Saturday, January 24, 2015

Where Have all the Monarchs Gone?

Greetings All,
Have you ever wondered where Monarch butterflies go during the long cold winters in Canada and the US?  Well, I have.  Ever since I was a young girl I have been enthralled with monarch butterflies. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of collecting monarch butterfly caterpillars from the milkweed plants in our back field.  Munching on the leaves were wildly black, yellow and white striped caterpillars.  Their skin was so soft, like velvet.

Monarch Butterfly Caterpillar (c)2007 Derek Ramsey Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Wikimedia Commons

I'd pluck a few leaves containing caterpillars, place them in a jar with a perforated lid and watched as they increased their body weight 2700 times by eating the toxic leaves of the milkweed!  I placed a small twig with a horizontal branch inside the jar and observed with amazement as a caterpillar would attach by its rear end and transform into a pale green chrysalis with gold dots right before my eyes!


Monarch Butterfly Cocoon by Greyson Orlando  Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Days later an adult monarch butterfly would emerge with folded wings.  Once dry, the monarch's wings would unfurl and a beautiful orange butterfly with black stripes emerged.  It was the miracle of metamorphosis!  I released this seemingly fragile creature and watched as it took flight.  Little did I know at the time that the monarch was about to perform another miracle.
 
In 1937 a Canadian zoologist, Dr. Fred A. Urquhart set out to discover where the monarch butterflies spend the winter.  He did the nearly impossible, tagging butterflies in an attempt to determine their migration route.  The answer came nearly 4 decades later!  Urquhart's wife, Norah, wrote a letter to Mexican newspapers asking for sightings and help with tagging since the butterflies didn't appear to be overwintering in the US.  Kenneth Brugger, a man living in Mexico City, proved to be the key that unlocked the mystery. On January 9, 1972 he phoned Urquhart excitedly proclaiming "We have found them - millions of monarchs - in evergreens beside a mountain clearing!".

Now here we were standing in El Rosario Sanctuary in the central highlands of Mexico witnessing this amazing spectacle for ourselves.  Millions of monarch butterflies were hanging from the boughs of Oyamel fir  trees!

El Rosario Sanctuary (the dark blobs are butterflies!)
 
We watched in awe as the butterflies reacted to changes in cloud cover.  When the sun came out they'd open their wings and start fluttering about.

Monarchs in El Rosario

Just as soon as a cloud obscured the sun, they would return to their roosting site and close their wings exposing their darker tan undersides.

Monarchs in El Rosario
 
We also learned how to tell the difference between a male and a female monarch.  Males have thin vein pigmentation and black pouches on the hindwings where they store pheromones.  Females have thick vein pigmentation and no black pouches on the hindwings as shown.

Female Monarch                    Male Monarch
 
Today there are 14 sanctuaries (6 are open to the public) in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. Here is a map of the reserve showing the location of the sanctuaries in the Transvolcanic Mountains of Mexico.

Map of Monarch Biosphere Reserve

The land is communally owned by a group of families and is called an ejido.   The ejidatarios are responsible for protecting the forest and hence the Monarchs within the sanctuaries.  In past years illegal logging was a serious threat to the forest and the overwintering sites of the butterflies.  Today illegal logging has all but stopped and the number of hectares containing trees with roosting Monarchs has increased.  The local people now realize how important the forest is in protecting their watersheds, preventing landslides and of course harboring the Monarchs during the winter.  The ejidatarios now make a living through ecotourism and sustainable forestry practices.  Now it's up to Canada and the US to protect the Monarchs when they are up north.  The use of pesticides and habitat destruction are serious threats.  Milkweed, the plant larvae feed on exclusively, is considered a noxious weed by some people, which means it is often destroyed

The next day we visited another Sanctury called Chincua.  The effect was the same, awe.

Monarch in Chincua Sanctuary
 
How can such delicate creatures fly up to 3000 miles to reach the fir forests of Central Mexico?  How do they know when to head south?  How do they know how to get there?  Today the answers to these questions are beginning to be understood through the work of Dr. Urquhart, Dr. Lincoln Brower, a research professor at Sweet Briar College, and more recently Dr. Chip Taylor, director of  Monarch Watch.  Each fall around the month of September the Monarchs undergo a physiological change which shuts off their drive to mate and reproduce.  These changes are triggered by shorter days and colder temperatures.   This "migratory generation" makes the long migration south. Monarchs east of the Rocky Mountains funnel together over the state of Texas as the head south into Mexico.  Here is a map showing their flight pattern.
 

Migration Pattern of the Monarch Butterfly

It's not entirely clear how Monarchs find their overwintering sites each year.  Somehow they know the way even though they've never made the journey before.  In fact, they are the great-great grandchildren of the Monarchs that left the previous spring from Mexico.  Some believe that the butterflies use visual and olfactory cues and possibly the Earths magnetic field to make their way south to the overwintering sites.

The last Sanctuary we visited is called Piedra Herrada.  A steep climb brought us to the overwintering site at nearly 10,000 feet.  As we were observing the colony, I noticed that a large clump of butterflies suddenly took flight.  When I looked through my binoculars I could see birds feeding on the butterflies.  Monarchs are toxic to most animals throughout their entire life cycle.  In all fairness they do warn potential predators of their toxicity with their bright orange coloration.  There are only 3 predators known to have evolved defenses against the Monarchs toxic exoskeleton.  We were witnessing one of these predators, the Black-headed Grosbeak!


Black-headed grosbeak Eating a Monarch!
 
These birds go for the muscle-laden thorax with their heavy bills and have a higher tolerance to the toxin of the Monarchs.  The other two predators are the Black-backed Oriole and the Black-eared Mouse. We had the privilege of spending nearly 2 hours in the Sanctuary.  It was a particularly sunny day making the Monarchs more active.  Here's a video clip of this amazing spectacle.



It was perfect for us as it made for great photos and videos but not so good for the Monarchs who need to be conserving energy for the long trip back north in mid-March. In fact the Monarchs choose these high elevation overwintering sites as they hover around freezing. This causes the Monarchs to be less active hence conserving energy.
 
During sunny days, the Monarchs are warm enough to drink water and nectar from some of the forest flowers.

Monarch Drinking Nectar
 
All too soon it was time to leave.  I was overcome with emotion and began to cry.  Not out of sadness but joy at being privileged to witness such an amazing natural phenomenon.  The Monarchs thrilled me as a child with there miraculous feat of metamorphosis and now as an adult I was witnessing the equally miraculous feat of migration!  As we were loading into the bus, Paty one of our guides brought me a tag that one of the locals had found. Could it be the tag Marc saw on the climb to the colony but failed to pick up?  I paid 50 pesos for the tag and will send the info to Monarch Watch so they can determine the origin of the butterfly who wore this tag.  Here is a photo of the ting tag once fixed to the underside of the monarch's wing.

Monarch Tag

The Monarchs had one more surprise for us.  As we were leaving the Sanctuary, hundreds were flying along the road.  Our bus had to slow to a crawl to avoid hitting and killing Monarchs.  In fact you get fined 500 pesos for each butterfly you kill.  The monarch police were out ensuring that motorists slow down.  Here is a short video clip capturing the scene.
 

What an amazing day spent with the Monarchs.  A special thanks to our wonderful guides Astrid and Paty for sharing the Monarchs amazing story with us.  Here's to the Monarch, long may you fly!
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc

Sunday, January 18, 2015

You Better Belize It!

Greetings All,
Chan Chich Lodge is such an amazing place we decided to stay on for 2 more nights after most of our group left for home.  Raul, one of the guides at the lodge, took us birding early one morning.  We spotted around 60 species including the Keel-billed Toucan, the national bird of Belize.

Keel-Billed Toucan
 
We were hoping to catch a jaguar crossing the road but weren't so lucky.  There are many White-tailed deer (smaller than their northern cousins) and Oscillated Turkeys grazing with the cattle of Gallon Jug Farm.

Oscillated Turkeys
 
We drove to Laguna Verde for breakfast.  We visited here the evening before but it was cloudy and spitting rain.  This morning it was sunny and the still water of the lake reflected the trees in the forest beyond.

Laguna Verde
 
A Bare-throated Tiger Heron was silently stalking for a meal along the shore of the lake.

Bare-throated Tiger Heron
 
That afternoon, Marc and I were walking along one of the forest trails when we came across four Slatey-tailed Trogons.  They were in the process of a territorial or courtship display with a lot of vocalization and tail wagging.

Slatey-tailed Trogon
 
On our last day at Chan Chich we decided to take a day tour to Lamanai, another Mayan Archeological site.  We left at 6:00 in the morning and had to traverse the Gallon Jug Estate and the adjoining 400,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation Area.  We were hoping to spot more mammals along the way but managed to see only 1 coatimundi, a member of the raccoon family.  The birding was outstanding though.  We arrived at Tower Hill where we met our local guide for a 1-hour motor boat trip down the New River to the Lamanai Archeological Site.  The first temple we visited was the Mask Temple first constructed in 200 BC and modified up until 1300 AD!  On the west facade of the temple is a 13-foot high mask of a man in a crocodile headress.  Dating from about 400 AD it is one of the finest big masks in the Mayan world.  It is unusual in that it is made of limestone blocks instead of plaster.


Mask Temple at Lamanai
 
We visited the High Temple next.  At 108 feet it is the third highest Mayan temple in Belize.  We climbed to the top with a great view of the surrounding area and the New River.

View from the High Temple

As we headed down, a couple was climbing up with a drone!  Drones are becoming more and more popular and in some places are creating problems.  It wasn't clear if they were allowed at this site but it didn't prevent the couple from flying it over the temple.
 

High Temple

The third temple we visited was the Jaguar Temple.  This structure dates back to 625 AD and is named for the boxy jaguar decorations on its front fa├žade.
 

Jaguar Temple

Once again we finished our tour just as it started to rain.  We returned to Chan Chich lodge and did our last night drive.  Tonight was "Owl Night"!  We spotted a Vermiculated Screech Owl, 4 Mottled Owls and the rarely seen Black-and-White Owl!
 

Black-and-White Owl
 
During the course of our stay we sadly learned that Barry Bowen died tragically in a plane crash 5 years ago.  After his death the whole estate was inherited by his son who sold off 100,000 acres of the Gallon Jug Estate to a US company, Yalbec Ranch and Cattle Cooporation.  Supposedly, they plan on logging maghony in a sustainable manner and the hardwood they remove will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  We only hope they will be as good stewards of the land as Barry Bowen was.

The next day we flew from Gallon Jug to Central Farms near the town of San Ignascio.  From the air we could see the immense unbroken swath of rainforest but at the same time could see how the Mennonites are encroaching from the south.  There is a large Mennonite population in Belize and they have cleared large tracts of land for farming and cattle ranching.  They do supply most of Belize's food so hopefully a balance between farming and rainforest conservation will be met.

At Central Farms were we driven to the Lodge at Chaa Creek, our final destination in Belize.  The next day we arranged a visit to Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave.  It was quite the adventure.  A 30-minute walk through forest including 3 waist-high crossings of the river brought us to the entrance of the cave. We let a young couple and their guide go ahead of us as we were "old" and slower.  To enter the cave you have to swim about 50 feet.  I had on my trusty life jacket so it wasn't a problem.

Entering ATM Cave (photo from Chaa Creek Website)

The first half mile of the cave was wet and you are wading through the creek.  Sometimes the water was ankle deep, other times it was over our heads and you had to swim short distances.  The water was quite warm about 70F although our guide thought it was cold.  The beginning was quite challenging as we had to clambor up and over wet rocks.  Like Barton Creek Cave this cave was used by the ancient Mayans for burials and ceremonial purposes.  After a half mile we climbed out of the wet chamber and into the immense dry chamber.  Here hundreds of Mayan pots littered the ground. Some were broken while others were left intact.  Most were used for ceremonial purposes where holes were intentionally made in the pots to let the spirits of the gods out.


Mayan Pots by Jkolecki (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Deeper into the chamber were human skeletons!  The skulls were deformed by strapping boards on the heads of infants and the resulting flattened or conical shaped skulls were regarded as beautiful. One skull had a large hole in it.  "Is this how this individual died", I wondered.  Unfortunately, the hole was created when a tourist dropped his camera on the fragile bone.  As a result cameras are no longer allowed in the cave.  All the photos you will see were taken from the web.  At the end of the chamber was a completely intact skeleton, called the Crystal Maiden!


"Crystal Maiden" (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
 
Initially, the skeleton was thought to be a girl but turns out it's a boy.  Caves were spiritual places for the Mayans and females were not allowed in as they were thought to contaminate this sacred realm. The hands of the Crystal "maiden" had been chopped off.  It is believed that they were given to the parents of this unfortunate or fortunate sacrificial victim as the Mayans believed being sacrificed to the gods a big honor.

The remainder of our time at Chaa Creek was spent birding around the lodge or in nearby Blue Hole National Park, canoeing on the Macal River or going on nights walks.  Following are a few photos taken on these excursions.

Red-Eyed Tree Frog

Mexican Red-rumped Tarantula

Fork-tailed Flycatcher 

White Hawk

Vermillion Flycatcher

Blue-crowned Motmot
 
Sadly, our 2-week visit to Belize has come to an end.  For such a small country Belize is packed with amazing flora and fauna, the second largest reef in the world, mysterious Mayan Ruins and caves with Mayan artifacts and skulls.  If you ever get the chance, "You Better Belize It"!!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Earth, Sky and the Underworld

Greetings All,
We have migrated south to escape the cold winter months in Vermont.  We started in Belize, a tiny country on the eastern coast of Central America.  A short 3-hour flight from Atlanta brought us to Belize City, the starting point of our trip on January 2.  Belize was a British colony from 1862 to 1973 at which time it was called British Honduras.  It became independent in 1981 but is still part of the British Commonwealth and has retained Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.  English is still the official language but Belize has a diverse society with many cultures and languages.   We spent our first week on tour with a group of eleven.  Here is a map of Belize showing the places we'll visit.

Map of the Places we'll Visit

The following day we flew to Dangriga than transferred via road to the tiny village of Hopkins on the Caribbean coast.  Just inland is the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.  Established in 1990 it is the first reserve created for the protection of the jaguar.  We hiked to a lookout known as Ben's Bluff. On a clear day you can see Victoria's Peak, the second highest point (3675 feet) in the country. Today it was obscured by clouds but we could still see the lower slopes of the Maya Mountains.

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

We didn't encounter any Jaguars but spotted some nice birds and a Red Brocket Deer as were we walking along the main road.

Red Brocket Deer

After we returned to Dangriga and traveled by boat to South Water Caye, a tiny island on the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest reef in the World after Australia's Great Barrier Reef.  Our cabin had a great view of the reef.  That night a near-full moon rose over the reef creating a surreal sight.

Moonrise Over Mesoamerican Reef

The next morning wind and rain prevented us from snorkeling on the reef but we managed to snorkel after lunch before the next storm blew in.  Marc tried out our new underwater camera and was able to capture a Blue-headed Wrasse, a fish that can change its gender. 
Blue-headed Wrasse
During our second snorkel a storm qickly blew in and I had a difficult time swimming against the waves.  Our guide Fermin came to the rescue in a kayak and towed us in.  We left South Water Caye the following morning, stopping at Man of War Caye to see a colony of Magnificent Frigate birds.  Some of the males were trying to attract mates by inflating a bright red sack under their bills.

Male Magnificent Frigate Bird

Back on the mainland, we had a long road transfer to the Mayan Archeological site of Xunantunich.  We got there late in the afternoon and Marc and I headed out in front of the group so we'd have enough time to tour the entire site.  The main attraction is El Castillo, a 130-foot high pyramid built around 800 AD and the second highest Mayan structure in Belize.

El Castillo at Xunantunich

We climbed to the top with an exposed platform.  Some college students from Michigan State were actually sitting on the edge with their legs hanging over.  We opted to have our photo taken a few feet from the edge.


Us on the top of El Castillo
 

We climbed a smaller temple where we sat watching a small troop of endangered Guatemalan Black Howler monkeys until a guard came and told us it was time to leave.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey

We didn't arrive at our night's accommodation, Hidden Valley Inn, in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve until well after dark.  Enroute we came upon a Jumping Viper, one of Belize's venomous snakes, lying in the road.  He didn't move even after we climbed out of the van to take his photo.

Jumping Viper

The following morning we were up early to do a bit of birding before breakfast, then headed to the Green Hills Butterfly Ranch.  They rear dozens of butterfly species for public display and research.  It was nice getting close views of butterflies that are so difficult to see in the wild.

Butterflies at Green Hills

The Ranch also has feeders that attract a large number of hummingbirds.  Marc had fun trying to photograph them in flight.

Violet Sabrewing

Our next stop was Barton Creek Cave, a 7-mile long cavern cutting through limestone under the mountains.  To access the cave we used canoes and paddled along with Fermin who pointed out the ancient Mayan artifacts and even a human skull.  

Canoeing Through Barton Creek Cave



The Mayans used this cave for burials and for ceremonial purposes.  It was hard to imagine the ancient Mayans venturing into these caves with just torches.  For the ancient Mayans, the caves represented the entrance to Xaibalbi, the underworld.  If you emerge from the cave, you live.  If you descend to the underworld you die.  Fortunately we all emerged from the cave but in 2011 an 83-year old Canadian women lost her life when her canoe capsized and she drowned.  As a result of this tragedy we could only venture 1 mile into the cave before turning around at a low rock overhang where the Canadian woman lost her life.
Stalactites in Barton Creek Cave
That evening we went in search of one of the rarest raptors in the world, the Orange-breasted Falcon. The current status of these falcons appears to be in steep decline with only 40 breeding pairs remaining.  Resident pairs are found in Belize, Guatemala and extreme eastern Panama, representing only 4% of its historical range.  We were lucky to spot a beautiful female high up in a Caribbean Pine.
Orange-breasted Falcon
Unfortunately, 80% of the pine forest was destroyed by the southern pine bark beetle about 10 years ago.  The forest is starting to grow back but the loss of so many trees has probably contributed to the decline of the Orange-breasted falcon.

The following morning Marc and I were up early to do a private tour of Caracol, the largest Mayan archeological site in Belize.  We birded along the way before arriving at the site around 8:30.  We were the first to arrive and had the whole place to ourselves.  At the heart of this ancient city is Caana or "Sky Palace".  At 140-feet tall, the Caana Pyramid is the tallest Mayan temple in Belize. 

Caana Pyramid at Caracol

It is actually the tomb of an elite woman and was excavated in 1987.  In it's heyday, more than 100,000 people lived in Caracol and it was larger than present day Belize City.  The site was occupied as early as 600-900 BC and collapsed around 1050 AD!  We finished our tour just as the rain began to fall and returned to Hidden Valley Inn to rejoin our group.  Later that afternoon, a short flight brought us to Gallon Jug, a 30,000 acre estate in north-western Belize.  Gallon Jug lies within the largest tract of contiguous forest north of the Amazon Basin.  Conservation efforts are underway to protect this forest which lies within 3 countries, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize and is known as La Selva Maya.

Gallon Jug Farm

This was not always the case. At the turn of the century, one fifth of Belize was owned by the Belize Estates Company and until the 1960's logging was the primary focus.  Gallon Jug was originally a logging camp.  During the mid-1980's the Belize Estates Company was purchased by Belizian Barry Bowen and divided into 4 parcels.  Bowen retained 130,000 acres including Gallon Jug Farm and Chan Chich Lodge were we would spend the next 5 nights.  We explored the trails around the lodge on foot hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive jaguar or one of the other four species cats that live here.  The jaguar remained hidden but the Gray Foxes were more brazen.  One trotted along the trail and came to within 10 feet of us before veering off into the forest.  


Gray Fox

We were off to a great start exploring Belize which to the ancient Mayans consisted of 3 realms, the heavens, the earth and the underworld.  We can't wait to see what's in store for us during our second week in Belize.
We hope all is well back home.
Peggy and Marc