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Monarch migration

09/10/03 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) From the stalks of Vermont milkweed to a small forest in Mexico, commentator Ted Levin says that the amazing annual migration of the Monarch Butterfly is once again under way.

(Levin) I'm reading Sue Halpern's, "Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly." My timing could not have been better - monarchs are passing through Vermont right now en route to south-central MexicO; to a remote and largely inhospitable fifty acres of oyamel fir forest ten thousand feet up the southwestern flank of the Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains.

When I was a boy I used to haunt the September beaches of Long Island. The water was still warm, the waves were at their finest, and an outpouring of birds and butterflies flowed above the dunes, while unseen beneath the gray chop, migratory fish followed a similar impulse.

One September day, twenty-five years ago, I arrived at Fire Island at dawn to find virtually every red cedar robed in butterflies. By mid-morning, when the day had sufficiently warmed up, monarchs began to migrate down the beach just below the crest of the dunes, ten to twenty abreast, butterfly after butterfly. All day they passed, stopping at sunset to regroup in the cedars - hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million monarchs - an orange and brown river of butterflies headed for Mexico.

What makes their migration so amazing is that no butterfly ever makes the complete round trip. Three, maybe four generations separate the butterflies that spend one winter in Mexico from those that go there the next. How the monarchs find their collective way back to oyamel trees remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the planet.

In 1976 scientists discovered the butterfly's obscure wintering grounds, the geographic equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. So
astonishing was the news that monarchs migrate to Mexico and winter together by the hundreds of millions in a small forest high in the mountains that both National Geographic and Natural History ran cover stories and the New York Times announced the discovery on page one.

Once Vermont's Monarchs reach Mexico in November, they spend approximately 135 days high in the mountains, in a climate warm enough to stay alive yet cool enough not waste vital metabolic energy. Energy that will fuel a return flight to the Gulf Coast.

Our monarchs return to the Gulf Coast of the United States in March, just when the milkweeds bloom. There they mate, lay their eggs on the under surface of milkweed leaves, then die. Once the caterpillars have grown and transformed, a miracle itself, the next generation of butterflies heads north. And so on and so on, until monarchs reappear in Vermont in July, at least three generations removed from the Transverse Neovolcanic Mountains of Mexico.

There's a Monarch butterfly outside my window, drifting on a northwest breeze. Above the pasture fence, searching for flowers the horse left standing. Finding nothing to it's liking it rises above the screen of trees that separate the upper and lower pastures, then disappears from view, onward to the mountains of southern Mexico - an insect that behaves like a bird.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history. His most recent book is "Liquid Land: A Journey Through the Florida Everglades". He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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