Monitoring Monarchs by Kristin Thieling-Di Rico

An interview with Ellen Federico, Fire Island Tide Newspaper May 25, 2018

Every year, tens of thousands of Monarchs visit Fire Island on their migratory journey from Canada to Mexico. Unfortunately, the number of these beautiful island visitors has fallen sharply in recent years. This is not a phenomenon that is unique to Fire Island. In fact, recent studies show a drastic decrease in the overall Monarch population, wit some estimates finding a 90 percent decline in the population in the past two decades. Experts state that increased herbicide use has destroyed milkweed plants, which are the only plants Monarch caterpillars feed on. In addition, global climate change, logging, and other human activities have also been cited as possible causes of the sever population decline. The Monarchs’ situation is dire enough that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently assessing whether to extend federal protections to the butterflies under the Endangered Species Act.

Federico House and Monarch Habitat

Ellen Federico has been monitoring Monarch populations on Fire Island for many years. She spoke with the Fire Island Tide Newspaper about the butterflies, the many benefits they bring to humans and the environment, and her on-going efforts to tag and count the many Monarchs that visit Fire Island every year.

Fire Island Tide: What is your personal connection to Fire Island?
Ellen Federico: My Father, Captain Bob Federico, worked for Fire Island Ferries in the 1960’s before starting a sight-seeing and private party boat business located at Captree State Park. He was well known on the island and also piloted freight barges and water taxis up and down the barrier reef. My siblings and I ran barefoot on the beach from April – November. Our home in Lonelyville was purchased on eastern Long Island, barged over the Great South Bay, then rolled into place on pilings to Robbins Walk, where it stands today.

Fire Island Tide: When did you first develop an interest in Monarch butterflies?
Ellen Federico: The Captain taught all of his eight children about wildlife on Fire Island, and how to judge the weather by reading the changing signs in the sky, tides, and animal behavior. My Mother taught us how to plant nectar flowers to attract butterflies. The Monarchs would migrate over us every Autumn on their way to Mexico. When I was a kid there were thousands flying over FI from September to Mid-October. The Monarchs still come, only far less in number.

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

Monarch Butterfly Life Cycle

Fire Island Tide: Can you tell us a little bit about monarch butterflies?
Ellen Federico: The Monarch is a milkweed butterfly. They belong to the order, Lepidoptera, their science name is (Danaus plexippus). Female Monarchs only lay eggs on milkweed, in four days tiny caterpillars hatch, and begin eating the milkweed, their only food source because milkweed contains toxic glycosides and protein that help protect them from predators. The caterpillars eat like crazy to match their body weight in a day. They must shed their skins five times to allow their bodies to expand. After 12 days the caterpillars will climb to a safe place and spit a foam like glue attaching their heads, so they can hang in a “J” shape. In 24 hours they form a beautiful jade green chrysalis from the bottom up. During this ‘pupa’ cocoon stage metamorphosis takes place, changing from caterpillar to adult butterfly. In 9 – 14 days they will emerge from the chrysalis and cling to it until their wings are dry and stiff. The Monarch takes flight looking for flower nectar to sip, through a straw-like tongue called a proboscis.

All butterflies live about 4-6 weeks, mate, lay eggs, then die. All, except the 4th generation migrating Monarchs that live up to 9 months and fly 3000 miles every autumn to Mexico, where they rest over winter. The babies born of this 4th generation will live 4-6 weeks, then take flight from Mexico heading back north. It will take three more, six-week life cycles to reach Canada and the Northern States by summer. So, the 3rd generation are the parents of the 4th generation Migrating Monarchs. And the epic journey begins all over again. A great site to learn about migrating animals is Journey North Learner.

Fire Island Tide: Why is Fire Island important to the monarch population?
Ellen Federico: Fire Island is strategically located on their flight path to Mexico from Canada and upstate NY. Fire Island is also a natural habitat for Monarchs with native milkweed and nectar flowers. Monarchs also need a bit of salt which is plentiful from the sea and spray, in addition, the sand dunes and houses on the island reflect the suns warmth releasing up thermal currents that butterflies and birds like to glide on to conserve energy. The facts are, no milkweed, no Monarchs. The caterpillars born in the wild, not on butterfly farms, will only eat milkweed.

Fire Island Tide: Why are monarch butterflies important to Fire Island and the larger global ecosystem?
Ellen Federico: 
They are pollinators along with the bees, both currently at risk of becoming endangered. Scientists are studying Monarchs for cancer research regarding why they can ingest milkweed toxins, but if a bat or bird eats the Monarch they will become sick or possibly die from the toxins. Monarch migrations are good indicators for climate change by monitoring what time of year, and which flight paths they take. Monarchs should arrive in Mexico by early November. I spotted my last Monarch in Lonelyville on November 12, 2017.

Migratory Path of Monarch Butterfly

Fire Island Tide: Can you discuss your current efforts to track the butterflies on Fire Island?
Ellen Federico: 
I am a member of Monarch Watch with a certified habitat. I order tracking tags, a small sticker the size of a pea with number code, from their website first week of September. Our Lonelyville community joins in helping, especially the children, by wrangling Monarchs (gentle netting), then we tag the outer wing, and log the date, sex, and location, on data sheets. I input the data on the site, and their volunteers in the Monarch sanctuaries in Mexico search the mountain forests for tagged Monarchs and log their numbers on the site. I monitor the site, looking for any Fire Island tagged numbers. In eight years we had ten of our tagged Monarchs found. That’s pretty good considering there are millions of Monarchs in the winter resting sanctuaries.

Fire Island Tide: Why is this effort important?
Ellen Federico: 
The tagging program is important because it shows how far, how long, and how many migrating Monarchs are surviving the journey. Hurricane season and severe temperatures too hot, or too cold can kill Monarchs. However, the biggest threat to Monarchs are humans, who kill milkweed and nectar flowers with poison pesticides, over development, and illegal tree logging in Mexico.

Fire Island Tide: Have you seen any shifts in the butterfly population or its behaviors?
Ellen Federico: 
Yes. Since my childhood the migrating Monarchs flutters are less than half of what they were back then. Hurricane Sandy washed through my habitat destroying most of it. The local children and I replanted the following year, but it took two more years for the new flutters to find their way back to Lonelyville. The past few years we have had very good Monarch populations arrive because the milkweed and nectar habitat, is flourishing. Monarchs will return to the same locations as their relatives did even though they have never been to Fire Island before. Somehow, they know they can feed, mate in our pine trees, and lay their eggs.

Fire Island Tide: What can people do to help your efforts?
Ellen Federico: 
Plant Milkweed and nectar flowers. Folks can stop by my house at 31 Robbins Walk corner at Central for Fire Island milkweed seeds. They can also order seeds online. Tropical milkweed or nectar plants purchased at local nurseries or Home Depot must be rinsed well to remove pesticides. The nectar plants Monarchs like are Asters, Zinnias, Cone flowers, Salvias, Buddleia Bushes, and their favorite bright orange Mexican sunflowers called Tithonia. If you plant a little habitat, they will come.

Fire Island Tide: Is there anything else you would like people to know?
Ellen Federico: 
Migrating Monarch butterflies are beautiful, brave, and extraordinary creatures. Folks ask me why they migrate every year? I went to the Michoacán Mountains in Mexico to see where they have been flying to for centuries. It was the best day of my life! And now I understand… they fly for us, the humans. To remind us to cherish and care for this planet, its renewal is our only hope.