Climate concerns growing for the future of many migratory species.
We travel all over coastal Massachusetts to learn about a few local “indicator species,” which can help explain the impact of climate change. Award-winning documentarian Kim Smith tells us the story of piping plovers breeding in Massachusetts.
I am delighted (and very surprised) to share that Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly has won Best Documentary at the San Diego International Children’s Film Festival. I write surprised as there were many beautiful films from around the world participating in the festival, and also because I wasn’t even aware we had been nominated for the award. My sincerest thanks and gratitude to SDIKFF!
Yesterday there were a number of Monarchs out on Eastern Point nectaring at wildflowers and in my garden. It was magical that we learned of the award on the same day as seeing these stragglers. We were celebrating Dia de Muertos here on Plum Street, and on this very same day, November 2nd, Monarchs were spotted arriving at Cerro Pelon and El Rosario Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries. Joel Moreno and his family at Cerro Pelon JM Butterfly BandB spotted the Monarchs traveling high in the sky in the upper thermals while my friend David Hernandez reports that at El Rosario, they are flying low on the mountain.
The wings of the butterfly in the upper photo appear as though they have been snipped by birds while the butterfly’s wings in the second photo are pristine.
Will the stragglers that we see at this time of year be able to travel the roughly 3,000 mile journey all the way to Mexico? I don’t know the answer to that question but we can make a guess that if a butterfly looks weather worn, with torn and tattered wings, it is unlikely that it will be able to complete the journey. On the other hand, some of these late Monarchs that we are seeing look as though they just eclosed (hatched) hours earlier. Their wings are a vibrant orange and black and are completely unscathed. Some butterflies will be funneled between the Appalachian and Great Rockies while others are destined to follow the Atlantic coastline, traveling towards Florida and the Gulf of Mexico states.Safe travels Monarca, wherever you land!
I hope you are able to get out and enjoy this extraordinarily lovely stretch of balmy weather we are having.
Inspired by my friend Nina’s beautiful altar that she and her family and friends create every year for the feast of St. Joseph, for the past seven years or so we have been celebrating Día de Muertos with an ofrenda that we set up on our front porch. Placing the ofrenda on the porch over Halloween makes for a wonderful hybrid bridge between American Halloween and the Mexican tradition of honoring the souls of lost loved ones. On Halloween night our porch has become a gathering place where we so very much look forward to seeing our neighborhood friends each year.
Cemetery Macheros, Mexico
The Mexican festivities of Día de Muertos typically begins the night of October 31st, with families sitting vigil at grave sites. Mexican tradition holds that on November 1st and 2nd, the dead awaken to reconnect and celebrate with their living family and friends; on the 1st to honor the souls of children and on the 2nd, to honor adults. The ofrenda, or “offering to the dead,” is a sacred Mexican tradition where those who have passed away are honored by the living.
In late October millions of Monarchs begin to arrive to the magnificent oyamel fir and pine tree forests of the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, located in the heart of Mexico in the eastern regions of Michoacán and western edge of Estado de México. Their return coincides with the annual celebration of Día de Muertos. In Mexican folklore, butterflies represent the souls of departed loved ones, returning to Earth to be remembered by their ancestors. An even older tradition connects the Monarchs with the corn harvest, as their return signified that the corn was ripe. In the language of the native Purpécha Indians, the name for the Monarch is “harvester.”
Oyamel fir tree (Abies religiosa) with Monarchs Cerro Pelon, Mexico
The Day of the Dead finds its roots in the native people of central and southern Mexico. The Aztecs recognized many gods, including a goddess of death and the underworld named Mictecacihuatl.
Mictecacihuatl was linked to both death and resurrection. According to one myth, Mictecacihuatl and her husband collected bones so that they might be returned to the land of the living and restored by the gods. Just as did the ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs appeased the underworld gods by burying their dead with food and precious objects.
Día de Muertos is a celebration blending both indigenous people’s cultural beliefs and observances held by Spanish Catholics. The conquerors found it difficult to convince native peoples to give up their rituals honoring the goddess of death Mictecihuatl. The compromise was to move these indigenous festivities from late July to early November to correspond with the three-day Christian observance of All Saints’ Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
This year I have been thinking about Camille Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre, Op. 40, which is based on the French legend that Death packs a fiddle and comes to play at midnight on Halloween, causing the skeletons in the cemetery to crawl out of the ground for their annual graveyard dance party.
Saint-Saëns’s Danse macabre comes from an even older concept, the medieval allegory of the all conquering and equalizing power of death, which was expressed in poetry, music, the visual arts, and drama in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Marigold flowers (Tagetes erecta), known as cempazúchitl or flor de muerto are placed on graves and ofrendas. The cempazúchitl are believed to lure souls back from the dead with their vibrant colors and lovely citrus, musky fragrance
Marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia) and Painted Lady butterfly
This new short, titled Resplendent Monarch Migration, features Monarchs during the late summer southward migration. Also highlighted are some of the more commonly seen butterflies of late summer, including the American Lady, the spectacular Common Buckeye (2:53), Pearl Crescent, Yellow Sulphur, and American Copper. The flora seen includes New England Asters, Seaside Goldenrod, Tall Goldenrod, Smooth Aster (pale lavender), and Common Milkweed. When you plant for the butterflies, they will come!
At 3:30 you can see a small overnight roost beginning to form. As the sun sets, particularly on chilly or windy evenings, Monarchs head for the trees. One by one they fly in, some settling quickly, others restless and shifting to a more preferable spot. By nightfall, all are tucked into the sheltering boughs of the Black Cherry tree. (4:15).
With the warming rays of Sun’s first light, the Monarchs begin to awaken (4:20). If it’s cold and windy they”ll stay a bit longer but typically, the butterflies either float down to the wildflowers in the marsh below, or in the case of this particular roost at Eastern Point, the Monarchs wasted no time and quickly departed. They flew directly south towards Boston by first traveling along the length of the Dogbar Breakwater before heading out to sea (4:30).
It took patience (and a lot of luck) to capture the butterfly heading up into the clouds (5:44). I wanted to share the imagery of the scale of a tiny speck of a creature juxtaposed against the vastness of sea and sky. Imagine, a butterfly that weighs less than a paper clip, journeys 2500 miles to the trans Mexican volcanic mountaintops.
Safe travels oh resilient one!
I have received a number of requests for Monarch footage. I cannot lend the footage from my documentary, Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly, currently airing on PBS however, this past summer, I spent time shooting butterflies in my garden, butterflies in pollinator gardens that I have designed for clients, and at our local marshes and meadows. All the footage was shot in beautiful 4k, which is what organizations are requesting.
Compared to year’s past, the 2022 fall southward migration has been a relatively quiet year (so far) for Monarchs traveling through Cape Ann. That is not to say we won’t see another batch or two coming through, but for the most part, we did not have the spectacular roosts that we have seen in some year’s past. We had many travelers flying through during the month of September, but the conditions were favorable and they kept moving along at a steady pace.
I found several roosts in late September. On one evening, the wind was blowing hard from the northwest and the Monarchs were clustered tightly on the east facing side of the tree, to get out of the wind. I didn’t notice the silhouette of Monarch arcs until twilight and counted a dozen or so Monarch arcs.
The golden morning sun revealed several hundred butterflies! It was a joy to see them stirring and fluttering in the dawn light.
Upon awakening, the butterflies didn’t spend any time drinking nectar from the wildflower meadow below as they often do, but headed straight out over the Dogbar Breakwater.
Although Cape Ann has not seen many large roosts this season, two Monarch staging areas, Cape May, New Jersey and Point Pelee, Ontario are both having spectacular migrations!! Monarchs gather at the Point Pelee peninsula before crossing over Lake Erie into Ohio. Likewise, the butterflies stage at Cape May before crossing the Delaware Bay. The butterflies wait for favorable winds to help carry them across bodies of water.
The first guideline in becoming an excellent citizen scientist is to do no harm while trying to do good. Considering the spiraling downward numbers of the Monarch Butterfly population, this basic tenet has never rang more true.
A number of friends have written in the past month with questions about captive rearing butterflies and the new listing of the Monarch as an endangered species by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and by the state of California. The ruling by the IUCN, which is an organization based in Gland, Switzerland, has no legal bearing on rearing Monarchs however, that is not the case with the California ruling.
The ruling is understandable. There are folks who are rearing Monarchs by the hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands in wholly unsatisfactory conditions, ignoring safe and sanitary protocols.
As goes California, so goes the rest of the nation. I am deeply saddened that it won’t be long before we in the rest of the country will also no longer be able to rear Monarchs, even on the most modest scale.
One of the strongest reasons for not rearing hundreds (or more) Monarchs in close quarters is the spread of the highly contagious parasite OE (Ophryocystis elektroscirrha).
“Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a debilitating protozoan parasite that infects Monarchs. Infected adult Monarchs harbor thousands or millions of microscopic OE spores on the outside of their bodies. When dormant spores are scattered onto eggs or milkweed leaves by infected adults, Monarch caterpillars consume the spores, and these parasites then replicate inside the larvae and pupae. Monarchs with severe OE infections can fail to emerge successfully from their pupal stage, either because they become stuck or they are too weak to fully expand their wings. Monarchs with mild OE infections can appear normal but live shorter lives and cannot fly was well as healthy Monarchs.” From Monarch Joint Venture
Simply put, the very best way to help Monarchs is to create pollinator habitats on whatever scale you can manage. Plant milkweeds native to your region, which provides food for the caterpillars.* Plant native wildflowers such as New England Asters, Seaside Goldenrod, and Joe-pye, which provide sustenance to migrating Monarchs and a host of other pollinators. Plant annuals native to Mexico with simple, uncomplicated structures, such as single (not double) Zinnias,Cosmos, and Mexican Sunflowers (Tithonia), which will bring the pollinators into the garden and provide sustenance throughout much of the growing season, while the pollinators are on the wing.
Plants such as daylilies, roses, and dahlias are eye candy for humans. Keep your candy to a minimum and know that they are just that, eye candy. They do not help pollinators in any way, shape, or form.
A Monarch in the wild flits from plant to plant and from leaf to leaf when looking for a suitable milkweed plant on which to deposit her eggs. She is carefully inspecting each leaf, first scratching the surface with her feet, the butterfly’s way of sensing taste. The female will typically deposit no more than one egg or possibly two eggs per leaf or bud. When you see an image of a large cluster of Monarch eggs, you can be sure the female was raised in close quarters in captivity and is desperate to deposit her eggs.
I so appreciate Heather taking the time to talk about Piping Plovers and Monarchs both. She asked tons of great questions and in a short period of time, we got in lots of information! Please see our interview below <3 !
For more about Hip Hop and the Good Harbor Beach Piping Plovers, see here –
And, please join me Thursday, August 18th, at 10am at Essex’s T.O.H.P. Burnham Library for a free all ages (5 plus) Monarch Butterfly event, The Marvelous Magnificent Migrating Monarch. To register, GO HERE
Monarch Butterfly and Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias vericillata)
Please join me Thursday, August 18th, at 10am at Essex’s T.O.H.P. Burnham Library for an all ages (5 plus) Monarch Butterfly talk, The Marvelous Magnificent Migrating Monarch. To register, please GO HERE I hope to see you there!
Headline after headline shouts: MONARCHS LISTED AS ENDANGERED, MONARCHS CLASSIFIED AS ENDANGERED, MONARCHS ARE NOW AN ENDANGERED SPECIES.
What most articles fail to highlight is that the species was listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Prior to the IUCN adding the Monarch to its Red List, most Americans had never even heard of the IUCN. Although the listing brings no funding to help protect the Monarchs, it can however serve as a call to action.
In 2020, the US Fish and Wildlife Service categorized the Monarch as warranting protection under the Endangered Species Act, but failed to add it to the Endangered Species List. The stated reason was because other species had higher protection priorities. Perhaps, too, an unspoken reason is that it would be very complicated try to prevent habitat loss, and to go toe to toe with companies that manufacture herbicides (Glyphosate),*along with the corporations (Bayer) that manufacture genetically modified crops that can withstand the deadly herbicides. The Monarch’s status will again be reviewed in 2024 and many hope that the IUCN’s declaration will prompt the USFWS to add the Monarch to the federal Endangered Species List.
Climate disruption, habitat loss, and the abuse of herbicides are the greatest threats facing the migrating population of the Monarch Butterfly. Where the population was once counted in the billions only fifty years ago, the numbers have plummeted to mere millions. Although that may sound like a robust number, in actuality, a series of events such as a drought in the northern breeding grounds followed by a deep freeze in the butterfly’s wintering habitat could wipe out the eastern population by as much as 90 percent.
We can all help the Monarchs, individually, and collectively. Creating Monarch habitat is probably one of the most joyful and satisfying first steps. Not only will you be helping the Monarchs, but many other species of pollinators will benefit from planting milkweeds and plants that are rich with nectar.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to be posting pollinator stories, along with gardening advice and tips to help our gardens survive the drought.
Charlotte and newly emerged Monarch August 3, 2022
*Glyphosate, manufactured by Bayer, is an herbicide used in the weed killer Roundup. Roundup is sprayed on vast acreage of farmland in the Midwest on crops that have been genetically modified to withstand the Roundup. Tragically, when the herbicide is sprayed on farm fields, the GMO crops can withstand the deadly toxin, but the milkweeds and other wildflowers growing in and around the farm fields are decimated.
Terrific update to share for Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly – We have been accepted to the San Diego International Kids Film Festival. With Covid on the rise, the presenters don’t know yet if the festival will be live or virtual, but it is fun to imagine attending.
Male Monarch and Coneflower
Truly an amazing number of Monarchs have been spotted across Cape Ann, and New England, in recent weeks. Many are finding eggs and caterpillars in gardens and in meadows. My friends Lillian and Craig, Jane, and Lauren shared their recent sightings. Please write and let me know what you are seeing in your garden. Thank you!
Please share your Monarch sightings. We would love to hear from you <3
This Mama Monarch photographed yesterday was zeroing in and depositing eggs on the freshly emerging shoots of Common Milkweed sprouting in the grassland meadows at Cox Reservation.
On May 21st the first Monarch was spotted; this is the earliest many of us have seen Monarchs in our gardens, dunes, and meadows. MJ observed one on the 21st in Lanesville, Patti in East Gloucester on the 23rd (she has tons of milkweed), Duncan spotted one at Brier Neck, they are in the dunes at Good Harbor Beach in the Common Milkweed patches, in my garden (also lots of milkweed), and have been seen at several Greenbelt sanctuaries, both Castle Neck River Reservation and Cox Reservation.
The butterflies at Cox Reservation were drinking nectar from the Red Clover
The Marvelous Magnificent Migrating Monarch – share with kids!
Please join us Wednesday, June 22nd at 7pm for a free in-person screening and Q and A of Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly at the Salem Visitor Center, as part of Essex National Heritage Pollinator week-long series of events.
Super fun news to share and please save the date – Essex National Heritage is hosting a week of events for National Pollinator Week, which takes place June 20th through June 26th. We have been invited to present a LIVE screening and Q and A of Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly on June 22, from 7pm to 9pm at the Salem Visitor Center.
The Salem Armory Visitor Center is located at 2 New Liberty Street, Salem, MA.
And more happy news to share – Beauty on the Wing is nominated for an award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival!
Common Milkweed emerging in May, Good Harbor Beach
And lastly, we saw our first Monarchs this week, one at Good Harbor Beach flitting through the dunes and a second at Cox Reservation. There is plentiful Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) emerging at our local dunes and meadows! <3
“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” –Rachel Carson
It’s glorious outdoors today and I hope you have a chance to get outside. See below for photos from my morning Earth Day walk, although I can’t bear to sit at my computer all day when it’s so gorgeous out and will head back out this afternoon to see what we see.
For Earth Day this past week I gave several screenings of Beauty on the Wing (thank you once again most generous community for all your help funding BotWing!) along with presenting “The Hummingbird Habitat Garden” to the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. For over twenty years I have been giving programs on how to create pollinator habitats. People are hungry for real information on how to connect to wildlife and wild habitats and each year the interest grows and grows. It’s truly a joy to witness!
Last night it was especially rewarding to bring Beauty on the Wing to Connecticut’s Sherman Conservation Commission attendees. We had a lively Q and A following the screening with many thoughtful questions and comments. My gratitude and thanks to Michelle MacKinnon for creating the event. She saw the film on PBS and wanted to bring it to her conservation organization. Please let me know if you are interested in hosting a Beauty on the Wing screening.
Monarchs are on the move! The leading edge in the central part of the country is at 39 degrees latitude in Illinois and Kansas: the leading edge along the Atlantic Coast is also at 39 degrees latitude; Monarchs have been spotted in both Maryland and New Jersey. Cape Ann is located at 43 degrees — it won’t be long!
Monarchs are heading north! Female Monarch depositing egg on Common Milkweed
Hummingbirds have been seen in Mashpee this past week (41 degrees latitude). Don’t forget to put out your hummingbird feeders. Dust them off and give a good cleaning with vinegar and water. Fill with sugar water and clean regularly once installed. The sugar water recipe is one part sugar to four parts water; never replace the sugar with honey, and never use red food coloring.
Happy Glorious Earth Day!
Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Super surprised to see this mystery duck asleep on a rock. I was so curious and kept hoping he would wake up so as to identify. He at last lifted his head for all of ten seconds and then promptly tucked back in and went back to sleep. I’ve only ever seen Surf Scoters bobbing around far off shore in the distance. Skunk bird- what a cutie!
American Kestrel, male, too far away to get a good photo but a joy to see!
Beautiful, beautiful Great Egret preening its luxurious spray of feathers. An egret’s spray of feathers is also referred to as aigrette.
No Earth Day post would be complete without our dear PiPls – Mom and Dad foraging at the wrack line this am, finding lots of insects for breakfast.
Super great news update from my friend and American Public Television Vice President Judy. She shares that since our documentary premiered a month ago, Beauty on the Wing has been broadcast 276 times, reaching 48.95 percent of the UStv households. She thinks we will have even greater activity in April because of programming centered around Earth Day! We have received emails and messages from viewers around the country, many inspired to create a Monarch habitat.
With thanks and gratitude to our many generous contributors, without whose help this film would not have been possible.
To the lovely woman in Idaho whose name I think is Shelly – if you are reading this – I accidentally deleted your note but would be happy to advise you on how to establish a Monarch habitat at your field. Please feel free to email so we can connect. Thank you!
We are are receiving many wonderful comments from viewers who have seen the film on their local public television channel, viewers from coast to coast! For we in Massachusetts (and everywhere), if you are a member of PBS Passports, here is the PBS.org Passports link to watch Beauty on the Wing:
Note about the photos – I took a bunch of these Monarch and Buoy photographs as there were several flying around the buoys one day (only on Cape Ann = Monarchs + buoys!). They were taken during this year’s autumn migration on a hazy October afternoon. I didn’t put two and two together until finally having a chance to look at the images several days ago, that one of the buoys was painted orange and black 🙂
Thank you Friends for your continued support and for your love of Monarchs!
Good news to share for Beauty on the Wing – Many thanks to the Spotlight Documentary Film Awards for the gold award! And starting in February, Beauty on the Wing will begin airing on public television stations across the country. As soon as I have dates, I will write and let you know 🙂
Fantastic news for our West Coast population of Monarchs – Tuesday, January 25th, the Xerces Society released the outcome of the 2021-2022 Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count, an organized group of volunteer community scientists that has been cataloging the Western Monarchs for over 25 years. In a remarkable turn of events the final winter tally of 247, 237 butterflies were counted across the West, a 100- fold increase from last year’s count and the highest recorded since 2016!
Insect populations can fluctuate widely from year to year and the Monarchs are by no means out of the woods. In an otherwise bleak outlook for the West Coast population, this is a positive note and gives us hope that we can make the necessary changes to prevent the extirpation of the Western population.
We’re expecting a classic nor’easter snowstorm this weekend while last weekend we had an exquisite “ocean effect” snowfall, which was lovely and magical. I am teaching myself a new film editing program and used the B-roll that I shot during the fairy-like snowstorm at Hammond Castle. Link to new short film – Hammond Castle-by-the-Sea.
Conserve Wildlife NJ senior biologist Todd Pover makes a site visit to Cape Ann beaches, summer long updates from “Plover Central,” GHB Killdeer dune family raise a second brood of chicks, Cape Hedge chick lost after fireworks disturbance and then reunited with Fam, Great Black-backed Gulls are eating our Plover chicks, thousands of Moon Snail collars at Cape Hedge, Monarchs abound, #savesaltisland, missing Iguana Skittles, and Earwig eating Cecropia Moth cats.
New short film for the Sawyer Free Library The Marvelous Magnificent Migrating Monarch!, Coastal Waterbird Conservation Cooperators meeting new short Piping Plover film, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds in the garden, why we love Joe-pye and other wildflowers, butterfly friends, Monarch cats in the garden, what is the purpose of the gold dots found on Monarch chrysalides?,Black Beauty came calling, Tigers in the garden, School Street sunflowers, Hoverflies, luminescent Sea Salps return to Cape Ann beaches, Petal Dancers and lemony Yellow Sulphurs on the wing.
Flower Fairies, irruptive Green Darner migration, mini glossary of late summer butterflies, what to do if you find a tagged Monarch, Painted Ladies, White-tailed Deer family, Monarchs mating, Tangerine Butterflies, yellow fellow in the hood, and Beauty on the Wing first ever live screening at the Shalin Liu.
Bee-sized butterfly the American Copper, Monarch conga line, Thunder and Cloud, abandoned Piping Plover egg, School Street Sunflowers, Monarchs migrating, quotidian splendor, Monarch fundraiser updates, collecting milkweed seeds, the Differential Grasshopper, Cooper’s Hawk – a conservation success story, #ploverjoyed, and nor’easter from the EP Lighthouse.