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Monarchs in the Morning

A Modest Appreciation of a Major Phenomenon

Goosewing Beach Preserve provides a nectar corridor for migrating Monarchs along an increasingly urbanized Atlantic coastline.  ©Kate Pisano

I went to Goosewing Beach Preserve early in the morning before dawn because I know, without thinking consciously about it, that this place of contemporary wilderness is the best thing for my heart, my mind…my being. I made no effort for expectations. I was simply going to be there...

I laid down on the cool sand in a dune over-wash. This place I’d chosen had been the stomping ground of Piping Plover and Least Tern chicks just a few weeks before and it felt special. I purposefully surrounded myself with dune grass...feeling secretive. It was dark. I lay there to take it in...I let the sun rise. And it did…slowly giving illumination and 3-dimensions to the contours of sand, and scattered stems of goldenrod intermixed with American Beach Grass that hold the dune together against wind and wave. The wash of the surf was the only sound, and the cool morning air forecasted fall.

I stood up, breathed in and looked outward at the expanse of dune grass towards the breachway of Quicksand Pond; the sun began to catch the tops of goldenrods in bright yellow bloom.  Like any anomaly in a congruous landscape, dead patches of leaves, on an otherwise green and healthy plant, caught my eye. I looked back several times to the same goldenrod but it didn’t register. Slowly the anomic leaves on one of the stems began to take on shape and color; by ‘accident’ one of the leaves rose vertically and clumsily into the air. It registered... I began to realize that all around me there were dangling clumps of Monarch butterflies, the pale orange of their under-wings very reasonable facsimiles of dead leaves. 

I didn’t expect it and I was instantly absorbed in the revealing moments of this natural phenomenon and I wanted to know the secrets of its beauty and its science. The thought occurred to me that this kind of fascinating thing only happens when I am not around to see it...but here I was. All around me Monarchs had chosen to spend the night on the sparse goldenrods that populated the grass covered dunes. I watched as each suspended butterfly opened and closed its wings, once and then twice, and then again, mechanically...and yet very gracefully. The sun’s rays became stronger and so seemingly did the butterflies urges to move up higher on the plant and ultimately leave their resting place.

I stood in my special place for 3 hours and watched Monarchs drift by in one’s and two’s, then six more and then a dozen, and then another dozen, and they kept coming. As they flew by me unrelenting, my estimate of hundreds having passed by me changed to thousands before my short time there came to a close.  I imagined the splendor of mass migrations of other species and it dawned on me then that if each one had suddenly sprouted hooved legs and started snorting, I would have been trampled!

Extraordinary numbers of Monarchs appeared along the Atlantic coast this year as witnessed by many in the eastern States as the butterflies made their way south. The larger numbers seen this fall could be from a multiple of factors including, a dry US interior that may have caused a shift in flight routes eastward, natural fluctuations in numbers due to decreases in disease, predators or parasites, and an early spring that would have allowed an extra generation of Monarchs to be added to the masses.

Whatever the causes of this wonder at Goosewing, I was there on that one morning, out of very few, and witnessed the numbers that passed through. It has left me with a special appreciation and connection with the Monarch butterfly that I had not had before. It has been another of many personal inspirations experienced at this place, and feeds my desire to continue supporting the protection and management of much needed natural places like Goosewing Beach Preserve. 

Jeanne Parente/TNC

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