For further reading and some terrific background information, see the following article, published by the NRDC in early February of this year. Scenes from Beauty on the Wing were filmed at the stunning forest at the Cerro Pelón Monarch Butterfly sanctuary.
For a Family in Mexico, a Mission to Protect Monarchs
Siblings Joel, Anayeli, and Patricio Moreno see the future of their community and that of the butterflies that migrate annually to the local Cerro Pelón forest as being intimately connected.
If there’s something that the Moreno family agrees on, it’s that monarch butterflies changed their lives. And not just their own but the lives of most in Macheros, Mexico. The agricultural village of 400 people—whose name translates to “stables” in Spanish, because of the 100 horses that also make their home here—sits at the entrance to Cerro Pelón, one of four sanctuaries in Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, established by the federal government in 1986.
It started when Melquiades Moreno de Jesus secured a job as a forest ranger, or guardabosque, in 1982. Six years earlier, National Geographic had run a feature on monarch migration, bringing international attention to the butterflies’ overwintering sites in the mountainous oyamel fir forests some 80 miles west of Mexico City—though locals had discovered the colonies long before outsiders descended on the area. Soon after that publication, the State of Mexico’s Commission of Natural Parks and Wildlife (Comisión Estatal de Parques Naturales y de la Fauna, or CEPANAF) established the local forest ranger positions, employing men from Macheros to patrol the part of the sanctuary that’s in the state of Mexico. (Part of the butterfly reserve also lies in the state of Michoacán.) CEPANAF hired Melquiades several years later and he stayed on, monitoring the butterflies and deterring illegal loggers, for more than three decades.
“When my dad got the job as a forest ranger, it changed our lives,” says Joel Moreno Rojas, the fourth-born of Melquiades’s 10 children. His father’s steady income brought the family out of poverty and afforded the children the chance to go to school. It also instilled a sense of local pride and inspired his family’s commitment to caring for the natural wonder at their doorstep.
Among the Moreno siblings, three have continued their father’s legacy: Joel, Anayeli, and sixth-born Patricio (“Pato”). Pato took over Melquiades’s forest ranger position after his dad’s retirement in 2014. When the monarchs are roosting in Cerro Pelón, roughly from November to March, he spends many days near the overwintering colonies, monitoring them and asking visitors not to disturb the impressive clusters. The butterflies, which have migrated thousands of miles from the eastern part of the United States, are drawn to the oyamel canopy—which provides insulation and keeps out the elements—for their winter rest. “I love it,” says the father of two. “It’s the most marvellous thing that could have happened in my life to have a job like this.”
Being among hundreds of thousands of butterflies sparks such an intense emotional reaction that the Moreno siblings say it is impossible to name. When they do find the words, they describe experiencing the monarchs as powerful, beautiful, and emotional. Joel has seen visitors drop to their knees and pray or break out in tears when they first see the butterflies, who some locals believe are the souls of their ancestors, since the migrating monarchs arrive in Macheros right around the first of November, el Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead.
“As Mexicans, we should all be proud of the butterflies,” Pato continues. “I’d like everyone to understand the value of the forest, because it helps us and it helps the butterflies.”
Several years ago my husband suggested I write a “year end” wildlife review about all the creatures seen over the preceding year. That first review was a joyful endeavor though daunting enough. Over the next several years the reviews became more lengthy as I tried to cover every beautiful, wonderful creature that was encountered on woodland hikes, beaches, dunes, marshes, ponds, and our own backyards and neighborhoods. 2020 has been a very different year. There were just as many local wildlife stories as in previous years however, the pandemic and political climate have had far reaching consequences across geographic regions around the world, touching every living creature in the interconnected web of life we call our ecosystems.
This first year of the global pandemic has had a profoundly negative impact on wildlife and their habitats. In urban areas in developed countries, perhaps the economic slowdown afforded wildlife a break, with less pollution, less air travel, and some wild animals even reclaiming territory. Though the true downside of Covid-19 is that the pandemic has had an extraordinarily harmful impact on wildlife in rural areas and in less developed countries People who are dependent upon tourism, along with people who have lost jobs in cities and are returning to rural areas, are placing increasing pressure on wildlife by poaching, illegal mining, and logging. As mining and logging destroy wildlife habitats, animals are forced into ever shrinking areas, causing them to become sick, stressed, and to starve to death. These same stressed wild animals come in contact with people and farm animals, creating an ever increasing potential to transmit horrifically deadly illness, diseases such as Covid-19.
There are many, many organizations working to protect wildlife and conserve their habitats. I am especially in awe of one particular grass roots non-profit organization located in Macheros, Mexico, previously featured here, Butterflies and Their People. Co-founded by Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno Rojas, the work they are doing to both protect the butterfly’s winter habit and provide employment for the forest’s guardians is outstanding.
All the butterfly sanctuaries (their winter resting places), are closed this year due to the pandemic. Dozens of people in the tiny town of Macheros are wholly dependent upon the income received by the work they do protecting the butterfly trees from illegal logging, as well as income from the tourist industry. Ellen, Joel, and their team of arborists have come up with a wonderfully creative way to bring the butterflies to you. For a modest fee, you can sign up to “Adopt a Colony” to receive monthly newsletters and video tours of the Monarchs at Cerro Pelon. The newsletters are written by Ellen, who writes beautifully and clearly about the month-by-month current state of the butterflies in their winter habitat, as well as human interest stories drawn from the community. To subscribe to “Adopt a Colony” from Butterflies and Their People, go here.
We can be hopeful in 2021 that with a new administration, a much greater focus will be paid by our federal government to stop the spread of the virus in the US as well as around the globe. Not only is there hope in regard to the course correction needed to battle the pandemic, but the Biden/Harris administration has made climate change and environmental justice a cornerstone of their platform, including measures such as stopping the environmental madness taking place along our southern border and reversing many of the previous administration’s mandates that are so harmful to wildlife and their habitats.
Around the globe, especially in less developed countries, the pandemic has set back environmental initiatives by years, if not decades. We are so fortunate in Essex County to have conservation organizations such as Greenbelt, MassWildlife, The Trustees, and Mass Audubon; organizations that protect the sanctity of wildlife and recognize the importance of protecting habitats not only for wildlife but equally as important, for the health and safety of human inhabitants.
The following are just some of the local images and stories that make us deeply appreciate the beauty of wildlife and their habitats found on Cape Ann and all around Essex County. Each picture is only a brief window into the elusive, complex life of a creature. Every day and every encounter brings so much more to observe, to learn, to enjoy, and to love.
To read more, each image and story from the past year is Google searchable. Type in the name of the creature and my name and the link to the story and pictures posted on my website should come right up.
Some Beautiful Raptors of 2020 – Red-tailed Hawk, Short-eared Owl, American Bald Eagle, Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Osprey, and Snowy Owls
Essex County Greenbelt’s Osprey pair, Annie and Squam, successfully fledged three chicks, Vivi, Rusty, and Liz (nestling photo courtesy ECGA)
Dave Rimmer video from the Osprey cam at Lobstaland
The Snowy Owl Film Project was completed in March, with the objective of providing pandemic- virtually schooled kids a window into the world of Snowy Owls in their winter habitat (see all five short films here).
Spunky Mute Swan Cygnets
Utterly captivated by the winsome Red Fox Family
A tiny sampling of the beautiful songbirds that graced our shores in 2020 – Cedar Waxwings, Baltimore Orioles, Catbirds, American Robins, Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Snow Buntings, American Pipits, Horned Larks, and Eastern Bluebirds
A new favorite place to film is at my friend Paul’s wonderfully fun sunflower field in Ipswich, School Street Sunflowers. Beautiful Bobolinks, Common Yellowthroat Warblers, and Bluejays were just some of the songbirds seen feasting on the expiring seedheads of sunflowers and wildflowers growing amongst the rows of flowers.
Graceful White-tailed Deer herd of adult females and youngsters
Snowy Egrets, Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and juvenile Little Blue Herons delight with their elegance, beauty, and stealth hunting skills. Included in the montage is a juvenile Black-crowned Night Heron that spent the winter at Niles Pond
A fraction of the different species of Shorebirds and Gulls seen on Cape Ann this past year – Dowitchers, Killdeers, Black-bellied Plovers, Common Tern, Least Tern, Laughing Gulls, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Glaucus Gull, and rarely seen Dovekie, or”Little Auk.”
Cecropia Moth life cycle unfolding in our garden, from mating, to egg laying, to caterpillar, to adult.
Dozens and dozens of orb spider webs draped a small patch of wildflowers. The dream catchers were attracting Cedar Waxwings to feast on the insects caught in the webs. The following day I returned after a rainstorm. The webs had melted away in the downpour and the Waxwings had vanished into the treetops.
Harbor and Gray Seals hauled out on the rocks at Brace Cove, as many as 28 were counted on a winter’s day!
Piping Plovers and Marshmallow Montage
In 2020, our Good Harbor Beach Piping Plover pair fledged one chick, nicknamed Marshmallow. Despite the global pandemic, a group of super dedicated Piping Plover Ambassadors worked tirelessly from sunrise until sunset to help ensure the safety of the Piping Plover family and to help educate beachgoers about the beautiful life story of the Plovers unfolding on Gloucester’s most popular beach destination. We worked with Essex Greenbelt’s Dave Rimmer, the Gloucester DPW, and Gloucester City Councilor Scot Memhard, with much appreciated advice from Mass Wildlife Coastal Waterbird Biologist Carolyn Mostello.
Piping Plover Marshmallow Montage, from egg to thirty-eight days old. Filmed at Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, Massachusetts.
It has been a wonderful, exhilarating, infinitely educational, and beautifully challenging journey creating my documentary, Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterflies. The film was released in February 2020, but because of the pandemic, was not seen by the public until August, when it premiered (virtually) at the New Haven Documentary Film Festival. Beauty on the Wing has gone on to win honors and awards at both environmental and children’s film festivals, including the tremendous honor of Best Documentary at the Boston International Kids Film Festival. I’ve just received the very attractive award in the mail and have not had time to post a photo yet.
Beauty on the Wing portrays Cape Ann in the most beautiful light and I think when we are ever able to have a live premiere in this area, local friends will be delighted at the outcome. Joyfully so, Beauty is now being distributed to schools, libraries, institutions, and the travel industry through American Public Television Worldwide.
Beauty on the Wing continues to be accepted to film festivals and I will keep you posted as some are geo-bloced to this area, including the upcoming Providence Children’s Film Festival.
Last but not least, our wonderfully wildy Charlotte, little adventurer and nature-loving companion throughout the year
Last spring my husband Tom and I traveled to the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve at Cerro Pelón to continue filming Beauty on the Wing: Life Story of the Monarch Butterfly. We stayed in the magically beautiful tiny rustic town of Macheros at the equally as beautiful JM Butterflies Bed and Breakfast. The hotel is owned and operated by a visionary husband and wife team, Joel Moreno Rojas and Ellen Sharp. In five short years, the dynamic duo turned a four room home into a wonderfully accommodating 14 room inn, replete with a new restaurant, swimming pool, ensuite bathrooms, internet, mountain view roof top cocktail area, yoga studio, with many more amenities.
Macheros is located at the base of Cerro Pelón, the location where the butterflies overwintering grounds were first documented by Mexican citizen scientist Catalina Aguado Trail, working with Canadian and US scientists (1975). The trail leading up to the sanctuary is mere footsteps from JM Butterflies B and B..
Cerro Pelón is the most pristine of all the reserves. The beautiful natural state in which the sanctuary is kept is only made possible by a group of highly dedicated arborists. The arborists daily patrol the forest to prevent illegal logging and provide information to the guides on the butterfly’s current location (Monarchs move around the mountains during their winter stay). The arborists are working to protect the existing forest. Some organizations focus on replanting trees after they have been logged, but it can take 30 to 40 years for a tree to become a special “butterfly tree,” one on which the butterflies roost during the winter.
Monarchs and Snakeroot, Cerro Pelon
The arborists are paid through the forest conservation non-profit organization created by Ellen and Joel appropriately called Butterflies and Their People. The mission of Butterflies and Their People is to support the Monarchs while also providing livelihoods for members of the community. Much of the village of Macheros depends on visitors to the sanctuary. Additionally, the Inn provides well paying jobs including restaurant work, trail guides, drivers, and inn keeping.
As you can imagine, a tiny town such as Macheros has been devastated by the pandemic. Gratefully so, no one in Macheros has caught the disease however, the local town officials have closed the sanctuary to the public for fear that someone may contract Covid from visitors to the sanctuary. Cerro Pelón will be shuttered for the entire year, a devastating blow to the tiny township and all her citizens. As has happened to so many in the US and around the world, overnight the people of Macheros lost their livelihoods.
A fundraiser has been organized by Carlotta James and the Monarch Ultra Team. So far, they have raised $1,900.00, nearly two thirds of the $3,000.00 goal.
Please consider donating to the 50km pop-up fundraiser at:
In March I had the tremendous joy of interviewing Ellen Sharp and Joel Moreno Rojas, founders of the nonprofit organization “The Butterflies and Their People Project.” We filmed the interview from the rooftop of their hotel, JM Butterfly B&B, which is located at the base of Cerro Pelon Monarch Butterfly Reserve in Macheros, Mexico. Cerro Pelon is the old volcanic mountain where the Monarchs wintering home was first located by Mexican citizen scientist Catalina Aguado Trail, on January 2, 1975. Trail was at the time working under the direction of zoologist Doctor Fred Urquhart of the University of Toronto.
Joel and Ellen are simply an amazing dynamic duo. They have built a beautiful and welcoming bed and breakfast at Cerro Pelon, the most pristine and least trafficked of Monarch sanctuaries. Largely through the conservation efforts of The Butterflies and Their People Project they have helped provide economic opportunities that have in turn dramatically reduced illegal logging and deforestation of the core protected areas of the forest.
The mission of The Butterflies and Their People Project is to “preserve the butterfly sanctuary by creating jobs for local people in forest and monarch butterfly conservation. The Butterflies & Their People Project is an Asociación Civil (non-profit organization) registered and located in the village of Macheros in the State of Mexico.”
I hope you’ll watch and will be equally as enamored of Joel and Ellen as were we. You’ll learn more about how The Butterflies and Their People Project came to be, the importance of protecting the existing Monarch Butterfly forest sanctuaries, and how jobs and economic growth go hand and hand with protecting the vitally important temperate forests of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. And a bit about how this extraordinary couple met and began their journey in Monarch conservation.
Ribbons of orange and black butterflies are stopping to roost overnight all along the Gulf Coast of Florida’s Panhandle. These Monarchs are primarily members of the Atlantic Coast population. Because these Monarchs live for about seven to eight months, they are often referred to as a super generation of Monarchs, and are also known as the Methuselah Monarchs. They will continue along the Gulf Coast, soon joining the steady stream of Monarchs migrating through the central part of the US to cross the great Central Mexican Plateau (Altiplanicie Mexicana).
The Plateau is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental to the East. The Plateau ends where the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Mountains begin, forming a natural barrier, which prohibits further migration. The butterflies roost in the beautiful pine-oak forests of the Eje Volcanico Transversal.
The Atlantic Coast Super Generation of Monarchs, otherwise known as Methuselah Monarchs, Gloucester 2019
Monarch Butterfly overnight roost Gloucester 2019
The Monarchs are arriving to Mexico in ever increasing numbers. Colonies have yet to form, but that is not unusual for this time of year. Below are reports from Mexico from two of the butterfly sanctuaries where I filmed “Beauty on the Wing.” Ellen Sharp, along with her husband Joel Moreno Rojas, founded the nonprofit organization Butterflies and Their People, located at Cerro Pelón, Macheros. Estela Romero is Journey North’s program coordinator for Mexico and writes from her home in Angangueo, Michoacán.
From Macheros, MEX:
Ellen submitted this report: “From 1:08–1:24 pm on October 31, 2019 we spotted at least 54 determined little specks pumping their way across the sky. Meanwhile up on the Carditos side of, the Butterflies & Their People guardians sighted many more. Starting at 12:16 pm, Leonel and Francisco counted an average of eight per minute for the next ten minutes. Ever since that day, the skies have been filled with monarchs flying overhead until the afternoon rains arrive. We have yet to hear any news of colony formation on Cerro Pelon.” (10/31/2019)
Ellen and Joel, co-founders of Butterflies and Their People, also co-own JM Monarch Butterfly B and B, located in Macheros.