Each of the four reserves was unique and offered an intimate experience with the butterflies. At all four sanctuaries the butterflies were extremely active, leaving their tree roosts and visiting flowers and water sources. Based on recent population estimates, it is anticipated there were upwards of 145 million butterflies among us!
At El Rosario, the first reserve we visited, we were surrounded by towering Oyamel Fir trees and a breathtaking abundance of flowering plants in the understorey. The trees offer roosting sites for millions of butterflies to cluster and rest during their winter period of relative inactivity while the blankets of red and blue salvias and vibrant groundsels offer a much-needed nectar source for the awakening butterflies.
On day two at Sierra Chincua the forest came alive as millions of butterflies fluttered around the huge, mature fir and pine trees. Our group sat in awe quietly observing the spectacle before us. It was hard to deny that this special micro-habitat that supports the overwintering population is a magical place. The butterflies here seemed to be particularly friendly, with many of the participants getting up-close encounters!
The third sanctuary we visited, El Capulín, was only recently opened to the public and took an hour and half to reach by horseback. The journey up the rugged mountain by horse was an adventure in itself! When we arrived, our unique vantage point on the steep slopes where the butterflies were roosting allowed us to be at eye-level with the tree tops and clusters of butterflies.
During our final sanctuary visit at Piedra Herrada we were treated to a breath-taking scene. The group made the ascent up the mountain to bear witness to very few roosting butterflies. The butterflies at the top of the mountain were very active due to the warm, sunny weather. After eating our lunch we boarded our bus to head back to our hotel and as we drove down the road we observed millions of butterflies streaming down the mountain and overhead! The butterflies had left their roosts to visit a nearby stream and drink water. We pulled over on the side of the road to watch them before continuing along. Further along, as though someone had turned off a switch, they were gone!
In addition to the amazing show the butterflies put on for us, we were treated to sights of several of the area’s notable bird species including the Red Warbler (a beautiful endemic), Hepatic Tanager, Mexican Chickadee, American Dipper, Western Bluebird, Rufous-backed Robin (endemic), Brown-backed Solitaire, Mountain Trogon, Mexican Violetear, among others.
I have a life-long passion for butterflies and I feel so fortunate to have been able to share with our travellers. Each day during the drive to the reserves, I provided a mini-lecture on Monarch ecology, life history, migration, reproduction, and of course the overwintering grounds. I would like to think that this gave participants the opportunity to really immerse themselves in the experience and become primed on Monarch biology and conservation.
I can’t wait to do it all over again in 2018!