Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monarchs: End of the Line for Royal Visits?

            A few weeks back a friend sent me a fantastic shot of a tiger swallowtail butterfly resting on a flower. A couple weeks later I saw the same kind of butterfly in our yard and when, a day later, it settled onto a purple conical flower on a butterfly bush in our front garden, I walked slowly up to it so that even my basic camera could get close enough for a good close-up (top photo). I sent mental thanks to the friend who had sent me his shot: because of that picture I knew what kind of butterfly had come to embrace the scent and nectar of my garden.
            Then I saw a couple of other photos of butterflies in local newspapers, all of them of the tiger swallowtail. Folks I thought, when it comes to butterflies in this late summer season of migrant visitations, tiger swallowtail is what we've got.
            Monarch butterflies, which we had last year, we have not got. No one has seen any of them in the Greater Boston area this year, according to a Boston Globe story that ran Aug. 12. The story considers the causes and the implications. None of them are pretty. An interruption in the migratory path? A shortage of the milkweed plant, where the brave, long-distance fliers lay their eggs?
            The odd thing is that a year ago we saw more monarch butterflies than we literally knew what to do with.
            They mobbed our flowering butterfly bushes (at least by urban, temperate zone standards). The shortest of the shrubs, the one with the fattest blossoms, got the most action. We saw three or four at a time attached to these blossoms. One stayed glued to a particular blossom for literally hours at a time.
            At least one stayed too long at the fair and we found him in the clutches of a praying mantis, a great striking specimen, a source of interest in itself. I made sure to get his picture. In the interest of preserving the monarchs and not finding ourselves in the position of running an attractive nuisance for butterflies -- which drew them to their doom -- family members collected and conveyed our praying predator to a new home in more natural area a few blocks away. (The thing came back, weeks later; see below.)
            So, stealing from myself, this is what I wrote to accomplish a phalanx of photos both Sonya and I took of our royal visitation by the monarchs last year:
Monarchs pay royal visit

            Sonya took these photos of monarch butterflies (second photo) in August and early September. We have been noticing the continual presence of butterflies on a couple of butterfly bushes in front of our house in Quincy. Two, three, four, five at times. They mostly congregated on a rather scrawny bush in front of the house in partial shade. Some of the leaves are holed, but the purple blooms are big and lush while they last. We have two taller bushes with bicolored leaves, they have a better appearance, but their flowers are smaller. The butterflies found these too, but they drew smaller crowds.
            Conclusion: butterflies like big blooms.
            A spot of insect-on-insect drama broke out after we became aware that one of the butterflies would simply linger on the blossom no matter how close we came. Usually they sense your approach, fly up and circle around before landing on a bloom again, generally a different one. This orange-flecked, black-rimmed, white-dotted creature simply hung on the flower while we snapped photo after photo. Sonya figured this out and got up close and, and by lepidoptera reckoning, personal.
            But the next day when a similar creature perched on the same blossom, another insect appeared to be bothering it. Again we got very close and had to separate the image of twig-like creature from his camouflage: a praying mantis. A very large praying mantis. I am told they bite the heads off their prey.
            I admonished the mantis to turn his attention to mosquitoes, and removed the butterfly to a proper burial place in some out of the way place. But the praying mantis continued to lurk until my wife and daughter staged an intervention, removing it in some receptacle (I didn’t see this; possibly actually working) and releasing it in a wild area at the end of the block.
            Two evenings later a very large praying mantis – the same one? A mate? – planted his six legs on the outside of the picture window well after dark and looked in at the lights and the people inside. Was she delivering a message? You think it’s that easy to get rid of me? Go find your mate, I thought, and bite his head off.
            The creature's presence was almost chilling: an outsized mysterious visitor, nose pressed against the glass.
            The butterflies continued to find their way to these bushes. I have another in the backyard, a semi-shade area, and that one drew some traffic too.
            We’ve had these bushes for a number of years. They’ve drawn visitors in the past, but nothing like this level of attention. I have no idea if there’s any reason for the difference. I hope we’ve made it onto some kind of migrating monarch butterfly list of hotspots and roadside attractions.
            I look forward to seeing them, well their species-mates, against next. And I promise to keep a sharp eye for praying mantises.
            P.S. One thing surprised me in reading last year's account. I dated it Sept. 9. So perhaps the latter half of August, which we have just entered, is prime time for royal visitations by the monarchs.
            If anyone sees them, tell them the butterfly bushes are blossoming at our house.