Do you love the first sight of snow drops or crocus or scilla?  Are you watching the grass green up and watching willow branches turn yellow green?  Have you got geese nesting on a pond near you?  Senior citizens in Miami and Phoenix aren’t the only ones who venture north as the weather warms.

There are many waves of migration heading our way right now – whooping cranes, robins, humming birds, bald eagles, common loons, barn swallows, orioles and those might little monarchs.  You can follow them on Journey North.  Journey North is a nonprofit organization aimed at helping people tune into the global study of migration and seasonal change.

I was turned on to this map by Eric, a citizen scientist in Madison who has been submitting data for more than 10 years to the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.  He knows from experience that his yard full of various milkweed plants is going to be a Monarch Motel, and the perfect place to take a break and lay some eggs.   He likes to know that those stout-hearted little butterflies that are winging up from Mexico.

It’s a harrowing trip.  The Monarchs that make it to the Midwest have spent the winter in the mountains of Mexico.  It’s touch and go for them down there.  If the winter is too hot, they move around too much, deplete their lipid reserves and burn out before spring, or perhaps worse, they may be triggered to start north too soon only to  freeze to death once they get here.    To avoid that they flap up hill some 3,000 meters in altitude where they can more or less count on survival conditions in the high mountain forests.  It will come as no surprise that these mountain forests where they gather together in colonies are currently being logged.

In March, they start to break diapause (a kind of dormancy to survive hard conditions) and get down to the business of heading north, mating and laying eggs as they go.  A few of those eggs survive to hatch and go through larval stages.  A few of those larvae form a chrysalis, and a few hatch out as freshly colored butterflies and head further north.  They reach the northern edge of their range about June.

Eric said he can tell when he sees the few who have made the trip all the way from Mexico.  They arrive at his milkweed patch ragged and faded.  They lay their eggs and then move farther north.

It’s an amazing saga, but it’s just one chapter in the big fat book of animal migration.  Journey North is one way to get a grasp on all these incredible journeys.  I used to marvel at the Monarchs.  I would see them and think, oh look!  The Monarchs are here.  I had no idea where they had come from.  What a complex interwoven environment it takes to keep them coming.  Now that I know more, I am in awe.

..Time to migrate! photo credit

Eric is worried.   “Of course I hear the news,” he says.  “There is usually some event happening in Mexico that isn’t good for the monarchs, and you wonder if they are going to make it.”

Whether it is the logging or the creeping climate change that may make the wintering sites unsuitable within 50 years or all the perils that lay in their path, the monarchs and other migrating species surf the air currents and search the ground for shelter, experiencing the world in ways I cannot even begin to imagine.

The lucky ones will be blowing into Wisconsin in  June.  If you want to help them on their way, a good way to start is to check out Journey North.

7 replies

  1. Well you learn something new every day. I hadn’t realised that Admiral butterflies here in Latvia migrate from Africa or Southern Europe. I looked them up after reading your post.

    Our most obvious migrants are the Storks, they come back around the end of March and we have loads in Latvia, even though they are rare elsewhere. Also back are the swans, the geese and the cranes and we are waiting till the middle of next month for the corncrakes.

  2. Wow! That seems so exotic to me. Storks and swans. We do have cranes, geese and so many water birds coming through right about now that I can’t even keep track of them yet.

    I heard an interesting anecdote on public radio a few weeks ago about flamingos falling out of the sky in Siberia. This has happend recently two years running. An exhausted, near-dead flamingo just fell to earth in the same area. Both are now living in a Siberian zoo.
    Searching the records, researchers found out this has happened in the past. They have calculated that this part of Siberia is 180 degrees opposite of the direction flamingos fly south from many hundreds of miles away, and they presume that somehow, these birds got their wiring crossed and flew north instead of south, poor things.
    I can’t even begin to imagine what migration must be like for a bird or butterfly. Especially in our highly developed world. What a lot of close scrapes the survivors must go through.

  3. It is the corncrakes that amaze me. Last year Ian was cutting hay as late as possible, to given them a chance to fly off, but apparently they hadn’t heard they were supposed to have packed their bags and left and twice he had to stop the tractor to allow one to fly off, just skimming over the top of the uncut hay. The question is then, how do they fly all the way to Africa, surely not just above ground level? The mind boggles (no puns this time)

    • I had to go online to learn what a corn crake is. We don’t have them in my neck of the woods, and I’d never even heard of them before. How many animals there must be out there that I know nothing about.
      The mind does indeed boggle.

  4. I haven’t seen them but I have heard them. Ian says they have little beady eyes which look like they are pleading with him when he is bearing down on them with his tractor. They managed to escape the tractor and the Storks which follow the tractor like seagulls do in England.

  5. Yes, nesting season can conflict with mowing season.
    We have much of our land in a government program which requires that we get a special permit to mow early in the areas where we are trying to discourage wild parsnip, a pernicious invasive plant. We mow it with our walk behind brush mower, and try to be as minimal as possible.
    Some day we hope to have grain to harvest, and then the hard decisions will be before us.

  6. We were going to try some experimental areas with grain but we have the advantage that we know where the corncrakes keep heading for and so far it doesn’t conflict with any of our plans. Traditionally hay cutting is done after August 15th which should be when the corncrakes have gone but today they cut mid June for silage, fortunately I think it is often right between the two periods of chick raising.

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