South of the Border–Monarch Watch Part I
When I was a kid our family made an annual summer migration from South Florida to Upstate New York and back again in the fall. It was an arduous trek that I liken to that of the Monarch butterflies that are completing their southern migration as I type.
The circadian cue that prompted our northern departure was an overdose of vitamin D and the ability to roast ants with a magnifying glass at 9 pm in the evening. Too much sun. Time to head north. This was a huge relief for me and my siblings who grew up with no air conditioning. It was also an opportunity to avoid flea season which as I look back now was something that was probably unique to our home.
Our 1200 mile journey required many stops to rest and feed. Monarchs stop at nutrient-rich, nectar-loaded flowers before resuming their flight. We seemingly stopped at every Burger King and Arby’s along the Atlantic Coast.
The return trip was no less exhausting and the ravenous fleas waiting back home made it all the more dreadful, but “South of the Border”, the tacky highway tourist trap between the Carolinas was a refuge, a sombrero-adorned landscape, illuminated like fireflies at night like with festive green and orange lights. To my parents it was a Venus flytrap. They knew they shouldn’t stop, but they couldn’t help it. It meant we were half way home and it made for a fun rest stop full of as much Mexican culture as Arby’s was full of nutrients.
For migrating butterflies there is no shortage of dangers. Windshields, predators and exhaustion surely claim thousands each migration. Not all of them intend to make it all the way south. Some lay eggs and it will be that generation that carries on the migration south.
At the St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge on Florida’s panhandle coastline, the last of the Monarchs are gorging themselves on sugar-rich nectar before casting themselves from the shore and heading across the Gulf towards Mexico. There they’ll ride out the winter before heading back north again.
As I take photos and watch the spectacle of Monarchs, Fritillaries and Buckeyes feeding on salt bush and goldenrods, I search for inner calm as hundreds of no-seeums, aka blood sucking midges, feast on me. I’m reminded of the fleas and as much as I’d love to stay, it’s time to go.