Gossamer Tapestry

Reflections on conservation, butterflies, and ecology in the nation's heartland

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Pilgrim's Progress

I was at the monarch butterfly reserve at Cerro Pelón in Mexico on Saturday. Predictably, I'm at a loss for words. For those of you who do not know, the generation of monarchs that flies east of the Rockies in late summer migrates to Mexico. This is virtually the entire population from that region. They winter in fir forests high in the mountains west of Mexico City. To date, 12 sites have been discovered, each only tiny area in extent. The butterflies cluster together by the tens of millions. There were estimated to be over 50 million monarchs in Cerro Pelón on Saturday.

Mountains of the Transvolcanic Belt

Wild marigolds

The trip began from the conference hotel in Morelia. We spent the morning driving through the beautiful mountains of the Transvolcanic Belt to get to the sanctuary near the city of Zitácuaro. It was a sunny day that included several photo stops. I enjoyed seeing a variety of blooming plants, including the wild ancestor of cultivated marigolds.

Doug, very much not in his natural habitat

We got to Cerro Pelón and headed up to the sanctuary on horseback. Horses are something that I have absolutely no experience with. I had previously been on a horse exactly once. Someone helped me into the saddle and I sat like a sack of potatoes while the horse walked about 100 yards. Not so this time. We rode for about an hour and fifteen minutes and gained a couple thousand feet in elevation getting up to the grove of trees with the butterflies. I even had to steer. My 8-year old minder was clearly much more adept with horses than I was. Thankfully, he was very patient with me.

Approaching the monarch-covered trees

At last we came to the butterflies. It was a warm sunny day when we arrived, and there was a surprising amount of flight activity. Describing this is impossible. These photos don't even begin to do it justice. When you stand among acres and acres of trees where all of the branches are being weighted down with tens of millions of monarch butterflies, you realize that you are witnessing one of the epic phenomena of nature. We were all spontaneously speaking in hushed voices. A member of our party observed, "it's like being in church." I recall my first visit to a monarch sancuary in 2002. I had the feeling that I was somehow different for having witnessed it- that I had in some way had a religious experience. It was much the same this time. Everyone should see this once before they die. Few ever will.

Monarchs everywhere

Pendulous clusters of roosting monarchs

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At 17:31, Anonymous rcwbiologist said...

What a stunning area. I've been to monarch sites, but none that come close to this. I'm sure the pictures don't do it justice, but they are still awesome. And don't feel bad, I've been on exactly 4 horses, and had bad experiences on every single outing. I'm happy to just admire them from a distance.

At 19:17, Blogger Doug said...

I continue to be filled with envy at your wonderful experiences. I had no idea this kind of thing even exists.

At 21:38, Blogger rodger said...

That's a pretty tiny horse, are you sure that's not a mule or jackass? And, no, I'm seriously not trying to be funny.

The monarch pics are enough to remind me of what I've seen on National Geographic TV and even that probably does not come close to the actual experience. The 'church' comment definitely makes the point.

Wish I were there!!

At 14:59, Blogger Ur-spo said...

you look as happy as a clam at high tide.
i am glad for you.

At 00:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone should see this once before they die. Few ever will.

Way to kill the spirit Doug. Jeez. :)

That eight year old boy looks a fright grumpy, no?

The first picture is really cool, I just can't even imagine what it is like.

If I never get there at least I can say I've seen it through your eyes. You do deserve it!

At 12:03, Anonymous jyoti said...

Thanks for sharing these incredible images ... and writing about your tremendous experience there ...

Seeing and reading I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been ...

At 08:59, Blogger Doug Taron said...

rcw- I see this sort of thing and despair of ever being able to convey it adequately.

Doug- There are some places in California where you can observe this, though on a smaller scale.

Rodger- It may well be a mule. My inexperience with equines continues to show. There is a jackass in the photo- he's in the saddle.

Spo- The first time that I saw it, I felt that the experience had somehow changed me.

Heather - Daniel, my 8 year old minder, was actually pretty shy. But he was unfailingly polite and seemed like a really sweet kid.

Jyoti- the Museum may eventully sponsor a trip there. Who knows, you may have the opportunity to see for yourself.

At 15:55, Blogger Kathiesbirds said...

How awesome! You make me want to go. I know what you mean about not being able to capture the feeling on film or express it with words. It must be so vast and so overwhelmingly beautiful. It must boggle the mind. Trying to show or describe 12,000 sandhill cranes is much the same way. You just have to experience it for yourself. Hope I get the chance to see the monarchs someday!


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