Tag Archives: milkweed

A Budding Botanist’s Quest for Rare Wildflowers

Six pairs of eyes meticulously comb through the open understory of the hardwood forest. Small green plants blanket the forest floor, having just broken through a thick layer of dead leaves. This forest ecosystem, mixed with just a touch of sunlight, creates the perfect habitat conditions for the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi River, the small whorled pogonia.

“The threatened small whorled pogonia hasn’t been documented here since 2012,”  Johnny Townsend, the state botanist, tells me “Although plants that are commonly associated with the pogonia are found all throughout this area, which is a hopeful sign.”

The small whorled pogonia is found in 18 eastern states and Ontario, Canada, but it still considered rare because their isolated populations usually consist of less than 20 plants. The plant is named for it’s whorled arrangement of five to six leaves just beneath the flower, which stands between 10-14 inches tall. The pononia can be found in older hardwood stands of beech, birch, maple, oak, and hickory trees with an open understory and a thick layer of dead leaves. What makes documenting the pogonia particularly difficult is that it can remain dormant for many years without emerging from the leaves.

While I’m no botanist, discovering new plants and ecosystems turned out to be quite the adventure. On our two separate quests for wildflowers, we discovered other rare and beautiful species, including the smooth coneflower, or Echinacea laevigata, and clematis. We also discovered that small-whorled pogonia has an almost identical lookalike, called Indian cucumber root. You can tell the difference between the two species by looking closely at their stems.

Some other fun finds along the way included a box turtle, some gorgeous fungi, and more wildflowers! The diverse array of species is a great indicator of a healthy habitat.

As we continued our search into the forest, we stumbled onto what we came here for. To our surprise, the small whorled pogonia was preparing to flower, another rare sight! The small whorled pogonia doesn’t flower every year, but when they do, flowers only last a few days.

After documenting the habitat’s slope, sunlight, and proximity to water and the forest’s edge, we continued looking and discovered three more plants nearby. Finding only four small individual pogonia plants may not seem like much, but this small population is a huge step in learning how to protect the species.

Not only was finding this federally threatened orchid rewarding , it gives Service biologists at the Virginia Field Office an idea of how well the plant is surviving when faced with possible threats to their habitat. Projects like roadway repairs, building construction, and forest clearing can all impact this delicate ecosystem’s balance. Finding this population after recent construction in the area is a hopeful sign they will continue to thrive.

Knowing more about these ecosystems also helps biologist make informed management decisions and protect our endangered and threatened species. Click here to learn more about small whorled pogonia and other threatened and endangered species work happening in Virginia!


Doing the Right Thing In the Right Place: Monarchs and Woodcock at Umbagog NWR

Today we’re taking a closer look at Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge and the outstanding work they are doing to manage habitat for the American woodcock and the Monarch butterfly!

Located on the border of New Hampshire and Maine, Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge sits in the heart of the Northern Forest, where the southern deciduous forest transitions into the northern boreal forest. The diversity of habitats in the 32,800 acre refuge provide vital breeding and foraging areas for a wide range of wildlife. Staff actively manage the refuge’s forests to improve a range of habitat conditions, and this variety of habitats accommodate a suit of species of conservation concern. The American woodcock is one of these species. Woodcock utilize early successional habitat for nesting, feeding, courtship, and roosting. The long billed bird is best known for its throaty peent calls and aerial displays at dusk.

Managing for the American woodcock can prove demanding as the upland bird has four very specific habitat requirements. Manipulating the land is intense work, but the reward of conserving this species is worth it. As an added benefit, other wildlife species utilize this management strategy, including the monarch butterfly. Consisting of weedy fields and small shrubs, early successional habitat allows for the healthy growth of milkweed, the monarch’s host plant.

This five acre field was the sight of last year's milkweed planting. Mature milkweed with eventually spread and establish itself over the next few years.

This five acre field was the site of last year’s milkweed planting. Mature milkweed will eventually spread and establish itself over the next few years.

Much like a bird, the monarch butterfly migrates each winter to Mexico, utilizing milkweed and wildflower habitat throughout Canada, United States, and Mexico. With both monarchs and woodcock populations on the decline, habitat restoration is of utmost importance! Here’s how Umbagog helped two species for the price of one.

To provide proper roosting habitat for the American woodcock, patches of five acre fields are bush hogged on a 2-3 year alternating rotation, to ensure the availability of continuous woodcock roosting habitat. The maintained fields bloom with various types of native wildflowers, a great nectar sources for pollinators! To boost the healthy growth of milkweed, refuge staff works closely with the local elementary schools to propagate the young milkweed seedlings. Working with students allows Umbagog staff to reach out to the local community about the species they are working to conserve. The students also lend a helping hand to busy staff by caring for these plants and ensuring they survive. For the past two summers, Youth Conservation Corps students have also aided the refuge staff by planting the propagated milkweed in maintained roost fields throughout the refuge, boosting habitat values for both the monarch butterfly and the American woodcock.

By working to improve habitat and educating students about the importance of these species, the US Fish and Wildlife Services aims to preserve habitats and instill in others the knowledge to save our declining ecosystems. Click here to learn more about monarch conservation.


A Morning with Monarchs

Hopefully, you remember Katie Banks Hone, the homeowner from Massachusetts that gave us a tutorial on how to grow monarchs! She’s back this year shedding more insight about her successful monarch tagging program.

On a sunny, yet blustery, late September morning fifteen children and their families gathered at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge in Newburyport, Mass. to see monarch butterflies, learn about their migration, and send them on their way to their wintering grounds in the mountains of Mexico. Before we let the wind carry them away, they were all affixed with a tiny ID sticker. If these butterflies are found anywhere along their migration, or in their winter forests of Mexico, the information can be reported to Monarch Watch and traced back to being tagged at the refuge. This gives researchers information on individual monarchs and helps further our knowledge of these unique insects.


A tagged monarch rests on a flower next to a happy observer!

Tagging monarchs is very easy. The sticker is simply stuck to the oval pattern on one of the lower wings. When I started tagging for the first time last summer even my four-year-old could do it. Many people ask if it affects the insect’s ability to fly and the answer is no. It’s similar to you putting on one sock.


Monarch release!

After the children and I put tags on the monarchs we brought them out to the refuge’s native gardens and let them go one by one in the goldenrods and other fall nectar plants. A few of them took a sip of nectar then immediately took off, headed in a southerly direction. But others stuck around and even landed on the children making for some very nice photo opportunities for the families participating.

SAM_4855Of all the facts participants learned about monarchs that day what amazed them the most was how a tiny insect, weighing less than a paper clip, can make its way 3,000 miles to Mexico having never been there before. How they do it still remains mostly a mystery to us. But these children and their families are hoping our five make it and then return to Texas next spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.


Katie teaches a migration lesson.

By planting native milkweeds, the only food monarch caterpillars can eat, you can help sustain this declining species. By planting native nectar plants you can also help sustain the monarchs fall migration and support other pollinators too.

How well do you know the monarch butterfly? Take this quiz to find out!