Early photographers used their photography for a purpose. Photographers such as Ansel Adams, George Masa, Phillip Hyde and more showcased sensitive or significant landscapes in photos to advocate for wildlands to be designated as national parks or natural areas. Today, nature photographers are capturing images of species that are increasingly impacted by the hand of man. My photography has evolved as a way to show and tell how we can make a positive change for wildlife in our world. Two species that I wish to highlight both with my photography and for conservation are monarch butterflies and loons.
Recently monarch (Danaus plexippus) populations have declined significantly due to the loss of essential milkweed plants. Milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the only plant that monarch caterpillars feed on. Modern farming practices and recent extreme weather events have reduced the amount and extent of milkweed. Individuals and organizations such as Monarch Watch are stepping up efforts to promote milkweed cultivation. Through Monarch Watch my yard is now a Certified Monarch Waystation and many of the photos in my Monarch Gallery were taken in my front yard. While the caterpillars need milkweed, monarch butterflies need nectar producing plants. Planting their favorite flower species is another way to help monarchs. My yard currently features a mixture of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), coreopsis, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), northern blazing star (Liatris scariosa), prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) along with other native flowering plants favorable to monarchs.
How does a monarch caterpillar know when to initiate the process of pupation in preparation for metamorphosis into a butterfly? When adolescent hormone levels begin to drop in the caterpillar this triggers the monarch to pupate into a chrysalis. Inside of the chrysalis it will take 10-14 days to change from a caterpillar to butterfly. When a monarch ecloses from the chrysalis and spreads it wings it will no longer be earthbound. It will now have the freedom of flight and the diet will change from milkweed to nectar. This has to be one of the most amazing transformations in nature.
Avid monarch enthusiasts today are taking eggs or caterpillars indoors to raise into butterflies. There are many predators and natural causes responsible for monarch mortality in the wild. Raising monarchs in captivity for later release significantly increases the chance that monarchs will complete their metamorphosis to become butterflies. Here is a how-to for rearing monarchs which can be fun at home or in a classroom.
How can you tell a female monarch from a male? The male has two spots on the lower wings and the vein pattern is slightly thinner. The spots are scent glands. The male is also slightly smaller. Compare the female vs. the male on two of my photos.
Perhaps one of the most amazing features of the monarch is the epic migration they complete each fall. Some will travel over 3,000 miles arriving at the same winter location their great, great grandparents did! They locate their wintering location without ever having been there. They must have some type of internal GPS to find their way and scientists are actually studying this.
Tagging and releasing monarchs has become an important part of learning more about the monarch migration. Citizen scientists are also recording monarch sightings during the spring and fall migrations. To see a map with sighting information or to perhaps even add your sightings go to Journey North.
There is a lot more we can learn about the monarch including the ways we can help ensure that the monarch will continue into the future.
Perhaps the most iconic bird of the north country, the common loon (Gavia immer), returns each summer to breed on northern lakes. Unfortunately, due to increasing conflict with humans, the population of loons has declined significantly. Loons face pressures from frequent interruptions while nesting, poisoning from ingestion of lead, predators and more. Here is an article highlighting the link between loon mortality and lead fishing tackle. More states need to follow the lead of New Hampshire by enacting laws to restrict use of lead fishing tackle.
If you have never heard the eerie call of a loon it is something you will never forget. Loons actually have several different calls. There is a temolo, yodel, wail and a hoot. Here is a link to a series of audio recordings of loon calls.
During the summer breeding season, the loon is truly a striking bird. The breeding colors include a black-and-white checkered back, iridescent black head, black bill, red eyes along with a white band around the neck that some liken to a necklace of pearls and a much smaller white marking at the throat. The underside of a loon is mostly white. The male and female look very similar, although the male is slightly larger. Chicks begin their life down-covered, but by 8 weeks most of their down has been replaced with feathers.
Loons are adept swimmers. Their bones are not hollow like most birds, and while this makes them heavier than most birds, this also allows them to dive for food. Their webbed-feet are well back on their bodies which helps with swimming, but makes them very clumsy on land. In fact, about the only time they spend on land is when nesting. It also takes a long time for a loon to get airborne. But once aloft they can fly at incredible speeds. An essential part of the day for loons is the time spent preening. During preening loons are doing maintenance on their feathers, making sure that they are aligned and properly waterproofed. Even the chicks can swim from the time they hatch. They will however ride on mom's back when young to escape predators and chilly water.
I have been fortunate to spend many hours observing and photographing loons. I am always conscious though of not stressing the loons and practicing good ethics. Using a long lens , minimizing noise and the amount of time I spend during one day with the loons helps to keep my intrusion to a minimum. In fact, the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) has published a guide for ethical field practices. It is not worth unduly stressing an insect or animal for a photograph. With so many photographers, practicing good ethics will help to ensure continued opportunities for photographing wildlife.
If we truly care about the loon we will adopt ways to conserve their habitat so that future generations can enjoy this iconic bird of the northwoods.