I stumbled onto Monarch Meadows when I Googled “Indiana Nature Preserves”. It is one of 13 preserves hosted by the non-profit Oak Heritage Conservancy, whose mission is to protect unique natural and agricultural areas in Southeast Indiana.
Monarch Meadows is somewhat of an unknown and there really was not much information about it on the internet. We arrived to find an expansive trailhead board positioned on the western edge of a little used gravel parking area that was somewhat overgrown with low growing vegetation.
The 85 acre preserve sits atop a ridge that is bisected by a small country lane and there are managed wildflower areas bordering this road. We walked the path outlined in red, starting at the “P” parking area.
There are hay fields acting as buffers surrounding the butterfly and pollinator habitat.
I had seen mentioned that there were mowed paths in the preserve but they were not initially apparent from the trailhead. Eventually we could see swathes where the vegetation was just below knee height, significantly lower than some other areas. Two of the three of us were wearing shorts and were a little intimidated by challenge of the high vegetation.
As we entered these “paths” we realized that preserve management made a correct decision to not mow the paths during the summer, allowing the forbs to grow, to provide flowering and larval plants for the butterflies. The pathway was full of Butterfly Weed, a member of the Milkweed Family, that functions as both a nectar source and larval host for butterflies. Here it is shown just ready to bloom, and then in all its glory.
On close up one can make out the classic milkweed flower shape, and the reddish sepals of this particular plant.
The meadow was teaming with butterflies and other pollinators! Every direction you looked there was movement and color. As the photographer noted, it was like being in one of those greenhouse butterfly exhibits, but out in the open, and accompanied by a myriad of bees, moths, grasshoppers, and birds.
It was not uncommon to see two or three species of pollinators on the same flower head.
Monarch, Meadow Fritillary, and insects on Butterfly Weed
It is named Monarch Meadows but what first caught our attention were Zebra Swallowtails that we could see from the edge of the parking lot.
When we got about 50 yards from the trailhead the monarchs appeared on full display, generally visiting the Butterfly Weed.
It was the most Monarchs that we have seen since November 2020, when we found ourselves on the Monarch migration route along the Gulf of Mexico.
Milkweed, of course, is famous for its relationship with Monarchs, and there is quite a bit of it at Monarch Meadows. It is called Milkweed because of the milky like substance that oozes from its leaves when it is damaged.
This fluid contains substances that are toxic to most animals, who therefore, avoid eating it. A few species, including Monarchs, have developed an ability to tolerate the toxins, and in fact use them to make themselves unpalatable to their predators.
On this hike we did not see any butterfly caterpillars but did find this clutch of eggs on the underside of a Milkweed leaf. It is unclear to me if these are Monarch eggs.
As mentioned previously the field was alive with activity as you can see in this video.
In all we photographed 11 species of butterflies, some small and some grand in size. One of my favorites was the Eastern Tailed Blue, which appeared white while sedentary, but a vivid blue when it was in flight and the topsides of its wings exposed.
Another of the smaller butterflies was the Cabbage White, one most gardeners are familiar with.
The beauty of these animals is best appreciated when seen in photos, when the color and structures can be seen in detail, like with this Pearl Crescent. I love the fine pattern of the antennae. It almost makes you understand why people caught and mounted butterflies in the past.
Other small butterflies included:
Silver Spotted Skipper – on Bee Balm.
Orange Sulphur – on a clover flower. Sulphurs are sometimes difficult to identify to specific species as they hybridize with other Sulphurs, which can result in some color and pattern variations.
The final small butterfly was the Meadow Fritillary.
The larger butterflies were mainly of the Swallowtail family:
Tiger Swallowtail – Its beauty calls for more than one photo.
Spicebush Swallowtail – the first photo shows the underside and the second the topside.
Eastern Black Swallowtail – perhaps the most common swallowtail seen on this hike.
And finally one last photo of the star of the preserve, the Monarch, this time sharing some space with a Bicolored Sweat Bee, which has a metallic green thorax and a tan abdomen.
As mentioned previously the meadow was home to countless other forms of life, especially insects, including these three species of grasshoppers.
There was the ever fascinating Widow Skimmer Dragonfly.
And of course a myriad of bee species were buzzing around.
Bumble Bee and Honey Bee
And a potpourri of other insects.
Perhaps the most interesting insect related activity we saw were these large Herder Ants, farming aphids on a thistle plant.
The ants use the aphids to convert plant fluids into sugars that they can then eat. The aphids consume the plant liquids and digest it into a sugar substance called “honeydew”. The ants stroke the backs of the aphids, causing them to exude the honeydew, which the ants then consume. In return the ants protect the aphids from their predators such as Lacewings and Lady Bugs.
Another exciting sighting at Monarch Meadows was the presence of a large flock of colorful Meadowlarks, seen fleeting around the meadow. They blended in with the yellow flowers and were somewhat too far away for the telephoto lens, but still the photograph is fun. Can you spot him amongst the Sunflowers and Gray-headed Coneflowers?
Of course some of the most steady performers in a meadow are the flowering plants and that was certainly the case here. Since there are many, and most were seen in our previous prairie posts, we will use gallery images.
Ironweed and Chicory
Queen Anne’s Lace and Aster
Gray-headed Coneflower and Bergamot Bee Balm
Dayflower and Giant Sunflower
Blue Verrain and Patridge Pea
Whorled Rosinweed and Pink Coneflower
Slender Mountain Mint and Blackeyed Susan
Individually they are beautiful, but together they are an ecosystem.
In summary, Monarch Meadows is a very worthwhile trip. It is a bounty of butterflies and wildflowers, both with diversity of species and in great numbers, which provide a profusion of color. The preserve sits atop a ridge which allows for some breezes. We applaud Oak Heritage Conservancy for preserving this unique site for present and future generations, of both people and pollinators.
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Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns. Video by Caroline Burns.
Location – 46 miles east of downtown Cincinnati near Rising Sun, Indiana.
Parking – Nice gravel lot for 5 to 6 cars.
Facilities – None.
Trail Conditions – Formerly mowed paths that have been allowed to grow back for the summer flower season. Grasses and forbs are about knee high. Wear pants and socks. The terrain is gently rolling. Sunscreen and insect repellents are good ideas.
Print Map Link – None
Benches – None
Kids – This is an ideal place to take kids 6 and over as the grade is relatively easy, but the un-mowed trail could be a challenge for those younger. The flowers and butterflies are right at kid eye level so should be very stimulating.
Dogs – Welcomed on a leash.
Suggested Paired Hikes – None