A few weeks ago I wrote about the ending of summer and the antics, activities and troubles of two of our major pollinators, bees and butterflies. I got several replies to that newsletter, and I appreciate folks taking the time to write and reply. Often these recipes bring out something I had not known before or remind me of something I forgot. One of those replies to that pollinator newsletter referenced a piece I had written back in 2016 about the migration patterns and behaviors of the monarch butterfly. I had forgotten about that piece, so I went back and found it. And I was once again amazed at the surprises that nature often holds when we look closely at it. The monarch is a beautiful butterfly, but what is even more amazing about it is its toughness. I was totally unaware of that until a summer in 2000 when we accidentally stumbled onto something that led me to find out more about this miraculous creature:
In late August of 2000 my wife and I were on our third trip to Kingston, Ontario. We were there for the annual Limestone City Blues Festival, started by Kingston native Dan Aykroyd and which just celebrated its 23rd year in 2019. We had discovered the festival a few years before, and we quickly made it a ritual to spend the last full week of August in Kingston before returning to our teaching jobs. The festival was the main attraction at first, but we had also enjoyed seeing and learning the area. We had been up and down Princess Street, the main drag in Kingston, and discovered about a dozen independently owned and operated bookstores. We had been to wonderful Thai, Indian, Greek and Vietnamese restaurants. We had also visited art museums on the campuses of colleges in the area and visited the wonderful Maritime Museum of the Great Lakes. We had seen gardens, farm and school museums, and historic houses. Now we were getting off a ferry boat that had taken us across the St Lawrence River to visit Amherst Island, a cute farming community that from what we read had llamas (?) sunflower farms, and a migratory bird stopover/ grassland bordering Lake Ontario. That was our intended destination- as birders we wanted to see the various hawks, owls and other birds the frequented the reserve. But we were in for a marvelous surprise.
We drove to the northwestern end of the island, past the llama farm, a number of small crop farms, some wonderful old wooden barns, and an amazing sunflower farm all on our way to the Edwards refuge. We got out of the car, turned into the wind, and carefully walked through the large field, dodging prodigious amounts of dung from the free roaming cows on the property. We quickly spotted Cooper’s hawks, marsh hawks, kingbirds, wrens, red tail hawks, ospreys and more. But then we noticed there were all these stalks of something sticking up across the field that seemed to have some small things clinging to them. Curious, we walked a little closer, and we couldn’t believe what we saw. There were hundreds, literally hundreds, of monarch butterflies clinging to the grass stalks and trying to hold on in face of the wind. Unbeknownst to us, we had stumbled onto part of the northern range of the monarch butterfly. It was migration time, and they were there all over the refuge. This migratory stopover was not just for birds; the monarchs used it also.
As we went from section to section of the field monarchs would arise, float around for a bit, and then land on another stalk. At times the air would be filled with dozens of beautiful monarchs just flitting from stalk to stalk, hovering and then landing. Looking south across Lake Ontario, I realized I could not see the shoreline of New York State; it was there but it was beyond my eyesight. Then it hit me what was going on: these fragile looking little butterflies were feeding and waiting there on Amherst for the wind to change so they could make the long trip all the way across that huge lake to continue their migration southward. No; it did not seem possible.; how could these fragile looking gentle creatures do that?? How? We were on the island for some three or four more hours, and we saw the monarchs constantly and persistently traveling from stalk to stalk, feeding, resting and preparing for the next stage in their trip. They were going to do it. We were amazed and delighted.
As I learned later, the migration of the monarch is a very strange trip indeed. Out of the hundreds of species of butterflies, monarchs are the only ones that make a true two-way migration of hundreds of miles the way birds do. Their range is astonishing-they may cover a distance of some 2,500-3,000 miles north from Mexico to Canada. But that is not the only astounding thing about this migration; the monarch who overwinters in Mexico and starts the migration north out of Mexico is not the same individual monarch who finishes it in Canada. Each generation of monarchs, traveling some 50-100 miles a day, makes it only so far north. They give birth to another generation along the way, and it is that next generation that travels until it is time for it to give birth to yet another generation. In all, it is the third or fourth generation of northward flying monarchs that finally reach the northeastern United States and Canada. There they find enough milkweed to spend the summer and early fall. Coming southward, though, that third or fourth generation monarch makes the trip all the way to Mexico-across Lake Ontario and onwards for over 2,000 miles. And all along the way it stops at the same trees and islands and follows the same routes that the previous years’ monarchs did on their way to a winter home they never seen before.Once in Mexico they cluster in large communities, shut down their natural reproductive development, and wait until next February and March. Then they seemingly come back to life and travel north in those 3-5 week spurts as their reproductive ability returns and they lay the eggs for the next generation going north. This cycle will repeat come the fall, and on and on it will go. It is an amazing saga of instinct, renewal, generational knowledge and perseverance. “
As I re-read this I am fascinated and amazed yet again. There before us and around us, and seemingly beneath our notice, is this constant, quiet miracle of birth, re-birth, inter-generational continuity, travel, and triumph that has been going on for centuries and centuries. Miracles truly come in all sizes and in all shapes. And the seemingly gentle little monarch has a lot to teach us about miracles, perseverance and commitment.