On the Trail of the Monarch Butterfly
June 24, 2004
Rhea's Journal 15

A couple of years ago my husband Leon, our son David and I drove from our home in San Miguel, Mexico to the mountains of Michoacon to see where the Monarch butterflies go in the winter. I had heard about their amazing trans-gulf flight from the marshland stopping off point in lower Cameron and Calcasieu Parishes all the way to the mountain forests of Western Mexico and I wanted to see this amazing phenomena. The Monarch sanctuary area is about a four and a half hour drive from San Miguel. After an overnight stay in a small inn, we drove a short distance to an embarkation point in one of the lesser known sanctuary areas. From there, we rode on horseback up the mountain and then climbed down the side of another mountain to reach the resting butterflies. It was quite a trek but well worth the effort.

Millions of dormant butterflies hung in large gray clusters from the mountain conifers that looked as though they were draped in Spanish moss. In order to keep warm through the chilly Mexican nights, each butterfly hangs with its wings over the butterfly beneath it. This protective behavior protects each covered butterfly's tiny body and fragile wings from wind and rain damage and holds in warmth. Monarch butterflies are cold blooded and cannot fly when the ambient temperature is less than 55 degrees. If the temperature drops below 40 degrees the butterflies are literally paralyzed.

The week before our arrival there had been an unexpected cold snap and hundreds of thousands of dead butterflies made a gold carpet beneath the trees. The day was overcast and we waited quite a while for the clouds to clear out and let the sunshine in. Resting Monarchs do not move until the sun comes out and the temperature increases sufficiently. Once the butterflies feel the increasing warmth of the sun they begin to fibrillate to further warm their bodies. Slowly, these strange gray clusters began to move in unison. Every now and then a Monarch unfolded its wings and broke way from a cluster. Then, without warning clusters literally began to explode with flashes of gold and black wings - Monarchs by the thousands everywhere.

Butterflies swirled around us, landed on our heads, our clothes, and our arms - anywhere they could find a surface. My sun hat was suddenly transformed into a living butterfly Easter bonnet. What an incredible event! It was exhilarating to be surrounded by so many of these stunning creatures. You can imagine how excited I was to learn that many of these butterflies likely made a rest stop on our Louisiana coast to feed on milkweed, and breed a new generation of butterflies before beginning another long journey to the Mexican mountains.

With fond memories of this awe inspiring discovery, a few weeks ago we took off in search of their Louisiana land sites. It wasn't quite the right time so we didn't see too many butterflies but we did find the area where they break their journey. I later talked with the Monarch butterfly expert, Gary Ross, who explained that the weather in the Michoacon mountains this past February was unusually cold and many of the butterflies did not survive for the return journey. Mexico also struggles to maintain the butterfly habitat in the face of rampant illegal logging of the forest. In 1986, Mexico set up a refuge for the butterflies as a place that also provided gainful employment for the local residents who resorted to illegal logging to make money. But, the logging continues unabated and the loggers simply accused the government of taking their land away.

Reliable persons estimate that 40% of the butterfly reserve has been destroyed and the future for the Monarchs is not bright. They are losing their winter migration forest as well as their coastal resting area. There is good news however. The Baton Rouge Audubon Society had the foresight to purchase shore acreage for a Louisiana sanctuary for both migrating birds and butterflies. The Peveto Woods Bird and Butterfly Sanctuary covers about 40 acres of coast in Cameron Parish and is located just off Hwy 82 about eight and half miles west of Holly Beach. Thanks to the Society's commitment to continued land acquisitions, this area will be protected from future development and will provide a resting and feeding place for millions of songbirds and butterflies transitioning through Louisiana.