A finer morning with monarchs Migration: Every fall, the delicate butterfly makes its mysterious journey south, reminding us once again that everything in this world is connected.

On the Bay

October 17, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

ANY OCTOBER morning hereabout is liable to be fine, but is finer still when festooned with monarchs, proceeding on gossamer wings along their grand and mysterious migration.

These butterflies have never been to where they unerringly go, to 10,000-foot mountains in Mexico's central highlands some 1,500 miles distant.

They are many times removed from progenitors who left those far wintering grounds last spring and moved north toward Texas and the gulf coast, where they died after mating.

Successive generations in turn hatched, bred and died, leapfrogging north all summer throughout the United States and Canada.

Then comes a generation, exposed to autumn's cool, that does not put its all into reproduction; instead, these monarchs begin winging south, to montane forests so remote it took scientists nearly four decades to track them to their wintering spots in 1975.

That first encounter, sun streaming into groves cloaked with millions of monarchs, "was like walking into Chartres Cathedral and seeing light coming through stained-glass windows the eighth wonder of the world," said one entomologist.

A tiny powerhouse

We understand more about navigating mechanical probes to Mars and the moons of Jupiter than how a 1-gram insect flutters from Maryland to Mexico.

Our technology dreams of a 100-mile-a-gallon car, while blackpoll warblers migrate from Nova Scotia to South America on a dollop of body fat so tiny they are getting, in effect, 720,000 miles from a gallon of fuel.

Sea turtles home to beaches where they were born from across half an ocean; pigeons high over Illinois appear able to orient by the murmurs of surf on Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

These and other feats of migratory creatures, from salmon to albatrosses, are merely impressive; but there are more profound aspects to the great movements of life that enrich our temperate-zone autumns and springs.

Even had modern ecology and environmentalism not taught us that everything is connected, we would have to conclude the same as we unravel the destinations of migrants.

Consider just a few examples of how migration connects the Chesapeake and weaves its environment into a broader fabric:

Eels, having grown for a decade or more in bay tributaries, every autumn suddenly move, en masse, to a single spot in the Sargasso Sea with eels from all over North America.

There, at depths so great they have never been observed, the eels spawn and die, and their young inexplicably make it back to repopulate the Chesapeake.

The shad that once thronged bay rivers in springtime, and that are the targets of intensive restoration efforts, summer in Canada's Bay of Fundy, where proposed hydropower projects could negate all our efforts here.

Waterfowl -- swans from Alaska's North Slope, ducks from the Canadian prairies and geese from Hudson Bay -- arrive throughout the fall; and in arriving, they offer proof that a chain of habitats, way stops on their routes, remains intact.

Conversely, our maintenance of the bay is key to chains of being, from osprey to herring, from oriole to loon, that link the hemisphere from arctic tundra to Amazonian rain forests.

Even as we begin to appreciate the bay's waters in the context of their watershed, we need to broaden our scope, to comprehend the bay's migration-shed.

This is just some of the import of migration. When I see monarchs, I think of Rachel Carson, whose 1962 work, "Silent Spring," sounded the alarm on pesticides run amok and began the birth of the modern environmental consciousness.

She wrote to a friend in fall 1963 from coastal Maine: "Most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force."

Dying of breast cancer, she had retreated there from the fierce acrimony around her book, as the chemical industry tried vainly to discredit her.

Carson's letter continued; she did not think the butterflies passing by ever returned (their destination then was still unknown).

"But it occurred to me this afternoon that it had been a happy spectacle that it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.

"That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning," she concluded. "I found a deep happiness in it. Thank you for this morning."

A primal urge

And one more aspect to migration, from an Environmental Protection Agency scientist. Kent Mountford was sailing miles off the New Jersey coast this fall, when a female black-throated green warbler lighted next to him in the cockpit, apparently exhausted.

This normally unapproachable wild creature hopped up to his shoulder and began pecking in his ear for bugs.

Mountford began squashing insects on the boat and extending them on his fingertip to the warbler, which gorged on them while allowing him to stroke her back and breast before winging south.

The urge to complete the journey, whatever it takes, is a powerful example of all life's will to survive, if we only allow it the opportunity.

In return we are rewarded with mystery, glory, a sense of connection and the wonder of rebirth and renewal.

It is enough to make even a fine October morning finer.

Pub Date: 10/17/97

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