Friday, September 9, 2016

A Swarm Is Coming

Editor's note: This column was originally published in the Piedmont Post in January 2016.

By C.J. Hirschfield

Many times this fall and winter, I’d ask little kids walking around Fairyland if they wanted to see something really special. The answer was always yes, and their parents humored me. I directed their attention to a number of nondescript plants, and told them to try to find a caterpillar. Which they did.  Their eyes lit up, and their toddler selves were engaged and interested. (It helped that that the creatures are bright yellow.)

I told them that Fairyland had planted special plants to attract monarch butterflies. In fact, we are now a certified monarch way station; our dream is to create a winter nesting place for thousands of monarch butterflies.

And it now appears that our dream may become a reality.

I’ve written before about Oakland’s Pollinator Posse, which was started by Oakland Parks Supervisor  Tora Rocha. Members include elementary school teachers, the Insect Museum of California, students at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, local citizen scientists, and Children’s Fairyland. To protect monarchs from their many predators, members gather caterpillars, and volunteers take them home in mesh cages, feed them milkweed for a few weeks until they go into chrysalis, and then wait patiently for the exciting moment when the butterflies emerge.

Posse members were surprised and high-fiving when Tora made the following announcement on the group’s Facebook page on Nov. 10: “It is working! Thank you Posse for all the fostering you have done in Oakland. Here is a video of the Dawn Redwood tree at the Gardens at Lake Merritt!”

The “it” that’s working is the Posse’s effort to get the monarch butterflies to overwinter in Lakeside Park, in the heart of downtown Oakland, and right across the street from Fairyland. Tora had shot a video of a small but beautiful swarm of monarchs huddling together in the tree.

The monarchs prefer areas that are adjacent to seawater, which provides the warm environment they need. (Think of well-known monarch sites like coastal Pacific Grove and the San Leandro Golf Course, which is located next to a lagoon.) Oakland’s Measure DD upgrades have dramatically improved the flow and water quality of the lake and the estuary . One result has been an increase in the numbers of winter migrating birds. Monarch butterflies may be another species to benefit.

Since 1997, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has conducted annual monarch counts in California around Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. Biologists, land managers and citizen scientists visit overwintering sites to monitor the butterflies’ patterns and overall health. This year, more than 85 volunteers surveyed over 130 sites. A complete analysis of the 2015 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count will be available in late January.

Although monarch populations are still far below historic numbers, early data from the 2015 count suggests a small increase in butterfly numbers in some parts of the range. One factor was two sites that made the list for the very first time: Berkeley’s Aquatic Park and ... Lake Merritt! Preliminary data shows San Leandro with a monarch count of 12,864. Aquatic Park’s count is 1,325. Oakland’s numbers are still being tallied.

“Our” monarchs first chose a Dawn Redwood – south facing and protected by other nearby redwoods – for their winter home. We were worried, because the tree is deciduous and would soon lose the leaves that serve as shelter. Sure enough, this just happened, and the monarchs appear to have moved to another redwood whose leaves won’t drop.

“It’s supercool,” is how Fairyland horticulturalist Jackie Salas puts it. She is our point person on the Posse, and her goal is for us to be the best steward possible for the local monarch population. That means ensuring that the scores of attractant native milkweed plants we plant and propagate are clean, organic and free of parasites.

This season we “harvested” about 250 caterpillars and worked with first- and fifth-graders at St. Paul’s Episcopal School, across the street from Fairyland, to sort milkweed seeds and to raise and release the monarchs. Next year, Jackie and the school faculty would like this service learning project to include a rooftop butterfly garden on Grand Ave., built by the students themselves.

Maybe someday Lakeside Park will be a regular stopping point for tens of thousands of butterflies, and a destination for nature lovers wanting to learn more about the magic of the monarch. Meanwhile, if you’d like to get involved, find the Pollinator Posse on Facebook and learn more about what we do. And go to Oaklandish to buy a cool Pollinator Posse T-shirt. A portion of the proceeds supports the cause.

-- C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children's Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation of the nation's first storybook theme park. 

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