Thursday, January 04, 2007

Witnessing a Dying Miracle

Since I was a boy I have been fascinated with butterflies. As a kid I would search my Southern California neighborhood for caterpillars, and feed and nurture the ones I found until they molted into cocoons. Once I watched the miracle of their transformation into butterflies, I would release them back into the "wilds", and start my search all over again.

Monarchs were my favorite for several reasons. First, they are beautiful and graceful fliers. But most importantly, I loved the way I could see the butterfly developing through the transparent cocoon shortly before the butterfly emerges. It was amazing to watch.

This winter I decided my girls and I needed to witness something that I have wanted to see since I hunted caterpillars as a kid -- the Monarch butterfly gathering grounds in central California. Each winter, all of the Monarchs that live West of the Rockies (including our own Utah) fly, float or otherwise move from as far north as Canada to the Eucalyptus groves of California. One of the major destinations is Pacific Grove, near Monterey.

We arrived at the grove around 1 pm, the time when the sun and rising temperatures allow the butterflies to begin flying around. As we walked onto the two-acre grove of trees, I noticed that like much of California it too was surrounded by houses. At first we looked around and saw no butterflies, but soon we came upon a docent with a stationary telescope, and she bid us to peer through the lenses at a cluster of a few hundred Monarchs hanging in a nearby tree. It was astounding! Much like a swarm of honeybees, these beautiful insects were hanging onto each other in a curtain of color, forming a ball of wings. As the warmer air reached them, they started flying around the grove, filling the air.

We walked further down the path we came upon a couple gazing intently into another tree. As we followed their gaze we saw a much larger grouping of butterflies. As I looked at the "swarm" through my camcorder's telephoto lens, I gazed excitedly upon nature's stain-glass window -- the wings of thousands of butterflies illuminated by the afternoon sunlight.

As my children hunted for a few dead butterflies for their scrapbooks, I engaged our docent in conversation. Sally told me that sadly, the number of Monarchs returning to Pacific Grove (and the other nesting sites in California) was declining. I stared at her butterfly counts from previous years -- numbers that reached the hundreds of thousands a decade ago were now only in the low tens of thousands. The primary reasons, she explained, were habitat loss and pesticide use. Each year homes are built on the empty fields that contained the milkweed plant, vital for Monarchs as a caterpillar food source. Thus, fewer weeds mean fewer butterflies. Experts are fearful that one day in the not-so-distant future, butterflies will no longer return to Pacific Grove.

Monarchs from East of the Rockies face similar problems as they migrate to Central Mexico. There, deforestation of their wintering grounds threatens their numbers, although thankfully much is being done.

As we exited the "Monarch Grove" I asked the girls what they had liked about our excursion. After talking about the butterflies, I admonished them to remember this experience. "The way things are going, your children may not be able to see what you saw today" I told them. As I gazed back at the Monarchs flying around the grove, I was filled with a sense of wonder and amazement at this display of nature's miracles. I can only hope that it will be around to be experienced by my grandchildren.