A miracle bush, many monarchs

ON THE BAY

Nature: Hundreds of migrating butterflies bring color, beauty and a `magic circle' to a dull clump of marsh elder along a peaceful Eastern Shore river.

September 24, 1999|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

John has never studied Greek, but he knows the Chesapeake. -- from "River Schooling," by Gilbert Byron

YOU CAN study nature your whole life, then see something entirely new in a place you've been a hundred times. That's how it was when I happened on the miracle bush.

I'd been paddling a lower Eastern Shore river down to the bay for half an hour Wednesday before I became aware of another river flowing over and around my kayak.

It was a procession of monarchs, the annual migration that funnels the butterflies from all over North America to winter roosts in the mountains of central Mexico, so remote they were not discovered until 1975.

The weather was brisk and blowy this first day of autumn, but the tide was ebbing, exposing a couple feet of marsh bank. Tucked under the lee this provided, I could glide in near-calm, watching the north wind splay catspaws across the water, building to whitecaps out in the channel.

The monarchs followed the edge, too, handling 20-knot gusts with the aplomb of falcons. They moved singly, or in pairs and threes.

All afternoon I suppose I was never looking at more than a dozen of them, but there was never a moment when several weren't in sight.

They were moving considerably faster than the 5 knots one can manage in a kayak, frequently flitting several yards out over the water, then tacking inland, then down the edge.

It looked inefficient. But what do we really know about how an insect weighing less than a gram, with orange and black-veined wings delicate as tissue paper, navigates from Maine to Mexico?

None of the sojourners brightly flickering down the shore Wednesday ever was near where they are unerringly going. They are generations removed from the monarchs that last spring mated and reproduced and died west of Mexico City, spawning successive waves of offspring that do the same, leapfrogging north across the continent.

The onset of chilly weather has arrested this cycle, delayed sexual maturity in these autumn travelers, who will restart the whole, grand show next spring.

The sun was setting fast, and I was tired. I don't know what made me paddle another quarter of a mile downriver.

Perhaps, though I knew the butterflies were going to Mexico, I was curious about where they would go that evening. They become lethargic once temperatures drop near 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and clearly it was getting time for them to pack it in.

From maybe 20 yards offshore I saw nothing except endless acres of spartina grasses and one little clump of Iva frutescens, the marsh elder, or high-tide bush.

One of the commoner shrubs of the bay edge, Iva is most unprepossessing, with dull little leaves, showing no fall color, and with barely discernible fruits and flowers (which do have a mild, minty odor when crushed).

A twiggy shrub seldom exceeding a few feet in the salt marsh, it can be used for campfire kindling and for camouflaging duck blinds, if nothing else is available.

A Smith Islander told me that out there they call it "miracle bush." It is considered, he said, "a miracle it grows in all this marsh."

Out of ecological correctness, I take it on faith Iva is necessary for something, but I've never been sure what it is.

The flow of monarchs had slowed to a trickle. Turning for home, I noticed the Iva on the shore seemed to quiver. And its color was not quite right, more dun than lackluster green in the fading light.

On closer inspection -- miracle of miracle bushes -- the little clump was virtually cloaked in monarchs, hundreds of them, wings folded back for the night to expose their duller underside. Layer upon layer, the weary migrants draped every twig-end and branch of the marsh shrub in living velvet.

Even minor discovery is thrilling, and I could appreciate what must have been the reaction of explorers who in 1975 came upon the great winter roosts in the mountains of central Mexico where countless monarchs winter, hanging from trees just as they were here.

They coined a term for these roost areas, ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand trees, relatively tiny areas with microclimates uniquely suited to the butterflies' survival.

They called them "magic circles," and a single one may contain tens of millions of monarchs.

And here on the marsh, tossing in the north wind and the rich light of sunset on the first day of fall, was a Chesapeake version of a magic circle.

Iva frutescens, as way station for a few drops in this great movement of color and life across half the North American continent, never looked so good nor served so well.

I was not done with the miracle bush, for in five decades of patrolling the marsh edge I had never run across the like, and might not again.

So early yesterday with photographer David Harp, I waited on the shore edge for sunrise to illuminate the little magic circle.

The monarchs were still there. The air was calm and crystalline. A redwing blackbird's vibrato razzed the marsh. Just offshore, a trotliner patrolled his baited crab line, radio thumping to the beat of a local rock station.

Within five minutes of the sun's first kiss, a few wings began unfolding. More minutes. The Iva began to wink a deep, bright orange, then to flicker and quiver and blossom -- and flare as the first monarchs went airborne at 7: 15 a.m.

They rose a few feet, looped the Iva once, then turned to follow the glistening green edge -- headed south by west, Maine to Mexico, drawn and guided by signals known only to them, spreading beauty for all to see along its course, from miracle bush to magic circle.

Pub Date: 9/24/99

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