Monday, September 19, 2016

Monarchs return in force to the Monarch Trail


I stand chest deep in flaming goldenrod and brilliant white boneset—riveted by the sight of a dozen or so monarch butterflies on a single clump of boneset. When a breeze tosses the flowers the butterflies all rise, swirl around my head. But even more marvelous, as the breeze plays over the field of wildflowers, dozens—maybe hundreds—more monarchs suddenly appear, dipping, twirling and swerving all about.

Then, just beyond this amazing and beautiful dance of delicate wildlife, a stream of rush hour traffic rumbles down Swan Boulevard.

I continue my walk along the Monarch Trail, which circles around the recently completed Echelon Apartment complex at the north end of Innovation Park on the Milwaukee County Grounds in Wauwatosa. On the west side the trail runs along the top of a long, narrow berm crowned by dying poplars. Here, next to Interstate 41, the growl of traffic is incessant. But butterflies all over the hillside are oblivious to that.

It is monarch migration season. These fluttering, fragile and remarkably resilient insects are pausing here on their incredible journey from summer habitats in Canada to their winter retreat on a mountain in central Mexico. The Monarch Trail and a friends group to maintain it were established in 2005 when it was feared that construction of Innovation Park might destroy the rare and sensitive monarch roosting sites.

That fear appeared to be justified. As expected, construction during the past several years created enough disturbance that the numbers of monarchs stopping here during the annual migration dropped precipitously. Despite this, the trail was diligently maintained and the disturbed habitat reseeded with hundreds of native, wildlife-friendly plants. The biggest concern remained: Would the dislodged monarchs ever return?

Seeing the numbers rebound is what makes this year’s migration so exciting!

The migration occurs over several days and is not completely predictable. I missed a big night on Thursday. Barb, the director of the Friends, counted around 400 roosting that day alone. While not quite as many as were seen prior to 2005, when as many as a thousand could be counted on a single night on a single sycamore, she says there haven’t been this many since 2010. The full moon rising as they settled in for the night was a bonus.

I canceled my Friday evening plans so as not to miss them all. I delight in watching them forage on the flowers and fly about, frustrated only by the impossibility of conveying the magic of it all in a single still photo. (I did try to capture a sense of what I was seeing in a short video, which you can see on YouTube.)

The “urban wilderness” to which I so frequently refer has always been a metaphor. In my urban explorations am drawn most often to places where the urban is at least somewhat backgrounded by nature, where my imagination can restore the sense of a wilderness if not the substance. It is a worthwhile endeavor, I think, to love nature in this way, in a city. But here on the Monarch Trail a stark truth is revealed. Wildlife doesn’t need to imagine a wilderness. It just needs the right conditions on the ground.

Here, sandwiched between three-story apartment blocks and a busy freeway, is nature sufficient to nourish these monarchs. Today’s enchanting dance of the butterflies was far from inevitable, though. It took substantial commitments of time and resources to save this place. Developers were convinced to sacrifice a portion of their territory, scientists engineered a restoration plan and volunteers put in thousands of hours. A few of them have come to witness the fruit of their labor.

The work remains unfinished. The habitat, revitalized as it has been, remains vulnerable. The many partners who have helped make this day possible must continue their vigilance and commitment. And, sadly, new threats continue to dog unprotected vestiges of the County Grounds that if lost will adversely affect not only the monarchs, but many other species that might find this place wild enough to flourish.

The celebrities of this story are the monarchs, of course. But this story isn’t about butterflies as much as it is about us.

In fact, whether we accept it or not, the fate of butterflies is inextricably tied to our own. It is about the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of experiences we want our children and grandchildren to have.

A few lines from a poem by Rumi comes to mind:

What will our children do in the morning
if they do not see us

The Monarch Trail has proven that there are many people who want butterflies to be part of their world. Three weeks ago hundreds of people from all over the Milwaukee area attended an annual celebration hosted by the Friends of the Trail to mark the beginning of the migration season (see previous post.)

As dusk draws the flowers into shade, one by one the butterflies begin to gather. They flutter toward the trees and cluster together, clinging to leaves and bare branches. A small crowd of people stand below, craning their necks to watch. Now and then the butterflies startle, quivering their wings in unison, open and shut, open and shut. After a while they are still. Then they vanish in deepening darkness.

A cloudbank obscures the moonrise. But the sunset made up for it.

I return before dawn on Saturday. A few clusters of monarchs remain where I’d seen them the night before. But many already are letting go, floating away on the breeze, like autumn leaves. The moon is still full. As I watch it set beyond the trees I breathe an inaudible bon voyage to the monarchs setting off for Mexico.

*To read the entire poem by Rumi, which is lovely, click here.

To see more photos of the County Grounds go to my Flickr album.


  1. Beautiful words and pictures. Thanks Eddee!!

  2. Thanks Eddee--Barb, you and others have worked so hard to preserve as much as possible for the Monarchs. Your post is evidence that fighting for habitat is a worthwhile endeavor!