The unforgettable flight of the butterfly

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Monarch butterfly
Monarch butterflies travel almost 3,000 miles to Mexico for the winter months. (Julie Geiss photo)

The day after my dad’s early fall fishing trips on Lake Erie usually meant a fish fry for dinner. Time spent swimming and a fish fry were all I needed to distract me from thinking about the start of school.

I preferred to start my meal with walleye or perch as the main course and then end with a few hush puppies added to my plate. I remember one particular fish fry that left me speechless and it had nothing to do with flavorsome fish filets.

As I waited for the fish to cook, I noticed a monarch butterfly fluttering around the milkweed plants along the fence near the swimming pool. My eyes instantly zoomed in on the bright rust color that was in contrast to its lush green surroundings. Then in my peripheral vision, I caught a glimpse of more majestic monarchs resting on and then off the zinnia flowers repeatedly.

I was so entranced by the abundance of monarchs that I forgot about the much-anticipated hush puppies. I watched as what seemed like hundreds more were in the sky above me near the tips of the trees. The vast amount of butterflies left me bewildered and awestruck. The fluttering motion was chaotic but still calming at the same time.

Monarch migration

I was witnessing monarchs migrating south, an annual feat where monarch butterflies travel almost 3,000 miles to Mexico for the winter months. In Mexico, 140,000 acres are protected by law to help migrating monarchs. However, an increase in the number avocado plantations is affecting the forest surrounding the protected land.

Yearly in late August, scientists and locals observe monarchs gathering at Point Pelee National Park in Ontario, Canada. Within the park is a peninsula that is the southernmost tip of mainland Canada. It is there along the shore that monarchs gather together before their most difficult part of the journey south, flying over Lake Erie.

The monarch butterflies must wait for the perfect weather to traverse the 30-50 miles without stopping. Strong, southern winds cause the monarchs to gather and wait at the point until a change in the weather pattern brings calmer northern winds. The monarchs rest together in clusters in the trees along the shore creating roosts. One roost can have hundreds to thousands of monarchs.

Once the desired wind is detected, the entire roost takes flight across the lake. Gliding and fluttering, the monarchs fly 60-100 feet above the water. The monarch butterflies arrive in Ohio tired and in need of nourishment in the form of nectar.

Refuel

They often take refuge and refuel in Wendy Park on Whiskey Island and other parks along the northern shore of the state. Goldenrod, milkweed, and verbena provide nourishment after the incredible flight across water. Throughout Ohio, butterfly enthusiasts spot the traveling monarchs in meadows, fields, and flower gardens.

The monarch butterflies that travel south are actually the fourth generation in one summer. This generation lives the longest in order to reach winter roosting grounds in Mexico. Other butterflies migrate as well, but not nearly as far as monarch butterflies.

This autumn, many monarchs are fluttering around the goldenrod by our creek. Honey bees and other butterflies are drawn to the nectar in the vibrant wildflowers. It’s like a miniature community buzzing with activity and preparing for the next season. They remind me to make preparations and to embrace the remaining warmth before winter.

I have never again seen as many monarchs as I did that day of the fish fry in my childhood. It must have been related to a weather pattern, a northern wind after a strong southern storm. This unforgettable memory has me watching in anticipation every fall, hoping to see the incredible creatures that defy odds by using their delicate wings to cross almost an entire continent.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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