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Trans-Gulf Migration

Nov 26, 2014


  • Community Science
  • Migration

Thank you to Candy Sarikonda for writing and sharing this great article on the possibility of monarchs crossing the Gulf. Also worth noting, Monarch Watch just reported a tag recovery in Mexico: "Congratulations to Alfonso Banda, Head of the Dept of Natural Resources in Tamaulipas, México. He is the first to recover a tagged monarch butterfly in Mexico. Where was it tagged? Westfield, Indiana! The butterfly was alive and well and was released to continue on its way to an overwintering site"

On September 29, 2011, I brought a dozen monarch butterflies to Sylvania Franciscan Academy, to teach eager students how to tag a butterfly.  We tagged and released several butterflies that day, releasing them and watching as they climbed a nearby thermal.  One student exclaimed, “Oh, I hope they make it to Mexico!  Will you tell us if they do?”  “Of course!” I replied.  And six weeks later, I received a thrilling email from Monarch Watch—one female monarch, released by the students and me in Sylvania, OH, had been found by Edward Brandao in New Orleans, LA.  PPA 869 had travelled 1,013 miles in 43 days and was still alive when Mr. Brandao found her and re-released her.  The students were ecstatic over this news!

I wondered where PPA 869 went from that point.  Did she hug the Gulf coast, eventually making her way to the overwintering sanctuaries in Mexico?  Or did she try to cross the open waters of the Gulf?

Most researchers agree that monarchs are reluctant to cross open water, especially if they cannot see land.  And this view is supported by some tag recoveries.  But having fished the Great Lakes for most of my life, and spending time documenting the monarch migration through the Lake Erie Islands, it was clear to me that monarchs may be capable of attempting a trans-Gulf flight.  But was there any evidence that they do so?

I began researching Journey North.  I noted a few reports of monarchs being sighted on offshore drilling platforms, or by shrimp boat captains fishing the Gulf.  These sightings usually occurred 20-100 nautical miles offshore. and I noted definite debate over whether or not a Gulf crossing would be successful, and if significant numbers of migrants would survive the crossing

I saw a video of an interview with Ranger Mike Aymond of Gulf Islands National Seashore Park.  He mentioned the park was a migratory pitstop for monarchs.  I contacted him.  “What have you seen?” I asked.  Mr. Aymond stated, “I have had several colleagues confirm that they have been visited by monarchs while on research vessels 100 miles out in the Gulf.”   Whoa!

I became more and more interested in the oil and gas platforms, referred to as rigs. Could rig workers help in this effort?  Would they be willing to report their sightings, or even allow a researcher on board their platforms?

Gary Noel Ross tagging on oil rig

With a little more online digging, I realized one researcher had already documented the migration from the rigs!  Dr. Gary Noel Ross (right, credit Gary Noel Ross), an entomologist from Louisiana, had spent every October from 1991 to 1995 on board the oil platforms.  I contacted him, and he immediately agreed to an interview.

I spoke with Dr. Ross for over an hour.  I asked, “What got you started?  How did you get on the rigs?”  Dr. Ross explained that in 1990, a note from Bryant Mather appeared in the News of the Lepidopterist Society.  In the note, Mr. Mather recounted a conversation with Hylma Gordon, who was a cook on a supply boat that serviced many of the oil and gas platforms.  She reported seeing “a cloud” of monarchs coming and landing on every available surface of a rig, with some butterflies landing on top of one another.  The number of monarchs was so great that rig workers actually had to resort to using hoses to wash monarchs off the equipment.  When Mrs. Gordon asked some of the seasoned workers about their past experiences, they stated the monarchs’ arrival was a yearly occurrence in the area.  Mrs. Gordon mentioned the date of October 17-18th.  Dr. Ross was fascinated by this report, and decided to contact Marathon oil executives.  They in turn suggested he contact Petroleum Helicopters, Inc.  This was a helicopter agency that serviced the rigs.

Dr. Ross was able to track down two helicopter pilots, both of whom enjoyed tracking the bird migration in the Gulf.  Dr. Ross met with Tom Schaal, and inquired about his experiences with monarchs on the Gulf.  Mr. Schaal had been flying the Gulf for over 20 years.  He remembered some occasions in which he observed monarchs so thick that they appeared as a stream of smoke moving southwest.  He often saw them resting on the fence surrounding an offshore heliport, particularly one to two days after a cold front moved through.  Armed with this news, Dr. Ross sought permission to board a platform 72 miles south of Cameron Parish, LA.  With permission granted from Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL), Dr. Ross and his cinematographer friend Don Valentine boarded a platform, known as West Cameron Block 280.  Dr. Ross chose mid-October, based on previous reports of monarchs from helicopter pilots and rig workers, and spent 2-3 weeks each October observing the migrating butterflies.

Dr. Ross explained, “We knew when they (the monarchs) would be coming.  They would come behind a cold front—when the weather cleared a day or two later, they would show up.  They often came in pairs or groups of 20-30, and usually around 5pm.  They would land, and then sometimes spend the night, leaving the next day. Other times, we would watch them land around the dinner hour.  We would then leave to eat dinner.  When we returned to look for them afterwards, they were gone.  Sometimes, we saw them take off, even in pitch black.  They usually headed south-southwest.”    Don Valentine was able to capture some video footage of the monarchs, and this footage can be seen in the film, “The Wonders of God’s Creation.”  Dr. Ross reports his observations in detail in the article, “A Clockwork Orange”

Notably, Dr. Ross also theorizes the monarchs may return from Mexico across the Gulf in spring.  He described viewing monarchs from onshore in Cameron Parish, LA, and reported seeing monarchs fly in from the Gulf.  A report on Journey North by Carol Hough might suggest this crossing does occur as well

Can monarchs make it across the Gulf?  That remains to be seen.  With a good tailwind, and a powerful will to survive, it may not be so unlikely.  But getting proof of a deliberate crossing is another matter.  Says Dr. Chip Taylor, “Rumors of monarchs showing up in the Yucatan and washing up dead along the coast of Honduras have popped up from time to time but there are no data - none - substantiating these rumors.  Similarly, monarchs have been sighted along the coast of Veracruz in MX in numbers suggesting a non-Mexican origin but, again, there is no verification these monarchs originated north of the border.”  Dr. Ross tagged 100 monarchs on the oil platforms, but did not get a recovery.  The chances of a recovery are “worse than a needle in a haystack,” says Dr. Ross.

Still, needles in haystacks have been found. 

Anyone ready to search? 

If you have seen monarchs in and along the Gulf, or know of watermen and oil rig workers who have seen monarchs in the Gulf, please report your sightings to Journey North.  We want to know what you have seen!  Citizen scientists are invaluable to the study of the monarch butterfly and its migration.  So please share your report!