Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, October 9, 2011

King (and Queen) of the Skies

On a boat headed north to the Maine shore several Septembers ago from Monhegan Island, about 10 miles from the mainland, a monarch butterfly passed us heading south. A butterfly over open water?

Well, yes. When your internal clock says it's time to head home, that's what you do, even over open water, high over mountains or through local parks. You flap your little wings and push on.

Anytime in September into October, when the winds blow from the north, you are as likely to see a monarch butterfly flying overhead as you are a raptor.

There was the time one came so close to the field at a recent college football game I was afraid it was going to get tackled. Or the time my husband and I were looking at a tree in a Chicago park late one afternoon and realized what we thought were leaves were dozens of roosting monarchs. Or the time MH and I were hiking single file through a field of goldenrod at Sandy Hook, N.J., and a cloud of monarchs rose up and hovered over his head while he walked on oblivious.

I like monarchs. They are big and easy to identify, unlike a lot of other butterflies. Their orange wings contrast very nicely on purple aster or thistle or especially yellow goldenrod. For something so small they are amazingly tough. They have to be.

Monarchs migrate, as birds do. But they have a more interesting story. According to one website I found, once the monarch makes its way north from its winter home in Mexico (some winter in southern California) it goes through several generations - a butterfly goes from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to adult in six to eight weeks - before the fourth-generation adult butterfly heads south in September or October to winter and then starts the cycle anew.

As with migrating birds, you don't think about the hardship that something weighing mere ounces goes through traveling hundreds of miles. I'm sure the one I saw in Maine was heading to Monhegan to rest and fuel up for the next leg of its journey. But during the same Maine trip I rescued two monarchs from spiderwebs laid across the flowers the butterfly needs to feed on. I could only hope they made it the rest of the way.

Even if the monarch makes it to its winter home it isn't necessarily safe. According to a different website I found, the butterfly's winter home in central Mexico is endangered by logging and overdevelopment of agriculture. Those monarchs that winter in southern California are finding the area more built up. Climate change may also create wetter, warmer conditions that could mess up a monarch's life cycle.

That's tough for a delicate little butterfly. Luckily, the monarchs inspire humans.

In southern California there is a concerted movement to provide more roosting trees as well as milkweed plants for the female monarchs to lay their eggs in. The caterpillars need milkweed to survive.

In central Mexico, there are four monarch butterfly sanctuaries and people have figured out they can make green and be green showing the ecotourists around them rather than cutting down all the trees. Just do a Google search under "monarch butterfly migration mexico tours" and you'll see what I mean.

I don't feel the need to travel to Mexico to see monarch butterflies in winter when they can be seen so easily right now, but it is very nice to know there are efforts to protect them. When they land on my butterfly bush to feed I know I've made my small contribution to their continuation.

Long may they reign.