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  • Stephen Buchmann

    Canadian naturalist Don Davis has been tagging and studying monarch butterflies since 1967. Don tags anywhere from 500 monarchs to 5000 monarchs each season! To date, 18 of his tagged monarchs have been recaptured at the various overwintering sites in Mexico. An amazing accomplishment, considering the odds. He visited the Mexican monarch sanctuaries for the first time this February (15th-10th). Here are some of his initial impressions. (Thanks for sharing them with us Don!)

    "As our plane prepared to land in Mexico City, the rounded mountains that compose the Trans-Volcanic Plateau were very visible and I was sure that some of these mountains contained some of the monarch overwintering sites. The journey to actually reach the sites is an arduous one - with the road conditions gradually deteriorating as one leaves Mexico City. As you approach the mountains, the roads twist and turn as you climb. In driving to the overwintering sites from any of the villages or towns such as Angangeo or Ocampo, again you must navigate through very narrow streets and steep, difficult roads. In order to reach the El Rosario site from Ocampo, it took us 45 minutes to travel just 12 kilometers on a very rough dirt and stone-covered road.

    Stephen Buchmann

    "Of course, the trip is worthwhile. It feels a bit like walking "in the footsteps of the master" (Dr. Urquhart - who is still highly regarded and respected by the local people). The climb from the parking area to the overwintering sites is indeed an arduous one - up the 45 degree slopes. At 10,000+ feet, the air is thinner and you huff and puff your way up the slopes.

    "The initial site of millions of monarch butterflies is a bit overwhelming. On a warm day, the sound of thousands of monarch butterflies flying in the air - wings hitting each other - sounds very much like leaves rustling in the wind.

    "Overall, the monarchs appeared to be in good condition. Many were faded, while others were in pristine condition. The ground in the vicinity of the sites is heavily lettered with dead monarchs. While we did not witness predation, it appeared that those monarchs lacking a thorax had been eaten by birds.

    "While the temperature inside the forest at the overwintering sites remains cool, the tropical sun readily warms up the clusters of monarchs to such an extent that they leave the clusters to fill the air. The sight of hundreds of thousands of monarchs filling the air is something to behold. As we noted, while in the sun we were very warm. However, once we entered the shade, it felt more comfortable to put our jackets back on. Also, due to the intensity of the sun, we wore sun screen. I received a bit of sunburn in spite of wearing sun screen. When the sun is obstructed by the clouds, the air cools quickly and the monarchs begin returning to their clusters on the trees.

    "We had great difficulty finding out about any tagged monarchs being recovered. This remains an issue currently being vigorously discussed on the Dplex-l monarch butterfly electronic discussion group (The Monarch Watch). It seems that some of the "vigilantes" (guides) at the overwintering sites hold onto the tags. Some tagged monarchs are sold for as much as $20.00 US, while others charge a fee for allowing you to photograph them. There are many tagging programs but no central depository for reporting tagged monarchs. Apparently some landowners or former guides have collections of tagged monarchs they or their workers have found. Many of these tag numbers have not been reported. The problem is in finding a satisfactory way of getting the numbers reported. It matters little who actually owns the tagged monarch butterfly that is found. At one point in time, there was a record book at the El Rosario site for reporting tagged monarchs found.

    "We did manage to come across two tagged monarch butterflies - tagged by members of The Monarch Watch program. One tag was legible but the other could not be read. This information has been reported to Dr Chip Taylor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence, Kansas.

    "It is interesting to note that at the overwintering sites and in the valley, there are many sources of nectar for insects. The monarch butterflies also sipped nectar from some of these sources, that included salivia and lovely tall wild lupines with blue flowers. Many of the flowering trees were covered with blue or pink blossoms. In the valley near Tuxpan, we discovered milkweed in bloom - primarily A. currasavica. It must be remembered that Mexico has about 63 species of milkweed. We also found one well developed monarch butterfly larva, as well as eggs, larva, and adults of the Queen butterfly. We also observed throughout our travels many other butterfly species - including many large, beautiful swallowtail species.

    "On the way into the interior, we had stopped at the base of the mountain called Herrada, which contains one of the overwintering sites. We had timed things just perfectly, as a river of monarchs soared down the mountain and along the twisting mountain highway (a path of least resistance) on their way to a local water source. Am amazing sight as thousands of monarchs flew past us like a river!

    "During our stay in Mexico, we rented rooms at the Quinte Mitzi in Tuxpan. The Urquharts stayed here, as has Dr. Brower, Dr. Calvert and others. The rooms are unheated, but quite comfortable. At night, the temperatures outside dropped to about 46 F. One morning, it dropped to to 39 F, and there was some frost on the windshields of the car! We were in a mountain valley, surrounded by scenic old volcanic mountains.

    "Keep in mind that in Mexico, they experience a wet season and a dry season, as opposed to the four seasons we are familiar with. This was the dry season. Some areas had not experienced rainfall for many weeks and the soil was very dry. Frost is also extremely rare. Mitzi told us that some weeks before, the first hard frost in 30 years had killed many tropical plants, and ruined their 4 acres of raspberries.

    "We have only started to scratch the surface with regard to the biology of the monarch butterfly and its amazing travels. It is also possible as we make new findings, that we may need to review and revisit the conclusions, assumptions, and hypotheses we developed. New advances in scientific exploration - everything from satellite imaging to chemical analysis to electron microscopy - may yield new findings or contradict earlier findings. We must be prepared to thorougly examine what we know - in an honest and professional manner - in the search for truth. We must remember that the pioneers such as Dr. Urquhart did not have access to some of the elaborate electronic and laboratory equipment and procedures that are available today!"

    That's all for now, but I would be prepared to answer any questions you might have.

    Don Davis
    Toronto, ON
    Donald_Davis@stubbs.woodsworth.utoronto.ca


    Don Davis has been tagging and studying monarch butterflies since 1967. Since 1985, he has been tagging every year at Presqu'ile Provincial Park near Brighton, Ontario. To date, 18 of his tagged monarchs have been recaptured at the various overwintering sites in Mexico. Until 1992, Don work with Dr. Fred Urquhart (Dr. Urquhart ended his tagging program in Canada that year - feeling that no new data was forthcoming). Since that time, Don has tagged independently - and focused on environmental and educational issues related to the monarch butterfly. Depending on the time available, Don tags anywhere from 500 monarchs to 5000 monarchs! He has supported Journey North since the program began. This was his first visit to the Mexican wintering sites.