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Monarch Butterfly Migration Update: September 19, 2003

Today’s Update Includes:

Highlights From the Migration Trail

Click Map to Read Highlights Along the Migration Trail

A classic fall cold front plowed across North America this week, and monarchs rode southward with the north winds in its wake. Monarchs were spotted from noteworthy vantage points: during a fire drill at the Swain School in Pennsylvania, from a hot air balloon in Upstate New York, from office windows along Lake Michigan, and from the nose-bleed section at a Cornhusker’s football game in Nebraska. If you were a monarch flying to Mexico, what stories could you tell?

This map shows all reports received to date. Because it's questioned whether early (August to mid-September) sightings at southern latitudes are truly migratory butterflies, so it's hard to know whether to include them on the migration map. For the record, all reports received to date are shown here for the record.

Hurricanes and Migration: Isabel Hits Land
At the time of writing, Hurricane Isabel had just hit the North Carolina coast, and winds of almost 100 mph were being reported. These maps show the wind and large scale weather patterns. In addition to concerns about human residents, several people wrote to ask how migrating butterflies would be affected.

Monarchs are easily overpowered by strong winds. In a 35 mph wind in Iowa this week, Robert Woodward noticed, "Any monarch venturing into the skies was being blown about in erratic directions. Five or six monarchs tried to come up out of the big bluestem grasses, only to be cast about in the wind."

Strong winds can pull monarchs right along with them. Immediately after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, large numbers of monarchs appeared in England. Along with the monarchs came evidence that the wind was indeed responsible: A North American bird rarely seen in the Old World (a Common Nighthawk) appeared at the same time.

Migrating wildlife throughout eastern North America will be affected by the storm. Bird watchers will be on the lookout for rare birds blown off course, many the young of the year who've never migrated before. How do migrants manage? Here’s one story, about a satellite-tracked falcon who turned back when faced with the overpowering winds of Hurricane Mitch:

Thousands and Thousands of Butterflies: But Are They Monarchs?
Painted Ladies Taking a Break
Photo: V. Eaton
Suddenly last week, monarchs were being reported by the hundreds. Flowers in gardens were covered. But these were not monarchs. This was an outbreak of another butterfly called painted ladies, evidently monarch look-alikes to some people. Painted ladies are also migratory. However, "The migration pattern is more complex than that of Monarchs, and definitely is worth studying," says Royce Bitzer of Iowa State University. You can visit his website to learn how to study painted lady migration.
Migration is Not for Babies
When several people said they were seeing "baby monarchs" we knew to be suspicious. Why was that a clue?

Challenge Question #6:
"How would you explain to a person who's new to tracking monarch migration why it's impossible to see a baby monarch? (Hint: Include a description of the monarch life cycle in your answer.)"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Practice With Butterfly Identification
It's easy to misidentify butterflies--especially when looking for monarchs so willfully! Here's a fun exercise to develop your observation skills.

Danaus plexippus
Photo Jim Gilbert

Painted Lady
Vanessa cardui
Peter J. Bryant

How Fast Were We Rising?
Discussion of Challenge Question #5

Heading for the Thermal
When we hit the thermal in the plane last week, we rose at a rate of 500 feet/minute for 30 seconds. We asked, "How many feet upward did the thermal carry the plane? How did the plane's speed compare to the speed of a typical elevator?"

In those 30 seconds we rose 250 feet, equal to about 25 stories in a building. How does that compare to an elevator? Anyone who's waited for an elevator knows elevator speeds can vary! The typical elevator generally travels between 4 to 14 miles per hour, according to NYC's Department of Buildings. The fastest elevator our research could find: 1800 feet per minute. So, when a bird or butterfly travels up with a thermal, you can picture a ride in the sky in an average-speed elevator.

Watching and Waiting at the Mexican Sanctuaries
Students at two sanctuary schools have their eyes on the skies, and are waiting with anticipation to report the monarchs' arrival. We received the first weekly fax today and will report hereafter each week. When do you predict the first monarchs will reach their final destination?
Conservation Perspectives: A View from Mexico
Jordi Honey-Rosés
Jordi Honey-Rosés is the Monarch Butterfly Program Officer at the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico. Once each month, he will send an update with his views about the conservation challenges and successes in Mexico.

"The updates will serve as conduit for ideas and stories that are rarely heard from the Mexican side of the border, especially those successes by local Mexican inhabitants to protect the forest of the Monarch Butterfly," says Jordi.

He explains further, "The peaceful experience of visiting an overwintering Monarch Butterfly colony rarely fails to meet expectations. However, the visit to the overwintering sites frequently stirs up many social questions in addition to the fascinating biological questions that brought the visitor here in the first place. The poverty and deforestation are imposing and hard to ignore.

"The inquiries I receive from first time visitors are all very similar. 'What is driving the deforestation? Why does the logging continue? Is the migration in peril?' A visit to the colonies seems to rob them of their unbounded excitement and optimism; converting the tourist into conservationist and awaking their social consciousness."

A video introduction, photos and links to monthly updates can be found here:

Tip for Teachers: Reading Strategies to the Rescue
Jordi Honey-Roses' first-hand account about conservation work in Mexico provides compelling, primary-source material for students. For ideas for classroom use, see:
Reminder: Symbolic Migration Deadline--October 14
Only 25 more butterfly-making days before the Symbolic Migration deadline. Don't be late! Butterflies received after the postmarked deadline cannot migrate.

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Question
1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of the message write: Challenge Question #6
3. In the body of the message, answer the question above.

The Next Monarch Migration Update Will Be Posted on September 26, 2003.

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