An Extraordinary Migration
Summer’s heat lingered well into September this year. The mercury soared to 97°F (36.1°C) on the 8th day of the month and 87°F (30.6°C) on the 18th. Yet, despite the sometimes furnace-like breath of stubborn summer, the days were growing steadily shorter. Each morning, the sun seemed to sleep a little longer. Each evening, the sun departed a little earlier. Each minute of daylight became a little more precious. Each hour of darkness seemed to stretch beyond what should have been allotted.

The lengthening nights remained unseasonably warm. Therefore, one could perhaps be forgiven for having missed the seasonal changing of the guard as the sun slipped silently across the Equator. After all, the trees had not yet put on their regal autumnal robes. But one look at the still vibrant butterfly bush, abundant milkweed, and plentiful goldenrod presented unambiguous evidence of summer’s departure. The annual Monarch migration had commenced.

More and more, one found those remarkable orange, black, and white-winged beauties in flight, occasionally sipping nectar, and frequently making an effort to absorb all of the sun’s slowly waning warmth.

In the larger arena of nature, one could even catch a glimpse of the kind harmony of which humanity has only dreamed to date. Humanity’s never-ending quest for peace on earth remains unfulfilled. But in the sweet beauty of countless flowers, magnificent Monarchs, and hovering hummingbirds, Paradise has already been found, if only for a fleeting moment.

Scottish poet James Thomson captured a little of this special beauty when he wrote of the butterfly:

See her bright robes the butterfly unfold,
…What youthful bride can equal her array?
Who can with her for easy pleasure vie?

While it may be tempting to see play in the flight of the Monarchs as they sometimes dart among the blossoms and at other times float from flower to flower, they are actually engaged in very serious business. They are in the midst of a journey of thousands of miles. They have no airline, railway, or ship to transport them. They must take to wing all on their own.

Day after day, they will fly some 50 to 100 miles through all kinds of weather and an array of other hazards. For up to two months, they will find no permanent resting place on their journey south. It is a journey they must finish even as gathering fatigue tries to seduce them into abandoning their long and perilous trip. The survival of their species demands nothing less.

This unforgiving trip will not break them. Beneath their seemingly fragile beauty is extraordinary strength. Before the curtain falls on autumn, morning mists yield to winter’s icy breath, and the first flakes of snow spread south from Canada into the eastern United States, the Monarchs will reach their winter home. They will be weak. They will be hungry. None of that will matter much. What will matter is that they will be alive. At long last, they will have respite in the welcoming branches of Mexico’s oyamel fir trees.

In their wake, they will leave behind memories of the recent summer. They will also leave the gift of a narrative of grace, courage, and extraordinary persistence. Next spring, the return of the Monarchs will provide the heroic proof that they had again succeeded in their migration. In that proof, the world will be a little more wonderful.


Pam J said:

These are truly beautiful creatures arent they !

Your evocative words are what those of us lucky enough to see them also feel.

I report the sighting from my 2 acres in Autumn each year too.

Its a privilege to see them and to feed them and photograph them

I follow the migration , hoping "my" Monarchs with make it safely !

I know you know Don.. but for others... if you see them.. anytime... please do post your sightings on this Journey North/South site

8 years ago

TigerHead said:

Lovely prose!
8 years ago ( translate )

Stormlizard said:

Beautifully written Don, I know of these wonderful insects through friends in North America and others in New Zealand where there are also Monarchs, they too take to the heavens each year to fly to warmer winter homes to return in spring.

We know that many birds also travel great distances between Autumn and Spring but birds are larger. Some of our Gulls and Terns take their winter vacation in Thailand.
8 years ago

William Sutherland said:

Well written, exceptional article!
8 years ago ( translate )

Don Sutherland said:

Some interesting things about the Monarchs and their migration:

From Nature:

Every year millions of monarch butterflies fly from the northern United States and southern Canada to overwinter in Mexico. Notably, during this portion of the annual migration, individual butterflies emerge as adults in the north, fly thousands of kilometres south, overwinter for months in reproductive diapause, and finally begin mating and flying north in the spring. Recolonization of northern latitudes takes place over the course of three to four subsequent generations, after which it is late summer again and the process repeats itself. Although most North American monarchs overwinter in Mexico, those that live west of the Rocky Mountains generally overwinter along the California coast... A largely unappreciated aspect of this system is that not all monarchs migrate. In fact, the geographic distribution of D. plexippus extends far beyond North America and it does not migrate across most of its range. For instance, while the monarch undergoes extensive, long-distance migration across North America, it also exists throughout Central America, South America and the Caribbean, where it does not migrate... Furthermore, the monarch has recently dispersed to many locations around the globe where it does not exhibit the same long-distance migration found in North America.

Source: Shuai Zhan, Wei Zhang, Kristjan Niitepõld, Jeremy Hsu, Juan Fernández Haeger, Myron P. Zalucki, Sonia Altizer, Jacobus C. de Roode, Steven M. Reppert and Marcus R. Kronforst, "The genetics of monarch butterfly migration and warning colouration," Nature, 16 October 2014.

8 years ago

Pam J replied to Don Sutherland:

Interesting that there are varying thoughts on the number of generations .. 3-5...

Certainly 4+ makes more sense with the life cycle. The tagging info of them also tends to veer to 4-5.

I guess we are all correct !!

For all said...it is an amazing phenomenon... and i still cant wrap my head around the intricacies of metamorphosis !

Thankyou for the further info Don
8 years ago

Don Sutherland replied to :

It is also fascinating that the Monarch population is slowly fanning out across the globe. It probably won't be too long before they make their first appearance in parts of Asia.
8 years ago

Don Sutherland said:

On November 4, 2015, I observed a Monarch Butterfly at the New York Botanical Garden's Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden. The weather was sunny and the temperature was 70°F (21.1°C).

8 years ago

William Sutherland said:

Amazing November capture!
8 years ago ( translate )

Ruesterstaude said:

thanks for this information with the nice picture!!
8 years ago