Among the Winged Magic at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Mexico
For a number of years now, Bob and I have intended to go to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico to witness the spectacle of the Monarch Butterflies that winter there. We realized our dream in January 2015 when we flew into Mexico City, and two days later found ourselves at El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in the State of Michoacán. The sight literally brought me to tears.
We were staying in the town of Zitacuaro about 1.5 hours south of the Reserve, which is part of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. It was recommended to arrive around 10:30 a.m. so that, by the time we hiked up the mountain, the butterflies would be active having been warmed by the midday sun. This is me at the entrance gate to the Visitor Centre.
Bob and I had viewed the IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, a year earlier, and that certainly piqued our interest in experiencing the annual mass gathering of these beautiful insects, but also, this past summer, we were fortunate enough to find in Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto one Monarch Butterfly larva that was about to pupate.
Over the course of two weeks, Bob and I made regular trips to the Park to monitor the progress of the chrysalis, but sadly, the adult butterfly emerged in our absence. Being late September, we were certain that “our” butterfly would be making its way to Mexico.
Even later in the month of September, Bob and I reacted to a post on Facebook about a flutter of butterflies at Colonel Samuel Smith Park in Etobicoke and made our way to that location early the next morning. The previous day’s collection of butterflies had vanished, but by late afternoon, we were fortunate enough to locate another group of these handsome insects gathering in the treetops for the night. That pretty well sealed the deal for us. We had to go to Mexico to see where all of these Monarch Butterflies were going to hibernate for the winter months.
So, back in Mexico, after a fairly straight forward drive from our hotel, we found ourselves at the gate of Santuario de la Mariposa Monarca “El Rosario” near Ocampo and prepared for the hour-long hike up through the forest of pine and oak trees. Even before we hired our guide, I got stung by a hornet, not a good way to start the outing.
With butterflies in my stomach, a high level of anticipation, and a swollen ring finger, Bob and I set off with our guide along the initial steps of a well-maintained walkway.
It may have been the altitude making me a little light-headed, but I rather think it was because I was stressing about my swollen finger, which was growing fatter by the minute. I was grateful for the provision of wooden benches every so often where I hung my head between my knees and took sips of water.
As we gained altitude, the occasional Monarch Butterfly was seen floating on the air over the dirt path.
About a third of the way up the mountain, a small stream crossed the trail, and off to the left, down a slight slope, a small collection of Monarchs was availing itself of the moisture while absorbing the warmth of the sun. I was so taken up with the promise of things to come that I forgot about my aching finger.
Although the trail was steep in most areas, it did level off for stretches at a time, and given the rocks and loose dirt, Bob and I appreciated our hiking boots and walking sticks. The temperature was perfect for hiking. The air grew cooler as we climbed, and yet I found it necessary to remove my fleece sweater and cardigan.
Further along the trail, the sky began to fill with Monarch Butterflies in flight, a foreshadowing of what was in store ahead. They had been enticed from their perches by the warming rays of the noonday sun.
I was not prepared for what lay ahead. I thought, in my ignorance, that we would walk under the canopy of trees the whole time and that the bulk of the Monarchs would be resting on the boughs of the oyamel firs or white cedars. Instead, the trail opened up to a wide open meadow were thousands upon thousands of butterflies were assembled on the ground, gathering moisture from the frail stream that cut a narrow swath across the grassy area.
The sight moved me so much that tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was overwhelming to think that, there, somewhere amongst the hundreds of thousands of Monarch Butterflies, was perhaps the one that had hatched at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto and managed to survive the flight to this winter oasis.
As Bob and I looked on, Butterflies swirled all around, at times tickling our noses or brushing our hair as they passed by.
A guardian sat watch over the area to make sure that no one accidentally stepped on the regal insects, to offer suggestions as to where we should walk, and to admonish anyone who spoke in other than hushed tones.
Bob and I were mesmerized by the spectacle. I felt so protective of each and every one of these intrepid travelers that had completed the longest migration of any species on earth. It was impossible to see the ground beneath their wings where the Butterflies were so thickly congested.
The Butterflies were not disturbed by our presence so it was possible to move in close for photographs. Their primary goal was to quench their thirst and warm their bodies.
During their winter hibernation, Monarch Butterflies do not eat, but must, with regularity, move from the trees to take moisture and minerals from the water and damp soil nearby. The nights in the mountains are very cold, so on sunny days, the Butterflies are warmed sufficiently to enable them to fly short distances.
As they linger near the stream, the Butterflies count on the sunshine to keep them warm so they have sufficient strength and mobility to return to the tree branches before the forest gets too chilly in the afternoon.
Bob and I were free to remain in the meadow as long as we wanted. Our guide quietly conversed with the guardian on sight, and we reveled in the dream-like atmosphere that embodied us.
It was a great time for reflection and consideration of the miracle of Monarch Butterfly migration.
The meadow encompassed an area about one-acre in scope, and we were amongst a handful of people that had arrived behind us. Being mid-week, few visitors make the trek to see the Butterflies, but come the weekend, we were warned that the place would be crawling with spectators.
It seemed otherworldly with the swarms of Butterflies spiraling around us, drifting on unseen wafts of a slight breeze…
and we wondered how such delicate, exquisite creatures could survive on water alone for months at a time.
When we were ready, our guide indicated where we would proceed further into the forest, higher up the mountain, because the Butterflies would soon be making their way back to the shelter of the trees. It was then about 2 p.m.
The custodians of this particular butterfly preserve do not take lightly their responsibility to protect the Monarchs.
Each day, the location of the Butterflies has to be determined for they do not always return to the same trees or the same area of the forest every night. That is why a guide is required to lead visitors to the present sight of the Butterflies’ occupation. Ropes that can be adjusted define the limits of where visitors can walk without disturbing the dainty creatures.
When we caught our first glimpse of the butterfly-laden branches, we were in total awe. Photographs do not adequately capture the density of the colony.
For as far through the trees as we could see, the vegetation was transformed into a canvas of orange.
I could not even imagine what the meadow would look like if all of these millions of butterflies descended at one time. There would not be room at the stream to accommodate them.
As Bob and I stood silently in the forest, the solitude was disrupted by the pumping of the butterflies’ wings.
Like one might detect a swarm of flies or bees by a hum in the air, the beating of the Monarchs’ wings, and the vibration of those at rest, literally caused a disturbance in the air that could be heard. That was so marvelous.
I found it interesting to note that the Butterflies perched on the trunks of trees…
essentially transforming them into gilded boles topped with flaming limbs that sag under the weight of the millions of miniscule migrants.
By the way, as the hours passed, the swelling in my finger eased, and my rings once again fit loosely…emergency forestalled. On our return to the Visitor Centre, I was heartened to see the efforts of forestry personnel and environmentalists evident in the thousands of oyamel fir saplings being nurtured on sight.
Attempts are ongoing to replant the clear-cut mountain slopes with these native trees to broaden the pockets of trees required by migrating Monarch Butterflies.
For now, El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve is one of only a few areas in Mexico where the necessary trees are protected for the sake of the Butterflies. I was thrilled to learn this week that the numbers of Monarchs this year have significantly increased over last year’s lowest-ever count.
Last year, it was estimated that 34 million Monarchs were overwintering in Mexico. A slight rebound in their population has scientists putting this year’s number at closer to 56.5 million, but this still represents a decline of 82% in their population over a 20-year average, and a decline of 95% from their all-time high in the 1990’s.
Let’s hope that conservation efforts and the listing of Monarch Butterflies on the Endangered Species List will lead to a resurgence in their numbers that can withstand the ups and downs of bad years so that future generations will still be able to marvel at these elegant creatures that weigh a mere 4-grams each and yet are capable of flying uninterrupted for weeks at a time to reach their winter destination. They truly are miracles of nature.