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Monarch Butterflys - Little Flutterby

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Monarchs of the north (the butterfly, that is) rule Delta County skies in early fall.

Delta County becomes Michigan's butterfly capital in late summer and early fall when thousands of stately Monarch butterflies use the county's unique geography to rest, and capture the imaginations of thousands of humans following the flight, and plight, of this unique creature.

The county's Stonington Peninsula, and in particular, the cedar trees and lands surrounding the Peninsula Point Lighthouse Park at the end of the point, separating Little from Big Bay de Noc, becomes the stopping-off-point for thousands of Monarchs in late summer and early fall.

Researchers have been studying the orange-and-black-winged insects and their flight patterns since 1993 to determine where they live in the area and how to protect this unique species, which migrates more than 1,900 miles from northern climates to regions near Mexico City each winter.

Scores of volunteers help naturalists at the U.S. Forest Service's Rapid River/Manistique Ranger District off in Rapid River monitor each stage of the monarch's life, from when they return to the area to lay their eggs--only on the milkweed pods--to when they mature, and again migrate to wintering areas near El Rosario, Mexico. Volunteers receive a small stipend for daily checks between May 1 and the end of September, counting the number of butterfly eggs and larvae in the spring, and their health of the local milkweed plants, the larvae's only food source, says Anne Okonek, assistant District Ranger for the Hiawatha National Forest Rapid River/Manistique Ranger District office in Rapid River, who monitors the research efforts.

The butterfly's appearance also coincides with visits by hundreds of Monarch fans who wing in, or drive from across the country to watch the butterflies gather in late summer and early fall.

The butterflies gather at the peninsula for their flights across the open waters of Lake Michigan and Green Bay on their way south. During the evening, butterflies generally roost in the Peninsula Point's cedar trees for protection from the elements and from birds that are brave or foolish enough to take a chance at tackling the Monarch's natural protection--a toxin they retain as a result of dining on milkweed. Monarchs become active as the sun warms them. They most often use the prevailing winds following a cool front to help them make the trek across open water to Wisconsin's Door Peninsula.

As the monarchs roost, volunteers make counts three times daily, which are recorded and reported to the public on a special taped message when they call the Rapid River ranger office.

The volunteers also remove non-native weeds that compete for space with milkweed, plant windflowers raised in the Forest Service nursery in Marquette that Monarchs use for nectar, do environmental education and tag Monarchs to follow their migration patterns.

Tagging is done by placing an adhesive sticker the size of a pinkie fingernail, on the wing. Usually the recovery rate for tagged monarchs is less the 1 percent, but since tagging began in 1993, four Monarchs from Peninsula Point have been found in Mexico.

Lately, the Monarch population has come under tremendous stress, as frosts and other inclement weather in Mexico in recent winters caused millions to perish. Many scientists fear that because of possible climate change and human encroachment on wintering grounds, the future of the migration may be threatened.

To see the Monarchs come through, Okonek says, the best month is August. However migration continues throughout September, when the peninsula's hardwoods begin their annual fall changeover. For more information on the project, and listen to Monarch updates, or to become a volunteer, call the Rapid River ranger office, (906) 474-6442. For updates, choose extension 110.