Tag Archives: monarch (Danaus plexippus)

Of monarchs, migrations, milkweeds and misfortunes

It rests squarely in the “No shit!” category that monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are an obsession of mine.  From the first time more than 30 years ago when I witnessed voluminous clouds of them roiling across Texas on their way south for winter, I could not help but be fascinated by the spectacle of such a giant movement of insects.  That I live in the path of their largest flyway and not too far north of where the Mexico-bound flyways coalesce adds to my ability to wallow in this superlative natural phenomenon.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) clinging to a flower (2009_09_05_028719)

In good years, perhaps up to one billion butterflies travel southward into Mexico where they overwinter.  The generation that flies south has never been there before, and these individuals suppress their normally short lives in order to survive for up to six months.  Then in spring they begin their journey northward, mating and laying eggs along the way.  Most of this traveling group will perish before leaving Texas and surrounding states, but their legacy will be the first new generation that will continue the northward march.  Up to four generations are necessary to complete their journey to Canada, at which point the last generation turns south.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028713)

Last year I wrote a piece for The Clade discussing the perils faced by monarch butterflies.  I said then that they unfortunately stand in the cross hairs of a twofold threat: habitat loss and climate change.  Illegal logging in their winter territory has destroyed several prime overwintering areas.  In fact, NASA pointed out in its satellite analysis of the monarch reserve that “researchers are greatly concerned that the entire monarch butterfly migration and overwintering phenomenon in eastern North America may collapse in the near future if the Mexican government does not fully enforce the logging ban.”  That enforcement regrettably has yet to happen.

But the other problem, climate change, reared its ugly head with historic drought that gripped Texas for years.  It did not end until winter 2009-2010, meaning butterflies returning in spring 2009 were welcomed into a land of parched, barren earth, few wildflowers upon which to feed, few milkweeds upon which to lay eggs, and a dearth of fresh water to drink.  The expanse of the Lone Star State became one vast minefield bent on destroying what it could of these magnificent creatures.  Yet despite having no choice but to navigate this unwelcoming landscape, the monarchs completed their yearly migration and returned to Mexico in autumn 2009, albeit in smaller numbers than usual due to unfavorable conditions in the US and Canada in summer 2009.  Sadly, the assault on the monarchs was far from over, for their return to the Mexican state of Michoacan would offer them no reprieve from constant attacks.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028737)

In any El Niño year the weather patterns over the monarch winter colonies changes, as it does over the rest of the world.  But this year the weather patterns changed into a devastating fight against the monarchs when they are most vulnerable: when the mass of their population is grouped together in small areas.  To wit:

Monarch butterflies, hit hard by strong storms at their winter home in Mexico, have dwindled to their lowest population levels in decades as they begin to return to Texas on their springtime flight back to the United States and Canada.

The monarch loss is estimated at 50 to 60 percent and means that the breeding population flying northward is expected to be the smallest since the Mexican overwintering colonies were discovered in 1975, said Chip Taylor, a professor of entomology and director of Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas.

“I think it is very clear that the butterflies lost more than half of the population,” Taylor said. “I’m hoping it wasn’t as high as 70 or 80 percent. We’ve never seen it this bad before.”

News reports abound explaining of torrential rains and mudslides that devastated the insects.  Serious interest is being paid to the number of individuals now passing through Texas, and a public information campaign has been launched to let people know what they can do to help.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) feeding on wildflowers (2009_09_05_028741)

Very much unlike 2009, the generous rain and snow we received from last autumn through winter means the monarchs now traveling through Texas have discovered a world of verdant growth, with wildflowers and milkweeds and fresh water aplenty.  Yet their journey has only just begun.  The availability of milkweeds and flowers in their migration path is the only thing that can help them recover—and it’s believed it will take two or three years for them to fully recover if one assumes conditions remain in their favor.  Which they haven’t been for years.

Of monarchs and migrations

October 4, 2008: A warm day.  A morning heavy with dew.  A time of spectacular migration.

A male monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) resting on a plant leaf (20081004_13160)

East of the Rocky Mountains, nearly the entire population of monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) travels south in autumn to overwintering sites in Mexico (a smaller population travels to Florida).  This migration brings a vast legion of fluttering wings through Texas, a state that serves as a funnel through which many of the insects move south from points north.

A female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) perched on flowers (20081004_13189)

By late September and early October, White Rock Lake hosts a legion of monarchs every day as they stop to rest, to dine on autumnal nectar served from the season’s last flowers, and to drink dew squeezed from the air by cooler and cooler temperatures.

monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) perched on flowers (20081004_13192)

The lagoon that stretches inland behind the old paddle boat building seems to entice more butterflies to congregate than any other location around the lake.  It was there I stood beneath a bald cypress that hung heavy with monarchs, a cloak of orange wings fluttering.  The scene was nothing short of majestic and magical, an imaginary place leaping from the pages of fantasy.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) perched on flowers (20081004_13210)

The mystical feel of this phenomenon is made manifest in knowing it takes multiple generations for the monarchs to return north in spring.  Each butterfly only lives a few months, so the last generation born—having never migrated—will still know the way to the overwintering ground in Mexico, and that generation will make its way there and will live several times longer than all other generations by postponing their inherent need to procreate.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) perched on flowers (20081004_13213)

April 11, 2009: A warm day.  An afternoon of sunshine and breezes.  A calm before the storms of the evening.

In spring when the weather warms, the last generation from the year before will leave Mexico and make its way north.  Once they reach Texas (and perhaps Oklahoma), they will die, but along the way they will mate and lay the eggs of future generations.

A female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) laying eggs on young milkweed (2009_04_11_014946)

It is those generations that will give rise to yet more generations, and months and lives far removed from the present will define the monarchs of summer.  Then in autum the migration will begin again with the last generation of the year, individuals who will be the hope for next year’s monarch population.

A female monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) laying eggs on milkweed (2009_04_11_014953)

They migrate to a place they have never visited, the same place year after year, and they survive far longer than any other generation of monarchs.  They postpone mating in order to live half a year or more, in order to travel great distances, in order to overwinter in warmth so they can give birth to those who will continue the cycle.

I have seen them coming and going.  This year as I watched the female above deposit her eggs on every new sprout of milkweed that she could find, I wondered if—or perhaps hoped that—she was an individual I saw last year on her way south.  Unlikely, but a beautiful thought nonetheless.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] A male monarch resting near the firth.

[2] A female monarch sipping nectar from flowers along the water’s edge.

[3] Monarchs perching on a flowering shrub along the edges of the firth.

[4] A monarch sipping nectar from flowers.

[5] A monarch perched on a flowering shrub.

[6] A female monarch laying eggs on a milkweed sprout.

[7] A female monarch laying eggs on a milkweed sprout.

Facing east

I should know better than to take morning walks on the western shore of White Rock Lake.  It places me at a distinct disadvantage since I must spend most of my time facing into the morning sun.

Sometimes that works well, such as at the precise moment when the sun begins climbing over the trees perched on the opposite shore.

The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake (20081004_12985)

Like the otherworldly emissaries in “City of Angels,” as I watched this marvelous display I felt that perhaps I could hear music in the sunrise, an orchestra of harp and piano and violin expertly played to usher in a new day.  No maestro could compare.

And yet not too distant from that scene my path took me around a grove of trees and brought me face-to-face with a danger that hid openly in the rising sun.

A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal (20081004_13097)

Its orb of silk spanning almost three meters/yards from ground to tree limb, this beautiful predator floated just above eye level where she disappeared in the brightness.  Mind you, had I not been looking down chasing a monarch butterfly, perhaps I would have seen her before my nose brushed against her web.

Nevertheless, I didn’t stick and she didn’t move.  No damage done, and she politely stayed put as I snapped a few photos from the only angle afforded me.  When I returned only a short time later, however, she had consumed the web in its entirety and retired for the day.

When at last I found myself standing on the bridge that spans White Rock Creek at the bottom of the spillway, I felt a thrill at sighting this marvelous creature.

A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps at White Rock Lake (20081004_13124)

The sun damned me by lingering over my right shoulder.  Forced onto the footbridge so that I might keep the light from hitting the lens, I discovered why that bridge offers little hope of good photography: It’s made to give under the weight of traffic, to absorb the constant pounding of walkers, joggers and bikers through the simple act of bouncing.

That can be quite disconcerting, I assure you, as the whole bridge vibrates up and down with only a single person walking across it.  During this busy morning, it supported constant traffic.  Taking a picture while bobbing up and down uncontrollably proved more frustrating than I could tolerate, and it certainly forced me to utilize faster shutter speeds and higher ISO settings than I normally care for.

I left the heron to its stoic stance, impressed though I was with its immobile hunt that screamed of more patience than I could ever demonstrate.

Rambling beyond the old water treatment plant finally brought me to a surprise: Bird feeders right in the heart of our parakeet colony.

Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder (20081004_13169)

Although I can’t say for certain that they are maintained by the city (which would be quite a surprise), I do know they are on city property and nestled against the maintenance entrance to the old fish hatchery.  Dallas would score brownie points with me if I were to discover these feeders are in fact tax-payer funded; I’m sure many Dallasites would vehemently disagree with me on that point.

My options were to either stand in the lake or face into the sun in order to capture an image or two.  I chose the latter.  I didn’t have my waders with me, after all, so that seemed the best option despite the outcome.

I walked north to the old paddle boat area.  Ah, what fond memories I have of this place.  More than 30 years ago I enjoyed renting the boats and peddling my way across the water, feeling like a king in a raft for all the effort it took to move but a short distance while being surrounded with spectacular vistas and nature’s bounty.

But that was long ago.  Paddle boats disappeared from these parts decades ago, although one can still find kayaks available for those who arrive without their own water transportation.

My nostalgia ended abruptly when I discovered myself in the midst of one of the most fantastic migrations imaginable.

A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) (20081004_13203)

With flora aplenty to satiate their need for sustenance and shelter, and with a whole lake full of refreshing water to drink, White Rock offers an autumnal show fit for royalty: a central place for monarch butterflies migrating to Mexico for the winter.

I spent hours in their presence, letting them perch upon me, snapping their portraits, walking through clouds of whispering wings, dancing beneath the canopy of a bald cypress where dozens of them had gathered to rest but were frightened into momentary flight by my presence…  That truly was like standing in the middle of a fantasy film, what with the cypress limbs hanging heavily around me like an umbrella of green and brown, and the air filled with butterflies swimming in lazy circles through the shadowy air.

No movie, no imagination, no special effects could ever capture that moment in its fullness.  Neither can words do it justice.

When finally my body screamed for relief from the heat of the day and the weight of my walk, I returned to the spillway for one last moment.  I stood once again on the trampoline bridge, my view damaged by the constant up-and-down motion—almost as much as was my patience—and I decided to call it a day.

At that very moment I heard the cries, the harsh, shrill call of a hawk.  Yet not one hawk.  The dissimilar voices echoed across the water, blanketed me with the challenge of locating whose fierceness drifted on the wind.

Too far away for me to recognize from where I stood and in a position that offered me only one clear view, I saw a large predator land in the treetops.  In thick woodlands that protected it from all angles save where I stood.

I knew I could not zoom in close enough to see it, yet I tried nonetheless.

A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb (20081004_13293)

By proportions alone I knew she was a female.  Her male brethren could never embody such leviathan size.

Sunlight pouring into my eyes and camera lens as I peered between treetops, she screamed upon the world harsh challenges to an unseen foe.  Who stood a chance against such a large predator?  Who made her feel the need to bellow war cries from atop the world?

I rushed to and fro looking for a better vantage.  None could be found.  The tree upon which she stood held her well over the water, well within the confines of dense forest resting at the foot of the spillway.  I lost her each time I took a few steps in either direction, although I tried strenuously to find a closer and better view.  The only one offered placed her as a silhouette in the disk of the rising sun.  No good.

So I remained where I could watch her, and watch her I did.  After several minutes of demanding peace from a cloaked enemy I could not find, she took flight, her strong wings flapping a few times as they lifted her body toward the heavens.

Then the challenger appeared.

An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight (20081004_13296)

While not of her kith and kin, the pursuer was indeed another hawk, a smaller predator by any stretch of the imagination.  An accipiter, perhaps a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk, its identity mattered little; that it pursued her relentlessly as she rose on the thermals made all the difference.

Though more maneuverable than she, the smaller bird of prey knew the most it could do was chase, pursue, challenge.  It could never overpower its larger cousin.

Erratic moves and countermoves punctuated their ascent, the smaller bird’s assaults ultimately meaning little as the female behemoth presented her strength in terms of climbing effortlessly despite the attacks.

The sky would be the field upon which they would do battle.

— — — — — — — — — —


[1] The sun rising over the trees blanketing the eastern shore of White Rock Lake.

[2] A female orb weaver (unidentified; Araneus sp.) suspended in the center of her web as she waits for a meal.

[3] A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) hunting from the spillway steps.

[4] Monk parakeets (a.k.a. quaker parrots; Myiopsitta monachus) perched on a bird feeder.

[5] A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

[6] A female red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) calling out from a treetop limb.

[7] An unidentified accipiter hawk chasing a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) in flight.