Posted: June 27, 2023
My wife Deena and I – both longtime WLT members – in mid-February were able to visit a Mexican Nature Reserve set up to protect the mountain pine stands which monarch butterflies use as winter breeding grounds. There are four main government reserves, plus a number of smaller private ones. We went to Santuario Piedra Herrada, a few hours west of Mexico City.
We shared a $20 taxi with another US couple from our hostel and, 45 minutes later, found ourselves in a group of about two dozen people, all Mexicans, hiking up the mountain. (Hiring horses was an option but we chose to walk.) Our guide led us at a steady pace up the forested path. The mountain altitude certainly made the rest stops welcome.
Soon enough the trail got steeper, and then suddenly – there we were! Surrounded by hundreds of trees, all filled with butterflies either resting in the patchy sunlight, or flitting about, looking for nectar or mates. Monarchs take a while to warm up and get active, so midday is the best time to visit. There were a fair number of dead ones on the ground, too, who had fallen victim to the specialized birds who prey on their abdomens or heads. Most birds avoid monarchs because of the toxic chemicals they contain, but some predators have evolved the ability to safely hunt them.
The butterfly area of the trail continued for about two hundred yards, and the guides enforced a respectful silence, so as not to inflict any undue stress on the insects. The atmosphere this produced was calm and peaceful. You could take all the pictures and videos you wanted, but after a while most people just ended up enjoying watching all the activity. It was a beautiful way to spend the day, and after 45 minutes, when the time came to return down the path to our waiting taxi driver, we all left satisfied. An unexpected delight was driving back down the mountain road and seeing thousands more butterflies flying across the road to drink from the neighboring river. Cars drove at a slow pace, careful to let them flit away as necessary.
Most readers of this newsletter will be familiar with the monarch migration – the magic of their yearly thousand mile or more journey to the mountains of central Mexico, to mate, have their young, and then begin the return journey. I wanted to write about this experience so that people could hear about, and perhaps even include in a future vacation, a trip to see the monarch forest sanctuaries in person. It’s fascinating! And even if you can’t make it there in person, planting some monarch-friendly plants in your yard can help these little guys on their migratory route, as well as add some color and variety to your garden. Give it a go!
Written by Tom Kinsky, WLT Board of Advisors