Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


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From the Pen of Carter P. Smith

They are called “National Geographic moments” for a reason — sights and sounds and settings of certain wildlife spectacles that are so memorable, so special and so singularly unique that they remain indelibly etched in our memories, just like the iconic pictures from the fabled magazine.   

I have been blessed to witness more than a few of those in recent years — peregrines dive-bombing redheads in the Laguna Madre; a pair of coyotes stalking and taking a pronghorn in the desert grasslands; the primal booming and mating ritual displayed by prairie-chickens in the Panhandle; kettles and kettles of migrating hawks sailing over Smith Point; and endless streams of Mexican free-tailed bats emerging from the granddaddy of all bat colonies, Bracken Cave.

There may be one, however, that stands above them all. It was early October 2007, as I best recall it. A group of friends and I were making our way down the Devil’s River when the first little cool front of the year came through. It was more bark than bite, but it dropped a little rain and had enough wind to add a noticeable chill to the semi-desert air. By the next morning, the front had passed, the winds had calmed, and the dawn skies were bright blue.

There was something else, however, that the front had left for us. The sycamores towering along the river’s edge were draped in some of Mother Nature’s Sunday finery. In fact, nary an inch of their limbs and leaves could be seen at all. The trees were covered with orange and black and brown and white spots. 

It was a monarch fall-out, and a spectacular one at that. Thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies had sought refuge in the protective canopies of the big trees. As the dawn relinquished its grip on the morning, the butterflies began to gradually stir, raising and lowering their wings, shaking off their evening slumber. And then, just like that, they were off, lifting up from the trees in big, intermittent waves, headed south, down the river, to a destination where they would make their winter home.

The 3,000-mile, biannual migratory journey of the monarchs is one of nature’s many wonders. And, come late September and early October, Texans from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande can expect to see the picturesque butterflies flittering through. We sit at a linchpin spot for this migration, serving as part of the fairway and the funnel for the Central Flyway population that comes down from Canada, through the Great Plains and across Texas before making its way to the oyamel fir forests of Michoacan for the winter.  In the spring, they turn right back around and head north from whence they came.

But, dare I ask, when was the last time you witnessed something more than a mere handful of monarchs in the fall or the spring? I’d wager it has been a while, even a long while. 

In the last two decades, monarchs have suffered a precipitous decline in numbers — as much as 90 percent, scientists estimate. There are a number of reasons posited for such — illegal harvesting of the fir trees on the wintering grounds; the unrelenting drought and other extreme weather events all along the flyway; changing agricultural practices in the Midwest cornfields; and a major decline in native milkweeds, the larval host plant for the migrating monarchs.

Thankfully, Mexico, Canada and the U.S. have pledged to work together to bring back the beloved monarch, a conservation goal sure to inspire citizens of all ages and in all places. In Texas, we are front and center for that recovery. 

TPWD biologists are finalizing a major conservation plan that provides guidance to landowners and land managers on how best to restore and enhance native habitats (including larval and nectar-producing species) for monarchs and other pollinators. Research sponsored by the comptroller’s office will inventory spring and fall populations and evaluate the efficacy of specific practices to benefit monarchs. Groups like the National Wildlife Federation are engaging urban park managers and citizen naturalists up and down the Interstate 35 corridor to create butterfly oases all along their migratory path.

Bringing back the stately monarchs is a job for all of us. From planting native milkweeds in our gardens to cultivating nectar-producing plants in the fall to supporting conservation groups, you can ensure that future generations enjoy the magic of monarch migrations.

Thanks for caring about our wild things and wild places. They need you now more than ever.

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