Monarchs Head South Toward an Uncertain Future

MonarchMontage-BryanPfeifferIf I went outside right now, hopped in the car, and started driving, it would take me 45 hours to reach the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Michoacán, Mexico, some 2,823 miles away. Though I badly want to see the groves of sacred firs (Abies religiosa) quivering and dripping with orange and black wings, I’m not leaving today. For now, I am content to have witnessed one of this year’s migrants emerge from its chrysalis. The process was one of biology and of magic.

When I first saw the chrysalis I thought the tiny, metallic gold markings seemed suspiciously intricate for a mere caterpillar’s changing room, and peered at them as if they might instead be explained by sci-fi alien manufacture. It turns out that these spots allow oxygen to reach the developing structures and organs of the enclosed butterfly.

The next morning, in the span of about 15 minutes, this female butterfly inched downward out of her chrysalis, re-distributed fluids from her distended abdomen to unfurling wings, and washed her face in preparation for what was to come. Her autumn journey to the Transvolcanic Mountains of central Mexico— if she can complete it—will take two months. To put this voyage in perspective, it is around seven times the distance traveled by caribou as they migrate from summer habitat to winter haunts. Caribou are billed as the land mammal with the longest migration in North America, whereas the Monarch is a butterfly whose flight has been described as “slow and sailing.”

monarch-1280x920The spring migration of Monarchs to New England is carried out by five different generations, each pushing north at distances more commensurate with their two-to-four-week lifespan and the floating nature of their flight. Monarchs hatched in late summer are among the generation that will live for several months to travel an incredible distance by putting their reproductive tendencies on pause, or rather, on diapause.

Diapause for the Monarch is a sort of flying hibernation that allows the butterfly to extend its lifetime, endure migration, and make it through the winter. Unlike hibernation, however, only specific environmental conditions can induce an organism to enter or exit diapause. In the case of a Monarch, when the days are long enough and the temperatures are just right, the overwintering butterfly shakes herself reproductively awake, mates, and then travels a few hundred miles north to lay her eggs on milkweed before dying.

Sadly, the odds for our particular young Monarch and her progeny are dismal. She faces habitat loss, changing environmental cues, invasive species and car windshields along the many miles of her journey. The population of Monarchs east of the Rockies is estimated to have declined by 90% since its level in 1995.

Nevertheless, government agencies, non-profit organizations, and concerned citizens are mobilizing to try to prevent the migratory Monarch’s extirpation. As with many environmental issues, large-scale actions such as policy change will be crucial. However, because the plight of the Monarch also plays out in our backyards, opportunities to help are close to home. You can plant native milkweeds to benefit individual butterflies. You can join other citizen scientists in supplying data to strengthen and inform the measures we take to protect Monarchs; check out

The first, beautiful moments of a young female Monarch reawakened my awe and concern for this species. Instead of being crushed by the terrible thought that, if Monarchs were to go extinct, this mystical experience might become a mythical one, I am spurred to share the urgency of the situation. Urgency is more powerful when it is underpinned by wonder. And though this combination might seem like a fragile set of wings with which to entrust the fate of a species, I take comfort in the thought of Monarchs fluttering south towards Mexico, unfazed.

Anya Tyson is a first-year Field Naturalist student

Field Notes 2015: Human Nature and The End of Nature

Screen Shot 2015-09-07 at 2.31.05 PMNature is in peril. Biodiversity is plummeting. Species are going extinct 100 to 1000 times faster than normal. How many times have you read an introduction beginning that way? It’s depressing because it’s true. The ensuing article or book usually offers plenty of advice on what actions we must take to stem the tide of extinction and climate change and how to convince the uninformed public to care about it. But what about us — conservationists who already care about the deterioration of the natural world as we know it and who struggle with it emotionally? How can we find solace?

The current issue of Field Notes, the annual publication of UVM’s Field Naturalist and Ecological Planning programs, reflects on how we can continue to delight in nature even as we stare these sobering environmental issues in the face.

Read or download the issue »

The Musicality of Birdsong

From Donald Kroodsma's The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong, 2005.

From Donald Kroodsma’s The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong.

By Joanne Garton

Formal study of birdsong has long been fascinated with the who, how, and why of some of our most ubiquitous outdoor sounds. Many guides encourage new birders to learn their species by ear, listening for bird presence rather than relying on sight alone. Researchers have examined everything from a songbird’s syrinx (the bird equivalent of a larynx) to its wing morphology to determine how a bird makes its song. Ecologists have monitored bird behavior to suggest why they sing and why birdsong makes us feel happy and safe. (For further thoughts on birdsong as a cultural ecosystem service, take a look at my research proposal on the valuation of birdsong in education.)

As a student of an Applied Wildlife Management course and an avid musician and fiddler, and a complete beginner when it comes to birds, I decided to examine the what of birdsong. More specifically, I was curious about the musical what, the pieces and patterns of sound that make up a spring morning or summer evening. Do birds sing in pitches and tones like we do? Do they prefer certain keys? Do they take a breath with each phrase? And how hard could it be to learn to reproduce birdsongs? (Quite hard, it turns out). Click on the bird names that look like this to hear my renditions of some of these birds’ songs. Continue reading

Beyond the Jeep Road Sits Coyote — Wilderness in 2015

Southwestern desert

Southwestern desert

By Levi Old

On the first day of a 90-day expedition, our team made camp at the end of a jeep road. The afternoon sun, low in the sky, blanketed the desert’s red and orange rocks. Daylight quickly shifted into dusk. The rocks faded into shapes, and dropped shadows on slick rock in the crescent moonlight. The wind-worn surfaces that stood so vibrant in daytime were gone.

After dinner and a meeting about the next day’s plan, we embraced the opportunity to sleep out in the open. I found a flat boulder, climbed into my sleeping bag, and looked up at the night sky. The 10 students wandered around searching for sleeping spots, chatting with nervous anticipation and preparing their new equipment for a night’s rest.

“I bet this never gets old,” said Ben, 20, from Wyoming.

“Seriously,” agreed Lily from New York, “I’ve never seen stars like this before.”

I peeked over the lip of my sleeping bag and noticed the students gazing at the night sky.

The two college students traveled far from their comfortable existences to attend a three-month wilderness leadership course in the heart of the southwestern desert. Along with my colleague, I was their instructor. Around us, there was a more distinguished instructor— wilderness. Continue reading

Give it a Shot: Staying Safe in the Woods During Rifle Season

Shelby and one of her dad's bucks sometime in the early 90's.

Shelby and one of her dad’s bucks sometime in the early 90’s.

By Shelby Perry

It’s hunting season, and this year I’m working through my end-of-semester stress with a rifle.  I’ve never been a hunter before, but, as a native Vermonter, deer camp, hunter-safety orange, and the first rule of gun safety (always point your muzzle in a safe direction!) have been in my vocabulary since childhood.  As I prepare for my first rifle season as a hunter, I have been surprised to find that many of my classmates did not grow up around hunting, and haven’t really thought about what it might mean to them.  Staying safe during hunting season really boils down to three main points, and shouldn’t be intimidating or frightening.

  1. Be visible.  Wearing hunter-safety orange any and every time you go out in the woods during rifle season is a must.  A lot of people think wearing any bright color will do, but almost nothing is more visible and recognizable as human in the late fall forest than hunter-safety orange.
  2. Be respectful.  Few things are more frustrating for a hunter who has been shivering silently in a tree stand since dawn than a person or dog thrashing obliviously past.  If you think there might be a hunter already in the woods it’s best to stick to heavily traveled trails or to just avoid the area during rifle season altogether.  Less about safety and more about etiquette, respecting other legal uses of the forests you love is a condition on which your own access depends.
  3. Take it seriously.  “It won’t happen to me” is the wrong approach to safety during hunting season.  Spend 8 hours looking for deer in the woods and your brain will start to make them out of everything – tree branches are antlers, the crunching leaves under a retreating rabbit are footsteps.  I am not condoning the actions of anyone who would pull the trigger before being absolutely certain of their target, but I am saying that it is wise to set yourself up for success.    Never assume your safety is someone else’s responsibility.

Continue reading

In Search of New England’s Sequoia

By Sam Talbott

Photo page 2I inherited many things from my dad: blue eyes, an affinity for two-cylinder engines, and a passion for woodworking. A set of long-handled carving tools made the journey north from Massachusetts to Vermont with me. I left behind a stout wood lathe, a former resident of the local vocational high school. Between its dark-green metal housing and the exposed 2×4’s of the garage is a well-kept pile of saw dust and wood chips.

If you were to plunge a soil auger into this pile, you’d see a resemblance to “varves” left behind by freezing and thawing cycles of glacial Lake Vermont. Large wood chips give way to fine sawdust—evidence of increasing from 60 to 400 grit sandpaper. The red layers are not redoximorphic reactions, but rather the presence of redwood, Honduran rosewood, and other species not found in the typical New England northern hardwood forests. Continue reading

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic. Continue reading

Beyond a Collection of Facts

By Clare Crosby


I spent my childhood hosting acorn cap tea parties for fairies, scurrying on calloused feet to collect eggs from the chicken coop, and reenacting Little House on The Prairie in the meadow behind my house, just east of Austin, TX. I did not suffer from “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

But as I grew, my interests shifted. I traded the meadow for well-manicured athletic fields and our old pond for swimming pools. My interest in my Central Texas natural surroundings paused around 8 years old. I never figured out what species of oak provided teacups for my parties, only that the caps were nicely proportioned for fairies. Neither did I learn what type of moss my fairies used for seat cushions, only that it opened into minute stars under sprinkled water.

I’m embarrassed now, as a naturalist, to admit that I don’t know even some of the most common species of my home state. This lack of knowledge, however, offers opportunity when I return to Texas from Vermont, the home of my formal ecological education. As I walk old trails and come across a familiar (yet unknown) tree, my inclination is to turn to field guides or a trusted expert to tell me what to call it, who eats it, and what it might reveal about the soil beneath it. In Vermont, I have had a string of wonderful professors and peers to teach me about the natural world, assisted, of course, by an ever-growing library of field guides. I hope to be so lucky again in Texas. Continue reading

Natural Sounds

By Joanne Garton

Jellyfish2I remained still underneath a swirling aquatic world. Corals of brilliant blue and pink mixed with fish of bold black and yellow. Water of crystal clarity ebbed and flowed towards gorgeously blond sand. Sea anemone wavered and I watched, transfixed, as the bulging eyes of a massively prehistoric stingray reflected the wonder of it all.

As the sea swelled, forty violins soared to a grandiose peak. As a wave smashed on the rocky shore, cymbals crashed and drums bellowed. And as the wave dissipated, a bassoon emerged from lonesome depths where a barrier shark swam far from the colorful critters near the sun’s dancing rays.

It took three wave and cymbal crashes before I realized that this music of the sea had been choreographed with Hollywood precision. As a tourist in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, I was listening to the soundtrack of nature, piped in through the invisibly scattered speakers that followed my trail and amplified my mood. Those soaring chords and delightful suspensions latched onto my wonder and awe, building my anticipation and enhanced my excitement when the belugas breeched or the sea lions wrestled.

But was this a bad thing? The music kept me focused, adding drama to the already dramatic, while drowning out the hoards of young families that mixed in with my own. Carefully arranged and built to sell, this supposed music of nature sets the mood that inspires us to linger a while, more so than perhaps, these days, silence can.

Of course, real nature is not silent. Winds sweep, critters cluck, wolves howl and woodpeckers tap. So do other animals hear music in nature? What about insects, reptiles, or microbes? What do they hear? Continue reading