Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Flyway of the Monarchs

Oswego County is full of natural wonders. Spectacular geological features like the Salmon River Falls Unique Area and the fabulous sand dunes at Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area etch the landscape. World class salmon, steelhead and walleye swim in our waters. And each spring and fall our friendly skies load up with migrating fowl of every feather.

But not all miracles are big and obvious. Indeed, Oswego County is full of marvels of a smaller nature, and one of the most colorful is the fall migration of monarchs.

The majestic monarch travels thousands of miles in its life journey. (Photo by NYS DEC Web site).

This majestic butterfly’s range reaches way into Canada. As summer days grow shorter, signaling the butterflies to start moving to warmer climates, those born north of the border leisurely head south. Reaching Lake Ontario, they’re reluctant to fly over the huge pond. Although they can flutter for long distances, they have to stop sometime, to get out of heavy winds, to rest, roost, stuff like that. So they try to fly over land as much as possible and skirt the shoreline looking for some they can follow to the U.S. of A. At Cape Vincent they bank a sharp right.

Just about any refuge will do in an emergency. However, given a choice, monarchs prefer certain spots. In fact, they have an uncanny knack for resting in places their ancestors also frequented, often in the same tree their great grandparents used (four generations are produced each year) when they made the trip last fall.

Two of their most popular Oswego County haunts are Deer Creek Marsh Wildlife Management Area and Sandy Pond. The back sides of the dunes offer great protection from the weather, and lots of trees and bushes for perches.

They start migrating in good numbers in mid-August and continue coming until about mid-September. When they finally settle down for the night, they can fill a bush so thick, its branches seem to sprout quivering blotches of orange and gold.

I went up to both spots last week to see what I could see. I wasn’t disappointed. As I walked the beach, I looked north and my eyes settled on the graceful dance of several individuals.

When you first catch sight of one, it’s a fleck in the distance, so small and insignificant you think it’s a floater (one of the tiny spots some of us have in our vision). As it gets closer, you notice its telltale swaying flight and before you know it, a full blown monarch is effortlessly floating past you. It’s humbling to see how such a delicate, weightless critter can remain on its flight path pitted against such a vast expanse of open air and water.

I didn’t see flocks, but I did see several, including a small cluster resting on a tree trunk.

They should start appearing in massive quantities in late afternoon from now until the middle of next month. The best way to locate a batch is to walk the beach and keep an eye out for specks on the horizon that are flying in a determined direction, but in a very roundabout way. If your timing is right, they’ll lead you to their roost.

If luck is with you, you’ll find a tree pasted with tiny, colorful sails gently flapping in the breeze, and others circling the branches looking for perches. You’ll walk away with the knowledge you witnessed one of life’s smallest, most colorful miracles unfold before your eyes.

(The following photos were taken by Janet Clerkin)

A DEC interpretive sign at the parking area at Deer Creek Marsh explains how the dunes were formed. To reach this parking area, turn left at the end of Rainbow Shores Road in the Town of Sandy Creek.

Monarchs cross over miles of open water before landing on the beach.

The shoreline at Deer Creek Marsh, looking north. The area is owned by the NYS DEC and is part of the unique Eastern Lake Ontario freshwater dune system.

Driftwood on the beach.

Shrubs, small trees and dune grass line the edge of the beach at Deer Creek Marsh and provide a place for the monarchs to rest.

The back sides of the dunes offer shelter from the weather.

A viewing platform is situated between the marsh and the shoreline, offering an expansive view of two distinct habitats.

Milkweed and Queen Anne's Lace are common in the upland areas of the dune system.

Goldenrod is a bright symbol of late summer.

Fields of Queen Anne's Lace thrive along the back side of the dunes at Deer Creek Marsh. The dainty flower originated in Europe and is a member of the wild carrot family.

The milkweed plant plays an important role in the life cycle of the monarch. The butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, the caterpillar feeds on the leaves, and the butterfly feeds on the milky white liquid during the late summer.

Matilda enjoys the late afternoon breeze off Lake Ontario.

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