Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

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Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

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Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

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Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

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Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

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.

Gould ecorregions of texas

 

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.

 

 

The way of the future: sustainable landscapes

Community resilience. Sustainable landscapes. These terms are becoming more commonplace and heard more often. Why? Because our collective and growing knowledge and experience tells us that global climate change is the impetus for increased catastrophic weather events.

What do these terms mean, exactly?

Taken one at a time, community resilience is the ability to anticipate risk, limit impact, and bounce back rapidly through survival, adaptability, evolution, and growth in the face of turbulent change, as defined by the Community and Regional Resilience Institute.

Turbulent change can include severe threats such as sea level rise, hurricanes, wildfires, drought, economic down-turns, social unrest, and other disruptions.

Environmental threats make up just one component—though significant—to the whole of turbulence that impacts resiliency, and designing landscapes that are sustainable is one way to help manage them.

The American Society of Landscape Architects defines sustainable landscapes best: “Sustainable landscapes are responsive to the environment, re-generative, and can actively contribute to the development of healthy communities. Sustainable landscapes sequester carbon, clean the air and water, increase energy efficiency, restore habitats, and create value through significant economic, social and, environmental benefits.”

It’s worth noting too, that a sustainable landscape is designed to be both attractive and to require minimal resources in terms of cost and ongoing maintenance.

Attend The Woodlands Township’s upcoming event:

Walk in the Woods Nature Lecture Series 

Thursday, October 11
6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
at HARC, 8801 Gosling Rd, The Woodlands
Lisa Gonzalez, President and CEO of HARC, will present:

Working with Nature to Build Resilient Communities

Registration is required.

A sustainable landscape can include:

  • Reduction of stormwater run-off through the use of bio-swales, rain gardens and green roofs and walls
  • Reduction of water use in landscapes through design of water-wise garden techniques (sometimes known as xeriscaping)
  • Bio-filtering of wastes through constructed wetlands
  • Landscape irrigation using water from showers and sinks (known as gray water)
  • Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques for pest control
  • Creating and enhancing wildlife habitat in urban environments
  • Energy-efficient landscape design in the form of proper placement and selection of shade trees and creation of wind breaks
  • Permeable paving materials to reduce stormwater run-off and allow rain water to infiltrate into the ground and replenish groundwater rather than run into surface water
  • Use of sustainably harvested wood, composite wood products for decking and other landscape projects, as well as use of plastic lumber
  • Recycling of products, such as glass, rubber from tires and other materials to create landscape products such as paving stones, mulch and other materials
  • Soil management techniques, including composting kitchen and yard wastes, to maintain and enhance healthy soil that supports a diversity of soil life
  • Integration and adoption of renewable energy, including solar-powered landscape lighting

That’s a lot. Let’s take a closer look at just two aspects of a sustainable landscape.

FIRST: Enhancing wildlife habitat.  Habitat loss, and the corresponding loss of biodiversity, can be curbed when we connect properties into networks of attractive, wildlife-friendly neighborhoods, cities, and regions. Starting with the home landscape, fragmented habitats can be rewoven together, creating spaces that are not only healthier for wildlife but also for people.

Watch this informative, short (4-minute) video produced by American Society of Landscape Architects, Designing Neighborhoods for People and Wildlife.

 

 

SECOND: Reduction of stormwater run-off.  In many communities, rain water flows into combined stormwater and sewer systems, which channel both sewage and rainwater together through underground pipes to central treatment facilities. Storms can quickly overrun these combined systems, leading to flooding with pollutant-laden water and even backed up sewage.

Watch this informative, short (4-minute) video produced by American Society of Landscape Architects, Leveraging the Landscape to Manage Water.

 

When these approaches are viewed with a wide scope and on a large scale, the potential impacts of sustainable landscaping are pretty powerful. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that change often starts on a small scale. And there might be no better place to start than in your own back yard.

For further reading, that’s as fun to read as it is informative, get Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants, Doug Tallamy, Timber Press, 2009.

Grow a native American vegetable and treat your landscape and palate alike

Helianthus tuberosus

Cultivated for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, our country’s only native vegetable is also a Texas native sunflower. The “jerusalem artichoke” or “sunchoke” is the enlarged underground stem of helianthus tuberosus, a type of sunflower in the aster family with edible tuberous roots. While commonly regarded as native vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers all originated either in Central or South America.

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Today, we take the food on our plate for granted, but the History of Vegetables  is a fascinating study.

The common name “Jerusalem artichoke” is likely a corruption of the Italian girasole (turning toward the sun) which is a trait shared by all sunflowers. In more recent years, the edible tubers of helianthus tuberosus have become known as “sunchokes”.

Sunchokes have a delicious, sweet nutty taste.  As an extra bonus, these tubers are nutritious and an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber.

The original distribution of this native Texas sunflower is unclear because the plant was transported to many different geographic locations for cultivation by Native Americans.  Today, helianthus tuberosus can be found along the edges of wooded areas, in former fields and along roadsides.

Helianthus tuberosus

This showy sunflower is also sometimes grown simply for its bright yellow blooms and tall, fast growing stems. Broad, thick leaves and rough hairy stems add to the visual attractiveness of this native plant.

Blooming in late summer and early fall, helianthus tuberosus requires full sun to part shade. A tough and versatile plant, this sunflower will grow in moist or dry soil and tolerates drought, heat and frigid temperatures. Because of these qualities, it’s very easy to grow. Helianthus tuberosus is extremely useful in the garden where it can quickly become a temporary summer screen, a stunning background for a native plant border or the sunny edge of a natural wooded area.

Nectar source for butterflies

This particular sunflower is beneficial for both insects and wildlife. The large yellow flowers offer nectar for butterflies, pollen for bees while also supporting many predatory and parasitoid wasps, flies and beetles. In fall, the seed heads attract birds while the large plants offer cover for small wildlife.

Beekeepers have noted that helianthus tuberosus  is an excellent honey plant resulting in a clear amber product when harvested.

Very little is known about pests or diseases which damage this plant. It appears to be quite resistant, which contributes to its easy to grow nature. In the southeast Texas climate, the optimum planting time is early spring with the main harvest in fall. Since helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant, once started in the garden, it’ll return each spring from tubers left in the soil.

Growing helianthus tuberosus in your garden or landscape offers new opportunities for applying culinary skills as well as providing beauty, food for pollinators and cover for wildlife.

The edible tubers or sunchokes can be harvested beginning within two or three weeks after the flowers fade. Harvesting can continue after the first freeze damages the stems and leaves of the plant. Each plant will produce approximately 2-5 pounds of sunchokes. When left in the ground after the first frost, the tubers become sweeter and crispier. To preserve the freshness, store sunchokes in a zip top plastic bag in the refrigerator. This strategy preserves the tuber’s natural moisture.

While sunchokes are frequently used in cooking as a potato substitute, unlike potatoes, they can be used raw and add a nutritious crunch to salads. Sunchokes are also an excellent vegetable for pickling.

If you like to get even more creative in the kitchen, try Pan-Roasted Sunchokes and Artichoke Hearts with Lemon-Herb Butter.

Looks and sounds delish.

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For more information on the nutritional value of various foods, check out this nutrition guide, by the USDA.