Monday, October 26, 2009

The Schuylerville Monarch Herders

At left: Cyndi Lehan prepares the Monarchs for shipping.

Excerpt from email received on10-18-09:

I loved reading Your Journal on the roosting monarchs. I am a teachers aide in Schuylerville Central Schools in upstate New York. Our 3rd grade class has just finished studying monarchs. They have hatched about 8 monarchs. With our cold weather and snow in New York they won't stand a chance getting out of Dodge and headed north. I am a volunteer in our local Wildlife Preserve and also a soon to be licensed wildlife rehabilitator. There was a suggestion of mailing the butterflies south to warm weather. I have looked into how to safely ship them and looking for the farthest south I could get for them. Would you be interested in receiving 5 butterflies to release and help on their journey?

Cyndi Lehan

Are you kidding? I'm all over that! I wrote her back immediately. I was totally on board to try and help save five little Monarchs. Every one of them counts these days, as far as I’m concerned, nearly decimated as they were. Of course I was interested!

Excerpt from letter received later that day:
This is so exciting! I have the butterflies here at home. I can ship them overnight Tuesday morning. I have to put them to sleep for a night in the refrigerator. Then I will pack them in a box with an ice pack to keep the box cool. They will be in individual Ziploc baggies. When you receive them they need to warm up and then they are ready to fly off.

At right: Mrs. Lehan's daughter documents the big day! Mom is going in to ship the Monarchs.

We have one butterfly that was born with a little hind wing. We call him Nemo. We did a wing transplant (which was very exciting) but Nemo may be too stressed out to fully make it. Who knows. If he has a chance maybe he'll be our miracle story.

We have tags with our email address on them to attach to the butterflies. A local butterfly farm made them for us. We'll try it and see what happens.

I can't wait to tell the children about our exciting connection.


A wing transplant? Really? That can be done? WOW! I’ll have to ask Mrs. Lehan if she has photos of that!

And I could have butterfly tags made? Hm, intriguing. It would be fun to send a few locally caught Monarchs into Mexico with my name and email address on their wings! I'd love to have a Tag Recovery Certificate or two on my wall! Until Mrs. Lehan mentioned tagging, I’d never really thought about what happens to a tagged butterfly. I know Why Butterflies Are Tagged, I just never thought it through to the point where a tagged butterfly is recovered and how that process worked. How cool.

Excerpt from email received on 10-19-09:
Well I just put the butterflies to sleep. :) They slowed down, folded their wings perfect and are sleeping. Sad news - Nemo passed.

At left: Proof they came from New York!

He just could not get full function with his new wing. So there will be four healthy butterflies coming.

The class is so excited I found someone close to Mexico to help our butterflies. I read your email to them and explained about roosting and where you are. It was great, we looked at a map and the children were really engaged. They can't wait to hear more. Your blog is beautiful! Your pictures are gorgeous! We are so lucky to have met such a Monarch lover. They’re 3rd graders and are just tickled pink with the excitement of shipping them. Anything you could do to correspond with the class will be greatly appreciated. You’re very nice to do this for us. I'm glad I met you!

I am real big on teaching children to respect all living things. Learning and appreciating their needs and habitat let us all live together.

I'm starting to realize how much I'm teaching these children to look in nature. Today a young lady brought me a grasshopper from home and said she found him yesterday and he's missing a leg. Could I fix him? was her question. Priceless!

My daughter and I are excited to head for the post office tomorrow. We're going to school late.


Noooooo, not Nemo, nooo! Why?! Why?! Why?! Ah, well, perhaps Feynman was right. Nature cannot be fooled. Not easily, at any rate. Sniff.

How cool is it that a teachers aide works so hard to keep her kids connected to nature and how wonderful is it that the kids respond and are so excited by nature? Cyndi Lehan should get a Steve Irwin award, if there is such a thing. There should be, you know.

Being late for work to mail someone four butterflies is exactly the kind of thing I’d do. I feel lucky to have e-met Mrs. Lehan and her class and to be able to have participated in this. It was really exciting and a lot of fun, although a little stressful when it came to worrying about the Monarchs making it!

I think maybe I need to get Mrs. Lehan to explain roosting to me. My Fall Migration Reports at were moved to Fall Roost Reports and I still don’t understand exactly why. Since the Monarchs just pass through here (we generally see them for three to five days), I figured I was watching the migration. But maybe because I’m so close to Mexico they call it roosting? Or maybe it’s because the Monarchs were hanging out a bit (and actually roosting in the process?) versus flying non-stop through the area that what we witness here is considered a roost and not (precisely) the migration?

I’ve never seen “the river.” I’d love to see that. I should try and make that happen next year, but I’m guessing "the river" (This Article describes the river of a Monarch Migration nicely!) shifts from year to year. How to find it?! Yup, I really need to invest in the imaginary, used but loaded and well maintained, Land Rover I’ve been dreaming about all these years so I can chase down rivers of butterflies!

Excerpt from email received on10-20-09:
They are shipped! The post office said it's not certain they will arrive tomorrow afternoon but definitely by Thursday morning. With the flights they can't promise overnight. I'll check tracking tomorrow evening.

I hope the ice packs were enough to keep them comfortably numb.

Take care and I'll hear from you soon!


Monarch Status as of 10-21-09:
No butterflies had yet arrived. Dang! Surely they couldn’t survive traveling via USPS for so long! I have to give her props on the Pink Floyd song reference. Imagine working that into an email about Monarch Migration and the US Postal Service!

Monarch Status as of 10-22-09:
I checked the mail late in the morning and the Monarchs had arrived!!!! Poor Mrs. Lehan had spent $31.35 to mail me four Monarch butterflies when neither one of us even knew if they’d make it! If she isn’t a nature lover, I don’t know who is. And I was beside myself, were they still alive in there? I’d already run my errands before checking the mail so that if they had arrived, I could race right out to Pinto Farm and release them on the creek where I’d photographed Monarchs just a few days before. The box was pretty banged up, oh despair! And no wonder, it had gone through DFW airport, yikes!

Mrs. Lehan had clearly written “Living Butterflies” on the top of the box which was pre-marked “Handle with Care” but I guess with so many packages to deliver all over the place, it’s hard to treat just one box gently. Especially with so many boxes marked, “Handle with Care.” But how many parcels are marked, “Living Butterflies?” Ah, well.

At the farm the wind was really gusting, it was sunny but cool. I thanked my lucky stars that these Monarchs had arrived this day instead of the day before, the day before had been wet and muggy. Not a good day for the release of Monarchs who’d been traveling the way these had.

I found a spot near the creek sheltered from the wind but in full sun and got to work. And since I’m primarily writing this for the benefit of Mrs. Lehan’s Monarch herders up there at Schuylerville Central, yes, all grown-up Texas ladies carry pocket knives wherever they go. It's because we are always needing to open stuff, cut stuff, remove stuff, scrape stuff, or poke stuff and we get tired of asking whatever cowboy happens to be standing nearby if we can use his because Texas men are always whipping their pocket knives out to cut up their chicken fried steaks in local restaurants and I’m sorry but cream gravy just makes a pocket knife cruddy. See, I keep mine, clean, sharp, shiny (okay, maybe it has a little lint on it), and in my pocket in case I get any New York butterflies delivered and need a knife to open the box. Which I did.

I opened the box and first found a letter from Mrs. Lehan, but stuffed it in my pocket for the time being. This was no time for reading! I was really worried about those butterflies and wanted to get them out of those bags! I know we’re only talking about four bugs here, but you have no idea how excited I was to be a part of this class project!

The topmost butterfly, one of the two (out of the four) that were tagged if I'm not mistaken, was kicking like mad. The others were as limp and still as dirty dishrags. Oh dear. I opened the first bag, struggling to get the butterfly out without hurting it, and was delighted that not only was it still alive but it was still disoriented enough not to fly off. One simply cannot take her time photographing an individual, fully alert Monarch, a fully alert Monarch has too much to do to pose for a photographer. But these butterflies were tired. #1 crawled out of the bag onto my finger and then I nudged it onto a tree branch where it could soak up some rays. I looked down and the rest of the butterflies were starting to kick too. Relief! I’d set the box in the sun hoping a little warmth would revive them. But they were kicking so much I was worried about getting to them before they could hurt themselves so I moved them back in the shade. The temperature difference between sun and shade that morning was remarkable, so it wasn’t for nothing that I was paying attention to how they were reacting.

The next butterfly (the one pictured immediately above) crawled onto my finger too, but when I got up to put her on the branch with the other one, she took off into the pecan trees and I didn’t see her again. She was VERY ready to be free and seemed to know exactly where she was going. Not even the gusting wind slowed her down. In fact, I didn't even get to see her long enough to see for sure if she was a she!

The third butterfly (above photo, bottom butterfly) reacted very much like the first one and was docile enough to rest on the branch with the first one for me.

But the fourth one (see the three above photos) had a different reaction than the rest. It was still too weak for flying, but it didn’t want anything to do with me either. Like most Monarchs I try to photograph, it wanted to be as far from me as possible. But it could hardly fly! I didn’t press it, I kept my distance and took lots of close-ups of the ones on the branch (who were delightfully taking their time to warm up and wake up) and photos of the skittish one from several feet away. Every time I tried to approach him, he’d flit up and away and a few feet, just a few. He was just too tired for any serious flight. I finally went for a little walk hoping to find something halfway interesting to photograph for this blog entry to go with the Monarchs and to give the oh so tired and well traveled but very skittish Monarch a rest from my camera lens.

I saw quite a bit worth of photographing while I walked, actually but wasn’t quick enough on the draw to catch most of it. A white tail deer running across the road; a turtle dropping from the bank into the creek; a duck taking off from the bank; Snouts and Sulphers everywhere but so blasted by the wind they could hardly land; and a few other beasties and bugs.

While walked I saw a few other varieties of butterflies like the ones above and below. But it was only the ones clinging to the dirt that I could photograph. It was really too windy for them to land on anything else but the ground where I was walking.

I wasn't fast enough (go figure) to catch the turtle dropping into the creek and I nearly wasn't fast enough to catch these two bass (above). You can see below that I was way too slow to catch anything but this duck waving goodbye to me with his tail feathers.

Fortunately the picnic area on Pinto Farm doesn't move much so I was able to take a photo of it as seen from near the creek. If I'd turned sharply to my left here and taken a photo, you'd see the other side of the bushes from where I had just released the Monarchs.

When I made my round-about way back to the butterflies on the branch I found #4 resting on a stick which was laying on the ground nearby. Miraculously, he allowed himself to be lifted up by the stick and kindly joined #1 and #3 on the branch where I could photograph all three together! Yea!!!! Yes, it’s the little things in life. Three Express Mailed Monarchs on a stick can make a girl pretty happy. Hey, we’re talking nearly $24 worth of Monarchs here that I was photographing. In bug terms, that’s like getting to photograph, well, something really really nice, pretty expensive, and rather rare. Okay?!

Seeing the sunlight through their wings gives me a real feeling for what it must be like for a butterfly to warm itself in the sun. I've noticed that if I go out too early in the mornings when I try to photograph Monarchs, they aren't usually very active. Not unless it's been warm through the night. They're just sitting very still in the sunlight with their wings open to soak up as much warmth as possible. Unfortunately this doesn't make them easier to photograph as they tend to roost on higher parts of the trees and brush that I can't see for their morning warm-up.

Above and below: Just a couple of long shots so you can see the environment where I released the butterflies. If you look carefully at the photo below, you can see the creek through the brush.

Immediately above: #4 got skittish again and fluttered off to another tree, at least I got him posed with the other two for a little while!

I’ll be boxing up a care package for Mrs. Lehan and her Schuylerville Central Monarch Herders very soon. It’s tricky thinking what to send them. But I have a few ideas. It might take me just a little while but I’ll get it together.

So, you Monarch herders in Schuylerville, thank you for letting me be a part of your Monarch project. I’m honored! It was a lot of fun getting Monarchs from yourville to myville and I hope we keep in touch! I applaud you all for doing your part to increase the Monarch population. You kids are making a difference!

Below is a photo entirely unrelated to Monarchs. I shot it as I was leaving the farm the day I released the Schuylerville Monarchs. This was one of the brush piles that had been set on fire. We have no way to dispose of brush except to burn it and we can't burn brush just any old time we feel like it. We have to make sure there is no burn ban, then we have to call the local sheriff's department and inform them that we're burning brush so that when people start calling in to report seeing smoke and flames from the highway, the sheriff's department knows whether or not it's serious or if it's just our brush piles burning. We can only burn when the conditions are just right. Fortunately, it had rained the day before and there was enough moisture content in the air and in the plants on the ground that we could safely burn our brush piles without fear of setting the entire property on fire.

You can see some of our natural raised cattle in the other pasture enjoying what happens when we get enough rain, GREEN GRASS! For cattle, good rain means a good salad bar.


Jean Levert Hood said...

beyond awesome Genie!!!

Anonymous said...

I'll say beyond awesome too! Priceless!
I enjoy reading it very much!

Evie said...

What an experience!! I did that one year. I ordered some caterpillars from a kit we had at school. We got to see the caterpillars turn to cocoons, then into butterflies. It was a wonderful experience. We had like 3 butterflies that survived and were released at school. The Pre-Kinder class was very excited to see them fly off.

Anonymous said...

Can't say it any better than Jean did, Genie. Beyond Awesome. And your New Hampshire born dad loves the Northeast connection you have with this class and the butterflies. Great blog that I think this teacher and her students will appreciate also. Your dad has a tear in his eye.

Genie said...

Thanks y'all. I'm thrilled Cyndi found me, this was a fun project.

Yvette, I should do that next year. We know OUR butterflies will make it to Mexico, don't we? What an awesome school project.

Shucks, Dad, thanks!

Kathryn Grace said...

Marvelous story. Absolutely marvelous. I bet all your images and text are on a storyboard in that classroom. How lucky those kids!

Genie said...

Thanks Kathryn! Yes, Mrs. Lehan said the school has smart boards and that they had my blog opened up on one. I'm just trying to imagine seeing my blog, my photos!, on one of those big huge smart boards!!!!!! Kind of humbling, really.

FishHawk said...

"Photographer In Training" has been included in this weeks A Sunday Drive. I hope this helps to attract even more new visitors here.

P.S.: From the incredible pics, it looks like you have graduated with honors from your training period. However, I have always considered your shots to be great from the very beginning.

Michelle said...

wow.... Amazing photos!

How have you been? Last year was crazy and I haven't been near most of my blog friends in months and months.

Love and VERY belated happy new year to you!