Monarchs in a royal battle for survival

Monarch caterpillars enjoy a meal on common milkweed plants in a ditch in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Todd Burras

ELY, MINN. – If monarch butterflies across the continent are on the brink of a population collapse of no return, then in our little corner of the universe the caterpillars that turn into the iconic black and orange jewels are also living precariously close to the edge.

Literally and figuratively.

It’s been a good year for milkweed production on the little patch of road near our cabin that has come to personally symbolize a tiny island of hope for the embattled monarch butterfly. As such, it also was a seemingly productive year for monarch caterpillars.

That wasn’t the case last year when fewer plants were the host to even fewer caterpillars. One summer ago I found no caterpillars on the milkweed plants in July and don’t recall seeing any monarchs in our neighborhood the entire summer.

Conversely, last week I counted more than three dozen caterpillars on a patch of some 100 mature common milkweeds that has at least doubled its plant population from a year ago. A neighbor who keeps close track of all things related to monarchs and milkweeds agrees that it’s been a good year for the little pollinator oasis that’s located between our homes.

The next stage will be to see if the caterpillars build chrysalises/cocoons in the surrounding vegetation and survive various threats, including parasitism from tachinid flies, toxic chemicals and even physical safety from cars, trucks and service vehicles, which hug the shallow ditch as they race past, leaving a coat of dust and fuel exhaust on the plants and delicate caterpillars that grow within inches of the pathway.

If all goes well, we should notice a few monarchs floating over the ditches, across the road and into our yard as early as the end of next week. Those new butterflies will join others of their kind and make up the next generation of migrant monarchs that will fly to Mexico where they will overwinter before making a return trip to the United States next spring.

The collapse of North America’s monarch butterfly population has been well chronicled in recent years. According to butterfly conservation organizations and coalitions, such as Monarch Watch, the Xerces Society and the Monarch Joint Venture, monarch numbers in the past decade and a half have plummeted in the United States due to the lack of availability of milkweeds, which are the only host food plant for monarch caterpillars, a lack of nectar-producing plants due to the conversion of habitat to agricultural land, exposure to pesticides, climate change and illegal logging and deforestation within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve near the Michoacan-Mexico State border, northwest of Mexico City, the Eastern monarch’s historic wintering territory.

A report issued by the National Wildlife Federation earlier this year claims the overall population of monarchs in North America declined by 27 percent from last year and 90 percent in the last two decades. According to the report, the population is measured by the number of acres occupied by the monarch butterflies in their overwintering habitat in Mexico. This past winter there were an estimated 109 million monarchs occupying just 7.2 acres, down from 150 million monarchs last year covering 9.9 acres.

The annual monarch migration that at one time was one of the great spectacles of the natural world has turned into a mere shadow of its once vibrant and brilliant self.

There is some good news in this otherwise grim story, however. Because of the nearly mythical status monarchs have achieved in the collective psyche of many Americans, grass roots efforts have sprung up across the continent in response to the perilous plight of these iconic creatures. Research by small but dedicated teams of students and staff at colleges and universities across the country, including Iowa State University, has helped draw in conservation organizations and a small army of concerned citizens who are working to create a patchwork of habitat across the landscape. Their goal is to aid monarchs in their annual pilgrimage from Mexico to the United States and back to Mexico.

Whether it’s enrolling private acres in the USDA’s pollinator program (bees are a primary pollinator of milkweeds), planting milkweeds and other nectar-producing plants in your backyard garden or even scattering a few milkweed seeds in a ditch later this summer, monarchs – and butterflies, moths, bees and pollinators of all kinds – continue to need a helping hand. What can you do to help?

Todd Burras can be reached at

Slow down, back up and give turtles a little brake

A female Northern painted turtle lays eggs in a mound of sand and dirt near Fall Lake in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Stephanie Burras


ELY, MINN. — If spring is a time in the natural world for new birth, then summer is the season for those vulnerable young creatures to hurry and grow as fast as they can before migration beckons or winter arrives. If you’re a fledgling or a fawn, it’s a time to hurry.

Not so if you are a turtle.

Turtles are a bit of an anomaly in the wild kingdom. Unlike many of the bird and mammal species that live around them, turtles wait until early summer to ramp up the reproduction process. It’s this time of year that female turtles crawl out of the ooze of their wetland homes and climb to higher, drier ground in search of suitable soil conditions in which to lay their eggs.

In our corner of the world, one of those apparent prime areas for creating nests in which to deposit fragile eggs happens to be our driveway. Right where we like to park. And turn around. Turtles, it seems, are not averse to taking one’s parking spot or holding up traffic when it comes to the urgency of reproduction.

This is our fifth summer at the cabin we are happy to spend time at above a bog in the Superior National Forest. It’s also the fifth summer we’ve seen female Northern painted turtles show up in the first week of July looking for spots in the hardscrabble of the gravel driveway in which to lay their eggs.

Northern painted turtles are those gentle blackish-olive-green, red and yellow turtles the size of large pancakes that surely everyone has seen in person, if not close enough to touch then at least a lineup of them sunning themselves on a log in a pond.

In our neighborhood, painted turtles seem to be over or around nearly every hill or corner. In the past week, I’ve abruptly pulled over on a busy highway twice, hurriedly run into the center of the road and snatched up a turtle and delivered its flailing body to the other side — in the direction it was going — in order to potentially spare its life.

Others haven’t been so lucky. I’ve seen five turtle fatalities along the road in the past week. At our cabin in recent years, I’ve also observed several disturbed turtle nests — I suspect ravens and foxes — and have yet to see empirical evidence of successfully hatched offspring in the form of baby turtles.

Still, each summer, one or two female painted turtles haul their carapaces up the steep hill from the bog to our driveway to dig shallow holes in the dry and rocky soil. Perhaps intuitively, they lay lots of eggs, coming back several days in a row and digging separate nests for their future offspring. It’s a safeguard to ensure the propagation and continuation of the species.

Summer is a time for turtles. If you see one crossing the road, be sure to give it a brake — or a helping hand.


Summertime Dream: Season of the sun passes much too quickly

A doe and her two yearling twins, a male and female, pause on a granite outcropping in northeastern Minnesota. Photo by Todd Burras


ELY, MINN. – The welts, rashes, scabs and scratches on my arms and legs are a sure sign that summer has finally come in earnest to the North Woods.

It takes longer for warming temperatures to arrive here than further south, but once they do, nature seems to put the pedal to the metal and races through the spring and summer months. The farther north one travels, the shorter but more intense this special renewal time is for nature to go through its necessary reproduction rhythms.

Nothing seems more eager to embrace the heat and longer sunny days than the harassing and bloodsucking legions of mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, ticks and other biting insects. It matters not how well one covers up, incessant insects seem to find their way under, over and through any sort of natural barrier of clothing or manmade repellent intended to stop them. It sometimes seems I get as many bites while I sleep as I do when I’m outside working or recreating. Insects have an uncanny way of getting into buildings, tents, vehicles and beds.

But enough about the low point of the season at hand; it’s more fun to observe and enjoy the high points, such as berries, birds, butterflies, bees and babies – as in baby bunnies, fawns, ducklings, goslings and loonlings, among a throng of others. Predators, whether eagles, pike, wolves, martins, voles or dragonflies, are a vital component to all healthy ecosystems, and this is a time of feasting for them as prey is plentiful and easy to find. Still, I find myself quietly rooting for the little waterfowl that bob up and down on the water and the wobbly-legged moose calves and deer fawns that need to add weight, strength and stamina in this short season of plenty.

I ate my first wild strawberries earlier this week – tiny, juicy pea-sized morsels loaded with sweet flavor and pizzazz. Store-bought berries, for all their size and color, have nothing on these little gems. The same can be said of other wild fruit, as well. While strawberries are ripe or ripening, blueberries are setting fruit in some places and raspberries bushes are covered with blossoms. Bunchberries, a small, festive and common forest floor dweller here, also are blooming. Their pretty, white flowers eventually will be replaced by clusters of bright red berries.
In the trees around the cabin, Blackburnian warblers, American redstarts, common yellowthroats, black and white warblers, wood peewees, robins, grosbeaks, and hermit thrush, among others, are still singing as they defend their territories and instruct their young. The same is true on nearby streams and lakes as loons, Canada geese and numerous species of ducks do the same, hurrying their offspring along in a race to be ready by the time autumn arrives.

Along the roadsides, buttercups, wild roses, common milkweed and blue flag irises provide splashes of color to the verdant landscape, and, more importantly, pollen and nectar for pollinators. Non-native species, such as yellow and orange hawkweed, lupine, ox-eye daisies, birds-foot trefoil, add a panoply of color to the ditches and open fields everywhere.

Common Eastern, orange-belted and golden Northern bumblebees, a perhaps most underappreciated pollinator that flies under the radar of most of us, are working for all their worth, gathering pollen as they drone about in the warmth that all too soon will begin to wane.

Other pollinators, such as butterflies — tiger swallowtails, white admirals, monarchs and viceroys — and moths, lots of moths, flutter from plant to plant, sowing and harvesting as they go. There are so many different moths I’m reluctant to try to identify any of them. All I know is I’ve decided that moths are super cool, even if they do make a mess of your windshields while driving at night.

In the daytime, dragonflies can do a number on your windshields as well as the grill of your vehicle. The dragonfly hatch occurred early this year, and they seem to be everywhere that water and mosquitoes gravitate, which, this wet spring and early summer means chalk-fronted corporals and green darners are, well, everywhere.

Dragonflies are expert hunters, primarily because they’re expert fliers, in some instances reaching speeds of 60 miles per hour. Some scientists put dragonflies at the top of the list when it comes to their aeronautical skills. Most importantly, they consume mosquitoes like voraciously hungry bears consume pound after pound of ants, hazelnuts and berries this time of year.

Already the amount of daylight is lessoning, the window on the growing season while seemingly just having opened is slowly closing. Summer, like the passage of our lives, is like a delicate flower that lasts for only the briefest of moments and yet brings great joy to those who notice it. Be among those who look and see.


Some swallows think these towers are pretty swift


Most of us are familiar with bluebird and wood duck boxes, purple martin, bat and mallard hen houses, and maybe even bee condos and bee hotels.

But chimney swift towers?

That one was new to me when this past winter I read Boy Scout Sam Taylor’s Eagle Scout Service Project in the Story County Partners’ newsletter.

Taylor, a 16-year-old sophomore at Ames High School, chose to construct a chimney swift tower after being presented a list of possible projects from staff at Story County Conservation. With the help of other Scouts, adult leaders and his parents, he completed the project last fall by Dakins Lake near Zearing and recently had his Eagle Award ceremony.

While chimney swift roosting towers might be unfamiliar to some of us, prior to taking on the project Taylor didn’t even know of the existence of chimney swifts, a member of the swallow family.

“They sent me a list of projects, and I just thought this one looked interesting,” Taylor said. “So I started doing some research and got the book “Chimney Swift Towers: New Habitat for America’s Mysterious Birds,” which had the plans for the tower. I also communicated with the authors (Paul and Georgean Kyle) to get some ideas from them.”
Erica Place, outreach coordinator for Story County Conservation, said staff members are always on the lookout for new features to add to the county’s park system.

“The idea came about when we learned that a Boy Scout constructed a tower of similar design at Jester Park as his Eagle Scout Service Project in 2015,” she said. “I regularly ask our staff for Eagle Scout Project ideas, and (Natural Resource Specialist) Amy (Yoakum) suggested we add this to our list of potential projects. It wasn’t on the list long before Sam grabbed it.”

There are different designs for chimney swift towers, and Taylor settled on a three-box-affixed, 12-foot-tall tower with vinyl siding that is anchored to a concrete slab. The tower could potentially hold up to about 100 roosting and nesting birds.

“We originally thought of putting it at McFarland Park but then decided it wasn’t close enough to a town,” Taylor said. “We decided on Dakins Lake just outside of Zearing thinking the birds were more likely to come to the town and then find the tower.”

Steve Dinsmore, professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University, said chimney swift tower construction, while not new, is a growing bird conservation practice.

“This is becoming more popular as we recognize that swifts continue to decline,” he said. “I do think they are effective, but most probably only house a small number of pairs.”

Historically, chimney swifts migrated to the United States from their winter homes in Peru and spent the nesting season in the more heavily forested eastern half of the country and rarely were seen west of the Mississippi River. However, as forests were cleared, swifts began adapting their nesting and roosting habits to include chimneys and smoke stacks. As a result, their range expanded and now extends from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains, according to the Chimney Swift Conservation Association.

However, since the mid-1960s, chimney swift numbers have been in decline, primarily due to the loss of habitat in the form of large old building structures being demolished. Chimneys in newly constructed buildings are typically made from metal, which is unsuitable to swifts because it is too slippery for them to cling to as well as for their nests.

This is where a pioneering Iowa ornithologist and Taylor’s project converge.

In 1915, Althea Rosina Sherman, a writer and illustrator born in National, Iowa, hired carpenters to build a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower, from her own designs, to attract and observe nesting chimney swifts. For nearly two decades she researched swifts, but after her death the tower was moved and fell into disrepair.

In recent years, though, interest in Sherman and her research has grown and after years of planning and fundraising, the original tower was restored and placed on a preserve near Buchanan, Iowa, where it is being used to educate people on chimney swift conservation, which includes building towers, such as the one Taylor constructed.

“I haven’t been out to check it this spring,” Taylor said. “But hopefully the chimney swifts will find it and use it.”


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To learn more about Althea Rosina Sherman, visit

A swift half

Want to know more about chimney swifts and how you can help them? You can, says Steve Dinsmore, professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University.

“Many states now have formal chimney swift surveys in place, mostly at known towers and also at known roosts during fall migration,” Dinsmore said. These are citizen science projects.”

To learn more about a group that sponsors “A Swift Night Out” as part of these efforts, visit

Todd Burras can be reached at