Standing in a Cloud of Monarchs

On the weekend of September 8 and 9, we got lucky here on the Ohio shore of Lake Erie. I’d thought it was going to be a good weekend to hunker down indoors with coffee and a good book, and maybe even build the first fire of the season as a big storm dumped endless buckets of rain and whipped the lake into a frenzy.

I was so wrong!

Monarch on butterfly weed in my yard - blogOn Saturday afternoon I saw a few Facebook posts about big numbers of monarch butterflies roosting at places along the south shore of the lake.  I figured that they would move on before I could get over there, so I didn’t get too excited about it. And besides, I’d always heard that THE place to see the massive monarch migration was at Point Pelee, on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I figured I’d get over there one of these years to see it; for some reason I didn’t feel any urgency about it.

But on Sunday morning I read on social media that there were tens of thousands of the iconic orange and black butterflies roosting at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (ONWR), and that was all it took. The moment I read that I jumped in the car and began the 40-minute drive over there.

Monarch chrysalis ready to eclose - blog
Monarch in chrysalis ready to emerge

ONWR has a wildlife drive, a road that winds through the immense refuge allowing you to see more of it from your car than you can generally see from the hiking trails. They open it on weekends from spring to fall, with the route varying depending on conditions within the various marshes. It’s very popular with local birders, and I’ve driven it many times.

But on Sunday they had opened parts of the wildlife drive that I’d never been able to drive on before, the farthest northern parts, closest to the lake shore. Why? Because that’s where tens — or maybe hundreds — of thousands of monarch butterflies had been forced from the skies by the storm.  I was so awestruck by the sight that I didn’t take nearly enough photos, which I greatly regret.

monarch migration at ONWR (4)

This was one of the first clusters I found, and it was just a taste of what was to come as I got closer to the lake shore. I stopped periodically and got out in the wind and rain to take a few photos, but these photos don’t begin to convey what it was like to see this phenomenon in real life. A couple times I found myself driving verrrry slowly below massive clusters of butterflies with my jaw hanging open and tears forming in my eyes.

monarch migration at ONWR (13)At one point I stepped out of the car and was enveloped in a cloud of wind-tossed monarchs; I’ll never forget what that felt like. It reminded me of a time when I had a similar experience standing beneath an enormous flock of swallows as they swooped all around my head. It almost feels like time stops for a brief moment as you’re swept into the world of these amazing animals.

I took some video to try to give you a better idea of what it was like:

Here’s another one that I took just to show how they can hold on even in very strong winds:

I’ve always thought of butterfly wings as being so delicate and fragile, but they’re obviously stronger than they appear.

Most monarchs only live for a few weeks, but this last generation of the year will live until next spring. They’re on their way to Mexico, where they’ll hibernate for the winter before returning here to lay their eggs in the early spring. There will be three generations hatched next year, until the process repeats itself next fall.

I released a new monarch into my garden just last week, and he’s probably joined this massive migration already. It’s inspiring to think of these paper-winged insects flying thousands of miles, isn’t it?

Male monarch released in my garden on 9-7-18 - blog

This is the male monarch I raised and released last week. I’ve got three more in chrysalises yet to emerge, and I can’t wait to send them on their way to join the rest of their “family.”

Monarch chrysalises 9-11-18 - blog

Oh, and since I don’t have enough good photos of this amazing experience, I suggest you go see my friend Jackie’s photos on Facebook — here’s the link to that. She was there on the same day I was, and her photos will really blow your mind!

Witness to First Flight

Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed
Monarch chrysalis on butterfly weed

Today is the continuation of the story I began in my last post, about raising my first Monarch butterfly.  On the evening of August 18, I noticed that I could see the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis, so I knew it would probably emerge, or eclose, in the next 24 hours. I woke up early the next morning ready to watch the big moment when the adult butterfly would break free of the pupal case and spread its wings.

Female Monarch ready to emerge - MY FIRST ONE (1024x683)
Monarch on the night before it would emerge. The wings are now visible inside!

As soon as I got out of bed I rushed straight to the kitchen table…where the monarch was already out of the chrysalis. I was disappointed that I’d apparently just missed the moment of emergence, but also thrilled to see a moist, fresh butterfly just stretching its wings for the very first time.

When they emerge from the chrysalis their wings are all crumpled up and they have to hang motionless for a while to pump blood through the veins to inflate the wings. You can actually see them slowly straightening over the first few minutes until finally the butterfly looks fully “inflated.”

I watched in awe for a while after that. Even though she wasn’t moving at all, I just couldn’t get over the transformation I’d witnessed. I’d watched her evolve from a little microscopic egg on a milkweed leaf to a tiny little caterpillar, and then to a larger and larger caterpillar. And then she hung upside down and shed her skin, exposing the exquisite jade green chrysalis. And eventually–through some magic of biology that I can only comprehend very vaguely–out popped a butterfly so beautiful that I was speechless.

Victoria just after emerging from chrysalis (932x1024)After about three hours she began to flutter her wings, and not long afterward she let go of the remains of the chrysalis and dropped to the bottom of the aquarium. I’d been concerned about having to release her into a rainy day, and was considering keeping her overnight to give her a better chance the next morning. But she was suddenly getting very active, fluttering around on the floor and trying to climb up the sides. I put a slice of watermelon down for her so she could feed if she needed to. I placed her on the watermelon but she crawled off of it and kept crawling around the edges of the aquarium trying to get out.

First time she spread her wings
On the floor of the aquarium — isn’t she gorgeous?!

I worried that she’d injure herself if I kept her in there much longer. I consulted with a friend who has much more experience with butterflies, and she advised me to go ahead and release her. And since it looked like we had a good break in between rain showers, I decided it would be okay to let her go.

Monarch newly emerged, ready for flight
Monarch preparing to take flight for the first time!

So I took her aquarium out on my patio and tried to figure out how I could get some photos of this big moment. I got a stem of butterfly weed from my garden and gently placed her on the flowers. Then I held the stem out with my left hand while trying to snap photos with my call phone as fast as I could, knowing that she could fly away at any moment.

As I stood there watching this delicate creature feel the wind for the very first time, I marveled at the idea that she was capable of flying all the way to Mexico on those paper-thin wings. After about two minutes I noticed her little head turn to the left and then to the right, as if she’d just noticed her surroundings. And a second or two after that she took flight! She flew about 15 feet straight up into the nearest tree.

Monarch after her first flight, in a tree beside my patio
Monarch after her first brief flight, to a tree beside my patio

And I stood there and wept like a baby. I was surprised at how emotional the moment was. I was exhilarated by the joy of watching her fly for the first time, but I was also sad to see her leave. I know her life will be full of danger, and it’s very possible that she might not survive the journey and make it back next spring. But I’d done all I could for her, keeping her safe from predators in her larval stage (the caterpillar, remember?), so I had to accept that nature would take its course at this point.

I watched her as she sat in the tree for probably 20 minutes or so. There was a fairly brisk breeze knocking her around up there, but she had a good grip and hung on through it all. Then I was distracted for a few minutes by a phone call, and when I turned back to look at her she was gone. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t see which way she went, because I might have felt compelled to chase her around like some sort of lunatic, reluctant to let her out of my sight. #MonarchMama

Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight
Monarch number 4 preparing for her first flight, September 7, 2015

Since that day I’ve released four more monarchs into the beautiful blue skies of Ohio. And today I still have a few more chrysalises in my aquarium. (Yes, I know that the plural of chrysalis is really “chrysalides” but I find that word awkward so I just use “chrysalises.”) A couple of the big caterpillars have managed to escape the aquarium when they’re ready to pupate. I’ve spent some panicked moments searching my sunroom for missing caterpillars, only to find them hanging under the table or on the bottom edge of the aquarium. The first thing I do each morning and each evening when I return from work is do a head count to make sure nobody is running loose where I might step on them. I guess I should get a better lid on the aquarium, huh?

I’ll end with a couple more pictures from the past few weeks. I hope you enjoy learning this stuff as much as I do. And don’t forget to plant milkweed in your yard — it’s the only plant these beauties can eat.

Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Monarch caterpillar escapee, searching for a spot to pupate into chrysalis form
Caterpillar in "hanging J" preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
Caterpillar in “hanging J” preparation for pupating into chrysalis form.
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!
A very fresh chrysalis. I only missed the transformation by moments!

Becoming

Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.
Monarch caterpillar on his hatch day! One-eighth of an inch long.

Did you miss me? I didn’t intend to be away from the blog for this long, but my big move to Ohio has been all-consuming for the past couple of months. I’m happy to say that I am settled in my new home now–more or less–and have already finished the first two weeks at my new job.

Although my house is all unpacked and functional, my brain hasn’t quite made the transition. I’m still struggling to adjust to my new environment. I had been referring to this move as a sort of homecoming, a return to the state where I grew up and lived most of my adult life before moving to Michigan 15 years ago. But my childhood “home” part of Ohio was in the southeastern part of the state, in the Appalachian foothills. My adult life was spent in Columbus. And the area of Michigan I lived in was highly-populated and also very hilly. Now I live in northwestern Ohio, smack dab in the middle of farm country, and I have to say that it is sort of freaking me out.

Monarch caterpillar - also in my kitchen
Same Monarch caterpillar getting bigger

I’m surprised at how much I feel almost like I’ve moved to another country, or at least thousands of miles away. I’m a “big city” person. But now I live in a small town surrounded by fields of corn and soybeans and lots (I mean lots) of freight train activity. It might sound silly to someone who has lived in this environment their whole life, but for me it’s so strange to hear train whistles in the middle of the night, and to have to stop for trains on a regular basis as I drive to work. For the first few days I thought it was sort of cool. But the novelty of it wore off fast on the first night I was kept awake by train whistles every thirty minutes. (One night I was up at 3 am using Google to read about why trains are allowed to blow those *#^! horns so much while people are sleeping.) But I’ve adapted to the trains now and only occasionally get woken up by them.

But aside from the trains, it’s hard not to dwell on what I’m missing, those conveniences of city life like choice in restaurants and shopping. I’m starting to accept that I’ll have to drive 45 minutes to Sandusky or Toledo for my favorite stores. Locally I have no choice other than WalMart. I’ll get used to it but this is a major adjustment for me. Maybe it sounds like whining but I don’t care. I’ve done more than my share of major life adjustments in the past year and it’s all been emotionally exhausting — my painful divorce, leaving my beautiful home on 2 acres of woods, losing both of my cats, and my kayak, not to mention leaving all of my Michigan friends and my favorite parks. And I’m not done yet. Now I’m going back to work after 15 years out of the work force. It makes me tired just thinking about all I’ve been through lately.

I don’t think anything other than my amazing new job could have convinced me to make yet another major transition at this point in my life. There’s so much that is “foreign” to me here, from the vast flatness of the land to the rural lifestyle. Almost daily I find myself having a moment where I feel a little bit panicked about whether I’ll be happy here. I just have to have confidence that those feelings will go away as I start finding my way around better and integrating into the community, but it’s very disconcerting at this point.

Fear and anxiety many times indicates that we are moving in a positive direction, out of the safe confines of our comfort zone, and in the direction of our true purpose.  ~Charles Glassman

I should mention that the pictures in this post are from my new adventure of raising Monarch butterflies in my home. (See, it’s not all doom and gloom, LOL.) I’ve learned a lot about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. I’ve learned to identify the various types of milkweed they need to survive. I’ve planted milkweed in my yard. I’ve watched them go from tiny little egg to tiny little caterpillar, to slightly bigger caterpillar, to big fat caterpillar, and then to chrysalis. I have an aquarium on my kitchen table that is home to two chrysalises and one tiny caterpillar right now. Later this week I expect that both of the Monarchs will emerge from their beautiful green pods and spread their fresh and untested wings for the first time.

Monarch chrysalis day 2
Monarch butterfly in its chrysalis — in my kitchen

I’ll take each one outside and release it into the sky. These butterflies, who were eggs just a couple weeks ago, will fly to Mexico for the winter. Nobody gives them a user manual or a map, they just have to figure it all out on their own. I wonder what it’s like to be a caterpillar, crawling around eating milkweed leaves one day, and then to wake up a few weeks later with wings. Can you imagine how cool that must be?

In a way, I can see my own journey as a metamorphosis too. The nine months I spent in my transitional apartment were my caterpillar stage, where I was focused on “feeding,” taking care of myself so I would have the strength for what was to come. My big move for this job has been the chrysalis stage, where major changes are taking place inside, hidden from view by anyone else but intensely felt by me.

What’s to come is the most exciting and amazing part of all, where the beautiful butterfly emerges with the courage and strength to go to unfamiliar places. That part is supposed to be the reward for all the hard work and sacrifice of the other stages. I can’t wait for that part! Stay tuned….