Shawnee News-Star Weekender October 6 2018 Becky Emerson Carlberg Frederick Main Street 1.3 miles, left on E 1830 Road for 3 miles, right on N 2240 Road for 6 miles and left on E 1890 Road for .07 mile.   Directions to Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area which is actually 1 mile east and 6 miles […]

Shawnee News-Star Weekender October 6 2018

Fly, Fly Away

Becky Emerson Carlberg

Frederick Main Street 1.3 miles, left on E 1830 Road for 3 miles, right on N 2240 Road for 6 miles and left on E 1890 Road for .07 mile.   Directions to Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area which is actually 1 mile east and 6 miles south of Frederick. This was my destination.

Monarchs are into fall migration, and Hackberry Flat in southwest Oklahoma is a major roosting site.   Hackberry Flat was a restoration project of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife and Conservation to reclaim a major wetland that in 1900 had gone under the plow of some ambitious early settlers.   They looked upon the fertile dark soil as primo farm land despite the fact the area was subject to flooding, heavy fog and had so many birds the sky often 'looked cloudy.'

The determined farmers dug a ditch four miles long, 20 feet deep and 40 feet wide using shovels, mules and later a stream shovel.   The land was farmed for a few decades, but flooding remained an issue.   The Wildlife Department purchased the acreage and began reconstruction work in 1995.   Their goal was to create a wildlife refuge, feeding ground for wildlife and recreation area.   Dikes and canals as well as water control equipment were installed. The land was divided into wetland units and a 17 mile pipeline was extended to Tom Steed Reservoir for use in severe drought.

Monarch Roost

Hackberry Flat had historically experienced cycles of wet and dry.   These natural cycles are now mimicked through careful management of wetland units to attract waterfowl and other wildlife. Each of the 37 sloughs can be changed on a seasonal basis from thick vegetation to mini-ponds.   Dry areas are flooded for aquatic life.   The units are used by many species: reptiles (20), amphibians (12), mammals (19), butterflies (28+) and birds (264+). Hackberry Flat is a natural patchwork quilt.

The center opened in 2008 and offers educational outreach programs and workshops such as the one I attended.   If you build it, they will come (a phrase from one of my favorite movies 'Field of Dreams') applies not only to humans but all wildlife.   It certainly has for the Monarchs.

Sunday evening (Sept 30th)  we Monarch watchers rode on the flatbed trailer to one roost area was simply awesome.   The temperature was mild, the wind fairly strong and the sky clear.   Monarchs had been arriving for days, but now numbers were increasing.  We quietly sat on chairs and wool blankets as the butterflies flew in from behind us, soared over our heads and jockeyed for position in the stand of Western Soapberry trees. The Monarchs gravitated to dangling dead branches with their legs down in landing gear pose.   Dozens and dozens would cluster together, choosing the north side of the trees because of the strong south winds.   As new Monarchs appeared, the roosting butterflies would open their wings to let them know 'this is my spot'! The butterflies sorted themselves out and as darkness descended and numbers dwindled, the crickets and cicadas began singing.   The dragonflies emerged in droves to hunt the millions of enormous and voracious mosquitoes.   Flocks of long billed Ibises and chirpy red-winged blackbirds headed to overnight quarters.

We guesstimated about 1000 Monarchs came to roost within an hour and a half.   Most chose to be 12 to 20 feet above the ground.      The next night, 3200 Monarchs were reported in the roost area. The numbers should continue to rise as the flutterbyes are pushed ahead of the storm systems coming the end of this week.   The Monarchs often hang around for a few days since nectar sources (sunflowers, asters and other wildflowers) are abundant.   The sweet fuel supplies energy and helps the butterflies add additional fat needed for the long trek to Mexico.

Three years before, the trees were orange with butterflies.   'Being inside an orange snow globe' as one New Jersey observer had reported from her area.   Last year the numbers were sparse.   This year seems better. Weather is always a factor. In the summer breeding range, Monarch eggs and caterpillars are eaten by wasps, ants and other predators.   Two species of birds do prey on Monarchs: black-backed orioles and black faced grosbeaks.   The worst problem is habitat destruction.   The center of the USA was once a huge prairie. The land has been broken up into towns, cities, and agricultural fields.   Chemical herbicides have wiped out much of the milkweed, the only food source for Monarch caterpillars.

Somehow the Monarchs have survived and continue their epic journey from Mexico into the USA and back to Mexico, but it takes 4 or 5 generations. What kind of GPS do these guys have?   The first generation arrives from Mexico and lays eggs on Texas milkweeds.   The following 2 or 3 generations travel north to continue their life cycles. Mid-August the Monarchs begin their trek south.   How does this generation"which has never been to Mexico"know how to get there?   This brings me to the morning Monarch activity:   tagging.

Early morning several sleepy Monarchs are collected from their roosts and put into cages.   They are taken to a classroom in Hackberry Flat Center and transferred, ten at a time, into 6 separate cages.   Each cage is placed on a separate table. Sheets of small fingernail-sized round stickers and their accompanying certificates are stacked nearby.   Every tag has a different number that corresponds to a matching certificate.

Tagging the Monarch

The cage door is carefully opened.   The Monarchs hold onto the screen, opening and closing their wings.   A butterfly with closed wings is located and the wings are gently grasped above the abdomen.   A little tug and the butterfly will let go of the screen.   The sticker is peeled off and lightly pressed onto the largest 'mitten shaped' cell of the larger top wing. The butterfly has just been tagged.   The sex of the butterfly is then checked. Monarch males have black spots or pouches on the veins of each bottom wing.   Females have straight venation.   Once the sticker is in place and the sex of the butterfly has been determined, the tag number is matched to the certificate, the sex is notated and the Monarch is taken to another cage of tagged butterflies to await outdoor release.

Sixty-five butterflies were sexed (28 males and 37 females) and tagged.   Three cages were taken outside, the doors opened and most of the Monarchs shot high into the sky and fluttered away.   A few had reservations, but soon joined their brethren.   The day before, 76 butterflies were tagged (27 males and 46 females). The next morning 46 males and 34 females made up the 80 butterflies tagged.   This process will continue throughout the week.

Monarchs will congregate throughout Texas by the end of October.   'Monarchs flowing like an orange river of sunshine through the sky' is how one observer described it.     Hopefully our Monarchs will make it to Mexico where they will overwinter.  These Monarchs can live 8 months compared to 2 months for the spring and summer generations.

Awaiting Release

Next February, local villagers go out to check dead butterflies under the roost trees and collect the tags.   These are turned in and sent to the University of Kansas 'Monarch Watch' program.   The tag numbers are posted online.   The taggers regularly check the website to see if their butterfly tag numbers appear.

Whatever happens, in February the surviving Monarchs will fly back to Texas to begin another heroic migration.

Good luck guys.   Go Orange and Black.