Ornamental and edible gardening adventures.

Looking back: Visiting the monarch overwintering grounds

In the oyamel fir forest of Sierra Chincua Sanctuary, the monarchs wait for spring

  Monarchs nectar in the dappled sunlight of the oyamel fir forests at Sierra Chincua Sanctuary in February 2020.

The sky was brilliant blue with full sun — it was warmer than we had been told it would be. The red salvias along the edges of the woods added hints of color to the surrounding greenery. We followed the path deeper into the forest, until we came to a rockier trail. 

We began to climb single file along the path, watching where we stepped and pausing as we waited for our turn to get closer to the center of the forest. The trees towered above us, and for the first time I was able to smell them. It was a woodsy smell that reminded me of soil, rain and fir — but it was unlike the fir trees you smell at Christmas. These were oyamel firs and we were walking through the Sierra Chincua Sanctuary to observe the monarch butterflies. 

In the distance we could spy the trees branches that were weighted down with what looked like brown leaves. The sanctuary's guardians had roped off access so we were some distance away from the butterflies. (This is to keep visitors on the trail and butterflies from being stepped on.) Walking through the light-dappled forest, the visitors were (mostly) quiet. We were told in a whisper that the monarchs had started to stir and move to a new location in the area about an hour before we arrived, but many still remained in the trees above. We stepped gingerly along the path, trying to avoid stepping on monarchs that had already died on the ground. We reached as far as the forest guardians would allow.

We only had about 10-15 minutes of access to this area, to allow for other visitors to also make their way in to view the butterflies. During that time, I tried to be in the moment but capture any photos or videos I could. I found that I was holding my breath — a lot!

And then the breeze stirred the trees and the butterflies began to fly.

Monarchs cluster on the oyamel fir trees.

A visit before the world changed

I visited the monarch butterflies in their overwintering grounds at el Rosario Sanctuary and Sierra Chincua in February 2020. The trip occurred as the world began to learn more about Covid-19 and its spread into other countries. I remember being worried about flying to and from Mexico City, but it wouldn't be until a few weeks after I had returned home that our state would order a stay at home order in an effort to control the virus' spread.  Needless to say, the trip's timing was beyond lucky.

In the weeks after returning from Mexico — my first solo trip abroad — I put aside the photographs I had taken and my previous plans to blog immediately after returning home. The notes that would remain as unfinished posts would remain as drafts in Blogger for a year. 

But throughout the last few days, I was reminded that this week a year ago I was experiencing the monarchs first hand at the sanctuaries. I decided it was finally time to go through the photos and back to my original notes.

The steps that convinced me I had to make the journey

Some people describe visiting the monarchs as a spiritual experience. The oyamels that protect them are known as "sacred firs" due to their conical shape that can resemble hands clasped in prayer. The dense canopy protects the butterflies that cluster by the thousands on their trunks and branches. A single butterfly can weigh less than a paperclip, but thousands grouped together can sometimes be heavy enough to break branches off the trees.

In the distance the monarchs gather on the tree branches.

Each year, in late summer, the eastern monarch population produces a super generation that is not focused on reproducing but instead on migrating south. They use the air currents to make the tremendous journey, until the wind brings them to the v-shaped valley in Mexico, to the oyamel trees. These trees are unique to the high altitudes and create a microclimate that successfully overwinters the monarchs until it is time for them to migrate back north. (More on the unique relationship between the trees and the butterflies here.) By the end of February-beginning of March, the butterflies become more active, begin to mate, and start their journey north to lay eggs for the next generation.

In the wild, 2 out of 100 monarch eggs will actually survive and become a butterfly. Discouraged by the declining numbers, people across the United States have joined forces, both as backyard hobbyists and citizen scientists, to raise and release healthy monarch butterflies. (The western population of monarch butterflies overwinter along the U.S. coast, but are in really bad shape, with this year's count numbers dipping to an all-time low.)

Releasing monarchs raised from the garden in September 2020.

I've been raising monarch butterflies from eggs found in my garden for several years now. In late summer, the super generation of the eastern monarch butterfly population are the ones destined for Mexico. With each released butterfly I would watch it fly away toward the sun and wonder if it would make it. (One year I participated in the Monarch Watch tagging program, but my tags were not found.)

There are many threats to the monarch's survival, including illegal logging that removes their habitat, and climate change. A lack of milkweed for both eastern and western populations (the insect's host plant) also plays a role in its numbers. Gardeners and non-gardeners can make a difference by continuing to plant milkweed and fall nectar plants in their gardens, and practicing organic practices. (No pesticides.) 

After raising and releasing hundreds of butterflies, I felt compelled to make the journey to Mexico and see the overwintering grounds for myself.

This is the first in a series of blog posts about my trip to Mexico in February 2020 to visit the monarch butterfly overwintering grounds. 


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