Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Weather, winds delaying monarch migration

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Q: Isn't it kind of late to be seeing a monarch butterfly on Oct. 27? I saw one in my yard in Adams on that date.

— Laura, Adams

A: I saw one in our backyard that faces the golf course on Crane Avenue that same day in Pittsfield. The warm weather and winds out of the south are, no doubt, keeping them in the north. While powerful flyers for a butterfly, they cannot fly into a strong headwind — and the torrential rains the following day may well have killed them.

The Associated Press posted on Oct. 27 an update on this autumn's migration of the monarch butterfly and it is downright disturbing. They should be in Texas by the end of October, even arriving in Mexico by that date.

"Monarchs typically arrive in Mexico around Nov. 1. This many stragglers in Ontario and elsewhere is definitely new territory for us," said University of Kansas biology professor Chip Taylor, director of Monarch Watch.

"Monarch butterflies, those delicate symbols of spring and summer, should mostly be in Texas by now, winging their way to Mexico for the winter. Nonetheless, Darlene Burgess keeps seeing colorful clusters of them — and she lives in Canada."

"Monarchs stuck up north are one of many signs of climate change toying with the natural world's timing, such as delaying first fall freezes and bringing spring earlier," said Jake Weltzin, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist, who heads a national network that studies when plants and animals bloom, change colors, migrate and hibernate.

"Scientists say tens of thousands of the butterflies are likely to be stranded far north of where they'd normally be this time of year because of the unusually warm weather and strong winds that have kept them from migrating south," said biologist Elizabeth Howard, director of the monarch tracking non-profit Journey North.

If you care to follow the monarch migration south this fall, and north next spring, go to the website I follow: learner.org/jnorth/maps/monarch_peak_fall2017.html

Identifying caterpillars

A variety of caterpillars have been seen this fall by Naturewatch readers in both The Berkshires and The Shires of Vermont. Here are three of the most common caterpillars reported: Besides the black-and-brown wooly bear (larvae of the Isabella tiger moth), and the smaller all-white, also hairy, caterpillar with black markings the length of its back called the hickory tussock moth caterpillar, there has been a black caterpillar.

Raising identification questions recently, this caterpillar resembles a woolly bear, but lacks the orange-brown band between the black front and rear. It is the giant leopard moth caterpillar and, like the woolly bear, overwinters buried among fallen leaves. Also, like the aforementioned caterpillar, when frightened, it curls up, head to tail. In this position, red rings between segments are conspicuous. Another common name for this up-to-3-inch caterpillar is giant woolly bear, and next spring it will emerge as an attractive large white moth with black roundish-square markings. It feeds on a variety of low-growing shrubs and other plants like dandelion, sunflower, plantain and violet among others. It also feeds on the leaves of cherry, locust and willow, which I believe the one I found this past October was dining upon. I know of no problems it causes.

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