Natural Perspectives:

The Friends of Shipley Nature Center hosted a Monarch butterfly festival Saturday. But they must have forgotten to invite the butterflies. Vic and I didn't see a single one.

It was probably the cold, stormy weather of the previous few days that kept them away, but it didn't deter the people. Vic and I expected the event to be well-attended, so we arrived at the parking lot five minutes after the nature center's gates opened. But the lot was already full, and we had to park in the overflow parking at the library. Bad news for us, but great news for the festival organizers.

The festival celebrated the migratory lives of these black-and-orange wanderers with educational displays and activity stations for children. Students from the La Quinta High School Ecology Club staffed the craft and activity tables where younger children made butterflies from tissue paper and caterpillars from pipe cleaners.

Sales at the native plant nursery were brisk. I bought a packet of seeds of a California native plant called narrow-leafed milkweed, which Monarchs love. The adults lay their eggs on milkweed, and the young caterpillars will eat practically nothing else.

I already have a small butterfly garden with Mexican sage, yarrow and lantana. Our thyme and allysum attract hordes of fiery skipper butterflies every summer. During some years, swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on our parsley, and we get a nice crop of swallowtails a few weeks later. But we don't have any plants that are specific for Monarchs.

Oddly enough, one drawback to the milkweed is its extreme attractiveness to Monarchs. The caterpillars eat it down to nothing, and the plant is just sticks during the winter. But it's a hardy perennial and will grow back every spring. My plan is to plant it in pots, moving them to a prominent part of the yard when the plant is in flower and putting them aside when the plants begin to look shabby or have gone dormant for the winter.

It takes tolerance to have a butterfly garden. While everyone likes butterflies, few like caterpillars.

One way to compensate for loss of habitat is for all of us to create habitat in our own yards. We can do that by choosing plants that support butterflies, either by providing a nectar source for adults or a food source for caterpillars. Avoiding the use of pesticides in the landscape is another important step that we can take to ensure the survival of butterflies and other insects. It's healthier not only for the environment, but for us as well.

Vic and I chose to spend most of our time at the festival talking to old friends and walking around the trail system. Recent rains had filled Blackbird Pond, and birds were singing everywhere. A few early-blooming California poppies in the meadow promised an abundance of flowers later. Purple sage, California lilac, Western redbud, coast bush sunflower and red gooseberry were in full bloom. Spring promises to be glorious this year.

Most of the critters followed the example of the butterflies, though, and stayed hidden. We saw neither rabbits nor squirrels, and only one young Western fence lizard. It will take warmer weather to bring the wildlife into view at the nature center.

The female coyote that generally dens at Shipley Nature Center was also out of sight. She is seldom seen. Too bad that other local coyotes don't follow her example. Their increasing visibility in the vicinity of Bolsa Chica Street near Warner Avenue has gotten them into hot water.

The City Council held a study session about coyotes last week because complaints about coyotes have gone up considerably. People are seeing more coyotes, and, unfortunately, coyotes are doing more predation on pet dogs and cats. The drought is almost certainly responsible. Dry conditions of the last few years have reduced the vegetation that is the normal food for the rodents, which, in turn, are the normal food for the coyotes. In response, coyotes are foraging more in residential neighborhoods.

Sooner or later, the weather will cycle back to more normal conditions, and so will the coyotes. But what to do in the meantime? Vic attended the meeting and returned with a generally positive report. He said the citizens complaining about the coyotes expressed understanding that coyotes are a natural part of our local ecosystem. And the environmentalists who spoke in defense of the coyotes also expressed understanding of the concerns of the people who fear for the pets and their children.

Vic seems to be optimistic that the city's action program will stress public education about how to minimize coyote problems and include only minimal trapping to eliminate just the most aggressive animals and not wholesale eradication of the local coyote population. I sure hope he's right. We need those essential elements of the ecosystem as much as we need butterflies.


VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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