A Different Type of Migration

This story is about migration, but please bear with me, it’s not about birds. Recently, the Mahoosuc Land Trust held its 30th Anniversary Celebration at Valentine Farm Conservation Center (VFCC). It was a fun afternoon of music, ice cream and a chance to meet lots of people committed to protecting Western Maine.

A highlight for me was spending time in the pollinator garden. It was in full bloom and full of bees and butterflies. Barbara Murphy has been a driving force behind developing this garden and has assembled a team of skilled gardeners to bring it to life. Her husband Mike was one of several who led tours through the garden. He explained that VFCC is participating in a citizen scientist project to tag Monarch Butterflies (Photo by Mike Murphy). Admittedly, that sounds a little crazy – full grown adults chasing butterflies around a garden and tagging them. But, seriously, this is important science. Monarch Butterflies are an insect that migrate huge distances over its complete lifecycle. Mike explained that the butterflies tagged at VFCC are bound for mountainous forests in Mexico, where they spend the winter.

Tagged Monarch Butterfly

Tagged Monarch Butterfly

He showed us Prairie Milkweed in full bloom in the garden. Each plant had several fat, green and black monarch caterpillars munching on the leaves. These caterpillars would soon spin cocoons. 10 - 14 days later, they would hatch into adult butterflies and begin their flight to Mexico.

Unfortunately, Monarchs are in serious decline worldwide. Because they feed almost exclusively on one plant – milkweed, and because they concentrate in huge numbers in a limited number of places on their wintering grounds, they are vulnerable to habitat destruction. Studies like the one the gardeners at VFCC are participating in help us better understand these insect’s life cycle, where they concentrate in the winter and where they lay their eggs during the breeding season. All of this helps us better understand how to protect this beautiful butterfly. Also, it’s not just about their beauty. Monarch’s, like so many other insects, are vital pollinators for flowers and plants that we humans enjoy and, frankly, need!

The season is over for this year but, if you are interested in learning more or want to help tag butterflies bound for Mexico, contact the staff at VFCC. They would be glad to have your help in the garden or with other ongoing citizen science projects happening at Mahoosuc Land Trust locations.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.