Five Questions for Cambridge’s Monarch Nannies

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A family checks out the monarch butterflies still in their nursery boxes shortly before helping to escort them to the meadow for release on August 7.  Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Why are Monarch butterflies so special? We recently asked five questions of Martine Wong, Fresh Pond Reservation (FPR) Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator, and her Cambridge Mayor’s  Summer Youth Employment Program (MSYEP) intern, Shewit.  On August 6th and 7th, amidst some fanfare—kids and puppets—Martine, Shewit and other staff and volunteers released most of the butterflies that they had helped raise, under the auspices of the Water Department of the City of Cambridge, over the course of the summer.

1. Why is FPR raising butterflies for release?

Shewit: We raise Monarch butterflies every year to educate people about and show the life cycle of the butterflies and to teach the importance of milkweed to Cambridge residents so they might plant milkweed in their gardens. Milkweed is the only plant [Monarchs] lay their eggs on and eat when they are caterpillars. The Monarch butterfly is now in decline because of milkweed plants’ reduction by pesticides and because of using land for other purposes such as for pavement and farming.

Martine Wong, left, with volunteer Lisa and MSYEP intern Shewit, at the Monarch Release event at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.
Cambridge Water Dept. staffer Martine Wong (left) with volunteer Lisa Recolta (middle) and MSYEP intern Shewit Yitbarek (right), at the Monarch Release at Lusitania Meadow, Fresh Pond Reservation.Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

Martine: There are several reasons we’re raising Monarch butterflies for release at Fresh Pond! We hope to teach people about the connection between shrinking butterfly populations and the importance of protecting wildlife habitat. We also want to show people that there are action steps they can take to protect them—you can plant milkweed and other native pollinator-friendly plants, and help to remove invasive plants such as Black Swallow-wort. Also, they are exquisitely beautiful and a joy to behold.

2. Once you received the larvae in the mail, up until this moment of releasing the full grown butterflies, what surprised you most about them?

Shewit: They eat a lot of milkweed leaves and they grow so fast.

3. If we want to help Monarchs live in our city as a whole, what can kids (and just anyone, for that matter) do to make it a welcoming place for them?

pupating and hatching of Monarchs at Fresh Pond
Visitors to Fresh Pond Reservation this summer could view Monarchs at the Ranger Station, in various stages of their life cycle.

Shewit: To make a welcoming place for the Monarch butterfly is to plant enough milkweed plants in the garden, without pesticides. Once the butterfly lays her eggs, the caterpillar continues living upon the plant until it becomes a butterfly—there is no need to change things or worry about it. OR, If the person does not have garden they can raise them in the cage.

Martine: Monarch butterfly caterpillars exclusively eat milkweed – they truly depend on this plant for their survival. A sea of pesticide/herbicide-free milkweed plants for adults to lay eggs on and for caterpillars to eat would be a great welcome, along with planting native pollinator plants that can provide nectar for adult butterflies.

4. What did you learn from other Monarch projects in the United States?

Shewit: I learned some interesting facts, such as monarchs do not have eyelids and they can see UV lights. If the monarchs are in a cage, they need clean space and food because their waste is too much.

The adult Monarch in its new habitat at Lusitania Meadow, Cambridge
An adult Monarch butterfly raised in captivity by the Cambridge Water Department gets accustomed to its new surroundings. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

5. If we see a Monarch butterfly at Fresh Pond, will we know it’s one of the ones raised in captivity?

Martine: There’s no way of knowing if it’s one of ours! There are tagging programs for the purposes of learning more about their migration and biology. Perhaps we will try that out next year!

Monarchs are released from captivity by Cambridge's Monarch Nannies

The butterflies are released! Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Dept. Photo

More:

  • Find other resources about Monarch butterflies in general, and the Cambridge Water Department program in particular, on the Water Department’s Monarch Watch Page.
  • Read the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Cambridge Water Department Monarch Release on August 7, 2016.
  • Find out more about the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which partnered with more than 125 community organizations and city departments this year. Opportunities include many in sustainability and environmental fields, in addition to the internship offered at Fresh Pond Reservation and Alewife Reservation.

    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a few moths) were part of the festivities and parade that escorted the butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. Kim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.
    Giant puppets of monarch and other butterflies (and a moth or two) were part of the parade that escorted the Monarch butterflies to Lusitania Meadow at Fresh Pond Reservation, where they were released. The puppets were made by community members through the Cambridge Wildlife Puppetry ProjectKim Ahern/Cambridge Water Department Photo.

A Single Species: An End-of-January Investigation

There is sometimes too much, or too little, simplification that goes on when “environmental education” takes hold. Starting with a single species, as Fresh Pond Reservation staff in Cambridge, Mass., will do on January 31st with “The Secret Life of White Oaks,” can make a path for kids, families, anyone, to start small and grow curious from there.

White oaks are the ones with rounded lobes on their leaves; and oaks, in general are trees that keep their leaves well into the winter.

Information about the Secret Life of White Oaks walkabout at Fresh Pond Reservation

What’s your single favorite or familiar species—the one that drew you in to a fascination with nature more broadly, or that you still hold in your mind’s eye, or that’s a talisman in everyday life? Flora or fauna notwithstanding, a single species is a direct line from the human to the natural world.

Airport Owls, Hooting Toddlers: A Feathered Friend in Cambridge

Owls visited our fair city last weekend and kids were there in droves to see them.

Licensed wildlife rehab maven and Massachusetts resident Patricia Bade (given the punchy name “Owl Woman” by her Penobscot elders before she could say “boo”) brought her un-releasable saw-whet owl and screech owl to Maynard Ecology Center for a family program on Sunday, February 9, 2014. The venerable Friends of Fresh Pond Reservation and the Cambridge Water Department sponsored the visit. Much hootin’ (the three- to seven-year-olds) and hollerin’ (the babes in arms) resounded through the halls of the center, housed in the basement of Neville Place, an assisted living community within spitting distance of Fresh Pond.

Compared to the snowy owl, these species are diminutive. Bade spread her arms to illustrate a snowy’s wingspan—five feet. She’d gotten up close and personal to an injured snowy owl brought to her recently, though it had expired upon arriving her doorstep. “She was magnificent,” reports Bade, who examined the owl afterward.

Snowy owls such as the one Bade examined have appeared in large numbers this year in Greater Boston.

The first consideration in an upswing sightings of any predator (such as the foxes seen in residential areas of North and West Cambridge earlier in the fall) must be the status of their prey population. There are multiple factors, however,  behind the snapshot of  what’s plentiful and what’s not in a “food web” (think food chains, intersecting) at any given time.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology reported that by late November 2013,

the first wave of owls was making headlines (literally: see this article in the NYT and this article) in even the greatest metropolitan areas of the Northeast. Numerous visuals show the distribution of these movements, and one project has sought to take advantage of this unique opportunity to track the movements of these birds (check out Project SNOWStorm). It appears that a combination of factors may be responsible for this season’s invasion, but the jury is still out as to what is causing this influx. Are these movements the results of an overabundance of rodent prey items in portions of eastern Canada yielding a bumper crop of young Snowy Owls that are dispersing en masse?

Climate is also the elephant in the room.

The Cornell Lab continues,

Or is the movement we are seeing part of a much larger set of changes occurring in the Arctic related to rapidly changing climate?

via Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Brief Notes on Some Late 2013 and Early 2014 Movements.

Whether the elephant is merely in the room examining its cuticles rather than causing tremors we may not know. Science doesn’t allow for leapfrogging, but it does allow for educated guesses, labelled as such.

In her response to an adult asking why so many snowys showed up at Logan Airport this winter, Bade said the landscape there resembled their home turf—the tundra. There’s a little more to the story, however. These tundra mammal-predators, during the period December through April, apparently travel to openings in the Arctic sea-ice to feed on waterfowl, who are in turn using that type of environment because they can feed there. The 2013-2014 “irruption” of Hedwig and her crew at places like Logan, Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports may represent a signal departure from that practice, perhaps by necessity rather than by choice.

Put yourself in Hedwig’s shoes, and wonder whether, like the itinerant snowy owls, increasing numbers of humans will need to seek something that “looks like home.” Wonder whether humans will need to take refuge from our coastal cities or our failed fields of plenty. Wonder whether, in the coming decades, human migration by necessity rather than by choice, will be on the upswing. Even if that possibility seems like something you can’t swallow—dystopia doesn’t, admittedly, go down well—keep those snows in the mind’s eye. That complexity, incorporating vast flocks of many species, the worldwide bird migration patterns interdependent on food webs; the operation of those food webs in cities, towns, rural areas—whether in airport, marshland, watershed, or suburb, it behooves adults to try to grasp a piece of this puzzle, and to get our children hootin’ and hollerin’ like owls and coyotes and slithering like snakes in the meantime.

Adult Pro-Environment Behaviors Shaped by…Harvesting?

David Sobel’s piece “Look, Don’t Touch” in Orion Magazine has shaken up the small world of my little nature club and the big world of the Get Outdoors movement. I’ve just discovered Living On Earth‘s interview with Sobel, here.

If you haven’t had a chance to read the Orion essay, here’s the kernel of Sobel’s argument: “rule-bound” environmental education, in which kids are prohibited from picking, touching, messing about, disrupts the natural mechanisms that connect young children with nature for life and lead to strong environmental values in adulthood. He goes so far as to say, in the aforementioned radio interview, that berry-picking and mushrooming with parents, i.e., natural resource consumption as a focal point of nature experiences, has shown to have the most power. Much food for thought, there.

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Be Iridescent

There’s nothing better than wearing something with a little iridescence to bring out a smile on your face.

The Honk Festival’s parade will be graced by what may constitute a swarm of Wandering Gliders and Blue-Fronted Dancers, residents of our 162-acre urban habitat here in Cambridge, Mass.

If you’re a resident of the vicinity of Fresh Pond Reservation, in Cambridge, Mass. , join us in walking as Fresh Pond creatures in the October 13th Honk! Parade.

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Honk! Honk! The parade is almost here!

Honk! Honk! The parade is almost here!

Wandering Gliders (dragonflies), Blue-Fronted Dancers (damselflies), pond algae (hand puppets), two Great Blue Herons and a gaggle of other animals will muster at the 8th annual Honk! Parade from Davis Square, Somerville, to Harvard Square, Cambridge, this Sunday. Trees also play a role in our party at Honk!
Brought to you by Neighbors and Neighboring Schools of Fresh Pond Reservation.
Tune in here again for the HONK!down to Sunday’s revelries!

Happy Park[ing] Day, from a New England City

This just in.

Plankton have been sighted on Huron Avenue.

Children have been observed observing pond water through microscopes.

A new arboreal species has been discovered: the Tree of Really, Really Small, Teeny Tiny Things, whose symbolic foliage depicts the minerals, water, microarthropods, bacteria, and mycorrhizal fungi critical to good tree health.

Fragilaria algae handpuppet created at the Park of Microscopic Life, Park[ing] Day 2013, Cambridge, Mass.
Fragilaria algae handpuppet created at the Park of Microscopic Life, Park[ing] Day 2013, Cambridge, Mass.
The tree of really, really, small, teeny tiny things.
The tree of really, really, small, teeny tiny things.

Models of algae have been multiplying rapidly on the site, says Kristin L., a volunteer ranger at the corner of Huron and Chilton who preferred to remain semi-anonymous.

Paparazzi snapped photos of Fresh Pond Reservation’s ranger, Jean Rogers, transporting phytoplankton from Black’s Nook across Chilton Street well before working hours. Stay tuned for all the news from microorganism’s reporter in the city of Cambridge, Mass., yours truly.

Photo of kindergarteners and teacher looking through microscopes courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo of kindergarteners and teacher looking through microscopes courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo courtesy of D. Jamas.
Photo courtesy of D. Jamas.
fragilaria
Fragilaria (non-puppet version).
Citizens and Microscopes. An excellent match.
Citizens and Microscopes. An excellent match.

“Clean the owl …

“Clean the owl cage.”

Rockport, Massachusetts: Halibut Point State Park, where the mental owl cage gets a sprucing up.
Rockport, Massachusetts: Halibut Point State Park, where the mental owl cage gets a sprucing up.

Those who ponder the variants, whys, and wherefores of outdoor education will want to read this terrific post by Sean Musselman on what’s become a buzz phrase—”authentic learning experience.”

Meanwhile, as I write this,  I’m cleaning my own metaphorical owl cage by taking two disparate generations of family members on a coastal New England kite-flying expedition.