Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Flight of the Butterflies

(Canada, 2012)

The monarch butterflies of eastern and central North America do something that, to me, is one of the most amazing things in the animal kingdom. Every year as winter approaches they begin flying south and west from the United States and Canada, from places as distant as Nova Scotia, covering as much as eighty miles per day, riding the wind currents. Then they “return” … to a place they have never been before. They reach certain groves in Mexico at altitudes above 10,000 feet, roosting on branches in their millions so densely that the trees can no longer be seen, bending the branches down by their sheer numbers.

Think about that. What does one butterfly weigh? They become dormant, needing almost no energy to survive, but when spring is near they take flight again and head north. No other butterfly does this. It is one of the longest migrations of any animal.

Somewhere in the Texas hill country and other places they lay eggs, and then die. Their offspring keep going north, laying eggs and dying in their turn, until three or four generations have passed. The last generation to hatch, in Canada, are somehow “super” butterflies. They live many times longer than the previous generations, long enough to return all the way to Mexico and start the cycle again. How do they manage this? No one has a clue. Many theories, but no explanation. In fact, no one even knew where they were all going until 1976, when Fred and Norah Urquhart and a network of volunteers tagged thousands of them and traced them to their winter quarters.

This 45-minute film re-enacts the search for the monarchs, and shows all the stages of their incredible lives. It starts with one butterfly in Texas and imagines flying along with it and her offspring. It’s fanciful, but all accurate. The photography is terrific, and the film was shown in IMAX.

The monarchs entered my life twice. The second time was a few years ago when we visited a small grove right by the highway in Pismo Beach and saw … well, the numbers have been declining from the millions, sad to say, but there must have been several hundred thousand insects clinging to the trees. It is an incredible sight, because at first you can’t see them, then you realize that all those brownish “leaves” you are looking at are monarchs. When they fold their wings and hang, their bright colors are concealed. But there were still thousands flying around, looking for a mate, hooking up, and falling to the ground. For some reason the western populations of monarchs don’t go nearly as far south as their eastern cousins do. Pismo Beach is the end of the road for these. There are several hundred sites like this in California. If you ever get a chance, go see them. It will blow your mind.

But the first experience … oh, my. I’m pretty sure it’s too late to see what I saw. It must have been around 1963 or so. A couple of my friends and I had driven to Houston and were on the way home to the Port Arthur-Beaumont area by way of Galveston, on the highway that ran very near the Gulf of Mexico. It was just about sundown. We pulled over to walk to the beach. We walked among waist-high scrub bushes, and began seeing a few flying monarchs. Then we realized that there were millions of them, just hanging there, not moving. We could pick them up and they didn’t fly away. They were sacked out for the night. We didn’t know it at the time, of course, because nobody knew it, but we were seeing one of the resting stops along the way to Mexico. If only Dr. Urquhart had asked us, we would have told him. Go to Galveston! There’s a bunch of them there!