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The Perils and Joy of Butterflies at Sea
To save or savor Monarchs during their autumn migration to Mexico
ALTHOUGH IT IS ONE of the most intrepid animals on Earth, a Monarch really has no business at sea. The sea is for gulls and gannets, whales and sharks, and by no means a butterfly weighing no more than a few drops of saltwater.
In the event of a water landing, well, actually there is no water landing for a butterfly — only death. Which is why it was odd and yet wonderful a few years ago to encounter 200 Monarchs in a meadow of purple asters and yellow goldenrods on an island, called Monhegan, 11 miles at sea in the Gulf of Maine here in North America.
Monarchs in September have better things to do than dance among wildflowers on a tiny island, not the least of which is to fly south for winter. A million years of evolution had directed the butterflies to leave their flowers, to launch out to sea southwest on a journey they had never undertaken, a migration guided by the winds and the sun and the Monarchs’ genetic memory and destiny, a journey of 2,400 miles toward wintering grounds in Mexico.
But the Monarchs did not leave Monhegan Island that day. Headwinds from the south bottled them up near the shoreline, where they floated around and sipped nectar from their flower patch, which measured only about 15 meters in diameter. Wayward Monarchs happen all the time on Monhegan, but in a quarter-century of my visiting the island never had I seen them like this.
So there beside the bonfire of orange, yellow and purple I stopped to consider my options. I had two:
Option One would be to photograph the butterflies for my work as a field biologist (yeah, I actually get paid to take pictures of butterflies).
Option Two would be to catch as many of the Monarchs as I could in my net and tag them with little stickers so that their journey could be tracked as part of a community science research project. (I’ve had four tagged Monarchs make it to Mexico.)
Each option — employment or science — seemed worthy. So which did I choose?
Instead, slowly, gradually, I waded into the lovely orange flames. And once inside, one among Monarchs, I dropped to my knees and looked around. Nothing else — just me and the flowers and the fluttering. And only then, when neither my camera nor my net mattered, did intellect give way to the utter joy of these butterflies.
Recalling it now makes me think of something E.B. White said: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem,” White told The New York Times in 1969: “But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I had planned my day on the island. I carried a camera and a net. But once I stopped to be with the butterflies, and to be nothing else, there was no plan. The Monarchs went from being data to being an experience. In the meadow I became the migration. I found myself immersed in one of the great events in all of nature: the audacious journey toward Mexico of a gossamer insect. Rather than things to photograph or to catch and tag, the Monarchs reverted to wonder: a congregation of butterflies in a flowery meadow beside the sea.
At one point while sitting in the meadow, I looked up and outward, southwest across the Atlantic. I imagined a lone Monarch at sea cutting a flight path toward Mexico. That’s when the world got a bit smaller for me. It stopped spinning so fast.
To save or to savor. I’m not as conflicted as E.B. White. I’ll opt for both.
Nature essays like this one don’t grow on trees. They come from my decades as a field biologist and writer. Your paid subscription supports my work and keeps Chasing Nature available to everyone. Thanks!
Because I did not photograph Monarchs during this wonderful encounter, which happened on September 30, 2018, I created that “painting” with help from Photoshop.
MonarchWatch — Education, conservation and research, including Monarch tagging.
Journey North — Resources on Monarchs and other migrants.
Monarch Joint Venture — An international partnership in conservation.
Mission Monarch — Community conservation science.
Finally, we suspect most of the Monarchs pushed out to sea in the East do return to their journey. But coastal Monarchs reach over-wintering sites in Mexico at far lower rates than Monarchs migrating west of the Appalachian chain (Brinzda, 2008). Many of Monhegan Island’s surviving Monarchs could end up in Florida, Cuba and other Caribbean islands, adding to the growing year-round breeding Monarch populations in the region.
Brindza, L.J, L.P. Brower, A.K. Davis, T. Van Hook. 2008. Comparative Success Of Monarch Butterfly Migration To Overwintering Sites In Mexico From Inland And Coastal Sites In Virginia. Journal of the Lepidopterists’ Society 62(4), 2008,189-200.