Monarch Butterflies Coming our Way in What Could be Worst Migration in History

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The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting sites in Michoacan. Photo courtesy SK Films

Monika Maeckle

Look out the window at late season flowers over the next few weeks and you should see migrating Monarch butterflies.  San Antonio and the Texas Hill Country are on the Monarch butterfly flyway and this is the time of year that we usually see masses of Monarchs migrating “home” to their ancestral roosts in Mexico.  According to Monarch Watch, the peak migration time for San Antonio’s latitude will be  October 2 – 16.

San Antonio’s Milkweed  Patch on the Museum Reach, the riparian restoration of the San Antonio River Mission Reach, and the San Antonio Botanical Garden (SABOT) are all great vantage points for observing the storied insects in the coming weeks. SABOT horticulturist Amanda Wielgosh reported seeing six Monarchs on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, this year’s migration is likely to be a disappointment despite a promising start with well-timed rains and a banner wildflower season.  Many Monarch butterfly followers are bracing for 2012 to claim the dubious distinction as the worst on record for Monarch numbers.

Monarch butterflies roosting in Canada

Monarch butterflies roosting in Canada last week. They’re on their way here.     Photo by Journey North

Last year’s drought set the stage for a small population (the smallest since records have been kept).  Crazy weather, spikes in temperature that confused host plant growth cycles, drought, wildfire and even massive aerial insecticide sprays aimed at West Nile virus-carrying mosquitoes in the strategic North Texas migration flyway — all have conspired to make it a tough year for Monarch butterflies.   Dr. Chip Taylor, founder of Monarch Watch, labeled 2012 a year “like no other” in his annual state-of-the-Monarch-migration blogpost.

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger "discovered" the Monarch butterfly Overwintering Sites

Catalina Trail, January 2, 1975, the day she and Ken Brugger “discovered” the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites.     Photo copyright Catalina Trail

When the Monarch butterfly puzzle was finally pieced together in 1975 after more than 40 years of research, things were different. Catalina Trail and her partner Kenneth Brugger walked into the remote Oyamel tree forest in the Mexican state of Michoacan on January 2 of that year, and massive numbers of Monarch butterflies crowded the trees, like overlaid clusters of grapes. “I suspect the early colonies may have collectively contained a billion in some years,” said Dr. Lincoln Brower, renowned Monarch butterfly scientist.

Today, their numbers are less than half that. In 1975, threats to the migration were less severe than today–the fir forests where the butterflies roost were largely intact, genetically modified organisms were the fantasies of science fiction writers, and theories on climate change were just warming up.

“Back then, it appeared that those places were so isolated, they were pretty much left alone,” said Trail, from her home in Austin recently. “You didn’t see the big operations with big trucks, taking away huge fir trees,” she said of the illegal logging that has only recently come to a halt thanks to efforts by the World Wildlife Foundation and partnerships between the Mexican and U.S. governments.  Read the full story of Catalina Trail and the “discovery” here.  (Quotation marks are deliberate, since native people knew of the overwintering sites for centuries before Westerners pieced the migration puzzle together.)

Trail, the only living member of the crew who found the roosting sites and made them known to the world, now lives a quiet life in South Austin.  She just returned from a screening of Flight of the Butterflies, a 3D film produced by Canadian filmmakers SK Films, that debuted in Washington, DC last week.

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the "discovery" of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.

The IMAX movie, Flight of the Butterflies, was released last week, and chronicles the “discovery” of the Monarch butterfly roosting spot.  Photo courtesy SK Films.

The 3D film chronicles the natural history saga, which includes the tenacious Dr. Fred Urquardt, Brugger, an eccentric American expatriate, and  Trail, a spirited young woman.  “Flight of the Butterflies” is being released in IMAX theaters nationwide this month and will screen in Houston October 5 and Galveston in March, according to Eddie Ward, SK Films spokesman.  No San Antonio or Austin screenings are scheduled yet, he said.

“I absolutely loved it–in 3D it was like you could almost reach out and touch them.  Very inspiring,” said Trail. “They did a very high tech rendition of the pupae transformation and metamorphosis via CatScan–that was really exciting and beautiful to see.”  Dr. Brower, who also attended the Washington debut at the Smithsonian Institute, called the film “beautiful….the 3D shots of overwintering are superb.”  He called the story, “a fine narrative and emotionally appealing,” adding, “the conservation issues were weakly presented.”

We look forward to viewing the film, and to welcoming the Monarchs as they arrive soon in  San Antonio and Austin.   Until then, keep an eye out for early Monarch migrants, and enjoy this trailer teaser until the movie shows up here.

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  She covers nature in the urban environment for this website.  You can reach her at monika@therivardreport.com or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

9 thoughts on “Monarch Butterflies Coming our Way in What Could be Worst Migration in History

  1. Now is a good time to gather milkweed seed pods. I hope this year’s migration will be better than anticipated. Wish I could be there. We are planting milkweeds, but ours literally fried with the lack of rain. Thank you for this article. It is very interesting, and I’m glad to see the focus upon Catalina Trail, whose efforts located the butterflies many years ago.

    • Yes, Catalina deserves way more recognition than she has received. She spoke the language, knew the people and navigated the countryside near where she grew up to help locate the roosts. I have no doubt if it were not for her they would not have been discovered until later. –Monika

  2. I saw so many butterflies today on the north east side of San Antonio there were so many I thought they were leaves but they were way too small to be monarchs does anyone know what I’m seeing? Do other butterflies migrate?

    • Those were probably snout butterflies, Katie. They host on hackberry trees, and the recent rains have set them hatching. Some other butterflies migrate, following nectar and host plants, but none take on the multi-generation, cross-country long distance journey of the Monarch. They’re pretty special. — MM

  3. Katie, I believe they are American Snout butterflies. I’ve seen them in masses flying around on the north side of town and have been photographing them. Is it too late to find the Monarchs right now?

    • We should see some Monarchs this weekend, but the migration this year is historically small. Cold fronts typically push them down from the northern reaches. Keep your fingers crossed.

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