Monarchs + the Curlew

This past month we have been spending a lot of time at the Curlew National Grasslands for a very special reason: Monarch butterflies.

Two monarchs right in the heart of the Curlew!

The Curlew is a grassland managed by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest and is composed primarily of agriculture land that was retired decades ago and now serves as expansive, rich habitat for a whole slew of species. It is a very special place whose location in southeast Idaho gives it the unique ability to serve as part of the highway for western populations of monarch butterflies during their yearly migration to California. Monarchs flock to the Curlew to rest, mate, and start a new generation in the shade of its riparian areas that are chock full of showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa).

Unfortunately, loss of habitat and food sources have caused monarch populations to plummet. The western population is really struggling and where thousands upon hundred thousands of monarchs used to pass through the western United States now only a few hundred or thousand are seen.But the Curlew hasn’t given up on Monarchs yet! It still welcomes them with the promise of shade, food, and a possible mate in the area. For that reason, monarchs are still flitting through the expansive grassland.

The Curlew supports lots of nectar plants and the riparian areas have some awesome shading trees-Eastern monarch populations do not like shade but the hot sun of the West has taught Western migrating monarchs to seek out shade!

As interns on the Caribou-Targhee we had the privilege of partnering with state agencies and citizen scientists to document the monarchs passing through the Curlew this year. (Here I was, thinking I would never see or experience what it is like to see monarchs migrating when suddenly I am thrown right into the science behind tracking and monitoring them!) Monarch surveys occur all over the United States and are fueled by the research and work of people like Dr. David James and organizations like the Integrated Monarch Monitoring Program-thankfully, there are a lot of people that care about monarchs 😊

Preforming monarch surveys means gearing up with butterfly nets, data sheets, sunscreen…and lots of water…and then getting to work. And let me just say, catching a butterfly is not as easy as it seems…but when you do finally catch one you cannot help the smile that spreads over your face, it’s the best combination of science and feeling like a kid again. Gently reaching in and grasping the little migrant in the proper way and sliding them out of the net is a surprise in and of itself because suddenly the vibrant colors of their wings and sharp white polka dots on their black body are no longer muted by the mesh of the net or the haze in the air. And my goodness are they are exquisite. Some of them are more tattered and torn around the edges letting you know they have come to the Curlew to mate and continue the migration through their offspring while others are almost fluorescent in color and itching to travel.

The bright, untattered wings of this monarch suggest that this is a young and ready to fly to California!

The butterfly patiently grasps your fingers as you attach a small tag to the proper area of its wing (so that its flying ability isn’t hindered) and reluctantly allows you to open up its wings (with which you get another pleasant shock of wonder as their deep orange wings, rimmed and webbed with velvet black, completely open in front of you) and look for the presence or lack of a small black dot on each wing. If the monarch has these dots it is a male (other butterfly species’ males emit pheromones from these dots of specialized scales, but the jury is still out on what monarch males use them for) and if not, it is a female. After checking that you have written down all the necessary data you slowly detach your fingertips from their wings. At this point, it is a 50/50 chance whether the monarch will leap back into the sky immediately or stay on your finger for a bit, gently flapping its wings and making up its mind (all to your complete delight). Experiencing monarch butterflies in such a hands-on manner was amazing-something I never thought I could have done!

Me releasing a monarch for the first time after learning how to properly tag it

But we don’t just pay attention to the adults; monarch surveys also include searching for instars on the milkweed plants and tiny monarch eggs. This means recognizing monarch instar leaf grazing and peering over and under the soft milkweed leaves in search for the happy culprit. When an instar is found you can tell what stage it is in by the presence or lack of stripes and antennae. Data is recorded and the instar grazes on; you can almost see it growing in front of your eyes as it chops away leaf after leaf! Monarch eggs are a bit harder because spots of dried milkweed latex on the leaf can fool you repeatedly. But when you finally find an egg, you realize that they have an incredible design: small and rounded at the bottom with a slight Hershey’s kiss top and vertical lines traveling up across its entire surface. Perfect looking and so small you must confirm it using a hand lens! We also care a lot about monarch habitat and need to document the characteristics of the areas they frequent in order to better understand how we can remediate the loss in their numbers. This means walking transects and using vegetation frames to collect data on the landscape that the monarchs love. The healthy mix of nectar plants, milkweed, and shade trees on the Curlew is what the monarchs really seem to key into in southeast Idaho!

Check out this fat and happy instar that we found! The bright stripes and antenna suggest that is is in its final stages before forming its chrysalis

Thanks to interagency collaboration and the help of citizen scientists the presence of a special section of western monarch’s migration highway at the Curlew was confirmed again this year with notably high monarch counts for the entire western half of the Unites States. I was so happy to be a part of it 😊

A monarch in all of its glory right after emerging from its chrysalis


G.L.O.R.I.A !

This week, Claire and I assisted with the absolute coolest long term vegetation monitoring initiative known to human-kind: GLORIA (GLobal Observation Research Initiative in Alpine environments). It is just as intense as it sounds. We went with a group of botanical scientists, fellow interns, and volunteers to the Lemhi Mountain range in Idaho to establish the fourth GLORIA site in all of Idaho. Just last year the first three were established, which is the minimum number of plots allowed according to GLORIA standards. This fourth peak would bring Idaho up to the preferred number of GLORIA locations and allow us to extract more data about changes to the alpine environment over the years.

On our way up!
Getting started once we reached the summit.

Starting the day early we scrambled up to 10,000+ ft. with packs full of survey equipment. Once up there, we quickly began conducting the measurements and calculations needed to set up the many sections-essentially making a cardinal directional pie out of the mountain peak. We then got to crouching. The real work of a GLORIA plot is the thorough surveying of existing vegetation on the peak so that changes can be noted through the years. This includes monitoring soil temperature and snow pack by burying four tough temperature loggers up on the mountain (those little nuggets have a lifetime of 5 years! How incredible!)

Refreshing our memories on the many alpine plant species before starting the surveys.
Working on the plots 🙂 Couldn’t be happier!

The sun moved across the sky as data sheet after data sheet was completed and plot after plot was delineated. Our brains were steeped in the wonderful names of the teeny-tiny alpine plants, picking out some rare ones here and there and marveling at the flowers of so many others. After one task was done, there was always another to move to. The sun and wind kept us company and on our toes with multiple sunscreen applications and rubber bands on clipboards to prevent flyaways!

Arctic alpine forget-me-not (Eritrichium nanum)-one of the sweetest little plants we found!
Old-Man-of-the-Mountain ( Tetraneuris grandiflora ), another wonderful example of some of the beautiful plants up in the alpine!

Right before the sun set we were safe off the mountain, marveling at the work we had accomplished and already missing the beautiful alpine. It was truly thrilling to be part of such a top-notch research team, preforming globally recognized science, and learning from the top notch botanists of Idaho. The entire experience had a surreal feel to it, and is one I wish I could rewind and live all over again.

Imagine spending the day up here, you wouldn’t wanna come back down either would you!

From Idaho to Utah

The past few weeks have been popping with traveling, camping, and seed collection all around Idaho and Utah.

One of our many stops was on the Curlew Grasslands, it was an awesome day.

My co-intern and I, Claire, have been able to explore some awesome country and have continued to meet and collaborate with a whole slew of professionals (thanks to the top notch planning of our mentor!) including Forest Health specialists and a conglomerate of Forest botanists from both Idaho and Utah. We’ve even met other seasonal workers and shared SOS collection stories and techniques as we scouted for and collected seed together.

At one of our collection locations ft. Claire 🙂

Spending the day with other seed collecting friends and botanists in Utah.

Our primary plant for seed collection these past few weeks has been Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta). Just yesterday we spotted balsamroot growing on an unusual space on the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache NF in Utah-it was a rocky, scree covered slope within a canyon. The population was robust, so we split into groups and faced the steep climb head-on with paper bags in hand. As I climbed up using both hands and feet I stopped here and there to pop off a few seed heads and turn down my long sleeve shirt in the burning sun. The balsamroot continued to flourish the higher up I got-eventually I came to the top and found a clearing of penstemon, hawksbeard and balsamroot. The flowers were fluorescent in the sun and the darker seed heads of the balsamroot bobbed as warm wind moved through the canyon. I took a moment to breathe and located our trucks on the canyon floor-they were small, white dots far below! -and then turned to take in the canyon view.

Up on top!

I could see that to my left and right along the slope the balsamroot was loving the rocky habitat. I could hear the other collection teams communicating, their voices echoing a bit between the canyon and mountain walls. After roaming around to cover the extent of the population where I was I packed my paper bag in my backpack and headed slowly back down.

We all met back at the trucks, laughing about the bizarre habitat, the intense climb, and our surprise at the amount of balsamroot we found. It was a super successful day and a great end to the work week!

What a Week!

If anyone ever asks if you want to go hang out with entomologists and botanists-don’t think twice, just answer “YES!!”.

That is exactly what myself and my CLM partner, Claire Parsons, did when our mentor proposed learning and working with USDA entomologists and Idaho renowned botanists for a week on a Research Natural Area (RNA). RNAs are preserved areas that represent a habitat and can be used for education, research, and monitoring purposes. The one we happily raced to was a low shrub upland salt desert shrub habitat within the Salmon-Challis National Forest and BLM land in Idaho.

At the heart of the RNA: Middle Canyon!

Our goal was to verify the RNA’s integrity, plant diversity, document baseline pollinator presence, and search for some lovely rare plant species. Claire and I, besides having the opportunity to botanize and learn from the coolest and most knowledgeable people, received direction on the Seeds of Success (SOS) process-one of our primary projects this summer. We found two populations, one of Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta) and Shaggy Fleabane (Erigeron pumilus) that we can come back to during seed-set!

Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagitatta).

Within the first two days on the RNA we found three rare species: Spreading Gilia (Ipomopsis polycladon), Lost River Milkvetch (Astragalus amnis-amissi), and the super dainty Alkali Primrose (Primula alcalina). All signs that the RNA is a diverse and special place that should continue to be preserved. Finding the plants meant that official documentation was needed; Claire and I were able to exercise our GPS know-how and complete the official field-paperwork.

Alkali Primrose (Primula alcalina), how sweet!

Such an awesome group of scientists-watching the entomologists at work was super cool.

We also observed pollinator catching, drafted comprehensive species lists, and asked as many questions as we had all while hiking through canyons, along rivers and alluvial fans, and crunching across the desert shrub steppe.

The river (you can kind of see it going around a bend here) gave us a chance to cool our feet down mid-day!

Going up Middle Canyon, we choose to walk off the trail a bit and search out as many plants as possible.

The fun didn’t end either, after field work we would all head back to the field station nestled below the Lemhi mountain range. Claire and I pressed our plant specimens, ogled and peppered the entomologist as they ordered their tiny, winged specimens, keyed out plants we had collected in the field, then enjoyed dinner while laughing and conversing below the mountain peaks.

A sneak peak of all the pollinators doing good work out on the RNA.

Keying out some paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia) with M.M.-the coolest botanists in Idaho.

It was so refreshing to be surrounded by professionals who loved botany and ‘talked’ botany; I couldn’t get enough of it. I made connections, became so much more familiar with the plants of the region, and feel super prepared to execute SOS work, bring it on!

Caribou-Targhee National Forest, ID