(HOST) This is the time of year when the monarch butterfly begins it’s long migration south, and commentator Ted Levin says it’s an astonishing trip for such a fragile creature.
(LEVIN) The biggest difference between a maple leaf loosed by the wind and an airborne monarch butterfly is that the butterfly has a destination in mind. That the monarch goes to a remote forest 10,000 feet up in the mountains in Michoacan, Mexico is not news.
Lincoln Brower, a lepidopterist, formerly of Amherst College, discovered a four-acre wintering site, which he called Site Alpha, on New Year’s Day 1977, and estimated that at least thirteen point eight million butterflies gathered there in the evergreens wing to wing. When interviewed by the The New York Times, Brower said his estimate was conservative and more likely a hundred million butterflies decorated Site Alpha.
This past summer has been a banner year for monarchs. I watched them fly in tandem, mating, and glide over meadows, pastures, and school yards. I’ve seen them pollinate aster and goldenrod, and lay hexagonal eggs, shaped like little sausages, one per plant, on the under surface of milkweed leaves. Around our house their transparent green chrysalises, suspended by a silk plug, hang from cedar clapboards beneath our dining room window, from the rose bush, the barn, and the pasture fence.
Now, as I watch monarchs bullied by a northwest wind high above the meadow, it’s like watching summer pass by. From Coyote Hollow, the butterflies follow the Connecticut River to Long Island Sound. Some cross the Sound and join others that have island-hopped from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket to Block Island, then to the forked tail of Long Island; from Orient and Montauk points they travel west along the outer beaches – the Hamptons, Fire Island, Jones Beach, Long Beach, the Rockaways – then across New York Harbor and south down the coastal plain.
Others follow the north shore of the Long Island Sound, west along the Connecticut coast. The two groups come together somewhere over the Jersey shore.
Nearly thirty years ago, I watched undulating shoals of butterflies pass by the ocean, along the leeward side of the primary dunes on the western edge of Fire Island. The butterflies flew low, barely rising above the crest of the dunes. Sunrise to sunset they passed, hundreds of thousands – maybe a million, who knows – a visual feast of butterflies. By twilight the parade stopped as the monarchs went to roost on the needles of red cedar and pitch pine. By dawn, they were off again.
Monarchs belong to the family Danaidae, the milkweed butterflies, a group of closely related species that range throughout the tropics. Most members lay their eggs on various species of milkweeds. During the past several million years, as milkweeds diversified across North America, monarchs moved north.
Since milkweed butterflies are tropical, and no life stage of a danaid can survive a prolonged freeze, breaking the climatic barrier by the monarch was a radical accomplishment.
And for a Vermont butterfly to arrive in Mexico, having faced tropical storms, cold fronts, and a three thousand-mile trek, is truly amazing. Just ask any maple leaf.
Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing.