Monarch Migration: A Butterfly Bed-and-Breakfast!
Updated: Jan 24
It has been over 40 years since we moved to our 86-acre farm on the 4th Line. At that time, there were a few old Apple trees along the back creek, and a short row of mixed deciduous trees near the back of the farm; otherwise, the property was virtually “treeless”. Throughout the years, on our own and with the help of GRCA, we have added rows of coniferous trees, and a variety of deciduous trees. We have watched them grow and mature, and have been pleased to observe them hosting a multitude of birds, insects, and mammals. Native and nectar plants in gardens and along creek edges have added to the appeal for native creatures, providing shelter, food, and resting places.
The restoration of natural habitat has been rewarding in a multitude of ways; however, the Summer of 2020 has been especially gratifying, with the arrival of some very special guests. This was the year that the Monarchs said "Thank you” in a wildly spectacular way!
While it has been a fairly good summer for Butterfly sightings here on the 4th, there were definitely far fewer Monarchs than in other years. Our Milkweed plants have not hosted nearly the numbers of Caterpillars that they have in the past, in spite of the fact that there are 4 different kinds of Asclepias from which to choose. I have captive-reared about 15 in the Summer of 2020 (compared with 50 - 75 in 2018 and 2019), 6 of which are still in Chrysalis.
It was a complete surprise, then, when we started to see 20-30 Monarch Butterflies at a time in the last days of August, nectaring in the hayfields (which our neighbour kindly agreed to postpone cutting!) and flower gardens.
As afternoon became early evening on August 30, Butterflies arrived continuously from the fields and the sky in the Northeast, and roosted in small groups in the Apple trees.
By dusk, there were more than 100 Monarchs settling themselves along the branches on the East side of an Oak tree, in the late day sunshine.
On the following morning, we stood outside between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m., and watched as the Butterflies left in small groups of 5-10 (ish) at a time.
The first 20 or so to wake and fly showed no interest in the Alfalfa field, and immediately headed off to the Southwest. The rest dropped to the flowers, and fed for the better part of the morning.
Some nectared in the garden; at times, 2 Monarchs argued over rights to the same flower...
I love the way Monarchs stick their little "Butterfly butts" up in the air when they fly!
By evening most of this group had moved on. There were small groups of Monarchs in the Apple trees the following night,
but it wasn’t until some high winds, cooler temperatures, and rain moved in a few days later that we saw more large numbers congregating. Around the end of August, we generally do have Monarchs passing through from the NE to the SW, often stopping for a short time to feed. It seems that the only time they stay to rest for a night is when the winds and/or weather conditions are unfavourable for travelling. Our front fields are full of Alfalfa blossoms right now, and that may be a factor in their decision to assemble here this year as well. At any rate, on an evening when rain was predicted, the little guys arrived en masse again, this time flying into the Evergreen trees along the lane.
It is interesting to watch Monarchs when they arrive at a spot that is already occupied. Hard to see, but there are 10 Butterflies in this photo, well camouflaged until ...
a new one comes along, causing many wings to open wide, then quickly close again! When you are watching the tree, it can be difficult to see Monarchs at rest. Suddenly, it is as though the whole branch lights up for a few seconds.
Here they are again -- the blur in the middle is the new arrival.
On the evening of September 7, Monarchs were flitting around the Apple trees, landing and then flying again, quite unsettled.
They filled the sky over the front field, accompanied by 2 little bats that were circling and hunting for their evening meals. Eventually the Monarchs all made their way back to the creek, where there is a giant Willow tree.
They started to collect into groups in a few areas of the tree,
eventually lining the long Willow branches, most facing in the same direction. There were about 200 Monarchs in this group, by the time all of them had found their spots on the tree. Long streamers of orange lights...
I have no idea which Butterfly decides on the roosting location for the night, or how that decision is made, but it was fascinating to watch the process. We took lawn chairs out to the field, and sat for an hour or more while the Monarchs sorted themselves into some order that only they understood.
On the morning after these photos were taken, it was cold, windy, and rainy. The Monarchs stayed put for the whole day, clinging to the Willow branches while the wind whipped them around. They did cluster together more closely as the day wore on, likely in an effort to stave off the chill of late afternoon.
The Butterflies ended up having 3 sleepovers in the Willow tree, only venturing out to feed on Alfalfa for short intervals when the drizzle stopped. If it was cool and rainy, they clustered together. If the sun came out, they moved out along the branches to soak up some rays!
On the foggy morning of September 10, when winds were finally coming out of the North, it was time for this group of Monarchs to move on. Between 9 and 10 a.m., the air was warming, the sun was beginning to shine, and Butterflies were opening their wings, shivering, then flying off to the Southwest.
About 20 (?) stayed around in the hayfields, but by noon there were hardly any Monarchs to be seen, and we assumed that perhaps the show was over for this year! Not so --- by evening, the Willow tree was hosting about 65 orange and black guests again, with others arriving as dusk fell.
The next morning brought more favourable flying weather, and off they went. This was the last large group to pass through. It is almost unbelievable to think that these Monarchs will now attempt to fly thousands of miles South, hibernate in the mountains of Mexico, then wake in the Spring to begin a new generation.
I love Barbara Kingsolver’s description in her novel, “Flight Behaviour”, of the multi-generational Monarch migrations:
“Not just an orange passage across a continent ... not like marbles rolling from one end of a box to the other and back. This was a living flow, like a pulse through veins, with the cells bursting and renewing themselves as they went.”
Another quote from the same novel:
“The sudden vision filled her with strong emotions that embarrassed her...How was that even normal, to cry over insects?"
What a privilege to have been a part of the “living flow” for nearly 2 weeks. And yeah, the whole thing did bring me to tears a few times!
Large gatherings of Monarchs are awe-inspiring, but so too are the individual members of the “swarms”. With their bold black/white/orange patterning, their delicate-looking wings that we hope will carry many of them to Mexico, the tiny curled proboscises that deliver nectar to hungry Butterfly bellies, and the tough little “toes” that cling to a branch in a windstorm ... each Monarch Butterfly is a true miracle, worthy of protection and profound celebration! And lots of photos.
These insects have the wherewithal to plan, organize, predict weather, communicate with one another, navigate their way across a continent ... and just plain dazzle with their good looks!
Thank you to the Monarchs, for allowing us to share in this small portion of your amazing journey. Fly safely, sleep well, and send your great-grandchildren our way next Summer!
Here are a few observations (from a non-scientist!):
It seemed that most of the Monarchs were males. Many of the photos that are taken with wings open show 2 spots on the hindwings.
The Monarchs congregated on the South or Southeast sides of the trees at night, presumably to catch the first warm rays of sunshine in the morning. The exception was one evening when there was a strong wind coming out of the East, and the Monarchs rested on the West side of the Evergreens.
The Monarchs startled easily when they were gathering, and we stayed well back from them as they settled for the night. Once they were in place, and all “folded up”, they were not as likely to be roused, likely because it was quite cool by that time.
As stated in the blog, the direction of the Monarchs’ travel is always NE to SW. If the Monarchs are passing through (and not roosting for the night), the flight path is always the same. I have watched them come in from the neighbour’s field to the NE, fly directly over the garden, sometimes stop for a brief snack, then head out to the SW over our fields and the road.
It is entirely possible to lose complete track of time when you are watching a spectacle like this. Work needs to be postponed for a day when the Monarchs are gone!!