Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Blast From the Past: The Craziest Road Trip of All Time

This is a story that is long overdue for this blog.  It all begins back in 2009 when I begin my Master's research studying the Monarch butterfly spring migration in the Norris Lab at the University of Guelph.  There is a lot of back story that I could tell you about how Ryan Norris and I came up with the research ideas, but long story short, we wanted to see if the Monarchs returning to Ontario were coming directly from the Mexican overwintering sites or if they were the offspring of these individuals born on the Gulf Coast and further north.  To test these we planned on using a relatively new technique called stable isotope analysis which involves comparing various isotopes (chemicals) in the wing of the monarchs to that in rainwater and milkweed.  Because these elements vary predictably by latitude, we can get a rough idea of where individual monarchs are born.

I hired a good friend of mine, Mike Brunet, after doing interviews for the job and realizing that there was no way that I was going to be able to tolerate or doom some random person to spending 3 months with me in a tent travelling across what would end up being half of North America.

Mike and I left Guelph in early May of 2009 with the primary of objective of collecting (killing) as many monarchs as possible in the U.S and Ontario.  I know this may sound barbaric, but it was ironically really important information for conserving this species, and countless monarchs are killed each year by cars, pesticides each year, so a few hundred would be inconsequential...so get off my back.

Here is our general route that Mike and I traveled, still shocks me that we covered this kind of ground, I figured around 44,000km in total.  This blog gives the Cole's Notes version of what was a very long trip.

We checked a few spots in Ontario, but didn't find any Monarchs.  This wasn't surprising, given the fact that only very few arrive in Ontario in May.

Mike on the lookout at a beach near Windsor, ON
We quickly left Ontario and dipped into Michigan, down through Indiana and into Kentucky by the third day.  We collected a fair bit of milkweed which was just barely out of the ground in Indiana.  Spring was late this year, and also extremely wet.  From Kentucky we headed west all the way to Kansas.

Kansas skyline
From Kansas we headed directly south through Oklahoma, probably our least favourite state. Although I'm not sure exactly why, we did find one nice state park to camp in here and I remember seeing lots of Summer Tanagers and Common Nighthawks flying over in the evening!  Most of our days would follow the same routine on this leg of the journey: collect as much milkweed/monarchs as possible and then find a park to camp at for the night.

State Park in Oklahoma
Mike eating his daily ration of a PB and Jam sandwich
From Oklahoma we headed further into America's deep south, all the way to Corpus Christi Texas! We collected lots of milkweed and camped at Padre Island National Seashore, a wonderful place with abundant bird life and fantastic scenery.  Being a grad student had never been better!

Black Terns, Common Terns and Laughing Gulls fill the air at Padre Island
Black Skimmers float by
Black Skimmer, one of my favourite birds of the trip
Padre Island at sunset
I felt bad that they allowed people to drive and camp right on the beach with their cars, but I couldn't really say anything...because we were camping there too.

From Corpus Christi, we headed west in the arid cattle lands of south-central Texas.  We collected milkweed as far west as Lost Maples State Park, a beautiful natural area, where I was able to see one of the most sought after birds in Texas, a Golden-cheeked Warbler!  Texas surprised me, the diversity of habitats and stunning vistas made this my favourite state of the entire trip!

Lost Maples State Park
Soon after, we quickly left Texas and made tracks eastwards through the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

Beautiful property of a generous lady who let us stay at her house in Mississippi for a night
Snapping Turtle in Florida
Blackwater River State Forest
Dinner while we were camping was typically Campbell's Soup heated in a wood fire.  I'm not sure if this is the fire, but Mike scorched himself pulling a can of soup out of the fire and was rewarded with what looked like 3rd degree burns on his leg...a bad night for team Monarch.
Dinner- soup heated over a fire
From Florida we wound our way up from Florida, through Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and then back to Guelph to offload our milkweed samples.  At this point, June was rolling around, and we started our second big leg of our journey, which was to focus on capturing Monarchs in the Great Lakes.  We started in Ontario and made our way through Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, all the way to the Dakotas.

Monarchs must have known what we were up to, because they were really hard to come by in early June.  We were so desperate, that we chased down even the trickiest of Monarchs.  This one went across and nasty drainage ditch, so I plowed through it and captured it on the other side.  I threw these pants out.

Not so fast!
We had better luck once we got well into Michigan, and we hit the mother load in Wisconsin!  The first good field we found I got mild heat stroke chasing butterflies around in a field.
Lake Michigan sand dunes
After spending June in the Great Lake states, Mike and I headed back to Guelph with lots of Monarchs to be analyzed in our lab.

Collected monarchs.  Invaluable data to preserve this magnificent species
In July, we quickly re-grouped for the final leg of research along the eastern seaboard of the United States.  The goal here, to solve the mystery of where Monarchs east of the Appalachian Mountains come from.  We started in South Carolina and worked out way north to Maine.  We encountered abundant Monarchs in New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

Welcome to Virginia
Cutler Coast, Maine
After getting nearly as far east as New Brunswick, we had collected all the data that we needed, and Mike and I headed for home.  Tired, but satisfied after a successful research trip.  

We also made sure that the data was put to good use, with the publication of several journal articles.  The results were fascinating and showed that although most Monarchs arriving in Ontario in May and June are the first spring generation born on the Gulf Coast, a few make the entire trip from the Great Lakes to Mexico and back to the Great Lakes! An incredible journey for such a small creature.  Equally as fascinating was the discovery that Monarchs that arrive on the east coast of the US in July are predominantly the offspring of the Gulf Coast generation which laid eggs as they moved north in the spring.  These individuals hatched in the central US and migrated east across the Appalachian Mountains to the east coast!

Here are the articles in case you want the detailed story:

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