Fall Migration

A monarch I spied at the botanical garden.

Note: This column was published in the Barrow Journal on October 7, 2015.

The other day my son looked out the window and called out, “There’s a monarch butterfly!” This was exciting because we have never noticed a monarch on our butterfly bush before. At this time of year, we knew this was a monarch who was on its long journey south to Mexico. A couple of days later, we saw another monarch stop by to replenish itself as well.

The monarch is the only known butterfly to migrate like birds. Other butterflies can usually overwinter as larvae (the caterpillar) or the pupae (the chrysalis). It’s amazing that the monarchs know where to go without having ever made the journey before.

In the spring and summer, three to four generations of monarchs make a long journey north from Mexico to the northern U.S. and Canada. After a life cycle from egg (approximately 4 days), to caterpillar (for about 2 weeks), and then chrysalis (10-14 days), the insect transforms into the adult stage, a fully-grown monarch butterfly. The adults live for only 2-6 weeks, and after laying its eggs on the milkweed plant, it will die.

However, the fourth generation of monarch, which we saw in our yard, delays this process and can live six to eight months so that they can make the long migration south. Monarchs who live west of the Rocky Mountains overwinter in Southern California, but the monarchs in the east travel all the way to the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico where they roost together in trees. Tens of thousands of monarchs can cluster together on a single tree. Together they are so heavy that they can sometimes break the branches. They stay there until the weather begins to warm up in March, and then they mate, lay their eggs and start the process all over again.

While we humans generally stay put in the fall and winter, carrying on with our daily obligations and activities, it fascinates me to think about the animals whose lives are ruled by the seasons. They make astonishing journeys to continue the circle of life.

Another tiny creature to make a long journey is the ruby-throated hummingbird. We enjoy these tiny birds all summer as they feed from nectar in our hummingbird feeder and plants. They are feisty little birds, zipping through the air and defending their feeders.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird at our feeder. The male has the “ruby” throat.

Ruby-throated hummingbirds breed all over the eastern United States, and those migrating from the far north might spend the winter along the gulf coast or the tip of Florida, but most of them will cross the Gulf of Mexico in a single flight in order to spend the winter in Central America. The shortest distance across is 500 miles, and it can take the hummingbird 18-22 hours to cross. And there are no rest stops! That’s pretty amazing for such a tiny bird.

Many other birds are making their way south now, and many will pass through Georgia on their way farther south. Others will spend winter in Georgia. One of those is the wood duck, which is my six-year-old’s favorite duck. The males have incredible colors on their head. I hear wood ducks are a favorite among duck hunters, and the season for hunting them are various dates in November-January.

I wish I were a bird expert so that I could identify any migrating birds that come through our yard. I find that watching the wildlife for even a few minutes each day is relaxing, and it calms my mind during a busy season of my life. If you’re inclined to learn a little more about migrating monarchs or birds, and how you might help them, see www.monarchwatch.org, www.hummingbirds.net, or these birding resources on the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website: www.georgiawildlife.com/YBCResources.

6 thoughts on “Fall Migration

  1. Great information, Shelli! Thank you for the migration links. Reported a monarch sighting from the weekend and hopefully will have some hummingbird sightings this week.

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