MONARCH MOUNTAINS!This is one of the mountain sites where the Monarch Butterflies can be found in the winter months. This one is called Sierra Chincua. The butterflies are up in the trees, hanging on for dear life. If you look at this picture, there is a darker groove among the trees, and this is where the Monarchs can be found. To get there, you have to hike or be led on horses up narrow, rocky trails. The butterflies are some two miles above sea level, so the air is thin for strenuous climbing. I chose to go on horseback. These are mostly small ponies, but not very comfortable. (My butt is still hurting!). In this picture, we are just starting out. As you ascend the mountain, butterflies that have come awake in the warm midday air, will be flying all around you. After about a half hour, you come to a gathering place from which you hike the rest of the way.

The trails for hiking, are along tree lined canyons. The dirt underfoot is loose and dry. There were times when I hanged onto branches nearby, hoping they weren't some poisonous plant. We reached a dead end, and looking skyward saw clusters of Monarch butterflies clinging to the fir tree's needles. They looked somewhat like dried leaves since their wings were closed and the underside of monarch's wings are tan. There were butterflies flying in the air, and landing nearby. Some would vibrate to warm up, and others would seek a mate. We sat down, but had to brush aside multiple dead butterflies who were victim of previous stormy weather. It was a magical moment and cameras were busy, as we relaxed and ate lunch up among the Monarchs.

Why do they choose this place to spend the winter, you might ask. The temperature and humidity remain relatively constant. Mostly, the Monarchs just wait out the winter for warmer weather. There are storms that take their toll, in fact we had to change our planned destination because of heavy rain and mud slides. How do they find this place, having traveled in some cases from places as far away as Toronto, Canada and Maine, USA? These insects start their migration as the days become shorter and the sun's angle reduces. The sun is their compass! There is also thought to be some magnetic attraction since these are volcanic mountains containing heavy metals. Chemical smells may also be an asset. By tagging these creatures, their fly routes have been mapped, using a lot of volunteer help. We looked for tagged Monarchs, but found none on this trip.

During the time on the mountain, some hikers climbed down into a canyon where water flowed. The Monarchs would land there and take a drink, or bask in a sun spot. Other people just sat and absorbed the magical moment of just being among the millions of flying creatures. Some could even hear them flying! I used the moment to look at these animals up close and personal. There were so many dead ones, and you didn't have to worry about handling them and examining parts you may not have seen before. For instance, some of you may have tried counting their legs, but only could find four not the required six of an insect. I was able to locate the two shorter legs that Monarchs hold up close to their heads. They are used to scratch the surface of leaves to determine if they are edible or suitable for egg laying. I also noticed for the first time that Monarchs have a hairy crest on their backs, perhaps to enhance heat retention. These are beautiful insects, and their images stay with me as I admire their migration and survival. In the picture to the right, is one live butterfly who landed on my leg.

The trip was led by knowledgeable Lepidopterists who make these annual pilgrimages to the Mexican mountains to follow the fortunes of these insects. These overwintering sites are now protected by Mexicans, in fact 90% of those who climb the mountains to see them, are Mexican! They appreciate what they have, and are willing to share the experience. 4/9/10 Ronnie, without wings, but flying high.