Thursday, October 17, 2019

Among the Birds and Butterflies

After a warm, dry, sunny September, October took a firm hand and reminded us all that the party's over, with gray skies, rainy days, frosty nights. Any mention of wool sweaters, warm hats, or woodstoves has me wanting to make like the woodchuck, tunnel underground, and hibernate until the sun comes out again next summer. Don't even say the words "pumpkin spice" in my hearing.

But back near the end of September, when the sky was still blue and the air not out to kill you, I got to spend a glorious day on the coast with my favorite birder. We went in search of rare birds—oddities that drop into Maine only during migration or that have veered north from their usual territories.

We saw the birds we hoped to see—American oystercatcher, royal tern, Capsian tern, and black skimmer—plus we got to observe some of the more typical shorebirds from amazingly close range. And we enjoyed a beautiful day outdoors, with no expectations or obligations.

As we moved around to different bird viewing locations, I couldn't help but notice other creatures on the wing—monarch butterflies. Wherever asters were in bloom at least two or three butterflies hovered, tanking up for their migration ahead. This abundance meshed with my observations of more monarchs this summer, both around our house and, especially, near the coast.

As we hiked along a trail that led to a point of land, we passed a native plants garden, mostly growing tall New England American asters, and there, fluttering among and dangling from the purple blossoms were more monarchs than I've ever seen in my life—dozens of them. Sharing the blooms were several painted ladies as well. Drunk on nectar, the butterflies let us walk right among them, completely undisturbed by our presence, more interested, I imagine, in imbibing the calories needed for their 3000 mile journey to Mexico. 

Just a couple of years ago, I feared I'd seen my last monarch. The caterpillars didn't appear in our fields in the numbers they had in previous summers. At least one or two years went by when I didn't see a single orange-and-black butterfly. Like all wild creatures we share the earth with, monarchs are struggling with habitat loss and fragmentation and a changing climate, and milkweed, the caterpillar's food source, has been disappearing from prime breeding areas in the Midwest thanks to pesticide use on roundup-ready crops.

I don't know what this roost of several dozen means for the future of the monarch butterfly, and I don't want to trade in false hope. But to have witnessed that big little gathering of an astonishing creature was a gift, one I hope that humanity doesn't squander.

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