Published: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 6:34 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 at 6:34 p.m.
During her time as a volunteer docent in the Florida Museum of Natural History's Butterfly Rainforest, Debra Stinson had heard about the miracle of the migrating Monarch butterflies.
Every year in late fall, millions of Monarch butterflies travel from their breeding grounds east of the Rockies in the United States and Canada to overwintering sites in the mountains of central Mexico. There, at about a dozen remote locations, the butterflies congregate by the hundreds of millions on the branches of the giant Oyamel fir trees. The trees provide a protective thermal canopy for the fragile insects from November through March, when they mate and then make the return trip north to lay their eggs on milkweed plants.
But Stinson had also heard disturbing reports about how deforestation and harvesting of the fir trees in Mexico was beginning to threaten the Monarchs.
"I figured that if I really wanted to see this natural phenomenon, I'd better do it," says Stinson, 57, who now holds a part-time job tending the water gardens at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art.
Fortunately, she knew just who to turn to as a guide: Thomas Emmel, director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at the museum. For many years, Emmel has been leading group tours to Madagascar, the rain forests of Costa Rica, the Galapagos Islands and other far-flung places, where evening lectures and lessons in biology and butterfly behavior are part of the tour package. Emmel's annual trips to the Monarch butterfly overwintering sites in central Mexico are the most popular of his trips.
Stinson's husband, John, wasn't interested in making the trip, so she invited her oldest grandson instead. Stinson's teenage grandsons live in Chicago, and the distance, together with such Digital Age distractions as video games, ITunes and YouTube, has made grandparenting a challenge. Stinson thought the trip to Mexico would be an ideal way for her and her grandson, Justin, to connect and celebrate his 16th birthday.
After flying to Chicago to pick up her grandson, she and Justin met up with the rest of the tour group in Mexico City. From there, they took a four-hour bus trip to the colonial mountain village of Angangueo and El Rosario, one of two butterfly overwintering stops on the tour, where a colony of 200-300 million adult Monarchs spend the winter.
"As you're going up the mountain, you see a butterfly here, and a butterfly there. And then all of a sudden there are hundreds of butterflies," Stinson says of the hike 1,500 feet up the mountain near the Monarch colony. When they reached an open glen with a mountain stream meandering through it, Stinson says,
"You can barely see the ground, it's so thick with butterflies."
The group spent several hours at El Rosario, where they had to speak in a whisper and were prohibited from using flash photography so as not to disturb the butterflies.
"At one point, I just lay down on the ground and looked up and the wind would pick up and it was like an air stream of butterflies flying down from the trees, and another group flying back up again. There were so many of them, you could hear the fluttering of their wings," she says. Still, at El Rosario, they weren't permitted to see the the actual butterfly colony.
"I thought, 'How could it get any better than this?'" Stinson says. But the next day, when the group visited the Monarch colony in Sierra Chincua, it did.
The group rode on horseback for an hour and then walked another 200 yards to reach the colony. Directly above them were millions of butterflies clustered on the branches of the Oyamel fir trees. Then, as the day grew warmer, Stinson says the butterflies began opening their wings and cascading out of the trees.
"All of a sudden, just like an alarm bell went off, the outer ones would begin to drop away, and then all of them would drop off," she recalls. "Of course you don't want to move. You don't want to step on any of them. It's phenomenal."
Back at the hotel in the evenings, Dr. Emmel gave talks on the Monarchs and their amazing ability to migrate.
Stinson says it's not necessary to have a science background to enjoy the trip, just a natural curiosity and a love of nature. And though the hike up the mountain at El Rosario was a little strenuous, everyone is encouraged to go at his or her own pace. The accommodations — a lovely family-owned hotel in Angangueo with rooms overlooking a courtyard and home-cooked meals — were comfortable. And the experience was, well, priceless.
"I've never seen anything to compare with the butterflies."
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