Photo Essay: Trinational Monarch Meeting and Exploring Mexico’s Monarch Overwintering Sites

I attended a trinational Commission for Environmental Cooperation meeting about monarch butterfly biology and conservation in Mexico City in late January. Tons of interesting research was presented by researchers from Mexico, Canada, and the United States (although we missed our USFWS and USGS colleagues, as the U.S. government shutdown was in effect at the time). There were many tributes to the late, great lepidopterist Lincoln Brower. This really put all of our work in perspective, by emphasizing the breadth and richness of the history of monarch conservation.

I was also lucky to be able to visit two monarch overwintering sites in Mexico: Cerro Pelón and Piedra Herrada. These photos don’t do those places justice, but at least they provide a peek into the swarming beauty of millions of clustering monarchs. (The eastern monarch migration has done comparatively well this year, in contrast to the dire state of the western monarch population). Viewing this phenomenon was an incredible experience!

JM’s Butterfly Bed and Breakfast near the Cerro Pelón Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary

My partner, Mike, and I stayed at JM’s Butterfly Bed and Breakfast near the Cerro Pelón Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary the weekend before the CEC meeting. It turns out we weren’t the only ones; Elizabeth Howard of Journey North and her husband were there, as were fellow friends and researchers from California, and even family friends of one of my coworkers! Pictured, from left to right: a friend of the California researchers; me; Pablo Jaramillo, a monarch researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México; Jessica Griffiths; and Charis van der Heide. Both Jessica and Charis are Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count regional coordinators and fantastic monarch biologists we collaborate with in California.

Monarchs in Mexico

I was surprised at how active the butterflies were at the overwintering sites—thousands were flying, nectaring, sipping dew, and even mating. Temperatures ranged from about 55°F to 65°F, but it felt warmer in patches of sun. Monarchs were clustered on oyamel firs at Piedra Herrada, but, interestingly, on cedars at Cerro Pelón. There were lots of plants blooming in the forest understory including salvia, lupine (some of which was six feet tall!), cardinal flower, and aster. Someone in the group even found a tagged monarch from Arizona.

Mexico monarchs

On our guided exploration in Piedra Herrada Monarch Sanctuary, near Valle de Bravo. Pictured, left to right: Two representatives from the US Embassy, who filled in last minute when U.S. government staff couldn’t make it; Elizabeth Howard of Journey North; Elizabeth Crone of Tufts University; an NPR reporter; our local guide at Piedra Herrada; Isabel Ramírez of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México; Cheryl Schultz of Washington State University; and others.

It’s heartening to see monarchs thriving in Mexico this year. Maybe California can one day look a little more like these trees, their branches weighed down by the massive clusters of butterflies…


Written, photographed, and filmed by Emma Pelton, Xerces Society Endangered Species Conservation Biologist and Western Monarch Lead.
 

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