Monarch butterflies and GBBC

There’s good news from the mountains of central Mexico this winter. World Wildlife Fund Mexico and the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve announced on January 30 that 14 overwintering monarch colonies occupied a total area of 14.9 acres, up from 6.1 acres last winter.

Counts of individual butterflies are impossible because they are so small and many roost high in the oyamel fir trees. Instead areas occupied by the butterflies are measured. These are the best results since 2006-07 when monarchs occupied 17 acres of mountain forest. The low point over the last 25 years came in 2013-14 when monarchs occupied just 1.6 acres.

To learn more about the conservation of these beautiful orange and black butterflies, join monarchwatch.org. Participants learn about historic population trends, how to plant milkweed to attract monarchs and can even purchase self-adhesive tags to place of the hind wings of captured monarchs. During the winter, tags recovered in Mexico help biologists understand the complexities of monarch migration.

Monarchs begin the long northward migration this month. To continue a strong comeback this year, a variety of factors must converge. Weather along the migratory path must be favorable. An abundant crop of nectar-bearing flowers to fuel the migration is required. And toxic herbicides applied by farmers and state highway departments along the migratory path must not have exterminated wildflowers, particularly milkweed.

In the meantime, here’s what everyone can do to help monarch butterflies. 1. Plant milkweed. It’s the only host plant upon which monarchs lay eggs. 2. Plant more milkweed. The best sources for milkweed are local nature centers and native plant nurseries.

Closer to home, let’s plan for the upcoming Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) scheduled for February 15-18. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada and represents citizen science at its best.

Begun in 1998, the GBBC enlists birders of all skill levels to help estimate midwinter bird abundance and distribution. It has grown into a global event with participants from more than 150 countries.

Participants count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at www.birdcount.org. The data help compile a snapshot of bird populations that enables scientists to detect population changes over time.

That first year, birdwatchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the United States and Canada. Last year 192,456 GBBC “citizen scientists” turned in 180,681 checklists reporting a total of 28,905,335 individual birds representing 6,459 species — that’s more than half of all the bird species in the world!

Counters from the U.S. (108,921), Canada (14,008), and India (13,276) submitted the most checklists, while counters from Columbia (996 species), India (832), Mexico (780), and Costa Rica (681) reported the most species.

The GBBC allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can add to our understanding of how changing climate affects birds. Be particularly watchful for evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches, and other northern species that have already been spotted wandering south this winter.

Last year California birders submitted the most checklists (8,530), followed by Texas (6,785), New York (6,520), Pennsylvania (5,953), and Florida (5,612). Michigan ranked 7th (3,890), and Ohio ranked 10th (3,786).

The species reported on the most checklists were northern cardinals (48,956 checklists), dark-eyed juncos (43,742), mourning doves (43,412), American crows (40,959) and blue jays (37,549).

Anyone can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, from novice bird watchers to serious birders and ornithologists. Participants count birds for as little as 15 minutes (or as long as they wish) on one day of the event or for several hours on each day of the count and report their observations online. Counts can be done anywhere from backyards to local parks, nature centers, or wildlife refuges. It’s easy, free, and fun.

During the count, results are updated constantly on animated maps and colorful graphs for all to view. This feedback allows participants to see almost immediately how their observations fit into the global perspective. Results from previous GBBCs are also available online.

For more information about the GBBC visit birdcount.org.

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Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Dr., Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 28792.

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