A wondrous journey

The first sighted monarch, migrating from the United States to its overwintering sanctuary deep in the mountains of central Mexico, reached its destination on November 6th, as reported by Journey North. Soon it will be joined by tens of thousands. Then by hundreds of thousands.

The spring and fall migration of the monarch butterfly is truly an amazing phenomenon. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, similar to birds. Unlike other butterfly species that can overwinter here as larvae, pupae, or even as adults in some species, monarchs just can’t make it through our cold winters.

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Using clues from the environment, monarchs know when time is approaching to move on. Scientists believe shortening days and lowering temperatures, along with aging milkweed and nectar sources trigger a change in monarchs. And it’s this change that makes the monarch migration even more extraordinary: monarchs are the only known species to have a multi-generational migration.

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a generation unlike the others

Generally, monarchs produce four generations a year. The first three generations are bred and born in the United States after they arrive during the spring migration north from Mexico. Each of these generations makes its way northward with some reaching as far north as Canada. Individuals of the first three generations live from two to six weeks.

When the fourth generation is born, something happens—and what happens, exactly, is unknown. What is known is that this generation enters reproductive diapause as adults and can live as long as nine months. These are the little guys that make the great trip south, starting in the late summer (in the north) and fall. Somehow, this generation of butterflies knows exactly where they’re headed while never having been there before: the high elevation oyamel fir forests in the Transvolcanic Range of central Mexico. The trip can be an astonishing 3,000 miles long for the northern-most butterflies and can take about two and a half months to complete.

It is hard to contemplate a world without the monarch—it’s woven into the very fabric of our culture. But the monarch migration is now recognized as an “endangered biological phenomenon” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and our northern neighbors in Canada have already identified the monarch as a species at risk.

To see the monarchs gather in Mexico over the winter months is something to behold. Watch this short video by National Geographic to get a glimpse of a monarch sanctuary in Mexico:

more interesting bits about the monarch’s incredible journey…

  • Although the monarch migration is visible from the ground, glider and airplane pilots have reported monarchs flying at heights from 1200 to as much as 10,000 feet.
  • Monarchs have two speeds: powered flight (greater than 12 miles per hour) and gliding.
  • When gliding, monarchs catch thermals to gain altitude and then glide south to southwest with the help of the wind. If conditions are favorable, monarchs can maintain altitude by flapping their wings only once every 20 to 30 feet.
  • Flight requires sunny days, light winds, and temperatures greater than 55 degrees. Headwinds greater than 10 miles per hour and temperatures greater than 88 degrees impede migration.
  • Tracking migrating monarchs from various starting points in the interior United States shows that no matter where they begin their journey, they all fly, more or less, on a direct path toward central Mexico. Scientists don’t know how the butterfly determines its particular geographically appropriate direction.
  • Although the total migration advances southward only 25 to 30 miles per day, individuals have been recorded to have covered hundreds of miles in just a few days.
  • Monarchs overwinter in dense clusters on oyamel firs in a semi-dormant state. They become active when temperatures rise above 55 degrees to find water. Nectar is not required—they live off stored fats all through the winter months.

One late season monarch averaged 61 miles per day for two weeks while flying from Virginia to Texas.

See Journey North’s  interactive map to see the progress of the fall migration. And if you have citizen scientist interests, consider adding your monarch sightings in their interactive spring 2019 migration map.

What a perfect time to contemplate a new or improved pollinator garden to make ready for the spring migration back north!

Fascinating snakes

Herpetophobia is the morbid fear of snakes. While they may provoke phobia in some, snakes are amazing animals with some pretty striking (please pardon the pun) attributes. Check out the list of some of them below. And for a closer look at the more common snake species in our area (yes, live specimens will be there for the viewing), attend the next week’s Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture.

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Nathan Wells will present, Snakes of The Woodlands
Thursday, November 8th, 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.
Recreation Center at Rob Fleming Park
Registration is required.

Where you’ll find them…

Snakes can live in almost any environment, ranging from jungles and deserts to lakes and mountains. They live everywhere on Earth except Ireland, Iceland, New Zealand, and the North and South Poles.

There is an island in Brazil known as the Snake Island that arguably has the highest occurrence of snakes in the world. It’s estimated that there is one snake every 11 square feet.

The most common snake in North America is the garter snake.

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Garter snake

They come in all sizes…

The smallest snake is the thread snake that lives on the island of Barbados. It is about 4 inches long and “thin as spaghetti.” The longest snake is the reticulated python which can reach over 33 feet long. And the heaviest snake in the world is the anaconda, weighing over 595 pounds.

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Green tree python

Eating habits…

All snakes are strictly carnivorous. Depending on their size, however, their prey differs considerably. The smallest snakes feed on insects, snails, and mice while the largest snakes kill and eat anything from an antelope, pig and even a jaguar.

Most snakes need to eat only six to 30 meals a year to stay healthy.

To keep from choking on large prey, a snake will push the end of its trachea, or windpipe, out of its mouth, similar to the way a snorkel works.

Snakes don’t lap up water like mammals do. Instead, they dunk their snouts underwater and use their throats to pump in water.

Some snakes have over 200 teeth. The teeth aren’t used to chew—they point backwards to prevent prey from escaping the snake’s throat. And only venomous snakes have fangs.

Snake biology…

Most species of snakes lay eggs, and some species are ovoviviparous (they retain the eggs within their bodies until they are ready to hatch), but it was recently found out, that several species (such as the boa constrictor and the green anaconda) are fully viviparous (giving live births).

Snakes are completely covered with scales—even their eyes. Instead of eyelids, they have a brille, which is a transparent, disc-shaped, immobile scale that covers the eye for protection.

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Scales completely cover a snake, including its eyes

While snakes don’t have external ears, or eardrums, their skin, muscles and bones carry sound vibrations to the inner ears.

To accommodate their narrow bodies, snakes’ paired organs (such as kidneys) appear one in front of the other, instead of side by side.

Pit vipers, pythons, and some boas have infrared-sensitive receptors in deep grooves on the snout, which allows them to “see” the radiated heat of warm-blooded prey.

Snakes have one of the highest occurrences of polycephaly—a rare condition of having more than one head. There have been many cases of two-headed snakes. The heads might fight each other for food.

Species with super-powers…

The brahminy blind snake is the only snake species made up of solely females. It’s also the most widespread terrestrial snake in the world.

The death adder has the fastest strike of any snake in the world. It can attack, inject venom, and return to striking position in under 0.15 seconds.

There is a genus commonly known as the flying (or gliding) snakes. Native to Southeast Asia, these snakes are capable of gliding over distances as great as 330 feet through the air. Watch the video below to see how they do it.

The muscles that cause a rattlesnake´s rattle to shake are some of the fastest known, firing 50 times per second on average, sustained for up to 3 hours.

The black mamba is the world’s fastest snake. It’s found in East Africa and can reach speed up to 12 miles per hour.

Backyard birds

Whether you have a home with a backyard or an apartment with a balcony, the fun of birding can be enjoyed by all. There are over 800 bird species in North America, and as many as 500 can be found in Texas alone. This rich diversity of birdlife is a testament to Texas’s diversity of habitat.

The state’s biodiversity is easily grasped when the high number of ecoregions in Texas—ten to be exact—are taken into account.

An ecoregion denotes a geographic area of similarity in its mosaic of flora, fauna, and ecosystems.

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Texas’s geographic location is a crossroads where eastern habitats meet western ones and southern subtropical habitats meet northern temperate ones. Adding to the state’s super-birding aspects is the fact that it’s situated smack dab in the central flyway. During the spring and fall migrations, birders are apt to see species that aren’t generally seen otherwise. The Woodlands is situated in the Piney Woods ecoregion.

Attract birds to your landscape

By providing the essentials:

  • feeders and native food-producing plants,
  • water, and
  • shrubs, trees and birdhouses for nesting and shelter

in home landscapes, backyards can be transformed into bird wonderlands.

What’s growing in a backyard is key, and there are many native plants you can add to your property to attract birds and other wildlife. Here’s a short-list of some excellent ones for the Piney Woods. And remember—the best habitats address all four layers of your landscape—canopy, understory, high ground, and ground.

Plants for Birds Chart

Birds of the Piney Woods

Here’s a look at some common and less-common birds that visit The Woodlands backyards—either year-round or seasonally during migration. See how many visit your backyard feeder this season.

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Especially for birders…

For aspiring and dedicated citizen scientists of all ages, take part in this year’s Project FeederWatch, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University. The project kicks off in November. FeederWatch data help scientists track broad-scale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance.

Another great resource for birders is also brought to you by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird, where bird enthusiasts can connect to and contribute to the world of birding.