I had this beautiful, spectacular experience of witnessing the ongoing Monarch Butterfly Migration at the National Bridges State Park, Santa Cruz. Unfortunately, my camera lens has only a narrow zoom/magnification. Hence, I’ve used here images from the worldwideweb. (Courtesy-link provided below the image)
As you are reading this, hundreds and hundreds of bright yellow color-spotted Monarch butterflies are migrating away from the fast-approaching winters in Northern Canada and United States, towards the bright, sunny, tree tops and eucalyptus canopies of Mexico, stopping intermittently through the Fall warmth across western California, Mid-west and East Coast. They organize themselves into tightly packed intricate clusters, hanging from the tree tops, and if I wasn’t told to look for them through a telescope, I would have never known about their wonderfully-deceitful camouflage.
Right here in these clusters, these butterflies rapidly mate, feed, store their energy reserves, and either rest here throughout the winters, or continue on their milkweed-migration-hopping to reach their final destination paradises. This is the annual ritual of several thousands of winter Monarch butterflies (that can live up to 8 months in comparison to their captive summer counterparts which live only for 2-6 weeks), that can employ a complex interplay of visual, chemical, and olfactory sensors to detect milk weed flowers.
Butterflies from the Western and Eastern sides of the Rockies, somehow begin their journey down south in October, and reach locations in Southern California, or Mexico, respectively by January-Feb. That’s a long, long, journey. The Park Ranger I spoke with told me that, while the Mexico-bound flies are aided by the direction of the wind, the California-bound flies are forced to fight against the winds. Scientists have suggested the following as possible cues these butterflies use to signal the migratory event: wind patterns, changing smells of wilting flowers, their changing vibrant colors, the fresh smell of newly blooming flowers, the changing tastes of floral nectar, the visibly changing sunlight patterns, length of day/nights, and temperatures, to name the top few. However, the exact answer to explain how and when these butterflies can so brilliantly find their routes to their respective destinations, particularly in an orchestrated event that systematically happens every single year, to exactly same destinations, is still entirely, UNKNOWN.
Thanks to efforts by citizen scientists who have managed to brilliantly track these butterflies, we now have several high-caliber, simple-easy to understand citizen science projects that are currently shaping our knowledge about these Migratory patterns: Monarch Watch and the Journey North. Due to the numerous risks involving weather patterns, predator attacks and habitat changes, often it is the fifth generation of the butterflies that eventually reach their destinations. Through spring season, these butterflies actively mate and nearly double their populations, which subsequently begin their return travels to the north. And a few months after, the cycle repeats, and just like their ancestors did, these butterflies begin their south-bound Migration. Sadly, their numbers are sinking. Last year, over 1,50,000 butterflies fluttered their way into the small canopy of Eucalyptus trees in this State Park. This year, the numbers haven’t crossed 30,000.
My park ranger gave me one final tip: if you want to help, plant a milk-weed in your back yard. No matter where you are, a Monarch Butterfly will find its way to your home. She smiled. And I well knew she wasn’t exaggerating.