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Earth, Wind & Power Blog

Mexico's Monarch Butterly Migration

by Renée Huang

Follow the Butterflies to Angangueo, Mexico

Manzanillo, Mexico

My head was in a fog and crisp, early morning mountain air whistled through my hair as we road the back of a banged-up pickup truck up through winding switchbacks into the towering forests of Michoacán, Mexico.

It was hard to believe we were even in Mexico, land of proverbial palm trees, sandy beaches and eternal sunshine. I was bundled up in two sweaters, long pants and a jacket and the cool, fresh air reminded me more of my native Canada than the warm tropics.

However, we'd come to the tiny mountain village of Angangueo, a cobblestoned mining town in the central state of Michoacán, not for the climate but to witness the amazing winter migration of many millions of monarch butterflies.
Each year at the first signs of frost, these beautiful orange and black winged creatures journey thousands of miles from Canada and the United States seeking the creaking forest shelters where they spend the winter months in a state of semi-hibernation until the warm spring winds call them home.

During the perilous trip south, a single butterfly can travel approximately 50 miles a day and log as much as 2,000 miles by the time it reaches one of five official monarch wintering sanctuaries in Mexico. The spring migration begins in February, with surviving butterflies mating and laying eggs along the journey back to the north. The Aztec, Mexico's ancient indigenous peoples, believed Monarch butterflies to be the incarnation of their fallen warriors wearing the colors of battle.

We'd heard that experiencing the monarchs was intoxicating and incredibly beautiful, but as we neared the summit of the mountain where El Rosario butterfly sanctuary lay in the crease of a sunny valley, I could hardly imagine what it would be like.

After an hour-long trip from Angangueo that took us past corn fields planted in the folds of the steep mountainside, we pulled into a parking area of matted down grass. A valley basin at an altitude of 10,000 feet strewn with wildflowers and overgrown weeds stretched out before us not far from where the pines and firs began their gradual ascent.

We hired a local guide, a tiny and stocky woman with Aztec features and a quick, steady gait, and began our 40-minute hike up through the forest.

Upon entrance into the forest, we scarcely noticed any butterflies. The tidy path through the trees was neatly tended and laid with woodchips. All around us huge oyamel trees soared skyward piercing the pale blue morning sky. Sunlight cut thin beams of light through the thickly-spaced forest as the spicy scent of pine mingled with morning mist that rose off the trees.

But something about the trees looked unusual. Suddenly it all becomes clear: the thick boughs that drooped with what appears to be dried, orangey-brown leaves were actually covered with monarchs. The further we ascended, the more thickly coated the trees were with the butterflies. With this realization, the magic began to envelop us.

As sunlight warmed the boughs, the butterflies awoke and took flight into the hushed forest like great handfuls of falling leaves. They looked like swarms of fairies going about their daily business. We closed our eyes and the sound of millions of tiny wings flapping enveloped us like softly pattering rain. It was magic. We were experiencing first-hand one of nature's greatest mysteries.

The butterflies' awesome migratory behavior has never been completely explained. Scientists suggest the annual migratory cycle (completed over three generations of monarchs) is triggered by shortening daylight, chilly nighttime temperatures and the need to seek out their primary food source, the milkweed plant, which also follows seasonal climate changes.

We continued higher up the mountain, stopping to admire the monarchs that floated dreamily in the air and coated leaves, branches and tree trunks in a glittering, moving mass of orange and black.

We were lost in a sea of fluttering wings as the monarchs coasted on the cool air and sought out the warmth of the sun. Others that didn't make it covered the path in a wash of glimmering earth tones - we walked gingerly to avoid crushing them.

After about 20 minutes of hiking up a gradual incline, we emerged from the shaded forest into a wide clearing bathed in sunlight.

It was a stunning sight. Pouring out of the tops of the trees bordering the glen were waves of monarchs. Legions of them congregated around shallow puddles of water lapping at the moisture with their long, siphon-like tongues. (We later learned this behavior is actually called "puddling".)

We marveled at the sight and wandered up further into the forest where we lay for a moment off the path on a blanket of fallen leaves. As the cool mountain air kissed our faces, I closed my eyes and felt the darkened shadows of butterfly wings pass across my face and brush my cheeks.

MORE INFORMATION ON MICHOACÁN, MEXICO: click here.

IF YOU GO

El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary is located 6 kilometers from the village of Angangueo and is open daily from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. from November through March.

To get there by car, make your way to Zitácuaro via highway 15 from Morelia or Toluca/Mexico City, drive north to the town of Ocampo then to Angangueo and park your car. From there you can take a truck to the sanctuary unless you prefer the pretty tough hike that takes you up a steep, rocky trail and through two river fords at over 8,500 ft. in altitude (approx. three hours).

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