APRIL 12, 2018

Monarch Chronicles II

In the interim, field studies have developed techniques and ideas quite as scientific as those of the laboratory. The amateur student is no longer confined to pleasant ambles in the country resulting merely in lists of species, lists of migration dates, and lists of rarities. Bird banding, feather-marking, censusing, and experimental manipulations of behavior and environment are techniques available to all, and they are quantitative.” – Leopold, from “Natural History”


It is quite a two-day leap to be made for the amateur citizen scientist to go from identifying milkweed species with the assistance of the local field guide, to laying transect lines through the raw prairie and sub plotting every seven feet for the sake of tallying data.  This great leap comes as a result of the amateur being willing to move past the more comfortable stage of natural observer to one who is willing to stop, bend down on a knee and take the milkweed leaf in hand in order to flip to the underside in order to detect, hopefully, the larvae of Monarch butterfly.  Eyes open, prairie sumac, goldenrod, dogwood and bluestem up to the hips, the common milkweed plant now holds a far more esteemed position, the very treasure of the plant hunt itself.  The amateur is provided means for quantifying the data: lay down the subplot rectangle onto over the top of the habitat and identify the flowering species or milkweed within the A,B or C square confines…examine the milkweed for a third instar caterpillar and determine whether it is monarch or Queen Larvae by counting the tentacles.  Stay along the laid transect lines for a hundred meters, as it reaches toward a fixed point in the distance at degreed bearing you must follow by compass. Continue this procedure at random coordinates laid out by satellite imagery, north to south, south to north, until 150 subplot observations and data entries are complete.  The amateur’s eye has just made the great leap from appreciation to counting miniature basil stalks at the bottom of a plant’s stem. What had once seemed not much more that the abundant green made by the broad leaves and fibrous stalks of a hundred species, has become a rhizome-like interconnection of the thousand components that make up a butterfly habitat.  You celebrate the upcoming rare patch of milkweed because it is there, perhaps flitting along an otherwise unknowable path from plant to plant, an adult monarch might be seen in the distance and will be transcribed as incidental, our outside the parameters of your transect line.  As you scan out east and west, you look for the bobbing of wings; you wonder which of the hundred milkweed out there might carry a yellow egg and root for its quiet little tucked corner of the prairie to be safe for the duration of the instar process.