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Desert Botanical Gardens, Part 1

One of my favorite spots in Arizona is the Desert Botanical Garden located near the zoo just north of Tempe. For long-term subscribers to LAHP, you'll recall the Chihuly: The Nature of Glass Exhibit which was held here in 2009 (and of which I shared many photos). The photo to the right shows the sole remnant of that exhibit, entitled "The Desert Towers". I love this piece — both daylight and nighttime (if you would like to visit the nighttime image, click here).

The garden is currently raising money to purchase this piece and to provide an endowment for its future care. They are within $100,000 of the $800,000 goal — I think they'll make it.


But my visit to the gardens was not primarily to view the Chihuly piece again but to see the Monarch Butterflies. Twice a year, butterflies are on exhibit in a screened-in pavilion — Monarchs in the fall and Arizona butterflies in the spring. Even though I have seen them multiple times in previous years, I cannot resist — so I grabbed my camera and off I went. I have shared photos of the Monarchs from previous visits, so please forgive my indulgence — and I hope most of you will enjoy visiting them once more.

When I first arrived, I was immediately taken by the large gathering on the screen (seen above) which creates an optical illusion in that they appear to be resting in the trees, which are actually outside the pavilion. This scene reminds me so much of Natural Bridges State Park at the north end of Santa Cruz, CA. That is the wintering home for Monarchs that migrate from the valley regions west of the Rocky Mountains where milkweed, the only plant Monarch caterpillars eat, is abundant.

At Natural Bridges, they cling to the leaves and branches of the huge eucalyptus trees to enjoy the mild ocean air. Typically, the early morning marine layer is a bit chilly and they close their wings and huddle together for warmth. This provides an illusion of trees full of dead leaves because the underside of Monarch wings are dull in comparison to the tops. However, when the sun finally breaks through, one is treated to a spectacular view of trees full of bright orange "leaves".

At the Desert Botanical Garden, there are so many butterflies that they seem to acclimate to the presence of humans. The gardens take great care to make sure that no butterflies are released into the wild since Monarchs do not normally stop in Arizona.

This one seems to have a notch missing from its wing. When I first noticed it, I wondered if that was done intentionally to prevent the butterfly from a successful escape. However, only a few of them had such a defect so I concluded the damage was natural.

On this trip, I made a serious attempt to get close to the butterflies for my photos. I felt quite rewarded when I returned home and downloaded the photos into my computer. I never trust the small LED screen on my camera — it is too small and the bright ambient light distorts the image.

Not only did I photograph the Monarchs but also observed them carefully, perhaps in the way that a lepidopterologist would — albeit without the academic credentials. It is fascinating to watch them use their proboscis to probe a flower seeking the nectar contained there. Once they exhaust the nectar from one flower they fly off to visit another.

Watching the Monarchs made me wonder if they could distinguish colors of flowers and if they had preferences. A quick Google search found some research on the topic and it seems that they do have color vision which results in preferences in the flowers that they will visit seeking nectar.

Different species seem to have sensitivity in different part of the electromagnetic spectrum including ultraviolet frequencies. Other factors that flowers use to attract pollinators are scent, reflectance, size, outline, surface texture, temperature and motion.

Here I found a Monarch resting in the shade with its wings folded. You can really see how the pattern of markings on the wings with the desaturated coloration of the underside makes for butterfly camouflage.

One behavior that I observed was that multiple butterflies would visit the same flower over time. I never really pondered the rate at which flowers produce nectar, but they must produce it rapidly enough to attract multiple individual butterflies — otherwise the new arrivals would only stay a moment before determining that the cupboard is bare. It appeared to me that they were feeding on more than just the dregs.

I also observed that these Monarchs seemed to be equally at home feeding upside down as right side up. That may be an evolved defense mechanism — I would assume they would be less visible and less vulnerable to predators if they are hanging under a flower than on top of it.

We close today with a pair of butterflies sharing a flower.

Next week, we'll tour more of the Desert Botanical Gardens. For those of you who live in the Phoenix area, I highly recommend a visit to the gardens — with kids or just your inner kid. The butterfly exhibit is open until November 14.

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com