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
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.
Pendulous clusters of roosting monarchs