Fitz Clarke

Monarch Butterfly Project at The Landings Entering Its 7th Year

By Fitz Clarke, Citizen Scientist

Fitz MonarchsIn 2008- 2009, I became interested in the Monarch butterfly that I was observing in small numbers at the Landing’s Sparrow Field and about the island, mainly within the yard of Landing’s resident Sandra Wolf whose side and rear yard contained large amounts of the Milkweed species, Tropical or Mexican Milkweed(Asclepias curassavica).  I became a contributor to the Annenberg Learner Foundation “Monarch Journey North,” reporting and documenting by photographs the Monarch sightings here at the Landings, Skidaway Island, Savannah, Chatham County, GA.

During this period I became aware of Project Monarch Health and the research being conducted by Dr Sonia Altizier into a protozoan parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha)(OE), an obligate protozoan parasite responsible for the deaths of the Monarch butterfly . At this time Dr. Altizier was, and continues to serve as an Assistant Professor, and Associate Dean in the Odum School of Ecology, the University of Georgia. I believe that Sonia has been involved it this research for the past 17+ years. Her research uses a combination of field studies, experiments, comparative analyses and modeling to examine the ecological and evolutionary interactions between hosts and pathogens in natural populations. Dr. Altizer has studied Monarch butterfly migration, ecology, and interactions with a protozoan parasite, asking how seasonal migration of these butterflies affects parasite transmissions.

On February 10, 2010 resident volunteers from The Landing’s, alongside more than a dozen staff members of The Landings Club’s Golf Maintenance Department (LGMD) met at the Sparrow Field and planted approximately 130 yards of the 150 yard berm that serves to separate the 3 ¼ acre field known as the Sparrow Field Wildlife Sanctuary from the green and fairway on #15 Magnolia. The field once served as a sod farm for the club, which owns the land. The Magnolia course is one of six 18-hole courses on the island.

The perimeters of the field and berm had previously been cleared of the very invasive Chinese Tallow Tree (Triadica sebifera). Skidaway Audubon served to finance the expenditures of heavy equipment for the largest trees, well over $6000.00, and volunteers in an ongoing program removed hundreds of these invasives by hand, hatchet and herbicide.

Golf Course Maintenance personnel ran irrigation to center of the berm and furnished the volunteers our own main valve. Half-inch flexible lines were run along the berm with 1/4” lines run to the individual plots established along the length of the berm. Wood chips were spread and plants planted by the resident volunteers and members of the two Landing’s garden clubs, from center of the berm to the inboard base. Golf Course Maintenance used their front-end loader to plant three species of shrubs along the 150-yard berm center with intent to establish a habitat for the resident and migrating birds, as well as to form a 7-foot high barrier that would be aesthetically pleasing to Landing’s golfers, while also serving to obstruct a view of an irrigation pump house, large liquid fertilizer white holding tanks and the weeded field.

Golf Course Maintenance is the caretaker of their side of the berm. They also mow the grass in the field and assist in weed control at the berm base. The field falls under their jurisdiction.

At the time of the February 2010 planting little did we know that the large center berm growing shrub Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) would grow to 7+ feet; bloom approximately 12 months out of the year; serve as a major nectar source for the pollinators,; and also provide safe harbor for the Monarch butterfly. The plant not only provides the Monarch nectar, but shelter from the cold and inclement weather. Our Milkweed (Asclepias species), sole host plants (larval food source) for the Monarch and Queen butterflies, are but a few feet away and interspersed with other nectar sources along the berm.

By the fall of 2010 we had a goodly number of Monarchs and Queen butterflies nectaring the nectar sources, mostly native plants that we planted along the berm and the many native plants within the Sparrow Field. That mild winter of 2010 the Monarchs overwintered and the Bottlebrush provided ideal safe haven.

Apparently, as a result of my 2010-2011 posting to “Monarchs Journey North” of photographs of the butterflies with descriptions, Dr. Altizier became aware of our Sparrow Field pollinator project, and its over-wintering population of Monarch butterflies. I was contacted and informed that the UGA Odum School Ecology was interested in visiting our site and evaluating it to determine if it might serve as a location in the study of the Monarch Butterfly interactions with the OE  protozoan parasite. Skidaway Audubon, main sponsor of the Sparrow Field Project, gave its approval and excitedly welcomed the UGA pending research.

In the first week of January 2012, a UGA Graduate Student working under Dr Altizier, Dara Satterfield  arrived at The Landing’s and for four days measured, sampled, and studied our Sparrow Field Monarch population and Asclepias curassavica host plants. Our volunteers eagerly worked alongside Dara. We sent this charming graduate student friend back to the Odum School Ecology lab with Monarch larvae, chrysalis and adults to be studied in a laboratory setting. We were official proud citizen scientists with a mission to support Dr. Altizier and the important research being conducted under “Project Monarch Health.”

Dara returned in January, 2013, and 2014. I believe she will also return in 2015. I might add in 2013 we sent her back to the Athens with 72 chrysalises to be studied. In January 2014 Dara departed to the lab with Monarch eggs, larvae from the 5-instar stages, many chrysalis and Monarchs adults. We also provided fresh A. curasavicca vegetation. Keep in mind that, from 2010 until the first week or two of 2014, we had received mild winters and there had been no hard freeze kill backs of the Landing’s Sparrow Field main host plant, Asclepias ciuassavica.

The resultant percentage discoveries were soon evident from the microscopic findings of the Landing’s Sparrow Field Monarch stages. Our Monarch larvae and adults were infested with the OE protozoan parasite to a 95 % degree or more, as per research findings by Dara Satterfield and her team under the research eye of Dr. Sonia Altizier.

It is most interesting to note that the day following Dara’s 2014 departure from Savannah we incurred two back-to-back days of 18 degree temperatures with accompanying days of freezing weather that killed the eggs, larvae, and Monarch adults. More importantly it killed back the Asclepias vegetation, and hopefully the OE spores that were present on the leaves of this host plant.  To quote Dara, “we’ll see about how OE levels respond to the population crash and milkweed re-sprouting new growth.”

Our 2014 Landing’s volunteer spore samplings from netted Monarch adults will be documented and forwarded to Dara at the Odum School of Ecology Lab for microscopic study. Hopefully Dara will return in January 2015 for recovery of all stage Monarchs. We look forward to the OE findings.

As an aside Billy McCord, a full-time wildlife biologist, ecologist and naturalist with SC Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) is a mentor of mine since 2009. He has tagged over 16,000 adult Monarchs in the SE portion of South Carolina and communicates with us, providing his important scientific discoveries pertaining to the Monarch butterfly.

Landing’s Resident volunteers, following the example of Billy McCord, in 2014 began a concerted effort to net and tag Monarchs and to forward the documented data to “Monarchs Journey North.” At the time of tagging, we also take sample swabs from the Monarch abdomen. These samples are forwarded to the Odum School of Ecology Lab, to the attention of Dr. Altizier, for microscopic study by Dara Satterfield and other research graduate students. Shirley Brown serves as the leader in the “Project Monarch Health effort and additionally serves as the lead volunteer for our 150-yard Sparrow Field “Pollinator Friendly Area,” under the concept of Bringing Nature Home.” Shirley conducts scheduled counts of Monarch eggs, larvae and adults and forwards her findings to Dara

Pied-Billed Grebe and the Bluegill – Dec 13

On Tuesday, 13 December, 12:53pm I observed a lone “Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), located along that narrow portion of brackish lagoon # 15, just east of the Marshwood # 7 (?) green/sand trap adjacent to water) The lagoon extends from North Landings way North (across from Dog park) to the Marshwood driving range. I was photographing this water bird with my 400mm lens draped across my bean bag, resting atop my golf cart steering wheel when it dove, surfaced app 8 yards distant with what first appeared to be a massive amount of green/slimy vegetation. I crept forward in my golf cart blind, drawing parallel as It turned towards me. I observed what appeared to be an extremely large member of the sunfish family. Luckily it was so engrossed in an attempt to ingest this prize that for the next five minutes I was able to digitally document the ordeal.

The fish, was subsequently identified as a “Bluegill’ (Lepomis macrochirus), aka Brim/ Brem by island residents Hank Scheeringa, confirmed by Caryl Warner, both experienced Landing’s lagoon fishermen. Caryl advised it appeared to be at least 7.5″ in length. The Bluegill is normally thought to be located in fresh water; however they…”can tolerate 1.8% salinity”. ( note to self-`check with Sean Burgess, The Landing’s Environmental Coordinator.” the average salinity of this lagoon). The question then is how did this large Bluegill ( sharp fins and bones) pass through the jaws of the Grebe. ( see below photos #’s 3,5 and 11- note how the jaws hinge)

This fascinatingly small,13 1/2″ long water bird has large lobed toed webb feet. The legs are short and moved far aft, arranged together to make this bird a fast and strong swimmer. I have arranged the thee images together to address the huge propulsion machines (feet), quite a creation!!! We are fortunate that the Pied-billed Grebe winters over here on Skidaway, mostly on our brackish lagoons, yet you will find them also on the fresh water ones, to a lesser degree. Their diet consist of “aquatic insects, also snails, fish, frogs, incidental aquatic vegetation.”

On, 22 November, while observing three Grebes napping and preening ( cleaning, rearranging, and oiling of the feathers with the bill) I noted one floated diagonally over to a feather, picked it up and swallowed it. It continued to preen and swallow more feathers. I also observed one of the other Grebes to also ingest its feathers. I thought this action to be most interesting. Thankfully contained in my library is a copy, ” The Birder’s Handbook”, a field guide to the natural history of North American Birds, by Paul R. Ehrlich, David Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. They point out that fifty percent of the stomach contents of a Pied-billed Grebe may be feathers. Apparently the action of the gizzard is insufficient to crush the bones of the fish that are swallowed. “The feather balls are thought to protect the stomach by padding the sharp fish bones and slowing down the process of digestion so that the bones dissolve rather than pass into the intestine.” Subsequent to photographing and edited the below images I have a real appreciating of the evolution of this species, an efficient water bird.

You may have previously observed a few of the below Grebe images; however, I have again included them to assist in the telling the story of this wonderful little water bird ( I have never observed it on land), now sharing our island lagoons while over wintering.


An Eagle and a Mink kind of Day

Saturday was a fine locate day. It began with an early morning Eagle, a late afternoon Mink and  Monarch butterflies mid-afternoon.


A Visual Smorgasbord of Bugs at the Sparrow Field

This past month has been an ideal time to see appealing insects feeding from the shallow nectar sources at The Landing’s Sparrow Field Pollinator Berm. These 14 images are but a few of the many species of bees, wasp and flies. ( When you add the butterflies/skippers, you recognize what a rich visual smorgasbord we have here.)

I believe the colors on these bugs can be described in one word — “beautiful.”

Aphids and Mole Crickets meet their Predators: Photos Tell All


Among the many insects nectaring the flowering plants to be observed along the 133-yard Pollinator Friendly Sparrow Field berm are several species that play an important part in the natural order to be found at the Sparrow Field.

For instance the Syrphid Fly, Pseudodoros clavatus, male on Dill in 8/15/2011 photo, when in the larvae stage this very small hover fly is an aggressive predator of the aphids found on our Milkweed. Those plants were specifically planted for the migrating Monarch and visiting Queen butterfly. Note the compound eyes of the Syrphid Fly meet at the top in the male — they do not touch in the female.

Another aggressive predator is the, “Mole Cricket Hunter, Larra bicolor, of the wasp tribe Larrini. It also was photographed nectaring the flowers of the “Dill” plants located in the “Black Swallowtail” plot. The female injects an egg into the ” Mole Cricket” which ultimately dispatches the mole Cricket.

Both of these insects serve as natural “Biological Pest Controls.”

I would invite you to visit the Sparrow Field and walk or ride the path adjacent to the berm. You presently will find numerous butterfly/Skippers nectaring, mating and flying. Likewise you will observe damselflies, dragonflies, bees, and wasp nectaring the flowers. In the morning, the sun is over your back and ideal for photography. Sit in your golf cart out of the sun. use a bean bag to drape over youR golf cart steering wheel to serve as a support for your camera. There were five “Palamedes Swallowtail” butterflies on one nectar source this morning, just 6-8 feet away from my camera lens. It doesn’t get much better than that. You can also shoot from your vehicle window as you sit in the comfort of your auto’s AC

The birds of course are out and about chasing the insects. Like the butterflies they provide visually appealing moments in time.

Entrance to the 3 1/4 acre Sparrow Field IS located at the intersection of North Bartram Rd and Pettigrew Drive.

I would be more than happy to meet you most any morning, except Sunday, at about 8:30-9:00 am to point out the nectar sources and host plants, as well as the butterflies, wasp, bees, etc found on the berm. Bring your camera and binoculars. Carol Warner volunteers each Wednesday and Saturday morning, taking care of the drip irrigation system, weeds, etc. Carol, likewise will be pleased give you the tour, should you wish.

It’s Official: Dragonfly identified at the Sparrow Field

Dr. Dennis P. Paulson, the top official of The Dragonfly Society of the Americas: Odonata Central, hosts the official website of the Dragonfly Society of the Americas and in June 2011 confirmed a Chatham County addition to the Odanata check list.

Identification came from a 2009 photograph taken at The Landings Sparrow Field by Kirk Rogers. Fitz Clarke first submitted the photo to Giff Beaton, author of the Odonata bible of Georgia, “Dragonflies & Damselflies of Georgia and the Southeast.”

The Taper-tailed Darner, Comphaeschna antilope was captured by Kirk, with his tripod mounted 600mm lens, in the beak of a female Purple Martin, just prior to serving it to her chicks on the Sparrow Field gourd rack.

Fitz adds, “I wish to acknowledge the efforts of our volunteers who maintain (monitor) the Sparrow Field’s 16-gourd rack. We go through a lot of bird poop each year to provide the Purple Martins a location to raise their young — 79

fledged this year, 2011. Our visiting Purple Martins in turn provide a wonderful ‘Biological Pest Control’ as relates to the mosquitoes.”

Ladybugs vs Aphids – Aug 1

This year at the Landings, Skidaway Island, Sparrow Field, “Pollinator Friendly Area” we have had an infestation of “Aphids” on our main “Monarch and Queen” Milkweed host-plant, Asclepias curassivica. The migrating Monarch relies upon the various Milkweed Species to survive. We consider our Sparrow Field berm Milkweed plots to be ” Pony Express Way Stations,”

Catherine Olivier, Skidaway Islands resident, and Sparrow Field berm volunteer addressed the aphid problem by ordering 4500 Convergent Lady Beetles, Hippodamia convergens”. They were released yesterday, 7/30/2011, upon the Milkweed plants arranged along the 75 yard ” Pollinator Friendly Area” berm.

I invite you to visit the Sparrow Field where there are a visual assortment of treasures to be located, photographed, and viewed”.

Some Photos by Fitz around the Island – July 25

Birds at the Sparrow Field – July 16

Today, 7/16/2011, I was following up on the report by Pat Wolters, our island’s resident “Bird Rehabilitator” that she had released a juvenile ” Eastern Kingbird” at the Sparrow Field, The Landings, Skidaway Island, Chatham County, Georgia.

I spotted what I believe was the juvenile bird in company with an adult “Eastern Kingbird.” They were perched, both seeking insects, flying out and back to a limb on the small group of Sweetgum trees, back left of the field, within the path that circles the field.

As I approached they flushed; however, two yellow breasted birds stood out within the swaying Sweetgum limbs. I was successful in acquiring three digital images of two female, “Orchard Orioles.” I originally believed them to be, ” Blue-winged Warblers”; however, Diana Churchill, a friend and former President of Ogeechee Audubon set me straight. She provided the identification as female “Orchard Orioles”. Diana further advised, ” Orchard Orioles nest here and are regulars on Skidaway.”

Shortly thereafter I captured a juvenile “Blue-gray Gnatcatcher” near the pump house, back right of the field.

The recent rain measured 8.5 inches at the Sparrow Field. It has brought forth the many blooming nectar and butterfly host-plants. We have bush-hogged the field and cut the grass at the base of the 75-yard ” Pollinator Friendly Area” on the berm.

I would invite you to visit the field in your golf cart or vehicle. There are so many different species of birds, butterflies, bees, wasp and additional insects to enjoy. 

Fitz Visited the State Park – July 8

Below are a few recent images. Some a bit closer than you normally might view. I find them rather interesting as you can all but read the thought process of the bird. Each bird is an individual and each species seems to have a bill shape to fit its major food source. 

The DNR Staff, Skidaway Island State Park, Chatham County, Ga have a very interesting bird observation area to the rear of the Interpretive Center, all but one of these birds were photographed there. You will note the juvenile Painting Buntings are birds recently fledged, their nest in close proximity to the feeding stations to the rear of the Interpretive Center.

Fitz Clarke

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