Thursday, February 26, 2009

Monarch Butterflies: a Michoacan Miracle

Every year millions of Monarch butterflies migrate south to spend a winter hibernating then reproducing on oyamel pines, cedars, spruces and live oak trees in the high mountains north of Mexico City. After mating, they start their annual return trip to North America.

On a winter trip to Mexico, my husband and I decided that we could not miss this wonder of nature. The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is made up of four sanctuaries. In our rented car, we headed to the small Cerro Pelon Sanctuary in Michoacan.

Rancho San Cayeteno, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, was our luxurious base for visiting the Monarchs in Cerro Pelon. Comfortable rooms are surrounded by expansive grounds planted with flowering trees, attracting a resident vermillion flycatcher and hummingbirds. A well tended rose bed provides cut flowers for guest rooms and a greenhouse grows fresh vegetables for the dinning room. When mornings are warm desayuno, or breakfast, is served on a lovely garden patio. We ate dinner at tables surrounding a large stone fireplace in a brick-walled great room with Spanish colonial furniture and timbered ceiling. A stunning woven tapestry and stained glass window based on an abstract design of Monarch butterflies set the mood of a resort designed to show off the local natural phenomena.

San Cayetano’s Lizette and Pablo Span arrange butterfly tours using a local bi-lingual guide. After a full breakfast of fresh fruit and chilaqueiles, we drove with Marcelo, our guide, up twisting mountain roads, careful to reduce our speed over the frequent Mexican speed bumps, or topes, to the remote village of Macheros. There, a co-op of local villagers had our horses saddled and ready to go. Young men led our horses up the steep, rocky hillside holding rope leads for the inexperienced riders in our train of four horses. For over an hour we swayed in our saddles as our horses picked their way up the dusty trail. At first just a few of the distinctive orange, black and white butterflies appeared soaring overhead. Within a few more minutes of climbing, we saw thousands of Monarchs fluttering their wings against the clear, cerulean sky. A rickety wood slat and wire fence with hand painted signs advised visitors “no tire basura,” or don’t throw trash, announced our entry to the Cerro Pelon Monarch Reserve.

Our horses turned and climbed even higher as the sky revealed many more fluttering Monarchs. At our guide’s direction, we dismounted our horses and started a steeper climb on foot. At 2,800 meters the climbing was slow and breathing labored. However, our effort was immediately forgotten as the breathtaking whisper of fragile wings surrounded us. The soft sound of millions of wings fluttering reminded our guide of falling snow. In the sturdy mountain trees, huge clusters of Monarchs with folded wings weighted down limbs. We passed another hand-scrawled sign warning visitors “silencio.” Immature butterflies, clinging to trees and not ready to fly, would be disturbed by loud noises. If they attempted to fly, they would drop to their deaths by the thousands. We whispered and walked softly.

A flat rock at the edge of the rutted trail made a good seat while we clicked our cameras and quietly “oohed” and “awed,” at the marvelous colors and shear numbers of delicate orange and black wings. White clouds sailed across the sun, the shadows slowing the butterflies flight, but as clouds passed and sun rays returned to warm the trees, swarms of Monarchs now back to flight temperature flitted into the sky again. The bursts of wings lifting and soaring filled the sky and looked like autumn leaves falling on a windy day.

Attached mating Monarchs danced as if the sky were their ballroom. A silhouette of a single soaring butterfly, back-lit by the sun, the orange sharply outlined by black, must have inspired stain glass artists.

Marcelo told us that the Monarchs would land on us if we were wearing white. A couple of us stripped down to our T-shirts and stood as still as possible hoping to be a landing spot. The sensation of a one-half gram, four inch wing spanned insect landing on an arm was such an enchantment that we sat there for over an hour hoping for more. As the afternoon wore on, dark clouds from the east moved in over mountain peaks in our direction. As we finished our packed lunch and began our walk down the mountain, lighting and thunder preceded heavy rain drops which turned to hail. Surprised by this out of season storm, our guides hurried us down the hill. The cold rain followed us all the way back to Macheros. Everyone was soaked and cold, so it was hurried “gracias” all around, with tips for the hard working horse leaders and guide.

Back as Rancho San Cayetano, Mexican hot chocolate, and hot showers warmed us up before a relaxing evening of sharing our stories with others who planned a butterfly tour the next day.

About the Monarchs migration:
The Monarchs’ migration from Canada by the multi-millions to mountainous Mexico lasts from the end of October to the middle of March. At spring equinox they start leaving the Mexican mountains and are gone in two weeks. Hibernating during the coldest park of winter, and then mating in early spring, Monarchs return to Texas and lay their eggs on milk weed plants. In all it takes 4 generations, with each life span lasting about one month, for the Monarchs to make it across the USA to Canada for the summer. In mid-September, marked by the fall equinox, the migration to Mexico begins again. The trip to Mexico from Canada is one 8 month life span; the Monarchs making the trip having never been to Mexico before and separated from their migration by several generations. How this migration occurs is one that makes scientists still scratch their heads.