Meet McGuire Center Director Tom Emmel at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves

Tom Emmel Angangueo ©Kim Smith 2014Tom Emmel, right

Our expedition to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserves was led by Tom Emmel, Ph.D. Tom is the Directorof the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also the university’s professor of zoology and entomology and the author of over 400 publications, including 35 books. Not only is Dr. Emmel a professor and director of the center, he leads expeditions to research biodiversity around the world, including recent trips to Bali to Komodo Island to study the Komodo Dragon (with a great story of how he and his fellow travelers very nearly almost became Komodo Dragon supper), the Galapagos Islands, and Madagascar.

This was Dr. Emmel’s fortieth trip to Angangueo to study the Monarch Butterfly migration. His first trip was in 1980 with Dr. Lincoln Brower who had, at the same time as Dr. Fred Urquhart, discovered the Monarch colonies in 1975. In those first early years of conducting research at the biospheres, Dr. Emmel and Dr. Brower traveled on old mining roads, rode horseback to the colonies, and camped in tents. Today, there are well-marked trails with options for either hiking or horseback riding.

On the second day of our expedition, I interviewed Dr. Emmel at the top of Sierra Chincua Monarch Colony. He was also interviewed by a Mexican television crew at the summit of the Sierra Chincua biosphere. I am in the process of editing the interview footage and will have that ready to post in the near future. Amongst the many aspects of the Monarch’s migration discussed during the interview, Dr. Emmel reveals exactly how one counts millions upon millions of Monarchs and offers several theories as to why the butterflies migrate to the very specific climate zone of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. We cover the subject of Monarch conservation and precisely how Monsanto’s GMO genetically modified Roundup Ready corn and sorghum, and Bt-corn, are indisputably deadly to the Monarchs. You’ll be surprised at the results of the research that was conducted on our journey in regard to the numbers of Monarchs counted in the biospheres.

Monarch Oyamel tree ©Kim Smith 2014 copyThis photo was taken early in the day, before the butterflies awaken in the sun. You can see that the limb of the Oyamel tree is so heavily laden with butterflies, it appears as though it will snap at any moment. And oftentimes, the limbs do break! The butterflies  scatter and then regroup to another location.

Ian Segebarth Craig Segebarth ©Kim Smith 2014Meeting Dr. Emmel and fellow expedition travelers was one of the most interesting and exciting aspects of the journey. You can’t imagine traveling with a more knowledgeable expert than Dr. Emmel. He is not only a world authority on all aspects of the Monarch’s migration, the history of the development of the biospheres, and the community of Angangueo, he also has extensive knowledge about a wide range of wildlife species and topics relative to biodiversity and the natural world.  He shares the information generously and with a sense of humor, too.

Dr. Emmel’s assistants, brothers Ian and Craig Segebarth, are two of the brightest and most helpful young men you could hope to meet. Marie Emerson, who works in the development department at the museum was a joy and also super helpful, as was Josh Dickinson, who was traveling with his wonderfully fun granddaughter, 5th grader Zoie Dickinson. Josh Dickinson has spent a lifetime consulting on forestry management and he will be helping with forestry management at the Monarch biospheres. Josh also speaks Spanish very well and was tremendously helpful, especially when I locked myself out of my hotel room! Thanks again Josh for your kind assistance!

Zoie Dickinson ©Kim Smith 2014 copyZoie Dickinson

Monarch Expedition: Part One ~ Angangueo Michoacán, Mexico

Angangueo Mexico ©Kim Smith 2014

After the four-hour drive from Mexico City, across a wide canyon of rustic farmland and over and around volcanic mountains, we arrived in the early evening at the beautiful town of Angangueo. Pitched on a steep mountainside, the narrow streets and closely packed buildings with shared stucco walls immediately reminded me of southern European villages. Especially lovely were the modest and many handmade outdoor altars gracing townspeople’s homes and gardens.

Angangueo is located in the far eastern part of the state of Michoacán in the central region of Mexico within the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt. During the late 1700s minerals were discovered.  Large deposits of silver, gold, copper, and iron ore brought a rush of people to the area. Today, Angangueo is noted as home to two of the most beautiful Monarch Butterfly Biospheres, El Rosario and Sierra Chincua.

Altar Angangueo mexico ©Kim Smith 2014

Hotel Don Bruno Angangueo Mexico ©Kim Smith 2014Our guesthouse, the Hotel Don Bruno, was utterly charming. As with many of the buildings we passed on the way to Angangueo, a cheery row of glazed terra cotta pots brimming with red and pink geraniums lined the hotel entrance. Through the entryway door and past the front office, guests entered the beautiful inner courtyard garden. All the rooms faced into the courtyard and mine had a delightfully fragrant sunny yellow rose just outside the door. I quickly changed for dinner to meet my fellow travelers in the hotel’s second floor dining room. A long dining table arranged family style, running the length of the room, had been set up for our group, with a view onto the flowering courtyard below.

Chef Jean Gabriel Salazar López Hotel Don Bruno Angangueo © Kim Smith 2014.As he did that evening, and every dinner and breakfast, Chef Jean Gabriel Salazar López had prepared an elegant feast of many different entrees, mostly native Mexican dishes, including and combining a fabulous array of local fruits and vegetables. The proprietors and hotel staff could not have been more friendly and accommodating.

Dinner was followed by a discussion led by Dr. Emmel. Tom Emmel is the Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which is part of the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. He is also a professor of zoology and entomology and the author of 35 books (more about Dr. Emmel in the next installment). I recorded several of Dr. Emmel’s lectures and an interview atop the Sierra Chincua Biosphere and will be posting all on youtube.

Mural Angangueo Mexico ©Kim Smith 2014Mural in the town plaza

At daybreak the following morning, I climbed the central outdoor stairwell to the top of the hotel to film the sleepy town awakening. Roosters crowed and the hotel’s freshly washed and drying sheets whipped to the wind in the crisp mountain air. The morning light did not disappoint. Kitty corner across from my rooftop vantage point was one of the small town’s several churches, with a walled courtyard and red and white banners fluttering in the breeze. The village’s main road leads further up to the mountains and is lined with red tiled roofed-homes and sidewalks swept immaculately clean. The sun was just beginning to peek through the mountains when I had to leave to hurry down to breakfast.

Angangueo ©Kim Smith 2014

Despite the beauty and well-kept appearance of Angangueo, and especially of our charming guesthouse, the town and the Hotel Don Bruno were nearly empty of tourists. Reports of mayhem and murder in Michoacán have drastically reduced the number of people traveling to Angangueo to see the Monarchs at the biospheres.

The gang violence is taking place on the far western side of Michoacán, near the Pacific Coast. Angangueo is located on the far eastern side of the state, bordering the state of Mexico. Not traveling to Angangueo for that reason is as uninformed as if someone decided not to travel to San Francisco because of the gang violence that takes place in Los Angeles! The people of Angangueo have stopped logging to protect the Monarch’s habitat and have come to rely heavily on income from tourism. I was deeply saddened to see the lack of visitors, at this time of year especially, when the Monarchs are at their peak activity at the colonies.

San Simón Angangueo Mexico ©Kim Smith 2014San Simon Parish Church

Inmaculada Concepcíon ©Kim Smith 2014Inmaculada Concepcíon

Next installment: Day 1 at the Monarch Colony

Bug Bytes Yucca Giant-Skipper

My new friends at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, located in Gainesville, Florida, forwarded this interesting video about the Giant Yucca Skipper. Watch Dr. Warren as he shows how to carefully extract the live larvae from the yucca plant stalk. Craig Segabarth, one of the awesome guides on our trip to the Monarch colonies, filmed and produced this fun episode of Bug Bytes.

Monarch Butterfly Explosion!

Monarch butterfly explosion ©Kim Smith 2014Monarch Butterfly Explosion!

I am back from Mexico and, although there for less than a week, there was much to take in. My most sincerest thanks to all my readers for your safe-travels well-wishes and kind thoughts!

The butterflies were dazzling and beautiful beyond imagination, but also very sad. This wondrous migration of the Monarchs, which has taken place for over thousands of years, is in serious peril. If changes are not made very soon, the migration will end. I’ll write more about my trip and the extraordinary scientist that led our expedition, Doctor Tom Emmel, this weekend after I am all caught up with design work and photography projects. Additionally, I interviewed Dr. Emmel at the top of the Sierra Chincua Monarch Colony, located in Michoacán at 10,000 feet above sea level, and will be bringing readers the full interview!

Sun on My Back!

Great Blue Heron Good Harbor Beach ©Kim Smith 2013Great Blue Heron photographed on a luxuriously warm, late-October morning in the tide pool at Good Harbor Beach. Click image to view full size.

Oftentimes when I come upon a Great Blue Heron fishing in the marsh at dawn, they appear as though they have been there for some time, as if they are nearly finished feeding for the morning. That’s because they may very well be done. Great Blue Herons have specialized rod-type photoreceptors in their eyes which allows them to hunt both day and night!
Good Harbor Beach ©Kim Smith 2013

Snapshots from Recent Treks Around Eastern Point

Gloucester Skyline ©Kim Smith 2014Gloucester Skyline Winter Sunset

In preparation for my adventure to Mexico to film the Monarchs, nearly every afternoon I have been “hiking” around Eastern Point. According to my car odometer, from the Niles Beach parking lot to the lighthouse and back is just a little over two miles. I realize that I must look fairly comical with headphones, hiking boots, and loaded down with a full backpack, all while trying to dodge the black ice. The walk is always beautiful–the freezing temperatures and icy roads not so much!

Raymond's Beach ©Kim Smith 2014Raymond’s Beach Sunset

Raymond's Beach Cherry Tree ©Kim Smith 2014Raymond’s Beach Cherry Tree

rosa-rugosa-raymonds-beach-c2a9kim-smith-2014Rosa rugosa

Eastern Point Lighthouse sunset ©Kim Smith 2014Eastern Point Lighthouse

Birds of New England: The American Robin and Bird Food!

American Robin American holly ©Kim Smirh 2014Right on schedule! Beautiful and welcome migrant flocks of American Robins arrive annually in Gloucester during the months of January and February, dining on local fruits, berries and fish fry.

During the winter months Cape Ann often becomes home to large flocks of robins, and we have had the joy of hosting numerous numbers in our garden. I can’t help but notice their arrival. Their shadows descend, crisscrossing the window light, followed by a wild rumpus in the ‘Dragon Lady’ hollies. This pair of hollies is planted on opposing sides of the garden path, alongside my home office. I have learned to stealthily sneak up to a window, as any sudden activity inside startles birds that are investigating our garden, and they quickly disperse. Dining not only on berries of the ‘Dragon Ladies’, but also the ‘Blue Princess’ Meserve holly and winterberry bushes, I find dozens of noisy, hungry robins.

These winter nomads flock to trees and shrubs that hold their fruit through January and February, feasting on red cedar, American holly, Meserve hollies, chokecherries, crabapples, and juniper. Robins traveling along the shores of Cape Ann also comb the shoreline for mollusks, and go belly-deep for fish fry. Depleting their food supply, they move onto the next location. Gardens rife with fruiting shrubs and trees make an ideal destination for our migrating friends.

Eastern Red Cedar American Robin ©Kim Smith 2014American Robin Eating Eastern Red Cedar Fruits

Habitat Gardening Tip:

The garden designed to attract nesting pairs of summer resident robins, as well as flocks of winter travelers, would be comprised of trees and shrubs for nest building, plants that bear fruit and berries that are edible during the summer and fall, and plants that bear fruits that persist through the winter months. Suburban gardens and agricultural areas provide the ideal habitat, with open fields and lawns for foraging insects as well as trees and hedgerows in which to build their nests.

The following plants, suggested with robins in mind, will also attract legions of songbirds and Lepidoptera. The list is comprised primarily of indigenous species with a few non-native, but not invasive, plants included.

Trees for nesting ~ American Holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).

Summer and autumn fruit bearing trees, shrubs and vines for robins ~ Black Cherry (Prunus serotina), Blackberry (Rubus spp.), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Gray Dogwood (C. racemosa), Red-osier Dogwood (C. sericea), Silky Dogwood (C. amomum), Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), Apple (Malus pumila), Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana), Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Wild Grape (Vitis spp.).

Trees and shrubs with fruits persisting through winter ~ Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Crabapple (Malus spp.)Sargent’s Crabapple (Malus sargentii), American Holly (Ilex opaca), Meserve Hollies (Ilex meserveae), Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra), Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).

Eastern Red Cedar Juniperus virginiana  copyBird Food: Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus viginiana)

To read more, with additional photos of the American Robin see previous posts:

Round Robin Redbreast

Round Robin Redbreast Snowy Day Video

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Winterberry Ilex verticillata © Kim Smith 2014Bird Food: Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

American Robin in Dogwood tree ©Kim Smith 2014Robin at dawn this morning after the storm