The Monarch Monsoon
An Epic Migration on Monhegan Island
A Monarch on its way to Mexico would seem to have no legitimate business 10 miles out to sea off the Maine coast. The sea here is for Minke Whales and Gray Seals, for Northern Gannets and Herring Gulls — and not a gossamer butterfly weighing little more than a few drops of saltwater.
Try telling that to the thousands of Monarchs here in the Gulf of Maine on Monhegan Island. Monarchs now own the place: a hundred or more nectaring in a patch of tall goldenrod near the Black Duck Emporium, another hundred swarming the mint behind Monhegan House, scores in the courtyard at the Trailing Yew, hundreds more at Lobster Cove. We walk the trails here in the good company of floating orange-and-black escorts. Monhegan is a kingdom of Monarchs.
And at dusk every evening, as we head to the brewery or our families or our bird lists, the Monarchs ascend by the thousands, mostly to the high spruce boughs. They rise not merely to roost for the night, but to preside over Monhegan’s melting pot of souls fortunate enough, during this era of human turmoil, to enjoy one of the planet’s most spectacular migrations at one of its most magnificent places.
Monarchs are here in numbers I have never before seen on this island or, for that matter, anywhere in New England. It’s something I had sort of predicted, particularly after my visit to Monhegan in August, which at the time was lousy with Monarchs producing this very generation of migrants. (My only regret is that my images here in this blog post are feeble and failing expressions for the magnitude of this event.)
Big flights like this can help us learn more about this butterfly and its journeys.
Not only are the Monarchs unmitigated joy, they are data. Lots of it. Although it is one of our most familiar insects, and its migration among the most well-studied, the Monarch (Danaus plexippus) remains in some respects a mystery. Big flights like this can help us learn more about this butterfly and its journeys.
So we’re catching a fraction of the island’s Monarchs, giving each one a tiny sticker with a unique number, and noting its sex, location and the date. And then we release each one to the winds and whims of migration, hoping it will be found again somewhere on its journey south toward Mexico (although many of these coastal migrants probably head toward Florida or the Caribbean, where they join a year-round breeding subpopulation).
We’re also learning about these off-shore migrants. As it turns out, we’re tagging mostly males — about three times as many as females. That skewed ratio could suggest that migrating females in portions of the East might be disproportionally vulnerable to some parasite or other threat. It might suggest that males get blown out to sea more often than females, or even that they both get blown out in similar numbers but that males more easily find their way to safety on island refuges like this one. Maybe males are flying lower and easier to catch during tagging. Or none of the above. I’ll be looking into it — and perhaps publishing with data from this year and others. For now, it’s all wonderful speculation. (By the way, male Monarchs are on average larger than females; the opposite is true among most butterfly species.)
I suspect many of the Monarchs will leave the island today on fresh Northwest winds, along with some of their companions here as well in big numbers: Painted Lady, American Lady and Red Admiral. Perhaps the winds will bring us migrating birds.
To the Monarch watchers waiting to my south: Heed those north winds and scan the skies. A Monarch Monsoon may soon be approaching. Look them over for one of my tags!
Butterflies and Joy
Two hundred orange butterflies in a meadow of purple wildflowers — next to the ocean. It reminds me to slow down, lose the gadgets and find the joy.
When Songbirds Fall to Earth
Delivered from the fog, the grace and irony of tired warblers feeding at my feet on Monhegan Island, Maine.