The threatened beauties

Those of us who have spent our lives in the Midwest can’t help but harbor a special love for monarch butterflies. Of all the beautiful marvels of nature that grace our part of the world, monarchs have earned a place of deserved honor.

Along with lightening bugs, ice cream and just-ripened tomatoes, these elegant creatures define our summer days. But all is not well. The monarch is in trouble. One recent study suggests that the long term survival of the species may be in doubt. And some say the plight of the monarch is beyond question. We are not in an emergency. The sky is not falling. But troubling developments in recent years should serve as a wake-up call for us. For the past 15 years, scientists have been watching monarch numbers plummet – as much as 81 percent. They reached nearly catastrophic lows in the winter of 2009 and 2010 and have barely recovered since.

As monarch lovers know, the butterflies migrate en masse from all over the country to a handful of high altitude sites in Mexico, where they winter in the protective shelter of fir trees. Come spring, the process and direction is reversed and they fly thousands of miles northward, where they lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Milkweed is the only plant a monarch caterpillar can eat – and therein lies the problem.

Milkweed is a plant that most farmers and landowners consider a weed. But to be fair, the ongoing effort to eradicate milkweed isn’t the only cause of the monarchs predicament. Illegal logging in Mexico has reduced their winter habitat, an already vanishingly small area. That puts those of us in the Midwest in a strange position. After decades of working to stamp out milkweed, gardeners are now being encouraged to plant it in their gardens. Townships and counties are asked to let it thrive in roadside ditches. What looks like agricultural success, purging bean and corn fields of milkweed and other allegedly noxious plants, turns out to be butterfly disaster. Which, when you think about it, is merely the latest in a long line of human intervention run amok. The problem is that with the demise of the milkweed comes the demise of the monarch butterfly. So, what to do? That’s life. But life like kids comes with some assembly required and no instructions.

But the message is the same. We’ve all seen this one coming. Bottom line: we’ve all got to try harder to make sure the monarch butterfly is still with us for generations to come. It boils down to habitat and food. Is there a quick fix? Can the problem be corrected overnight? No, no and – without hesitation – no. Environmentalists and agriculturalists are going to have to put their shoulders to the wheel and do some long range planning.

Rabbits and bushytails

Iowa’s rabbit population is consistently high and our squirrel population is at record levels in many woodlands due to low hunting pressure. Grab a couple hunting buddies and allow yourselves to just have fun hunting small game. Or hunt solo, and savor the solitude of a golden fall day stalking squirrels or jump-shooting rabbits. And then there’s turkeys many hunters this fall have ruefully commented they’ve routinely seen more turkeys than pheasants across Iowa. So maybe it’s time to take advantage of Iowa’s fall turkey hunting season. Don’t allow pheasant populations to reduce your enjoyment of hunting in Iowa. Expand your hunting horizons to multiply your hunting opportunities. And just remember there’s a ton of small game out there just waiting to be harvested.

Had a nice chat with Shirley Stahl the other afternoon. I was out at Beemer’s Pond with my binoculars and spotting scope when she drove in to feed the swans. Shirley told me that there’s a record number of Canada geese on the pond right now. I was watching some incoming flocks of big grain-fed mallard ducks fresh out of northern Canada. The late arrivals are coming down now. They’re being kicked out of the north country by early cold weather and lots of snow. That’s the good news. They bad news is – and we talked about this for nearly half an hour or so – that’s about all that’s been coming down. Blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, shovelers, pintails, canvasbacks, redheads, mergansers, even grebes and coots where are they?

Teal are the first ducks to arrive down here in late August and early September and for the most part they never did show up. Shorebirds that frequent the river sandbars and mudflats never arrived. Maybe they became victims of spring snow storms or maybe they switched routes and went down the Missouri or Mississippi rivers. Who knows?

Several weeks ago I went along on a bird hike with the Des Moines Audubon Club to Walnut Woods State Park. Their opinion was that even the song bird population was extremely low this summer. Again, go figure.

And now have a good weekend.