Fall colours are one of the pleasures of living in northern climes. But the colours don’t all come from turning leaves. Each autumn, parts of Canada and the U.S. are witness to one of the most colourful — and mysterious — spectacles of nature: the monarch butterfly migration.
Monarchs spend their summers in the north, before returning in the fall to their wintering grounds down south. In my part of Canada — Ontario — that means the Monarch Butterfly Reserve, in Michoacán, Mexico. That’s a migration of 4,000 kilometres, or 2,500 miles, for a creature the size of a silver dollar, flying through uncertain weather on paper-thin wings. It’s an incredible feat, but the story gets more amazing: the butterflies that leave here in the fall are not the same ones that arrived here in the spring.
Monarchs have a life span of only four to six weeks in summer, so there are five generations between the spring arrival and the fall migration. Yet the new monarchs find their way to the same butterfly reserve where their distant ancestors wintered, and settle down in exactly the same grove of trees as their great, great, great, great grandfathers.
How they do it, using a brain the size of grain of rice, is a mystery. Somehow, nature has hard-wired a map of an entire continent into their tiny systems. But while they’re here in the northland, they provide one of the great shows of autumn, arriving in clouds that float down to cover a patch of bushes or trees in a flurry of orange wings. And when they catch the sunlight, it’s a wonderful sight. I photographed this monarch butterfly on the Toronto islands a few years ago, and it’s still one of my favourite nature shots. I hope it adds a little colour to your day.
Click on the photo to see it in its full-sized version.