch under Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas and the process is essentially the same.  Now we use stickers instead of paper tags that need to be glued on, but you still have to catch the monarch, handle it gently while you affix the tag, record the data (date, location, sex of the butterfly, wild or reared, and the tag number), and release it. Monarch Watch does a survey in Mexico each year to look for tags and eventually reports back to the public about where monarchs were tagged and which ones made it all the way to Mexico.

I really enjoy participating in Monarch Watch.  I’ve gotten my process down well so that I can catch, tag, photograph, and release a monarch in under 30 seconds. As much as I like tagging monarchs myself (I spend many hours every year walking up and down the dirt road at the field station catching and tagging monarchs), I think I might actually enjoy teaching other people how to do it even more.

taqged monarch feeding on nectarI’ve been catching butterflies a long time.  I started my insect collection when I was about 11 years old and I’ve handled hundreds, maybe thousands, of butterflies.  While I adore monarchs and think that tagging them is a wholly worthwhile experience, I don’t think I get the same sort of rush from it that the people I teach do.

Most of the people who come to the monarch tagging programs I host have never held a butterfly before.  Many are terrified of hurting them and some people refuse to hold them.  They’ll watch me tag the monarchs they catch instead.  Most of these people have been told that touching a butterfly will rub scales off the wings (true) or kill it (unlikely if you’re handling them carefully) and worry about hurting them. They also worry they’ll get the tag in the wrong place or break a wing vein.  I don’t pressure people to tag the monarchs themselves if they show any hesitation, but I usually ask to release the butterfly by setting it on their arm.  The way their faces light up when they see a tagged monarch flap its wings and take off on its way to Mexico is amazing.  It is usually a look of pure, unadulterated joy, a rare moment of pure peace and tranquility.

Other people want to dive right in and do the tagging themselves.  They will bring the first monarch they catch over to me and have me show them how to get the butterfly out of the net.  They’ll usually put the first tag on themselves and will take the butterfly from me when I pass it to them.  These people release them from their hands, then rush off to catch another one so they can do the whole process again themselves. They might be a little more focused on the hunt and a little less worried about hurting the butterflies than other people, but the moment the monarch leaps into the air from their hands, they get the same beatific look on their faces as everyone else.  It’s simply amazing to watch.

There’s something so awe-inspiring about handling a small, fragile animal knowing that it might fly all the way to Mexico, overwinter high in the mountains, and then fly all the way back to the US.  I suspect that when people release a tagged monarch, they form a sort of connection to the migration.  Perhaps they think that part of them will travel with the butterfly as it completes its amazing journey.  That this monarch you hold in your hands might be the same butterfly that researchers record when they survey the monarchs in Mexico – well, that’s a truly awesome thought.  I think this idea is the source of that joyous smile as people watch the butterflies fly away, but I never ask.  I’d hate to ruin the moment for them by asking them to dissect their feelings immediately after having what is clearly an amazing experience.

tagged monarchI’ll keep tagging monarchs and I’ll keep teaching other people to do it because I love it.  Since I moved to North Carolina in 2012, I have generally tagged between 6 and 15 monarchs each year.  This year has been a magnificent monarch year at the field station: I’ve tagged 26 so far.  That’s 26 butterflies out of millions that I held in my own two hands that will attempt to fly to another country.  Only time will tell how many of them make it, but I wish them the best of luck on their journey.

 

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

National Moth Week, As Seen From My Backyard

Well, this is far out of date now, but I’m going to go ahead and post it anyway! I’ve made it an annual tradition to blacklight in my backyard every night of National Moth Week. I set up a blacklight in my yard, point it toward the white siding of my house, turn it on at dusk, and then head out to my yard to see what comes to the lights a few times each night, photographing every species that I find. This year, it was very warm and humid and it rained one night, so I got a pretty great diversity! Some of the species are the very common species I find every time I blacklight in my yard, such as this elegant grass veneer:

Elegant grass veneer moth

Elegant grass veneer

My yard is mostly grass with a few non-native trees and shrubs, so it’s not surprising to find a species that depends on grass for its survival.  I also see a lot of these Suzuki’s promalactis moths:

Suzuki's promalactis moth

Suzuki’s promalactis

This is a species that’s non-native in the US, but we don’t know much about it still.  It’s a very pretty moth though, if you can get a close enough look at its very small body!

Other common moths included the common tan wave (these have to fly in from some other location as I have none of its many host plants in my yard):

Common tan wave moth

the clemens grass tubeworm (larvae feed on red clover, which is abundant in my “lawn”):

Clemens grass tubeworm moth

and the green cutworm (feeds on grasses, among other things, as caterpillars):

Green cutworm moth

Green cutworm

None of these are particularly showy moths, but they are readily abundant in my yard and among the most common species I see.  You’ll notice that most of the common species I see feed on grasses as caterpillars.  Given the amount of grass in my yard, it probably explains why I see so very many of these species at my lights.

This year, I saw some things that I’ve added to my backyard moth list during past National Moth Weeks, but may have only seen once or twice altogether.  I love skiff moths:

Skiff moth

Skiff moth

They feed on a variety of trees and shrubs, though I’ve never seen one of their awesome, tank-like green caterpillars in my yard.  They could be coming in from somewhere else. This is the smoky tetanolita:

Smoky tetanolita moth

Smoky tetanolita

Their caterpillars feed on dead leaves.  And this is the variable reddish pyrausta:

Variable reddish pyrausta moth

Variable reddish pyrausta

I can’t find much information about this species, but it’s awfully pretty.  Some close relatives of this group of moths make up the majority of the aquatic moth species, so I wonder if these might not be taking advantage of plants in the soggy part of my yard.

I got to add several new moths to my list this year! I loved this crowned slug moth:

Crowned slug moth

Crowned slug moth

No idea why it was posed that way, but it did fly away at some point and was not in fact dead.  This species could be feeding on my maple trees and it has an awesome caterpillar that is covered in stinging hairs.  It’s fun that a nasty caterpillar turns into such a plush, cuddly moth!

Given that I live in North Carolina and there are still a relatively large number of tobacco farmers around, it’s not surprising to see a tobacco budworm moth:

Tobacco budworm moth

Tobacco budworm moth

No idea where this might have come from, but perhaps a neighbor’s garden where it can feed on a variety of crop plants (including tomatoes and squash) and ornamental flowers.  I loved the elegant, subtle patterns on its wings!

This species I haven’t IDed beyond wainscot moth in the genus Leucania:

Leucania sp. moth

Leucania sp.

There are 33 species in this genus in the US and almost all of them can be found in the eastern part of the US.   I was able to ID another similarly drab moth as a white speck moth:

White speck moth

White speck

These are also called armyworms, apparently based on their habit of eating plants down to the ground and then marching to another area to continue feeding.  They’re generalist feeders and can be pesty.

This was my favorite of the new additions this year:

Brown shaded gray moth

Brown shaded gray

It was bigger than it looks in the photo, and I loved the striped pattern on the wings.  No bright colors or anything, but still very pretty.

My best find, however, didn’t sit still long enough for me to get more than a glance at it before it flew off.  It was a five spotted hawkmoth, a giant, powerful beast of a moth.  I was taking a photo of something else when it slammed into the back of my head.  Scared me badly enough that I shrieked loudly (so embarrassing!) and then it fluttered around outside of the light for a good five minutes before it landed just long enough for me to see what it was.  I lifted my camera, but it flew right into my face, smacked my cheek with its wings a few times, and then flew away.  Wow, such a gorgeous moth! And so scary when you don’t expect to have something the size of a small bat silently fly into your head at a high speed in the middle of the night!

Of course, you don’t see only moths when you blacklight!  My next post will feature the “bycatch” from National Moth Week, the non-target insects that also came to my lights.  I got a bunch of the same old things I always get, but this year I also got a few exciting new things that I can’t wait to share!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

My Kick-off to National Moth Week

Hey everyone!  Haven’t been able to spend much time on my computer at home for a long time, but I’ve been dying to share several things with you all.  The next few posts will feature my favorite insect-themed celebration of the year, National Moth Week. I LOVE Moth Week! I’ve hosted a big moth-themed open house at the museum field station where I work every year since National Moth Week started and then I go out every night that week and blacklight at home.  For my public event, I bring my blacklights, bait, and my brand new mercury vapor light (so, so happy to have it!) to attract moths.  Usually, there’s some freak storm the day of my public event that sends everyone running for cover, but we lucked out and got no rain at all this year.  About 55 people came, and they were a marvelous group!  It was a punishingly hot day and it stayed hot well into the evening, but those 55 people were enthusiastic and very excited about getting to see moths and other nighttime insects. No complaints at all. So. Much. Fun!!

I usually bring my Nikon DSLR camera with me to my public moth event and start taking pictures when things calm down after most of the visitors have left for the evening.  We never get many big moths, so this year I brought my Canon with my super close up MP-E 65 lens so I could get good photos of the smaller moths. I pulled it out about 10:30pm, got my flashes set up and the diffusers in place, strapped my headlamp onto my head, and was about to get started photographing our far-better-than-average moth haul for the evening when I realized my battery was dead – and my spare AND my charger were plugged into the wall at home.  Doh!  I ended up taking all my photos with my headlamp and phone this year.  However, given the large size of several of the moths that showed up, my camera choice was a mistake anyway.

I’ve shared my current blacklighting rig before, so I won’t go over it again here.  I set up four blacklights:

blacklight rig at night

One on each side of the building.  I kept things easy and just thumbtacked the sheets to two of the wooden walls of the building, and set a couple more up on the PVC frames I normally use.

The mercury vapor light is a new acquisition.  I’ve been dying to have one for years and was so very excited to actually get one.  I normally do my moth night with one of my coworkers, and we’ve used his mercury vapor lights in the past.  He wasn’t going to be at this year’s event though, so I just bought my own light.  It’s very bright and very hot:

mercury vapor light

I have had the very fortunate experience of blacklighting in southern Arizona during the monsoon, where this sheet would be absolutely packed with insects, including many very large moths.  However, this is a really good haul for this particular location, probably the most moths I’ve ever gotten on a sheet during National Moth Week.

The lights attracted a wide range of moths.  Some of them are very common at the field station, like this common tan wave:

common tan wave

and this Ailanthus webworm:

ailanthus webworm

These are both very common moths in my area, ones you would expect to see at any blacklight, or even a porchlight, on almost any summer night.  A few of the moths we saw certainly aren’t rare, but we don’t see nearly as many of them.   This rosy maple moth is one of my favorites (I call it the rainbow sherbet moth):

rosy maple moth

And we get these esther moths most years:

esther moth

Beautiful wood nymphs are not super common at my lights, but I’ve seen them at this event more than once:

beautiful wood nymph

Some much less common moths also decided to show up this year, like this Hebrew:

hebrew

This is the second time I’ve seen Hebrews at this event.  I just love them!

I gave a little talk about moths during the event that included photos of some moths we’ve seen in past years.  Conveniently, all the moths above were included, so it was a lot of fun listening to people exclaim over moths they recognized from the presentation!  People saying, “Ooh, look!  It’s an elegant grass veneer!” or “Oh, oh! It’s a rainbow sherbet moth.  What was the real name, rosy maple moth?”  I felt like people were walking away from the event knowing a few moth species they might not have known before because they saw them on a big screen and then immediately saw them in real life at the lights.  Very nice to be able to provide the moths I shared in the presentation on command!

We did see some new-to-the-event moths this year too!  There were several Virginia creeper sphinx moths:

virginia creeper sphinx

Everyone was really excited to see these!  They should be at the lights every year as their host plant is all over the place all around the building where I set up the lights, but for whatever reason they never appear.  We got 6 this time.  Another first was this tiger moth:

tiger moth

Very white, and high up on the wall so I never got a good look at it to get a good ID.  We got some new small moths, like this unidentified moth (I think it’s one of the leafrollers):

Archips leafroller

Might be an oblique banded leafroller?  I’m still learning my moths, and these little ones are definitely not easy.

And finally, my favorite moth of the night, a small-eyed sphinx moth:

small eyed sphinx

Everyone had left and I was just getting ready to take down my lights when this moth showed up.  I was thrilled!  Such a gorgeous moth.  Shiny, velvety, perfect.  I really regretted not bringing my Nikon DSLR so I could get better photos of this stunner.  The whole night was great, but this moth made the oppressive heat and having to take all my gear back down alone after midnight absolutely worth it.

This particular event takes a lot of setup and takedown on my part, but I absolutely love it!  Every year I get good people who are excited to learn about moths and other nighttime insects and every year I leave work around 1AM sweaty and exhausted and completely happy.  What’s better than hanging out at a light looking at bugs with interested people all night?

I’m going to post a few more posts about National Moth Week soon, so be on the lookout for those!  One will feature the moths I found in my yard that week and the other will be about the other insects I found while looking for moths.  Hope you’ll enjoy them!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth.

Swarm Sunday: 9/27/15 – 12/20/15

Dragonfly Swarm Project logoThanks to work, I haven’t had much time to blog recently, but I wanted to get the remaining swarms reported from 2015 up before the end of the year.  Swarms were reported from the following locations since early October, the normal end of the season:

USA:

Santa Monica, CA
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Holmes Beach, FL
Indian Shores, FL
Lakeland, FL
Miami, FL
Naples, FL
Panama City Beach, FL
Pompano Beach, FL
Santa Rosa Beach, FL (2 swarms)
Sarasota, FL (2 swarms)
Sunrise, FL
Wichita, KS
Somerset, KY
Vineland, NJ
Austin, TX
Gilchrist, TX

India:

Bangalore (2 swarms)

Mexico:

Cancun

Belize:

Dangriga

Here is the US map for the fall flights:

10.4.15 to 12.19.15

 

Click the map to enlarge!

 

The end of the swarm season was interesting this year!  It lasted quite a lot longer into October than usual and a couple American swarms were reported in November.  The past 5 years, a very few swarm reports have been submitted the first two weeks in October, so the late swarms this year were a good 2-6 weeks later than normal.  The season started a few weeks late this year, too, and it stayed warm a lot longer into the fall in the east than typical, so there was a lot potentially coming into play here.  What’s really odd about this map is that there are three swarms reported from areas fairly far north much later in the season than I would expect them.  Most of the swarms should be much further south by early October, so it’s very strange to see a swarm as far north as New Jersey that late in the year.

There have been a few winter reports made from closer to the equator, from Belize and southern Mexico.  These are normal, but it’s always exciting to see activity further south.  Are the dragonflies they’re seeing the same dragonflies we saw in the fall?  It’s impossible to tell with the way I collect data, but it’s fun to think that they might be.

I totally dropped the ball reporting the annual findings last year, but I’m almost ready to post the findings from 2015.  Look for the first post next weekend most likely!  It’s been an interesting year.

Thank you to everyone who has participated in the Dragonfly Swarm Project in 2015!  I’ve got some exciting new opportunities coming up next year that I’ll share soon and I’m looking forward to the next season.  In the meantime, if you see any swarms, I hope you’ll report them!  This is a slow time of year, but I get a lot of very interesting reports from many sites across the world in the winter.  I’ll gladly take reports!

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Tagging Monarchs (Well-Nigh Wordless Wednesday)

Hey everyone!!  I know I’ve been offline for ages, but things are finally slowing down at work enough that I can get back into blogging at least semi-regularly.  It’s been so long since I last posted that I have a massive backlog of photos.  It was hard to choose just one today!  But here’s what I decided to share:

Monarch with tag

Monarch with tag

We tag monarchs for Monarch Watch at work and this was the last one we tagged this year.  I got many people involved in the tagging this year and we had a fun couple of months chasing monarchs around the grounds with nets.  However,  this is serious work too as the tags we put on the wings give monarch researchers an amazing ability to track individual monarchs during their migration and see how many actually make it to Mexico.  I won’t be able to look him up for a while and see how far he got (there’s unfortunately a big lag between when you submit data and when you can see the data for your butterflies on the website), but I hope little UMT 654 makes it to the Mexican mountains!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Swarm Sunday: 9/27/15 – 10/3/15

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

The swarming season is definitely slowing down, though there were two areas this week that saw a fair bit of activity.  Swarms were reported from the following locations in the last week:

USA:

Miami Beach, FL
Miami Shores, FL
Pompano Beach, FL

Yorktown, IN
Omaha, NE (8 swarms)

Here is the US map for last week:

9.27.15 to 10.3.15

 

Click the map to enlarge!

There’s been a big event in Omaha and/or Lincoln, Nebraska each year since I started this project and it took place last week.  A big migration moved through the Omaha area and several people reported it.  There were also a handful of swarms reported from southern Florida (and there have been others reported since then too), so it looks like some of our eastern dragonflies might be headed across the ocean to Central or South America soon!

I’ll post again next week since I’ve already gotten some reports this week, but the season is definitely winding down.  Here’s hoping we’ll see one more big burst in activity before the dragonflies disappear for the year!

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

Swarm Sunday (on Monday): 9/20/15 – 9/26/15

Dragonfly Swarm Project logo

Thanks to attending a conference with very limited internet connection this weekend, this is a day late.  However, we’re transitioning into fall, so the swarm activity is way down this week – not a lot to report anyway!  Swarms were reported from the following locations in the last week:

USA:

Phoenix, AZ
Panama City Beach, FL
Port St. Joe, FL
Sarasota, FL
St. Petersburg, FL
Blackshear, GA
Council Grove, KS
Kansas City, KS
Ludington, MI
Kansas City, MO
Fort Worth, TX

Here is the US map for last week:

 

9.20.15 to 9.26.15

Click the map to enlarge!

A bit of an odd arrangement of reports this week!  A few in the south, where I’d expect them to be, but there is still a small amount of activity in the upper and central Midwest.  Odd!  Still no migration in the western US this year, which seems to fit well with the limited migratory reports in the east overall.  With some definite exceptions, cities that had huge migratory events, there hasn’t been a whole lot of movement reported this year.  Very interesting.

I suspect the season is almost over and that I’ll only get a few reports this week.  Hope you’ll take a moment to submit a report if you see a swarm!  Anything this late in the year is exciting.

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Have you seen a dragonfly swarm? I am tracking swarms so I can learn more about this interesting behavior.  If you see one, I’d love to hear from you!  Please visit my Report a Dragonfly Swarm page to fill out the official report form.  It only takes a few minutes! Thanks!

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Want more information? Visit my dragonfly swarm information page for my entire collection of posts about dragonfly swarms!

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Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth