Monday, February 1, 2016

The Great Migration—Kingdom of the Monarchs

Guest Blog by Joyce Oberle

That the Monarch Butterfly’s journey to Mexico is the greatest of all insect migrations is an accepted and obvious truism.   Every year millions of Monarchs from Canada and the United States begin the long and arduous journey to the mountains of Central Mexico where they will hibernate, roosting on one specific tree, the oyamel fir tree. 

It is a sad commentary that the Monarch population has declined by ninety per cent in the last two decades.  Loss of habitat in the United States and logging of the oyamel tree in Mexico have been the harbingers of the Monarch’s plight.   Knowing this, I began studying in earnest about six years ago wanting to learn as much as I could about this beautiful insect.   In time, I began sharing what I had learned with others who also shared my interests. 
            
It was this past summer, however, as I again was raising the little caterpillars that visited my milkweed plants, that I decided it was time for me to journey to Mexico and experience firsthand the Monarch’s dauntless travels.

I was delighted when my friend Lil Collins agreed to accompany me.  Travel arrangements solidified, we were on our way to Mexico on the ninth of January.  Mexico City was our first stop, meeting our traveling companions and our guides.  Early the next morning, fourteen eager travelers and three guides boarded a bus and began the four hour trip to the quaint, little town of Angangueo.   After checking into our hotel and enjoying a delicious lunch of the local cuisine, we were ushered onto the bed of two trucks.   Ten miles up the mountain, we switched from the trucks to horses.  It was one mile traveling on horseback and then one final mile on foot.  At long last, we finally arrived at the butterfly sanctuary, El Rosario Sanctuary, to be more explicit.  
 
All photos used in this Blog are courtesy of the photographer, Wendy Caldwell of Monarch Joint Venture http://www.monarchjointventure.org/
One does not immediately grasp the essence of what is before them.   Looking out at the vast expanse of the oyamel trees and then finally realizing that what has inundated branches and trunk alike is the immense array of millions of butterflies.  Although I have seen pictures of the various sanctuaries, to view them in reality is almost akin to a spiritual experience.  It was midafternoon, and the heat of the sun began caressing the trees, providing needed warmth so that many of the butterflies began to take flight around the sanctuary giving us the opportunity for many great pictures.  
     
    
Because the local inhabitants are so protective of the butterflies the area is cordoned off, and one can get no closer to the trees then perhaps forty to fifty feet.  Guards are also positioned at the sanctuaries. Both men and women take turns standing guard.  As the afternoon sun began to leave the sanctuary, we finished pictures and videos and began our long trip back to our hotel. 

Early the next morning, we headed to the second sanctuary.  The weather was against us, and it was quite cold.  Arriving at the sanctuary, again by horseback and by foot, it was obvious that the butterflies were too cold to take flight.  For them to be able to fly, the temperature must be at least sixty degrees, and it was not even close to that.  After a few hours of waiting for sunshine and warmth that didn’t arrive, we began our trip back to the base camp. Although we were still able to see many Monarchs roosting in the trees, it would have been less disappointing if we could have watched them flying about the sanctuary.  Oh well, it was still an awesome sight.



I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the kindness and gracious demeanor of the local people.  Certainly the many food dishes that we got to sample and eat were first rate.  Although the hotel in Angangueo had no heat, we did have a small space heater that the hotel provided.  The week passed all too quickly, and soon we were in the airport in Mexico City ready to begin our trip back to the United States.

Yet I couldn’t help but make the comparison between the Monarchs and us.  In a few hours, we would be back at Lambert’s in St. Louis, an easy trip at best.    Nevertheless, these fragile creatures fly thousands of miles over at least two months’ time, often in unpredictable weather.  It is still a mystery as to how they are able to find the oyamel trees never having been there before.   Perhaps we may never know.

As I finish my story, I am reminded of a quote by the great Andy Warhol.  He states, “They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”  And so it is with the Monarchs.  Time has changed things significantly for them and not in a good way.  But now at long last, many caring and concerned people from federal to local levels have become aware of the butterflies challenges and are wanting to assist them.  Already, we are seeing positive results.  Vast numbers of individuals in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and many other countries are willing to  do  their part so that future generations, our children and grandchildren, will see the Monarchs, not from books, but outside on  a warm summer day flying around looking for milkweed.

Joyce Oberle is a Missouri Master Naturalist with the Miramiguoa Chapter and a member of the Franklin County Master Gardeners.


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