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Gardens of the Cross Timbers: Safe travels monarchs

Becky Emerson Carlberg
Contributing writer

The last two weekends have been busy.  The field trip at Oxley Nature Center was like taking a breath of fresh clean air.  Walking outdoors between grasses and through woods in cool, breezy weather.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  The Fall BioBlitz! OK 2020 came the next weekend.  Because participants would not be able to meet at the State Park to ‘blitz’ the area (record every living member of nature encountered in picture or by sound), they could take a virtual field trip, their own walk-about or attend a BioBitz. The BioBlitz! offered a BioBitz schedule of activities held in several Oklahoma parks, lakes and nature areas.  Group sizes were limited from 8 to 15 people, with each BioBitz led by an activity leader. One could select a place, sign up and spend a morning, afternoon or evening focusing on birds, moths, plants, reptiles, snakes, trees or migrating species of wildlife. Observations were submitted through iNaturalist and eBird linked to BioBlitz!. Across the state this past weekend, nature was the focus of individuals and small gatherings of biologists and citizen scientists.

Purple Boneset

My two self-guided tours along back roads took place Saturday afternoon and Sunday. It took the whole weekend for this initiate to semi-master iNaturalist.  Got the photography down, but often didn’t hit the submit check button or add any notes.  Oops.  My improvised plan was to take pictures of the things along the road, hike back to the house and use the laptop to finish the identification and add other data. By the time I arrived home and turned on the computer, some of my plants had already been identified by the community of naturalists.  This is where iNaturalist excels.  Knowledgeable and passionate about nature, iNaturalists help each other.  Anytime you see wildlife you don’t recognize, post its picture on iNaturalist and wait.  Soon a name will appear submitted by one or more volunteers.  iNaturalist is a useful tool and resource.

My tally of local plants and animals gradually increased to 52 observations by Sunday evening. Not sure about photographic skills.  I haven’t exactly nailed down the ‘blowing in the wind’ grasses and flowers, the zipping through the air birds, the far away shots of ponds or really close pictures of bugs and blooms.  My six year old phone camera struggles.  It could be questionable technique, polarization or the sun’s glare as I try to focus.  The good thing, most pictures were identifiable and it was great to walk around free to tag interesting flora and fauna.

Autumn field

The towering Eastern Cottonwood waved in the winds, but the Western Ratsnake garnered Research Grade status.  It posed perfectly on the side of the road.  Roadkill never moves.  I continued walking and taking pictures.  Three miles into my hike and I heard Eastern Meadowlarks. They sang boldly and started to fly across the pasture, but no way could I catch a picture of them. Quarter mile down the road one meadowlark had parked itself on the highline wire.  I slowed my pace, hoping not to disturb the bird.  It stared at me, then hopped along the wire toward my direction. Suddenly, another meadowlark arrived and perched next to it, followed by a third.  I stood there staring at the three birds, wondering if they were part of an iNaturalist setup. Got a distance shot, not particularly clear, but visible evidence they were there!   As I hit the done check, all three flew off.

Fiery Sumac

Somehow nineteen of my observations netted Research Grade which means scientists around the world can use the info which met the who, what, where, when and evidence qualifications. The noble goal of many naturalists is for all their observations to be Research Grade.  I was happy I could log onto iNaturalist and actually take pictures!

The Fall BioBlitz! OK 2020 observations totaled 5.148 made by 302 observers.  Top spotted species was Virginia Creeper but, curiously, Virginia Wildrye was least reported, with all kinds of wildlife in between.  Virginia pops up often in scientific names.  Blame the very active early naturalists, someone who knew a Virginia, or the fact Virginia was the first English colony in North America.

The Monarchs are now flying through Oklahoma and Texas to Mexico.  Hackberry Flats Wildlife Management Area, near Frederick in southwest Oklahoma, is a major stop-over place for the migrating butterflies to rest and nectar on the sunflowers and other plants now in bloom.  These butterflies are moving along the Central Flyway.  Eastern Flyway Monarchs are now migrating along the Eastern Seaboard, but they usually start later, which lessens the chances of many to make it to Mexico.

Monarch at Oxley Nature Center

The Western Monarchs don’t go to Mexico.  Those from Oregon and Utah are migrating south and west at this time. Monarch numbers are dwindling in Nevada, Arizona and Washington State.  Despite countless devastating wildfires, Monarchs continue to fly to their overwintering grounds along the south-central coast of California.  

The ten to twelve winter roosts in the Oyamel fir and pine forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico offer unique habitats suitable for our Monarchs.  Parts of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve are 10,000 feet above sea level.  One of the rarest sounds on earth is the resonance of millions of Monarchs in flight within their overwintering groves.  The sound is like a waterfall or summer rain.  Living treasures.  

The first of October, 250 to 300 butterflies were sighted at the traditional roost in Hackberry Flats.  By the 3rd of Oct, 350 to 400 were observed.  On the 5th, 1800 to 2000 Monarchs arrived.  Oct 6th about 1000 Monarchs were spread throughout the roost area.

Monarchs were tagged and released on several mornings. October 4th: 81 butterflies tagged (53 female and 28 male); October 5th: 75 butterflies tagged (47 females and 28 males); and October 6th: 65 butterflies tagged (41 females and 24 males).  Good luck and safe travels.

Ruby-throated hummingbird.

Shawnee native Steve Trammell was an outstanding member of the Deep Fork Audubon Society.  He loved taking pictures of birds we saw on our field trips.  Twice his photographs were on display in the Shawnee Public Library.  His skills were shown through his pictures entered in Pottawatomie County Free Fairs. Steve delighted in watching and capturing the images of his Ruby-throated hummingbirds who buzzed around his home.  His big heart gave out, but his birds live on in his photographic works.

Farewell Steve.