Michigan’s Mysterious Monarch Butterfly Migration
Ron Rademacher combs the Michigan Back Roads looking for oddities and awesome things you’ll never forget. One of those might be the sight of the Monarch Butterflies convening to their annual trip south. Ron was on WBCK’s Morning Show recently and told us that back in the 1950s & 60s, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, regularly received reports of strange twisting clouds, drifting through the sky, high above Lake Michigan. These reports always came in during the autumn season, usually from folks on color tours, around the Leelanau peninsula. The DNR generally dismissed the reports as having no validity. “Perhaps a little too much cherry wine was being consumed”, joked Rademacher.
After digital cameras became common, it was discovered that the unusual clouds were real, and that they were actually enormous flocks of Monarch butterflies, on their winter migration route to Mexico. This migration has been repeated for centuries, and continues today.
But Ron says there is no need to search for strange clouds, floating above the lake. Instead, there is a place you can visit, where the butterflies pause to rest, before beginning the long journey to the mountains of Mexico.
Every autumn, during the last two weeks of August, and the first two weeks of September, the Monarchs appear at Stonington Point, a beautiful spot that lies between the Big and Little Bays De Noc, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Here, they gather in the trees and on the bushes, by the tens of thousands. When the winds are right, they take off in fantastic numbers, forming enormous clouds of butterflies. The migration flight heads south across Lake Michigan, across Green Bay, and on, to their winter home in the mountains of Mexico. A flight that will require about five weeks.
In the summer breeding months, Monarch butterflies have a lifespan of 2 –6 weeks. However, the generation that makes the flight to Mexico lives longer, long enough to make the flight to Mexico, and is known as the Methuselah generation.
That generation lives all winter, and make the return flight to the north. Upon arrival, they resume the normal life cycle of 2 –6 weeks. When it is time to gather again, for the flight to Mexico, none of the butterflies in the new generation will have made the flight before. How this new generation knows when and where to gather, and the route to Mexico the correct place in Mexico, is one of the enduring mysteries in nature.
Some say that the Monarchs gather on the Garden Peninsula, and a few do, but Ron Rademacher says the real action is at Stonington Point. “The specific day the butterflies arrive on the point is unpredictable, but many flocks do land during the last two weeks in August, and the first two weeks in September. If you visit the peninsula during those weeks, and they are not there, just come back every day or so.” Stonington Point itself is several acres, with a 3 story lighthouse, that is open if you want to climb to the top. There are several picnic areas, interpretive signs, and, if you are there on the right day, thousands of Monarch butterflies.
The Stonington Point peninsula lies between the Big and Little Bays De Noc.
Escanaba is directly across the little bay to the west. If you plan to stay in the area for several days, hoping to walk among the butterflies, the Nahma Inn in Nahma, Michigan, has comfortable lodgings and good food.
To reach Stonington Point, travel west from the Mackinac Bridge on U.S. 2, past Manistique and continue on toward Rapid River. A small sign, with a depiction of a lighthouse, says Stonington Point 17 miles south. Sixteen of those miles are paved, and end at a parking area. The last mile to the point, is a gravel road, through the cedar wetlands. You can drive the last mile, or enjoy the easy walk along the bay.