visit to the Monarch reserves (long)

Jim Mason Jim at
Fri Mar 7 17:11:13 EST 2003

I returned last week from a delightful visit to Chincua and Cerro Pelon.
The trip was a "Spirit of Butterflies" tour organized by Maraleen
Manos-Jones in cooperation with the Michoacan Reforestation Fund.

Proceeds from the trip benefited the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project,
which grows trees to be planted in areas adjacent to the Monarch reserves.
These trees will eventually provide a source of both firewood and income for
the landowners and reduce or hopefully eliminate the perceived need to cut
down the trees in the reserves, which is a grave threat to the ecological
integrity of the reserves.  The gentleman who grows these trees was our
guide, Jose Luis Alvarez.

Our small (6) group first spent two days learning about the human and
natural history of the region through visits to the copper artisan town of
Santa Clara del Cobre, the Tarascan pyramid site at Tzintzuntzan on the
south end of Lake Patzcuaro and the Eduardo Ruiz national park at Uruapan.
In addition to learning about the area, these two days also helped acclimate
us to the altitude (7,000+ feet), so when we went trekking up to the
reserves the following two days, it wasn't so hard on us.  Our group saw
several species of butterflies at the park in Uruapan, but lacking a local
checklist it was hard to say what they were.  One large flamboyant yellow
and black swallowtail looked almost like the Giant Swallowtail, but had
slightly different markings.  On one of the rock walls by a waterfall was a
metalmark of some sort.  Zebra longwings were seen back along the shaded

During these days, we also toured Jose Luis' tree farm and saw how his
operation works.  While tree farming is his business, the trees raised and
planted for the La Cruz Habitat Protection Project are funded entirely by
donations.  At the end of the planting season this year, 1.3 million trees
will have been planted since the project commenced in 1997.  Initially, he
had some difficulty finding landowners who were willing to quit row crops
and plant a forest instead.  After some of the plantings became established
and people could see how these nascent forests were actually improving
conditions in the area around them by improving retention of rainfall in the
soil (among other things), he now has landowners coming to him wanting
trees.  The project is now taking off in a big way.

The first reserve we visited was Chincua.  Jose Luis took us in the "back
door" on what can best be described as an "adventure road" that was a
challenge even for his excellent driving skills and the suspension on his
Suburban!  On our way in we met a school group packed into a large
stakesided truck going the other way.  There was no place to turn around and
Jose Luis had to back up for about a 1/4 mile to allow them to pass.  We
proceeded on and finally we could go no further and got out to walk up the
last couple of miles to the reserve.

The first length of the road was very dry and dusty with plowed fields on
either side.  Of course, this was the dry season down there, but still it
was very obvious the impact cultivation has on the ecological health of the
area.  Scattered monarchs were seen along the way, particularly at mud

Once we got beyond the cleared area into the forest, the temperature dropped
several degrees and it was more humid as well.  The path paralleled a
rushing mountain stream.  Considering how long it had probably been since it
last rained, the volume of water present in the stream was remarkable.
Numerous flowering plants provided nectar for the hungry Monarchs.  A
white-flowered species (in appearance like Joe pye) was a particular
favorite.  We also saw them on a tall yellow composite that may have been in
the genus Senecio and a plant with narrow purple flowers whose family
relations I can only guess.

The trail formed a natural highway for the Monarchs, and the rustle of their
wings as they flew around us was a constant presence.  Occasionally
butterflies would miscalculate their flight path and plop into one of us
with little pif noises!

In places, little rivulets from the hillside spilled across the road,
forming ideal puddling sites.  These were absolutely covered with Monarchs!
One had to step carefully around the dry edges of these areas to even
proceed.  After a break for lunch at one of these puddling sites, we
continued up to the heart of the reserve where we saw for the first time the
immense, pendulous clusters of butterflies that are so often referred to in
descriptions of the overwintering reserves.  Words cannot do it justice!  At
that elevation and location, the trees they were using were the Oyamel firs.
We spent about an hour taking pictures and basking in the presence of
millions of Monarchs.  As this was a weekday, we were the only people there.

One interesting thing I noted on the hike down was the wind was now blowing
uphill.  The thought occurred to me that if this was the normal daily cycle
of winds, it worked out well for the Monarchs since it made their ascent
back to the reserve much easier.

The second reserve we visited was Cerro Pelon.  That was an even more
spectacular sight.  We arrived around midday and the road leading up to the
reserve was a river of orange butterflies!  The dispersion of the Monarchs
downhill for water and nectar was immense, and Jose Luis said he had never
seen anything like it outside of the time at the end of the season when the
Monarchs leave to return north.  We had to drive slowly to give them plenty
of maneuvering room to go around us.

We met our local guide in the nearby town and were driven up to the reserve
in the back of a small pickup.  This time, we did not have to hike so far as
the Monarchs were further downhill in an area of oaks.  Again, we spent
about an hour at the site and had it all to ourselves.  We noticed several
mated pairs of Monarchs at this site.  When we returned to town, I purchased
some tags that had been collected at the reserve - including one of Lincoln
Brower's tags, which was a pleasant surprise.

To me, this is the way ecotourism should be done.  While you get to see the
"neat stuff" you also directly help to mitigate the "bad stuff" that
threatens the neat stuff.  I took numerous pictures and will be posting
these on the web soon.  I will notify the list where to see them once they
are online.  I also hope to lead a group from Kansas down there next year
and repeat the experience!

For more information on the Spirit of Butterflies tour see:

For more information on the Michoacan Reforestation Fund see:

Jim Mason, Naturalist
Jim at
Great Plains Nature Center
6232 E. 29th Street North
Wichita, KS 67220-2200
316-683-5499 x103 - voice
316-688-9555 - fax


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