Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont engages in various Citizen Science projects. I profiled their bird banding in June. In early fall, they tag Monarch butterflies migrating to their winter refuge in central Mexico. I am pleased join this effort on my last day in the Smokies. Josh Davis, the Citizen Science Coordinator at GSMIT, and nine enthusiastic volunteers head for Sparks Lane in Cades Cove on a sunny and soon to be warm morning.
Josh explains the process, demonstrates the net capture technique, and sets us loose in the meadows. There are various goldenrods, asters, thistles, and a few other plants in flower. The thistles in particular attract several species of butterflies. Too bad we aren’t tagging Pipevine Swallowtails. There are scores of them nectaring in the fields. Other species, including Gulf Fritillary, Great Spangled Fritillary, Viceroy (a Monarch mimic), and Buckeye, are seen and recorded for the ATBI (All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory) database in the park.
Parts of the fields are not hard to wade through even though the meadow plants range from chest to head height. However, several areas are full of brambles too. Both dead and live stems snag clothing and skin. I wound up with several pulled threads and lots of scrapes and scratches on my legs and arms. Just as Monarchs manage to find their way to wintering grounds they’ve never seen before, many of these wily butterflies seem to know to fly down when a net is positioned over them, swooping under the hoop. If they escape the first attempt, they are nearly impossible to catch as they quickly head straight up and away beyond the reach of the long-handled net. Monarchs can fly as fast as 12 miles an hour, and we are no match running through tall weeds.
Overall we catch and tag 24 Monarchs at Sparks Lane. After lunch, we move to Hyatt Lane, where we find just a few Pipevine Swallowtails, a Black Swallowtail, some Pearl Crescents, and several large Argiope Garden Spiders. I nearly become intimate with two of them, spotting their sudden movement across the web just as I am about to walk right through it. Fortunately for them and me, I do no damage and they stay put. Having one of these guys perched on my shoulder would have frightened both of us senseless.
In the fields I find at least one recognizable goldenrod species, Wrinkled-leaf Goldenrod. Canada Goldenrod is likely another. There is Old Field Aster in flower, as well as some Lobelia, an Agalinis sp., seeding stalks of Blazing Star, and the Tennessee State Wildflower, Passion-flower (Passiflora incarnata). There are several species of Thistle in the park, and I don’t determine which ones are flowering.
We wrap up about 2:00 p.m., and I head home. On the way out of Cades Cove, I drive into a bear jam. Park volunteers are on the scene to help manage things and protect both bears and visitors. While driving slowly along the loop road, window down and sunroof open, I hear crashing noises from the trees around my car. Looking through the sunroof to see if I can spot a bear in the branches, I realize that I’m hearing acorns dropping!! From start to finish, this trip is all about acorns. I’m actually going to miss them!