On watch for monarch

Volunteers help scientists track the butterfly's migration and get a lesson in nurturing nature

September 23, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Robert Schroeder swooshed his net through the air and captured a monarch butterfly.

He took his catch to Brian Campbell, a naturalist at Bear Branch Nature Center, who showed the youngster how to open the butterfly's wings and determine its sex.

Campbell documented information about the butterfly, placed a small sticker on one of its wings, and then sat it on Robert's nose.

"That feels strange," he said, as the butterfly slowly opened and closed its wings across his nose. After what seemed an eternity to the youngster, the butterfly continued its flight.

Robert, 9, of Manchester, was one of about 30 volunteers who recently came to the nature center in Westminster to participate in a project that monitors the migration of monarch butterflies.

Called Monarch Watch, the educational outreach program was started in 1992 by the University of Kansas. More than 2,000 nature centers, schools and organizations in the United States and Canada participate in the program.

In its fourth year at Bear Branch, the program includes tagging the butterflies to help scientists monitor the monarchs' migration to Mexico.

To participate, children and adult volunteers capture butterflies in nets, and tag them using a small sticker that contains a three-letter and three-number code, an e-mail address, and a toll-free phone number.

"What we are doing is safely catching the butterfly, recording data, and then releasing them," said Campbell who helped start the program at the center. "Then we let them go on someone's nose. Nothing we do harms the butterfly."

Scientists monitor the flight of the butterflies, using the stickers, when they show up in Mexico, Campbell said.

"It's one of the great mysteries of science," Campbell said. "The butterflies these people are seeing today have never been to Mexico, but strangely, they know how to get there. Scientists are monitoring their migration to try to determine how this is possible, and we are helping them collect the data."

Joe Stevens, a teacher at the Carroll County Outdoor School, said, "It's a complete mystery as to how five generations of monarchs know how to get to the same roost site as their great-great grandparents."

During the fall, about 300 to 400 sixth-graders come to the school and learn about the monarchs as part of the habitat class.

"This project shows the students that learning doesn't have to be in a vacuum," said Stevens, 32, of Hanover, Pa.

The program is also open to adults. Deborah Portney became involved this year to help the monarch population, she said. She found the tagging to be useful, but not as easy as one might think, she said.

"I caught two or three butterflies," said the Westminster resident who is a physical therapist. "I had my net on a lot more than that. But the butterflies proved to be smarter than me. I enjoyed it. I think it gives people, especially children, a chance to see the natural world as their world."

Her son, Reed Portney, 14, who participated in the program last year, offered some pointers for catching butterflies.

"It's difficult to catch a butterfly," said Reed, a freshman at Westminster High School. "You have to do it when they land. If they see you coming, they leave really quick. So you have to get in there and get them fast."

And Danielle Komiske found out the hard way that once you catch a butterfly, you have to hang onto it, she said.

Komiske participated in the program as part of her biotechnology class, she said. She spent two hours in the field and caught one butterfly.

But when she let her friend, Lauren Magee, hold the butterfly, it got away. Magee was apologetic about the mishap.

"It was hard to catch the butterflies," said Magee, 17, of Sykesville. "And it was even harder to hang onto it. I was watching little kids catch them all over the place and it made me feel dumb. But I think it's worthwhile to try to help preserve the butterflies."

Robert Schroeder said he believed the activity was better than a visit to an amusement park.

"It was great for me because I didn't know anything about butterflies when I went there," he said. "But now, I know about butterflies, and I learned some stuff about other insects, too. I can't wait to do it again."

Kim Dixon, school programs coordinator for the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, helps with the program. She became involved because of a passion for backyard projects for children, she said.

"Monarch Watch instills a sense of wonder in children," she said. "They learn that butterflies are amazing little animals. The program fosters their enthusiasm. Often they go home and tell their parents how important it is to have a butterfly garden."

During the tagging session, Campbell explained some of what is known about monarchs and their migration.

Monarchs typically have a life span of about two to three months, he said. But this fifth generation of monarchs lives to about seven to eight months, he said.

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