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Monarch Migration

Catch a glimpse of these beautiful butterflies as they journey along the Alabama Coast.
By Jennifer Stewart Kornegay

Often used as a metaphor for transformation or as a symbol of carefree beauty, butterflies enchant us each time we’re fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one alighting on a leaf or in flight, its whisper-thin wings moving it through the sky.

monarch

Above: Monarchs arrive along Alabama’s Gulf Coast in spring and fall during their migration. USFWS photo

Below: The Jeff Friend Trail in Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is a good place to spot monarch butterflies. Steve Hillebrand/USFWS photo

trail

In areas along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, you can get up close with hundreds of these graceful creatures at once. Orange-and-black, spotted-and-striped monarchs arrive here each spring (March and April) and fall (September and October) as part of their migration from eastern Canada and the United States to central Mexico, where they spend the winter.

Although they travel through many parts of the state, the largest, most consistent concentrations are at the coast.

“This migration involves hundreds of millions of butterflies and is one of nature’s most intriguing and spectacular displays,” says Orley “Chip” Taylor, director of Monarch Watch, an outreach program based at the University of Kansas.

Climate changes in the north that begin in the fall incite the monarchs to start their southbound journey. Although it seems they are traveling in a group, the phenomenon is actually a result of many individual butterflies responding to the same cues at the same time.

Each monarch makes this incredible journey–sometimes as long as 3,000 miles–only once.

“Most of the monarchs migrating each fall are three to four generations removed from those that made the journey the previous year,” Taylor says. So how is it then, scientists wonder, that a new generation arrives in the same spot as previous ones without a leader guiding the way?

Such mysteries still surround this trek, but scientists have already uncovered a lot, too. For instance, they know the butterflies hitch rides on air currents and use two flight patterns: powered flight and gliding.

“They minimize the former and maximize the latter to save energy and reduce wear and tear on their wings and flight muscles,” Taylor says.

The monarchs also make pit stops along the way. They gather nectar from flowers and convert the sugars into fat, which they live on during the winter. One of their favorite coastal layovers is Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge on the Fort Morgan Peninsula in Gulf Shores, where the trees provide shelter as the butterflies move along the coast.

Bon Secour park ranger Lillian M. Falco has witnessed the monarchs’ arrival.

“Seeing so many butterflies all together is breathtaking. It doesn’t look real,” she says. “The groundsel silverling (an evergreen shrub) transforms into a fluttering blaze of orange and black. With the Gulf of Mexico as a backdrop, the monarchs look as if they’re just floating above the water.”

As far as scientists know, the monarchs that stop over on the Alabama Coast do not have the capability to fly continually across the Gulf to Mexico. Rather, they work their way westward along the coastline, toward Houston and Corpus Christi in Texas, then southwest into Mexico. But the route is risky.

“A lot of butterflies take offshore winds in the morning and fly out over the Gulf,” Taylor says. “If they don’t catch onshore winds late in the day, they get lost at sea.”

While hundreds of millions of monarchs make the journey every year, habitat destruction at both their summer and winter sites threatens the population. Fortunately for monarchs that stop over on the Alabama Coast, their chosen site is on protected land. “We’re a refuge, so the usual threats aren’t an issue,” Falco says.

Another excellent spot for monarch sightings is the Fort Morgan State Historic Site, located near the tip of the Fort Morgan Peninsula. Completed in 1834, this brick-walled fort played a part in the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and both World Wars and welcomes visitors year-round. Areas around and inside the fort walls often attract the migrating monarchs.

Historic site manager Blanton Blankenship has witnessed the migration many times, and it never ceases to awe him.

“In the early morning, the butterflies hang on to the bushes and the whole thing turns a golden orange,” he marveled. “It’s lovely to see.”

Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a new contributor from Montgomery, Ala.

Sep/Oct 2011 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Below are your best bets for experiencing a butterfly blitz this October. Both are on the Fort Morgan Peninsula in Gulf Shores. Go to www.monarchwatch.org for a migration map.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge. The Jeff Friend Trail and Pine Beach Trail are excellent areas for sightings. The refuge is at 12295 state Highway 180. Admission is free. Call (251) 540-7720, or visit www.fws.gov/bonsecour.

Fort Morgan State Historic Site. Go for the butterflies, but also enjoy the living history program and a museum that details the American military history of Mobile Point from 1814 to 1945. The site is at 51 Highway 180 West. Admission is $3–$5. Call (251) 540-7202, or visit online at www.preserveala.org/fort morgan.aspx.

For more information about visiting Alabama’s Gulf Coast, contact Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism at 800-745-SAND (7263) or www.gulfshores.com.

To visit Alabama’s Gulf Coast, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides. View a list of offices to serve you .

Order free information about Alabama through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


 

Lend a Hand

Orley “Chip” Taylor, the director of Monarch Watch, an outreach program based at the University of Kansas, is seeking butterfly taggers in coastal Alabama. Taggers place a small numbered tag, similar to a sticker, on one wing. The information collected by recovering these tagged butterflies helps scientists better understand their migration path and process.

“We’d love to get school groups or nature clubs involved,” Taylor says.

Go to www.monarchwatch.org for more information.

Volunteers can help keep Alabama’s Gulf Coast beautiful and welcoming for wildlife–and people–during the 24th Annual Alabama Coastal Cleanup from 8 a.m. to noon on Sept. 17. The event is coordinated through the state’s Department of Conservation & Natural Resources; State Lands Division Coastal Section; and the Alabama People Against a Littered State (PALS).

Visit www.alabamacoastalcleanup.com for registration and other information.

 

 

Birding Enthusiasts Flock to Alabama

Feathered friends of all species flock to the Alabama Gulf Coast. Rich with a large diversity of native and migratory species, the coastal area is a haven for resting wings and the peering binoculars of birding enthusiasts. This area is the last stop for migratory birds heading across the Gulf of Mexico and consequently, also the first stop on their return trip home.

Featuring all of the birds residing or passing through, the Alabama Coastal Birding Trail is a series of five loops that meander over Baldwin and Mobile counties. Each loop could take as long (or short) as one prefers. Although directions are provided in a sequential fashion, it is not necessary to follow the complete loop. For more information on the trail, please visit www.alabamacoastalbirdingtrail.com.

Each April and October, the Hummer/Bird Study Group conducts a bird banding at Fort Morgan. This group of dedicated volunteers delicately captures, documents and releases migrating neo-tropical birds as they make a layover on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. You might even get the chance to hold, adopt and release a bird before it begins its long journey across the Gulf of Mexico. This event is so valuable to birding research and so popular with the public, it has been featured in Smithsonian Magazine. For additional information, visit www.hummingbirdsplus.org or call Fort Morgan at (251) 540-7127.

The annual Alabama Coastal BirdFest will be Oct. 6–8. Guided tours, dinners, speaker workshops and a Bird and Conservation Expo will be included. For registration and site locations, visit www.alabamacoastalbirdfest.com.

bird banding

A young visitor at Fort Morgan holding a tiny hummingbird before its long journey across the Gulf of Mexico. Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau photo


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