Birds are not the only winged migrants making their way through the region. Each year, Monarch butterflies also migrate south with many of these insects reaching mountains in Mexico to spend the winter months.
Sisters Dianne Draper and April Mattes recently transported several Monarch caterpillars to a local park when the supply of milkweed in Dianne’s yard ran low.
“We cater to butterflies in our yard,” Dianne said.
She also cultivates milkweed plants, including Poke Milkweed, Common Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed and Mexican Milkweed, in her yard and garden at her home on Cherokee Road in Jonesborough.
The caterpillar crisis began when Dianne and April noticed that the milkweed plants looked bare. Closer examination found lots of caterpillars.
“We must have collected 40 caterpillars from 50 milkweed plants,” Dianne said.
With their voracious appetites, the caterpillars were stripping the leaves from all the milkweed plants at the Draper home, leaving them with nothing to eat.
They tried to find fresh supplies of milkweed.
A mutual friend, Don Holt, scoured the countryside for milkweed without much luck.
So, Dianne, April and Don collected the caterpillars to transport them to a new home in the designated butterfly habitat at Willow Springs Park in Johnson City.
The butterfly habitat at the park offered plenty of milkweed and other plants attractive to Monarchs and other butterflies.
Milkweed is a vital plant throughout all the stages of a Monarch’s life cycles. Female Monarchs lay their eggs on milkweed plants. When the eggs hatch, the young caterpillars feed on the milkweed plant. Adult butterflies obtain nectar from milkweed flowers.
Monarchs also obtain another benefit from milkweed that is more than simply nutritional.
“They eat the milkweed to get toxins to defer predators,” Dianne explained.
When they feed on milkweed, the caterpillars ingest toxins present in the milkweed sap. These toxins are stored in their bodies, making them unpalatable to potential predators. Adult Monarchs with their bold orange and black wings even advertise the fact that they don’t taste good.
Another butterfly — the lookalike Viceroy — mimics the orange and black pattern of the Monarch’s appearance to fool predators into thinking that it, too, tastes disagreeable.
Dianne is an enthusiastic advocate on behalf of Monarchs and believes anyone with a yard or garden should leave some space available for the cultivation of a patch of milkweed.
“If more people would cultivate milkweed, it would really help,” she said.
However, Common Milkweed can be invasive in a garden. Fortunately, Dianne offers an alternative.
“I like Mexican Milkweed,” she said. “It grows to about four feet, produces red, orange and yellow flowers and the leaves are smaller,” Dianne said.
She added that Mexican Milkweed is also easy to grow from seed. Although native to the American tropics, this plant thrives nicely in Northeast Tennessee.
“I just collect seed pods in the fall and replant them next year,” Dianne said.
Any of the milkweeds in the region can be cultivated from seeds. Seeds of Common Milkweed can be planted in a bare spot in the fall. Left undisturbed over the winter, they should grow into new plants in the spring.
Dianne, April and Don are not alone in their enthusiasm for Monarchs. My co-worker, Patsy Johnson, recently acquired some Monarch caterpillars for the purpose of letting her granddaughter, Josie, observe the life cycle as the caterpillars transform into butterflies.
“Linda Moore, a friend in Jonesborough, gave me 10 caterpillars,” Patsy said. “She also gave me a container of milkweed leaves to feed them.”
She stored the milkweed leaves in a plastic bag inside the crisper of her refrigerator until time to provide them to hungry caterpillars.
Although she originally meant for the project to entertain and educate her granddaughter, Patsy said her entire family became captivated by the project.
“It got everyone involved,” Patsy said.
Her husband, Gary, and son, Wesley, helped locate more milkweed to keep the growing caterpillars nourished.
“Wesley brought me some milkweed from a field on Powder Branch that he had mowed,” Patsy said.
The family kept the caterpillars in a glass terrarium with a screened roof.
Seven of the 10 caterpillars completed their life cycle, spinning cocoons they attached to the roof of the terrarium.
“About seven to 10 days later, they emerged as butterflies,” Patsy said.
The family released most of the newly-emerged butterflies at their home on Gap Creek Road, but they did take one of them to the Butterfly Garden at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park.
I finally added a bird to my year list that I have been looking for since the first day of August when I found a pair of Black Terns from the bridge on Austin Springs Road at Boone Lake on Saturday, Sept. 21. The sighting took place around 5 p.m. on a rainy, overcast day, which made the Black Tern Bird No. 185 on my year list.
Black Terns migrate through Northeast Tennessee in August and September, usually visiting some of our lakes. I’ve seen these small, dark terns in the past at South Holston Lake. Despite numerous visits to Musick’s Campground in August and early September, I failed to find any of these terns at this location.
In addition, I found two Common Loons, several Killdeers and a Spotted Sandpiper. There were also dozens of swallows flying around. As best I could tell, they were Tree Swallows.
The Black Tern is a small, dark, graceful tern of freshwater marshes. Although they feed on fish like many other terns, they also catch insects on the wing.
The Black Tern is found in both North America and Europe. They breed on inland lakes.
This tern is a member of the genus Chlidonias, which also included the White-winged Black Tern, Black-fronted Tern and Whiskered Tern. This genus is also known as the “marsh terns,” because they are usually found in freshwater marshes, rather than coastal locations. The Black Tern is the only member of the genus found in the United States.
In North America, the Black Tern can be found in the summer breeding season in a wide range that extends from central British Columbia, east across the prairie provinces to central Ontario and southern Quebec, south to central California, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, northern New York and northern New England. The Black Terns in North America winter as far south as Central America and northern South America.
Other than the few Black Terns I have seen in Tennessee, I once saw hundreds of these terns during a fall trip to Fripp Island, S.C.
A female Nashville Warbler put in an appearance on Monday, Sept. 23, thus becoming Bird No. 186 for the year on my list.
While doing some lawnchair birding that evening, my mom and I also saw the following warblers: male and female Hooded Warbler, two Black-throated Green Warblers, an American Redstart, two Tennessee Warblers and a Magnolia Warbler. We also saw a Brown Thrasher, Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, Eastern Towhee, Pileated Woodpecker, two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and an assortment of feeder visitors.
So far, the pace of fall migration has guaranteed something new passing through the yard almost every day, although we’re now in the final weeks for the presence of many of our favorite summer birds, including hummingbirds, warblers, tanagers and much more.
A great way to see some of the birds making their way through the region is to attend one of the free Saturday bird walks held every October at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park in Elizabethton. This year’s walks will be held Oct. 5, Oct. 12, Oct. 19 and Oct. 26. I help conduct these walks with other members of the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society. Walks begin at 8 a.m. at the parking lot at the park’s visitors center every Saturday in October. Bring binoculars to increase your viewing enjoyment.
Make a comment, ask a question or share an observation by calling me at 297-9077 or by sending an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. I am also on Facebook.