Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Monarch Migrations a Serious Business


By Elaine Meinel Supkis

Monarch butterflies have suffered serious losses due to violent weather and agricultural destruction of their milkweeds they depend upon. Some scientists have flown a light aircraft along with this year's migration to highlight and study the travails of monarch migrations.

From the New York Times:
As an expert hang glider and ultralight pilot from the mountains where the monarchs winter, he felt a strange kinship with them, and the notion of flying with them on their yearly migration from Canada to Mexico became first an itch, then an obsession, his family members said.

So when Mr. Gutiérrez wheeled his ultralight plane painted like a monarch over the butterfly sanctuary here at noon on Thursday and brought it swooping in to land on a stretch of mountain highway, it marked the rarest of human experiences, a dream come true.

He had traveled more than 4,375 miles from Montreal to Michoac√°n State, following the butterflies at low altitude. He logged more than 90 hours of flying over 72 days, averaging about 60 miles a day, stopping dozens of times to talk to scientists and butterfly fanatics, in a feat of aviation meant to call attention to the insect's precarious situation.
Do click on this story to see the photos as well as the rest of this tale.

Monarchs are most amazing. This tiny creature has beautiful colors. Wafting on the winds, they travel thousands of miles. When I lived in Coney Island, each fall, I would delight in watching them skirt the edge of the sea as they moved south in huge numbers, the orange sparkles glinting in the hazy shafts of sunlight angling across the tossing waves. When the north wind blew, huge numbers of butterflies would cartwheel past, startling the seagulls.

When we moved to our upstate mountain, the 300 year old fields had and still have, many milkweeds growing along the perimeter of the pastures. These were home to the monarchs who visited our mountain in such numbers in the spring and fall that the fields looked like they suddenly blossomed with orange poppies. When the horses and sheep ran across the fields, the orange cloud would suddenly lift like a fog and hover only to descend again.

The birds would leave them alone because of the milkweed: it makes the monachs poisonous which is why they are so colorful. A warning flag. Viceroy butterflies taste good but over the eons, they evolved to mimic the monarchs via natural selection: any one of them that looks even remotely like a monarch is avoided by the birds who have excellent color vision. Thanks to the birds, we have a magnificent color display from the butterfly populations. Just like all our pretty flowers, many of them are due to bees being pretty picky about their color schemes.

Indeed, the palatte of nature has been vastly enriched by our tiny friends, the insects. They introduced color and noise to the world. They are nature's artists.

Today, I seldom see any monarchs. This happened quite suddenly, in the last 10 years. Particularily after that terrible winter in Mexico that alternately froze or soaked all the butterflies back during a really nasty La Nina. I am glad someone is trying to bring attention to the plight of the monarchs.

They are one royalty I want to keep on the throne!

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