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Tagging Monarch Butterflies

October 6, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

With nets in hand, today’s Citizen Science Saturday started out with a bang, chasing after Monarch butterflies along the prairie.  The intent this time not just to observe them up close, but to place a minuscule sticker on the hindwing. On this sticker is an ID number that helps researchers track the migration flight of the butterfly.  The sticker is also specifically made light and with a strong adhesive so as to minimally affect the butterfly during migration.

Catching these lepidopterans was quite an excitement, with each being caught in unique ways.  The first of our hunt was patiently sitting on a flower and barely reacted when a net was placed over it.  Once within the net, the catcher then gently pinches the top of the base of all four wings close to the butterfly’s body (as seen in the picture below).  In this position, the butterfly is immobile and will not be injured. The scales will not come off easily either. A sticker is then attached to the largest cell located on the hindwing.  After a sticker is attached, the butterfly is then released. A total of three Monarchs were caught and tagged during this expedition. One of those tagged crawled right onto someone’s hand. The other had to be chased.

Monarch male, before tagging

Monarch male, before tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Monarch male, after tagging

Monarch male, after tagging. Photo by Morgan Gilbert.

Other than placing a sticker, we also recorded information on each Monarch, including the tag number, sex, status, and date and location where the butterfly was captured.  To tell the males apart from the females, we look for a large black spot on a vein on their hindwing.  You can see this scent gland on the hindwing of the male in the image below.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.

Monarch male sitting on Ironweed.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

The migration of the Monarch butterflies was discovered by Dr. Fred Urquhart, who developed the first method of butterfly tagging in the 1940s and called on the help of hundreds of citizen scientists to track the migration.  After nearly 30 years of tagging and research, Monarchs were finally discovered overwintering in the fir forests of the mountains of Mexico by citizen scientists. Since then, over a dozen sites have been discovered within the area.  

The butterflies we tag here will make their trip into Mexico starting in November.  Come next March, the butterflies will then migrate back into the United States to lay eggs and begin a new generation.  

The ID’s of the three caught on September 20 at Prairie Ridge were YXA 829, YXA 832, and YXA 837.  You can follow our butterflies on https://www.monarchwatch.org/tagmig/recoveries.htm in late spring or summer of 2019!

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Featured Creature: Monarch Butterfly

September 28, 2018
Monarch about to lay egg on common milkweed. Photo: Mike Dunn.

Monarch on milkweed. Photo: Mike Dunn.

Monarch butterflies are iconic and easily recognized residents of the Americas. They are widely distributed across North America, from Mexico northwards to southern Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts.

What’s special about them?

One of the most notable characteristics of these butterflies is the remarkable 3000-mile journey they make to their overwintering grounds in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico in the fall. From mid-September through mid-October migrating monarchs pass through North Carolina, most prominently in the mountains and at the coast.

See live monarchs today!

Here at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, we fly monarch butterflies in the Living Conservatory, commonly thought of as the “butterfly room”! While they may look the same as the monarchs you see outside, our monarchs are raised on butterfly farms and belong to a non-migratory subspecies generally found throughout the Caribbean, Central America and south to the Amazon River.

Did you know that migrating monarchs are declining in number?

Population surveys are conducted annually at monarch overwintering grounds. This past winter showed a 14.8% decline from the previous year and an overall 90% decrease in population from just 20 years ago. Several factors play a role in monarch population decline, including habitat loss and climate change.

What can you do to help?

It’s as simple as planting a garden with native milkweed and nectar plants. Then take it a step further – participate in citizen science projects such as the Monarch Watch tagging program and support local and national conservation organizations to preserve this amazing natural phenomenon.

Scientific Name: Danaus plexippus

Taxonomy

  • Class: Insecta (insects)
  • Order: Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)
  • Family: Nymphalidae (brush-footed butterflies)
  • Subfamily: Danainae (milkweed butterflies)
  • Genus: Danaus
  • Species: plexippus

Photo Gallery

By Martha Flanagan
Head, Living Conservatory
martha.flanagan@naturalsciences.org

Citizen Science Saturday’s eBird: A Firsthand Experience

August 31, 2018

This post is brought to you by Morgan Gilbert!  Morgan is a senior at NC State and is majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation Biology with a Wildlife Concentration.  She is interning for the Citizen Science Unit at Prairie Ridge this semester.  Thanks, Morgan!

For nearly 10 years, Museum staff at Prairie Ridge Ecostation have conducted public citizen science eBird walks and submitted their sightings.  eBird was developed as a way for birdwatchers, or birders for short, to provide information on where and when specific species of birds are found.  This information is then used by scientists and researchers to, among other things, track the migration of birds around the world and to see what impacts climate change has had on birds.  eBird now receives millions of sightings each year, many of which are generated through citizen science programs.  Along with eBird, Prairie Ridge also organizes various other citizen science programs such as Natural North Carolina, Lost Ladybug, and many more.

The eBird Walk was the first Citizen Science Saturday event I had ever attended at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.  Being new to bird watching, I was quite worried that my limited knowledge of native birds might make it difficult to enjoy and assist in identifying birds for the eBird data.  However, within a few minutes, it became apparent to me that this program was built to bring people in, whether new to birding or seasoned in the field, and that I was not the only person there that could at best recognize a Northern Cardinal.  I was also about to find out why this location is so popular for birders!

After a short introduction about Prairie Ridge Ecostation (I had no idea just how large this place was!) and the purpose of Citizen Science Saturdays, we moseyed down to the birdfeeders to find out what granivorous (seed/grain eating) birds we would find.  At these feeders, I saw Red-winged Blackbirds, Carolina Chickadees, a Pine Warbler, and lots of Northern Cardinals.  I was also excited to see a few Purple Martins hanging out around hollowed-out gourds.  Everywhere I looked there was a new bird to identify!  The only difficulty was that we had to make sure they were properly identified before marking them down in our datasheet.  Marking down improperly identified birds will provide inaccurate information to eBird.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Next we wandered off towards the pond counting murmurations of European Starlings and trying to figure out if we were seeing Song Sparrows or Chipping Sparrows.  A good way to find this out is to look for patches of black on the head.  Song Sparrows have some black lines near the eye and a black spot on the head, Chipping Sparrows have only brown. At the pond we looked for birds in and around the water.  I was able to spot a few Hooded Mergansers.  Someone spotted a Canada Goose and another Chipping Sparrow.  After identifying all the birds we could find, we then headed back to the bird feeders to see if any more birds had come out in our absence.

The popularity of Prairie Ridge Ecostation for birders is due to the vast variety of bird species found during each month of the year.  Just in the first hour of Citizen Science Saturday, we saw and identified over 20 species!  I have never seen that many birds in a week!

At the end of this session I felt like I had a better grasp on identifying birds and that I learned quite a few things about their characteristics.  For example, Eastern Towhees preferred to forage on the ground under the feeders and the Blue Jay intimidates all the other birds off the feeder.  I also had no idea what a challenge it was to tell birds apart while they are flitting around the ground.  Oftentimes birds will stick in pairs or groups, such as female Northern Cardinals staying close to the males or the Mourning Doves hanging in groups of 2-3.  This actually made it easier for me to count them.  Did you know that the European Starling was brought here by Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted to introduce all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays?  I did not.  Now the starlings are highly invasive and have been negatively affecting our crops and local nesting birds.

It is very easy to fall in love with Prairie Ridge Ecostation and to become interested in the various events that are held here.  I was originally supposed to complete only 10 hours of Environmental Education volunteer experience for one of my classes at NCSU, but I enjoyed this so much that I continued volunteering after the 10 hours were finished.  I hope you will come join us and appreciate this program as much as I have!

Birds of Prairie Ridge (Part 1)

July 7, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On the dim, early morning of June 23, I arrived at Prairie Ridge Ecostation at 6:30 AM to observe that week’s bird banding. I thought I was up early, but, upon reaching bird banders John Gerwin and Holly Ferreira, I learned that banding leader Keith Jensen had arrived long before to set up the mist nets. Former NCMNS intern Hanna Rogers wrote a great primer on how mist nests are used and bird banding is done at Prairie Ridge, which can be read here.

Once all of the expected banders arrived, regular rounds were made to check on all of the mist nets scattered around the prairie and arboretum. The first bird found was a beautiful male Indigo Bunting at a net near the lake. Further along, a Red-Bellied Woodpecker was also picked up during the round.

Male Indigo Bunting held in a photographer’s grip. This Bunting had a previous band, indicating it had been caught and banded before. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Here, in its breeding plumage, this Indigo Bunting is an iridescent blue, an indicator that it’s a male. Female Indigo Buntings, on the other hand, are a light brown, although some do have a tinge of blue. A juvenile will look similar to a female, with the addition of faint white streaks on its back and breast. Once breeding season is over, this Indigo Bunting will molt for the winter until it becomes predominantly brown again. An interesting thing to note is that there is no blue pigment in the feather of these birds; the bright blue you see is actually created by a refraction of light. If it’s cloudy, an Indigo Bunting may appear black instead!

Left: Bander Holly Ferriera posing with the woodpecker.  Right: Checking the molting of the Red-Bellied Woodpecker. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

Where the Indigo Bunting remained calm during the health measurements, the Red-Bellied Woodpecker was feistier. The red patch on the woodpecker’s head indicates that this young bird is most likely a male, as female Red-Bellied Woodpeckers usually just have red on their napes. A closer look at its abdomen would show a small patch of pale reddish-orange feathers that give the bird its name.

Around thirty minutes after the first round, another round was made. This round brought forth a northern cardinal and a brown thrasher.

Brown Thrasher being held in a bander’s grip for health measurements. Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

This surprised looking fellow is a Brown Thrasher. These birds are reddish brown and the adults, like the one above, have yellow eyes. These birds eat acorns, wild fruits, and berries, but they also dine on lots of beetles and caterpillars. Although acorns are a significant part of their diet, the thrashers’ beaks are not well adapted to shelling them, so they often dig the acorns into the ground to break them open, just as if they were using a tool!

A Northern Cardinal getting its wings measured (left) and being prepared for release (right). Pictures by Anna Slayton and Richa Patel.

If you live in North Carolina, you’ve probably seen a Northern Cardinal before (or twenty!). Northern Cardinals are the state bird of North Carolina and a common permanent resident. These are our only red birds in the Carolinas to have a prominent crest, which are the feathers on the top of its head, like a funky hairstyle. The one captured above is a male, which have brighter, redder feathers than the brownish females. Listen carefully when you see one! They’re calls are often found to sound like “pretty-pretty-pretty,” which, when you see one, you can’t disagree!

These weren’t the only birds banded that morning! Make sure to keep your eyes out for Part 2 of Birds at Prairie Ridge, and, as always, keep up with the things happening at Prairie Ridge Ecostation on our Facebook or the Museum’s event page.

Catching Ladybugs for Citizen Science

June 8, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On some Citizen Science Saturdays, you can find kids and adults alike bending close to the ground, reaching down into the milkweed, and raising their hands in triumph when they finally capture the little red beetle that caught their eye. Those are the mornings where we’re participating in the Lost Ladybug Project here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation.

Ladybugs that you could potentially spot at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Photos by Chris Goforth.

The Lost Ladybug Project begin in 2000 with a coordination between Cornell researchers and 4-H Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners to survey ladybug populations across New York. Graduate students and elementary schoolers came together to search for ladybugs and, in 2006, a major discovery occurred: 10-year-old Jonathan and 11-year-old Jilene found a rare nine-spotted ladybug (Coccinella novemnotata). This nine-spotted ladybug was the first seen in the eastern U.S. in 14 years and was proof of the power of people coming together for science! Thus, in 2008, the National Science Foundation granted the Lost Ladybug Project funding, and citizens begin spotting and uploading data about ladybugs all around North America.

nine spotted ladybug

Endangered nine-spotted ladybug. Photo by the Lost Ladybug Project.

We’ve been doing it here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation since 2013. On one recent Citizen Science Saturday where we participated in the project, our group ended up collecting over 80 ladybugs! Most of these ladybugs were the Seven-spot Ladybug (Coccinella septempunctata), a non-native species from Europe. A keen-eyed participant, however, did spot a Convergent Ladybug (Hippodamia convergens), the only native ladybug we found that day! After we picked up and collected all the ladybugs, volunteers and staff here at Prairie Ridge Ecostation took pictures of them all individually and uploaded them to lostladybug.org, the website that keeps the aggregate data of ladybugs surveyed. Then, we released all of them back into the environment.

Ladybugs that you could potentially spot at Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Photos by Chris Goforth.

What does the Lost Ladybug Project do with all of this data? There are over 5,000 species of ladybugs around the world, and each one has its own significance to the ecosystem it exists in. With ladybugs particularly, the fewer the species, the more vulnerable ecosystems can become to the pest insects that ladybugs eat. The Lost Ladybug Project allows for researchers to know how common some ladybug species are in areas, how rare others are, and even how to reintroduce some rare ladybugs, like the Nine-spotted Ladybug, back into the environment.

Catching ladybugs is thrilling way to connect with nature while contributing to a citizen science project. Come join us at Prairie Ridge Station next time we go searching — or grab a jar and catch some ladybugs in your own backyard!

Which Fish Are in the Prairie Ridge Creek? (What Time is it in Nature)

June 6, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

A few weeks ago, a group of volunteers and staff members went electrofishing at the stream at Prairie Ridge Ecostation (read more about that on the post Electrofishing at Prairie Ridge Ecostation!), and we ended up snagging quite a few fish before letting them go. Below are some of the great fish species that can be found in the stream:

Creek Chub (Semotilus atromaculatus)

Creek chubs found in the stream (male, female, juvenile from top to bottom)

Creek Chub found in the stream (male, female, juvenile from top to bottom).  Photo by Richa Patel.

The stream was bristling with Creek Chub.  The ones pictured above were just some of the Creek Chub that we were able to capture that morning. These fish have a dark spot on the front of the dorsal fin where the fin attaches to their body and a dark stripe that runs across their body. Juvenile Creek Chub have an even darker stripe; this stripe can be very light or absent on large adults. Breeding adult males have an orange-red color down their belly and cheeks, a dark bar behind its gills, and large horn-like bumps, or tubercles, on top of their heads that differentiate them from females (you can see one on the top of the male’s head in the above picture!). The ones found in our stream ranged between 3 to 5 inches, but Creek Chub can reach up to 12 inches.

Bluehead Chub (Nocomis leptocephalus)

The only bluehead chub we were able to find that morning.

The only Bluehead Chub we were able to find that morning.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This chub has a gorgeous blue head, which identifies it as a breeding male of the keenly named Bluehead Chub. Bluehead Chub are olive-colored on their upper side with a dusk yellow stripe down their backs. They, too, have large tubercles on their heads (check them out in the picture above!). This was the only Bluehead Chub we were able to find, but it did signal that there was a nest around. Male Bluehead Chub create nests from pebbles, which can be more than 2 feet long, that not only attract female Bluehead Chub, but also other minnows and chubs. It’s a beautiful, productive fish to have in our stream!

 Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

Museum volunteer Brynn Tracy showing off a caught bluegill.

Museum volunteer Bryn Tracy showing off a caught bluegill.  Photo by Richa Patel.

Bluegill is a native sunfish here in the stream; Prairie Ridge does have some introduced sunfish, like the Green Sunfish, but we didn’t get our hands on any of those when we sampled. Bluegills are tall and flat with a continuous dorsal fin, the front part of which is spiny and the back part of which is soft. The fish are an olive green with a yellow undertone and blue and purple colors on the cheek and gill cover (thus the name Bluegill!). This Bluegill was around 5 inches (they can get to be up to 16) and one of three Bluegills we were able to identify that morning.

Yellow Bullhead (Ameiurus natalis)

A well-fed yellow bullhead from the Prairie Ridge creek.

A well-fed yellow bullhead from the Prairie Ridge creek.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This catfish was the largest fish we found! It was around 8 inches long and, as seen above, had to be held very carefully so that volunteer Bryn Tracy avoided getting hurt by the Bullhead’s serrated teeth along its pectoral spine. Yellow Bullheads are differentiated from Black or Brown bullheads by the base of their chin barbels (or ‘whiskers’), which are white or yellow, and by their longer anal fins. This fish locates prey by brushing the bottom of the stream with its whiskers.  The one above in particular had a nice, round belly that indicated it had just found a meal. Check out the whiskers on this one!

These are just some of the fish swimming along in our stream, and we’re always excited when we find more.  Head down to the creek to see what you can find!  However, please note that Prairie Ridge has a strict no collecting policy.  You’re welcome to look at the fish (and plants, insect, birds, mushrooms, and other wildlife) that call Prairie Ridge home, but please leave them where you find them before you leave.

Want to participate in other cool citizen science projects and learn more about the wildlife that lives in Prairie Ridge Ecostation? Keep up with our events on the Museum’s event calendar or our Facebook page!

Electrofishing at Prairie Ridge Ecostation

May 26, 2018

This blog post is brought to you by Richa Patel, Prairie Ridge’s YAIO summer intern.  Richa will complete her degrees at NC State in aerospace engineering and political science this fall.  Thanks Richa!

On the beautiful, warm morning of May 23, volunteers and staff gathered at Prairie Ridge Ecostation for an exciting event: it was time to survey the creek! Prairie Ridge is home to a small stream that, thankfully, despite the past day’s heavy rain, still remained accessible and rich with fish.

This morning, staff members who work in the Ichthyology (or fish studies) Unit, Gabriela Hogue and Lindsay Abrams, helped lead the event. After we all switched into rubber boots and walked down to the stream, their intern Connor Neagle put on an impressive looking battery backpack. This, they explained, was to help us catch fish.

YAOI Intern Connor Neagle wearing backpack generator for electrofishing.  Photo by Richa Patel.

This super cool technique involved using the battery on Connor’s back to create a current that passed through the positive (anode) and negative (cathode) electrode rings on the end of the rods he’s holding. Those rings are placed into water and, when the battery is turned on, the field of electricity the device creates in the water causes fish to swim towards the anodes before becoming stunned and floating belly up. No worries! This paralyzation only lasts for a few seconds, just enough time to nab the fish, before the fish are up and swimming again.

(Note: Don’t try this at home! Our staff members are trained professionals with the proper permits to legally electrofish.  Recreational use of electrofishing is both illegal and dangerous.)

A fish is netted in the water.

A fish is netted in the water.  Photo by Richa Patel.

Quite a few fish were snagged during this event, with Gabriela and volunteer Bryn Tracy (the creator of the aforementioned backpack battery) doing an excellent job teaching us about each type of fish, key identifying factors, and interesting sets of behavior. Citizen Science Unit staff member Chris Goforth, our resident aquatic bug expert, also wowed the group with bugs she found during the expedition: mayflies and damselflies and even her first dragonfly at the creek!

Paralyzed fish are collected from the stream when the generator is turned off.  Photo by Richa Patel.

 

Gabriela Hogue, the Museum's fish collection manager, shows off a creek chub.

Gabriela Hogue, the Museum’s fish collection manager, shows off a creek chub.  Photo by Richa Patel.

The fish are so interesting, they deserved their own post. Want to know more about some of the fish living in the Prairie Ridge Ecostation stream? Make sure to check our next blog post: Which Fish Are In the Prairie Ridge Creek?

Thank you to all of the volunteers and staff members who came out and made it a fun, educational morning. Cool stuff is always happening at Prairie Ridge Ecostation!  Keep up with events on the Museum’s event calendar or our Facebook page.