Here’s the Winter Home of Millions of Butterflies

After a one-hour cab ride, a three-hour car ride, a one-hour horseback ride and a long steep walk down the side of a mountain, we finally convened yesterday with the Monarch butterflies, who fly by the bazillions every winter to a small patch of forest in the Mexican state of Michoacan. This is one of the world’s greatest (and most mysterious) migrations. And it’s only four hours from where I live.

Stunning. HOWEVER, this was probably the biggest photographic challenge I ever faced. There were butterflies everywhere, yet, they don’t really show up in the photos too well…

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Those trees are literally dripping with large bunches of butterflies, who are crammed in all together. When the sun would come out, they’d fly out en masse. When a cloud appeared, back they’d go to the trees.

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We were around 10,000 feet elevation. It was cold and windy, even when the sun would come out. This particular migration area is accessible only by horseback.

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According to Monarch Watch, this is how it works:

“The sites the Monarchs use during the winter have particular characteristics that enable their survival. These characteristics are important because they provide the Monarch with the right overwintering conditions. Trees on which to cluster are one of the most important elements of the sites. The climate and the whole surrounding area are also important. Nearby trees, streams, underbrush, and fog or clouds all form an intricate natural ecosystem that is the monarchs’ winter habitat. These conditions are found in oyamel fir forests, which occur in a very small area of mountain tops in central Mexico. Overwintering sites are about 3000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) above sea level, and are on steep, southwest-facing slopes.

In particular, the butterflies need a cool place. When they are cool, they don’t metabolize, or use up, their energy reserves as fast. They also need to be protected from snow and winds. The surrounding trees serve as a buffer to the winds and snow. Because they also need water for moisture, the fog and clouds in this mountainous region provide another important element for their survival.

The butterflies choose spots that are close to but not quite freezing. They cluster together, covering whole tree trunks and branches, and cling to fir and pine needles. The forest floor in the overwintering sites is covered with young trees, shrubs, lichens and moss. When Monarchs fall out of the trees and are too cold to fly back up, they can sometimes crawl to the lower bushes to avoid predators. The tall trees make a thick canopy over their heads. Protective trees and bushes soften the wind and shield the butterflies from the occasional snow, rain, or hail. Fog and clouds settle on the Monarch groves. On sunny days, they often warm up enough to fly to nearby water where they will drink. They must fly back to the roost before getting too cold, and one can sometimes see them take off in flight, heading back to the roosts as soon as a cloud passes over.

Each of the above elements is important to the butterflies, and makes up the Monarch habitat – trees in which to roost, other trees and shrubs to protect them, the cool air, and the presence of water.”

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