Pilgrimage to the Monarch Butterfly Migration

IMG_2277by Ange Wallace

As I was recapping my recent trip to visit the Monarch Migration Sites in Central Mexico, news hit both TV and print media with the alarm that this year the population of migratory Monarchs is the lowest since records began to be kept in 1993.  Another alarming fact cited is that this is the third year running that the Monarch population has diminished.  Reasons cited for the low numbers include lack of milkweed in their north American habitat, bad weather conditions both in the US and in Mexico, and ongoing deforestation.  The one bright spot is that, unlike the polar bear situation with diminishing habitats, there are specific things we can all do to reverse this trend: plant milkweed (even if it is in pots on your patio or deck!), raise Monarchs like our own Sandra Hinton Baker, educate others on the plight of the Monarch and its importance to our environment as a pollinator, contact your senator and representatives to find ways to cut back on the mass spraying of herbicides and pesticides for farming, go visit the Monarch Sanctuaries to support the local population and encourage them to work hard to preserve the biosphere that supports the Monarchs in the winter! This is what National Geographic has to say about the disappointing numbers this year.


Almost three years ago I attended a book signing by author Mary Alice Monroe at Books Plus in Downtown Fernandina Beach Florida.  The book Mary Alice was featuring was BUTTERFLY’S DAUGHTER.  The story was centered on the Monarch Butterfly Migration, from Canada straight across the US to scarcely twenty acres of lofty wooded slope in central Mexico, a half a billion butterfly monarchs migrate there to while away midwinter months in semidormancy. Dr. UrquhartAfter 4 decades of trying to track the migration this mysterious and magnificent effort was finally uncovered on January 9, 1975 . The fascinating story behind the discovery was first published by National Geographic in 1976 as told by Prof. Fred Urquhart who had spent 4 decades to find the spot high in the central Mexican Sierra Madres.

Mary Alice Monroe described her own experience visiting the Monarch preserves in the Michoacán area of Mexico and then and there I knew I had to make this trip, or perhaps a better description, ‘pilgrimage’.  This year turned out to be the time to make the trip.  I chose one of our favorite travel partners, Natural Habitat, to facilitate this adventure.  My sister-in-law, Karen Shurley and three good friends, Susan Powell, Bev Keigwin, and Sue Ayers joined me for this truly one of a kind experience!!

We flew into Mexico City, were met by NatHab staff and whisked to the Camino Real Hotel.  With very limited time programmed for Mexico City, we explored a bit of Chapultapec Park before dinner.  It is a vibrant park larger than Central Park in New York. The next day we had engaged a private guide to take us through the world class Museo Nacional de Antropologia.  Fascinating, but that is a whole other story for later!

On Monday morning we left under the careful watch of an large security force.  Just for us?  No!  El Presidente of the United States of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto was arriving!  So we quickly boarded the bus and left, avoiding getting entangled in his arrival and as a consequence arrive late for our first rendezvous with the Monarchs we had come to see!!  We were enroute to Angangueo in the North of the state of Michoacan where we would stay two nights in the beautiful but very cold little Hotel Don Bruno.  The lows were around 30°F each night and there was no heat but a small fireplace lit each night just as we retired to our beds!  Needless to say all us Floridians slept in our long underwear and sweats!!  This beautiful little ex-mining town was our launch pad for the sanctuaries of El Rosario and Chincua.

On arrival in Anangueo we quickly dropped off luggage, grabbed our heaviest jackets and bandanas for dust protections and with cameras in tow boarded our open bedded, very Mexican trucks for the climb to the entrance of El Rosario.  We were now at 10,000 -11,000 feet altitude and as sea level creatures, we were feeling the altitude a bit!  Once free of the trucks we were loaded onto to sturdy but smallish horses for the trek up to the butterflies. A few of our group walked but we were encouraged to ride the ponies to make the most of the little bit of afternoon sun left.  It was a steep and rocky climb but our trusty little steeds (each led by a very quick and agile handler!) delivered us to within a reasonable walk of the incomprehensible sight we were about to behold!  At first view it just appeared the forest was in full fall foliage. Oh!  But these were Oyamel Fir trees- evergreens!! Oh my gosh!  The butterflies covered the chosen trees until they appeared to groan under the weight!  It was late and the sun was quickly sliding down the opposing mountain tops.  It was growing colder and the Monarchs were in full roosting mode with relatively few flying about.  Some had grown too cold to fly and were littering the trail and lower bushes.  We were told this was dangerous for them as the black eared mice in the forest are immune to the poisonous Monarchs (due to their diet of milkweed) and would feast on those grounded overnight.


Only scientists and VIPs allowed to visit the core!








So, being the good little people we are, we spent much of our time trying to prop grounded butterflies up on bushes in the sun in hopes they would warm up and fly!!
We learned that there were three predators among the Monarchs in Mexico, two birds and the mice.  They eat about 10% of the butterfly population during their over wintering but that seems acceptable- after all they have to eat too in this natural food chain called life.

We reluctantly left “our” Monarchs and walked back down the mountain to the waiting trucks.  There we also found quite a few children gathered around the trucks so we distributed many of the pens, pencils and other school supplies we brought for just that purpose!!  The trip back down the mountain in the dark was a little nerve wrecking but the brakes held and our local drivers delivered us safely to Don Bruno for dinner and a heavily blanketed bed!

Huevos RancherosMorning started with a hearty Mexican breakfast and amazing hot chocolate or Mexican Coffee, with cinnamon.  On the bus today for a longer drive over to Chincua.  There are three types of land ownership in Mexico- Private, Government and Ejidos.  The ejidos are a bit like our indian reservations in that they are a prescribed piece of land belonging to a particular group of indigenous people. In Mexico the “ejidos” came into existance at the end of the revolution in 1910, when much of the lands owned by the wealthy were taken and redistributed.  The Monarch preserves involve several ejidos and each group is making monies off of the tourism being attracted to the area.  One of the problems though is that the Monarch season is only a few months of the year and many of the men must then leave the area to find work when the season is over.

There are several solutions to this being worked on.  There is a huge focus on reforestation.  The government of Mexico and the World Wildlife Fund are committing major funds to subsidize the people for not logging and except the illegal logging occurring occasionally, most logging has ceased.  Reforestation projects have several purposes.  Of course protection of the Monarch’s environment is primary but done properly these projects will also stop major erosion and flash flood problems, provide cash crops at 5, 8 and finally the big payoff at 15 years when most of the seedlings will have matured and can be harvested, and provide local work for at least some of the men.  In Chincua the people are also building the infrastructure and starting to market their area for year around  tourism featuring hiking, fishing, mountain biking, horseback riding and such.  It is a beautiful part of the world!

photoIMG_2437horses in chincua

We learned that it is not the Oyamel Fir that particularly attracts the Monarch but rather the micro weather that the forests create.  We learned so much about the the butterflies and their migration.   For instance, the butterflies that make the long trek to Mexico have a life span of 4-6 months.  The generations that move north from about Texas each year only live 4-6 weeks from hatching.  Then this one super generation that hatches in about early October emerges from the chrysalis knowing it must go south.  This generation arrives in Mexico around the first of November and they arrive in mass!  This coincides with the Mexican celebration of All Saints Day on the 1st and the Day of the Dead on November 2 (El Dia de los Muertos).  This celebration is well described in Mary Alice Monroe’s book.  Probably for this coincidence of the Monarch’s arrival at about the same time, the locals have a belief that the Monarchs are the souls of their dead ancestors returning.  It was not until 1974, that the world at large learned of the miracle of the Monarch Migration.  The discovery was in no small part through the efforts of Frederick Urquhart, professor emeritus of zoology.  Professor Urquhart began attempting to tag the Monarchs as early as 1937, trying to discover where they went in the winter.

On our second day in Angangueo we began to hear rumors that we were not going to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary as planned on our third day, which sadly proved to be true.  From all reports, the Monarchs were not in as great numbers there as normal.  El Rosario had a larger number so our great trip guides and trained naturalists redesigned our itinerary on the fly and we returned to Rosario to a very different scene on the third morning.  We had experienced the bedding down of the Monarchs in the late afternoon the first day.  Now we mounted our intrepid ponies and arrived in the full morning sun to experience the flight of millions of Monarchs in search of water, nectar and minerals from the wet ground.  It is truly spellbinding to sit quietly and hear the buzz of millions of wings. To  watch the ethereal flight of the brilliant orange and black was stunning in the clear bright sun.  We were truly saddened when it came time to make our way back down the mountain.

Really cold up here!  Just over 10,000 feet altitude!  Butterflies by the millions on the trees behind us!!We have learned so much about these vibrant magnificent creatures, their migration, mating and feeding habits.  Each of us vowed to do what we could to improve the plight of the Monarch by educating others, sharing our experiences, planting milkweed and encouraging others to do so, contacting government authorities to plead for more environmentally sensitive weed and pest control spraying for farming, and any other action we can think of to make their lives more secure!  The Monarch is amazingly resilient and can recoup quickly from a bad year as proven after the horrible winter storms of 1983 and 2002 that killed millions of the tiny creatures.  Each time they have come back stronger than ever imagined.  But, if the levels are chronically lowered due to habitat issues, then if the population gets hit with such equally devastating weather, it may clearly cause a perfect storm impacting the migratory population for generations. Let’s hope and work on preventing that.