This page contains feature articles from our Summer, 1998, semi-annual newsletter, which was mailed in December. You may receive future, full-color issues of the newsletter by becoming a member.
- Monarch Miracle in Mexico
- Spring Results and More Publicity for the Greater Prairie-Chicken Project
- 1998 Bald Eagle Nesting Season
- First 1998 Breeding Bird Atlas Project Field Trip a Success
- The Bald Eagle; A Personal Perspective
- Traveling Long and Far to Get theWord Out: 1998 Scientific Meetings and Presentations
Monarch Miracle in Mexico
by Carol McGraw
You might wonder why grown, responsible, busy people would go to a small village in Mexico hundreds of miles from the beach to observe butterflies. As one observer commented, "probably not crazy, just a little eccentric."But we had a trip of a lifetime on this, the first of many planned excursions by the Sutton Avian Research Center staff, board members and friends.
It was an adventure even at the start. Most of the participants arose around 4:00 A.M. to catch flights which would enable them to convene at the Mexico City airport in time on Friday, January 16. The 19 participants included: Scott Thompson, Grant Gerondale, myself and my husband Joe McGraw of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Carolyn Stewart, Sharon Hart, Dr. Steve Sherrod, his wife Linda, and their two children, Alison and Scott, made up the Bartlesville contingent. Bill and Chris Hart live in Sand Springs, Oklahoma, and Lola and Carrie Runyan dwell in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Both of the coasts were well represented too. Dr. Vesna Mihailovic resides in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Harold and Sandy Price, along with Teddie and Elizabeth Ray were our Californian connection. Last but certainly not least, Warren Harden, our guide and leader, came to us via Norman, Oklahoma. With no clear idea of exactly where we were going or what was ahead of us, we were all excited to be leaving the gloom of winter in expectation of sunshine, butterflies and fun. We were rewarded with these and much more.
We were met at the airport by our Mexican tour guide, Joaquin Torres, who along with Warren Harden provided extensive information on the geography, history, flora and fauna of the area we were visiting, its relationship to the planet, and especially on all that is known of the monarch butterfly.
Our sleep deprived but excited group of adults, teenagers and kids filed onto our shiny bus, and off we went to our first stop—McDonald's. Not exactly the kind of food we were expecting in Mexico, but it was fast and safe we figured.
We quickly left Mexico City behind and soon entered the state of Mexico. Warren and Joaquin took turns on the mike describing the geological unrest of the area, the history of the region, NAFTA and its impact on Mexico, the makeup of the soil and what could be expected to grow there, what the people did with what they grew (mostly corn), when it does and doesn’t rain in Mexico etc. We were glued to the windows and fascinated to see how incredibly resourceful the people were in the poor villages we passed.
The trip to our home for two nights, Rancho San Cayetano in the tiny village of La Gartia near the larger village of Zita Cuaro in the state of Michoacan, took about three hours. After our long flights and bus ride we were glad to arrive at our very attractive hacienda style hotel with beautiful grounds studded with a diversity of trees and flowers, a swimming pool in the shape of a fish, and our congenial hosts, Pablo and Lisette Span.
We settled into our simple but comfortable accommodations and then convened on the terrace and the dining room. We were delighted with the charm of the place and well satisfied with the cuisine and its presentation. The cozy fire in the dining room felt good as the evening air was chilly at this altitude of 8,000 ft. The kids had fun smashing macademia nuts with logs and throwing the shells in the fire.
After an 8:00 A.M. breakfast and about an hour’s drive through the beautiful state of Michoacan, we disembarked from our bus and loaded into a truck much like those in which migrant workers might be transported. We were in high spirits for by now the sun had come out. To experience the butterflies in flight during their over-wintering period, it was necessary for the sun to warm their wings, encouraging them to leave their clusters to seek water.
The truck ride too was an adventure. We closed our eyes as we went around sharp curves and up and down steep hills with clouds of dust billowing all about almost obscuring the people and burros we passed along the road and the children who begged to hitch a ride, some successfully.
When we arrived at our destination, the tiny Indian settlement of La Rosita, we set out on foot up the "mountain" toward the 11,000 foot mark and to the mystical place of the butterflies. We made frequent stops, during this 1000 ft. climb, sharing benches and rocks with Mexicans of all sorts, old, young, babies, some Europeans and a few Americans.
At first we saw no sign of butterflies; then we began to see only butterfly wings. Next were clusters of dead butterflies and finally a few live butterflies sitting among the trees overhead. Our KOTV cameraman, Grant Gernondale, recalled after dinner how special it was for him to have seen a glimpse of what lay ahead then turn and catch Linda Sherrod’s expression as she came up over the hill and saw a "blizzard" of butterflies soaring overhead.
Her expression of wonder and amazement surely will perfectly express what we all felt when we suddenly reached that magical place where millions of monarchs soared and dipped, some landing on our clothing, some on our hair, some even on our faces! One classic photo taken by several of our group was of an Indian woman nursing her baby who had three butterflies perched on its little pink hat.
Steve Sherrod had offered warnings regarding the effects of logging on the monarchs' winter habitat. Just as milkweed was essential for their food and egg laying so were the ancient fir trees necessary for their winter roosts. These were in jeopardy due to the Mexicans' need to cut the wood for fuel and for income. Preservation of their roosting habitat was essential. Slowly the Mexican government was realizing the importance of this natural phenomenon as well as the income potential from tourist dollars!
We were sad to see that some butterflies were sluggish or vibrating on the ground in death spasms. The life span of a monarch is under a year. They seldom if ever make the round trip from Mexico to Canada and back. Once a male mates with a female his job is finished. The female's job is also complete after she lays her eggs, each no larger than the head of a pin, on the underside of a milkweed leaf, one per plant.
The egg grows into a caterpillar usually in 3-12 days. The caterpillar immediately starts feeding on the milkweed plants which makes the insect poisonous to its predators. Within two weeks this larva multiplies its weight 2700 times. It sheds its skin five times as it grows. Finally it stops eating, locates a sheltered perch and weaves a dense mat of silk. It grips a fiber while violently dislodging its last larval skin to reveal the pupa.
This fragile blue green pouch turns transparent in about two weeks exposing the features of a full grown butterfly. Cracks spread across the dry sac’s wall, and the adult gingerly appears, pumping body fluid into limp wings which expand, and it flies off to begin the cycle again. This process takes about five weeks.
We were not witness to this magic of metamorphosis. We were thrilled, however, by the mystery of the butterflies returning to their clusters (globs we called them) in the dark, almost primordial woods as the sun disappeared behind the trees and a chill filled the air. Silently the butterflies merged back into their clusters. Those fortunate enough to get close could hear the gentle rustle of vibrating, delicate wings, like the sound of paper rustling. Here and there a butterfly would fall to the ground, having completed its mission.
Reluctantly we descended the mountain, leaving the butterflies to their quiet. A hush had fallen over our group. We had witnessed a true miracle. The ride back to our bus in a substitute truck, which horrified Warren who expected things to go a little smoother for his group, was funny if you kept a positive perspective.
All anyone could think about was the amazing experience we had just shared. Our ride back to the hotel was quiet, not much time to clean up for dinner and then pack for an early morning departure. After dinner we took a few minutes to share our impressions. Words like mystical, awesome, beautiful, harmony, continuity formed on our lips; we knew in our hearts we could never fully convey the miracle shared in our butterfly adventure.
NOTE: The trip participants are happy to report that this experience was funded entirely by them.
Spring Results and More Publicity for the Greater Prairie-Chicken Project
by Don Wolfe
Spring trapping of Greater Prairie-Chickens began in early February, and peaked around the first two weeks of April. The 72 birds captured and radioed this spring bring the total fitted with transmitters to 131 (33 birds captured last spring and 26 birds captured in the fall). We are currently tracking 71 birds. Of the other 60, 35 have been killed, four have lost radios, and 21 are missing. We assume that many of the missing birds have been killed, but continue our search efforts for them.
At the time of writing, we have found and monitored 25 nests. A few hens have yet to be found on nests, and we are also expecting some second nesting attempts soon, so we should have around 40 nests this year. Keeping track of this many individual birds and looking for missing birds over a 600+ square mile area keeps our four-person field crew and myself hopping! We are optimistic that with this spring’s trapping success, we will come a big step closer to determining what factors may be contributing to the decline on this species in Oklahoma.
In addition to having a productive spring in terms of birds captured and currently being tracked, we were pleased to have more publicity directed toward our efforts and toward Greater Prairie-Chickens. Joel Sartore, the National Geographic photographer who took such fabulous photos for the November 1992 National Geographic feature article on our Bald Eagle Project, spent three days photographing booming prairie-chickens and our trapping efforts this spring. We are eager to see some more of his excellent work in the press.
Also, Sandra Dickey, a reporter from The Ponca City News spent a day with us in early April, photographing prairie-chickens and interviewing our staff. The results of her work were a full-page article (with six, color photographs) in the April 29, 1998 edition of The Ponca City News. She also put a terrific web page together with even more photos. That web page can be accessed by typing in www.poncacitynews.com on the internet.
As we progress into the hot summer months, we will continue to track birds from sun-up to sun-down every day, and hope to be able to attach transmitters to at least some of the chicks reared this summer. All of this would not be possible without the generous support of many individuals concerned with declining prairie-chicken numbers, cooperation from dozens of landowners, and the seemingly tireless efforts of our dedicated crew. We also want to say a goodbye to one of our prairie-chicken trackers, Mark Wolf, who labored for nearly a year on the project, but had to leave us for family reasons. Mark, we thank you and we miss you!
1998 Bald Eagle Nesting Season
by M. Alan Jenkins
The population of nesting Bald Eagles in Oklahoma continues to increase, as it has since 1991, but the numbers appear to be leveling off. This makes us think that perhaps the Oklahoma population might top out at around 30 pairs of eagles. Often new populations of birds or populations that are recovering from a temporary setback will overshoot their highest population level and then fall back to slightly lower levels after reaching a peak.
This year surveys of Bald Eagle nests during the egg-laying and incubation phase found 26 pairs of eagles with eggs at nests, which we term as "active nests." Of those 26 active pairs, 11 failed to produce any young, 4 pairs produced 2 young each, and 11 pairs produced 1 young each for a total of 19 young produced by 15 pairs this year.
These Bald Eagle nesting results can be put in perspective by considering the data in the table showing the results of the last 7 years.
First 1998 Breeding Bird Atlas Project Field Trip a Success
by Jeanette Bider and Dan Reinking
Our first "blockbusting" weekend was an exciting success thanks to our participants! Blockbusting is a term used to describe an intensive surveying effort by a group of atlas project volunteers. They examine randomly selected, 10 sq. mile, atlas land blocks over a short period of time. Such trips are usually conducted during a weekend in a part of the state that has received little atlasing attention from volunteers.
Two blocks were recently surveyed during field trips for the joint meeting of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society and Arkansas Audubon Society in Mena, AR. Both blocks were located in the Ouachita National Forest in Leflore County. On Saturday April 25th, seven atlasers surveyed the block in Winding Stair Wildlife Management Area.
Starting along Talimena Drive, we were nearly blown off of the mountain in the strong winds. During seven hours of atlasing and despite the difficult birding conditions, we recorded 42 species, nine of which were confirmed as nesters. The confirmed species include Ovenbird carrying food, Pine Warbler nest building, European Starling attending young, Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Wren, Eastern Phoebe and Carolina Chickadee feeding young, Pileated Woodpecker in a nest cavity, and Rock Dove flushed off of a nest with eggs.
Field conditions improved on Sunday April 26th. The weather was cool with little wind and an occasional light shower in the morning. During four party hours spent on the second block, ten atlasers recorded 53 species, eight of which were confirmed as nesters in the block.
The confirmed species included Eastern Phoebe, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Prothonotary Warbler and Purple Martin on nests, Blue Jay, European Starling and Eastern Meadowlark building nests, and House Sparrow attending young. The highlight of the morning was the sighting of a Swallow-tailed Kite as it flew over the creek we were surveying. You never know what you might find atlasing!
More blockbusting trips are planned including visits to the Black Mesa area of Cimarron County later this season and one or two trips to different locations in each of the next three summers. These trips provide an opportunity to go birding in unique parts of Oklahoma with a small group of knowledgeable people while contributing to the important goal of completing Oklahoma’s first Breeding Bird Atlas Project. More information on this project is available by contacting the Sutton Center. Give us a call if you would like to participate.
The Bald Eagle; A Personal Perspective
by Betsy Stewart and Judy Lorg
We are bird enthusiasts with a thirst for knowledge of Bald Eagles and are currently monitoring several Bald Eagle nests. Our interest began fifteen years ago, when we were first getting acquainted. We discovered that the wintering Bald Eagles on Kaw Lake were of special interest to both of us. On very cold and sunny mornings, we would get our children off to school and then comb the lake area and along the Arkansas river below the dam, in search of any Bald Eagle activity.
During this time Betsy had developed a Bald Eagle awareness program for her local Camp Fire organization. In search of information about the release program in which the Sutton Avian Research Center was involved, we went to Bartlesville. During the tour, we met Gwyn McKee and Sheryl Tatom, the propagation and re-introduction specialists.
They were interested in our enthusiasm for the release of that year’s birds, and we were invited to come to the hacking tower to participate during the weeks of release. In May of ’88, we went to Vian for an exciting weekend. Monitoring the bird’s activities and helping gather fish in a drained pond were just some of the ways we were able to help.
Later that winter, we observed an immature eagle at Kaw Lake we identified as #49, one of the birds we had "helped release." A report was then sent to Alan Jenkins, and communication with Alan on Bald Eagle progress has continued to this day.
The first tour was extremely informative, and the staff was eager to answer the million questions we asked. In the first room there was a three day old eaglet, later identified as Sequoyah, which became the resident educational bird for the center. Sequoyah made one of his first appearances in Ponca City at the Camp Fire program given that next fall. During the following years, we have been given the opportunity to watch (and photograph) his progress starting at age three days old to his current age, ten!
The Sutton Avian Research Center has given us an opportunity of a lifetime.
Traveling Long and Far to Get theWord Out: 1998 Scientific Meetings and Presentations
by David A. Wiedenfeld
Perhaps the most important part of what we do is to let others know the results of our work. To let other scientists and conservationists know about our results sometimes requires that we travel to the ends of the earth (nearly). Don Wolfe and I traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico—ok, that’s a nice place and still quite a long way to the ends of the earth—in early February to give presentations at the Society of Range Management Annual Meeting. Don gave a talk on vegetation management for tallgrass prairie birds, and I gave a talk on the effects of different livestock grazing regimes on the nesting ecology of birds in shortgrass prairie.
In early February at the Prairie Grouse Technical Council meeting in College Station, Texas, Don gave a presentation on the Greater Prairie-Chicken research project we're currently carrying out. Steve Sherrod and I also attended that meeting. The Technical Council only meets every two years, so it was very opportune that we could make a presentation there. It is also very useful for us to meet with our colleagues who are engaged in research on the same types of problems and birds as we are; there can be a lot of cross-fertilization of ideas when scientists and conservationists get together.
Every four years the ornithological societies in the U.S. and Canada get together for the North American Ornithological Conference, which was held this year in April in St. Louis, Missouri. We met by the Gateway Arch. That hardly qualifies as traveling to the end of the earth—St. Louis is closer to the Center than a lot of places in Oklahoma. Dan Reinking and I both presented papers at the conference.
Dan’s was on the large population of Henslow’s Sparrows (a species of special concern) documented by Sutton Avian Research Center staff in northeastern Oklahoma a few years ago. My talk focused on Grasshopper Sparrow nest site habitat.
We’ll continue to get the word out about the great work being done at the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center. Sometimes that means going to the ends of the earth—almost.